Were Cavemen Better at Drawing Animals Than Today’s Artists?

One thing I really like studying about ancient humans is how superior they were to modern humans. Ancient man is often depicted as inferior and less evolved, but in many ways it was just the opposite.

Here’s an article found in Discover showing how ancient man-or cavemen- were better at drawing animals than modern man. Gábor Horváth, a biological physicist at Eötvös University in Hungary, demonstrated that Paleolithic cave painters understood the laws governing animal motion better than most modern day artists.

In order to conduct his research, Horváth studied the pioneering work of Eadweard Muybridge, an English photographer who, in 1887, published stop-motion photos of animals walking. The photos published by Muybridge allowed artists to study the gait of animals walking.

Horváth then collected artist’s images of various walking quadrupeds and divided them into two groups: those before Muybridge’s 1887 study, and those after his study, and then compared both groups to prehistoric paintings. And it turns out that the prehistoric painters were the “most reliably accurate” artists of either group.

This is pretty cool and shouldn’t surprise us if we understand man’s origin and genetics. According to the Bible, God created man perfect and without sin. Adam and Eve were genetically superior to any other human because they were the blueprint for the rest of mankind. Adam, for example, lived 930 years, Methuselah lived 969 years, and Noah lived 950 years. It wasn’t until after Noah’s flood that humanity began to decline, and that decline was the result of losing all the genetic variation when humans perished in the flood. Only those aboard the ark would have survived, and therefore Noah’s family carried what remained of the human gene pool- which was now suddenly limited- and so it’s not surprising that mutations would eventually lead to a decline in humanity, and that would certainly have an impact on our artistic capabilities.

If, on the other hand, we were more evolved and superior than our ancient ancestors- as evolutionists would suggest- then we should always observe modern humans as superior in every way. What we observe, however, doesn’t support this. Scientific observations have, time and again, demonstrated ancient man as superior in many ways, despite the lack of access to knowledge and information that they possessed, and that we take for granted. The technology possessed by modern man was created and shaped by our ancestors who pioneered the way for us.

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9 thoughts on “Were Cavemen Better at Drawing Animals Than Today’s Artists?

  1. I’m not really surprised by this, but not for genetic reasons.

    Ancient man depended upon animals to live–they provided tools, shelters, clothing, and most importantly, food. His entire existence revolved around studying in animals in order to survive. So it seems perfectly reasonable that such an ancient person would be more competent in regard to animal motion than a modern day human who spends most of his or her time indoors and not interacting with wild animals on a daily basis.

    The author of the study himself even theorized that this was simply a loss of skill due to technology. It’s a simple case of use it or lose it. If I learn French and then stop using it for years and forget most of it, all I would need to do is start using it again and relearning it; there’s no reason why my competency wouldn’t match my previous benchmark. Similarly, I’m sure that if technology disappeared tomorrow and you and I depended upon hunting and trapping to survive we’d get a heck of a lot better understanding animal motion.

    I’m not really sure why we’re deriving an evolutionary conclusion from this. If we’re talking about ancient man from, say, 5,000 years ago, said ancient human would have had exactly the same brain that modern humans have, so of course there’s no observed “superiority” (which is a very subjective term) in modern man: the biology is the same, the only thing that’s changed is the date at which we’re observing said men.

    • I can see how one could come to such a conclusion. There are two ways to view this: 1: a naturalistic worldview in which only natural processes can be used to explain the findings. 2: a Biblical worldview in which we accept the Bible’s claims about creation and age of the earth and universe.

      With the naturalistic worldview one is trying to fit the observed evidence into the box of evolution, and I don’t think that presents the best explanation for the data. I think a Biblical or creationist explanation better fits the data.

      If we examine your explanation, modern farmers that work with animals every day should be better artists than other artists, including prehistoric man. You speak generally about modern man being indoors and not interacting with wild animals on a daily basis, but that ignores those who do work with animals on a daily basis (farmers, zoo keepers, vets, etc.). However since we do have many groups of people who work with animals on a daily basis (in fact I’d bet that there are more humans living today who interact with animals on a daily basis than there were prehistoric humans at any particular time in the past), we shouldn’t see such a wide discrepancy.

