Home > Critical Thinking, Current Affairs, Dystopia, Musings, Philosophy sans Sophistry, Reason, Secular Religions, Skepticism > Human Faces and Figures are Curiously Absent in Paleolithic Cave Art

Human Faces and Figures are Curiously Absent in Paleolithic Cave Art

One effect of being interested in many subjects, beyond my area of credentialed expertise, is that I can often see the big picture and ask questions which few people who make a living in those fields will seldom ask- let alone attempt to answer. To be clear.. I am not implying that all these people are dumb automatons, incapable of asking difficult questions whose answers might not fit within the prevailing dogma of their field. However, it is equally clear to me to that people who derive their living from working in a job will almost never ask questions which might expose them as potential heretics or disruptors of established hierarchies. The practice of science, you see, is far more like religion than most would like to admit- but that is a topic for another day.

Getting back to the focus of this topic, have you noticed something peculiar about cave art or to be specific- by its absence. Cave art from the Paleolithic age and Mesolithic age (basically older and younger stone age) is found all over the world. Heck, there is evidence that Neanderthals drew on cave walls before modern humans. A number of well-preserved large caves in western and central Europe contain hundreds and sometime thousands of reasonably accurate sketches of a wide range prehistoric animals ranging from Aurochs, Wild Horses, Extinct species of Deer, Woolly Rhinos, Cave Lions, Mammoths and still-living animal species. In fact, the quality of cave art is good enough to correctly depict the relative size and posture of now-extinct animals such as the Woolly Rhino, Genyornis etc or the rather unique coat colors of prehistoric wild horses.

And yet.. there is one animal which is almost completely missing from these elaborate and often colored sketches. Almost every single of the very sparse representations of human beings in cave art take the form of very basic stick figures, something resembling a man or woman wearing animal skins or some truly weird ‘grey alien’ like creatures. But why is that so? From the bronze age onward, most art focuses on human beings- but why is that not the case in upper or lower stone ages. Why didn’t human cave artists who could easily make fairly accurate sketches of wild animals, not do the same for those around them? Furthermore, the lack of well-drawn human figures seems to be a universal phenomena before the bronze age. Cave art from western Europe, Africa, Middle East, India, Americas and Australia consistently depict humans as stick figures while simultaneously putting considerable effort into sketching animals.

Even more oddly, painting the outline of human hands is very common and geographically widespread in cave art. My point is that people did not have taboos against representing at least some parts of a human being in non-schematic manner. But why don’t we find cave portraits of contemporary human beings.. maybe some powerful chieftain or some bodacious babe? Why don’t we find cave art of humans having sex, even when there are multiple instances of cave art which shows copulating mammals. Why are the subjects of stone age cave art so different from those in all art made after the bronze or copper age began? What changed in the human mind after people started using metals and farming the same plots of lands, year after year. And yes, I am aware of some researchers who claim that a few poorly scratched-out reliefs in a few caves represent human faces. The question still remains- why did cave artists spend so much effort drawing wild animals accurately while simultaneously ignoring far easier subjects around them.

What do you think? Comments?

  1. nyolci
    April 27, 2019 at 10:46 pm

    I don’t say the following is an adequate explanation… So there were obvious differences in society between say the Bronze Age and the age when the cave paintings were made. Up to the late Neolithic society looks pretty egalitarian. Up to a certain age there were no powerful chieftains. Apparently there were no chieftains in the sense we imagine at all. Even quite developed Neolithic societies like Catal Hüyük doesn’t show any sign of social stratification. There’s no obvious difference in wealth between individual households, they look alike. Early Tripolye (Ukraine) perhaps had the largest towns in the Neolithic up to that time, perhaps 10 thousand people in single places, but without any sign of stratification. (Late Tripolye was probably taken over by the early Indo-Europeans, whose innovation (among others) were some kind of chieftain system.)

    Another thing to consider is that what we deem depiction of humans are mostly depiction of gods or humans elevated to the level of gods, or battle scenes. Portrait making or depiction of everyday activity is rather a new phenomenon, prevalent perhaps from the second millenium BC.

    Another thing is that cave art is thought to be used in education, in a time when hunting was very important, and there were no zoos. Actually painting a good picture is a demanding and time consuming task, and it had to be done in free time, there were no separate artists, artisans. In a sense painting should’ve been efficient, ie. paint what is necessary. Even in later times when work specialization is obvious with separate artisans, good art was expensive. Even in the most developed Roman times, it took 100 peasants to support a single non peasant whether he is an artisan or the landlord.

  2. Don
    April 27, 2019 at 11:23 pm

    Sex wasn’t taboo enough to make porn. Everyone had it enough. Make sense as those were forced egalitarian cultures.

  3. doldrom
    April 28, 2019 at 7:47 am

    Very interesting question. No idea…
    The comments so far, even if true, don’t go very far as an explanation to my mind.

  4. April 28, 2019 at 9:29 am

    My first thought (maybe not a sufficient explanation) is that a convincing depiction of humans would be perceived by the early religious mind as one form or another of creepy voodoo with supernatural consequences, usually bad ones. It takes subsequent cultural development to overcome the creepiness factor.

    There are some indigenous cultures which spontaneously perceive photography to be evil magic and exhibit a strong revulsion to being photographed. The photograph ‘steals your soul’ or similar.

    Then — I don’t understand it fully and may be misremembering details, but take note that one of the most ancient civilizations (Egypt) depicted people in the context of burial rites, to try to guarantee a pharaoh or noble a pleasant afterlife by depicting the details, or by making statues of people that would be their servants, or by preserving the soul by putting it in a sarcophagus with an idealized depiction of the person on the front, and so forth. This was creepy voodoo with a positive purpose. But then the burial places had to be hidden or defended since logically damaging the depictions (or erasing the name — writing is a whole different type of voodoo) would then damage the soul.

