Why Did Prehistoric People Draw in the Caves?

Rock art remains one of the last mysteries of humanity

The secret of natural historyGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

How were prehistoric humans represented in the 19th century?

We have known about prehistoric humans for a long time and the Cro-Magnon Man was identified as early as 1868 by Louis Lartet in Dordogne. The first discovery of Neanderthals was even earlier in 1829 in Belgium. In 1856, bones were found in a small cave in the Neander Valley in Germany. All these fossils have since been known as "wild men."

Replica of Chabot Cave (2018/2018) by Thierry AllardGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The discovery of Paleolithic rock art

Paleolithic rock art was identified shortly after these first paleoanthropological discoveries in 1875 in Altamira, Spain and in 1879 in the Chabot Cave in the Ardèche Valley. Since then, several hypotheses explaining the motivations of our ancestors have been discovered.

Return of a bear hunt - Age of polished stone (1884/1884) by F. CormonGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Art for art's sake

This hypothesis suggests that prehistoric humans painted, drew, engraved, or carved for strictly aesthetic reasons in order to represent beauty. However, all the parietal figures, during the 30,000 years that this practice lasted in Europe, do not have the same aesthetic quality.

Megaceros Gallery (Chauvet Cave) by J. ClottesGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

On the other hand, most of the parietal representations found are located in caves (those that may have existed outside may have been destroyed). And so why represent beauty if it is not shared and is hidden in the darkness of deep caves?

Rousseau (1755), "Discourse on Inequality" and the invention of the idea of the noble savage (1755/1755) by J.-J. rousseau (1712-1778)Grotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

This assumption of art for art's sake was inspired by the myth of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "noble savage." It was also used to convey anticlerical ideas.

Totems, Original 'Namgis Burial Grounds by R. ParkerGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site


This hypothesis suggests that each clan or human group is represented by a symbolic animal, its totem, a being possibly worshiped for the protection it brings and the ancestral heritage it embodies.

Red steppe bison in the Altamira cave (Spain) (2003/2003) by J. ClottesGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

If this hypothesis were universally applicable, we would see disparities in Europe. However, European Paleolithic parietal art exhibits a certain symbolic homogeneity with persistence of the same animal species represented. In fact, there are few animal species that were shared and reproduced for thousands of years in very diverse geographical areas. Reindeer, bison, and horses were animals that were very often depicted.

Steppe bison in the Cave of Niaux (France) (1990/1990) by Jean ClottesGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Finally, animals are represented pierced with arrows, a symbol that cannot be reconciled with the 'worship' that was to be given to them if these effigies were well and truly adored by our ancestors.

Abbé Breuil in front of Lascaux's entranceGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The magic hunt

Abbé Breuil (1877-1961) and Henri Begouën (1863-1956) repeated the hypothesis of "prescience magic," suggesting that prehistoric humans attempted to influence the result of their hunt by drawing it in caves.

Abbot Breuil in the cave of Lascaux faces the panel of the Unicorn. (1940/1940)Grotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

For Abbé Breuil it was more acceptable to allude to magical practice rather than spirituality, which could have steered the discussion towards religious issues.

A piece from the panel of the so-called "Chinese horses" (Lascaux) (1990/1990) by Ministère de la Culture et de la CommunicationGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

However, the correlation between animal species pierced by arrows and archeological excavations is tenuous. The representations of these animals symbolized with arrows piercing them, besides being few in number in all of European parietal art, has little correspondence to the archeological remains found. The hypothesis of sympathetic magic has been abandoned.

André Leroi-Gourhan (1911-1986) in the Rouffignac cave (Dordogne) by unknownGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site


André Leroi-Gourhan (1911-1896) proposed a statistical approach to parietal art. He was hoping to identify a structure within a painting cave. He proposed a spatial approach to adorned caves involving central and marginal symbolic figures. According to Leroi-Gourhan, the most important would be the male/female duality, especially embodied by the auroch-bison association on the one hand, and horses on the other.

Ideal layout of a paleolithic sanctuary after André Leroi-Gourhan. (1965/1965) by A. Leroi-GourhanGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

This statistical approach has never been scientifically demonstrated despite the influence it had on university education.

Jean Clottes (2015/2015) by Roland KADRINIGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site


According to Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams, who decided to re-introduce the shamanic hypothesis advanced by the Romanian historian Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), the figures drawn in the caves would be some representations of visions acquired during a trance-like or near-trance state.

