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Prehistoric Art

Types & history of cave painting
engraving & sculpture, during the
Paleolithic and Neolithic eras

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CONTENTS

Panorama of the Hall of the Bulls at Lascaux Cave, Dordogne
Hall of the Bulls, at Lascaux Cave. Arguably the greatest assemblage of paleolithic art ever seen. Copyright Wendel Collection. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

What Exactly is Prehistoric Art?

The term 'prehistoric art' is synonymous with 'stone age art', and includes any artistic work produced during the Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic eras, which ended around 3,000 BC with the emergence of written records.

The six main categories of prehistoric art include:

For details, see: What are the Main Types of Prehistoric Art?

What is Cave Art?

'Cave art' is any art found on the walls, floors or ceilings of caves or rock shelters. It includes abstract signs and symbols, which are found in almost every single cave. The meaning of these pictographs remains a mystery, although they were a regular feature of Stone Age culture throughout the Upper Paleolithic.

What is Parietal Art?

'Parietal art' is the same as 'cave art'. It includes any paintings, engravings or relief sculpture carved on cave walls, floors or ceilings. It's art that is fixed to the cave, which you can't take with you.

What is Mobiliary Art?

Mobiliary art is portable art. Stuff you can pick up and take away, like ivory carvings, stone statuettes, ceramic pottery, and so on.

What is Rock Art?

Rock art refers to human-made markings, like paintings or engravings, on natural stone surfaces. The term is usually used to describe ancient or Stone Age art.

The main categories of rock art include: (1) Petroglyphs: markings carved or scratched into the rock surface. (2) Cave paintings. (3) Relief sculpture. (4) Geoglyphs: art created by arrangements of rocks - including megaliths - on the ground.

For more, see: Stone Age Terminology.

What was the most common form of prehistoric art?

Evidence suggests that body and face painting was the most common form of 'art' practised by our ancestors during the paleolithic era. The use of pigments by early humans can be traced back at least half a million years.

But not all body painting was 'art'. Much of it was done for utilitarian reasons, since pigments like ochre protected against sunburn and mosquitoes.

When Was Art First Made?

The world's oldest art consists of the Trinil Shell Engravings dating to around 500,000 BC, followed by the Bilzingsleben Engravings (350,000 BC).

What About Cupules?

We have not included cupules in the above list. Here's why.

Cupules (the term was invented by archaeologist Robert G. Bednarik) are unexplained cup-shaped hollows created in flat, vertical or sloping rock surfaces. They date from the Lower Paleolithic and have been found on 5 continents.

Some of the oldest cupules, are in the Auditorium Cave at Bhimbetka, India.

Some experts believe cupules to be an ancient form of art. But the truth is, there is little evidence they are artistic in nature.

Stone Age Dates & Chronology

In this article, we refer to certain periods of prehistory. So here is a simple chronological outline of Stone Age time periods.

The Stone Age is divided into three eras: Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic.

The Paleolithic era covers 98 percent of the period, and is sub-divided into Lower, Middle and Upper.

Here is a brief chronological timeline, complete with the relevant tool cultures, some of which overlap. Dates are approximate.

PALEOLITHIC
(2,500,000 - 10,000 BC)

Lower Paleolithic
(2.5m-300,000 BC)

- Olduwan culture 2.5m-1.5m BC)
- Acheulean (1.6m-100,000 BC)
- Clactonian (400-300,000 BC)

Middle Paleolithic
(300-40,000 BC)

- Levallois (300-160,000 BC)
- Mousterian (160-40,000 BC)

Upper Paleolithic
(40-10,000 BC)

- Aurignacian (40-30,000 BC)
- Gravettian (30-20,000 BC)
- Solutrean (20-15,000 BC)
- Magdalenian (15-10,000 BC)

MESOLITHIC
(10,000 - 8,000 BC)
The Mesolithic was a transitional phase. As the ice sheets retreated, the reindeer followed, and hunter-gatherer culture collapsed.

NEOLITHIC
(8,000 - 3,000 BC)
During the Neolithic, farming and agriculture become established everywhere.

[Please note: The Mesolithic era followed the end of the Ice Age, which occurred at different times around the world. Where ice lingered (e.g. in Europe), the Mesolithic era lasted longer. In other areas there was almost no Mesolithic period at all.

In general, dates for the Mesolithic and Neolithic ages vary hugely. So the above dates are crude averages.]

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What are the 6 Main Types of Prehistoric Art?

Archaeologists have identified 6 main categories of artwork created during the Stone Age.

  1. Face and Body Painting
    Facial and bodily decoration - similar to that still practised by isolated tribes in Brazil, West Papua and elsewhere - using pigments like red ochre (see below).

