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 Paleolithic Cave Art


Students of art history tend to be familiar with the images of horses and bison discovered in the famous cave art site in Lascaux, France, in 1940. Less well known but vitally important to understanding Ice Age art and culture is the art discovered by three cave explorers in the Chauvet Cave near Vallon-Pont-d’Arc in southern France in 1994.
The Chauvet Cave hosts one of the largest group of Paleolithic drawings yet discovered on one site, as well as the fossilized remains of a number of now-extinct animals. The art found in the Chauvet Cave differs from that found in most other European cave art sites, which primarily feature prey animals such as horses, bison, wild cattle, and reindeer. The Chauvet paintings include many animals that humans would have feared—panthers, bears, lions, hyenas, and rhinoceroses. While the Chauvet paintings also include many species that would have been hunted by the artists—horses, aurochs, bison, and extinct species of moose and deer—the presence of non-prey animals calls into question a common theory that the primary purpose of cave art was to magically ensure plentiful game. Perhaps the discovery of the Chauvet art points to a shift in emphasis from the hunters’ predators to the hunters’ prey over time, but more evidence is needed.
Carbon-14 dating has established three of the paintings (one bison and two rhinoceroses) as being 31,000 years old. This discovery pushes the common understanding of the date range for European cave art much further back than what had been assumed. It has also clearly disproved theories that earlier cave art was cruder and more primitive because these older images are equally sophisticated in execution.
In addition to the hundreds of animal paintings, the Chauvet Cave also has an image of a being, referred to as the Sorcerer, with the body of a human and the head of a bison. There is also part of an image of a woman. In addition, explorers found the skull of a cave bear placed on a squared-off altarlike rock. The cave had been untouched for thousands of years due to a rock slide that had sealed off the cave; the floor of the cave contains the footprints of humans and cave bears, and fire pits, stone tools, remnants of torches, and bones from meals. After scientists collected data and recorded images, the site was placed off-limits to prevent the damage that has occurred at many other caves known for their rock art.
Ice Age paintings in certain European caves have been extremely well preserved and have reached iconic status because of their beauty and the artists’ skill in execution. As a result, many people assume that the art of early hunters and gathers was limited to cave paintings. While the artwork in the deep caves has been the best preserved, artwork was also done on the walls of rock shelters and on rock faces out in open light. Paleolithic artists not only painted with pigments but also created engravings by scratching designs into rock with pointed tools, as well as creating low-relief sculptures. Often the artists seemed to have seen a suggestion of an animal’s shape in a rock, and then added detail through incising lines, incorporating clay, or applying pigment. In addition to animal images, most sites also have geometrical designs, including dots and quadrangles. Archeologists have also discovered small sculpted figures from the same time period.
Images of hands, created either by wetting the palm of the hand with paint and pressing the hand onto rock or by applying paint around the hand, perhaps by spitting pigment from the mouth, are common. However, full images of humans are rare in the European caves. Images combining human and animal elements such as the Chauvet Cave Sorcerer have been found in various sites as have partial images of women, but portrayals of a full human are few and far between, and they tend to be simple abstract depictions. Most of the animal images, on the other hand, are detailed, realistic portrayals of an individual animal species, not simply an abstract symbol meant to depict an animal such as a horse or bison.

Choose the correct answer. 

1. As compared with the Chauvet Cave, the cave art site in Lascaux is ................
A. more well known
B. more difficult to explore
C. less important

2. The art discovered in the Chauvet Cave differs from other European cave art because ................
A. it includes images of predatory animals
B. it shows images of now-extinct animals
C. it does not include images of horses and bison

3. According to the passage, a common belief about the function of cave art is that ................
A. it was meant to bring animals to be hunted
B. it was used to warn others about the presence of fearsome animals
C. it was intended to drive away predatory animals

4. As compared with other European cave art sites, the art in the Chauvet Cave is ................
A. more sophisticated in subject matter
B. cruder and more primitive
C. significantly older

5. Images found in the Chauvet Cave include ................
A. a part-human, part-animal being
B. a crude map
C. a complete drawing of a woman

6. In addition to art, other discoveries in the Chauvet Cave include ................
A. human bones
B. bison pelts
C. implements made of stone

7. No humans had visited the Chauvet Cave for thousands of years because ................
A. the entrance was blocked by rocks
B. cave bears lived inside it
C. it was declared off limits

Complete the sentences below. Choose NO MORE THAN TWO WORDS from the passage for each answer.

geometrical designs engravings detailed / realistic hands human/full human cave paintings

People often believe that Paleolithic art consisted only of  

Ice Age artists used pointed tools to make   and sculptures on rocks.

As well as pictures of animals,   are common in most sites.

Pictures of   were sometimes made by wetting the palm with paint.

It is unusual to see an image of a   in European cave art.

Rather than being symbolic, paintings of animals are   images.

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