What might our distant ancestors have believed? When they created cave paintings, were they simply for decoration, or a way to celebrate their religion? These were the questions posed to key stage 1 pupils at Linton CofE Infant School in Cambridge when they were visited by freelance RE consultant Durga-Mata Chaudhuri for a cave-painting workshop.
Pupils had first been asked what they thought religion was. And all of them had very different ideas. "Religion is something that you do once a week," one pupil answered. Another said, somewhat inexplicably, "It's a bit like electricity."
Rock paintings decorate caves across the world, giving us clues to early man's lifestyle. But they also raise many questions. Pupils were asked to consider why animals are so prominent in the paintings. Is it because they were important as food? Were the paintings communications with animals' spirits? Or were they a form of worship?
"We can't know the answers, but we can think about the questions and try to identify with those people and see through their eyes," Chaudhuri says.
After studying cave paintings from Europe and Africa, pupils became cave painters. They used materials available to their ancestors more than 20,000 years ago and made pictures inspired by the paintings they had seen. They created black paint using garden soil, ochre paint from sand and a creamy white paste by crushing lumps of chalk with clay.
Ancient paintings are often arranged on top of each other, grouped in a particular area of caves. Prehistorian Jean Clottes suggests that these sites and images may have had a spiritual significance. In the cave of Chauvet-Pont-D'Arc, France, for example, where cave paintings thought to be between 28,000 and 40,000 years old are believed to be among the world's oldest, a bear's skull sits on a stone slab. Could this have been an altar?
Pupils might believe in a different god from their peers as well as from their ancestors. But the minerals and animals Stone Age people relied on, and perhaps even worshipped, are still important today. Cave painting is a great way to explore the things that draw pupils closer together regardless of faith.
Durga-Mata Chaudhuri is a freelance RE consultant, artist and member of the TES RE panel. For more information about her courses, visit www.bluelotus-art.co.uk or www.bluelotus.co
See an outline of durgamata's cave painting workshop.
Check out more of durgamata's resources on the TES website.
Watch Werner Herzog's film Cave of Forgotten Dreams for an exploration of the paintings in the cave of Chauvet-Pont-D'Arc.
For a scheme of work on early man, see potatosoup's topic plan.