  2. Jewellery
    See: the eagle claw jewellery at the Krapina Neanderthal Site (130,000 BC).

  3. Engravings (Petroglyphs)
    Rock engravings are carved, engraved, incised or scratched on rock surfaces. Petroglyphs can be interior or exterior, and are found on the walls, ceilings or floors of caves (or rock shelters), or on open air boulders, cliffs or stone floors. See the ancient engravings at Roucadour Cave (27,000 BC) in the French Lot.

  4. Cave Paintings
    Cave painting includes imagery or markings that are painted or smeared onto rock or other surfaces. This pictorial imagery includes paintings, drawings, pictographs (all types of signs) and handprints. Prehistoric artists often combined painting with engraving, for added effect.

    • Animal Paintings
      Painted images of animals first appeared at the Sulawesi Caves in 43,500 BC. Thereafter, animals (esp. horses, bison, aurochs) dominated cave art throughout Upper Paleolithic art in Europe and SE Asia.
    • Handprints & Finger Fluting
      These hand markings are among the first images created in caves and outdoors. The oldest known handprints are the Quesang Handprints (167,000 BC) in Tibet, while the oldest hand stencils were found at Maltravieso Cave (64,700 BC) in Spain. Finger fluting was practised throughout the Upper Paleolithic. The best examples are at Koonalda Cave on the Nullarbor Plain.
    • Abstract Signs
      Paleolithic caves are dominated by abstract signs - at least within the Franco-Cantabrian region. They outnumber representational images by at least two to one. According to cave sign expert Genevieve von Petzinger, the most prevalent abstract sign (found in 70 percent of French caves) is the line. The second most common symbols (42 percent of caves) are dots signs and the open angle symbol.

  5. Sculpture
    Prehistoric sculpture includes all types of figurative carving. Common examples include the totemic carvings known as Venus Figurines, like the Venus of Willendorf (28,000 BC). It also includes various forms of zoomorphic and therianthropic carvings, and reliefs. A superb example of hunter-gatherer sculpture is the Shigir Idol of Yekaterinburg, the oldest surviving wood carving in the world. Relief Sculpture includes haut-relief and bas-relief imagery. Examples can be seen at sites like: Roc de Sers in the Charente, and Roc-aux-Sorciers in the Vienne.

  6. Megalithic Art & Architecture
    Petroforms or any other arrangements of large stones. This category only emerged during the late-Mesolithic and Neolithic eras. For megalithic art, see the carved spiral designs on the 5-ton entrance slab at Newgrange Passage Tomb, Ireland, later copied by the Celts. For megalithic constructions, see Göbekli Tepe (9,500 BC), and Nevalı Çori (8,400 BC) in present-day Turkey.

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How is Stone Age Art Dated?

Answer: an investigation of the age of a particular stone artifact or rock, typically begins with a thorough examination of the site and its immediate surroundings, together with a study of the site's biostratigraphy and geological record.

This is done, for example, to eliminate the possibility that the artifact is a later intrusive burial in an older deposit.

Once contemporaneity has been confirmed the age of the object can be determined, sometimes quite precisely, using methods of "absolute" or chronological dating.

A common form of absolute dating is radiometric dating. This relies on the fact that certain radioactive isotopes (e.g. uranium) are known to decay into different products at a known rate.

The most usual type of radiometric testing of living organisms, is carbon-14 (radiocarbon) dating, which relies on the absorption of Carbon-14.

A newer form, used recently at the Altamira cave, the Ardales Cave, the Cave of La Pasiega, and the Cave of Maltravieso, is known as Uranium/Thorium dating. This meaures the radioactive decay of uranium into thorium in the calcite flowstream that forms over rock paintings.

One site that could really benefit from Ur/Th dating technology is La Pileta Cave in Andalucia, due to the amount of calcite flowstone overlying its rock art.

Another example is potassium-argon radiometric testing, which compares the proportion of potassium to argon in volcanic rock. An additional technique, known as Thermion mass spectrometry, can be employed to enhance uranium-decay dating methods.

Luminescence dating - including thermoluminescence (TL), optically stimulated thermoluminescence and thermally stimulated luminescence (TSL) - is a dating method that measures the amount of light emitted from energy stored in certain rock types and derived soils to obtain an absolute date. Unlike radiocarbon dating, the effect which luminescence dating measures becomes more detectable with time.

Other dating methods include:

For more details about dating technologies, see Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient.

However, not every artifact or artwork can be dated with great accuracy, if its geological environment lacks measurable elements. See, for example, the controversy behind the Gorham's Cave engraving (37,000 BC).

