When Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola first encountered the Magdalenian paintings of the Altamira cave, Cantabria, Spain in 1879, the academics of the time considered them hoaxes. Recent reappraisals and increasing numbers of discoveries have illustrated their authenticity and have indicated high levels of artistry of Upper Palaeolithic humans who used only basic tools. Cave paintings can also give valuable clues as to the culture and beliefs of that era.
The choice of subject matter can also indicate date such as the reindeer at the Spanish cave of Cueva de las Monedas which imply the art is from the last Ice Age. The oldest cave is that of Chauvet, and its paintings are possibly 32,000 years old according to radiocarbon dating Some researchers believe the drawings are too advanced for this era and question this age.
Other examples may date as late as the Early Bronze Age, but the well known prolific and sophisticated style from Lascaux and Altamira died out about 10,000 years ago, coinciding with the advent of the Mesolithic period.
Henri Breuil interpreted the paintings as being hunting magic, meant to increase the number of animals. As there are some clay sculptures that seem to have been the targets of spears, this may partly be true, but does not explain the pictures of predators such as the lion or the bear.
An alternative theory, developed by David Lewis-Williams and broadly based on ethnographic studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, is that the paintings were made by Cro-Magnon shamans. The shaman would retreat into the darkness of the caves, enter into a trance state and then paint images of their visions, perhaps with some notion of drawing power out of the cave walls themselves. This goes some way toward explaining the remoteness of some of the paintings (which often occur in deep or small caves) and the variety of subject matter (from prey animals to predators and human hand-prints).
R. Dale Guthrie has studied not only the most artistic and publicized paintings but also a variety of lower quality art and figurines, and he identifies a wide range of skill and ages among the artists. He also points that the main themes in the paintings and other artifacts (powerful beasts, risky hunting scenes and the over-sexual representation of women in the Venus figurines) are to be expected in the fantasies of adolescent males, who made a big part of the human population at the time.
At Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg, South Africa, now thought to be some 3,000 years old, the paintings by the San people who settled in the area some 8,000 years ago depict animals and humans, and are thought to represent religious beliefs. Human figures are much more common in African than in European rock art.
Recently, an archeological team discovered the Laas Gaa'l cave paintings outside Hargeisa in Somaliland. They show the ancient inhabitants of the area worshipping cattle and performing religious ceremonies.
Cave paintings found at the "Apollo 11 caves"in Namibia may be among the earliest cave art. The estimated age of the images date from approximately 23,000 - 25,000 B.C.
Cave paintings are found in the Tassili n'Ajjer mountains in southeast Algeria also in the Akakus, Mesak Settafet and Tadrart in Libya and other Sahara regions including: Ayr mountains, Niger and Tibesti, Chad.
The park has a large collection of ochre paintings. Ochre is a not an organic material, so carbon dating of these pictures is impossible. Sometimes the approximate date, or at least, an epoch, can be guessed from the content.
There are rock paintings in caves in India, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. In Thailand, caves and scarps along the Thai-Burmese border, in the Petchabun Range of Central Thailand, and overlooking the Mekong River in Nakorn Sawan Province, all contain galleries of rock paintings. In Malaysia the oldest paintings are at Gua Tambun in Perak, dated at 2000 years, and those in the Painted Cave at Niah Caves National Park are 1200 years old. See prehistoric Malaysia. In Indonesia the caves at Maros in Sulawesi are famous for their hand prints, also found in caves in the Sangkulirang area of Kalimantan.