In May 2022, a team of researchers published the details of what is now recognized as the largest known ancient cave art image in the US. The record-breaking cave painting of a nearly 10 feet long serpent-like figure is more than 1,000 years old. The Indigenous Americans that left the etchings on the cave ceiling lived sometime between 660 and 949 C.E.
The scientists who made the discovery arbitrarily called the site the “19th Unnamed Cave” to protect its location from vandals and looters. The cavern in Alabama consists of more than 3 miles of damp passageways with low ceilings and has an entrance that is about 32 feet high and 49 feet wide. Researchers first discovered the existence of cave art at the site in 1998. The cave also contains hundreds of glyphs that are no bigger than 40 inches in size. The engravings that were discovered include swirling lines, abstract shapes, birds, anthropomorphs, insects, and serpents.
Thanks to advances in 3D photogrammetry, the team was able to create photorealistic 3D models of the glyphs in 2017, allowing the team to gain precise measurements of the images. The technology also revealed the details and patterns of the massive glyph, which suggest that the etching is a diamondback rattlesnake. But why did the ancient artists behind the etching create such a massive depiction of the most venomous snake in North America? Was it to warn others that the poisonous viper may be hibernating nearby? Or was the artist boasting about their biggest kill?
The discovery of cave paintings offers us a glimpse into the minds of ancient artists and the period in which they lived. The natural world has always been a source of inspiration for paint, ink, and pencil-wielding humans. Archaeologists believe that cave art has been around for at least 40,000 years, most notably in Europe where over 35,000 works of cave art have been discovered. And consequently, theories about the meanings behind prehistoric cave paintings have circulated for hundreds of years.
Ancient Examples of Artistic Expression
The ancient paintings were believed to have been created for two main reasons: to share stories with other members of the group and to help one another survive. The cave art offered protection from predators and enemies, communication with other members and reminders of what was important in their daily lives. Because animals were often the subject of these paintings, there may have been some magical value that led hunters to believe they would be better at capturing their prey.
The first cave paintings were discovered in Spain and believed to have been painted by the Magdalenian people between 16,000-9,000 BC. The art found in the caves at Altamira are multi-colored paintings of bison. And it is believed that a landslide in 12,000 BCE sealed the cave’s entrance, which helped the preservation of the art. In 1940 in France, boys searching for a lost dog accidentally stumbled upon cave paintings from the Upper Paleolithic period in the Lascaux Cave. The extensive network of caves that extend about 800 feet in length contain about 2,000 images, including animals and geometric shapes. Because the paintings are mostly hunted and eaten animals such as bulls, bison, stags, and horses, analysts have theorized that the paintings and petroglyphs are part of a spiritual ritual. And considering how secluded the locations were, the caves would have served as an isolated sanctuary and been the ideal place to hold religious ceremonies.
After almost 50 years, another significant discovery was made in France. In 1994, a group of speleologists entered caves in Ardèche and found hundreds of animal paintings, depicting familiar herbivores and predatory animals. Beyond the mammoths, horses, bears, cave lions, wooly rhinoceroses, and hyenas, there were also abstract markings. Radiocarbon dating revealed that the caves may have been used by two different periods, though most of the artwork dates to the Aurignacian era, which was about 32,000 to 30,000 years ago.
Without a defined writing system to communicate their beliefs and share their stories, ancient people turned to art. Cavemen would use their fingers to paint on walls, mixing their own spit or ear wax to make the pigment stick. And as humans evolved, so did their art. People started to build their own tools with rocks, twigs, and bird bones and mix their own pigments with natural elements such as plants, charcoal, dirt, red oxide rocks, yellow ochre, animal blood, saliva, and animal fat.
Considering the earliest forms of known alphabetic writing started only four thousand years ago, we assume that the artists used cave art for expression and communication. While the discoveries have been mostly paintings of animals, there are also abstract symbols and shapes — which indicate early forms of a written language.
Another common theme in cave paintings are tracings of hands. Some of these hand stencils show shortened or missing fingers. Some researchers have proposed some gruesome explanations for incomplete hands, implying they’re documentations of ritualistic punishments. Other experts believe that the fingers may simply have been folded to make hand signs – suggesting a form of symbolic communication.
One of the oldest known cave paintings in the world was discovered in the caves of La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales. The cave art dates to 65,000 years ago, making Neanderthals the artists behind the creations. The discovery suggests that Neanderthals were not the “dumb brutes” they have been long believed to be. The motifs found within the caves were simple yet deliberate. Researchers also discovered that the prehistoric artists made their own pigments based on paint residues that date to 115,000 years ago.
Professor of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Southampton Alistair W.G. Pike shared his thoughts on the discovery, saying, “The significance of the painting is not to know that Neanderthals could paint, it’s the fact that they were engaging in symbolism. And that’s probably related to an ability to have language.”
It’s disheartening to recognize that no matter how advanced technology becomes, we may only be able to pinpoint the exact date that these paintings were created. We may know what tools were used to make etchings on the rocks and the sources of prehistoric pigments. But will we ever definitively understand why ancient artists chose their subjects and preferred the deepest, darkest parts of the caves?
Was there some sacred meaning behind their intentions? Or are we overanalyzing activities that could have been made to overcome boredom — similar to how we mindlessly doodle on paper to pass the time? And what if these ancient artists simply chose the hidden depths of the caves because it provided them with a quiet space to work that wouldn’t be interrupted by wild animals and a canvas that would be relatively safe from the elements? Were hunters merely documenting their hunting expeditions so they could show off their conquests?
Whatever the meanings, motivations, and purpose behind ancient cave art, we know this to be true — art as a form of expression and communication is as old as time.