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The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists

4.02  ·  Rating details ·  332 ratings  ·  46 reviews
In his new book, Gregory Curtis introduces us to the spectacular cave paintings of France and Spain—to the men and women who rediscovered them, to the varied theories about their origins, to their remarkable beauty and their continuing fascination.

He takes us with him on his own journey of discovery, making us see the astonishing sophistication and power of the paintings,
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published October 10th 2006 by Knopf (first published 2006)
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Nov 20, 2008 rated it really liked it
If, like myself, you are a neophyte at thinking about prehistory, then I have a proposition for you: Try to imagine 30,000 years of human history. And not abstractly, not by simply saying, "Thirty thousand years. Wow. That's a long time," but by really considering the march of 30,000 years.

In relation to the span of a single human life, a few decades ago seems like a long time. For the more historically-minded, a few centuries or even a millennium might constitute "a long time". The geologist o
Jul 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
This the most well-written (non-fiction) history book I've read in a long time! The author brought tens of thousands of years of prehistory and its accompanying archaeological research to life, and the stories he told were moving and profound. I can't really find the words to describe this book. It's incredible to read about the people who made those paintings between 32,000-18,000 years ago. Without these paintings, it's likely that we would have assumed their culture was "primitive" compared t ...more
Feb 21, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In this easily read and fascinating book, Curtis traces the discovery, archaeological exploration, and evolving explanations related to the spectacular cave paintings found especially in the region of the Pyrenees in southwestern France and northeastern Spain, paintings that have been found to have been painted up to 30,000 years ago. He provides a chronology of their discoveries, including the personalities critical to the finding and exploration of each, and he includes details of the response ...more
Dec 02, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Really fascinating, I immediately want to read another book to learn more (one with more pictures!) Includes a lot of history of science which focuses on the archaeologists and the different flawed interpretations and theories that have come and gone over the past 150 or so years since the cave paintings were discovered and first recognized for what they are. I was less interested in the scientists, but his context helped make clear why interpretation and analogy can be dangerous, and just how l ...more
Jul 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Completely engaging. Beautifully written. Mind-blowing.
Reya Kempley
Apr 04, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science, history
A mixture of history, mystery, and speculation, The Cave Painters is a fascinating and engrossing journey through the history of the study of Europe’s Paleolithic cave art. It begins with an introduction for context, which lays out what we know about the history of humans, focusing on the Paleolithic era. Most of the book deals with the past 100 years or so of study and discovery, since it took us some time to realize that these cave paintings were from the Stone Age in the first place! The idea ...more
Apr 11, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This is a readable and insightful history of the study of cave painting as seen through its major practitioners, especially the Abbé Breuil, André Leroi-Gourhan, Max Raphael, Jean Clotte, and many others not so widely known outside the field. Curtis has done thorough research in the major documents, has visited many of the major caves, and has consulted directly with experts in the field, especially Jean Clotte himself, one of the chief figures in the exploration of Chauvet cave. The central cha ...more
Jan 08, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I stand by my review when I first read the book in 2012: A wonderful book! Very well researched and well written. For lay readers, this is an excellent introduction to the art of the prehistoric caves and the Cro-Magnons painters (as well as a little about the Neanderthals who preceded and briefly co-existed with them).

Perhaps because Curtis is a journalist, not an archaeologist or anthropologist, this is an extremely readable and enjoyable book. He gives a lot of detail — as well as
Sep 07, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In preparation for my visit to Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, this was an appropriate and timely read. It was very short and while lacking somewhat in scholarly exactitude, it was entertaining a well as informative in providing an overview as well as theories surrounding a subject I know little about.
And also it is a good starting point for exploring more should I so choose to continue my reading as well as exploring.
Edward Moran
Aug 31, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: art
The book starts with a story of the author and his family going horseback riding in France and visiting the caves nearby. I was just interested in looking at the "rock art" and not reading a whole book on the history of its discovery etc.. If you just want to look at some of the art, I guess you can get it off the Web and Wikipedia. If you have time and want to be entertained, then this book has a lot added besides just the art.
Neil Dryden
Nov 17, 2017 rated it did not like it
I think you could just read Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel and not have to pretend you're treading non-fiction. If I had 3 months to waste on a silly prank I'd write a biography of Curtis, describing important events in his childhood, early heartbreak, his most private inner thoughts, all based on nothing more than this book.
Jan 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book was an excellent overview of Paleolithic cave art. I particularly enjoyed the discussions on the mysteries of the art itself. This is the origin of art and its inspiration but we really have no idea why or the reasons for the subjects (animals) that were painted. Good introduction to the subject. I will read more about this subject.
Penny Lindgren
Oct 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book tells a great story about the discovery of the cave paintings in Spain and France. It also discussed the techniques of archeology used abs looks at how they have advanced. A great read and very informative
Insightful look at the first artists.
Jean Bolan
Oct 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Very readable and informative overview of the cave paintings in southern France. Good complement to tour--wish I had read it first.
J.K. George
Jun 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2009-books
One of those niche books that is a joy to discover. Great work by scientists and others who are unearthing (pun intended) this vast collection of artwork from prehistoric times... by real humans.
Sep 26, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This is an introductory, but very well written book about european prehistoric cave art. If you knew nothing about the matter, you will end with a decent knowledge about the current understanding on it. If you have read about the subject before, you will find the book very illustrative about the people you read from and find out a couple of things you didn't know, while following a very entertaining narrative, heavily anchored in the southern France landscape.

