The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists

The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists

by Gregory Curtis


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The Cave Painters is a vivid introduction to the spectacular cave paintings of France and Spain—the individuals who rediscovered them, theories about their origins, their splendor and mystery.


Gregory Curtis makes us see the astonishing sophistication and power of the paintings and tells us what is known about their creators, the Cro-Magnon people of some 40,000 years ago. He takes us through various theories—that the art was part of fertility or hunting rituals, or used for religious purposes, or was clan mythology—examining the ways interpretations have changed over time. Rich in detail, personalities, and history, The Cave Painters is above all permeated with awe for those distant humans who developed—perhaps for the first time—both the ability for abstract thought and a profound and beautiful way to express it.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400078875
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/09/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 430,298
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.63(d)

About the Author

Gregory Curtis is the author of Disarmed: The Story of the Venus de Milo. He was the editor of Texas Monthly from 1981 until 2000. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Fortune, Time, and RollingStone, among other publications. A graduate of Rice University and San Francisco State College, he lives with his wife in Austin, Texas.

Read an Excerpt


The Naked Cave Man

This book began in 1986 when my daughter Vivian saw a statue she called “a naked cave man.” For several days we had been riding on horseback across the Dordogne, the lovely area of river valleys, rolling hills, and thick forests in south-central France. It was late spring, just before the arrival of the swarms of rowers, hikers, and campers that descend on the region each summer. I did not know at the time that in eons past this appealing landscape had also attracted groups of the earliest humans. Their ancient campsites, usually found under the rock overhangs in the limestone cliffs that line the rivers, have kept archaeologists happily busy since they were first discovered more than 150 years ago.

As the archaeologists dig deeper, they find layer upon layer of occupation, the date of each layer receding further into the past. Occasionally, in the upper levels, which can be 15,000 to 20,000 years old, these digs turn up tiny beads patiently crafted from ivory, an engraving of an animal on a rock, or some reindeer’s teeth with a hole drilled at the root that were once part of a necklace. The people who made these delicate objects were the same ones who ventured into the caverns in the hillsides, sometimes crawling through narrow passages for hundreds of yards, to create the paintings, engravings, and bas-relief sculptures that still touch the soul of everyone who sees them.

During our trip Vivian and I stopped at Les Eyzies-de-Tyac, a village on the banks of the Vézère River. We turned out our horses in a small pasture conveniently across the road from our hotel and went to visit Font-de-Gaume, then as now the only cave with polychrome paintings that is still open to the public. After a surprisingly steep climb, we arrived at the entrance—a narrow, upright gash in the rock near the top of a cliff. Three or four other tourists were waiting when Vivian and I arrived.

In a few moments the guide to the cave arrived and unlocked the metal door that covered the entrance. We walked in single file down a tall, narrow passageway that proceeded roughly in a straight line despite a few slight twists and turns. A narrow metal grille placed in sections along the way protected the cave floor. There were rather dim lights hidden in the walls on both sides. The guide turned them on in a given section as we arrived there and then turned them off as we passed through. After about seventy yards, the guide stopped. Using a red laser as a pointer, she began talking about the first painting.

I was tremendously excited. The little I knew about prehistoric painted caves came from photographs in books and magazines. Now, some of the real paintings were right in front of me in all their glory. There were round, fat bison drawn in gentle curving lines. They had deep, expressive eyes and tiny legs drawn in perfect perspective. Mammoths with long, curved tusks stood placidly among the bison. Horses outlined in black, now partially obscured by natural excretions, galloped across the cave wall. Most impressive of all were two large reindeer facing each other. The one on the right, a female, was on her knees. The male on the left, whose antlers formed a magnificent long arc, had gently lowered his head toward her and had just begun licking the top of her brow. The grandeur of the male and the delicacy of the female in this quiet moment, so intimate and tender, made the painting touching and irresistible.

Beauty in art or in nature or in a person is always surprising because it is stronger and more affecting than you could have anticipated. That’s why, even though I was prepared for the paintings in Font-de-Gaume to be beautiful, seeing them was startlingly intense, like having a flashbulb ignite two inches from your eyes. I was reeling a little, since there was so much about the paintings I hadn’t expected.

