Cave Paintings – More Than Just Wall Decor

Many prehistoric paintings have been discovered in caves around the world, from North America to Europe, from Africa to Asia. The paintings are not the simple, childlike drawings one might expect from primitive artists; in many cases, cave art shows an amazing use of color, composition, perspective, and a fine grasp of the anatomical structure of the figures portrayed.

The earliest known examples of cave art are those found in Blombos cave in Africa, dating back some 100,000 years ago (authenticated by carbon dating). In Europe, the earliest cave paintings are in the Aurignacian culture, and are about 32,000 years old. However, many caves show evidence of repeated painting, sometimes extending over thousands of years, meaning they could be older than originally thought.

Many of these early wall decorations were drawn mostly with charcoal, and the colors are thought to be from red and yellow ochre, hematite, and manganese oxide. The most common themes in cave paintings depict scenes of grazing animals such as bison, deer, horses, and mammoth. Other scenes are “stick figures” of hunters in expeditions with animals. Other figures, such as those in Cueva de las Manos in Argentina, feature tracings of human hands and other abstract patterns.

The purpose of these paintings is not known. Evidence suggests that they were more than just wall decor in living areas, since archaeologists have not found any signs of domestic habitation in some of the rock shelters. Some theorize that it may have been their way of communicating with other nomads, while others point to a religious or ceremonial significance.

Here are five caves with the most fascinating prehistoric cave paintings – the earliest kind of wall decoration in the world:

Lascaux Caves
Found in southwestern France, it is called the prehistoric Sistine Chapel as it has what is considered to be the most remarkable paleolithic cave paintings in the world.

Altamira Caves
Located in Santilliana del Mar in Cantabria, Northern Spain, about 20 miles west of Santander. It was said that Picasso, upon seeing the paintings on the walls of the cave, exclaimed “After Altamira, all is decadence!”

Magura Cave
Located in Bulgaria, 112 miles northwest from the capital city of Sofia, archaeologists describe a visit to this cave as “peeking into the prehistoric world”, as the paintings come from the Epupaleolith, Neolith, Eneolith, and early Bronze periods.

Cosquer Cave
Situated in the Calanque de Morgiou, close to the French city of Marseilles. It is an underwater cave with paintings representing the different phases of the cave when it was still on dry land (bisons, horses, ibexes, etc.) and when it was about to go underwater (auks, seals, jellyfish, among others).

Font de Gaume
Located in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil, in the Dordogne department of south-west France. It features the best prehistoric polychrome painting of animals such as horses and mammoths.

So the next time your travels take you to either of these areas, make sure to schedule a stop one of these caves – they truly are breathtaking, and the ones that aren’t open to the public have reproductions or photo exhibits available.


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