Imagine you’re out one day collecting twigs for the fire when you come across a cave. This is the place where the elders of your tribe often go. Not sure what to expect, you clutch your torch and slowly enter. It’s dark as ink and cool. Suddenly, your light catches the image of a great beast on the wall. It’s a rhinoceros with four horses galloping behind it. You stand mesmerized as the flickering light seems to bring these animals to life. The cracked rough walls surround you and teem with other images…
Cave paintings date as far back as 40,000 years and are thought to have been used for communication and/or religious purposes. Let’s take a closer look at these amazing pieces of history.
Hundreds of years ago life was hard and very different from the times we live in now, so people did what they could to survive. With only crude weapons to use in hunting, Archeologists believe cave art was a way for earlier man to “capture” the spirit of the animal they painted, making it easier to hunt. Cavemen may have also believed once an animal’s image was drawn the physical abilities would be transferred to them. For example, if the animal was a mammoth the painter would gain strength, a deer would bring speed, and courage would come from a lion. Many of the cave paintings also show animals with spears through them. This may have been a way to ensure the painter had a successful hunt or to show younger men how to hunt – like a wall textbook!
The caveman painter didn’t have the traditional tools artists use today, so they had to make do. A pointed piece of flint was often used to carve the outline of the design. A more talented artist would use the natural bumps and crevices to help bring depth and dimension to their work. A crack may become a wound in the animal, a bulge, the head or back, or a hole could be an eye.
Once the figure was outlined color was then applied. This “paint” was derived from natural ingredients. Black often came from charcoal, and the soot of burned animal fat. Yellow, orange, brown and red was ground from iron ore into a fine powder and mixed with blood, plant juices or melted fat.
Once the colors were ready the artist would use brushes made of feathers or fur, their fingers, moss, the chewed ends of twigs, or blow the paint through a hollow bone or reed. The caveman painter also made the first crayon. This was done by melting tallow with ocher and then rolled into slender sticks.
The Art of Altamira
Out of all the hundreds of caves and their paintings that have been discovered, the Altamira (meaning high views in Spanish) is the most famous.
The discovery of this cave was made public in 1880 after a tree fell and disturbed the rocks that covered the cave entrance, which was around 13,000 years old! Altamira consists of 270 meters of twisty-turning passages and chambers, with paintings throughout the entire cave. The artwork includes animals like horses, bison, goats, a large doe, human hands, and symbols; however, the most impressive has to be the ceiling of Altamira which depicts 15 large bison and other animals.
For more information on cave paintings visit the library or the Internet.
Want to make your own cave painting? Find an interesting rock – one that is large enough to draw on and has some interesting texture to it – then grab a crayon or colored chalk and start sketching. Once you’re finished make up a story that goes along with the picture you drew and use it to tell your friends and family.
~ Archeologist – a person who studies prehistoric people and their cultures
~ tallow – the fat of sheep and ox or of some plants
~ ocher - the ore found in clay or iron used as a color to make paint