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The species found most often were suitable for hunting by humans, but were not necessarily the actual typical prey found in associated deposits of bones; for example, the painters of Lascaux have mainly left reindeer bones, but this species does not appear at all in the cave paintings, where equine species are the most common.
Drawings of humans were rare and are usually schematic as opposed to the more detailed and naturalistic images of animal subjects. O'Hara, geologist, suggests in his book Cave Art and Climate Change that climate controlled the themes depicted.
Although individual figures are less naturalistic, they are grouped in coherent grouped compositions to a much greater degree.
The most common subjects in cave paintings are large wild animals, such as bison, horses, aurochs, and deer, and tracings of human hands as well as abstract patterns, called finger flutings.
Similarly, large animals are also the most common subjects in the many small carved and engraved bone or ivory (less often stone) pieces dating from the same periods.
But these include the group of Venus figurines, which have no real equivalent in cave paintings.
In November 2018, scientists reported the discovery of the oldest known figurative art painting, over 40,000 (perhaps as old as 52,000) years old, of an unknown animal, in the cave of Lubang Jeriji Saléh on the Indonesian island of Borneo.
He hypothesizes that the main themes in the paintings and other artifacts (powerful beasts, risky hunting scenes and the representation of women in the Venus figurines) are the work of adolescent males, who constituted a large part of the human population at the time. Rock painting was also performed on cliff faces; but fewer of those have survived because of erosion.Henri Breuil interpreted the paintings as hunting magic to increase the abundance of prey.Another theory, developed by David Lewis-Williams and broadly based on ethnographic studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, is that the paintings were made by paleolithic shamans.Pigments used include red and yellow ochre, hematite, manganese oxide and charcoal.Sometimes the silhouette of the animal was incised in the rock first, and in some caves all or many of the images are only engraved in this fashion, taking them somewhat out of a strict definition of "cave painting".