In the beginning, there was only the void. No gods and no art. It is only after millenia passed that the topography transformed and we arrived: the homo sapiens. The homo sapiens were preceded by other branches such as the homo erectus and the homo neanderthalensis.
When the homo sapiens walked the earth, they left their imprints in all the places they passed through. Some left behind open air monuments that were slowly ravaged by time. Some even left behind burial mounds. However, as Reza Aslan writes in his work titled ‘God: A human history’, “nowhere do we come into closer contact with our ancient ancestors-nowhere do they come more fully into focus as human-than inside the spectacularly painted caves that dot the landscape of Europe and Asia like footprints marking the path of their migration.” These rock walls in caves have been etched, marked and painted depicting a myriad of things.
Henri Breuil, known as Abbe Breuil, a French archaeologist, studied the Volp caves in Southern France. He sketched all the images that he found inside the caves by hand. The images that he found are quite far from the cave’s entrance and require a dangerous journey to reach. This has led some to suggest that they must have some sacred significance.
One of the three caves of the Volp caves, called the Les Trois-Freres, consists of a chamber that is covered in black and red dots. This is not a random scattering of dots but they have been painted in a clearly discernible pattern from one chamber to another. Could they have been a form of communication or simply art for art’s sake, we do not know for sure.
Another dark room in the same cave has something that is even more visually striking. The walls are covered in numerous handprints. Reza Aslan writes that the oldest handprints are about 39,000 years old and can be found in Asia, Europe, Australia, Borneo and so on. Red ochre has been used to make them. Either they have been made by dipping hands into the red substance and making a print on the wall or alternatively the hand could have been placed on the wall first and the red substance sprayed on top of it. Could these handprints be some sort of sign language? There is an uncanny similarity in handprints across the globe depicting similar styles and patterns.
Moving further inside the cave, a cacophony of images greets us. The walls are covered with overlapping depictions of horses, reindeer, mammoths and so on. Other creatures seem like a hybrid of humans and animals.
These figures are beautiful works of art that are made making full use of the grooves, crannies, breaks and curves of the rock wall. As Reza Aslan writes, “A curve in the rock becomes an antelope’s thigh. A fissure or a crack serves as the starting point for a reindeer’s antler. Sometimes, all it takes is a little addition- a slash of paint here, a deep groove there-to transform the natural shape of the rock into a mammoth or an ibex.”
However, something truly unique is visible if one walks even further inside the cave. As per Breuil’s description, it is visible if one lifts up their eyes and looks at the ceiling. The figure that has been painted on the ceiling looks like some sort of a hybrid of animals and humans. It has a beard that is long and thick and eyes that look like an owl. The head is adorned with two antlers and the thighs appear to belong to a gazelle. It has a horsetail protruding from its buttocks and the whole figure seems to be lunging towards the left.
Closely studying the figure reveals that it has been drawn, redrawn, painted and repainted several times, perhaps for thousands of years. The whole figure dominates the cave and has a looming presence partly because of its size which is a whopping 2 and a half feet. Henri Breuil was dumbstruck when he first saw the image looming over him.
These hybrid figures are not restricted to this particular cave but are found in caves across Europe and Asia. In a cave called Chauvet in France, a half human/half bison is found etched on a rock. Maxime Aubert, professor of Archaeological Science at Griffith University has pointed out, “To me, the most fascinating aspect of our research is that humanity’s oldest cave art is at least 44,000 years old and it already has all the key components relating to modern cognition, [like] hand stencils, figurative art, storytelling, therianthropes and religious thinking…So it must have a much older origin, possibly in Africa or soon after we left Africa.”
Whatever, their ritual, spiritual or utilitarian significance maybe, what we find striking is their beauty as art.