Book an Experience: Hunt for Cave Art

Book an Experience is a new feature that matches experiences, events and/or activities with the perfect book. 

When I stumbled upon this fascinating article in National Geographic detailing the origins of prehistoric art, I could instantly think of just the book to go with it.

It is as if we are walking into the throat of an enormous animal. The tongue of a metal path arcs up and then drops downward into the blackness below. The ceiling closes in, and in some places the heavy cave walls crowd close enough to touch my shoulders. Then the flanks of the limestone open up, and we enter the belly of an expansive chamber.

This is where the cave lions are.

And the woolly rhinos, mammoths, and bison, a menagerie of ancient creatures, stampeding, battling, stalking in total silence. Outside the cave, where the real world is, they are all gone now. But this is not the real world. Here they remain alive on the shadowed and creviced walls.

Around 36,000 years ago, someone living in a time incomprehensibly different from ours walked from the original mouth of this cave to the chamber where we stand and, by flickering firelight, began to draw on its bare walls: profiles of cave lions, herds of rhinos and mammoths, a magnificent bison off to the right, and a chimeric creature—part bison, part woman—conjured from an enormous cone of overhanging rock. Other chambers harbor horses, ibex, and aurochs; an owl shaped out of mud by a single finger on a rock wall; an immense bison formed from ocher-soaked handprints; and cave bears walking casually, as if in search of a spot for a long winter’s nap. The works are often drawn with nothing more than a single and perfect continuous line.

This is the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in southern France, and a quick image search on Google brings up the most beautiful examples of ancient art.

Image courtesy here
Image courtesy here

These paintings belong to humanity’s very first artists, and are around 36,000 years old.

Image courtesy here
Image courtesy here

In his book La Préhistoire du Cinéma, filmmaker and archaeologist Marc Azéma argues that some of these ancient artists were the world’s first animators, and that the artists’ superimposed images combined with flickering firelight in the pitch-black caves to create the illusion that the paintings were moving. “They wanted to make these images lifelike,” says Azéma.

Azéma’s interpretation fits with that of eminent prehistorian Jean Clottes—the first scientist to enter Chauvet, only days after its discovery. Clottes believes the images in the cave were intended to be experienced much the way we view movies, theater, or even religious ceremonies today—a departure from the real world that transfixed its audience and bound it in a powerful shared experience. “It was a show!” says Clottes.

If leaving for southern France is a bit impractical at the moment, just engage in some armchair travel with the Nat Geo article. Pair it with this book for children, Cave Art: The First Paintings, written by Vishaka Chanchani and published by Tulika Publishers as a part of their Looking at Art series.

cave art the first paintings

How did art begin? Where did colour come from, before paints in tubes and bottles? Taking a long step back in history, this book explores how the world’s first artists may have tried their hand on the very first canvases — the walls of rocks and caves. Arising more from artistic imagination than archaeology, this story of art unfolds with photographs of the ancient paintings at the Bhimbetka Caves in Madhya Pradesh alongside creative reproductions of rock art.

You can read more about the book in this Saffron Tree review. Happy hunting!


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