For one thing, they were punctuated with indecipherable signs. The simplest ones consisted of a horizontal line and a vertical one, like an upside-down T. Other signs had lines added to this basic shape. Some had slanted lines at the top and others had parallel vertical lines that made the sign look like a stick-figure house. And there were signs in different styles. Some were grids of straight lines inside a rectangle. Others were simply two circles below two arcs. They resembled a cartoon ghost peering above the horizon. Often the signs appeared alone, but they might also appear near or even within a painting. They weren’t writing, since the signs didn’t repeat the way writing would. Instead they must have been an elaborate code, with each variation having a specific meaning—a number or clan or time of year. In fact, they could be anything. But the presence of the signs proves that the paintings meant more to the people who made them than the paintings alone could convey. The signs marked the paintings in some way. They classified them or ordered them or attributed them according to . . . what? It gave me a start to realize that for their creators, these paintings by themselves were not enough. They needed a gloss, elaboration, captions!

Also, I was astounded by the way the cave artists used the contours of the cave wall to enhance their work. This is a special quality of cave art that photographs rarely convey. The powerful shoulders of bison, for instance, are often painted over a bulge in the rock that makes the muscles of the animals seem to swell realistically and gives the work a dimension that would have been impossible on a flat surface. This happens so often that it’s clear that the artists weren’t simply taking advantage of the contours they happened upon as they painted. Instead they must have examined the wall closely first so as to find the places where the shape of the wall suggested animals or parts of animals before they began to paint. This meant that, at least some of the time, the cave artists had painted the animals suggested by the wall rather than imposing their own ideas onto the surface.

Photographs in books or magazines make the paintings look random, and even in the cave there isn’t any apparent order at first. The animals seem lumped together according to whims of the ancient artists, and they are often painted one on top of the other in ways that are impossible in nature. The guide pointed out a red bison facing left that had a mammoth engraved over it facing right. The size of the two animals was roughly the same even though a real mammoth would have been immensely larger than a real bison. And, with the exception of the male reindeer licking the female, the animals didn’t seem to be doing anything. They were just there on the rock. Sometimes they faced each other head on, but even then they stood stoically and without any sign of aggression. And the mix of animals—bison, mammoths, horses, and even a rhinoceros—seemed random as well.

That is, they seemed random until you looked a second time. We were in the cave only forty-five minutes that afternoon, but that was just long enough to begin to see some order despite the apparent chaos. Female animals are painted red, for example, although not every red animal is a female. When animals face each other, one is red and one is black. The black animal is on the right in the paintings nearer the entrance but appears on the left in the paintings farther in the interior. Late in the tour, I looked back at a frieze of bison that I had seen straight on a few moments earlier. Now the animals curved around the wall of the cave and appeared three-dimensional. Their legs were in perfect perspective, which added to the strong illusion that they were moving away down the corridor. Clearly the artist had planned for the painting to be seen from the spot where I stood.

That spot, provocatively, was before a tall but shallow cavity in the wall that is known as the Bison Cabinet. It was located in a spacious oval room that opened at the end of the long corridor we had followed from the entrance. The room reminded me of a nave in a small church. It even had a domed roof. And the Bison Cabinet, which was a curving recess, had the air of an adjoining chapel. As the name suggests, it is filled with paintings of bison. Five are well preserved and easy to see, but originally there were ten or more. The bison swirl about as if floating in the clouds. They face right, left, up, or down, and just below them is a wide horizontal fissure in the wall. Were they emerging from the fissure or were they being sucked down into it? And wasn’t there some connection between these bison in the Cabinet and the bison receding down the hallway that were best seen from a spot just before the Cabinet?

Vivian had looked as long and hard as I had, and we both found ourselves put into a kind of emotional swirl by the experience. Happy but set slightly off-kilter by what we had just seen, we left the cave to visit the museum of prehistory. In the summer of 2004 the museum moved to a dramatic new building located just below the old one. But in 1986, the museum was still in an old chateau high in the cliffs behind Les Eyzies. The rooms were filled with polished wood-and-glass cases that seemed left over from the nineteenth century. Some of them held the tedious, repetitive displays of chipped stone tools—meaningless to a layman—that are inevitable in a museum devoted to ancient humans. But other cases contained rocks or pieces of antler with engravings of bison or horses. There were a few rocks with engravings of vulvas that were so faint it was a wonder that even archaeologists on the lookout for artifacts had noticed them. We wandered about listlessly. In Font-de-Gaume we had just seen the heights Ice Age civilization could reach. In the museum we were seeing the detritus of daily life.

