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Finding Pictures and Meaning in Rock Art

On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the cave paintings in Lascaux, France, experts from around the world are gathered this week at the Park of Prehistory in the Pyrenees to discuss the beautiful and enigmatic remnants of the world of prehistoric art. National Geographic Digital Media’s Andrew Howley continues blogging...

On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the cave paintings in Lascaux, France, experts from around the world are gathered this week at the Park of Prehistory in the Pyrenees to discuss the beautiful and enigmatic remnants of the world of prehistoric art. National Geographic Digital Media’s Andrew Howley continues blogging from the event.

Tarascon-sur-Ariège, France–Day 2 of the 2010 IFRAO conference on paleolithic art around the world was in many ways like the moment when you step into a cave you’ve spotted and see inside for the first time. The broad topics of yesterday that formed the walls of this cave now started to show the many curves and hollows, stalactites and stalagmites of particular theories and tools for understanding it all better.

The very first presentation I witnessed was from Patricio Bustamante, and it got right to the question of how and why was this art made.

He pointed out that art is in many ways in the eye of the beholder (or in some cases, simply the “holder”). This process stars with “pareidolia,” where someone looks at a naturally occurring form and sees the image of something else entirely. Finding pictures in clouds is probably the best known example of this, though perhaps finding them in rocks is the oldest example we will ever find.

And that tradition continues today, from Robert Bednarik’s rock that looks like a face, associated with 3-million-year-old Australopithecus, to this mammoth silhouette I discovered myself just this past Saturday (see video below).

Once people were taking note of natural objects that reminded them of other things, it wasn’t too far of a stretch for them to make small alterations to aid the illusion. After all, they had already been making finely executed stone tools for millennia. From there, it was just a matter of realizing as long as you’re changing some aspects, you could also start with a blank rock and add all the necessary shapes from scratch.

This approach may seem very straightforward, but it can be revolutionary in its way, because it focuses on the images being held onto or created simply because they were noticed, and not necessarily for any other symbolic purpose. This point was to come up again when discussing the novel use of bear skulls by Neanderthals, and to culminate with a proposition for a whole new way of looking at art and its creation.


Ellen Dissanayake doesn’t like to assume that just because something has designs or images, it must have a symbolic purpose. She says that basically, what we know for sure is that people like to take ordinary things and make them extraordinary. This process she calls “artification.”

We all do this in various ways, from putting up striped wallpaper to getting wingtip shoes with fancy but functionless holes. Or maybe in the winter you deck the halls with, oh let’s say boughs of holly. The end result may carry some symbolic meanings, but they’re not necessarily there in all cases. And in the case of holly, they may be there or not for different people–for some people it’s simply decorative, for some it’s rich with medieval Christian symbolism, and for others, it carries the ancient northern meanings of Yule. All using the same object or design at the same time, in the same way, with completely different symbolic intent.

Under the umbrella of “artification” we can talk about all of that at once, without forcing associations that may not be there.

While all this theoretical discussion was going on in one room, in a tent a few paces away others were getting down to the hardest science they could. There, Jaroslav Bruzek discussed structuring a measurement system to turn dozens of cave paintings into a series of data points. He and his team then analyzed 51 separate drawings, and were able to identify the recognizable hands of 6 individual artists.

And speaking of individual artists, in discussing the recently discovered mammoth engraving on a piece of bone in Florida, Barbara Olins Alpert pointed out that despite all of the comparisons and generalizations that can be made, there are some pieces that are simply more expertly executed than others. Even though most everything about the lives of these artists is unknown to us, we can still look at these ancient art works and recognize that someone who was darn good at carving mammoths, carved this one (see related photo and link below.)

The Americas’ oldest known artist may have been an Ice Age hunter in what is now Florida, according to an anthropologist who examined a 13,000-year-old bone etching. Read the full June 2009 story. (Photograph courtesy Mary Warrick, Florida Museum of Natural History)

Much more was discussed throughout the day, and late at night, a few of us were treated to the “lost sequel” to one presenter’s work, hunched over a laptop in the campground restaurant, but that had enough for a whole post in its own right.

Tomorrow we head into actual caves in the region, to see this art first-hand. I am sure there will be stories to tell.

More Blog Posts in This Series

Mysteries of Prehistoric Rock Art Probed

Finding Pictures and Meaning in Rock Art

Walking Into the Stone Age

Cracking the Code in the Rocks

Rock Spirits at the Portals to Afterlife

70th Anniversary of the Discovery of Lascaux


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Meet the Author

Author Photo Andrew Howley
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley. Learn more at