Reading Cave Art


This is a drawing from David Lewis-Williams’ wonderful book ‘The Mind in the Cave’ which he interprets as being rather confusing depiction of an eland headed man somehow underwater, probably from a shamanistic vision. Later in the book, he notes how when a shaman came out of a trance or dream, he would concentrate hard to remember the visions he had experienced.

In another account of indigenous art, a tribe – I think in the Pacific islands – were unusual in that they both sculpted and drew very differently. They drew humans as having arms coming out of their faces. This sounds very trippy, but makes sense, if you think about showing all the important bits on one place. It is sowing that hands are as important as our more obvious senses, ie sight, smell, hearing, taste.

So, what links the above two ideas? Well, I think the picture shows a shaman’s vision, jotted down to show the most important elements. They are not shown necessarily in spatial relationship to each other, but they are shown in an arc, as the reach of an artists’s arms.

Dreams, especially visionary or drug induced ones, tend to be jumbled up, but there is a sense that these images are a mnemonic, or reminder of a story, rather than a narrative per se.

Elands have the nature of elandness about them; showing a man with an eland head may have shown him to be running like the herbivore, screaming like one, or making a noise like one. In some cultures, a turtle is not a water based creature, but a symbol of the earth, it flat on the base, with a curved heaven above it. Fish could represent food, or escaping across a river, or the freedom of being in the water. Like so much of this stuff, I am guessing. We cannot possibly know what these images are, but even something with an obvious story such as lie the Bayeaux Tapestry only has meaning because we know the story and which direction to read it. If you start in the middle and try to move outwards, it is pure nonsense.


So, here’s a really hard one from the same source. How can we possibly read this? The bulk of it looks like the structure of a giant cell, and the top animals seem to be looking over a wall, with dismembered bits beneath. So, gibberish, really. Or maybe the record of a small meteor landing on a herd of beasts. Who knows? Maybe this is where Tim Burton got some of his ideas for ‘Mars Attacks!’ Or not.

15 thoughts on “Reading Cave Art

  1. I just finished Jared Lanier’s book, YOU ARE NOT A GADGET. Overall, it’s a pretty dystopian read on the way we currently use digital technology, but the book ends on a hopeful note where Lanier imagines a kind of virtual reality communication between people based on the ability to morph from one form to another. People would be able to transform themselves, digitally, into anything they like, and in one example he mentions his own experiments in virtual reality where he added extra limbs.

    The whole vision was so weird to me that I didn’t know what to think- it seemed so alien. But, based on what you wrote above, maybe it would just mean returning to where we started.


    • I’m not sure if they were showing us what they saw, just depicting them in a language different to what we now use for reading art. I have long been a huge fan of Van Gogh, but his bright colours always worried me – they were wrong. then i saw a really simple painting of a cornfield, called thunderstorm. the cornflower blue sky was wrong. but i love storms, the sense of anticipation as they approach. i feel cornflower blue then. he was drawing his feelings, i realised, then went back round the exhibition and suddenly felt i understood him. I also had a lot of trouble with Jimi Hendrix’s music till i heard Dylan’s version of all along the watchtower, then i felt I understood hendrix. sometimes we need a key to enter a certain world vision. We need to rejig how we see things. I am not sure if we can understand what we are looking at in cave art, but maybe the point is, as then, just encouraging us to change how we see things. Maybe the point is not about how we see but how we think in order to see. Does this make sense?


      • Sure, this makes a whole lot of sense, and I think this is something like Lanier’s perspective as well. His is really an artists and musicians lament like- “we have all this great new technology, but why has musical creativity been so dead since the late 60’s-70s, what are we doing wrong with technology, is technology doing something to us?”

        For me, cave art also reminds me of my young daughters’ drawings. They don’t make a whole lot of sense conceptually- why would a frog have hair and an antenna? But then again, my daughters are too young to be locked in conceptual straight-jackets. Maybe all of us “civilized” folk are caught in such straight jackets, and narrowed by our own traditions. Maybe all great art is either the perfection of constraints and tradition, or the breaking free from them.


      • I think if your daughters have drawn things a certain way, then they make sense to them, and that’s something we have to go with. I did a course on medieval art. We arrived one morning with the blackboard covered in 2 scribbly things looking like mountains. the teacher was a bit embarassed – his daughter had drawn a dinosaur in a cathedral. works for her. I think the whole point of art is that it touches us in some way. If you want to make sense, read something. Not this blog obviously, as there is no sensible reason for this at all. Thanks for your comments.


      • Hey Barb, I was thinking about buying your book on the clock, via Kindle but given that I live in Pennsylvania, was a little worried about the hit from the VAT tax. Do you know what the tax would amount to?


  2. Oops, I was looking at the line that said “unlike print digital books include VAT, rather than “price includes VAT”. I’m torn now between the clock book, and The Scots in El Dorado. Looking forward to a great read either way!


  3. Hello just wanted to give you a brief heads up and let you know a few of the
    pictures aren’t loading properly. I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue.
    I’ve tried it in two different web browsers and both show the same results.


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