Why was Palaeolithic Art Made?

 “Are we any nearer to knowing why Palaeolithic art was produced than we were 100 years ago?”


The discovery of the site of Altimira came at a time when the origins of human kind were being hotly debated. The art was of great antiquity and  those wishing to support the emerging evolutionary theory were interested in portraying this art as primitive. When we consider the limited tools available to the artists we are struck by how well executed it is. It would not be easy to characterise the art it terms of  suggesting primitiveness of skill but it was not necessary to see the art as saturated in meaning. The art was thought to have been produced for reasons of pleasure: art for art’s sake. This interpretation fails form many reasons. Why are the representations of animals defaced by lines across the body or why does a horse have many heads in different positions? (Fig 3) Many new ideas have since been introduced to explain why the art was produced, as the spatial and temporal distribution and types of art discovered has increased. Much of the art is mobile and comes in the form of a few scratches on rocks, bas-relief, to the beautiful Willendorf Venus. Rock paintings range from simple dots and smears to expertly executed representations of animals. To answer to question it is necessary to understand what is meant by the word why. Explanations of this kind follow three main trajectories. The first relates to the human innate ability to do art, the second involves the human subject responding to some social structural or environmental pressure and the third allows the individual artists to pursue the art as a purposeful agent. All three approaches are equally valid, not necessarily divisible and produce different kinds of explanation.

The first category reflects the ability to do art is a distinguishing feature of the species homo sapiens sapiens as the evidence for symbolic or artistic activity in the Neanderthal period is minor. This ability is seen as a major step in the evolution of humans and has led to inference concerning cerebral structure in which the brain is seen as a series of modular structures (Mithen 1992). The cognitive abilities of modern humans relies on an increase in the interconnectivness of these modules which enables analogous and symbolic thinking. This approach is vital to the debate on the human evolution during the middle to upper Palaeolithic, but only offers explanation that humans do art because they can. This could be argued as the only sure answer to this question: humans do art as it is in their nature to do so. This has little explanatory value, however and adds to a field of interpretation in art study which has many avenues to explore.

The second and third approaches involve the question of functionality. The second category can be invoked to make the artist respond to some etic meta-force such as population pressure or restriction of resource base. I shall not be discussing such approaches as they reduce art to an unrecognisable activity in which the human agent is utterly ignored in favour of determinism. Art as a meaningfully constitued phenomenon of material culture both effects and enables behaviour. The stylistic quality of art is seen as a social tool which transmits information and builds social strategies (Gamble 1991). This has implications which involve the artist as a social phenomenon and an individual agent Art “as information” is a theme also followed by Sieveking and Marshak (ibid.). The chief difficulty here is that the information transmitted by art cannot be identical to the information received. Perfect understanding of the communicative intentions of the artist would necessitate that the observer has a perfect understanding of the codes and symbols employed by the artist. Without knowing these conventional formulas “in their totality” we cannot go far beyond representational meaning (Sieveking 1991). Art interpretation is highly subjective and the art may well have functioned in many ways not intended by the artist, however. Thus the art communicated (and is still communicating) differing stylistic messages throughout its long history. I would suggest, however, that such a perfect knowledge of the intentional stylistic meaning is not necessary as all observers of the art would respond in different ways in any event, then as now. Easy to understand, but hard to justify as a valid interpretation: is Mithen’s (1988) suggestion that the art served as some kind of information system about the state and location of certain resources. Depictions of hoof prints, faeces, marks on vegetation, on the ground are thought to help in the tuition of tracking and locating prey.  This view has difficulty in that it does not correlate with the use of art in know hunter/gatherer societies. He lists depictions of hoof prints and so on offering ethnographic information on how hunters hunt. He states that hunters use their eyes, ears and noses to justify depictions of visual, representations of audible and olfactory depictions (faeces) but offers no direct parallel where art is used as a teaching aid. Indeed the absence of such evidence in his ethnographic analysis would suggest to me that hunter gatherers need no such aid. By reducing the depiction to a kind of text book, this interpretation trivialises the art and the skilful art of hunting, ignoring the more abstract meaning shared by art the world over.

Further to the theme of trivialising interpretations is the idea of trophyism and what Bahn & Vertut (1988) have compared with Playboy images (ibid., p165). The idea that the images act like a record of kills (ibid., p153) to impress girls and improve status are rejected as trite. A kind of trophyism is sometimes expressed by personal ornament exemplified by winning your first feather. But to extent this to cave walls would be inappropriate in a public space or ritually restricted space that the caves may well have represented. Such an idea would involve the reservation of a particular part of the cave surface for each individual hunter to record his kills. (Something like a dogfight debriefing where each pilot tells the C.O. how many planes he has shot down to record on the blackboard.) An emphasis on the individual of this sort is at odds with many ideologies we find in hunter/gatherer societies which often emphasis the group over the individualisation assumed by this model. Notions involving sexuality have likewise reflected the wishes of the interpreter (Bahn & Vertut). Following on from sympathetic magic for hunting the notion of fertility magic suggests that animals were drawn in the hope that they would reproduce and provide food (ibid. p159). There are few unambiguous images which suggest copulation or other sexual activity. Much of the art is in the form of scratch marks on mobile rocks. Examples of this reveal much about the interpreter as an ink blot test might. The example given of a comparison between an early tracing of a “human” subject and a recent one is most illuminating in this respect (ibid., p162(fig 108)). Later concerns with “explicit and inviting” sexual poses of women reflects the sexual interests of Western society. What we know about sex in traditional societies is that it is often a highly ritualistic, sometimes open, but always meaningful and integrated into the social system free from the suppressed and dysfunctional problems and obsessions of civilised society(Mayberry-Lewis 1991) which these interpretations seem to reflect.

