As young tots, many of us had the urge to scribble on the walls of our rooms. Unless raised by open-minded or artistically inclined parents, our actions usually resulted in a scolding or sometimes a spanking.
There seems to be a primal urge to doodle on a clean wall. Could this be a trait inherited from our cave-dwelling ancestors’ penchant for painting the walls of their caves?
Modern man creates art mostly for art’s sake. But why would our Paleolithic ancestors engage in a pastime that that did not have any significance in survival? Or did it?
Parietal art, or cave art , has been found in over 350 caves across the continents. Most examples of it were painted with charcoal or red ochre, while some were actually engraved—so called “petroglyphs.”
The very earliest wall drawings are believed to have been created as long as 32,000 years ago.
The meanings of parietal paintings and petroglyphs are not yet clearly known. The most basic assumption is that ancient man might have wanted to have a fancier place to live in—hence the decorations.
But the locations of some of the art were virtually inaccessible. In fact, some showed no indication of actually being used as shelter.
Some scientists believe that parietal paintings were used to document hunting scenarios. Others think they were a part of ancient rituals, performed to ensure a successful hunt for ancient tribes.
The themes included ancient horses, bison, deer, humans and various hunting scenes. Some show tracings of heads. Others are stencils of hands—a signature perhaps?
Based upon the analysis of such stencils, a few of the more famous cave paintings depicting spotted horses were discovered to have been made by a woman.
Some art, petroglyphs in particular, have been observed to represent terrain. They may have served as maps or ways of communicating with other people who used the caves as temporary shelter, very much like ancient traffic signs.
Interestingly enough, certain universal designs appear in very different locations, particularly spiral designs, which some scientists believe to be symbolic of a solar system, a solstice, whirlwind, serpent or aquatic animal.
On the other hand, the spirals could just be a default pattern that human beings are inclined to draw, and they could represent different things depending on the era in which they were created.
The possible purposes of cave paintings are numerous, ranging from the purely aesthetic to the more profound. As vague as they are, we have not yet confirmed or deciphered the messages our ancient ancestors were trying to convey.
It can only make us think—perhaps the next time junior scribbles on the bedroom wall, we should take time to appreciate it.
Alfablue, December 2012