09 November 2006

The first art galleries

Life was hard in those Paleolithic days. The average life span of prehistoric man is estimated (by today’s scientific measures) to have been less than 30 years. Hunting was a preoccupation, with animals providing our ancestors their main meals. Yet, there was something sacred about this, and early cave art tells us that our ancestors considered relationships between humans and animals to be important.

Cave art – i.e. paintings by prehistoric man found on the walls and ceilings of caves – came into public attention when the first cave paintings were found, accidentally by a little girl, in Altamira, northern Spain in 1879. Since then, thousands of similar paintings have been discovered in caves across the world, the earliest dating back some 27,000 years ago. The interesting thing is, no matter where on Earth cave art is discovered, the similarities between them, in terms of subject matter and style, are amazing.

The paintings look like line drawings of animals and humans in stick-like forms, mostly depicting hunting scenes. A few show women and children, such as the one of a woman carrying a load on her head, dated 8,000 years ago, found in the Bhimbetka rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh, India. It seems charcoal was the main ingredient in the black paint used in many of these cave paintings.

By today’s standards of fine arts, prehistoric cave art is childish, even clumsy. Yet, these collections of cave paintings represent what would be the first art galleries in human history. Even today, they are an enigma to historians, archaeologists, anthropologists and sociologists. In some caves, according to dating measures, paintings were discontinued and resumed thousands of years later. Why, no-one knows for sure.

Records suggest that cave art continued for 20,000 years or so, and came to an end when the hunters’ precarious way of life disappeared. This happened, slowly, as early man began to rely more on grains and vegetables for his food, and moved to plain open spaces which allowed cultivation. By this time, of course, human populations had increased, making it difficult for larger groups of people to stay in or near caves.

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