Masters of their art
The ‘enigma’ of early European cave paintings
Enormous snorting beasts, the thundering of heavy hoofbeats, clouds of dust, and the smell of sweaty bovine bodies come to my mind at the very mention of the names Lascaux, Chauvet, and Altamira. I have admired the majestic works of cave art at these European sites since my youth. I envisage the huge physical effort as the artists worked on their giant canvases, and their likely joy as they stood back and saw the power of their images.
‘Upper Paleolithic’ cave art
The Altamira Cave in Spain was discovered in 1868, less than a decade after Darwin’s Origin.
France’s Lascaux and Chauvet caves came to light in 1940 and 1994, respectively. The supposed ages of tens of thousands of years for all this cave art provoked much controversy from the outset. The drawings were simply too good. Could ‘cavemen’ possibly have produced such artistic masterpieces?
Lascaux is famous for its representations of the now-extinct wild bull, the mighty aurochs. The name has its roots in old German for ‘primeval ox’, and it is believed to be the ancestor of domesticated cattle. The last wild aurochs died in Poland in 1627. These animals, once widespread in the region, were hunted for food, as was a European bison type. The skin and fur were used for clothing, and the bones for tools.
Tourists gasp at the images of four mighty aurochs, the largest of them five metres long, hurtling across the cave walls at Lascaux’s Great Hall of the Bulls (above). An astounding 2,000 figures in all adorn this hall; horses, stags swimming across a river, and much more.
Art experts have been overwhelmingly in awe of these artistic achievements. Helen Gardner began her textbook Art Through the Ages claiming, “What Genesis is to the biblical account of the fall and redemption of man, early cave art is to the history of his intelligence, imagination, and creative power.” She says, “The immense achievement of Stone Age man … cannot be exaggerated.”1
Ernst Gombrich in The Story of Art refers to the artists as “primitives” but claims “their processes of thought are often more complicated than ours”, and their “technical mastery” is “astonishing”.2
Giuseppe Penone, internationally renowned artist, says the paintings likely give us “the same sense of wonder as we might get looking at the Sistine Chapel or Giotto’s chapel in Padua.”3
In his classic book Arts and Ideas, William Fleming said of Lascaux that “later literate societies have never excelled the sheer strength of the pictorial record left from prehistory.” 4
After viewing Altamira, Pablo Picasso cried in despair, “We have discovered nothing.” “After Altamira, all is decadence.” 5
How could paintings by ‘primitive cavemen’ evoke such superlatives? Why cannot modern artists surpass their proficiency?
Skills on display
The cave painters excelled in their ability to show movement and motion. Movement is a sophisticated artistic skill to master. These artists appear to have succeeded with ease. They superimposed images, conquered proportions, and understood the intricacies of the animals’ movements.
Artist Penone said that the painter at Chauvet had
used the hollow in the rock wall to emphasise the shape of the animal … to give an impression of relief. This is a very sophisticated representative technique. It gives the impression of movement. In the paintings … there is a repetition of signs, which gives an idea of progress, as if the figure is moving, like in the futurist works of the early 20th century. It is unbelievable finding this whole repertoire of languages and expressions, so close to our own culture, in a 35,000-year-old representation. I find it extraordinary.4
Many more superlatives have flowed from the pens of art critics and experts. This includes their astonishment at the artists’ mastery of composition and line; and their use of colour and tone, all from substances like hematite, charcoal, and various shades of ochre.
Chiaroscuro is the advanced use of light against dark to accentuate form and create dramatic compositions. This dramatic, complex technique is lauded in the work of European masters such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt, who worked hard at learning, practising, and employing it. No wonder that secular experts are amazed that chiaroscuro is consistently utilized by these ‘unschooled’ cave artists.
And then there is perspective (depth), taught by contemporary art schools and teachers involving various techniques and tools. This is an intellectually difficult attempt to illustrate either close-up or distant space using 3-D forms on a 2-D surface. We can see this illusion of space in e.g. Lascaux’s The Great Black Bull (above).
Huge logistic task
To actually paint these enormous masterpieces onto the unique, demanding canvas of irregular cave walls required specific planning, management, and constructional skill.
The lighting required to draw detail and see overall effect was provided by a system of lamps made of flat hollowed stones with a handle on one end (pictured below).
