Prehistoric Cave Paintings (Part 1)

Xue Jing

PureInsight | June 2, 2003

[] When people think of cave paintings by prehistoric men, most people have the impression of a group of primitives who wore leaves and sat around a fire after hunting. They think that these people would draw on the walls of stone caves as a way to record the hunting activities of the day. Many of the slabstone frescos that have been discovered are scenes of primitive hunting, primitive people and animals. These drawings were made using very simple lines.

This may be an acceptable description of some of those cave paintings. However, the slabstone frescos shown below are beyond the scope of that.

Here is a fresco of a bison found in a stone cave at Altamira in Northern Spain. The artist used four types of paint made from minerals, which prevented the colors from fading, and so they are bright and clear even after 16,000 years. Iron based paints were used for the red, yellow and brown colors, while the component of the black paint is manganese dioxide. Apparently, the people at that time already possessed superb drawing and painting skills, as well as advanced drawing tools and paint.

Fresco of a bison found in a cave at Altamira in Northern Spain
Source: M. Burkitt, The Old Stone Age (1955)

The cave located at La Marche in France was discovered in 1937 by Leon Pencard, a French amateur scientist, and Sthane Lwoff, a paleontologist. They spent five years excavating the cave and found more than 1,500 pieces of slate with painted carvings on them.

These images are very difficult to understand. Sometimes, several objects in the drawings would overlap each other. Nevertheless, in the eyes of archeologists, these drawings carry special meaning. In the La Marche cave, you can find paintings of lions, bears, antelope, horses, and 155 vivid human portraits.

It is really difficult to associate the men in the following portraits with primitive man because of the striking resemblance between the men in these ancient portraits and those in modern ones. In his book entitled Human Iconography of the Magdalenian, published in 1940, Mr. Leon Pencard described in detail the human portraits on the slates he discovered [1]. However, because the artistic styles used in these slabstone frescos resemble those of modern artwork, people jumped to the conclusion that these frescos were made by modern artists rather than by prehistoric ones. It wasn't until 60 years after the initial discovery that archeologists began to reconsider this idea.

The cover page of Human Iconography of the Magdalenian. The Magdalenian culture refers to a pre-historic culture in France between 10,000 and 15,000 BC.

A slab stone fresco of a man wearing a hat. This is one of the prehistoric art pieces in Human Iconography of the Magdalenian.

The most astonishing aspect of these portraits is that the men in these portraits are not much different from today's men. This discovery contradicts our imaginary image of ape-like primitives. The men on the slabstone frescos wore costumes similar to those of Westerners in the Medieval times or Modern ages. The man in the third picture is a good example.

Cave Paintings and Sculptures:

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