A structuralist interpretation relates to models 1 and 2. Structuralism assumes that social forces structure existing neural configurations, that concepts and ideas are defined by and related to one other, dualities (Harland 1987). Thus maleness can only be understood in terms of femaleness, light by dark etc. Representation due to gender, place, position and so on will be reflected in particular themes of art. Leroi-Gourhan(1982) has proposed  a structuralist interpretation which includes a detailed topographic and spatial organisation of species and their related themes to understand the “high cultural level” of  the society which created these underground monuments. The monuments, divided into sanctuaries for ritual purposes, reflect a control of the outside physical natural world by making the outside inside. This is an attractive theme which parallels Ingold’s notion of a social appropriation of natural forces. The difficulties with this idea is the many contradicting gender associations within the  interpretation of  Laming-Emperaire and Leroi-Gourhan (Bahn & Vertut 1988, p165ff). To be fair, the difficulties may be explicable in terms of the length of time that such painting were executed providing the interpretation abandons the belief in a consistent and coherent semiological continuity. Interestingly Leroi-Gourhan has identified various geometric forms (Fig One.)

Fig 1

His categories: pure geometric, geometric figurative and synthetic figurative (Leroi-Gourhan 1982, p15) could easily be used to support a more recent set of conceptual divisions: those found in the trance in art interpretations of David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson. Their studies of South African art and San ethnography have exploited  an unparalleled opportunity to bring together these two areas. I estimate that, when combined with structuralist theory, this approach may provide new insights into Palaeolithic art. Leroi-Gourhan’s categories may be considered to be have a direct analogue with Ronald Siegel’s three stages of trance: entoptic(pure geometric), construals (geometric figurative) and Iconics(synthetic figurative). Although such an idea would require more work it could demonstrate some fundamental propositions in art. In a natural landscape there are so few straight lines that it could be said that nature abores clean edges (exceptions, rock strata, horizons). The occurance of lines and geometric shapes in so called “primitive art” requires explanation which is provided by entoptic theory. This holds that geometric shapes derive from the fundamental neurophysiological structure of the visual cortex. These shapes can be “seen” at times when the normal visual work of the nervous system is interrupted such as: concussion, under the influence of drugs, extended periods of visual depravation, and trance states. Such shapes are universal and relate to background neural activity. The appearance of geometric shapes and dots may indicate any of the above activities and may help understand the human activity of geometry and building. Of particular interest would be dance or drug induced states of trance involved in shamanistic ritual activity proposed by many of those involved in palaeo-art studies.

Fig 2

The main difficulty with this question is made by Mithen(1988,p323) when he says:” Any attempt to provide one all-encompassing explanation for paretial and mobile paintings, engravings, bas-relief and sculpture produced over a 20,000 year period is hopelessly optimistic”. Many of the interpretations have denigrated the previous ones in order to provide justification for their own rather than building new ones by synthesising ideas and recognising the necessary plurality in art interpretation. If the sheer number of interpretation was a measure of how close we are to knowing the reason for the art then we would indeed by close. However many of the attempts at answering this question fall far off the mark. It is possible that all answers have an element of truth to them in at least one depiction of the thousands in existence. But perhaps we will have to admit that we shall never know for sure. As the discourse of Archaeology changes new questions are being asked. In his study of Scandinavian rock art by Chris Tilley(1992) this question is never asked per se, although it is answered. The initial aim of the study, assuming material culture to be meaningfully constituted, is to determine grammar in the various motifs of the art and then attempt to provide meaningful analyses by the application of divers theoretical approaches (Post-structuralist, Marxist and Hermeneutic). The resultant statements provide a series of logical, mythological meanings and inference of ritual practice as well as suggestions of power relationships, which are, although inconclusive,  convincing and not incompatible. Indeed the very ambiguity of the interpretations convinces as art is by nature polysemous. Any interpretation which attempts to reduce it to a single explanation fails to express meaning or demonstrate understanding. More work which builds on a post-structuralist or semiological approach could prove fruitful, provided an emphasis on meaning rather than knowing were employed. This would undo the assumption of a single totalising framework demanded of explanation which makes so much archaeology turgid and predictable.


 Bahn & Vertut, 1988, Images of the Ice Age, Facts on File.

Dowson Thomas 1986, Dots and Dashes : Cracking the entoptic code in Bushman Rock Paintings, South African Archaeological Society Goodwin Series 6, p84-89.

Gamble, Clive. 1991, “The Social context for European Palaeolithic Art”, in Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society (PPS) 57,1, p3-16.

Harland, R.1987, Superstructuralism, Routledge.

Leroi-Gourhan, 1982, The Dawn of European Art, Cambridge.

Lewis-Williams,David  & Thomas Dowson,1989, Images of Power, SBP, .

Mayberry-Lewis, 1991, Millenium, Viking(Penguin)

Marshak, A 1991, “Style and aspect of the female Image”, PPS 57,1.

Mithen, Steve, 1988, “Looking and Learning: Upper Palaeolithic Art and Information gathering”, in World Archaeology 19,3.

Mithen, Steve, 1992, From domain specific to generalised intelligence: a cognitive interpretation of the Middle/Upper Palaeolithic transition” in The Ancient Mind, Renfrew and Zubrow (eds.), Cambridge.

Sieveking Ann,, 1991, “Palaeolithic Art and Archaeology: the mobiliary evidence”, PPS 57,1, p33-50.

Tilley, C,1992, Material Culture and Text: The Art of Ambiguity, Cambridge.

Charleton Wyman

About Chaz Wyman

Sculptor Historian Teacher Atheist Favorite Philosophers: Hume, Kant, Spinoza
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