Around 30,000 years ago someone walked into the depths of a cave in southern France and drew a horse. They drew many horses. They also drew and painted depictions of mammoths, bison, bears, and other animals. Similar depictions exist around the world.
And while the representations in these works of art have often been viewed as symbolic, researchers now see that many represent literal observations. It is becoming clear that along with their imagination, the artists also relied on direct observation and their visual memory.
[O]ur research removes the need for any symbolic explanation of the horses. People drew what they saw, and that gives us greater confidence in understanding Paleolithic depictions of other species as naturalistic illustrations.1
Professor Terry O’Connor, University of York Department of Archaeology
Another researcher, professor Michi Hofreiter from the Department of Biology at the University of York, explains. “Paleolithic cave paintings … were closely rooted in the real-life appearance of animals. Our findings lend support to hypotheses that argue that cave paintings constitute reflections of the natural environment of humans at the time and may contain less of a symbolic or transcendental connotation than often assumed.”2
Of course, we’ll never know exactly how the images were created, though the possibilities are limited. Nevertheless, all require that the artist make use of what they’ve previously seen. The most realistic theory is that they spent considerable time observing their subjects. Were the observations intentional, for the purpose of representing the subject on the wall of a cave? Or were they simply an accumulation of a lifetime of seeing?
In either case, seeing enough of one’s prey to have a good sense of its form is one thing. But what about an animal for whom you may be the prey? Like the bear, below, from 36,000 years ago.
Notice too, both in the lower-left and upper-right, what appear to be discarded ‘starts’. It’s as if the artist’s representation in those attempts failed to match their memory.
That’s conjecture on my part.
Regardless, prehistoric cave artists were the first for whom visual memory played an integral part in their production. They really did make the most of every glance! And so can you.
1 As quoted in Ancient DNA provides new insights into cave paintings of horses, Phys.org, Nov. 7, 2011.