Cro-Magnon artists painting in Font de Gaume, Charles R. Knight - 1920

Cave Men (and Women) & Dinosaurs

By M.D. Jackson and G. W. Thomas

From skin-clad pin-up girls to serious depictions of our ancestors from the prehistoric past

Researchers have discovered a brand new species of human ancestor buried deep inside a South African cave system. The fossils uncovered included fifteen 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, 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.

Serious and Scholarly

Charles R. Knight was a serious artist whose paintings of prehistoric animals made him most 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 was created 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.

Alley-Ooop!

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 Flintstones’ imagery has become part of the Twentieth Century’s popular culture and regularly finds its way into fine art, most notably with George Barr’s less than flattering portraits of Betty Rubble.

The word “caveman” conjures up a number of images immediately. Some see skin-clad beauties living in caves and battling dinosaurs or saber-toothed tigers. The monsters are animated in a jerky Ray Harryhausen style. This has been Hollywood’s take on our ancient past. Others see it differently.

The idea of prehistoric humans is not that old. It began in the 19th Century with discoveries in the Neander Valley and Cro-Magnon regions of Germany and France. The earliest example of “caveman” fiction includes one chapter of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864). English writers of cavemen stories include Stanley Waterloo, H. R. Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, and the American, Jack London. These first writers attempted to portray early humans in their daily lives. It would take the Pulpsters like Edgar Rice Burroughs, inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912), to launch erroneous dinosaurs at them during fantastic adventures in the land of Pellucidar and elsewhere. That was only another fifty years before Rachel Welch would do battle with a pterodactyl.

Now to be honest, we understand the Science. We even have a vague idea of what 65,000,000 years means on the geological scale. Despite that, we grew up in Pellucidar, roaming the wild jungles with David Innes and Abner Perry, as they encountered everything from sabertooths to pterodactyls. We went with Bowen Tyler in a submarine to a Land That Time Forgot and saw cavemen who evolve as individuals instead of species. And we followed Tarzan (who was Terrible indeed) to Pal-U-Don where men have tails and captives are locked in an arena with a raging triceratops.

We’re hopeless.


There is so much more to this topic and M. D. Jackon & G. W Thomas’ article in the second issue of Dark Worlds Quarterly goes much further in depth. You can read the entire article and more in the latest issue of DARK WORLDS QUARTERLY. Download issue # 2 for FREE right here, or click on the download button below!