      Sure, we can theorize that this was simply a loss of skill due to technology, but that ignores something else… evolutionists have told us that prehistoric man was a savage brute, less evolved, less human and inferior to modern humans. If this is the case, then that doesn’t speak very well for us if we can lose a skill to such a degree that our distant, inferior ancestors were able to surpass us with much greater skill.I mean, could we lose our level of artistry so much that an ape could surpass us?

      Your French example sounds plausible, but how could something that could barely grunt in English surpass your French speaking skills?

      And if we lost all technology tomorrow, I’d suggest that we wouldn’t do as well as our ancestors did. I don’t think we’d be able to return to our present-day level of technology as quickly as man did so in the 4,000 years or so since the flood.

      I also don’t know why we’re deriving an evolutionary conclusion from this, and I agree that there’d be no observed superiority in modern man. But we would expect a decline due to genetics. We’d inevitably pass along more and more mistakes in our gene pool from generation to generation (as opposed to gaining or evolving intellect), and that would also explain why we’re not as good as our ancestors. And I think that makes better sense of the data than any evolutionary explanation.

      • I think we’re getting at two issues here. What are we defining as “ancient” in this scenario? The article never really does a good job delineating that. I’m using terms like ancient and modern fairly broadly and colloquially here. An evolutionary biologist or an anthropologist would deem any incarnation of the genus homo sapiens to be “modern man” since that’s what we are. If that’s the case, then I don’t think mainstream scientists think that homo sapiens from, say, 10,000 years ago were savages or brutes at all. However, if we’re saying “ancient” as a way of describing some earlier branch on the evolutionary tree that came before Homo sapiens, then we’ve opened the field more to include beings that most likely did not have the cranial capacity and intellectual capacity to be on par with modern man.

        The second point that I’d like to make is that artistic talent is not inherent in everyone. This goes back to your example of farmers and zoologists, etc. I’m pretty familiar with fruit, but I couldn’t draw a bowl of apples to save my life. I love music but I cant carry a tune. An engineer can draft technical blueprints and schematics for highly complex machinery, but does that automatically mean that he or she would be able to paint the completed object? No. Some people are naturally inclined to be more artistic. Some of those people will probably happen to be among the very small number of people who work with animals everyday; the majority probably won’t. But more to the point, I’m not sure how we can draw conclusions about the artistic abilities of modern day farmers. Perhaps many of them would be good at painting animals if their artistic talents were cultivated. Who knows? There’s zero data to speak to this point. I would imagine that most farmers are incredibly busy doing their work and have very little time to think about art and painting.

        In fact, it might have been farming itself that could account for such a loss of artistic skill. I once read that the typical hunter-gatherer spent about 15 hours a week procuring food. Once man developed agriculture, the amount of time spent working greatly increased. It would seem like our hunter gatherer forefathers had a lot more free time on their hands, which might have played a role in them having more time to practice art.

    • Yes, it does look like there are two different issues we’re dealing with here. When I read the article I understood the terms “caveman” and “prehistoric” to refer to pre-humans or those creatures on their way to becoming human that lived in caves before any recorded history and before civilization. You’re right that the article (as well as the peer review in Plos One) doesn’t define these terms, so I was envisioning less evolved humans. It was hard to find any dates attached to the artwork, but as I do some web searches I’m finding dates ranging from 14,000 years ago to over 45,000 years ago, possibly including Neanderthals. I’d imagine, if evolution had any validity, that anyone living that long ago would arguably be less evolved than we are today. We should have evolved greater skills and brain capabilities over that period of time.

