The Cave Paintings of Western Europe

by Alison Brooks and Phil Masters

The world is so full of a number of things -- that some interesting entries were, regrettably, squeezed out of GURPS Places of Mystery in the editing stage. This article is another in an occasional series dealing with some of these exclusions, and appropriately enough, it concerns the oldest of all -- the famous and mysterious "Cave Paintings" of Europe.

The Paintings

Cave paintings are among the earliest truly human remains, and the most important. The one thing that most clearly separates modern humans from extinct near relatives, such as the Neanderthals and Homo erectus, is art, which apparently developed as part of religious or magical ceremonies. (However, there are recent, highly debatable theories that suggest that very early art may actually have emerged as a sort of courtship ritual. "Come up and see my etchings" may be an older chat-up line than previously thought.)

The Era of Origin

Art was a creation of the Paleolithic period. Some crucial inventions -- sewing needles, harpoons, and fishing nets, as well as the beginnings of art and personal adornment, music, and magic -- all date from this era. Not that it was an easy time; the average life expectancy was about 30 years, and many individuals died in childhood. Clan elders -- the few who survived to old age -- were probably important in transmitting ideas and history to the young. This was the beginning of human culture, as we understand the concept today -- and art was doubtless a part of it.

Despite the heroic hunting scenes of the cave paintings, most of people's food was probably gathered by the women, as it is in modern-day hunter-gatherer societies. People lived in small, shifting bands of 20-30 adults, which were part of a larger clan of over a hundred, which would keep in touch with occasional gatherings, possibly at the "painted" caves. Relations with other clans were probably more tense, although warfare and its mass slaughter did not arise until the development of farming.

The "Upper Paleolithic" is divided into several parts. In the period 30-28,000 B.C., ivory beads, small carved figures of humans and animals, were created -- the first kinds of art. During the period 28-20,000 B.C., the first cave hand-prints were made, and clay figurines from this era, especially of females, have been found in eastern Europe. Large, impressive reliefs, often at living sites, were developed in 20-16,000 B.C., but most cave art (about 80%) is from 16-8,000 B.C., when the deep cave paintings were made. Both Altamira and Lascaux are from this time. At the end of the Paleolithic, the cave art tradition died out, and people began to make geometric patterns instead. Perspective and the sense of movement were not rediscovered in Europe until the Renaissance.

The Discoveries

The first modern cave painting discoveries occurred in the 19th century. Archaeologists quickly dismissed them as fakes, because they were too good. According to their theories, art from such an ancient time must be crude, not graceful and stylized to give the impression of movement, let alone using the natural bumps and hollows of the rock surface to produce a relief picture. But in the early 20th century, cave pictures were discovered covered with limestone which had taken millennia to deposit. This turned the tide of opinion.

The most famous cave paintings are at Lascaux, discovered in 1940 by four boys searching for a lost dog. A great many sites -- over 100 -- are now known, including some which are underwater in the Mediterranean, thanks to rising sea-levels since the Ice Ages. One set of underwater caves got a great deal of publicity in 1992 with the discovery of pictures of "penguins," birds from the distant Antarctic. Actually, the pictures were of the extinct great auk.

Cave art is found mainly in western Europe, particularly France and Spain, although finds from the Urals show that it may have been more widespread. One problem is preservation; the Lascaux caves have had to be shut because of the damage caused by the warmth and humidity of visitors' breath. Even though art was made in inaccessible parts of caves, away from living areas, several thousand years' worth of decay makes preservation a matter of luck as well as remoteness. (Actually, just to complicate matters, art from the living areas is also known, but not much, and it differs from the art of the inaccessible areas.)

The earliest paintings may be simple stencil outlines of hands, made by blowing paint through a reed onto the wall. The earliest graffiti, perhaps, or part of a ritual, perhaps to symbolize unity with a deity? The art of the hunt, portraits of mammoths, bison, horses and wild cattle, comes later. One feature of the art is twisted perspective; the animals are portrayed in profile, but their horns are shown in front (or three-quarters) view.

