Years ago I entered the Altamira cave in Northern Spain, discovered in 1880, now closed to the public, and had my mind opened by these colour rich, full perspective, prehistoric paintings, set in complete darkness. They are so astonishing that, for decades after their discovery, people did not believe that prehistoric man could have produced such images. The Chauvet cave, discovered in 1994, has images and contents that are much older, at 40,000 years. It had been hidden by a rock fall some 20,000 years ago and deep in the pitch black, lie these exquisite paintings of animals in black outlines. The faces of the lions in particular are those of animals on the hunt. This world is carnivorous and dangerous. Man was clearly both predator and prey.
Savants not savages
Interest in the cognitive development of our species was stimulated by the existence of these cave paintings. From about 45,000 to 10,000 BC, when this first renaissance flourished, it was clear that our species had developed the ability to create tools to create representations designed to teach. The people who created this work, were suddenly seen as more savant than savage, people of aptitude and learning.
Nicholas Humphreys posits a theory that these images came from minds fundamentally different from our own; simpler, pre-linguistic and symbolic. He takes evidence from the drawings of autistic children, with little grasp of language, to suggest that these painters were not thinking artists but the last of the innocents. Their lack of language gave them the focus to draw these naturalistic images, without conceptual interference. This explains the naturalistic realism of the paintings, something that was to be lost until the Renaissance. He compares these images with the much later, deliberate art of the Assyrians, Minoans and Egyptians, which are very much the product of conceptualising minds. This is a fascinating hypothesis and explains the naturalism, overlapping and repetition but it is wholly inadequate.
We also have to get over the modern idea that this is ‘art’ in the sense of deliberately produced aesthetically pleasing images. Aesthetic theories that rely on seeing these works as ‘art for art’s sake’ have waned. The fact that this so-called ‘art’ is in deep, dark, inaccessible caves is reason enough to dismiss the romantic notion of Upper-Palaeolithic humans as 19th century Romantics.
For similar reasons, many reject shamanic theories, such as Williams in The Mind in the Cave, that posit magic, mythological, totemic, initiation and religious meaning to these images. It is unfortunate that many of these caves are in France, as this had produced a flood of Lev-Strauss inspired, structuralist analyses that take oppositional theory to the level of fantasy.
Caves and learning
A more realistic hypothesis (not original but expanded) relies on a concept we know has existed as a necessary, social activity in man for millions of years – learning. Cave imagery is dominated by animals that early humans relied on for their food, clothing and survival AND dangerous killers one would want to avoid. Could these images be intentionally instructional?
What better place than the cold dark interior of a cave, that early chalkboard or simulator, where you experience the simulated fear of being the predator and also the prey?
I’ve swum into deep, dark Mayan caves in Belize and the heightening of the senses is immediate. As you move further into the darkness and the natural, entrance light disappears, the fear and awe is intense and claustrophobic. The Mayans saw these caves as entrances to the underworld and sacrificial victims, their skeletons encrusted with calcite can still be seen where they were slaughtered. In Altimira, the cave twists and bends over 250 metres, with the images well away from the entrance. A cave is a theatre and as the lights dim, you have the perfect psychological condition for learning – heightened attention.
Life skills (literally)
Why are so many of the images set so deep in the caves, usually in places where there is no natural light? Many are in side passages, on the roof and in places so difficult to access that they are still being discovered. In Altimira we were shown these stunningly realistic images by torchlight, not all at once but one by one. This is important as we know these images were created by burning torches, from the carbon marks left on the walls and therefore seen by burning lamps and torchlight. This sudden reveal brings these creatures vividly into view. Now you see them now you don’t. This is exactly what you want to do if you’re teaching people to spot fleeting glimpses of animals that you want to kill or may kill you. Like aircraft silhouette training, you need to know what’s out there, friend and foe, and what they look like at a glance. You also have to overcome the fight or flight instinct and keep your head when fear strikes. So a quick flash of a head, rump or legs will give you the discriminatory powers you need to hunt and survive.
Risk free instruction
It has been argued that the paintings must be shamanistic as they’re set way back in the darkness of the caves. Yet this is precisely what you want for revealed instruction.
