|Illustration: Anna Serrao
What paleolithic cave art suggests about prehistoric humans and their horses
Story by Jackie Wallace
It’s ironic that a dog named Robot is credited with the discovery of the
oldest examples of primitive art, drawings that shine a light back 17,000 years
to reveal the preoccupations of prehistoric humans and their expression of the
world around them.
In 1940, when the caves of Lascaux, France, were revealed, archeologists found
chambers covered in murals, with almost 600 depictions of animals. Stags, ibexes,
bison, bears and birds were all represented, but a quarter of the images were
of horses. The discovery led anthropologists to question the predominance of
horses in paleolithic imagery and their significance in primitive culture. Yet
after decades of studies and theories the answers remain elusive.
For many years, a widely held theory suggested that the drawings were a form
of "hunting magic" — that the figures on cave walls were drawn
as part of a ritual designed to replace the hunted animals or to encourage the
proliferation of herds in order to ensure successful hunts. Now, Randall White,
a professor of anthropology at New York University, says that scientific findings
refute this hypothesis. White, who has studied primitive art in caves across
Europe, including those at Lascaux, contends that the horses’ significance
was metaphorical, rather than as a food source. He points out that analysis of
bone remains found at the caves’ eating sites reveal mainly reindeer bones,
yet no reindeer are depicted on the walls of the caves. And although horses were
hunted occasionally for food, they would not have existed at the time in the
numbers that are represented on the cave walls.
"The frequency of horses also varies between murals and ’portable’ art," White
says, referring to statuettes and three-dimensional art, and engravings and paintings
on flat objects that have been found from the same period. White says he thinks
the horses’ place on the cave walls "suggests their role is a special
Study has also revealed that the sites that show evidence of the everyday life
of prehistoric humans are separate from the caves that house the elaborate murals.
The caves appear to have been a sanctuary, where few people went and painting
was a form of ritual.
White says the metaphorical meaning of the drawings could lie in "anything
about horse behaviour or appearance relating to that of humans, or perhaps to
seasonal changes." Although it is impossible to say what power or attributes
primitive humans ascribed to the horse, these detailed renderings in pigments
of iron and manganese make it clear that the animal was revered.