Nature, Reasons and Uses of Prehistoric Art

The narrow range of subjects of prehistoric art which is animal life and fertility as well as the remoteness and inaccessibility of many of the cave paintings, sculpture, and engravings that were discovered give the indication that the works of art were not ‘art for art sake’ thus produced for mere decoration. The prehistoric men and women had far more relevant reasons for producing the artworks. Some of the reasons for their creation are:

1. A means of survival

2. A form of magic to overcome the animals that endangered his life

3. A form of ritual and worship

4. Teaching tools for amateur hunters

5. Recording information and narrating stories

6. Fertility charm

• As a means of survival

The predominance of animals in the various prehistoric arts, thus paintings, sculpture, engravings and pottery indicates the importance of animals in those societies. In fact, the entire survival and sustenance of the lives of the cave men and women depended largely on animals. The representation of the images of the animals in painting, engraving, and sculpture was a form of charm or magic that ensured successful hunting of the wild and ferocious animals in the deep caverns and thick forest. The points below highlights how the animals hunted were used in meeting the basic necessities of life by the prehistoric men and women:

1. The fleshy parts or meat of the hunted animals were eaten as food.

2. The outer coverings or skins of the animals, the feathers of large birds and the furs of mammals were worn on the body as a form of cloth for protection against the harsh climatic or weather conditions.

3. The fats and marrows accrued from the animals were used as fuel in the lamps produced from stone or clay.

4. The fats of the animals and their blood were used for producing coloured pigments and binders for coloured ochres from rocks.

5. The bones of the animals were used for the production of simple weapons for hunting activities and as palettes for the mixing of paints.

6. Aside the caves which served as the primary shelter for the cave men and women, they made tents from animal skins and huts out of mud, plant fibres, stone and bone.

• As a form of magic to overcome the animals that endangered his life

The prehistoric men were hunters and dependent largely on animals for their survival.

However, most of these animals were ferocious and wild. Hunting for these animals was very risky because they hunted these animals with simple weapons, tools or implements. Owing to this, the prehistoric men and women resorted to a kind of practical magic known as sympathetic magic or hunting magic. This hunting magic was based on the belief of the cave man that a close bond or link existed between an object and its image. Therefore, anything done to the drawn image was believed to affect the soul of the live animal.

In achieving this, the cave man deliberately omitted some sensitive parts of the images of the animal to be hunted such as the eyes, ears and nose. It was believed that this prevented the live animal from seeing, hearing or smelling the presence of the cave man in the eve of hunting. Sometimes, arrows were drawn pierced into the bodies of the images. The cave man believed that this would ultimately render the animal powerless or wounded bringing the animal under their control. The sympathetic magic was to ensure success in capturing or killing the animal. Fresh or new paintings were made for another day’s hunt. This gave birth to the numerous cave paintings, engravings and sculpture.

• As a form of ritual, worship and initiation rites

The images of the animals confined on the surfaces or walls of the caves were believed to be objects of worship on which rituals for success in hunting activities were performed. Special dances are believed to have been performed around the images for a good day’s hunt. During initiation ceremonies for young ones who were living in those communities, images of the animals were used in the rituals.

• As teaching tools for amateur hunters

The images of the animals served as teaching aids to instruct new hunters about the character of the various species they would meet when they engage in a hunt. It is asserted that experienced cave hunters may have used the images to point out parts of each species of animals to be targeted with the spears by first timers so that hunting will not be a strenuous task for them.

• As a means for recording information and narrating stories

Paintings and engravings of a group or herd of animals were used in recording animal migrations throughout the passing seasons. Some animal compositions like the composition of rhinoceros, a wounded man and a bison found in the Lascaux cave in Dordogne in France was believed to narrate a tale of a hunt or a heroic man’s death. Most of the compositions in the numerous cave paintings were believed to have been the prehistoric man’s means of recording events and situations experienced in his hunting activities since there was no written form of recording events.

• As a fertility charm

The female sculptural figures discovered in the caves were believed to be fertility goddesses responsible for childbirth and the fertility of the soil. An example is the ‘Venus of Willendorf’. They stress a potent fertility. Emphasis is placed on the figure’s reproductive qualities: Exaggerated or big breasts, thighs, hips, stomach and buttocks with tiny arms and legs. Scholars refer to them as ‘Venuses’ because they were viewed as sexual objects to the prehistoric men. Moreover, in terms of function and form representation they were similar to Venus, the Roman version of the Greek goddess Aphrodite who was portrayed as nude. These figures were believed to charge barren cave women with fertility potent. They were also consulted through rituals to ensure the fertility of the land when the prehistoric men and women started agricultural activities in the Neolithic period.

The prehistoric men and women were great thinkers and philosophers who had powerful reasons for their creative creation which is now serving as the foundations for the arts of today. They must be learnt and appreciated.

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