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Paleolithic Cave Art

Nov - 11 - 2012

Around 40,000 years ago, modern humans (homo sapiens sapiens) migrated from Africa to Europe. Biologically identical with contemporary humans, the migrants had the same physical and mental capacities that we possess, though they lacked the thousands of years of cultural development that are now behind us. They arrived in Europe around the height of the last glacial advance, and learned to survive in the extreme cold by sewing animal skins together into warm clothing, and hunting the migratory herds of reindeer, bison, and other big game animals that roamed Ice Age Europe. The earliest examples of European cave art that have been discovered date back approximately 32,000 years. They already include fine examples of realistic painting, and so must have been preceded by a long-term development of artistic style and technique. Their beauty still moves us more than 30 millennia after they were created. The most recent cave paintings, including some at Lascaux, date back to around 9,000 BCE. At first, the painters created their works at the cave entrances or in very shallow areas. As the millennia progressed, they ventured further, ending in the deepest parts of the caves. In order to get to such depths, they sometimes had to overcome dangerous cave-dwelling felines and bears, break through walls of stalagmites, and even cross underground lakes. Such excursions were made possible by the invention of fat-burning lamps capable of illuminating the total darkness. The incredible effort it took to penetrate into the depths of the earth suggests that the caves were not the equivalent of contemporary art galleries, and that the paintings had a sacred or ritual significance.

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