Abstractions of Violence

A Comparison of Interpretations of the Reason for Cave Paintings

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The interpretation of art from any period in the history of the human species is a daunting task. Prehistoric artwork has its own unique difficulty as it lacks any contemporary written interpretation that may shed some light on the reason for these paintings. However, there does appear to be a reason, although this reason or purpose may remain a mystery. There has been a debate among archaeologists, anthropologists and paleontologists since the first discoveries of cave art. There are two main classes of interpretation that have developed over the past century. The first and oldest interpretation of the artwork suggests that there is a symbolic meaning to the work. The attempt to invoke magic upon the world is the major thrust of this argument. An interpretation of the artwork that denies this subjective view is the theory that everything in the Upper Palaeolithic artwork is in some way didactic, intended to teach. This suggests the artworks value as a function of the economy of the period.

The findings presented will be limited to Europe, from the Aurignacian period to the Magdalenian period. The objective approach of scientific argument, compared to the subjective approach of emotional and spiritual mysticism. This will provide a sense of the disparity of the two fields of argument. Although the scientific approach may be interpreted as having greater credibility in our society, there still remains a great deal of subjectivity within their expressions. There is also an attempt among the emotional, spiritual adherents to create a more scientific framework for their arguments.


A great deal of effort goes into proving the authenticity of recent findings of cave art. This is evidenced in the treatment of the discoveries at Cosquer Cave on Cape Morgiou, Marseilles. The discoverer of the cave, Henri Cosquer, did not notice the paintings on the walls of this subterranean cave until 1991, six years after his first exploration of the cave entrance (Clottes, Beltran, Courtin, and Cosquer, 1992).
The chambers containing the paintings were sealed by the rise in sea level following the end of the Wurm glacial period. The maximum of the last expansion of the Wurm glaciations occurred 18,000 i.e. (Graziosi, 1960). This type of information is useful in determining the accessibility of the cave.

Another method used to authenticate the findings at the Cosquer cave is Radio Carbon dating. Charcoal is to be found almost everywhere, in crevices and on ledges (Clottes et al, 1992). This find has proven to be very useful in a number of ways. There has been identification of the type of wood burned to make the charcoal, Pinus Silvestris and Pinus Negra (CNRS-URA 1477).
Samples of pollen were also taken from the clay beds found in the cave. These samples proved typical of the vegetation found in the region during the Wurmian glacial period.

One carbon sample has been dated to 18,000 – 18, 440 y.a. (LY-5558). Many other methods have been applied to various objects found in this cave. Analysis of the calcite deposits on the paintings and the patination of the engravings in the limestone walls were also methods of authenticating the artwork.

Interpretation of this site has barely begun due to its inaccessibility. However, analysis of the photography taken by the divers places the style of some of the paintings in the Magdalenian period. The subject matter of the paintings and engravings fits quite well into Franco-Cantabrian art in the broad sense (Clottes et al, 1992). Other parts of the artwork have been interpreted as belonging to the Aurignacian period. The use of the handprint as patterning of the background was prevalent during this period. Many of the other styles of painting and engraving have been rendered over these handprints. The time scale for the Aurignacian is 35-20 k.y.a, and the time scale for the Magdalenian is 20-14 k.y.a. From the dating of these two styles there is evidence of the possibility of an overlap of artistic styles. The span of one thousand years can witness an enormous range of cultural diversity in the modern world; it may be reasonable to assume the same may have been true of our ancestors.

These findings suggest long-term use of this cave site. However, no evidence has yet been found that would indicate this site as a dwelling space. Hearths have been found, but no bones to suggest the cooking or hunting of animals. The fires appear to have been used mainly in the production of charcoal for the paintings and drawings. What does this say about the purpose of this cave? There are certain anomalies to this site that suggest an interpretation. This will be discussed further in the summary.

