The Boy of the Painted Cave

A cave boy opposes beliefs of elders and tribal society.

Rejected by the tribe for his club foot, Tao's success as a cave artist depended on choosing between his tribe's mystical traditions and the truth of his own experience.

Full Review

Near the Pyrenée Mountains of Southern France, perhaps twenty thousand years ago, young Tao was repeatedly rejected by his tribe. As a baby his club foot might have been a death sentence, but his mother had fought the elders’ judgment to save him. Though she died very early, knowledge of her character taught Tao that his life depended on his judgment.

Tao, which roughly means “the way of that which is real”, had his mother’s talent with craft and design. To move better, he found a way to apply his clubfoot to the base of a spear handle (or pole), obtaining a lever action that enhanced his stride. Though only fourteen years old, the most athletic adults had trouble keeping up with him. His great love was the superb cave paintings of the Shamans. He drew animals whenever he could but, not being a Shaman, he knew he would be banished or killed if discovered.

Tao’s perspective as an outcast helped him see the world with his own eyes, unfiltered by the authority of tribal custom. The elders believed clubfooted infants could not travel, yet he was able to move adeptly. The elders believed wolves brought bad luck, but Tao’s shocking encounter with a wolf proved otherwise. The elders believed the swamp was inhabited by demons, but Tao soon saw differently. And, of utmost importance to Tao, the elders believed cave drawings influenced the spirits of migratory animals, bringing feast or famine to the clan. Tao’s secret drawings of animals had no such influence. He only saw how drawings could capture the beauty and spirited character of the animals he admired, as he appreciated them.

But Tao’s clear vision was no immediate source of security. His secret time spent drawing so reduced the amount of game he brought to the tribe that he was banished anyway. Staying within the limits of one’s tribe offers a certain security, but outside those limits there was a world of dangers to overcome, and of riches to discover.

Justin Denzel has created a character that holds his own mind sacrosanct,  never intellectually subservient to the minds that surround him. A true hero could not be less.

Boy of the Painted Cave raises several issues that may be pertinent to youthful readers:

  • How can Tao kill and eat animals when he can see the beauty in them while they are alive?
  • Maybe the shamans truly believed they communicated with spirits, but do today’s religious leaders truly believe it too?
  • The clan members believed in various omens, spirits and demons, and trusted in special amulets and curses to protect them or to fight off threats. Is modern religious practice any different?
  • What facts of reality might a man adhere to, that would put him at odds with modern society?

Boy of the Painted Cave is most certainly a book for one’s home library. A specialized study program for this novel, in student and teacher’s versions, can be purchased from

  • ❔❔❔❔❔❔

    What is wrong with Tao’s foot

  • Richard Bramwell

    Tao had what is known as a “club foot”… a deformed foot that is twisted so that the sole cannot be placed flat on the ground. It is typically congenital but can be a result of polio. Here is a picture from the Mayo Clinic:

    Tao’s fictional club foot was likely congenital. A minor club foot is an isolated problem that does not signify any other abnormality. Even severe clubbing of both fee can be fairly easily corrected by modern medicine. (Use an Internet Search, e.g. Google, to see more images and explanations.) To a ‘cave man’ ita club goot was a serious survival issue. But if Tao’s was similar to the picture, and only one foot, you can imagine how he might use a suitably shaped stick (like a stilt) held in one hand & supporting the club foot to more than compensate for his limitation.

    Such abnormalities can influence a child’s view of life –negatively– but should not. The author deliberately makes Tao an exception. So many of us humans sense our own disabilities/weaknesses and let them change how we look on life and how we choose to live. Those who do best work past their limitations.

  • Richard Bramwell

    Vania, thanks for your comment. Yes, mammoths existed at the same time as early Humans (Homo sapiensi) and Neanderthals (H.neanderthalensis). You are quite right that vegetarian societies survive poorly.

    Societies dominated by Jainism do not do well against other societies, such as those dominated by Hinduism and Islamism. Jains are adherents to an ascetic belief system that depends on the rest of (Indian) society for food and, taken to its fullest extent, pretty much everything else needed for life. A ‘full out’ Jain, or Jina must live by a certain hypocrisy: while refusing to harm any living thing they are happy to eat food made from living things by other people.

    Your comment on the study questions for Boy of The Painted Cave objects to placing humans as a more important life form than other organisms. That is hardly an “elitist liberal” or “academic” view point. Liberals readily embrace a host of views that subordinate human beings to animals and even plant, and many of those views can be found in academia, where they are accepted without question.

    Every living thing has no guarantee of survival. To survive it must act to the best of all its capabilities, to take advantage of things that help it live, otherwise it dies. That is Life. Is it wrong for a human being to live by that standard?

    Some organisms survive better because they have the capability of cooperation, whether genetically inbred or by human intellectual choice. Humans are capable of the latter, if they choose to. Those people who do work cooperatively, especially on a societal scale, appreciate other human beings, and are more likely to appreciate animals and plants. Consider the more barbaric societies where human life is downplayed, usually in favor of whatever the leadership says they should stand for (hence the bloodshed in communistic & theocratic tyrannies). In addition to horrible human atrocities, the social norms of those societies hold little respect for animals or plants. Their abominable environmental record tends is irrefutable.