Prehistoric cave paintings can be found in many countries, and are some of the oldest records of human activity in existence. At least some of them clearly depict people and animals, and can show us something about peoples and cultures of whom no other record exists. Some have argued that cave paintings can represent stories, and certainly they portray people and society in a way that later civilisations have done through oral traditions and written literature.

Can (any/some/all) cave paintings reasonably be considered to be "literature"? The question is subjective, of course, but it's a type of question that this site has considered before in the tag, so I'm hoping for some sensible and well-thought-out answers here.

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There are two ways to approach this question. The first way is by looking at definitions of literature put forward by those who study literature as a profession. For example, Chris Baldick's The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (2001) provides the following definition (emphasis mine):

a body of written works related by subject-matter (e.g. the literature of computing), by language or place of origin (e.g. Russian literature), or by prevailing cultural standards of merit. In this last sense, 'literature' is taken to include oral, dramatic, and broadcast compositions that may not have been published in written form but which have been (or deserve to be) preserved.

Academia has mostly concentrated on poetry, drama and prose fiction, but even when non-fictional works were included, these were still works that can be studied from a linguistic point of view.

For comparison, the definition in The Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms (2006) by Peter Childs and Roger Fowler begins as follows (emphasis mine):

In present times generally taken to be imaginative compositions, mainly printed but earlier (and still, in some cultures) was oral, whether dramatic, metrical or prose in form. This is a relatively recent usage, having general acceptance in the European languages only from the nineteenth century. Earlier senses have been less restricted: for example, the body of writings in a language, artistic or not; and particularly, the study of such a corpus of written materials.

In other words, non-text compositions are excluded. (Oral compositions can be treated as text, as linguists do.)

The second approach is looking at what gets treated as literature (see What is literature?). However, even though literary theorists argue that you can't define literature by means of certain characteristics, they still assume that literature is textual and thus excludes the graphical and plastic arts.

Even the Nature article Is this cave painting humanity’s oldest story? referenced by the question describes the 44,000-year-old cave painting as "figurative art", not as text, writing or literature. (Even when it describes the cave paintings as "narrative artworks", the term "scene" seems to be preferred by the archaeologists.)

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    In literary theory, a text is anything that can be seen to transmit a message, from a novel to a street sign to a style of clothing. Within that domain a cave painting is certainly a text. However, I don't think theorists would say that any text necessarily qualifies as literature.
    – dbmag9
    Sep 22, 2022 at 21:56
  • @dbmag9 I think you're confusing cultural studies with literary studies. The definitions I have cited are unequivocally about text in a linguistic sense.
    – Tsundoku
    Sep 23, 2022 at 8:19
  • I'm not disagreeing with you, just providing a separate context in which cave paintings would be counted as a text. Literary theory is a real field (although distinct from the study of literature), no confusion here.
    – dbmag9
    Sep 23, 2022 at 8:42

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