At last we walked back outside. In front of the museum there was a long, narrow terrace with a white limestone statue of a Neanderthal in one corner. Perhaps seven feet tall, streaked and stained by wind and rain, he stared out of sunken eyes. His square head sunk down in his neck, he held his arms stiffly at his sides, and his face was contorted. Everything about his expression and posture conveyed tension, anger, and threat. He frightened and embarrassed my daughter, who declined to have her picture taken with, as she said, “a naked cave man.”

Instead we turned away and looked out across the valley below. The village was just at our feet. In front of it, the Vézère River made a long slow bend. Trees whose branches bent down to the water lined both riverbanks. Beyond them a wide, level valley stretched out until, in the distance, another wall of cliffs rose up. Gray clouds, threatening rain, covered the sky and made the valley look lush and green, and for just a moment everything I had seen that afternoon made sense.

If you looked at the landscape the way early humans might have, it became clear why they had made their homes in the cliffs where my daughter and I now stood. The overhangs gave shelter. The height of the cliffs prevented any approach from the rear by threatening animals or by other humans. The river below would attract herds of migrating animals and other game, and anyone living high in the cliffs could follow their movements for miles across the valley. Here was a safe place to live where food was plentiful.

But surely those practical reasons weren’t everything. There was something else about the landscape before us, something that would have been surpassingly important to people who could paint masterpieces on the walls of a cave. The landscape was beautiful. Sometime long ago, hadn’t our distant ancestors stood where we now stood and paused, as we did now, to relish the scene below, to revel in the trees by the river flowering in springtime, to watch the flight of birds or the patterns of animal herds crossing the valley, or to marvel as a storm front moved in over the distant hills, as one was doing now?

In that moment when the three of us—the angry statue, my daughter, and I—all looked across the same green, ancient, and seductive landscape, this book was born.

During my research, every time I entered a cave the same excitement I’d felt the day I first saw Font-de-Gaume with Vivian returned undiminished. It happened even when I revisited Font-de-Gaume itself many times, often arranging to go alone with just a guide. The solemn mammoths, the tender reindeer, and the swirling bison in the Bison Cabinet never failed to make me pause in wonder.

But, as the caves became more familiar, I was also able to assume scientific neutrality. As a result, I began to see much more. I would stand by a wall while the guide shone a light at oblique angles, and figures that had been invisible rose into view as if they had been summoned from the solid rock behind the surface of the wall. Sometimes these images were beautiful, but sometimes they appeared to be just doodling—strange animals, funny human shapes, or a line of red painted in a small crevice to make it look like a vulva. Such great variety in a single cave proved that many people had ventured inside for a variety of reasons. Not everyone who drew on the walls was a great master—although many were. And not everyone who entered the cave kept his or her mind on solemn thoughts. While some painted grand images of their society’s history or myths or visions, others seemed to have scratched their own private musings in the corners. Everything that’s there—not just certain images or groups of images—must be considered in order to understand the meaning of the art in the caves.

This book contains two narratives, one considerably shorter than the other. The shorter one covers several million years as Homo sapiens arose in Africa, migrated out, and, about 50,000 years ago, pushed across Europe from east to west. Some groups went on clear to the Atlantic Ocean. But those who stopped short of the ocean and lived on either side of the Pyrenees were the ones who began to paint in the caves. Their work was the most impressive part of an outflowing of creativity by Homo sapiens that began about 45,000 years ago and has continued ever since.

