I just finished reading The Cave Painters by Gregory Curtis, a book I highly recommend. He manages to re-create the excitement of the discoveries of the cave paintings that were created from 32,000 years ago to 18,000 years ago. There is a consistency to these paintings that suggests a stability we have not been able to create. It is impossible perhaps to predict what the lives of these people were like and yet he suggests that, "To last so long that culture must have been deeply satisfying - emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and practically. It must have engendered and supported a social system that reliably produced and distributed material needs like food, clothing, and shelter. It must have fostered and protected the basic human relations - friend to friend, man to woman, parent to child - or the society would not have been cohesive enough to survive."
These were a healthy people, a creative people, who created beauty we respond to today. We have not surpassed them artistically.
He continues: "The qualities that define classicism - dignity, strength, grace, ease, confidence, and clarity - are also the principal qualities of the cave paintings. Above all, the essence of classical art is that it aspires to imitate nature by creating images of nature's ideal forms. In the Paleolithic era the ideal forms were not the Discus Thrower or the David. They were horses, bison, mammoths, and the other species that obsessed the early artists, all created as ideals. The horses and bison are perfect horses and bison, never old or sick or dying, and the detailed knowledge of the anatomy of the animals is repeated in the Greek's understanding of human anatomy."
The book allows us to imagine what it would be like to go down into the earth and follow the natural contours of the walls and roofs of caves and paint. We may never agree on their purpose, but it appears that those who first see these paintings are speechless, one defining principle of our knowing what we meet is art.