    More recent literature plays on this element of psychology and the intuition that the person and his representation are linked and that idea can be really creepy. For example, ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’. Or Gogol’s short story (“The Portrait”) about a moneylender who tries to have his soul preserved in a painting, but the painter gets so creeped out at the painting gradually coming to life that he stops halfway.

    Then there is the long history of iconography and the debates over its purpose in different religions.

    Only after human imagery has been used for a while for specific religious/cult purposes does a culture become sufficiently desensitized to the idea of a portrait that they don’t find anything weird about drawing portraits or taking photos for purely utilitarian or documentary purposes.

    There may be something to this intuition in that celebrities whose images are constantly multiplied everywhere also happen to be observably more nuts than normal people. This could be explained supernaturally or it could be explained in sociological terms.

  5. Rum
    April 28, 2019 at 11:08 am

    The population in Europe during the older dates mentioned might have been substantially closer to pure Neanderthals – with whom they had recently been “inter-marrying.” N.s had very large eyes and occipital cortexs compared to other all human sub-species. In other words, they had passed on genes for seeing better than moderns deep in a cave. That itself might explain a lot of this.

    Also, some really deep in the dark works of art might well have been from pure N.s. No one today doubts they did these sorts of things.

    To me, the very fact that a 50% Neanderthal baby could be successfully raised in tribe of pure Ns or pure whoever else was around means they could not have been so different. Making a pregnancy is one thing, raising a functional adult who could fit into a tribe is quite a bit more evidence of compatibilty.

  6. Conscience Constituent
    April 29, 2019 at 12:00 pm

    AD as you probably know Slavoj Žižek is a renowned intellectual, i wanted to bring to your attention the videos of conferences made by a renowned left wing accademic called Slavoj Žižek ,some of the things he says in his conferences show that he has very little compassion for men.

    This video is an excellent example,he endorses compulsory military service and shits on the new generation of men calling them perpetual adolescents,says that young men,unless their relationship has severe problem they stick with the first girl they get with(while women are told to experiment,enjoy a variety of different partners and the fun that comes with that,ecc…).

    Some of the things he says in these ones are cringeworthy as well.

    Can you tell us your opinion on him running his stupid mouth?

    • P Ray
      May 2, 2019 at 9:49 pm

      This video is an excellent example,he endorses compulsory military service and shits on the new generation of men calling them perpetual adolescents,says that young men,unless their relationship has severe problem they stick with the first girl they get with(while women are told to experiment,enjoy a variety of different partners and the fun that comes with that,ecc…).

      Many of these old timer philosophers, had plenty of fun taking drugs, dodging the draft and somehow wheedled their way into academia with incoherent or unsubstantiated theses, usually based around wild ideas or “guesses”. They probably also fucked their students, like Hugo Schwyzer

      The stupid people are the ones who listen to them.

  7. altostack
    May 2, 2019 at 4:03 pm

    Talking about prehistoric cavemens, the ramadan has started for the goatfuckers that call themselves “muslims” (slaves basically).

    The members of this satanic sect have beliefs that are more archaic than prehistoric men.

    So here is a praise for them:

    I piss and shit on your fake prophet, the paedophile, psychopath sick fuck mohamed.

    I piss and shit on your wipe arse book the koran that was written by inferior beings and sociopaths.

    I will burn a koran veryday this month to annoy the satanic sect of islam and I will eat pork, dance, fart and sing in front of those who fast.

    For ramadan, go fuck yourselves miserable pieces of muslim shit.

    • P Ray
      May 2, 2019 at 9:45 pm

      Among the reasons people like to post material that is extremely inflammatory, and extremely descriptive in depravity …

      1. trying to “out-alpha” others, show how “blunt” you can be.

      2. on a dare that someone put you up to.

      3. trying to get a blog banned, without actually saying it (if there is a sudden jump in page views, that could be a prelude to the ban).

      P.S. It’s great to be a keyboard warrior, but what change have you actually made in the world?

      • plus d'un cafard
        July 1, 2019 at 10:54 am

        Altostack and Barbara below do not even pass the Turing test as far as I am concerned.

        Trump’s election has showed the power of internet campaigns, and now bots or paid shills are everywhere, with barely any effort at subtlety. AD also has this redeeming quality of having genuinely original thoughts, and that makes this blog a small (?) upstream source of the worldwide meme rivers, and a target for any company contracted to manipulate the internet “noosphere”.

  8. Barbara Ehrenreich
    June 15, 2019 at 12:17 pm

    I have a potential answer re the faceless cave art figures.

    Care to share it with us?

  9. P Ray
    June 28, 2019 at 10:46 pm

    Related to the idea of human faces …
    if you had watched a lot of American movies, you’d think that this is Anna Kendrick (or Jessie Vard) … nope, it’s an Uyghur girl.

    Really means that the palette of human faces, also has a definite limit. The variation is finite.

    • plus d'un cafard
      July 1, 2019 at 11:01 am

      Perhaps a descendant of the Tocharians, that people the Han do not seem to like much. Blonde girls or green-eyed legendary heroes likewise pose a problem to racial/national pride.

  10. plus d'un cafard
    July 1, 2019 at 11:12 am

    I am currently reading Julian Jaynes’ “The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind”, and I’ll try not to massacre the idea of the book too much: the author argues that old humans (up to around when the Iliad was written) were essentially schizophrenic, and they could literally hear their gods. One brain hemisphere giving orders to the other; the “bicameral mind” in action.

    Consciousness (the ability to think “I” and narrate our thoughts and decisions from that point of view) would have appeared when that nice arrangement in our brain started to break and our egos took the place of the gods in our heads.

    Most schizophrenics have great difficulty in drawing the human figure with any accuracy.

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