As a result, dating is often dependent on human scholarship, provided by paleontologists and archaeologists, to furnish the historical context against which an artifact's age can be assessed, through stylistic comparison with other cave art.

What was Ochre Used For During the Stone Age?

Ochre is an iron-rich rock which ranges in colour from yellow to deep purple. It has been used by hominins longer than any other pigment.

The term is most commonly associated with hematite, or red ochre, although other varieties appear in the archaeological record, from the yellow ochre 'goethite' to the spectacular 'specularite'.

As well as serving as a colour pigment in body painting and cave decoration, red ochre was also used as a sunscreen and mosquito repellent - vital, during lengthy hunting trips.

Ochre Workshops & Toolkits

In 2008, a team led by archaeologist Chris Henshilwood found a paint workshop in the Blombos Cave complex, in South Africa.

Several abalone shells were found, lined with a mixture of red ochre, bone and charcoal, together with hammers, grindstones and other tools, dating as far back as 100,000 BC.

The find indicated the existence of an early workshop for producing forms of red ochre. Similar finds of ochre-related "tool kits", include:

Why Did Stone Age Humans Create Art?

What was the purpose or meaning behind all those cave paintings and engravings? Answer: no one knows, but there are clues.

First, most decorated caves were not inhabited, or used for accomodation. They were kept as 'sanctuaries' and entered daily only by a small number of artists.

So the cave art was not made to brighten up peoples' everyday lives. Instead, scientists believe it was created to enhance ceremonies conducted inside the caves by shamans or other community chiefs.

Spiritual or ritualistic ceremonies, perhaps, to invoke the protection of the 'gods', or mark important events.

There are several other theories. One of the most exciting areas of research into cave art, concerns archaeoacoustics - notably, the connection between sound and art in Stone Age caves.

In some caves - like Le Portel in the Ariège - researchers have discovered that the most heavily decorated spots are where sound resonance is at its highest.

For more, see: Meaning of Cave Art.

Why is Prehistoric Art Important?

The ability to study animals, memorize their details, and then recall and replicate them on an uneven wall of a cave, for maximum impact on the mind of an observer, requires a relatively high degree of cognitive perception.

It was too difficult for Neanderthals. They spent 250,000 years in Europe (90,000 years in caves and rock shelters) but left no trace of a painted or engraved drawing of an animal.

Only when modern humans arrive in Europe (and SE Asia) do we see a noticeable jump in the quality of paleolithic art.

For example, we see:

Is Artistic Ability Linked to Brain Capacity?

It seems so.

During the time of H. erectus - the first human species to migrate out of Africa, whose brain capacity averaged 1,000 cubic centimetres (cc) - art was extremely primitive.

From about 100,000 to 45,000 BC, art improved somewhat in the hands of H. neanderthalensis, who had a net brain capacity of 1133 cc. Neanderthals, created negative handprints and some abstract symbols, but their cave art remained rudimentary.

But after the arrival of 'early modern humans' (EMH), also called 'anatomically modern humans' (AMH), who were the modern version of H. sapiens with a net brain capacity of approx 1332 cc, the quality of cave art improved immediately and dramatically.

Origins, History and Evolution of Prehistoric Art

Here's a brief summary of how Stone Age art began, and how it developed during the era of paleolithic art, between 540,000 and 10,000 BC.

Lower Paleolithic
2.5m - 300,00 BC

Little, if any, recognizable art was created during the Lower Paleolithic, except for the abstract engravings on mussel shells and elephant bone, found in Java and at Bilzingsleben, which we mentioned earlier.

Middle Paleolithic
300,000 - 40,000 BC

At the beginning of the Middle Paleolithic, Neanderthals occupied Europe while other lost sub-species of H. erectus, including the Denisovans, occupied Asia.

During the early part of this period, two interesting but extremely primitive effigies were created: the Venus of Tan-Tan, a quartzite figure found in Morocco, dating to between 200,000 BC and 500,000 BC; and the Venus of Berekhat Ram, a basalt figure found in Israel, dating to between 230,000 and 700,000 BC.

Each had a humanoid shape, which was created by natural geological processes. However, the human resemblance in each case was 'emphasized' by grooves cut into the object. It is this action which some archaeologists believe renders them 'artistic'.

Two other cultural phenomena are the set of speleothem structures known as the Bruniquel Cave Constructions (175,000 BC) in southern France, and the Quesang Handprints (167,000 BC) found on a travertine boulder on the Tibetan plateau.

Around this point we also see the oldest art in Africa, namely the Pinnacle Point engravings and the Bizmoune Cave jewellery in Morocco (c.150,000 BC).

