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Human Faces and Figures are Curiously Absent in Paleolithic Cave Art

April 27, 2019 14 comments

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?