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Story of humans

Cave paintings

Artists at work in a caveArtists at work in a cave Stone Age cave paintings have been found in many caves in Europe, including Chauvet and Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain. They were painted between 35,000 and 15,000 years ago by modern humans called Cro-Magnons, named after the place in France near where they lived. The paintings are often very realistic and depict mainly large wild animals, such as bison, horses, woolly mammoth, deer and lions. The images were painted using powdered rocks and minerals mixed with water or fat. Sometimes the outline of the animal was cut into the rock first. We cannot be sure exactly why people made these paintings. They may have been “hunting magic”—intended to increase the number of prey animals—or simply to record events in their own lives.

Animals painted at Chauvet, FranceAnimals painted at Chauvet, France

Why were cave paintings created?

Life for early nomadic people consisted mainly of an endless hunt for food. Finds of cave paintings and other works of art show that some may have had religious beliefs and customs that they thought would help them in their quest for food. The cave paintings were not meant for display. They were painted or sometimes carved on dark walls and ceilings where no one could see them. The fact that the paintings were hidden away suggests that they may have been part of a secret ritual: offerings to the gods, urging them to bring success to the huntsmen.

Aboriginal rock art, AustraliaAboriginal rock art, AustraliaThe cave painters may have believed that the pictures would help them to catch real animals. Or perhaps they thought that drawing the animals would ensure that they multiplied, so that there were always plenty to hunt. Some of the pictures may have been straightforward records of the things the artists saw around them. Whatever the reasons for them, people went on painting and carving on cave walls for about 20,000 years and examples have been found in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas and Australia. They also give us many clues about changes in climate and environment in prehistoric times.

Six paintings of seals found in the Nerja Caves, 56 km (35 miles) east of Malaga in the southern region of Andalusia, have been dated to at least 42,000 years old. They are the only known artistic images created by Neanderthals—and are the world's oldest works of art.

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