Yakout shaman (1983/1983)Grotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

In particular, this hypothesis is based on ethnological observations made with groups of modern-day hunter-gatherers. It is also based on the perception of entoptic signs (points, lines, grids, etc.) whose source is the eye itself. These optical phenomena can be caused by the inhalation of products or substances contained in the materials used to make parietal figures (charcoal, ocher). These spontaneous entoptic signs can also be the symptoms of migraines (flashing lights and zig-zag patterns, for example).

Diversity of tectiform signs (2013/2013) by Alain RoussotGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Although not well received, this hypothesis is not intended to be a global and exclusive explanation but proposes an explanatory framework. Numerous testimonies by speleologists attest to the hallucinogenic character of the caves, where cold, humidity, darkness, and the absence of sensory cues facilitate optical and auditory hallucinations. Thus the caves could have a dual role with fundamentally related aspects: facilitating hallucinatory visions and coming into contact with spirits through the wall.

Chuka dance in the tent of a chef (1868/1868) by Lanoye, F. de (Ferdinand), 1810-1870Grotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Jean Clottes clarifies his hypothesis (2004): "Paintings made in the middle of a large chamber will probably have a meaning quite different from those found in the depths of a narrow diverticulum where only one person could slip through. The latter can be related […] to either the search for visions or the desire to go as far as possible to the bottom of the earth. Spectacular paintings in large spaces could, however, have a didactic and educational role, and serve as the foundation of ceremonies and rituals."

Philippe Descola, anthropologist (Collège de France) (2014/2014) by Cl. Truong-NgocGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The absence of words

According to the anthropologist Philippe Descola (Collège de France), the people of the Chauvet Cave would have been more comfortable using images instead of words to express complex thoughts. In advancing this idea, we can indeed imagine that these people were incapable of naming objects they would have drawn. Perhaps we can also imagine the existence of taboos whereby it was essential to depict things in the drawing without naming them.

Prehistoric Art (2013/2013) by SMERGC / MQBGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

This videos explores the discovery of prehistoric art at the beginning of the 20th century, where several theories have emerged to explain why our ancestors painted in caves.

Totemism (where each drawing represented the animal protecting the tribe) was favored but archeological findings and the science of ethnology paved the way for the "sympathical magic" theory of Abbé Breuil. According to him, drawing animals is a way to kill them symbolically before the hunt.

Starting from the 1950s, structuralism gained traction, which associates drawings with symbols. In 1994, the discovery of Chauvet was a shock, as no prehistorian thought humans 36, 000 years ago could create such art.

Chauvet CaveGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The testimony of the Chauvet Cave

The rock art of the Chauvet Cave has the same typology of signs as those observed in other adorned European caves: animal, geometric, and anthropomorphic representations (handprints, the lower body, and the female body), with the latter being the fewest in number.

Central Piece of the Feline Fresco (Chauvet Cave, Ardèche) (2018-08-02/2018-08-02) by L. Guichard/Perazio/SmergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The bestiary of the Chauvet Cave is distinguished by the abundance of animals at the top of the food chain: big cats (the most numerous), mammoths, and woolly rhinos, animals not hunted or infrequently hunted by men, except opportunistically.

Cave bear skull on a rock (Chauvet cave) (2006/2006) by L. GuichardGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

For Jean Clottes, the Chauvet Cave is a space that fosters contact between the real world and spirit world. He even suggested that the cave bear played the role of the mediator. Indeed, the Chauvet Cave is a subterranean space heavily frequented by this animal. However, many recesses around the Chauvet Cave are equally large and accessible, and none of them was chosen by the Palaeolithic people. Only the Chauvet Cave, frequently visited by cave bears, was occupied and adorned by people.

Horses panel (Chauvet cave) (2006/2006) by L. GuichardGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

In conclusion, there is still no way of translating rock art. Cave art is a symbolic representation of codes produced by Palaeolithic human thinking. Although this cannot be a definitive conclusion, we can say that parietal art symbolizes the fusion of the Palaeolithic human and animal worlds, whereas today we perceive these two entities as dissociated from each other. In parietal art, man is symbolically represented and present in animal representations.

Credits: Story

The Syndicat mixte de l'Espace de restitution de la grotte Chauvet (Public Union to manage the Chauvet Cave/SMERGC) thanks the Ministry of Culture and Communication. This exhibition was created as part of an agreement linking these two partners to promote the Chauvet Cave and its geographical and historical context.
SMERGC is the designer, developer and owner of the La Grotte Chauvet 2 site (formerly known as Caverne du Pont d'Arc). It prepared and defended the application package of the Chauvet Cave for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List.


SMERGC also thanks Google Arts & Culture.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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