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The art of our species

If Neanderthal man created any form of art, no traces of it have yet been found. But with the arrival of modern man, or Homo sapiens sapiens, the human genius for image-making becomes abundantly clear.

In the recesses of caves, people begin to decorate the rock face with an important theme in their daily lives, the bison and reindeer which are their prey as Ice Age hunters. And sculptors carve portable images of another predominant interest of mankind - the swelling curves of the female form, emphasizing the fertility on which the survival of the tribe depends.

Cave paintings: from 31,000 years ago

Prehistoric cave paintings have been discovered in many parts of the world, from Europe and Africa to Australia. Africa has some of the earliest paintings and rock engravings to have been securely dated. Nearly 30,000 years old, they are discovered in 1969 on the rock face in a cave near Twyfelfontein in Namibia. But the most numerous and the most sophisticated of prehistoric paintings are on the walls of caves in southwest France and northern Spain.

About 150 painted caves have been discovered in this region. Perhaps the most startling of all are the paintings in Chauvet cave, found as recently as 1994 and thought to be as much as 31,000 years old. But far better known, as yet, are the glories of Altamira and Lascaux.

The walls and ceilings of these caves are covered in paintings, with shades of red, brown, yellow and black created from powdered minerals, probably mixed with animal blood and fat. The subjects are mainly the animals of the chase - bison, wild cattle, horses and deer. Many of the paintings are deep in the caves, in dark recesses.

The painters do their work by the light of saucer-like stone lamps, burning animal fat. The charcoal wick of one of the lamps at Lascaux has been carbon-dated to about 17,000 years ago. The same process has dated objects found at Altamira to some 13,000 years ago. Around this period cave art in other European sites also reaches its peak.

Why do hunter-gatherers paint images of large animals on the walls of caves? The evidence of tribal societies in more recent times makes it certain that the purpose is not merely decorative. Religion and magic are the context, but no one knows the precise motive.

There is no lack of theories. It has been argued that the magic is to aid the hunters in the chase; or that it is to increase the herds of wild animals; or that these images, in the innermost recesses of a mysterious and holy place, are to help the shaman into the state of trance which is essential for his priestly work. Speculation may be endless, but the appeal of this early human art is eternal.

When humans first form settled communities, paintings again play a prominent part in religious life. A good example is the early neolithic town of Catal Huyuk, from about 6000 BC. Many of the houses so far excavated appear to be shrines. Their walls are painted with a wide range of subjects, including hunting scenes, a picture of vultures setting about human corpses, and even an elementary landscape.

As in many early societies, such as Minoan Crete, the bull is here a sacred animal. Bulls' heads and horns project aggressively from the walls and altars of the temple chambers of Catal Huyuk.

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