Horses, bison and oxen make up about 60% of the images, but were not so very important in the diet of the people. Carnivores are rare. Along with the animal art are dots, chevrons, curves, zigzags and other geometric shapes. Were these symbolic hunting paraphernalia? Symbols of male and female principles? Or shamanic visions? A rare kind of image is the human-animal hybrid, which is usually interpreted as magicians in ritual dress. However, such images might have come from shamanic visions.

Similar types of art are found in other parts of the world, some even older than the cave art of Europe, although less well preserved. There were living traditions of painting hunting scenes among the San people of the Kalahari when Europeans arrived, as well as among the Australian aborigines. Aboriginal religious sites, together with the Tassili Frescoes of Africa, are covered in GURPS Places of Mystery.


First comes the hall of the bulls, a long cavern dominated by four gigantic white bulls outlined in black; they are accompanied by a riot of other beasts, large and small, stampeding along the walls towards the deep recesses of the caverns. There are two exits from the hall of the bulls: one leads to the Axial Gallery, a narrow passageway which is richly decorated, although the visitor has to perform contortions to see some of the creatures in the narrow space.

The other exit leads to a winding cavern 80 yards long, and difficult to pass in places. It, too, is decorated. About halfway along is a 20-foot-deep hole, large enough for a single person to climb down the metal ladder (in the Paleolithic, they used ropes). On the walls of the hole is a dramatic scene of a black bison poised to charge. The bison is hurt: its entrails are spilling out. In front of it is a fallen stick-figure man. A record of a hunting accident? At the end of the cavern, extremely difficult to reach, is the Chamber of Felines, where lions are portrayed, a rarity in cave art.


The Altamira cave art, which has been described as "the Sistine Chapel of the Paleolithic," was discovered by the landowner, Don Marcellion de Sautuola, or rather by his small daughter. The Don was a keen amateur archaeologist, and had been prowling the caves beneath his land on and off for ten years, but he had found only a few axes and other remains. One day, in 1879, he took his daughter with him. She was able to stand up in caves which he had been forced to crawl through, and she looked at the ceiling.

"Look, Papa, bulls!"

She had found the first cave art -- magnificent bison. When de Sautuola revealed the paintings to the archaeological world, he was shocked and hurt to be met with thinly veiled accusations of fraud; he closed the caves, and died in 1888, some years before his (or his daughter's) great discovery was vindicated.


Just as GURPS Places of Mystery was being completed in 1995, the French Ministry of Culture announced a new cave art discovery in the Ardche gorges near Vallon-Pont-d'Arc. In this cave complex, a series of large galleries (each about four or five yards long and wide) connect several huge halls (up to 30 yards on a side); the galleries are decorated with paintings and engravings representing animals, either isolated or organized in scenes containing over 50 at a time. More than 200 black or red ochre paintings or engravings have been discovered so far.

A particularly large and unusual variety of animals is depicted: horses, rhinoceros, lions, bison, wild ox, bears, a panther, mammoths, ibex, an owl -- at least 13 different species, more than any other cave, along with symbols, panels filled with dots, and both positive and stenciled hands.

The area with red paintings includes several panels filled with dots, sometimes with complex and original signs added. On one wall alone there is a huge rhinoceros with a disproportionately large horn, plus three more rhinos, a mammoth, two lions, four "positive" hands and two or three stenciled ones, a semicircle of red dots, a large bovine, and a sign made up of two linked semicircles. There are around 30 red representations of animals overall, and two small yellow horses' heads, in addition to the dots and other signs. The main animal is the bear, followed by the mammoth, the horse, the rhinoceros, and the lion; there is only one example each of the stag, the ibex, and the wild ox.

About a hundred black figures have so far been counted; the majority are rhinoceroses, followed by lions, then horses, bears, reindeer, bison, and oxen. There are also mammoths, megaloceroses (giant deer), an ibex, and two unidentifiable creatures. The engravings include five mammoths, three ibexes, two rhinoceroses, two horses, one wild ox, and one owl. (The official French government information on the discovery, including images, can be found at The oldest form of graphical data transmission meets the newest . . .)