      And I understand completely that artistic talent is not inherent in everyone. I’m sure some chimps are better painters than some modern humans. But that’s why I was careful to point out a comparison between ancient man and modern man. You mentioned that ancient man (cavemen) had his entire existence revolving around the study of animals in order to survive, and therefore was more competent in regard to animal motion than modern day humans who spend most of their time indoors and not interacting with animals on a daily basis. I found that to be an invalid comparison. Why compare those who “might” have spent time studying animals in order to survive with those who “don’t” spend time around animals? Why not compare apples to apples- if we assume that these cave painters had an advantage because it’s assumed that they spent a considerable amount of time studying animals, then why not compare them to modern people or artists who spend much of their time studying animals? Surely modern painters who bother painting animals have spent a considerable amount of time studying animals. Who’s to say that cavemen really had more time to spend studying animals than artists who draw art for a living? Isn’t it simply assumed that they didn’t have anything better to do than draw?

      Further, with artistic talent, suppose we have Joe Caveman hunting and gathering for 15 hours a week 26,000 years ago, and Fred Smith painting in his art studio after spending time at the local zoo roughly fifty hours a week. Why would Joe Caveman produce better drawings than Fred, who is supposedly more advanced? Or if we have Farmer Green who spends 60 hours a week farming and taking care of his animals. Why assume that a hunter and gatherer would have more artistic talent than a farmer? Isn’t it possible that, with the billions of humans living today, that there might be a few farmers with artistic talent that could rival a caveman?

      I guess what I’m getting at is that there’s no excuse for the observations obtained for this study. I think we’re making excuses for modern man that aren’t valid. All things considered, artistic talent is certainly important to consider, but that doesn’t excuse modern man from being less artistically talented than someone less evolved. I think it’s absurd to assume that prehistoric cave painters were superior to us because they had so much more time to devote to studying animals and their artwork. I think that’s simply an assumption meant to prop up evolution and isn’t supported by the evidence. It’s an afterthought to explain away any evolutionary conflict.

      And that’s one of the many problems I have with evolution. The evidence supports creation and not evolution. Yet anyone can come up with a plausible explanation to explain away that contradiction. I think the story falsifies evolution, yet we can make up scenarios to alleviate the inherent problem with the results of the study. All this leads me to conclude that evolution really isn’t falsifiable, which means it’s not science. Science is supposed to be falsifiable, and if all the evidence in the world points away from evolution and towards creation, evolutionists can still invent stories to maintain a belief in evolution.

      The bottom line is that cavemen were better artists and more reliably accurate than modern artists. That’s a problem for evolutionists, but not creationists.

      • Well, not knowing any modern painters, I can’t speak to the time they spend studying animals. Perhaps you can, but I’ve never seen data regarding how many hours any given modern artist spends studying animal motion, if they even study it at all. It seems that your apples to apples comparison is also making wild assumptions about the modern study or art and the modern artist.

        My overall point is that there’s absolutely no way to tell if those cave painters were the Renoir’s, Picasso’s, and Van Gogh’s of their time or whether they we’re just Tom, Dick, and Harry passing a lazy Sunday afternoon. The generalizations made by the article are staggering.

        As an evolutionist, I have no problem with this. As I already explained–and as the article itself asserted–this is a case of the “use it or lose it” principle. There’s absolutely zero evidence for any sort of genetic basis for this claim about artistic superiority in either group of people.

        The study itself also begs some interesting questions:

        “Horváth knew that most four-legged mammals (except primates) walk using a specific footfall sequence — left hind, left fore, right hind, right fore — for maximum stability. But studying paintings and sculptures in museums and even examining his own childhood toys, he noticed the depictions were often wrong. Unlike real animals, the rendered ones often appeared to move in a diagonal — left-right-left-right — sequence, suggesting they were always on the run. ”

        To me, that sounds like the author is basically saying cavemen painted animals walking while modern artists and sculptors depict them running–not that their understanding of biomechanics is completely backwards. But more to the point, his studies say nothing to the fact that there are NO modern artists capable of depicting what he considers (read that with an emphasis) to be correct animal motion–only that the artists who painted what he studied chose to depict them in a different way.

