Bison. Copy   (c.12000 BCE )
Maker:  PALEOLITHIC Anonymous (1500000 BCE - 8000 BCE)
Natural pigments
©Kathleen Cohen
California State University IMAGE Project
prehis22.pal01053
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This reproduction of the Altamira cave, created by German artists in a museum, conveys a good idea of how the ceiling might have looked to the Paleolithic people who viewed it by the flickering light of tiny oil lamps.

As we look at the composition, we can see individual animals, but does not seem to be any ground line, or any sense of background or space. In fact, the animals were not painted as a composition at all, but rather individual bison were added gradually over the centuries to create the great tapestry of animals that now seems to cover the ceiling. It is thought that this was done for the same reason that the handprints were concentrated in certain areas. These areas were considered the most sacred so they were used over and over again, even though clean walls were available in much more accessible places.

We have no records of what they did in the caves. However, we know that Paleolithic families did not live there, for no traces of the hearths or garbage dumps associated with early habitations have been found in them. Although more convenient sites were often available near the mouth of the cave, Paleolithic artists invariably chose to work deep within the cave, in sacred sites that were most likely reserved for ceremonials that were related to the hunt.

Based upon his studies of worldwide mythology, Joseph Campbell put forth the idea that the rites practiced in these Paleolithic cave temples were related to the idea of atonement to the animals which must give their lives that the human beings who hunted them might live. Campbell describes the animals painted deep inside the dark caves: "Their herds are the herds, not of time, but of eternity, out of which the animals of the light-world come, and back to which they return for renewal." Campbell expresses his ideas in poetic form, and they reach beyond the one often proposed that the rituals were merely a kind of magic in which hunters threw spears at the depictions of the animals in hopes of striking one during a subsequent hunt.