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The Stones Cry Out:
Cave Art & the Origin of the Human Spirit, Part 1

Lions, Chauvet cave, France, painted circa. 35,000 years ago [1]

Lions, Chauvet cave, France, painted around 35,000 years ago

3,662 words

Part 1 of 7

1. The Problem

Men first began to paint about 40,000 years ago, during a period of our pre-history referred to as the “Upper Paleolithic” (which lasted from about 50,000 to 10,000 years ago). This was the period in which fully anatomically and behaviorally “modern” Homo sapiens appeared. (Paleontologists use the term “modern” somewhat differently from the rest of us; for them it simply means that our Upper Paleolithic ancestors looked and – in certain fundamental ways – behaved pretty much like we do.) While there is some evidence of artistic production from Africa and Asia, the bulk of Paleolithic art finds – and the earliest and most spectacular ones – all come from Spain and France, with some finds in Southern Italy and the Urals.

This was also the period in which Homo sapiens came to dominate Homo neanderthalensis and, some believe, to wipe them out. There is no evidence whatsoever that Neanderthals made art of any kind. Homo sapiens unquestionably did, and it consisted of paintings, drawings, or carvings done in caves – so-called “parietal art.”[1] In addition, our Stone Age ancestors created “portable art”: carved figurines or decorated tools. Tool making itself also became increasingly sophisticated, and the shape of tools more aesthetically refined during this period.

Further, it all appears rather suddenly. So much so that pre-historians have often referred to a “creative explosion” in Upper Paleolithic Europe. (Though, as we shall see, such claims are now coming to be viewed as “politically incorrect.”) Some of the caves discovered in France and Spain contain hundreds of paintings, sketches, and etchings. Furthermore, they are not in the least “childish.” In fact, the remarkable thing about this art is that is extremely sophisticated.

After viewing the art of the Lascaux cave, Picasso famously remarked “None of us can paint like that,” and “We have invented nothing.” Indeed, the cave art has been described by more than one person as “modernist” (in the good sense). The reason is that, for the most part, it is not realistic; it is stylized. Children’s drawings are not realistic either, of course. The difference is that children are actually aiming at realism, and seem to believe that their art is realistic. In fact, it is crudely inaccurate, but nonetheless pleasing to us because it is charmingly naïve.

Chauvet rhinos [2]

There is nothing of this, however, in the art of our allegedly “primitive” Stone Age ancestors. These are not failed attempts at realism. True stylization (as opposed to crude misrepresentation) is the product of an evolution of artistic talent and technique. One begins, as Picasso did, mastering the art of realistic painting and drawing. But at a certain point, the artist finds the strictures of this technique too confining. He finds that he can convey a certain image, or quality, merely by suggesting it. As an example, consider the famous battling rhinos of the Chauvet cave (sketched some 30,000–32,000 years ago). The most striking feature of this image is the legs of the rhinoceros on the right, which end in points, rather than realistic hooves. Or consider, the “lion panel” from the same cave (look carefully at the eyes).

Lascaux deer [3]

Later on I will discuss just what it is that this stylization reveals about the minds of the men who created this remarkable art. I should note also that the art reveals distinctive, individual styles. Some entire panels are clearly the work of a single artist. In other words, it is not slavishly uniform; there is no “classicism” that prevails here. We see in this art the product of talent honed and refined through practice (i.e., these are obviously not first attempts, by first-time artists). Yet we are clearly at the beginning of something. The “modernism” of this art also reveals itself in the fact that it is often daring and experimental.[2] As an example, consider the giant, impossible antlers of the deer from Lascaux. An even more striking example is an image from the Chauvet cave, which seems to show a bison (on the right) facing a lion (left). However, their legs (or what appear to be their legs) take on a human shapeliness, before terminating in points – and between the legs is what appears to be a vulva.[3]

Chauvet lion-bison woman [4]

And though the art reveals individual styles, collectively it has a certain ineffable character that differentiates it from artworks found in other parts of the world. It is distinctively different from prehistoric artwork found in Africa and Asia. And it is markedly different from the rock art of much more recent hunter-gatherers in Africa and North America, who are – very problematically, as I shall discuss – often used as a basis for trying to understanding Stone Age Europeans. One is tempted, indeed, to speak of a distinctive “European style” to the cave art found in Lascaux, Chauvet, etc.[4] And the plain truth is that, in purely aesthetic terms, Stone Age European art is simply on a far higher level than that of Africa or North America. One has to be cautious here, however. What we think of as distinctively “European” cultural traits had almost certainly not emerged at this point (this is well before the arrival of the “Indo-Europeans” on the scene). And yet, it must be admitted, this art looks “European” to us.