Scaffolding was successfully constructed on uneven foundations to reach the high ceilings. The creation of the cave artworks was no hasty moment of fun, but a task found worthy of great effort and teamwork. Ernest Pignon-Ernest explained how the artists had
conquered the delicate nuances between the base rock surfaces and the paintings, and even utilised the surfaces to intensify the dramatic impact of the works, … their images were born from the rocks themselves: they used the tiniest fissure, the slightest curve in the rock.6
Challenging evolutionary thinking
The high praise for these cave paintings highlights the reason their authenticity was long doubted. The question was asked with cynicism; could this be the work of those we have classified as illiterate, unenlightened cave men? Quite simply, these beautiful paintings challenge popular views of evolutionary history. British archaeologist Paul Pettit said, “The Chauvet drawings are simply too magnificent for their time.”7,8 Art historian Horst Janson said the works had “an assurance and refinement far removed from any humble beginnings.”9
Famously, the Prehistorical Congress in Lisbon in 1880 rejected the idea that the paintings were tens of thousands of years old, due to “the supreme artistic quality, the exceptional state of conservation of the paintings, and the striking quality of its polychromatic art.”10 Their dilemma was due to the belief that ‘prehistoric’ human beings were supposedly incapable of such skill and expert thinking. The dispute continued, and in 1901 archaeologist Henri Breuil concluded that based on the erroneous assumptions of their secular dating system, the works were Paleolithic and thus painted ‘36,000’ years ago. (The modern evolutionary estimate is 15,000 to 50,000 years ago.)
Evolutionary/old-age thinking relies on the idea of a ‘linear’ development from simple to complex. To accept this, we must ignore the skill and beauty displayed by these cave paintings, and the lack of further artistic development today. Playwright Roger Lombard concluded,
I come to the [Chauvet] Panel of the Horses [right] … and there, I find myself looking at the incredible. Such precise lines, such realistic expression … No doubt about it! … The artists who presided there were geniuses … because they had admirable vision. Like the Renaissance painters … . What a slap in the face for our conventional wisdom … the cliche of the caveman wearing animal skin and carrying a club. As it becomes clear, in light of these paintings, that the people who did them had a sensibility worthy of the most cultured men today. I feel crushed again: miniscule.11
American science writer Michael Balter, in the prestigious journal Science, said,
When paintings described as “exquisitely rendered” and “too magnificent for their time” were discovered on the walls of the Chauvet Cave in France, archaeologist Gilles Torsello of the University of Toulouse said “The fundamental importance of Chauvet is to show that the capacity of Homo sapiens to engage in artistic expression did not go through a linear evolution over many thousands of years. It was there from the beginning.”12
A biblical creationist stance makes complete sense here. These painters were part of a group which arrived in Europe following the Babel dispersion. This occurred in the first few centuries after the Flood, some 4,500 years ago. That means their ancestors (Noah and family) already had a level of sophistication reflected in shipbuilding technology (Genesis 6–8). Metalworking had been established in the first few generations after Adam (Genesis 4:22). Though some groups would not have taken all this know-how with them in the forced post-Flood dispersion, the potential of all people for ingenuity and skill would have been the same as it is today.
The skepticism that the paintings could possibly have been made by Paleolithic hunters was solely due to the unwarranted belief that ‘cavemen’ were primitive brutes, closer to their supposed animal ancestors than people today. Ironically, the early critics were right about one thing—the unreliability of the dating assumptions.
The Altamira / Lascaux / Chauvet cave art stands as a spectacular testimony to the reality of biblical history, and the bankruptcy of ‘human evolution’.
References and notes
- Gardner, H., Art through the Ages, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. New York 7th Edn, p. 24, 1980. Return to text.
- Gombrich, E., The Story of Art, Phaidon, Oxford, 15th Edn, pp. 20–23, 1989. Return to text.
- archeologie.culture.fr/chauvet/en/giuseppe-penone, acc. 4 Sep 2022. Return to text.
- Fleming, W. Arts and Ideas, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 6th Edn, p.19, 1980. Return to text.
- Owen, E., “After Altamira, all is decadence”, thetimes.co.uk, 14 Mar 2009. Return to text.
- archeologie.culture.fr/chauvet/en/ernest-pignon-ernest, acc. 4 Sep 2022. Return to text.
- Pettitt, P., Art and the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic transition in Europe: Comments on the archaeological arguments for an early Upper Paleolithic antiquity of the Grotte Chauvet art, J. Human Evolution 55(5):908–917, 2008. Return to text.
- Catchpoole, D., Chauvet Cave controversy, Creation 31(2):35, 2009; creation.com/chauvet-cave. Return to text.
- Janson, H.W., A History of Art, Thames and Hudson Ltd., London, p. 18, 1962. Return to text.
- See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcelino_Sanz_de_Sautuola acc. 4 Sep 2022. Return to text.
- See archeologie.culture.gouv.fr/chauvet/en/roger-lombardot, acc. 4 Sep 2022. Return to text.
- Balter M., Going deeper into the Grotto Chauvet, Science 321(5891):904–905, 2008. Return to text.