Why did our ancestors make startling art in dark firelit caves?

Why did our ancestors make startling art in dark firelit caves?

Izzy Wisher writes:

Charcoal drawings of stags, elegantly rendered in fluid lines, emerge under my torchlight as we squeeze through a tiny hidden entrance to a small chamber deep within Las Chimeneas cave in northern Spain. The chamber has space for just a couple of people, and certainly not standing, so we crouch on the cave floor and stare in awe at the depictions. Despite their remarkable freshness, they were drawn nearly 18,000 years ago. We sit in silence for a moment, soaking in the deep history of the space and realising that our ancient ancestors must have sat in the same cramped position as us. ‘Why do you think they drew these stags here?’ Eduardo Palacio-Pérez, the conservator of the cave, asks me. ‘I really don’t think we’ll ever know for sure,’ I reply.

What we do know is that during the Upper Palaeolithic (c45,000-15,000 years ago), our distant ancestors ventured deep underground to make these images. In these unfamiliar environments, they produced a rich display – from unusual abstract forms to highly detailed renderings of animals – under the dim glow of firelight cast by their lamps. Naturalistic animal outlines, rows of finger-dotted marks and splatter marks preserving the shadows of ancient hands remain frozen in time within the caves, representing tens of thousands of years of people returning to the darkness to engage in art-making.

This curious, yet deeply creative, behaviour captures the imagination. Yet as Jean Clottes – a prominent Palaeolithic art researcher – succinctly put it, the key unanswered question for us all is: ‘Why did they draw in those caves?’ [Continue reading…]

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