Examining art as a piece of history can reflect innumerable things about a society . Looking into an entire era of art–whether it spans decades, centuries or more–can give a taste of the culture and beauty of a civilization as a whole. But truly bringing yourself in touch with the art and culture of a time can be achieved more easily by narrowing your focus. Sometimes, narrowing your focus means down to an artist, sometimes it’s just one culture within an era of art. Since breaking down art history into its five distinct categories in a recent post, it comes time to dive more deeply into each era individually, exploring the intricacies of what made ancient art ancient, or what makes modern art modern.
Each month I will choose a new era or specific culture’s art, and dive into the history and intricacies of what made their artform unique and noteworthy.
Two months into my monthly art history blog posts we’ve covered both Ancient Rome and Ancient Egypt.
This month, I’ll continue to move in a reverse-chronological direction and jump back to what may be the earliest form of human art: the stone age. We’ll cover how stone age art was created, the inspirations and the themes that go along with the artwork of our hunter-gatherer brethren. Because the Stone Age encompasses such a long period, this portion will be a multi-part series, the first of which will focus solely on cave paintings.
The Stone Age
While the Roman Empire lasted quite some time, it doesn’t quite compare to the duration of the Stone Age, typically recognized as the period between 30,000 BCE and 2500 BCE. It encompasses an Ice Age, the new stone age and the first permanent human settlements, as we switched from our nomadic ways to more permanent abodes.
By far, the most popular and well-known pieces of Stone Age art are the cave paintings that are still being discovered after millennia of being lost, buried or hidden. Ground minerals, bones, charcoal and other naturally occurring materials were used as pigment, ground and often blown onto the surface of a cave wall.
The exact purpose of the paintings is still hotly debated. Like some of the art we’ve grown accustomed to seeing today, cave art was once thought to be used as a means of simple decornation, the same way you might hang a picture on the wall of your living room to create a welcoming environment to guests. However, these areas were determined to not have been long-term habitats for cavemen and women, and therefore were unlikely to have been used for decoration.
Some claim that the purpose was to summon animals; they may have believed that by painting buffalo or deer on the walls, more buffalo or deer would begin appearing, creating more potential food for the hunters of the tribes. Clearly, divine intervention played a large part in the paintings.
Another interesting aspect is the marked absence of representations of humans, which were typically instead represented by handprints. Some believe that, like the summoning beasts idea, painting humans was seen as a religious taboo. In addition to the animals that were often painted, the fight scenes and sexualized versions of women could have been a result of the aspirations and hopes of young men.
A leading theory on the purpose of the paintings wasn’t that they were necessarily to summon animals or a result of shaman trances, but simply to communicate. Cave paintings that featured horses, buffalo and spears being thrown could simply have been to tell a story of an epic hunting battle, warn others of predators that were seen lurking nearby, and to exchange ideas and thoughts.
As these schools of thought continue to grow over time, we still have not come to a definitive conclusion as to the origin of cave paintings and, frankly, it may be a long time before we do.