Pictures and Power

And, just to show that such things can be relevant in non-supernatural modern-day games . . .

The new government of Portugal has just stopped all work on a planned 144MW hydroelectric dam at Foz Coa, on the Douro River. The main reason that this project has been attacked appears to be that the new lake would have flooded the site of a recent archaeological discovery -- what may be the oldest and most important Paleolithic rock-carvings in the world.

Not surprisingly, this is a controversial decision; the dam might have supplied up to 20% of Portugal's electrical needs, and brought substantial employment to a depressed region. Nor is the significance of the carvings certain; some experts believe that they may not be as old as was first thought. (One hoaxer -- a Portuguese expatriate living in Canada -- briefly had people believing that they were a modern fake.) However, the government is looking hard at an alternative site that some engineers believe is markedly better, so the carvings will probably survive. On the other hand, this change of plan is set to cost between $140 million and $320 million, so it is not a trivial decision. In fact, every party involved seems to be suing someone for compensation, or reimbursement of research costs.

In a game, characters might become involved in a similar, fictional, situation, and have to determine the authenticity of an archaeological find while dealing with various factions. It would not be too implausible to depict some NPCs as becoming underhanded or even violent over such amounts of money -- from devious politicians to construction companies (which might be highly corrupt in the game setting) to unemployed "locals." In games with weird or supernatural elements, the decision to preserve such finds could be influenced by stranger forces, especially if they are potentially or actually a source of mystical power -- or even if some NPCs merely think they are.

Cave Art in Games

Cave Art and Magic

The rituals preserved in cave art were probably intended at least partly to ensure success in hunting and abundance of game. The fact that hunting rituals were apparently performed in inconvenient nooks at the back of the cave, as far from the hunting grounds as possible, is fascinating. The tribes may have seen the inner places of the caves as the womb of an earth mother; or they may have wanted privacy for their rituals; or the shamans may have found that these dark, secret places enhanced the worshipers' sense of awe and hence respect; or the reasons may be entirely different.

GURPS Places of Mystery includes brief notes on using "Cave Art Magic" in games. The following extends this idea, repeating some of the book's text for convenience.

Shamanic Spells and Trances

Games using shamanic magic (see GURPS Ice Age or GURPS Religion) could incorporate magical cave art; a sacred, painted cave might give bonuses (from +1 to +5 or even more) to dice rolls to enter a Trance state (see p.118 of GURPS Religion, or p.32 of GURPS Ice Age) or to spell-casting -- but probably only when dealing with spirits associated with the painted images.

Optionally, spirits may be drawn to the cave, usefully for a spell-caster -- except that they are subsequently similarly hard to drive out of it. Many spells would still be at a bonus, because they benefit from the presence or aid of a spirit (GM's option as to which spells are enhanced, and how much), but Banish and Exorcism would be at a penalty!

Cave Art in GURPS Voodoo

Spirit-based magic is also covered by the rules in GURPS Voodoo; in games using that system, the painted caves may permit characters to invoke and contact some very ancient spirits. They would have been associated, originally, with the Stone Age tribe and the hunt. Summoning such a spirit in the Paleolithic probably felt like a scary but necessary exercise; in a modern-day game, such a ritual would be even more chancy. Assuming that spirits do not grow old and fade away -- which would leave the caves with academic interest only -- the paintings may be associated with some extremely ancient powers, with unpredictable attitudes to any modern human. Perhaps such spirits have changed with the times, and now form elements within the categories recognized by the Lodges and Bizongues -- or perhaps they lurk unchanged in the shadows of the spirit-world, grown twisted and far from any human understanding. Re-establishing "working relationships" with such beings might be a tough mission for a group of PCs.