In the Chauvet cave, in France, dangerous predators such as hyenas, lions, panthers, bears and rhinos are shown. These animals kill and are not easy to see and examine close up, so these images may have been the first time young humans saw their predators. This is a risk that has to be understood by everyone in a wild environment, especially the young. One may live with predators but rarely, even ever, see them. That is their skill, to remain hidden. You must learn to combat that danger with the skill of avoiding or killing predators. This is a ‘do or die’ world, not an art gallery. So, just like modern flight simulators, our ancestors could be taught in a ‘safe’ environment. Taken into the darkness of the cave they would have been full of fear and apprehension. The experienced hunter could then have given them lessons in how to hunt, hold their fear, spot prey and avoid predators. And we do have evidence that youngsters were taken into the cave, as hand prints.
Variety of simulated scenarios
The animals painted in pre-historic caves are almost always prey or predators. Benign creatures are rare. Around 15% of the Altimira animals are wounded, and as wounded animals are both hunted and dangerous, this adds to the evidence that these images were instructional. Images of humans are rare and, unlike the animals, sketchy and schematic. Many of the animals are shown on the move, with perspectival views of all four legs. In fact, there is an astonishing range of poses. There’s even an entire herd of bison, in different poses, on the roof at Altimira. The point of placing an entire herd on the roof was surely to show it from a bird’s eye view, something you have to imagine if you hunt a fleeing herd of bison. The sheer variety of prey and predator images is surely indicative of instructional intent. Interestingly, the images found on portable art differ from that of cave art in one important respect. Cave art has a more focused set of species. This again supports the idea that cave art, in particular, had a pedagogical purpose.
Evidence of their instructional quality also comes from the level of simulated realism or naturalism. The images of bison accurately displayed their natural behaviour. This naturalism again supports the role of these images as learning tools.
Simulations of a hunt are about both physical and psychological fidelity. You need to have enough graphical realism to make the experience seem real and memorable. You also need to have enough psychological reality to make you do the right thing at the right time. The wonder of these paintings is their graphical realism. They are literally masterpieces. You are in no doubt about what species is what, anatomically but also in poses, colours and behaviour. More than this, however, is the emphasis on contour, outline using chiaroscuro.
Contour, contrast & colour
In Altimira, 3D bison hang down from the ceiling on rock bosses. Deeper in the cave the rock has been used as a sculptural form, with faces painted on natural forms that look like the heads of the animals they knew. In Chauvet, the walls were scraped clean and outlines etched to achieve a 3D effect, as well as using the contours of the rock to give an even more dramatic 3D effect. They seemed to know or intuit the idea that perception identifies contrast and contour first. We should also remember the teaching technology used to make these paintings: charcoal, ochre, haematite and manganese oxide. This is the deliberate choice of coloured material to match the real colours of the represented animals, as colour is an important cue when hunting.
Flight and fight skills
The objection to this utilitarian theory is that I may, like the ‘art for art’s sake’ and ‘religious’ schools, be placing a modern sensibility onto past events. In this case, however, the utility of fight and flight skills remains intact. It is clear that we had to fight for food, clothing, fat and other useful animal products. It is also incontestable that we had to avoid being attacked and eaten by predators. These are two sets of skills that are intertwined. One cannot hunt prey without being fearful of predators. Both are necessary conditions for survival.
Recent findings, based on large numbers of carbon dates samples have shown that images were amended and improved over thousands of years, showing that, whatever, their true purpose, they were found to be useful by many generations. Rather than being shamanistic, religious or aesthetic, I favour the likelier utilitarian theory that they proved useful for learning. The selection of animals, prey and predators, along with quality of the images and setting, show that these caves were used as simulators for hunters and hunted.
What we have here is the first use of sophisticated simulators for learning. They match the criteria we expect in modern simulators. Cave paintings are therefore remarkable teaching and learning aids. They are the earliest classrooms and show that social cohesion may well have been fostered through the need for collective learning.
Lewis-Williams, J. D. (2002). The mind in the cave: Consciousness and the origins of art. New York, N.Y: Thames & Hudson.