Scholars often wonder what the purpose of cave paintings was. They are heavily studied by art historians and anthropologists. I’ve seen few opinions from the average realistic artist. So, I’d thought I would add some thought to the purpose of cave art. I’m a realistic artist that deals with animal subjects and I studied anthropology in college as a minor. I’ve always been interested in prehistoric human beings. Here’s what I think about why Paleolithic peoples painted on caves.
Recording a memory:
There has been very little genetic change between 40,000 years ago, the date of the oldest cave painting, and modern people. One has to assume that they weren’t very different in how they experienced the world or how they thought. Many modern people have used art and photography to record and preserve a memory. Perhaps cave artists saw an interesting scene and wanted to easily remember it so that they can show their children or grandchildren in the future.
To honor certain animals or species:
P aleolithic people lived close to nature and probably knew many animals as individuals. They probably looked at nature in a more spiritual way than modern people. There may have been certain individual animals or species that they thought deserved to be honored with a painting. Horses are heavily represented in many of these paintings, though they weren’t always found in bone deposits associated with the site. In modern times, animals that people were fascinated with or were important in a culture were also highly represented in their art.
Many of the paintings contain male-dominated themes. Cave art may have been a way to express a fantasy about plentiful prey or encounters with powerful animals. Or, it could express a wish to become one with certain animals or become the animal themselves.
Documenting the present:
Cave paintings could be a way of telling future generations what animals existed at the time or used to exist at one time.
To aid storytelling:
Some may have been used to aid the expression of oral histories and stories.
Some people create art to express their interests to others. That might explain why some paintings are in more private places than others. Not everyone wants to show their artwork to everyone, but might show it to family and friends.
Religious and spiritual reasons:
This is probably the most commonly cited reason for Paleolithic people creating cave paintings. Perhaps they were trying to summon the animal’s spirit or spirits to ensure a good hunt. Many people who live close to nature often talk about respecting an animal’s spirit to ensure that they will have good hunting in the future.
No one knows anyone who created these paintings or their purposes, so there’s no first-hand explanation of them. If there weren’t writings about modern artists, we wouldn’t know anything about them, either.