Methods of Studying Data

After the findings in any particular cave have been authenticated, the data can be accumulated and correlated to provide insight into a possible purpose for the artwork. An attempt was made, with such an accumulation of data, to prove a relationship between the number of bones of a particular species and the number of times that species was represented in the paintings. This set of data was collected from ten regions of the Dordogne-Garonne watershed in the Bordeaux region of France. A total of ninety caves with 1,955 animal portrayals of the species under consideration were used in the study. The taphonometric data (bone species, and counts etc.) were taken from the best available sources: narrative accounts, monographs, and personal notes (Rice, Paterson, 1985).

To create a method of comparing the information from the artwork with the bone fragments, a prevalence index was constructed. An attachment of the numeral æ0Æ to a particular species means that none are present, whereas an attachment of the numeral æ4Æ means very abundant. This method enabled the comparison of the species of animal painted with the volume of bone of the same species in the same site. The most common subject of the paintings in the Dordogne-Garonne region was bovine. However the most commonly found bones, or the highest bone prevalence index was the reindeer. When the information is correlated there appears to be no simple relationship between bone prevalence and art portrayal (Rice, Paterson, 1985).

The only animal portrayed in any significant relationship to the volume of bone of the same species is the reindeer, and the red deer.
Another variable was added to the study, the weight of the species in relation to the number of portrayals of that species. The addition of this new variable pointed to a very high art-weight correlation (Rice, Paterson, 1985). A finding that indicates a relationship between how much meat an animal provides and the frequency of its portrayal in art.

The factor of danger was also included in the same data compilation. These findings discovered that an animal that was feared was relatively over portrayed. An example of this is the Ibex, although smaller than the deer it is considered more dangerous, and is relatively over portrayed in the context of its bone prevalence.

These two explanations create a situation where objective necessity combined with mortal concern could be the generator of the artistic response (Rice, Paterson, 1985). The authors reject any interpretation of the artwork outside of the hunting context, totemism, animism or art for arts sake. However interpretations that include hunting, hunting magic, hunt teaching or storytelling are acceptable explanations for the cave art.

Art for Arts Sake

The view of these paintings as art for arts sake lies in an entirely different discipline. The study of the cave paintings from the point of view of the artist is best exemplified by the research into the psychology of early Homo Sapiens. This is shown in The Space Conception of prehistory (Giedion, 1957). This theory attempts to explain the composition of elements used in the cave paintings. The premise of the theory is the development of observational skills, through the evolution of binocular vision, and the faculty of the human mind of abstraction. There is the suggestion that the concept of space was firmly rooted in the human mind before the sense of time was developed, that early Homo Sapiens were unable to conceive time in the way that we do today. The concepts of beforehand, afterward, and at the same time are often difficult to distinguish from one another; today, tomorrow and yesterday are similarly interwoven (Giedion, 1957).

Giedion uses the research of psychologist Jean Piaget to confirm his theory. In Paget’s study of children it is claimed that children only learn of time by comparison of the rate of speed at which different objects move through space (Giedion in, 1957).

Giedion’s suggestion is that early Homo Sapiens did not have the faculties to discern composition in the sense that we use it today. Early H. Sapiens was moved to express his position graphically in an effort to come to terms with the world. Because of the lack of orderliness in the cave art, the lack of a continuity of time expression, archaeologists had long considered the work to be of a primitive or childlike mind. A mind that was, as yet, undeveloped.

The view of palaeontologist Moritz Hernes (1852-1917) was that the artwork gives the impression of an orderless and directionless multiplicity, an undisciplined freedom that could not achieve results because it lacked the firm tradition and assuredness afforded by the strict observance of principles of style (Giedion in, 1957).

One of the first to argue against this point of view was Max Raphael in Prehistoric Cave Paintings. An analysis is made of the concave and convex lines of the backs of the animal portrayed. These proportions can be reduced to a few recurrent types such as; 1:1, 1:2, 2:3, 2:5, 3:5, 3:4, 3:7 and 4:7 (Giedion in, 1957).