Incidentally, as the caves have not been in continuous use for many thousands of years, they cannot be considered as truly "established" ritual sites, and they will not therefore give large bonuses to ritual skill rolls. However, their original significance, the skill of the painting, and the fact that they preserve something of that ancient spirit world, could still make them good locations for ritual activity, giving +1 or possibly +2 to skills. Some idea of the sort of spirits that may once have been invoked in these caves may be given by the nature and character of the Loa known as Ochosi (GURPS Voodoo, p.92); simply replace references to Jungle environments with "Sub-Arctic Plains." Alternatively, a tribe might have a "guardian spirit" similar to a Genius (p.97), or worship an unpredictable nature-spirit resembling Pan (p.96). GMs wishing to introduce a corrupted, perverted hunter-spirit who might somehow be associated with such places could model it on the Mayombe Mbua (p.94).

Assuming that archaeologists are correct in thinking that the rituals held in the caves were primarily concerned with hunting, then the paintings would serve as "symbolic representations" of the subject of some spells -- the animals. As good-quality images, they would provide +1 or +2 to the relevant ritual skills. They, and the accompanying abstract designs, would also serve as "very detailed" symbols of the spirits invoked, worth from +1 to +3 on many ritual rolls. The following is an example of the sort of ritual that may have been conducted in the caves:

Hunter's Blessing Defaults to Path of Luck-3

This ceremony assists a group of people, who are present when it is performed, in hunting members of one species of animal, which is selected at the time the ritual is cast. The individual animal cannot be specified; the hunters must take their opportunities as they arise, in the usual way. However, the animal is considered to be the "target" of the ritual; for example, Multiple Target penalties apply if the hunters are to be assisted in bringing down more than one animal. (This is rarely considered necessary for the tribe, and most casters will limit the ceremony to a single prey-animal.) Of course, animals are unlikely to have much in the way of magical protections.

If the ritual is successfully performed, then any hunters present throughout the ceremony gain a bonus for the duration of its effect, on all skill rolls directly related to the pursuit of the specific animal species; this is a base +2, with a further +1 for every 2 full points that the ritual roll was made by. This usually adds to Tracking and Weapon Skills, and often Stealth and Camouflage when the hunters are setting up an ambush; the relevance of other skill rolls to the hunt is left to the GM's judgment. The hunters do not have to be Initiates, or to know anything about the ritual, but they do have to be present, conscious, and moderately attentive throughout the procedure.

Example: Chants-Like-Hyena, shaman of the Broken Branch Tribe, has been requested to ensure the hunters' success in bringing down a bison this day. Fortunately, he has use of the caves in what will one day be called Lascaux. Chants-Like-Hyena has Path of Luck at 13, which would give him a default Hunter's Blessing of 10, but he has bought it up to 11. He assembles the hunters and his ritual drums, pointing-sticks, and so on in the Hall of the Bulls, and invokes the tribal totems. (As a second-level Initiate, he is aware when they arrive.) He then begins the ritual, taking about an hour over it; there's no hurry, but nor is their the option to take days -- so there's no penalty or bonus for time. The caves have already been in use for two or three generations, so they give a +1 for "Consecrated Ground." The superb symbolic representation of the bulls gives +2, but these images are only linked to the spirits of the hunt in an indirect way, giving a further +1 (rather than the +3 that some symbol-laden cave paintings provide some shamans). The tribe has not learned to offer material sacrifices to the spirits -- the whole point of this ceremony is that they are hungry -- but their prayers and thanks are enough to avoid any actual penalty. They only want to kill one beast, so there is no Multiple Targets penalty either.

With a modified skill of 15, Chants-Like-Hyena's player rolls a 10, giving all the hunters present +4 in the hunt. This bonus first applies to the tracker's attempts to identify bison trails; then one of the hunters, with a base Camouflage skill of 12, gets ahead of the herd. His player rolls 14 as he attempts to hide in cover; he's painfully obvious to his friends, and a passing ibex, but thanks to the +4 bonus, the bison seemingly look right through him. The hunting party then attacks with +4 to their Spear and Spear Throwing skills (except for one poor fool, who dozed off during the ceremony), carefully ensuring that they are all going for the same animal -- because they know that, once one bison falls, all the benefits of the ritual will end.