    • I can’t say that I know any modern painters who routinely draw animals, and perhaps my apples-to-apples comparison is also making some wild assumptions, but at least it’s possible to quantify modern artist skill-sets. Maybe it would be a better comparison to find out what modern artists actually grew up on a farm or spent a considerable amount of time at the zoo. I’m sure some children who’ve grown up on farms have become artists, and maybe they should be one of the comparison groups.

      As for myself, I’m no artist, even though I grew up next door to a pig farm. I don’t even recall drawing a pig before. But I don’t see how one could draw the “use it or lose it” principle from this article. It’s an unfounded assumption that modern humans have lost the skill to observe. It’s possible that could be the case, but the study doesn’t support such a conclusion- it just assumes it. It seems that Horváth himself was quite good at observation, as he was able to pick out something from the artwork that I wouldn’t have noticed myself, so I’m not sure how we could conclude that prehistoric men had better observational skills than us. Maybe we could argue that with a room full of detectives, or those who demonstrate good observational skills. Observational skills, like artistic talent, is not inherent in everyone. Some are better than others, so it’s not fair to say that we’ve lost the skill to observe or produce art. He’s suggesting that these hunters would go out, hunt, and really observe the way the animals were walking or running, and then these hunters and gatherers would have enough time on their hands that they’d be able to put their observational skills to work with reliably accurate drawings. I’d think they’d be more worried about tracking and killing the animal (and not becoming a meal themselves) than observing how it walked. Such observations would probably be a distraction.

      Nonetheless, how many “artists” could there have been in the human population that lived over 14,000 years ago? I’m coming up with less than a million, which isn’t a very large sample size. Yet the majority of those cave painters outperform modern man. Despite the points you’ve made I find this amazing if evolution is true. How can we attribute this to a lack of observational skills if we can’t even test the subjects involved? That’s nothing more than an assumption that can’t be proven- it can only be asserted without anything to back it up except our imagination. We can test modern people’s ability to observe, but how can we compare that to those living 14,000- 45,000 years ago? Some people and some artists are better observers than others, but that doesn’t mean we’ve lost the ability to observe, even though it’s a possibility worth considering. But it remains a rescue agent with little to support it.

      It’s also interesting to note that one of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch of a horse was one of the erroneous drawings considered in the study.

      I totally agree that the generalizations in the article are staggering, and that’s one of the reasons I wrote about it. I’m not sure how one can come up with any of the conclusions Horváth, even if they benefit the creationist position… maybe he is a creationist 😉

      And of course my conclusion that that our ancestors were superior to us is just as much a generalization as Horváth’s, but it’s also just as valid. From a creationist perspective, we’d expect a decline in humans over time due to a buildup of mutations and diseases of all kinds. All the mutations we’ve received from our ancestors are not making us more fit, but less fit. If we’re really losing skills, then that further supports the creationist cause because that’s what we’d expect. Evolution, to a large degree, assumes that we’re evolving to be more fit, yet the study, even if faulty, demonstrates otherwise.

      • I think the big problem here is ability vs capacity. It’s very easy to measure whether or not someone has the ability to do something, but it’s much harder to determine whether or not someone has the capacity to do something. To my ears, it sounds like you and Horvath are asserting that ability and capacity are mutually exclusive. Where I, and evolutionary biologists, would disagree is with this exclusivity. The ability or inability to do something is not necessarily reflective of the capacity to do or understand something.

    • I saw that livescience, phys.org, Huffington Post, Science Daily, smithsonianmag, scienceblog and stonepages also posted articles on this, but none of them pointed out any flaws in the data. The post at Smithsonianmag is interesting:

      “The iconic caveman in popular culture is Fred Flintstone: slow-witted and unskilled. In general, we think of the cave art produced by prehistoric people as crude and imprecise too—a mere glimmer of the artistic mastery that would blossom millenia later, during the Renaissance and beyond. If this is your impression of prehistoric humans, a new study published today in PLOS ONE by researchers from Eotvos University in Budapest, Hungary, might surprise you.”

      This kind of implies what I mentioned earlier, that this study comes as a surprise to many evolutionists.

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