Monday, December 17, 2012

The Cultural Significance of Cave Art


B. The Cultural Significance of Cave Art:
     The remains of cave art, dated to the Upper Paleolithic period, is indicative of the cultural awareness of its community. Cave art appeared on the scene approximately 40,000 years after the first burial ceremonies were being conducted. Cave art speaks to the cultural climate and what the early homo sapiens found to be significant in their daily experiences.

Climaxing particularly in Western Europe, aesthetic expression was found in animal and human figurines; engravings, bas-reliefs, and paintings on rocks, rock shelters, and caves; delicately flaked willow and laurel leaf blades of rainbow flint; carving and incising of bone necklaces, bracelets, and beads.[i]

     Without going into an exhaustive and detailed explanation of the various art techniques employed within the caves, let us, instead, emphasize what was found to be of importance to the cultural consciousness of the cave dwellers. The cave paintings were located deep within the caves apart from the actual entryway where they lived. Memory had to be functioning in order to recall the animals that were painted; normally the larger animals were depicted in the drawings, and when humans were drawn they were often shown with animal heads. The emergence of this art exhibition lasted over a course of 20,000 years, embracing the Aurignacian to the Magdalenian period.[ii] Paleontologists classify the various cultural artistic expression into four categorizations:
1.                  Aurignacian Culture circa 35,000 years ago.
2.                  Gravettian Culture circa 22,000 to 18,000 years ago.
3.                  Solutrean Culture circa 18,000 to 15,000 years ago.
4.                  Magdalenian Culture circa 15,000 to 8,000 years ago.

      The progression of the conditional form and content of culture is inevitable in the paintings and engravings during the Upper Paleolithic period, extending itself from the Aurignacian to the Magdalenian times. Whether cave art was meant to “enliven and brighten domestic activities,” as suggested by scholars Peter Ucko and Andrée Rosenfeld and cited in Dr. Morgan’s research, or to convey a religious symbology such as an afterlife, one factor is certain:  our early ancestors were seeking meaning in transcendent and historico-temporal validation. Religion and culture intersect at this point and they both “survive and thrive when they nurture each other.” Dr. Morgan writes:

We are who we are by virtue of what we believe and what we do; our religion reflects our transcendent validation and our culture reflects its historical legitimacy. When religion dissipates, the transcendently-validating worldview and ethos decline; and, when religion is in decline, the historical and temporal validity of a people sees the culture fall into shambles as well.[iii] 

     When religion and culture are functioning in a complimentary mode, then culture bears witness to the “emergence of politics, of the Homo politicus of the human animal who is bound to seek to control, manipulate, dominate, cooperate, and nurture in order to survive.”[iv] It seems that this perspective presupposes that only one religious view and one culture is at work here. If this is the case, then religion and culture will work complimentary to each other. On the other hand, if various religions and different cultures are coexisting, then the principal of toleration and mutual respect must be employed, otherwise one will see catastrophic violence emerge since each one will seek to control, manipulate, and dominate the scene; cooperation and nurturing are obliterated when mutual respect and tolerance do not exist in an environment of various religious traditions and cultures. A contemporary example of a clash between religions and cultures is evident in the ongoing crises in the Middle East.


[i]Morgan, “In the Beginning…” 74.

[ii]Tattersall, 13-16.

[iii]Morgan, 81.

[iv]Ibid. 81-82.

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