They provide accurate depictions of the bulls and other animals living in Paleolithic France.
They are the best available source of information about daily life during the Paleolithic era.
They are some of the best surviving examples of what was possibly one of the world’s earliest artistic movements.
They are the only evidence of creative expression among Paleolithic human beings.
[#paragraph1]In any investigation of the origins of art, attention focuses on the cave paintings created in Europe during the Paleolithic era (C. 40,000-10,000 years ago) such as those depicting bulls and other animals in the Lascaux cave in France. Accepting that they are the best preserved and most visible signs of what was a global creative explosion, how do we start to explain their appearance? Instinctively, we may want to update the earliest human artists by assuming that they painted for the sheer joy of painting. The philosophers of Classical Greece recognized it as a defining trait of humans to “delight in works of imitation”—to enjoy the very act and triumph of representation. If we were close to a real lion or snake, we might feel frightened. But a well-executed picture of a lion or snake will give us pleasure. Why suppose that our Paleolithic ancestors were any different?
[#paragraph2]This simple acceptance of art for art’s sake has a certain appeal. To think of Lascaux as a gallery allows it to be a sort of special viewing place where the handiwork of accomplished artists might be displayed. [#highlight4]Plausibly[/highlight4], daily existence in parts of Paleolithic Europe may not have been so hard, with an abundance of ready food and therefore the leisure time for art. The problems with this explanation, however, are various. [#highlight5]In the first place, the proliferation of archaeological discoveries—and this includes some of the world’s innumerable rock art sites that cannot be dated—has served to emphasize a remarkably limited repertoire of subjects.[/highlight5] The images that recur are those of animals. Human figures are unusual, and when they do make an appearance, they are rarely done with the same attention to form accorded to the animals. If Paleolithic artists were simply seeking to represent the beauty of the world around them, would they not have left a far greater range of pictures—of trees, flowers, of the Sun and the stars?
[#paragraph3]A further question to the theory of art for art’s sake is posed by the high incidence of Paleolithic images that appear not to be imitative of any reality whatsoever. These are geometrical shapes or patterns consisting of dots or lines. Such marks may be found isolated or repeated over a particular surface, but also scattered across more recognizable forms. A good example of this may be seen in the geologically [#highlight7]spectacular[/highlight7] grotto of Pêche Merle, in the Lot region of France. Here we encounter some favorite animals from the Paleolithic repertoire—a pair of stout-bellied horses. But over and around the horses’ outlines are multiple dark spots, daubed in disregard for the otherwise naturalistic representation of animals. What does such patterning imitate? There is also the factor of location. The caves of Lascaux might conceivably qualify as underground galleries, but many other paintings have been found in recesses totally unsuitable for any kind of viewing—tight nooks and crannies that must have been awkward even for the artists to penetrate, let alone for anyone else wanting to see the art.
[#paragraph4]Finally, we may doubt the notion that the Upper Paleolithic period was a paradise in which food came readily, leaving humans ample time to amuse themselves with art. [#insert1] For Europe it was still the Ice Age. [#insert2] An estimate of the basic level of sustenance then necessary for human survival has been judged at 2200 calories per day. [#insert3] This consideration, combined with the stark emphasis upon animals in the cave art, has persuaded some archaeologists that the primary motive behind Paleolithic images must lie with the primary activity of Paleolithic people: hunting. [#insert4]
[#paragraph5]Hunting is a skill. Tracking, stalking, chasing, and killing the prey are difficult, sometimes dangerous activities. What if the process could be made easier—by art? In the early decades of the twentieth century, Abbé Henri Breuil argued that the cave paintings were all about “sympathetic magic.” The artists strived [#highlight10]diligently[/highlight10] to make their animal images evocative and realistic because they were attempting to capture the spirit of their prey. What could have [#highlight12]prompted[/highlight12] their studious attention to making such naturalistic, recognizable images? According to Breuil, the artists may have believed that if a hunter were able to make a true likeness of some animal, then that animal was virtually trapped. Images, therefore, may have had the magical capacity to confer success or luck in the hunt.