The main subjects of the cave art are horses, bison, aurochs, deer, and lions; less often ibex, reindeer, rhinoceros, hares, and mammoths. Interestingly, the human form is usually depicted in a stick-figure fashion. (Exceptions to this, as I will discuss later on, are the images of women in both parietal and portable art which have grossly exaggerated features, and no faces.) These stick figures are just about the only cave art that viewers feel moved to call “primitive,” or “childish.” The mystery here is why Paleolithic man depicted himself in such a seemingly crude fashion, when he was so obviously capable of depicting the human form with the same artistry as he depicted animals. Or was he? This is a question I will explore much later in this essay.

Of course, the real mystery is why human beings began to do art at all – and why a “creative explosion” occurred in the Upper Paleolithic. However, as I mentioned earlier, the claim that such an event ever occurred has, predictably, been challenged as “Eurocentric.” Two politically correct anthropologists (is there any other kind?) write:

There is a profound Eurocentric bias in Old World archaeology that is partly a result of research history and partly a product of the richness of the European material itself. The privileging of the European record is so entrenched in the field of archaeology that it is not even perceived by its practitioners.[5]

Note, however, that one of the reasons given for this “Eurocentrism” is “the richness of the European material itself.” Similar doublethink is to be found in David Lewis-William’s discussion of the “creative explosion.” He writes, after some discussion of the evidence:

Small wonder then that writers speak of a “Creative Explosion” or, on a grander scale, of the “Human Revolution.” They are right to do so. But only if they are geographically specific and explicitly ignore evidence from Africa and the Middle East. In these regions we find precursors of the “Creative Explosion,” but the overall picture looks much less explosive. It is in Africa that we must seek the earliest evidence for the “Human Revolution.”[6]

(Lewis-Williams makes this statement in The Mind in the Cave, a recent book which has received a lot of attention in recent years, about which I shall have a good deal more to say.) I have italicized the parts of this passage that demand a second look. If we do in fact turn to the evidence for Paleolithic art outside Europe – in Africa, for example – we find that while it exists, there is not much of it, it is primitive in the extreme, and it is often not even clear that it is art. Extremely old examples of ornamental art have been found in Africa: for example, a collection of Nassarius snail shells, some 82,000 years old, found pierced and covered with ochre. These clearly formed a necklace. A much more widely-discussed Paleolithic African artifact, however, is a carved piece of ochre found in the Blombos cave on the southern Cape. Dated to some 77,000 years ago, it is decorated with a tangle of crudely-formed, crisscrossing lines, and nothing else.

Blombos Cave (Africa), engraved ochre; the 'design' on the ochre is revealed at right [5]

Lewis-Williams and others argue that such examples prove that Homo sapiens already possessed an aesthetic sense (though Lewis-Williams would not like that term), and were thus fully “modern,” prior to leaving Africa. In other words, in their view, the European “Creative Explosion” of the Upper Paleolithic does not signify the emergence of mentally and behaviorally modern Homo sapiens. Certainly it is quite possible that the groundwork for Homo aestheticus was laid in Africa. But the evidence shows that it was there, at most, in germinal form. For there is a huge, and obvious qualitative difference (obvious to minds unclouded by ideology) between prehistoric African “art,” and the art of the European Upper Paleolithic, the art of Lascaux, Chauvet, Trois Frères, etc.

At the most basic level, the difference is that the European art is representational. What Lewis-Williams and others fail to make clear is that there is no representational art anywhere that predates the European “Creative Explosion.” The parietal and portable art of prehistoric Europe is the oldest, undisputed representational art known to us, predating representational art in other parts of the world by many thousands of years (based upon the current state of archaeological research). The oldest sub-Saharan African cave art is dated to approximately 9,000–8,000 B.C.E., some 30,000 years after men began painting in caves in Stone Age Europe. (As to Saharan rock art, the oldest engravings have been dated to 10,000 B.C.E.)

Lewis-Williams more or less admits what I have suggested above. He writes “If the modern mind and modern behavior evolved sporadically in Africa, it follows that the potential for all the symbolic activities that we see in Upper Paleolithic western Europe was in existence before Homo sapiens communities reached France and the Iberian Peninsula.”[7] (Once more, I have emphasized two key words.) But the great question that emerges is how and why was this potential was actualized so dramatically and explosively in Upper Paleolithic Europe? And why so suddenly? Even if one can argue that the germ or potential for “symbolic activity” was already there before man left Africa, one is still faced with the mystery of why it suddenly and spectacularly flowered in the European Upper Paleolithic. In truth, however, I think we must be somewhat skeptical even of claims about “precursors” of symbolic activity in Africa, in the period predating that of the European cave art. It is difficult to see, for example, how the scratched ochre from the Blombos cave shows signs of “symbolic thought.”

