For decades, they have been presented as pioneers of creativity who left a rich legacy of artistic expression. But recent research has revealed that Stone Age cave painters were little more than sexually charged, intoxicated teenagers intent on vandalism.
In the legendary Lascaux caves in France's Dordogne, there are indeed colourful scenes of deer and woolly mammoths. But the majority of prehistoric work shows little more than human genitalia crudely scratched into stone.
"In schools all over the world, you go to the toilets and far enough back in the toilet booth you'll start seeing these same sexual images," said Professor Dale Guthrie, a US-based expert in the field. In his new book, The Nature of Palaeolithic Art, he argues that most ancient artists were motivated by the most powerful force known to early man - sex.
The claims were made by Professor Guthrie's team after examining 3,000 ancient images. "That adolescent giggles echoed in dark cave passages demeans neither artists nor art," said Professor Guthrie. "Why did they do it? Well, it was fun."
Professor Guthrie used forensic techniques to study one of the most common shapes represented: human handprints. By comparing them to the hands of nearly 1,000 modern people, he found that they were mostly made by adolescent boys. He also found prints from all ages and both sexes.
But palaeontologists have criticised the claims. Sheff- ield University's Paul Pettitt, who discovered Britain's first example of palaeolithic art at Cresswell Crags, said most ancient art was too difficult to be simply doodles. "The images are often in areas that are hard to access," he said. "Considerable effort was put into these images. It wasn't just somebody bored on a Sunday."
Tag Lines: Banksy on an ancient and noble art form
The graffiti artist Banksy paid his own tribute to prehistoric cave painters by smuggling a fake rock painting into the British Museum last year.
"The only art to survive was made by those on the margins of society, driven into dank caves to paint," he said yesterday. "If our civilisation was destroyed, future generations would piece together life in the 21st century using only the scrawlings on our subway walls."
The image of a stick figure pushing a shopping trolley and chasing a wildebeest, titled Early Man Goes to Market, hung in the British Museum for three days before it was spotted by curators.
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