Caves. Often they’re dark, damp and even a bit scary. Though many of them do provide a warm home and protection against the elements, after a while, they can be downright boring. Think about it. When it rains or snows outside, most modern humans can watch TV, play video games, text friends or (gasp!) even read a book. However, prehistoric cave dwellers didn’t have such options. Instead, many of them nurtured their inner artist and began to draw and paint on the walls of their subterranean dwellings. The results, as you’ll see below, are nothing short of stunning.
Located in Bulgaria’s northwest near the small village of Rabisha is the Magura Cave. This is one of the largest caves eastern Europe as well as one of the most significant in terms of the early history of mankind. The paintings found here span several eras of early human history. Many of the over 700 paintings on its walls date back at least 8000 years ago and depict events that prehistoric societies would have deemed important: religious ceremonies to commemorate the seasons, scenes of hunting wild animals, childbirth and even festivals including dancing. And these are just the things that we can currently identify; there are other, more nebulous geometric figures on the cave’s wall whose true significance has not yet been determined.
Tt is almost unimaginable to believe that the world’s largest and fastest growing desert, the Sahara, was only 12,000 years ago a fertile area encompassing lakes, grasslands and lush forests with large herds of animals. This however seems to be the case, at least if the depictions in the rock art at Tadrart Acacus are to be believed. These paintings, some as long ago as 10,000 BCE, stretch across the Tadrart Aracus mountain range of Algeria and Libya. Not only is the depiction of wildlife interesting, the rock-art sites may also be prophetic of what can happen in other parts of the world if global warming were to get out of control.
Serra da Capivara
Brazil’s Serra da Capivara National Park is ground zero for prehistoric cave paintings in South America. In fact, some of these paintings are so ancient that some archaeologists have speculated that they could be nearly 25,000 years old! While this is highly debatable, it is clear that these are the remnants of one of the earliest known human civilizations in South America.
Laas Gaal is one of the oldest known inhabited cave dwellings in eastern Africa. Located in northwestern Somalia, these paintings are believed to be between five and ten thousand years old and depict interesting and strange phenomenon. For example, there are images of local cows wearing what are believed to be ceremonial robes (maybe some local deity?) and acting like humans. Other ancient artwork found here includes farm and animals as well as giraffes.
Kakadu Rock Paintings
Australia’s Kakadu National Park is home to one of the largest collections of prehistoric Aboriginal paintings in the world (around 5000 or so). The most ancient of these date back to at least 20,000 years. Something that makes these painting unique is that they show not only the exterior, but also the interior organs of the subjects that were painted (such as hearts, bones etc.). It makes one wonder just why they had to cut up these organisms (hopefully not for something too gruesome or cruel).
Cueva de las Manos
Another extremely impressive group of prehistoric cave paintings are the Cueva de las Manos network of caves near Santa Cruz, Argentina. Meaning “cave of hands” in Spanish, the cave is most famous for the stenciled prints of colored hands that cover its walls. Most of these are of left hands, indicating that the artists were probably using their right hand for the actual painting process. It is believed that theses hand silhouettes were created using some sort of bone-pipe spray paint. What is even more fascinating is the age of the cave’s earliest paintings; most archaeologists date a good number of them between 7500 – 7000 BCE, though a few others place them as far back as 15,000 years ago. Regardless, these paintings demonstrate that the southernmost parts of the Americas were inhabited by humans several millenniums before the first Europeans arrived.
The Bhimbetka Rock Shelters
What are known as Bhimbetka in central India are home to over 600 “rock shelters” covered with prehistoric cave paintings. With the oldest estimated to be around 12,000 years old, these works of Paleolithic-era art depict the daily life of prehistoric India. There are amazing images of the various animals that make up the region, many of which are extinct or at least endangered in India, including tigers, various species of crocodiles, elephants, the sambar deer and various breeds of bison.
Bhimbetka has been inhabited my many groups of people, most recently as by Buddhists as sort of spiritual retreat ground.
Dubbed prehistoric man’s “Sistine Chapel”, the cave complex known as Lascaux is one of the world’s best-known and at one time, most-visited archaeological sites. Located near the small village of Montignac in southwestern France, the paintings in the Lascaux caves are believed to date back to 15,000 BCE. What makes these caves really fascinating is that they are in areas of Lascaux that are completely devoid of natural light; thus, the artists who created these prehistoric masterpieces must have used torches or some sort of primitive candles to create them. The fact that these paintings and drawings were huddled so deep inside the cave leads many to believe that this site was more than just a studio for its creators and probably had some special religious or mystical significance.
Regardless, the site became so popular with tourists that the French government had to close it due to the damage created by them. They later opened a replica of the site nearby so that visitors can at least get some idea of what the original Lascaux caverns are like.
The human paintings that cover the walls of the Altamira cave in northern Spain were literally beyond belief until the turn of the last century. In fact, this was the first cave in which such prehistoric art was discovered. At the time (the mid 18th century), most in the scientific and anthropological community didn’t even believe that they were authentic and accused their discoverer, archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, of creating a forgery. Only several years later in 1902 was de Sautuola’s discovery declared to be the real deal.
Compared to similar types of cave paintings that were uncovered much later, the artwork inside the Altamira Cave is quite detailed in its depiction of upper Paleolithic (later stone age) life.
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