All animals, from the least developed to the most advanced, search for shelter. For some it is to find a place to spend the night, for some like reptiles and birds it is to lay and hatch eggs, others to quietly raise their young and defend themselves from predators, others still exploit natural cavities in tree trunks or among rocks as shelter, others build shelter, in short, there is an infinite variety of natural or artificial places to feel protected and to defend themselves from the dangers of nature.
There are animals that go in search of a shelter just to rest, to defend themselves from the heat or cold depending on the cases and places. Lions, for example, find refuge in the shade of plants to defend themselves from the rays of the sun and, hippos take refuge during the day in the waters of lakes and rivers and go out at night to feed themselves. Many species of monkeys climb to the top of plants to defend themselves against predators and to spend the night there. Common chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) build nests-shelter on the forks of plants and away from the ground, to take a nap or to spend the night there and every day they build shelters at dusk by breaking the fronds of trees. Gorillas, given their size, and the fact that they have no natural enemies, with the exception of humans, build bedding on the ground. In short, there is in nature an infinite number of places in which to feel psychologically safe and quiet.
Children find their safest shelter in the arms of their mothers. We all felt this need when we were young, especially when we felt insecure and threatened by external dangers, by a bully, an overbearing and older child or by the threatening stare of an adult. Why did our ancestors, since the beginning of time, feel it necessary to find refuge, especially with only one access? Naturally, they felt this need, more or less, as all the other animals felt, thanks to our rapid evolutionary path which allowed us to develop truly amazing cultural forms. The cave life of our ancestors, of family groups, has enabled cognitive, intellectual and even artistic development in a significant way. If we want to find the origin of our culture was born, we really have to start with caves.
A very indicative place, although not the only one, where we find it, for example, is in the caves of Lascaux, France, famous all over the world and not only among paleoanthropologists. The Lascaux men were already sapiens of the Upper Paleolithic dating back 20-14 thousand years. The caves are very primitive shelters, but fundamentally safe and easy to defend against predators like bears and big cats, to light fire to warm up, to cook meat, to rest under the skins of their animals killed with the first lithic tools made with the technique of pointed and two-sided chipped stones, blade, etc. In the collective imagination, these scenes are very representative of a distant world, but not too much, if we think that our evolutionary path is dating back millions of years and not thousands, as in the case of the men of Lascaux.
Of course, not all men in the Paleolithic took refuge in caves. For example, in the Ancient Paleolithic, men who lived in the grasslands, where there were no natural plants and caves, began to build shelters with their hands, domed tents, using the skins of animals caught and killed, deer horns and of big bones of mammoth. But it is not so much about these men that we want to talk about, but those who, like the men of Lascaux, or of the caves ‘Balzi Rossi’ near the Grimaldi resort of Ventimiglia (Imperia, Italy), or Altamira in Spain, spent their days resting in the caves after hunting. As we know, all these hollows in the rock have become famous, not because they prove that many of our ancestors simply lived in these places, but because they left inside some truly surprising artistic testimonies. They painted on the walls hunting scenes of which many have survived till now, wild animals, ornamental objects, arrows and axes, truly extraordinary that help us understand more than anything else, their artistic and aesthetic of life. Rather than reflecting on the artistic meaning of these images which fortunately come to us, we need to reflect on the cultural one.
In essence, if these men had not lived for most of their time in these caves and in small communities, could they have developed their artistic sense in this way? Of course not, and that is where we need to start to fully understand our evolutionary path, not just going back to our ancestors, to the earliest Homo sapiens or even further back, for example, to Homo erectus (ergaster) 1.6 million years ago or to Homo habilis (rudolphensis) 1.8 million years ago, or even Australopithecus afarensis 3.7 million years ago, but much earlier, that is, when neither us humans nor our ancestors were yet on Earth. And who are the ‘non-human ancestors’ closest to man? It's the chimpanzee.
Why do we want to start with this monkey (it would be better to say anthropomorphic monkey)? What is special about this animal? As we will see the key to the explanation of the birth of the cavernicular human culture could find an explanation in the social behavior of this animal. In some particular environmental circumstances and situations, in a savanna environment and where natural caves are located, they decided, like our ancestors, to take refuge in these cavities, although of course, this does not mean that chimpanzees started painting the walls of this recess as did the men of Lascaux.
In a study carried out a decade ago in Senegal among chimpanzees living in an area of the country, called Fongoli, there have been cases in which chimpanzees have taken refuge in natural cavities, apparently, in order to defend themselves from the external heat that is really suffocating in these places. It is a rather dry environment and in the middle of the day, the temperatures can reach up to 40 Celsius. Naturally, chimpanzees would prefer to take refuge in the forest, in the shade of plants, perhaps by the shores of a lake or river, but the chimpanzees we are talking about, do not have these possibilities and therefore take refuge where they can, in this case in caves. In conclusion, it is the need for something, in this case, a refuge, that develops ingenuity and therefore the possibility of giving birth and then developing culture, including artistic culture. The fact that our ancestors succeeded and chimpanzees did not, is due only to the fact that we have developed brain and psychological functions, a thought, a symbolism, basically a mind that has allowed it, but not chimpanzees. They have a brain that is almost four times smaller than ours, in relation to the weight of the body in which it is contained. That alone made a difference, nothing else, otherwise even they could start to paint the walls of their caves.
Pruetz, J.D. 2007. Cave use by savanna chimpanzees. Primates, 48: 316-319.
Coyne, J.A. 2009. Why evolution is true. Oxford/New York, Oxford University Press.
Dunbar, R.I.M. 2014. Human evolution: A Pelican introduction. London, Penguin Books Ltd.
Tartabini, A. 2020. Animal and Human culture. Wall Street International Magazine 2020.