The history of Western painting beings approximately thirty thousand years ago, with prehistoric depiction if animals, various shapes and symbols, and human beings on the walls of caves. Some of the best examples of Cro-Magnon painting are the Palaeolithic paintings found in the caves at Altamira in Northern Spain and Lascaux in the Dordogne region of France. (“Palaeolithic” made up of the Greek words paleo, meaning “old” and lithos, meaning “stone”, is a term used by scholars to describe the early Stone Age, from c. 40,000 to 8,000 B.C.) The creators of these pictures used crushed minerals mixed with water and saliva as paints; “brushes” were most likely made of chewed twigs, blunt pigments were probably more commonly applied with the hand or by spitting them from the mouth or through tubes made of bone or reed. The resulting earth-toned images tend to be rather blurry. Given the undefined space and the uneven, rough surface of the ceilings and walls of the caves, these images appear to be positioned somewhat haphazardly, without ground-lines (baselines indicating the ground on which figures stand) or background settings, and only rarely combined to suggest a narrative.
The caves at Altamira were first found by a hunter in 1868; in 1879, Maria the young daughter of the Marquis Marcellino de Sautuola, an amateur archaeologist studying portable prehistoric artefacts, noticed the paintings by accident. Many of the Marquis’ late nineteenth-century colleagues would have thought the function of the painted images that adorn the vast walls and ceilings of prehistoric caves to be purely aesthetic. Clearly, those commentators might have mused, the desire to be surrounded by beauty has been inherent in human nature since the beginning.
Bison c 12,000 B.C. Altamira cave, Santander, Spain. Paint on limestone
The fact that animals are overwhelmingly the main subject of cave paintings may point to a more practical, less romantic interpretation. Palaeolithic peoples were hunters – animals were essential to their survival. Given that the pictures for the most part do not seem to be composed narratively, as if recording an actual episode, their purpose was more likely conjuration. Painting animals on cave walls might also have been an equally magical way to ensure their continued reproduction. In a few instances animals are depicted as if wounded, suggesting that a ritual injuring or killing of an animal rendered in paint perhaps guaranteed a successful hunt in real life. The frequent overlapping of imagery and the fact that entire cave surfaces appear to have been repainted many times suggest that the act of painting was more important that the pictures produced. This supports the interpretation that these images had a magical function, that they represented attempts to control the animal kingdom and thereby assure the survival of the human group.
The animals painted on the surface of prehistoric caves are depicted remarkably accurately; in some examples, the artists even suggest muscular bulk through deft shading. By comparison, the rarely found representations of humans are very schematic, often resembling stick figures. Added to this fact, the sheer number and the wide variety of animals portrayed – including horses, bison, mammoths, bears, ibexes, aurochs and deer – suggest the great significance of animals to Palaeolithic society. We will never know for certain what functions prehistoric cave paintings served. The various interpretations necessarily reflect more the interpreters’ theoretical frameworks than any verifiable reality: lacking a written language, the prehistoric people of the caves left no verbal records to help further our knowledge.