The earliest known examples of Stone Age paintings were discovered by the daughter of amateur archeologist Marcelino S. de Sautuola during the summer of 1879 the cave of Altamira, Santillana del Mar on the north coast of Spain.

His 12-year-old daughter, Maria, is said to have shouted "Toros! Toros! Papa, come quickly!" and Don Marcelino rushed to her and was astonished to find a beautiful painting of what Maria thought was a bull painted on the ceiling in shades of brown, red, yellow and black.

In fact, the 60-by-30-foot ceiling was crowded with the shaggy bison-17 of them, in incredibly lifelike poses, standing, pawing the ground, lying down, curled in sleep, bel­lowing, rolling in the dust or pierced with spears- amid ferociously charging wild boars, a horse, a trem­bling doe and a wolf.

Exploring farther into the labyrinth, Sautuola found dozens of other painted and engraved animals, including great-antlered stags, giant cattle, a cave lion and a woolly mammoth.

Altamira CavesThis discovery at Altamira was to fling open the door on an unsuspected era of human history. Don Mar­celino concluded that the cave animals were ancient. Most of the animals so vividly depicted were either long since extinct or had disappeared as natives of western Europe centuries before.

Artifacts that he had dug out at the cave's entrance on prior visits dated from the Paleolithic Era-the Old Stone Age-which ended with the melting of the last great glaciers around 10,000 b.c.

He described his discovery, and showed reproduc­tions of the cave paintings, at a meeting called by archeologists in Lisbon in 1880. The Lisbon congress immediately branded the cave paintings forgeries. Never, asserted the learned men, could such sensitive art have been created by savages scarcely above the level of apes.

Sautuola was accused of having painted the pictures himself, perhaps as a plot to discredit the "new science" of prehistory. Sautuola died an object of ridicule in 1888.

Sautuola's vindication was not long in coming, how­ever. In the years following his death, similar discov­eries of prehistoric art and artifacts were made at a number of other sites. In 1902, young Abbé Henri Breuil, who was to win fame as the "priest of the painted caves," visited Altamira. There, petrified animal bones bearing engraved pictures of animals on them, undisturbed for millennia and almost identical to the figures on the ceiling, had been uncovered on the floor. The authenticity of the murals could no longer be doubted. The Abbé hailed Altamira as the "Sistine Chapel of prehistoric art."

In the following decades hundreds of other grot­toes decorated with Old Stone Age paintings, engrav­ings and sculptures were discovered in northern Spain, the French Pyrenees and the Dordogne region of southern France, along with a few in southern Italy and the Ural Mountains, which lie between Europe and Asia. Nowhere, however, did the paintings look as fresh or compare in grandeur with the masterpieces of Alta­mira.

In 1940 a group of schoolboys near Lascaux, in France, discovered a cavern that proved to hold a veritable menagerie of prehistoric beasts. Among the lively figures in this Louvre of Paleolithic art are pro­digious bulls 13 to 17 feet long, galloping ponies, a magnificent frieze of antlered stags which seem to be swimming across a river, exquisite yellow-and-black "Chinese horses" (so called because they resemble those of the Tang dynasty), giant elk with surrealistic ant­lers and a mythical monster with what looks like the body of a pregnant hippopotamus but with long, straight horns jutting from its square head (it had been called "The Unicorn").

In striking contrast to the superbly rendered animals are the crude portrayals of the human form. With only a few known exceptions-important because they demon­strate that the cave artists were not simply incapable of drawing the human form accurately-the men are de­picted in the most rudimentary caricatures, their fig­ures nothing more than scrawls comparable to the work of small children. One interpretation is that the realistic depiction of the human form was banned by a power­ful religious taboo.

Despite many years of intense study, and the use of every technique known to science, archeologists can answer with confidence only a few questions about cave art and the people who created it. The answers they have arrived at, however, are startling.


How old is Europe's cave art?

Although the various cave murals resemble each other so closely in style and feeling as to represent a recognizable "school," radio­carbon tests show that they were put on the walls at different times between 30,000 and 10,000 b.c.-a span about four times longer than all of written history!

During the earliest eras most of the murals were crudely done. But later on enough attention was paid to detail so that modern zoologists can refer to some of the figures as anatomical charts when they reconstruct extinct beasts from fossil bones. Cave painters under­went one period reminiscent of Picasso, during which an animal's horns were shown front view, although its head was in profile, and the ears might be stuck on the cheek, neck or wherever else the artist fancied.


Who were the cave artists?

The predominant inhab­itants of western Europe at the time were Cro-Magnon men. Cro-Magnon man belongs to the same species as modern man, Homo sapiens. His name derives from the Cro-Magnon rock shelter in the Dordogne re­gion of France, where his remains were first uncov­ered in 1868.

The Cro-Magnon people were generally-smaller than we are, with straight limbs and high foreheads. Wearing animal skins as clothing, they were hunters and fishermen and gatherers of fruits, berries and shellfish; they had not yet learned to plant crops or domesticate cattle. They probably did not know how either to ride horses or use them as beasts of burden. Although the climate was cold and life in this environment was often brutal and short (re­mains indicate that few men reached 50, or women 35), the Cro-Magnons are believed to have been people of superior sensitivity and intelligence, if only on the basis of their cave art. Their songs, dances and culture may have been as remarkable as their visual art. Archeological evidence suggests that they believed in life after death since they placed food and tools in graves to accompany the deceased on their journeys. They may have believed that animals had souls too; for example, in one cave, an engraving shows a small horse leaping out of a larger one which is dying of a spear thrust.