Table of Contents

The Naked Cave Man

Chapter 1
The Seductive Axe; The Well-Clothed Arrivals

Chapter 2
A Skeptic Admits His Error; The Passion of Miss Mary E. Boyle

Chapter 3
Noble Robot, an Inquiring Dog; The Abbé’s Sermons on the Mount

Chapter 4
The Great Black Cow; How to Paint a Horse

Chapter 5
A Stormy Drama Among Bison; The Golden Section

Chapter 6
A Lively but Unreliable Creation; Quaint, Symbolic Arrows

Chapter 7
The Trident-Shaped Cave; Pairing, Not Coupling

Chapter 8
Three Brothers in a Boat; The Sorcerer

Chapter 9
A Passage Underwater; The Skull on a Rock

Chapter 10
Strange, Stylized Women; The World Below the World


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The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thisis a scientific/historical reasearch paper with a pretty cover. Lots of information aboutthe scientists who didtheresearching, and extended discriptions of the paintings. About as many photos of the discoverers and researchers of the caves as photos of rhe actual cave art! I WOULD RATHER LOOK AT PHOTOS OF THE CAVE ART, than read extensive descriptions of it. It should been named, "A History of the Cave art Researchers." I like scholastic papers but would have not paid this much for one. I expected to see cave paintings, full page photos, not a few little captioned photos after scores of pages of historical information. Also the best photos of art weren' t even with the reams of text describing it, but at the back of the book .
womansheart on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Your Non-typical Underground Artist(s) get their due ...Yesterday (Saturday, Oct. 31) I finished a book by Gregory Curtis, that I enjoyed very much and highly recommend, The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists. Five stars, without a doubt, for the author's ability to balance academic/scientific conflict and at the same time include all, or most, of the various viewpoints and theories surrounding the cave paintings and the scope of their impact on the worlds of Art and Pre-History. He engenders, as well, a sense of anticipation (while reading the text chapter by chapter) that brings to the discoveries of the caves and the art within them a sense of both magic and mystery. Like Non-fiction, Art, History, mild adventure and suspense? The plates of the art are good and deserve contemplation on thier own.Then consider reading this wonderful book.
sjmccreary on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This very easy-to-read nonfiction tells the story of the discovery of the prehistoric caves in southern France around the turn of the last century and the people who studied and wrote about them for the last 100 years. There are lots of topics that I think sound interesting, but the books I pick up about them aren't always as interesting as their subjects. This one isn't like that. The author, as near as I can tell, is not an archaeologist so he did not fall into the trap of trying to explain every technical detail that a scientist would have spent years learning and understanding. Instead, he simply tells the reader what he learned when he talked to the archaeologists who study these caves. So, the different theories about why the paintings were made and what they mean are presented in clear, non-technical language. Even though most of the caves are not open to the public, he was able to gain access to many of them and describes what he saw in terms of awe and wonderment, not clinical analysis. I wish we could all see the paintings for ourselves - they sound amazing. He also talks quite a lot about the different people who studied the caves and formulated theories about the people who lived and worked there in the far distant past. He even includes some of the "juicy" details about the academic squabbles between the experts. I always get a cheap thrill from accounts of smart people behaving badly - so this pleased me. ;-) There are lots of photos - many in color.
drneutron on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Many are familiar with images from Lascaux cave, bison and horses painted on the walls in the depths of prehistory. In The Cave Painters, Gregory Curtis takes us through the history of these caves in the Pyrenees region and those who study them from the first modern discovery of cave paintings in 1879 until today. Along the way, he introduces us to the art and the fascinating people who've studied the art over the years.Even in the least interesting of the caves, the walls are covered with paintings and etchings of horses, bison, lions, bears, mammoth - all the big animals found in Europe during the Ice Age. And nobody knows why they're there. The animals depicted aren't the ones that the people hunted, and there's relatively little depiction of violence or scenes that appear to be a hunt. Human figures are rare and rather crudely done - except that many caves include outlines of human hands. And how did they figure out how to make images on the rock walls that are artistically mature, even to the point of using perspective, that still speak to us today? The Cave Painters doesn't have any answers. But it does give us a history of the ideas put forward by those spending their lives studying these works. Curtis really makes the caves and the researchers come alive, and doesn't dismiss any of the important people in the field, even when their ideas fall out of favor with later researchers. His sympathetic approach makes the book for me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book immensely. The author presents the tales of the discoverers of these ancient paintings and attempts at interpretation with a storyteller's skill. The last chapter is an especially beautiful summation.