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Publication Date


Publication Title

Current Anthropology







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University of Chicago Press

Publisher Location

Chicago, IL


The question of the "meaning" of Paleolithic cave art has been much discussed since the last century. Of all the theories proposed, "art for art's sake" has had the least acceptance, while various hunting-magic explanations have enjoyed the most success, but all theories, including recent structuralist ones, have been found seriously flawed, and the present state of the question is evidently one of despair. This may be an indication that we have been asking the wrong questions and making the wrong assumptions. Particularly tenuous and suspect is the approach by analogy with modern hunter-gatherers with their long cultural traditions, for when we are dealing with the Paleolithic it is fundamental that we concern ourselves with beginnings. From this perspective, it is proposed that cave art has no "meaning" in any ordinary sense of the word, no religious, mythic, or metaphysical reference, no magical or practical purpose. It is to be understood, rather, as a reflection of an early stage of cognitive development, the beginnings of abstraction in the form of represented images. The activity would have been autotelic, a kind of play, specifically a free play of signifiers. Thus Paleolithic art may well have, in a fairly precise and instructive sense, art for art's sake.


Author Posting © 1987, University of Chicago Press. This article is posted here by permission of University of Chicago Press for personal use, not for redistribution. The article was published in Current Anthropology, Volume 28, Issue 1, February 1987,

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

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