Nov. 16, 2011 --
Reaching back tens of thousands of years into human history, cave paintings, petroglyphs and other forms of ancient art, such as the one seen above, show the roots of our innate desire for self-expression. But exactly who were the Stone-Age artists whose hands collectively painted, molded or carved what remains of their efforts today? In this slideshow, explore what we know about the artists behind some of the longest-lasting examples of human creativity ever found.
The Cro-Magnon painters who left behind the images still present in Lascaux cave in France may have had the souls of artists, but they were also athletes compared to modern humans. These ancient Homo sapiens were stronger than their modern descendants. They also had bigger brains. Our brains are actually smaller by about 10 percent, or the size of a tennis ball. Although a larger brain may seem the hallmark of a more intelligent animal, researchers believe that a smaller brain is part of an evolutionary process to make our minds leaner and more efficient.
Stone Age cave painters were realists, painting what they saw, rather than what they imagined, according to a study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Paintings adorning cave walls in France frequently depict horses. In some cases, the animals have leopard spots on their bodies. Until this study, however, scientists only had evidence to support the existence of one-colored horses. Using bones and teeth from more than 30 horses dating back as many as 35,000 years, researchers determined that these animals "shared a gene associated with a type of leopard spotting seen in modern horses," according to an AFP report on the findings.
Cave paintings may not have the same production values as the average Hollywood blockbuster, but you could say that these artworks were the original silent pictures. Paintings were often laid out in scenes to tell a story. Researchers believe that flute music would have accompanied an art display -- music that we can no longer hear and have no real conception of how it sounded. Flutes made of bone were found by a University of Paris researcher in a cave filled with Stone Age paintings on its walls. The most acoustically resonant part of the cave also happened to be the spot with the highest concentration of artwork, according to a report in Science Daily.
NEWS: PREHISTORIC HUMANS TOOK IN ART SHOWS
Women and girls were key contributors to Stone Age art. Flutings -- finger etchings constructed together to form a recognizable shape, such as an animal, or an abstract pattern -- found on the walls of Rouffignac Cave in the Dordogne, France, reveal that women and girls were the likely artists behind many of the works that are still there today. Researcher Leslie Van Gelder was able to make this determination based on the locations of the flutings in the cave (etchings made closer to the ground were more likely done by children) and the ratio of the size of the index finger and the ring finger. In men, the ring finger tends to be longer, but in women, the digits are often the same size or the index finger is longer.
Before these cave painters could move into their respective studios, some of them had to evict existing tenants. In two French caves containing paintings dating back around 32,000 years ago, ancient humans displaced cave bears in order to claim the sites for themselves, according to a study published in April in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Cave bears even appear on some of the art on the walls. Researchers came to this determination after they "performed radiocarbon dating, mitochondrial DNA analysis and isotope investigations of cave bear remains from Chauvet-Pont d'Arc and Deux-Ouvertures caves located along the Ardeche River in France," according to Discovery News' Jennifer Viegas. Whether humans are responsible for the broader cave-bear extinction in the region is still unclear. Environmental and/or climatic changes may have also played a role.
Why ancient cave painters took to their craft, particularly when the practice was adopted over thousands of years and across different populations, is still a mystery. Many archaeologists initially believe that the paintings were expressions of creativity or at least simply decorative. However, anthropologists examining the paintings contend that Stone Age art may have been the product of religious beliefs, as explained in a 2010 study published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology. The paintings, then, might be what remains of early shaman-based religions. The images produced could be the result of visions by these holy individuals during religious rituals.