Art in Tough Times: From Paleolithic Cave Art to Anasazi Pictographs



The first art humans ever created was made in outdoors, or rather, in Earth’s natural shelter.  This art would be cave art. Cave art is the paintings that date back to early paleolithic times, around 40,000 to 14,000 years ago.  This art has primarily been found in France, Spain, Portugal, England, Italy, Germany and Russia (Clottes, 2018).  Cave art has been prolific throughout early history. However, the archeological study of early art only seriously took off within the last century, and there is no longer evidence for most prehistoric art (Berghaus & Berghaus, 2004, 1).

There is a lot to be learned and a lot that can be studied from paleolithic art.  One interesting discovery that has been made through paleolithic art, is that isolated cultures with similar ways of life tend to produce art that resembles one another (Berghaus, 2004, 2).  Researchers have also debated whether or not the representation of two dimensional faces is inherent in human beings or learned consciousness, signifying higher intelligence in early human beings than originally thought (Berghaus, 2002, 14).  In economic terms of cost and benefits, historians and scientists have also wondered why paleolithic humans put the time and effort into art when it appears a high cost in a struggle for survival (Berghaus, 2002, 76).

The term for prehistoric rock or cave paintings is pictographs.  This is different from petroglyphs, which are engraved onto rocks.  The hues come from minerals such as Calcium Carbonate, Iron Oxide, Azurite and Ochre (“Pictographs,” 1996).  As I learned in ceramics I last semester, these minerals are similar to the pigments used in modern day ceramic glazes.


Framing Question:

What can a culture’s art tell us about their relationship to their surrounding environment?


Situated Context:

Fig. 1: Google Maps Image

Long after the hunter and gatherers of the ice age, Native American tribes engaged in the practice of pictographs and petroglyphs.  These images are assumed to be part of various ritual traditions, such as marking successful hunts and territory (Pictographs, 1996). 

The Anasazi were a culture far down the line in history from early Paleolithic cultures who were known for making rock art.  Also known as the ancient Pueblo people, this ancient tribe, which was most populated approximately 1,000 to 1,200 years ago habitated the four corners of the United States (Encyclopedia of Native American tribes, 2008.  They are believed to be part of the great migration around 20,000 years ago, and much of their culture is debated, such as why they migrated from fertile lands to dangerous desert cliffs, and how they died out (Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes, 2008). I had the opportunity to see Anasazi ruins and rock art in person backpacking, at which time I developed new information.  They were smaller than humans today, as evident from their handprints, they built dwellings that were disguised into the cliffs to hide from enemies, and most notably to someone who sees this site, they were expert climbers. The length they would have gone through to create the art they did, would be great and dangerous.

Fig. 3: Situated Context Concept Map


Research Question:

Why did the Anasazi create rock art when it was so costly given the circumstances in which they were making the art?



My methodology will involve historical research on the Anasazi culture and their values, religious and other.  I will also research what the process of making their pictographs were. I will compare the Anasazi to other ancient cultures and what type of art they were making, as well as the conditions they made their art in.  The second part of my methodology will involve learning about cost benefit analysis in ancient and tribal cultures. I will use this to better understand how cultures at this time may have weight their choices.

One large potential setback in this research, is the lack of information and the disagreement on the Anasazi culture and their history.  It will be potentially difficult to gain enough information to formulate a conclusion. However, I can combat this by working purely on what has been proven and not utilizing conclusions that have been drawn by archaeologists and historians that are still up for debate.


Broader Implications:

Caves and art break down to culture and human conditions.  My research question gets at why we make art, even in environmental conditions that are extreme.  For instance, cave art has frequently related to myths and religion. There are numerous examples of Buddhist art in caves, for example.  In India, more than 100 caves near Mumbai, the Kanheri caves, narrate the story of Buddhism (Pandit, 2005, 222).  The Cave of Perfect Enlightenment from the Southern Song dynasty in China has sculptural elements, primarily a kneeling Bodhisattva (Dehejia, and  Davis, 2010).

There are other practices in early humans that are investigated similarly to cave art, such as music.  Music has been shown to date back as early as paleolithic cave paintings, and little information is known about the subject today (Morley, 2013).  Artistic practices such as music and cave art are both important ways to explore human culture and historical evolution, because they have been in human history for thousands of years.  As Morley (2013) states, “Investigation into the evolution of (other aspects of) human culture and behaviour has a long history… and studies of the evolutionary development of the human brain and cognition have burgeoned in the last couple of decades.”


Next steps:

One further research question that would accompany this one, would be to investigate what the similarities and differences are between the cave art made by cultures in different periods and geological locations.  This would involve a literary research method. Another important question to ask, is what made art move away from outdoor settings into gallery and interior settings? Close historical analysis of various social and environmental factors would have to be done to answer this question.  All of these questions eventually lead to the bigger questions of why humans make art and what causes us to make different kinds of art.



Anasazi. (2008). U*X*L Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes.

Berghaus, G., & Berghaus, Günter. 2004. New perspectives on prehistoric art. Westport: Praeger.

Dehejia, Vidya., and Richard H. Davis. 2010. “Addition, Erasure, and Adaptation: Interventions in the Rock-Cut Monuments of Māmallapuram.” Archives of Asian Art 60: 1-18.

Jean Clottes. 2018. Cave art. Britannica Online Academic Edition, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Morley, I. 2013. The prehistory of music : Human evolution, archaeology, and the origins of musicality (First ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pandit, Suraj A. 2005. “Late Hinayana Buddhism and the Transition to Mahayana: A Study of the Early Buddhist Samgha and the Buddha Figures at Kanheri.” The Eastern Buddhist 37, no. 1 2: 222.

Encyclopedia of North American Indians. 1996. “Pictographs.”   Encyclopedia of North American Indians, Annual.

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