The three centre proportions are considered to be the golden section (Giedion in, 1957). The meaning of this is somewhat speculative, it is related to the proportions of the human hand, and is thought to have some sort of magical or spiritual significance.

The statistical research of Leroi Gourhan studied comparisons of animal groupings and symbols. They were able to establish a large measure of concurrence in their composition. A relationship could be stated to exist that gave the impression of a purpose. (Giedion in, 1957).

Thus, a perception is developed that the cave paintings of the Upper Palaeolithic were not chaotic in any way. The abstracted animal portrayals, and the geometric symbols were repeated over a period of thousands of years. Certain animals are found to stand in a constant symbolic relation to one another (Giedion in, 1957).

Another point to be noted in this concept of spatial organization is the difference from the recent past to the current style. The author points to the fact that our present view of spatial organization is horizontal, whereas the Egyptian view was in the vertical plane. The artists of the caves did not limit themselves to this sense of orderliness. Our rectangular way of looking at things was unknown to prehistoric humans, as indeed it still is to many contemporary indigenous peoples.

Ambiguity, apparent contradictions and the interweaving of events without regard to our sense of time (before and after) these are the essence of primitive art (Giedion, 1957).


These two methods of study exemplify the general division among scholars as to the interpretation of the cave art. The split is along the ancient argument of the rational as opposed to the emotional. Both methods are confirmed with a great deal of research. The psychological makeup of early H. Sapiens is of interest to both arguments. The division occurs mainly along the aspect of how, and why where these paintings produced.
The argument given by Rice and Paterson states that without any evidence to show anything to the contrary, their findings point to an economic demand, how to hunt animals successfully in order to survive. This is a very rational and logical approach to the study of the paintings. However, there is a noticeable lack of illustrations of plants, or fruiting trees. If these paintings were didactic, then surely the most abundant food supply they had would have been included in the teaching.
Giedion’s argument that H. Sapiens was only just becoming aware of the world, and their position in it, is very emotionally stated. While the view is somewhat dated in some of its language, such as, contemporary primitive people, there remains a certain element of logic to the central core of his suggestion. The paintings themselves go far beyond the simple expression of an animal. The handprints and the graphic symbols are not included in the argument of Rice and Paterson, as they cannot be compared with accumulated bone data. However, they do exist, and they have been authenticated in the recent findings at Cosquer Cave. Giedion points out the fact that these symbols, both animistic and graphic, existed and were used over a period of thousands of years. This suggests a continuity of expression among a people that were quite stable.

Both of these interpretations of the artwork, of Aurignacian to Magdalenian H. Sapiens, leave themselves open to criticism. The hunting theory does not include any art other than hunting art. The spatial concept fails to recognize the fact that these people were almost identical to modern H. Sapiens. I feel that the direction these two fields are taking is not mutually exclusive. I lean toward the emotional side, as I am a painter. I paint pictures without any consideration to their economic worth, or attachment to the society I am living in at this time. Most of the artists I have met, and or studied cannot give a rational reason on why they paint. There is seldom a relationship between the artist’s investment of time and the rewards received from accomplishing a work of art. I believe that a great deal more study could be done on this question. One of the major difficulties I have with both of these interpretations is in the study of the handprints. The fact that the hands depicted are rarely complete suggests more than a simple signature, this could be a process that started the concept of written communication.
Why do we create these images? I feel that the answer to this question in the modern world would apply also to the world of the Upper Palaeolithic artist.

References Cited

Clottes, J. Cosquer Cave on Cape Morgiou, Marseilles. Antiquity (Cambridge, Eng.), vol. 66, no. 252, 1992, pp. 583-598.

Giedion, S. The Eternal Present: The Beginnings of Art, New York, Bollingen Foundation, 1957.

Rice, Patricia C. Cave Art and Bones: Exploring the Inter relationships/ by Patricia C. Rice, Ann L. Paterson, American Anthropologist (Washington D.C.), v. 87, no.11985, pp.94-100.