Published: 16/09/2016 09:52:18

40,000 Years of Painting: An Introduction to Cave Art

At EzeFrame, we might be dedicated to picture frames and mounts, but we also love sculpture, installations and conceptual art - in other words, the stuff that can't neatly fit in a frame. You might not be surprised to learn, then, that we're absolutely fascinated by anything to do with ancient cave art. In fact, we love it so much we decided to take a look at the facts and see how much we really knew...

The Earliest Art

Cave paintings are also known as parietal art, and are defined as prehistoric painted images found on cave walls and ceilings - so far, so simple. These fascinating daubs can be found in several locations around the world, but mainly in Europe and Asia, and are thought to date back at least as far as 38,000 BCE (in other words, they're a whopping 40,000 years old). Until recently, it was thought that the oldest paintings existed in Europe. All that changed in 2014 when researchers took a fresh look at some cave art on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, and decided that previous age estimates of 10,000 years were way off.

Picture Frames

Today, it's thought that the hand stencils in the Sulawesi cave are the oldest examples of non-figurative cave painting, along with red disks found in the El Castillo cave in Spain. This is an interesting development as it indicates that cave art did not start in Europe and move to Asia - in fact, it was something that sprung up spontaneously all across inhabited areas of the world.

This early art was created by blowing pigment at the walls, often over a hand in a stencil manner. It's thought that highly pigmented minerals such as red ochre, yellow ochre and charcoal were mixed with animal fat or spit before being applied to the stone. The addition of this fat or spit allowed the pigment to adhere to the wall - which is why we can still admire these artistic creations today, 40,000 years later.

What makes this early art particularly fascinating is that, because it's so old, some scientists have suggested that it could have been created by Neanderthals.

Figurative Art

The hand stencils described above are some of the earliest art yet discovered, but it looks like early humans didn't get into figurative art until around 35,000 years ago. Figurative art is art that depicts an object, human or animal in a realistic fashion. In the case of cave paintings, it's something that emerged in Europe by at least 30,000 BCE. Scientists believe this because of animal paintings found in the Chauvet Cave in France; however, they are divided when it comes to the specific ages of these images. An earliest estimate places some of the Chauvet paintings at 26,000 years old, which is still pretty impressive!

Animals and Humans

In cave paintings around the world, several types of animal crop up again and again. Particularly common are bison, horses and deer - as well as the extinct aurochs, which was a type of large, horned cattle. In the Chauvet Cave, images of lions, panthers, bears, hyenas and rhinoceroses also feature.

What isn't exactly clear is the attitude of the painters towards these animals. Many think that they were created as a way to capture the spirit of the animal, and therefore more easily defeat or kill it. In the Lascaux Cave in France, though, horses are the dominating animal in the wall art, but the reindeer bones discovered in the same cave indicate that this creature was the main prey; and reindeers do not feature in these particular cave paintings.

This has led some historians to postulate that the paintings were designed as an homage to the power of nature - and not as a means of documenting or possessing the spirit of the animal in order to capture it during a hunt. Other experts have suggested that cave paintings were created by shamans, who retreated inside these caves to experience visions, which they would then record on the stone. However, some historians and anthropologists are of the opinion that these cave paintings are merely evidence of the human need for artistic expression.

Images of humans are found less in prehistoric cave paintings, and when they are they tend to be cruder and more simplistic. Again, scientists and historians are divided as to why this might be. One popular theory is that early humans were cautious of depicting themselves too clearly, as this might have captured or possessed the spirit. As a result it may have been forbidden, as a religious taboo.

Other Prehistoric Art

Cave paintings are perhaps the best known form of prehistoric art, but there are other types that are just as fascinating and beautiful. Some scientists believe that the artistic impulse dates as far back as 500,000 years - the era of Homo erectus. The evidence for this stems from the discovery of a clam-shell etched with a zigzag design that was dated back to the Lower Palaeolithic (or early Stone Age) era.

At the same time as bisons and hand prints were being daubed onto cave walls, some early sculpture was also going on. Certain "Venus figurines" - stone statues depicting a simplified female form - are at least 35,000 years old. Other ancient carvings include animal sculptures like the Swimming Reindeer, and petroglyphs - images carved or engraved onto stone surfaces.

Make Your Own Home into a Treasure Trove of Art

We may not spend much time in caves anymore, but there's no reason why we shouldn't take creative inspiration from our artistic ancestors. If you're feeling very adventurous, you might have a go at a wall mural - remember, even the most artistically challenged can manage a hand-shaped stencil. Otherwise, invest a little money in some prints, photographs or illustrations before heading to EzeFrame's picture framing page. We offer a range of affordable picture frames and picture mounts, as well as a number of multi-aperture frames - all of which come in a variety of colours, textures and finishes.