Cave art in Borneo


Why were these works of art made?

Archeologists tend to agree that cave art had serious religious pur­poses. Since hunting large animals was a formidable task for men armed only with primitive weapons, ex­perts surmise that prehistoric man developed a highly complicated ritual of "sympathetic magic" intended to cast a spell over the beasts that were his quarry. The most potent magic may have entailed painting or en­graving a picture of the beast-in the belief that once its likeness was captured on a cave wall, it could no longer resist man's power. By thus capturing the crea­ture's spirit in a painting, the artist might also acquire an animal's outstanding physical characteristics: speed of foot, if the image were of a horse or deer; strength, if it were a bison or mammoth; courage, if a wild boar or lion. What's more, the artist might impale the beast with a painted spear to assure success in the hunt, and also employ the figure as an instructional chart to show young hunters the animal's vulnerable points.

Since shortages of game animals must have frequently threatened the food supply, many archeologists theorize that a principal function of the paintings was to increase the fecundity of the herds; hence, the curious designs that surround many of them may be fertility symbols.


How did the artists work?

Frequently, the first step was to engrave the outline of the figure on the cave wall with a pointed piece of flint before coloring it in. Paleolithic painters had no green or blue pigments in their palettes. Black and violet pigments, though, were readily available from earth containing manganese ox­ides. Black pigments from charcoal and the soot of burnt fat may have been used. The brown, red, orange and yellow hues came from iron ore, which Paleolithic man ground to powder between stones, then mixed with animal blood, plant juices or animal fat, to make paints.

The paints were laid on thickly in a variety of ways: By finger; with brushes made of fur, feathers, or the chewed ends of twigs; with pads of lichen and moss; or by blowing the pigments onto the walls through hollow reeds or animal bones. Sometimes the ocher was mixed with tallow and rolled into slender crayons, the remnants of which have been found at Altamira.

The Cro-Magnon artist often achieved three-dimen­sional effects by taking advantage of the contours of the cave surface. A small natural hole in the rock might be converted into a glaring eye; or a larger nick in the rock might be limned in red to represent a wound. Odd-shaped bulges were made into animal heads, humps or haunches, and stalagmites into legs.

But whether rendered flat or in relief, the figures are usually painted in bold, sure strokes, with few signs of modification or correction. Indeed, some prehistoric artists may have gone to school to learn their craft. In Limeuil, in southwestern France, 137 stone sketch sheets have been found, many of them poorly executed, with the details corrected as if by a teacher's hand.


How did these ancient works of art manage to sur­vive to this day?

The answer is that the majority didn't. Those that have endured have all been found in dark caves in which the temperature and humidity remain constant, the ventilation is good but not excessive, the moisture content of the air just sufficient to keep the colors from drying out and scaling off. The grease paint applied thousands of years ago to some figures can still be smudged by a rub of one's finger. Most important is that the entrances of these caves were sealed off by rockfalls in ages past, thus protecting them from any damage by intruding people. (The perspiration, body heat and micro-organisms recently brought into the Lascaux cavern by thousands of visi­tors, plus the use of electric lights, did more damage to its paintings in 15 years than they had suffered in the previous 15,000. As a result, Lascaux was closed to the public in 1963.)

Actually, much of the credit for the preservation of cave art must go to the artists themselves. For their works, even in prehistoric times, were probably not in­tended to be seen by the general public. The caves, or at least those locations in which the art appears, are be­lieved to have been religious sanctuaries. As such, they are generally difficult and often dangerous to reach.

Furthermore, the artists frequently went to inordinate lengths to place the murals in inaccessible places. For instance, the splendid rhinoceros and mammoth paint­ings and engravings of Rouffignac, in France, are just over a mile from the mouth of the cave. And there are murals and engravings in Font-de-Gaume (also in France) at the end of a twisting tunnel so narrow that they can be seen only by a thin person pulling themselves forward on their stomach.

With the withdrawal of the last great glaciers, around 10,000 b.c., Paleolithic cave art seems to have come to an abrupt end. Presumably, as the tempera­tures rose, the people moved out of the warm caverns into wooden shelters along rivers and lakes. Thereafter they learned to cultivate crops and to domesticate ani­mals, gradually losing their dependence on wild game for food. Thus it was no longer necessary to appease the spirits of the caves, where man had once sought shelter from the harsh elements and many of the ani­mals still hibernated. By the time the first traders from the eastern Mediterranean reached western Europe, around 1500-1800 b.c., the most recent cave paintings were some 9000 years old. The skills, the styles and the inspiration that had created them were already forgot­ten. The first and one of the greatest eras of artistic expression had passed forever.


Cave Art of Asia

As humans, or their predecessors, spread across Asia they also created cave art, even as far away as Borneo in Indonesia. In fact their are painting on rocks and the walls of caves in Mongolia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Burma, and perhaps more that have yet to be discovered? The dates of these painting range from about 10,00 years old to 40,000 years old, with famous examples being hand paintings of Indonesia's Tree of Life (Gua Tewet) in Borneo and an ancient image of a shark above a the entrance  of the Tabon Caves in the Philippines.