Researchers have discovered a brand new species of human ancestor buried deep inside a South African cave system. The fossils uncovered included 15 partial skeletons, making it the biggest single discovery of its kind in Africa. This newly discovered human ancestor, named Homo naledi, may have been one of the first members of our genus, and may change our understanding of human evolution forever.
Now while that is exciting scientific news it made me think about art. Specifically about the different depictions of our distant ancestors from fantasy and science fiction art. So here we go with… Cavemen (and women)!
Depictions of cavemen in science fiction and fantasy art range from the serious and scientific to the whimsical and silly. I’ll try and include a little bit of both, but I guess I should start with the cavemen themselves. Art has been with the human race almost as long as weapons have. Cave paintings, like the ones found in caves in Lascaux, in France, can be found all over the world, wherever early human beings settled. The earliest date back as many as 40,000 years.
They depict animals and the hunt for them, important activities for early mankind. They also depict early self portraits… after a fashion. Outlines of the cave people’s hands are etched into the walls of some caves. It’s the earliest way that human beings had to say “We were here” to future generations. Little did they know that those group hand portraits would echo thousands and thousands of years into the future.
Charles R. Knight was a serious artist whose paintings of prehistoric animals made him moist famous and most sought after. Knight’s work has appeared in almost all the most prestigious museums all over the United States and was a frequent contributor to National Geographic Magazine.
Knights portrait of Cro-Magnon artists painting in Font-de-Gaume painted in 1920, shows the act of creating cave paintings with all the majesty and significance that Knight can muster. The prehistoric artist here is depicted as heroically as any depiction of a great historical figure.
But then, not all depictions of cavemen were meant to be taken seriously. Alley-Ooop, for example, was a comic book caveman in a syndicated comic strip, created in 1932 by American cartoonist V. T. Hamlin. The strip was extremely popular and ran for four decades. Alley Oop, the strip’s title character, was a sturdy citizen in the prehistoric kingdom of Moo. He rode his pet dinosaur, Dinny, carried a stone war hammer and wore nothing but a fur loincloth.
Alley Oop was eventually supplanted by The Flintstones, the modern stone-age family. Hanna-Barbera can boast that they created the second most successful prime-time animated television show (after The Simpsons), however the Flinstones’ imagery has become part of the twentieth century’s popular culture and regularly finds it was into fine art, most notably with George Barr’s less than flattering portraits of Betty Rubble.
Some of Frank Frazetta’s most well known paintings are of cavemen (and women) which is not surprising as he was one of the primary illustrators of the fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose books regularly featured prehistoric settings. Like J. Allen St. John decades before Frazetta, his Burroughs illustrations featured more than their fair share of cave folk.
Cave men and cave girls have been depicted in movies in both serious and silly depictions. The iconic image of Raquel Welch as a well endowed cave girl certainly inspired more than a few artists to try their hands at depicting life in the prehistoric.
However you prefer it, scientific or silly, cave men and women are (and probably always will be) a staple of science fiction and fantasy art.