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What the cave paintings tell us

Looking into the past for the future through the hands of those before


By Jordan Stead


Photo by Don Pinnock on Unsplash


Seeing the photographs of the red-stained handprints on the walls inside Spain’s Cueva de las Manos is a sight that would reduce anyone to tears. It certainly did for me. That auburn tapestry littered with the palms and fingers of people from a bygone age sparks feelings of wonder and melancholy. It is a monolith of our history on this planet, a staple piece of our species' early days. What, then, can prehistoric cave paintings tell us? What can we learn from the art of our ancestors?


Cave paintings have been a worldwide phenomenon since their discovery, with subject matter that varies from patterns and shapes, the outline of hands and a menagerie of ancient animals. As prehistoric art, they serve as treasures of a distant past, of a haunting world covered in ice. Yet, they also remind us that as a species, we are not exactly worlds apart from our Ice Age ancestors. When was the last time you walked on a path and noticed drawings on the floor made from chalk or graffiti on the walls of tunnels? Handprints left on the back of dirty cars? The urge to leave our mark has been in us since the beginning.

One of the most famous cave paintings in the world can be found in France, inside the Chauvet Cave. The artwork can be dated back to the Upper Palaeolithic, though some are disputed to be even older. Mostly in these cave walls are depictions of animals from the plains outside. The faces of bears, herds of mammoth and bison, the lynx and the wolf. They are familiar shapes, some even incredibly detailed, yet so distant in the past. One can easily imagine the scene: the cave, the only source of shelter from the hellish world outside, our forebears around a fire creating worlds on the walls. The purpose of these paintings found in Chauvet is in constant debate: was it for religious purposes? Visions? Documentation for hunting? All are valid, yet some would argue, and I would agree, for something simpler. They exist to tell our story of the world around us, to make art for the sake of it because we could.


Our knowledge of cave paintings has also changed over time. For Chauvet, we know that it wasn’t just our ancestors who sought refuge in the caves, but remnants of Cave Bear bones and Ibex were also discovered. There is something wonderful in the knowledge that these caves were shared, that they served as a shelter across different species through time. This, with the paintings of animals on the wall, show that at one point in history we lived symbiotically with the world. It was not us and nature, but us amongst and working with nature. We clearly held a high regard for the animals beyond the cave mouth, beyond the light of the fire, if we spent our time in this shelter painting them. Further discoveries elsewhere have revealed the tender natures of our ancestors. Paintings known as ‘flutings’ found on the upper levels of walls and ceilings have been identified as creations from children, carried on the shoulders of adults in order to reach. Thus, these paintings tell a different story to the usual, cliché ‘caveman’ trope, as seen in modern day. Instead, they reveal a community of people, braving on in a harsh and precarious world. When you step back and look at these paintings, it can take a hit. You begin to realise that these were people, long gone and nameless yet immortalised forever on the cave walls. You begin to think about the details; what they may have looked like, what they felt, what they experienced in that tundra landscape. Did they think about the future? Did they know their creations would see torchlight once more?


The animals seen in the Chauvet walls are, of course, no longer native to France. Yet their appearance is an almost eerie statement of how much our world has changed, and the changes we as a species are responsible for. Right now, the planet is hurtling towards climate disaster.

The current epoch has been dubbed as the Anthropocene, a moniker to describe humanity’s influence on the planet's rapidly changing climate.

For the first time on this planet’s history, it is our actions that are propelling Earth to a crisis. There is nothing natural about it. Our time on this planet beats on painfully with rising sea levels, melting ice caps and wildfires in its wake. The people of the cave paintings faced the same adversity with the relentless conditions of the Ice Age. At a crucial point in our history, our numbers had dwindled down to a mere thousand across the globe, and the possibility of total extinction was imminent. Of course, we recovered, but if history tells us one thing, it is that we cannot remain comfortable. In this time of crisis, our value towards life other than ourselves on the planet must change.

We are not as omniscient as we would like to believe, and nature has no quarrel in reminding us of this each day. Back then, we identified ourselves inside nature, not outside of it. Its story was weaved with ours and I believe this is something we must return to.

And so, we look to these paintings. Their presence is a testimony not only to our incredible history on this planet, but to our fallibility as well. They bring light to the better nature of our kind; our desires to create art and tell stories, to teach the joy of creating art. We can look at the hands in Cueva de las Manos and see us within them. These are our ancestors waving back at us, saying hello from a world covered in ice. The occupation of Cueva de las Manos lasted for around ten thousand years, sheltering different and countless people over time. Hands have been placed on hands, overlapping each other to form a collage of human experience. Before the cave collapsed and was later rediscovered, its last inhabitants were viewing handprints that were as old as agriculture is to us in the present day. Did they too wonder, like we do now, what kind of people left these prints? What stories did they want to tell? For me, these handprints say, “We were here, please do not forget about us.”