1. People have a great ability to see and understand pictures, even crude ones. Why? And When did this start? What role did art play in the formation of the first civilizations? This is one of the great mysteries of mankind.
2. Homo sapiens have lived for about 200,000 years, but for over 100,000 years we didn’t paint anything. Then, about 35,000 years ago we changed. Why?
3. One theory – prehistoric cave artists wanted to represent the world around them, like today. But today, we draw everything. Why did cave artists paint just animals? And why only certain animals, like horses, bison, oxen and reindeer?
4. A second theory – cave artists painted animals they hunted, to improve their luck. But, bone evidence shows little correlation between prehistoric art and diet. They’d paint one animal, but eat another.
5. Another mystery, why did cave artists travel so deep into caves before painting? Some areas are very difficult to reach.
6. Even more puzzling, why are some cave paintings abstract, with dots, squares, grids, and patterns? A third theory explores the visual effects of cave artists working with little light. Apparently, this sensory deprivation created hallucinations which the painters recreated. But this is just one theory. It’s still a mystery.
7. Is our ability to read pictures automatic or is it learned? In our modern world, we know that photos and films aren’t real. But, some people, for example some strict muslims, claim they can’t read pictures, having never grown up with them. One man said he couldn’t see a horse in a painting because he couldn’t walk around it. Another story tells of giving a European renaissance drawing to an Asian ruler. He said it was very nice, but why did the figure have dirt all over her face? He’d never seen charcoal being used to mimic light and shadow. When people saw one of the first black and white films, of a train coming at them, they ran out of the theater.
If our ability to see is learned, and not automatic, it means we don’t see with our eyes, but with our minds. Try to remember back to the first pictures you saw of a spider or insect, when you were a child. Do you remember being frightened? I do, even though I knew it was just a photo in a book, part of me felt it’s real, it’s dangerous. If a simple photo can be so powerful today, imagine how powerful painting was back then.
8. The final mystery, around 12,000 years ago, cave art stopped. Why? Is it a coincidence that this is when the earliest known stone circles were built in Göbekli Tepe, in Turkey? Such large monoliths (large stone pillars) weighed 10-50 tons, and would require hundreds of people to craft and move. Why did early people switch from caves to stone circles? Did it signify a change in the social order? And what kind of change? This is still a mystery.