Normally, this ritual is not resisted. However, at the GMs option, animals may sometimes be protected by either "nature spirits" or malicious entities who wish the tribe ill. In that case, roll the "interfering" spirit's Will; if this is successful, reduce the shaman's effective skill by the amount by which it was made.

Creating Magical Cave Art

The creation of a "magical cave" would be a major exercise in enchantment magic or rituals. It would require Artist skill at 18 or better, several shamanic spells or high levels of skill in Ritual Magic (and preferably Sanctuary), and months of work. GMs should usually treat such a project as a major campaign theme in itself, but the following rules may be taken as guidelines. The caves must be carefully prepared and purified, with a successful casting of the Bless spell or use of Ritual Magic skill. Subsequently, for the several days, weeks, or months that the painting will demand, the caves must be carefully watched and guarded against evil influences or mischievous intruding spirits. Some determined spiritual assaults will probably occur during this time, and should be played out in full as "fights" between the shaman characters and the spirits.

Each image or panel will require a successful Artist skill roll; time taken to create images will vary, but should never be less than a day, even for the smallest and simplest, and will often be much more. On a failed roll, the work must be carefully repaired and improved; on a critical failure, that wall will have to be scrubbed down and restarted from scratch. The artists will require the finest pigments, which may demand travel to areas with particular soils, clays, charcoal, or whatever. For each type of animal to be depicted, or each individual spirit to be invoked or influenced, the GM should require skill rolls from the artists (to master the effective depiction of the species) and the shamans (to identify the important symbolic elements). If the artists and the shamans are different people, the GM may also require IQ or Teaching rolls to ensure that the two groups are communicating effectively.

Lastly, the general population must be persuaded actually to use the caves and attend rituals there. This should not be too difficult if they respect shamanic authority enough, but some Oratory rolls may certainly help. After a big "blessing" ceremony and a few other impressive events, the cave can be considered a Sacred Place or "ritual center," with all the practical benefits that this implies for magic-workers.

A Time Travel Scenario Seed: Vision Quest

As a major marker in the history of human development, cave paintings can play a part in a Time Travel campaign. See GURPS Timeline for notes on one fairly straightforward mission; a PC party might be dispatched simply to observe the creation of the images, and to establish exactly what purpose they served. This would be challenging enough; surviving in the Paleolithic, with no high-tech devices that might startle or frighten the "locals" (and thus disrupt this crucial cultural development), would require considerable skill, and gaining the trust of a suspicious and insular clan enough to determine their motivations, let alone to obtain access to the depths of their sacred caves, would be extraordinarily difficult.

In a "Time War" campaign such as the Stopwatch/Timepiece setting detailed in GURPS Time Travel, this development would doubtless be of interest to both sides -- although its precise significance, and the ramifications of any intervention, would probably be far too difficult to assess reliably. The most likely occurrence would probably be that two teams of observers would find themselves in the same area at the same date, and would circle round each other, each on the alert for an intervention by the other, both nervous of the danger of doing anything too obviously anachronistic in front of the local tribespeople.

Alternatively, PCs could become involved in a more subtle and complex intervention. For example, they might be required to help a Dark Ages artist discover cave paintings which incorporate certain artistic techniques. The artist can be relied on (with fairly high probability) not to reveal his discovery to the world -- but it seems that it will inspire him to produce a series of magnificent church paintings, which will, later, inspire a particular local movement -- in either art or the Church, as the GM wishes -- that will benefit Timepiece in subtle but ultimately very substantial ways. (Yes, it's extremely indirect -- but that just makes it harder for Stopwatch to change, once the mission is complete.)

The artist turns out to be a hermit who will regard the time travelers as either angels, or tempter demons sent by Satan. Which, will depend on how the PCs behave. A Dark Age hermit would expect an angel to behave with modesty, gentleness, humility, and thoughtfulness. Devils may be suave, but they reveal themselves through arrogance, impatience, greed, and by appealing to the base lusts of humanity. The PCs may also be required to visit the original painting work, to ensure that the right techniques are used.

Article publication date: January 8, 1999

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