August 2012


What Is "Cave Art"?
When Scientists Presume to Know

by Louis Torres

According to a recent study published in the journal Science, new methods of dating prehistoric remains reveal that "cave art" was being created as much as 40,000 years ago--much earlier than previously thought. "It cannot be ruled out that the earliest paintings were symbolic expressions of the Neanderthals," the authors argue. What did this earliest "art" consist of? Items such as the following (these images are not taken from the article itself): red disks, stenciled handprints, claviform signs, (1) and "geometric patterns" [more] [more].

As quoted in the New York Times by the eminent science writer John Noble Wilford ("With Science, New Portrait of the Cave Artist," June 14), the authors of the study--who include an archaeologist, a geochronologist, a paleoanthropologist, and a prehistorian who is a Neanderthal specialist--note that this early Paleolithic "cave art" is "nonfigurative . . . , supporting the notion that the earliest expression of art in Western Europe was [not] concerned with animal depiction." In Wilford's words, "The more stunning murals of bison and horses came gradually, later." See, for example, these images of bison and horses from Lascaux, dated to approximately 16,000 years ago. Of course they are "more stunning"--they are art.

Commenting on the possibility that the older finds may have been created by Neanderthals rather than Homo sapiens, Wilford observes: "Until recently, archaeologists usually saw Neanderthals as incapable of creating artistic works much beyond simple abstract markings and personal ornamentation." But aren't such "simple abstract markings" mainly what we have here? Even the stenciled handprints (created by blowing pigment around a hand placed on the wall), while not abstract, scarcely qualify as an "artistic" depiction--much less as one on a par with the later profusion of awe-inspiring animal images.

If prehistoric disks and geometric patterns are symbols on the other hand, they still do not qualify as art. Unlike symbols, which merely stand for something else, works of art embody what is represented in a highly personal way. In contrast with symbols (which are standardized, conventional signs), each and every detail of a work of art is determined by what and how the artist thinks and feels about his subject. A caduceus--the symbol long used to represent the practice of medicine)--for example, is not art. A painting of a doctor practicing medicine at the bedside of a child is. (The moving story of what led the English painter and illustrator Sir Luke Fildes to choose the subject and to conceive it as he did --he titled it, simply, The Doctor--is related by the Tate Museum, which owns the painting. (2))

Why is there so much confusion in talk about "cave art"? Since today's cultural establishment regards modern "abstract art" as an advanced form of expression, paleoscientists and reporters alike naturally (if mistakenly, in my view) tend to treat anything that resembles it as art. Another recent study prompts one writer to argue, for example, that "a colorful pebble bearing a sequence of linear incisions" may not only be the world's oldest "engraving," it may also "be the world's oldest known abstract art." (3)

As prudently noted by two philosophers in a recent article in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism ("A Cognitive Approach to the Earliest Art," Fall 2011), linear incisions of this kind are not necessarily evidence of symbolic behavior. They may be the mere equivalent of mindless doodling or the by-product of scraping the stone for some practical purpose. Yet these same authors speculate whether some prehistoric patterns of straight lines may have "appeal[ed] aesthetically to Paleolithic people, as they did to more recent artists like Mondrian [Composition in Blue and White, 1935] or Malevich [Suprematist Painting, 1915-16." (4)

Those authors also report that "among archaeologists, the presence of figurative art is universally regarded as evidence for symbolically mediated behavior" but that "there is more controversy about the symbolic meaning of nonfigurative designs." As one prominent cognitive archaeologist, David Lewis-Williams, has argued, for example, "we need to break down the comprehensive, ragbag word 'art' and to distinguish between different kinds of visual arts." (5) In his view, image-making "demands mental abilities and conventions of a different, more 'advanced' order" from nonfigurative body decoration--and by implication, I would argue, from nonfigurative cave markings or decoration. (6)

Archaeologists and other scientists specializing in prehistory who maintain that nonfigurative cave markings of any sort are "art" violate the fundamental tenet of science--objectivity. As philosopher Lionel Ruby argued more than half a century ago (when strict "criteria, or 'rules,' to which . . . adequate . . . definition[s] must conform" were still in vogue): "[I]f we desire to avoid obfuscation and discussions which move at cross-purposes, we must give definite and precise meanings to our terms." He stressed that this was especially difficult to do regarding controversial terms such as "art." (7) Nonetheless, as he observed, constructing "adequate" definitions is in some instances necessary. Fixing the date of the earliest "cave art" would seem to be one such instance.


1. Claviform (club-shaped) signs occur in many painted caves, but their meaning is unknown.

2. A quite different perspective on Fildes's painting was offered in 1913 by the influential British critic Clive Bell--who declared The Doctor was "not a work of art," because of what he deemed to be its sentimental subject matter. Not surprising for someone who also held that representation in art is "irrelevant," and that "to appreciate a work of art we need bring with us nothing from life, no knowledge of its ideas and affairs, no familiarity with its emotions" (Bell, "The Aesthetic Hypothesis"; reprinted online as "Art and Significant Form" by the late Denis Dutton).

3. Jennifer Viegas, "Stone Age Pebble Holds Mysterious Meaning, Discovery News, February 23, 2012; reporting on a paper in the April 2012 issue of the Journal of Archaeology.

4. Johan de Smedt and Helen de Cruz, "A Cognitive Approach to the Earliest Art," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Fall 2011, p. 387.

5. David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2002), p. 89.

6. Thanks to Michelle Kamhi for calling my attention to the article from the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism and the ideas of cognitive archeologist David Lewis-Williams.

7. Ruby, Logic: An Introduction (1950), quoted in Chapter 6, "The Definition of Art," What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand.