The earliest known allusion to mask use is found in a cave in Southern France. It is believed to have been painted around 20,000 BC and depicts a person masked in the skin and antlers of a deer.
Believing the world to be ruled by spirits or supernatural beings, many cultures devised masks to be worn ceremonially for the purpose of appeasing and communicating with these forces. Among the Pueblo Indians of the Southwestern United States, the Hopi Kachina masks, made of leather, gouds, evergreen boughs, feathers, earthen pigments and today, tempera paints, allow the Hopi to participate with the spirits of their ancestors and to facilitate the rising of the sun and the control of rain for which the Hopi believe they are responsible.
Masks in traditional societies are not thought of as art objects. They are functioning sacred objects imbued with tremendous power. The Iroquois False Face mask of the Northeastern Woodland Indians was used to cure the sick. The maks, carved from a living tree, was thought to be inhabited by the spirit of the tree. During a curing ceremony, the spirit would release its medicinal power. In Eskimo culture a mask is the embodiment of a shaman's vision. A shaman makes his mask as a representaion of his jouney to and from the spirit world. The maks is believed to evoke the aid of a particular spirit for the benefit of an individual aor the community as a whole.
Used for ancestor worship, healing of disease, funerals, social contral and prestige, intitiation and fertility rites, the functions of masks throughout the world are remarkably similar. And the materials, drawn as they are from the natural environment, do not seem to differ radically from culture to culture. It is the remarkable variety of solutions to the problem of creating a mask which distinguishes the masks of one culture from those of another and allows each culture to express its response to life through the use of the mask.