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Prehistoric Cave Paintings and Religion

R.W. Brockway presents palaeolithic man as an accomplished artist.

By 1900 a modest collection of prehistoric European art mobiles had been gathered and classified as belonging either to the Palaeolithic or Neolithic eras, primaeval periods labelled as such by Sir John Lubbock.1

Later archaeologists added a Mesolithic era in between. The stone figures and engraved fragments of ivory were baffling, because it seemed inconceivable that primitive nomads could have fashioned such objects with so much apparent skill.

The discovery of decorated caves, beginning with Altamira in 1879, had opened new possibilities. At first the bison paintings were dismissed as being of recent vintage, but further discoveries such as Font de Gaume and Les Combarelles in Provence convinced sceptics that Palaeolithic man was an accomplished artist, and that these rock paintings and engravings survived from the Ice Age.

One interpreter, Salomon Reinach, applied Sir James Frazer’s concept of sympathetic magic, and, in 1903, suggested that the paintings were inspired by both hunting and fertility magic.2 His argument was based on the prevalence of food-animals in the paintings and the curious fact that so many of them were found in deep recesses of the caves or in places difficult of access.

The fact that Australian aborigines also painted animals in secret places, and as acts of sympathetic magic, gave strength to his thesis. Reinach also alluded to totemism; concepts that were not mutually exclusive, magic and totemism seemed to be convincing explanations of the paintings.

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