Chris Henshilwood, the lead archaeologist at Blombos, has no trouble seeing this, though. He has stated “We don’t know what [the lines on the ochre] mean, but they’re very complex designs that are clearly meant to mean something.”[8] The trouble with this is that, in fact, (1) they’re not “very complex designs,” and (2) it’s far from clear that they mean anything at all. Dr. Henshilwood may be seeing what he wants to see, rather than what is really there. And I am not alone in thinking this. Stanford archaeologist Richard Klein says that the lines on the ochre are probably “mere doodles with little or no meaning.” He takes the position, in fact, that modern behavior developed 40,000–50,000 years ago (in other words, within the Upper Paleolithic, in Europe), probably as a result of some genetic mutation, because “no other explanation adequately explains the explosion of symbolism in Western Europe after that date.”[9]

But Klein’s politically correct colleagues shrink from such a conclusion, for it implies that some huge evolutionary leap was made in Europe, by the distant ancestors of today’s Europeans, 87% of whom are descended from the Stone Age men who painted the great caves of France and Spain.[10] Therefore, for these ideologues, the “evolutionary leap” simply must pre-date the African Exodus, despite the fact that the evidence just does not support this. In fact, the available evidence suggests an inescapable conclusion: some major change in human nature took place in Europe in the Upper Paleolithic. The change did indeed take place among other peoples, in other places – but, it would seem, much later.

For, in truth, we are not just talking about the origins of representational art. During the same period, in Europe, we find stone tools that are not only far more advanced in their utility and functionality than what we find in earlier periods, they are also aesthetically more advanced, some decorated with elaborate and beautiful carvings. We also find elaborate burials. In one case, found at Sungir in Russia and dated to 32,000 years ago, two adolescents, a boy and girl, were found buried with strands made up of thousands of beads, a belt decorated with canine teeth from polar foxes (63 of which would have been required to supply all the teeth), an ivory statuette of a mammoth, an ivory lance carved out of a mammoth tusk, and other items.[11]

This find is suggestive for several reasons. As others have pointed out, it may very well show the emergence of belief in an afterlife. Thus, such graves may be indications of the coming of religion. (Later on I will discuss further reasons to believe that religion arose during the Upper Paleolithic.) The earliest, undisputed evidence for deliberate burial actually dates back 100,000 years (the Middle Paleolithic). Human remains stained with red ochre have been discovered in Israel. The grave goods at the site included the mandible of a wild boar, which was placed in the arms of one skeleton. The evidence that Neanderthals buried their dead with grave goods is very controversial. Indeed, much of the evidence from gravesites that has been thought to suggest religious belief (or belief in an afterlife) prior to the Upper Paleolithic is disputed. The graves found in Upper Paleolithic Europe are far more elaborate than anything that preceded them, and much more clearly suggest such things as religious belief, as well as social hierarchy. There is little dispute about this among archaeologists.

The Sungir grave suggests social hierarchy because not every corpse from the same period has been found with such finery. The adolescents discovered at Sungir were probably the children of a king or chieftain – or at least they were the children of some very important person. The grave of the boy had the bulk of the treasure, suggesting that a hereditary monarchy or aristocracy might have already been in place among some groups in Europe 32,000 years ago. (In other words, the boy may have been accorded such special treatment because he was to have inherited a position of importance.) Such finds make nonsense of the oft-repeated claim (dear to Left-wing anthropologists) that Stone Age hunter-gatherers lived in “egalitarian” societies. By the way, this claim is made because contemporary, non-European hunter-gatherers are said to live in societies that lack sharp social stratification (though even this claim is fishy). As I indicated earlier – and will return to later – there are major difficulties with using contemporary hunter-gatherers to understand those of the very distant past.

Finally, many scientists believe that it was in the Upper Paleolithic in Europe that “fully modern language” first originated. While anatomically modern human remains have been found in Ethiopia, and dated to 195,000 years ago, archaeological evidence indicates that they lived and behaved no differently from the earlier Homo heidelbergensis. “Behaviorally modern” Homo sapiens are thought to have emerged between 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. Interestingly, the shift to behavioral “modernity” is referred to by some scientists as “the Great Leap Forward,” because it seems to appear rather suddenly, as we have seen in the case of art. (So sudden, in fact, that scientists have resorted to postulating some abrupt, epochal causal event as the explanation for it: e.g., a “sudden, serendipitous, genetically-based brain reorganization.”[12])

One of the reasons fully modern language is thought to have emerged in Europe in the Upper Paleolithic is that the sudden appearance of representational art, often accompanied by repeated geometric designs and other sorts of markings, suggests that it was in this period that “symbolic thinking” first arose. This would have been a necessary condition for the emergence of language as we know it. Another reason to believe that fully modern language arose in this period is that, quite simply, it would have been impossible to have communicated instructions for the making of art, and the making of specialized tools, without a fully-developed language such as we possess.