There is something about
Alex Telander
Nov 02, 2007 rated it liked it
THE CAVE PAINTERS: PROBING THE MYSTERIES OF THE WORLD’S FIRST ARTISTS BY GREGORY CURTIS: It was a special day when Gregory Curtis was vacationing in France with his family and entered some famous caves. When he gazed upon the unique cave paintings for the first time, this book was born. The Cave Painters is a two-part story: one small part the story of the rise of Cro-Magnon, modern humans, and their painting abilities; the rest the history of those people who first discovered the paintings and ...more
Aug 19, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book teaches us about the artists who did the intriguing works in the caves of southern France and northern Spain. Curtis tells us about the discoveries of the caves, but his chief contribution is to examine the scholarly debates during the late 19th and 20th century about this fantastic cave art.

How do we moderns evaluate and “explain” this magnificent cave art that dates back 14,000 to 32,000 years? Should we try to explain this art by comparing it with art produced by 'primitive' people
Mar 12, 2011 rated it really liked it
Thank you, Gregory Curtis, for writing this book. I found it absolutely fascinating. Cave painting is one of the oldest forms of art. It dates back 40-30,000 years in a tradition that continued with consistency for an entire 20,000 years among Europe's first homo sapiens. Unbelievably, the images look familiar and relatable to us today. With the first paleolithic cave discovered only about 200 years ago, the dramatic tale of each cave's discovery, and of the competing theories amongst the prehis ...more
Nicole Marble
Aug 27, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: those interested in ancestors
Ice Age cave paintings in Spain and France are beautiful. And many look remarkably similar in style - the side view, the outline with color added to indicate muscle and/or fur. So I was interested in this book 'just because'. But somewhere along the way, the author said that the recently discovered cave at Chauvet was at least 15,000 years older than the long known cave at Lascaux. If you look at the paintings and their style - they are nearly identical. If the dating is correct - and the scient ...more
Sep 15, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Curtis does a fine job of “probing the mysteries of the world’s first artists” in this readable book on the discovery of the cave paintings in Spain and France, done as much as 18,000 years ago. The paintings in the cave at Altamira were discovered 1879 by the young daughter of Marcelino Sautora, who went to the cave with her father one day and looked up at the walls while he was busy digging in the ground. At first, scientists couldn’t believe that the paintings were prehistoric; now there are ...more
Emily Regier
Jan 18, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: favourites
I can't believe there aren't more books readily available about this topic! I'm glad i found this one, though. It was a real treat to dip my toes into a part of history I barely considered before.

The start of it was a little slow and where it wasn't slow it was a bit dramatic and over-written almost. But halfway through it really picks up because it begins to talk about interpretations and bit more and the behind-the-scenes drama of the archeologists involved. It's nice to read about
Oct 14, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This is far from a perfect book, but it's so well researched and so well written for the layman that I can't help but give it five stars. Because the author's relationship is roughly yours (he's not an expert, just a passionate layperson looking for meaning in the oldest art in the world), it's an excellent introduction to the history of western European cave painting and the anthropological/art arguments around them. The negatives are only that there aren't enough illustrations (thank god for t ...more
Oct 12, 2009 rated it really liked it
As someone who was researching Paleolithic paintings for an Art History paper, I found this book extremely helpful. I'm an Art major, not an anthropology major so this was a very good jumping off point and helped me understand the rest of the articles I read. (Most of them were scholarly sludge, which means that it's impossible for people without a degree in radio carbon dating and/or anthropology to make out more than the occasional "the" or "to".)
I have the feeling however that most peop
Jul 12, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, reviewed
I got this book as a gift, and was prepared to find it very boring. I mean, cave paintings. How interesting can that get? I'm glad I was proved wrong.

This book isn't just about cave paintings themselves, it's also the story of the people who find them, the people that look for them, the people that study them, and even the people who made them. There's drama, a little humor, and a healthy dose of awe for what our ancestors were capable of, even in the days before civilization.
Sep 04, 2009 rated it really liked it
Excellent introduction to the history of the discovery of Paleolithic art, both in terms of archeology and paleontology as well as art history. Just what is meant by the art is only hinted at (and, in truth, can at best only be guessed at, anyway).

If you are looking for a lay person's account (Curtis is a reporter, not a scientist) of early man's art and what might be glimpsed of his imagination, this is a great place to start.
Oct 08, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This is really three books in one. The first is a chronology of the discovery of cave art. The second is a history of the various cultures that created the art. The third, an overlap between the first two, is an interpretation of the art, shaped by the struggle between educated guesses as to the mindset of the artists and the personal prejudices of modern-day archaeologists. In short, this is a multi-layered work that can be read more than one way--sort of like the cave art it describes.
Sep 17, 2014 rated it really liked it
My only real wish for this book is that it would be updated! I'd really like to know about newer techniques for image analysis and dating, techniques that were hinted at here. Curtis makes no claim to provide an exhaustive catalog of knowledge about cave art, but he does a splendid job of making things clear to the novice.
Lewis Weinstein
Nov 19, 2011 rated it really liked it
We saw the caves at Lascaux, then read this book. It is incredible to imagine people, perhaps 14,000 years ago, making these drawings. How were decisions made about who would paint and what would be painted? The artists had to be supported, so the community must have provided food and other necessities.
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