Prehistoric Art and Human Cognition

Written with the assistance of the “New Bing” 

Hey everyone! Welcome to the World of Paleoanthropology, where we explore the origins and evolution of our species. Today, we’re going to talk about prehistoric art and complex thinking. What does prehistoric art reveal about the minds who created it? Is art an insight into the prehistoric mind? What evidence do we have for this? What evidence do we have against it? What role does art play in human cognition? We will explore all of these topics in today’s blog post, and hopefully stir some creative and inspiring thinking in us all! 

Prehistoric art is one of the most fascinating aspects of Paleoanthropology because it shows us how early humans expressed themselves and their worldviews. Prehistoric art includes paintings, sculptures, engravings, ornaments, and more made by humans before the invention of writing. Prehistoric art can be found all over the world, from Africa to Europe to Asia to Australia. Where humans went, it seems their art followed. So clearly it played some sort of important role to them. But as any artist knows today, the creative process can be long and difficult, what did it look like a hundred thousand years ago? 

One of the main questions that archaeologists and anthropologists ask is: why did humans start making art? What was the purpose and meaning of prehistoric art? Some possible answers are:

– Art was a way of communicating information, such as hunting strategies, social relationships, or religious beliefs.

– Art was a way of enhancing memory, such as remembering ancestors, events, or places.

– Art was a way of expressing emotions, such as joy, fear, or sadness.

– Art was a way of showing creativity, intelligence, and innovation.

  • Art was a way of asserting identity, status, or group affiliation.
  • Art was a way to connect to the spiritual world around them. 

All of these answers suggest that prehistoric art reflects complex thinking and symbolic reasoning. Symbolic reasoning is the ability to use symbols to represent abstract concepts, such as numbers, words, or ideas. Symbolic reasoning is considered one of the hallmarks of human cognition and language. Despite this, it is important to remember that there is no one feature that makes our speech or language production unique, but an amalgamation of features. 

But how can we be sure that prehistoric art was symbolic and not just decorative or functional? How can we know what prehistoric artists intended or thought? These are some of the challenges that researchers face when studying prehistoric art. Some of the evidence that supports the symbolic interpretation of prehistoric art are:

– The diversity and sophistication of prehistoric art forms and techniques, such as mixing paints, carving bones, or engraving rocks.

– The presence of motifs and patterns that suggest intentional design and meaning, such as animals, humans, geometric shapes, or signs.

– The location and context of prehistoric art sites, such as caves, rock shelters, or burial grounds.

– The comparison with modern hunter-gatherer groups that still practice similar forms of art and have oral traditions that explain their symbolism.

However, there are also some arguments that challenge the symbolic interpretation of prehistoric art. Some of them are:

– The difficulty of dating and attributing prehistoric art to specific cultures or periods. (Although this may be changing, more on this later!) 

– The possibility of alternative explanations for prehistoric art production, such as sensory deprivation, hallucination, or imitation.

– The lack of direct evidence for the cognitive abilities and language skills of prehistoric humans.

– The risk of projecting modern assumptions and biases onto ancient cultures and artifacts.

Therefore, prehistoric art remains a mystery and a source of debate among scholars and enthusiasts alike. Prehistoric art reveals some aspects of the minds who created it, but also hides many others. Prehistoric art is an insight into the prehistoric mind, but also a challenge to our own. We can learn so much about the minds of those who created these masterpieces, but the true, underlying meaning of these works may forever remain shrouded in mystery. 

While having art does show that clearly there is a level of cognition that is not seen in non-human primates or any other animal, just exactly what it means for us, as well as how and why it developed, is not clear at this time. There are many great researchers working on these questions and problems, and hopefully, soon we will have more information that can reveal some of these secrets. 

One of the most fascinating aspects of this, and the idea that complex thinking may have arisen thanks to art, is that Modern Humans are not the only ones to practice this. Neanderthals have been found to produce cave art, as well as other basic forms of art, and there are hypotheses that Dr. Lee Berger is about to reveal that Homo naledi created something, although we have no idea what, and this is pure speculation but created something down in those dark caves. 

So does art reveal what it means to be human, or does it mystify it even more? 

What do you think about prehistoric art and complex thinking? Do you have any questions or comments? Let us know in the section below. And don’t forget to subscribe to our blog for more updates on Paleoanthropology. Thanks for reading!


Wayman, E. (2012). When did the human mind evolve to what it is today? Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from

Khan Academy. (n.d.). Paleolithic technology, culture, and art. Retrieved from

Internet Public Library. (n.d.). The importance of prehistoric art. Retrieved from

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (n.d.). Introduction to prehistoric art, 20,000–8000 B.C. Retrieved from

Published by sethchagi

I am a Paleoanthropology Student, so far with two degrees, in Anthropology and Human Behavioral Science, pursuing my B.A and then my PhD I love to read (like a lot) and write, I love my family, and I adore anthropology! Remember, never stop exploring and never stop learning! There is always more to learn!

One thought on “Prehistoric Art and Human Cognition

  1. The hand art appears ritualistic to me like it’s something that marks an accomplishment in a individuals life. It’s beautiful to see and makes me think when their image is added they become part of something larger than themself. Just my thought.


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