Stone Age Art

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How is Time Measured in Prehistory?

The history of Earth is measured by reference to its rocks. This geological time scale, uses geochronology (a system of dating rocks according to the stuff inside them) to describe the timing and relationships of events in geologic history.

The most recent geological time periods are:

What is the Paleolithic? When does it start and end?

The Paleolithic coincides with the Pleistocene Epoch. It begins about 3.3 million years ago, and ends about 10,000 BC.

The term 'Paleolithic' was first used by archaeologist John Lubbock in 1865. It derives from the Greek words palaios (old) and lithos (stone), and means 'old stone age'. It was called this because it covered the period when early humans invented and developed stone tools.

Importance of Stone Age Applied Art

During the Stone Age, around 100,000 BC, the average male did not survive beyond the age of 32 years. And while he lived, he was far too busy trapping or clubbing animals to death for food, to worry about the difference between fine art (art for arts sake) and applied art (making functional objects more pleasing).

The fact is, the human species cut its artistic teeth on the creation of stone tools (lithic technology).

Stone tools were the prime indicator of cognitive development - not least because they had a direct impact on survival.

Early stone tools included handaxes and other large cutting tools, useful for chopping and wounding animals at close quarters, but no more.

By 200,000 BC, creative thinking in stone technology began to accelerate. We see the invention of 'points', which were attached to shafts to make javelins, darts and spears; stone awls, used to perforate animal hides; and scrapers that were used to prepare animal skins, wood, and other materials.

During the Later Stone Age, craftsmen embraced additional materials - like bone, ivory and antler - and began to develop specialized tools and toolkits.

In a nutshell, the art of tool making constituted the most important feature of Stone Age culture and the first artform of prehistory.

But other, less utilitarian artforms were also being developed...

When Did Stone Age Art Begin?

As far as we know, prehistoric art first emerged during the Lower Paleolithic.

It appeared in the form of doodles or other spontaneous markings, on materials close to hand, like rock, sea shells, animal bones and the human body.

One example is the Trinil shell engravings, created by Homo erectus in Indonesia about 540,000 BC.

The Bilzingsleben engravings carved by Homo erectus onto the shinbone of a forest elephant in Germany, around 350,000 BC, is another.

While paleolithic carvers were creating these rudimentary artifacts, other early hominins in Africa were mastering the artistic use of red ochre and other pigments in face and body painting.

Another type of early paleolithic art is the cupule, found on every continent except Antartica.

Cupules are small cup-shaped hollows, hammered (with great effort) out of rock surfaces.

Typically found in clusters of up to several hundred, their purpose remains a complete mystery.

Another early form of paleoart was decorative jewellery and other types of personal ornaments. This was a feature of early Neanderthal art - see, for example,Los Aviones Cave and Krapina Cave (Hušnjakovo Hill).

Neanderthal artists also created the mysterious speleothem constructions at Bruniquel Cave, in southern France. A type of prehistoric installation art, perhaps?

These crude attempts at artistic expression were followed by more developed forms of rock art during the late Middle Paleolithic. Examples include: the first drawing, found at Blombos Cave, South Africa (71,000 BC); and the first pictographs discovered at La Pasiega Cave in Spain (62,000 BC).

But it was in the Upper Paleolithic (UP) (40,000-10,000 BC) during the heart of the Ice Age, that prehistoric art truly flowered.

In fact, Upper Paleolithic art was probably the defining feature of Homo sapiens hunter-gatherer culture.

The UP consists of four periods:
(1) Aurignacian (2) Gravettian
(3) Solutrean (4) Magdalenian

Aurignacian Period

Aurignacian culture is noted for the invention of the burin (a handheld stone flake with a chisel-like edge used for engraving or carving wood or bone), the Aurignacian is the earliest known tool culture associated exclusively with modern humans in western Eurasia.

It gave us the Sulawesi Cave paintings, the world's first figurative cave paintings, the animal pictures at Altxerri Cave, and the dynamic black drawings of Chauvet Cave.

Gravettian Period

Gravettian culture is noted for barbed and tanged arrowheads and its 'Gravette points' (small pointed blades with a straight blunt back), Gravettian culture is also noted for the small symbolic venus figurines that appeared across Europe.

It also saw the complex art of Pech-Merle Cave, and the now flooded Cosquer Cave.

Solutrean Period

Solutrean culture represents the high point of flint tool-making techniques. It also introduced the use of bone and ivory as implements, and introduced the thruster and the eyed needle.

It saw the Hall of the Bulls, the Shaft of the Dead Man and all the other sublime wonders of Lascaux Cave, and the masterful relief sculpture at Roc de Sers. In Australia, we see the extraordinary finger-fluting in Koonalda Cave on the Nullarbor Plain.

Magdalenian Period

Magdalenian culture expanded the use of bone, antler and ivory instruments, and introduced microliths (small stone tools) for use as spear-points, harpoon-heads, borers, hooks and needles.

It also saw the polychrome paintings of Altamira Cave; the petroglyphs in Les Combarelles Cave, including the Drinking Reindeer; the frieze of relief sculpture at Cap Blanc; the Panel of Horses at Ekain Cave; and the wonderful engravings, including The Sorcerer - the strange part-human, part-animal figure at Les Trois Frères.

As the ice sheets retreated northwards, along with the herds of reindeer upon which hunter gatherer culture depended, the era of Europe's deep cave sanctuaries was over. The Paleolithic gave way to the Mesolithic and Neolithic, and cave art was replaced by outdoor rock art including petroforms (including megaliths like Stonehenge) and geoglyphs.