To sum up, the evidence indicates that in the European Upper Paleolithic the following emerge abruptly:

  1. Representational art.
  2. Advanced, highly specialized, aesthetically-refined tools.
  3. Religion.
  4. Possibly: social hierarchy and hereditary “aristocracy” in which individuals are invested with a significance (or, we could say, “numinousness”) that transcends their bodily or personal being.[13]
  5. Probably: Fully modern language.
  6. The “symbolic thought” that makes 1–5 possible.

Lewis-Williams admits that “It is important to note that all the diverse and sophisticated Upper Paleolithic activities that we have noted did not proliferate gradually or severally in western [sic] Europe. They all seem to appear right at the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, though some may have intensified in later periods.” And: “There can now be little doubt that – in western Europe – the [Middle to Upper Paleolithic] Transition saw a range of marked innovations, nearly all of which imply mental and social changes of great significance.”[14]

So, we are indeed faced with a major mystery. We started with the question of why human beings first began to paint, why they began to do so all of a sudden in the Upper Paleolithic, and why in Europe. But we now see that there is much more at stake here than just the issue of the origins of cave art. For this art was made possible by some major change in human mentality, which made a whole host of other things possible as well. As I have mentioned, this major change is thought by many to be a shift toward “symbolic thinking.” I won’t dispute this, but in this essay I will attempt to go deeper: to identify the mental or spiritual achievement that made symbolic thought possible. And I will continue to focus on cave art, as it is a key for understanding all the other achievements of the Upper Paleolithic “Creative Explosion.”

The attempt to find some explanation for this pre-historical mystery winds up being just the same thing as the search for an answer to the philosophical question “Who are we?” or: “What is human nature?” For it is in the Upper Paleolithic that human nature as we know it truly emerged. Something about us changed during this period, and made possible a whole set of behaviors that we think of as uniquely human. It we can identify what that something was, we have the secret to understanding who we – and, as I shall argue much later, why we are here. Finding that secret is the real point of this essay.

In order to find this secret, we must begin in the caves, with the cave art. But first we must take a look not at the art, but at the shadows cast on the cave walls: the opinions about why men made this art, formulated by various scientists and researchers over the years. We will use these opinions as stepping stones to reach the truth. But unlike the escapee in Plato’s allegory, we will find the truth in the cave itself – if we can manage to chase away the shadows and see the art afresh, as it has never been seen before.


[1] It seems likely to me that some art was probably also done on rock walls exposed to the elements. The cave art, as I will discuss below, is the work of accomplished artists. They must have practiced on something, before creating the magnificent art that we find in the caves. We do not find prehistoric art outside caves (no rough drafts or preliminary sketches) probably for the simple reason that thousands of years of exposure to the elements has washed it all away.

[2] One is tempted to conjecture that some form of “classicism,” now lost to us, may have preceded this. And that what we see in the caves, as in modern art, is a rebellion against it.

[3] It is a dark triangle, but its bottom point is marked by a short, thin vertical notch. This device appears again and again in Paleolithic cave art to suggest a vulva.

[4] If one spends just a bit of time studying the different varieties of rock art, including that of the Upper Paleolithic, one quickly learns to identify it correctly purely by its style: “That’s European,” “That’s African,” “That’s Amerindian,” etc.

[5] Quoted in David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave (London: Thames and Hudson, 2002), 96. The anthropologists are Sally McBrearty and Alison Brooks.

[6] Lewis-Williams, 96.

[7] Lewis-Williams, 99.

[8] http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/0321/p13s01-stss.html [6]

[9] Ibid.

[10] For this statistic see Nicholas Wade, Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (New York: Penguin, 2006), 108. Wade’s book is an attempt to reconstruct prehistory through genetics.

[11] Lewis-Williams, 80.

[12] Paul R. Ehrlich, Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect (New York: Penguin, 2001), 159.

[13] The reason I say “possibly” is that I believe that social hierarchy in some form has probably always existed, and that genuinely “egalitarian” societies have never existed. If the argument of this essay is right, however, aristocracies or monarchies in which individuals are invested with, as I have put it, a “numinousness” that transcends their personal being, could not have existed prior to the Upper Paleolithic “explosion.”

[14] Lewis-Williams, 81–82.