By Ralph MorseLIFE Photo Collection
Rock art is among the most enduring acts of human creativity, yet is also among the most fragile and misunderstood art forms. It has survived for thousands of years painstakingly incised on boulders across the Australian Outback; in carvings beneath sheltered ledges in the mountainous American West, and as extinct beasts painted by firelight in the depths of European cave systems.
When visiting the famous cave paintings at Lascaux in France, Picasso is said to have uttered: “they invented everything”.
Rosetta Stone (4000BP-100BP) by Southern SanThe Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
Yet, worldwide, this irreplaceable record of early human history has been vandalised, bulldozed and ignored. On the remote Burrup Peninsula in Western Australia is one of the world’s greatest collections of petroglyphs, more than half-a-million carvings, including what may be the earliest depiction of a human face.
They record how the environment has changed over millennia. Images of fish and crabs appear post-Ice Age, following rising sea levels that turned local mountains into islands. Scattered stones capture the lean lines of a thylacine, a marsupial dog extinct for thousands of years.
Long Panel (4000BP-100BP) by Southern SanThe Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
The art of the Burrup has been steadily destroyed or relocated since the 1960s in the race to exploit the area’s minerals and gas, affecting tens of thousands of petroglyphs. Encroaching industry has brought acid emissions that eat the art away and pipelines that tear through it. Areas of relocated rock art have been fenced off from their Aboriginal custodians. The Mona Lisa wouldn’t suffer such casual treatment.
The Burrup is not alone in the threats it faces, with many other once-remote sites now encroached upon. The rock art of the Lower Pecos on the Texas/Mexico border is some of the world’s most complex (these petroglyphs have been described as North America’s oldest known ‘books’). The site is suffering from weathering and erosion from flash floods that may worsen in the climate emergency. Industry is also causing damage.
By Ralph MorseLIFE Photo Collection
The discovery of prehistoric cave paintings in Europe has brought its own very different problems. They have been loved too much rather than too little. The cave paintings at Lascaux were discovered in 1940, after a scampering dog fell down a hole.
In the years since, the humidity and body-heat from thousands of curious visitors has led to mould, lichen and crystals severely damaging the paintings. The caves were closed to tourism in 1963 and a replica cave system constructed nearby, but problems in the original caves persist. The Altamira cave paintings in Spain have suffered similarly with the caves now similarly closed to visitors and a replica constructed.
Feline Fresco (Chauvet Cave, Ardèche) (2008/2008) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site
Fortunately, the lessons from Lascaux and Altamira have been learned elsewhere. The Chauvet-Pont-d’arc cave complex, for example, has been declared off-limits to the public ever since its chance discovery in 1994. Its caverns contain hundreds of superb animal paintings from tens of thousands of years ago, including horses, mammoths, cave lions and woolly rhinoceroses butting horns. They are among the oldest art in Europe. There is also a rare depiction of a partial human body – a “Venus” figure.
Horses Fresco (grotte Chauvet, Adèche) (2008/2008) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site
In 2015, the largest cave replica ever built opened a few kilometres from the Chauvet cave. The art is reproduced full-scale within a circular structure and the experience of darkness, heat, and humidity recreated. So careful are Chauvet’s guardians that when Werner Herzog filmed his 3D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), the restricted crew of three had to wear special clothing, use cool lights, and tread only on a narrow walkway.
Felines (Chauvet Cave, Ardèche) (2008/2008) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Google Arts & Culture platform is now partnering with the Chauvet team to bring the cave’s art and stories to a global audience using immersive virtual reality.
In the Chauvet cave, facing the panel of Horses (France) (2015/2015) by J.PachoudGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site
The question of who made cave paintings and why is still an open one. Some recent researchers have suggested that the small size of the hand prints often found means that they were largely created by women. Some scholars believe that there is a ritual or shamanistic meaning to the imagery in the Chauvet paintings, something which is certainly true of other rock art globally.
“The practice of rock art is essentially spiritual even if we don’t know, and never will know, the exact purposes,” suggests prehistoric art specialist, Jean Clottes who once led the scientific team at Chauvet. “We don’t have any proof one way or the other.In any case, we don’t know exactly when art first emerged. And the problem is then compounded by what we think of as art. What we call art may have ‘emerged’ at widely separated intervals and in diverse cultures.”
One thing is clear: for millennia there was little stylistic change in cave painting, indicative of a long, stable and satisfying culture.
The field is making fresh discoveries all the time with ochre figures of animals and handprints found in in the 1950s in caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi recently re-dated by researchers by 10,000 years, making them some of the oldest works known – more than 35,000 years in some cases.
Lascaux (Montignac) Caves by Ralph MorseLIFE Photo Collection
Rather late in the day, the Burrup’s rock art might find itself a candidate for World Heritage Site status. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Australian continent at Gabarnmung is what has been described as a Sistine Chapel of prehistoric art with 36 painted sandstone columns beneath a rock slab. Dating is ongoing but some think it might be the world’s oldest rock art yet discovered.
Jean-Michel Geneste, an archaeologist who has worked at Lascaux and Chauvet, notes the difference between French caves and Gabarnmung where the Aboriginal Jawoyn people who created it still live close by: “We don’t have anyone to explain Chauvet Cave to us,” he has written. “With Gabarnmung…there is the living culture; the memories. The Jawoyn can help us build a new knowledge.”
Abbot Breuil in the cave of Lascaux faces the panel of the Unicorn. (1940/1940)Grotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site
Part of the appeal of rock art is that remains somewhat mysterious, redolent with origin stories, offering clues to vanished belief systems and ways of life – the birth of culture long before humans began to build settlements. So when we lose rock art, we lose part of our collectives selves, of what it means to be human.
Text: Robert Bevan