Note: for an explanation of all important archaeological terms, see: Archaeology Glossary.

4 Most Famous Stone Age Caves

(1) Chauvet Cave (34,500 BC)
Discovered: 1994
Painting highlights: Recess of the Red Bears, Panel of the Sacred Heart, Frieze of Red Rhinoceroses, Panel of the Fighting Rhinos and Horses, the 15-metre long mural featuring the Panel of the Rhinoceroses, the Great Panel of the Lions, and Venus & the Sorcerer.

(2) Lascaux Cave (19,000 BC)
Discovered: 1940
Painting highlights: The Unicorn, the Small Horses, Great Black Bull, Large Black Stag, the Chinese Horses, Upside-Down Horse, Back to Back Bison, Frieze of the Small Horses, The Great Sorcerer, Scene of the Dead Man.

(3) Altamira Cave (15,000 BC)
Discovered: 1868
Painting highlights: The glorious coloured paintings of bison in the Chamber of the Frescoes (Sala de los polícromos). These pictures exemplify the final stage of polychrome cave art in which four shades of colour are used. Also noted for its more ancient cave signs (red dots, dating to 34,000 BC)

(4) La Pasiega Cave (62,000 BC)
Discovered: 1911
Painting/engraving highlights: Noted for its complex iconographic hierarchy, La Pasiega contains more cave painting and rock art than any site in Spain. Consists of 700 painted and engraved images, roughly 420 abstract symbols and 280 animal pictures (mostly deer & horses, with some ibex, bison, aurochs and goats). The abstract signs include claviforms (inc coupled claviforms that resemble aviforms), penniforms and tectiforms, including some complex Spanish tectiforms.

Where was Cave Art Made?

Stone Age parietal art - either black/polychrome paintings, engraved drawings, ideomorphs and pictographs, handprints, or relief sculptures - can be found on every continent.

Examples include: cupules in the Auditorium Cave (India); animal paintings in the Caves of East Kalimantan (Borneo); animal engravings at Tassili-n-Ajjer (Africa); red ochre woolly mammoths in Kapova Cave (Urals); hand stencils in the Cueva de las Manos (Argentina); charcoal drawings at Nawarla Gabarnmang (Australia); paintings at the Apollo 11 Cave (Namibia); and relief sculpture in the Tuc D'Audoubert Cave (France).

Were Caves Decorated Constantly?

In general, No. Instead, many caves witnessed periods of intense cave painting or rock carving, followed by hundreds if not thousands of years of artistic inactivity.

But a number of Stone Age caves were decorated during each of the four periods of the Upper Paleolithic.

A good example is El Castillo Cave, which - along with four local caves - Las Monedas, Las Chimeneas, La Pasiega and La Cantera - forms an important site complex described by archaeologists as an 'encyclopedia of Paleolithic cave art'.

The cave painting at El Castillo was created throughout the Upper Paleolithic, as follows:

Did Stone Age Artists Create Portable Art?

Yes. Mobiliary art was an important feature of Stone Age culture, especially during the Upper Paleolithic.

First, we see crude effigies like the Venus of Berekhat Ram (c.230,000 BC). Then, after the arrival in Europe of Cro-Magnon moderns in 40,000 BC, we see more sophisticated sculpture, like the Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel, as well as other carvings at the Vogelherd Cave in the Swabian Jura.

Later, during the Gravettian period, came the wave of prehistoric sculptures known as 'venuses'.

These were tiny, stylized figures of obese women, believed to be associated with fertility or 'increase rituals', which are still seen today in aboriginal cultures. Examples include: the Venus of Willendorf and Venus of Dolní Věstonice.

A final masterpiece is the Stone Age statue called the Shigir Idol - the world's oldest known wood carving.

Stone Age Cave Signs

Something that continues to baffle scientists, is the huge number of abstract geometric signs seen in almost every decorated cave. The simplest and most common examples include line signs and dot signs, but others like aviforms and scalariforms are more complex.

Numerous caves have panels or whole sections devoted to these signs, which some experts believe may represent primitive systems of writing - or at least graphic communication.

An example is The Inscription, a panel of Spanish tectiforms in the Cave of La Pasiega.

What was the Purpose of Prehistoric Cave Art?

The answer is, no one knows. There is simply no clear evidence, as to the purpose and meaning of cave art, although many researchers believe it was associated with ceremonial activities or shamanic rituals held in the caves.

Other experts point to a connection with archaeoacoustics, as several clusters of parietal art were created at locations of unusually high sound resonance.

Much More Stone Age Art Waiting to be Discovered

There are an estimated 14,000 sites of rock art in Africa awaiting further study.

There are hundreds of ancient limestone caves in Borneo and on the Island of Sulawesi, waiting to be excavated and dated.

And there are hundreds of decorated caves in France and Spain whose paintings remain undated (or indirectly dated), or where further archaeological excavation is not feasible without direct dating results.

Add to this the fact that Chauvet Cave - one of France's greatest sites of Stone Age art - lay undiscovered until 1994, and it's clear that there's a lot more ancient art waiting to be discovered.

At the same time, these facts indicate the urgent need for new dating technologies.

Carbon-14 is the only technique used for the direct dating of organic pigments (eg. charcoal), although indirect methods such as thermoluminescence, Optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), Uranium/thorium dating (U-Th), are used to date subsequent deposits on rock art.

But cheaper and more convenient methods are desperately needed.

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