This Nautilus article’s title overreaches a bit, but the rest is fascinating.
Art by Miko Maciaszek.
Cave paintings are wonderful in many different ways—strictly as works of art, as scientific evidence of technology and culture among early humans, and as a reminder of the universality of figurative art, as distinct from abstract or symbolic art. If you think about it a little, though, they also represent a very limited glimpse into the lives of their creators. Surely people able to paint realistic and beautiful animals must have had the capacity to create many other artworks, not as readily preserved across the millennia.
Consider: to create such beautiful images, the artists must have needed to practice—a lot. The cave walls are not daubed with a thousand crude sketches for every beautiful mature work. So there must have been a great deal of other art, probably in the same media but on different surfaces. Some would have been exercises and practice works, but surely not all top-quality work was hidden underground. They must have displayed art in other places too.
Did artists hold up paintings on hide or bark, say, by camp-fires or in the light of oil lamps in their tents, and use sequential presentation of different images to tell a story? Did the people who visited the caves have to interpret the images there from first principles, or did they see them in the light of a lifetime of other art performances? Were the cave paintings the main focus of attention, or were they backdrops for theatre or dance performances?
Similarly, what about their clothing, their ritual costumes, their tools and weapons, their tents, travois, storage vessels, or what-have-you? These things have not come down to us, and in fact there are almost no depictions of human beings in these cave paintings. Did they have a taboo of some sort against painting the image of a person? Some rule against graven images, perhaps? Or did that apply only to the cave paintings? What did everything else look like, among the people who made these?
So, thanks to Zach Zorich for this article—partly for the delightful suggestion that ancient cave-paintings were actually animations, and even more for inspiring so much fruitful speculation on what else they might have been.