After this, we find the first traces of decorative objects, such as the Krapina eagle claw jewellery (130,000 BC), and the Los Aviones shell necklaces (115,000 BC).

Around 110,000 BC, the first modern humans migrate out of Africa. This coincides with a number of finds in Africa, notably the engravings at the Klasies River Caves (100,000 BC), the artifacts, engravings and drawing at Blombos Cave (from 100,000 BC), and the Diepkloof Ostrich Eggshell Engravings (60,000 BC).

We know nothing about Neanderthal art in Europe during this period, except for four discoveries of fairly low-key rock art.

Upper Paleolithic Art
45-40,000-10,000 BC

This period is much more exciting from an arts viewpoint. In fact, Upper Paleolithic art is the highpoint of Stone Age culture, when cave artists produce the first recognizable pictures and carvings.

Which species of humans created this wonderful Upper Paleolithic art - Neanderthals or Moderns?

Evidence from Mandrin Cave in southern France, shows that modern humans were already established in Western Europe by about 54,000 BC.

Although Neanderthals survived the arrival of modern humans for a short period, they were rapidly displaced.

Moderns took over all the deep paleolithic caves where they quickly demonstrated their artistic talents.

For hotspots of Upper Paleolithic culture, see the Vézère Valley Caves in the French Dordogne.

Cave Painting

This was when cave painting really blossomed, reaching its apogee in the region of Franco-Cantabrian art during the era of Magdalenian art (15,000-10,000 BC).

Three of these Franco-Cantabrian caves are world famous for their cave painting. They are:

Other important sites of cave painting include:

Petroglyphs

Upper Paleolithic rock engraving in Europe is exemplified by the following sites, with highlights as listed:

Africa and Australia

In Africa, art finds during the early Upper Paleolithic were few and far between. The Apollo 11 Cave stones being the most significant.

On the other side of the globe, Aboriginal rock art in Australia began in the north of the country, the arrival point for modern humans arriving from Indonesia.

A charcoal painting at Nawarla Gabarnmang has been dated to at least 26,000 BC, while rock art at Ubirr in the Kakadu National Park, on the Burrup Peninsula (Murujuga) in the Pilbara, and in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, is thought to date from around 30,000 BC in each case.

Sculpture

In addition, during the period (30,000-20,000 BC), prehistoric artists began carving a diverse range of venus figurines, which have been found throughout Europe, from Spain to Siberia.

Examples include:

Relief Sculpture

Stone Age reliefs are illustrated by the limestone relief known as the Venus of Laussel (20,000 BC); the low-relief carving of a salmon in the Abri du Poisson Cave (23,000 BC); the frieze at Roc-de-Sers Cave (17,200 BC) depicting bison, horses and other animals; and the Tuc d'Audoubert Bison reliefs (13,500 BC).

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Mesolithic Art

Mesolithic art was shaped by new living conditions and hunting practices, triggered by the disappearance of the great animal herds from Spain and France, at the end of the Ice Age (10,000 BC).

Forests now cloaked the landscape, demanding cooperative hunting arrangements.

European Mesolithic art gives more space to human figures, and is marked by more acute observation, and greater narrative. Due to the warmer weather, it moves from caves to outdoor sites.

Noteworthy artworks created by Mesolithic artists includes the following:

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Neolithic Art

The Neolithic era witnessed a fundamental change in lifestyle across the world. The semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the Mesolithic, was replaced by a settled form of existence, supported by farming, the rearing of livestock and the cultivation and storage of crops.

As a result, Neolithic art witnessed a huge growth in domestic crafts like pottery and weaving.

Ceramics

The major artistic medium of Neolithic civilization was ceramic pottery, featuring geometric designs or animal/plant motifs. It was a particular specialty of Mesopotamia (Iran, Iraq) and the eastern Mediterranean.

Decorative Art

In general, the better-resourced the region, the more art is made. The Neolithic was no exception. It's true that most ancient art was largely functional in nature, but there was a greater emphasis on ornamentation and decoration.

Jade carving, for instance - one of the great specialities of Chinese art - first appeared during the era of Neolithic culture, as did lacquerware and early porcelain.

Funereal and Tomb Art

The growth of religious belief, allied to increased prosperity, saw greater attention paid to religious formalities, including burial. This, in turn, led to a new focus on funerary tomb art, exemplified by the Fayum Mummy Portraits as well as decorative works.

Portable Art

As life became more settled, rock painting began to be replaced by portable art. Precious metals are mined and put to use.

Copper, for instance, is first used in Mesopotamia, while more advanced metallurgy is practised in South-East Europe.

Free standing sculpture appears, carved in stone or wood, or cast in bronze.

The Indus Valley Civilization - an early engine for painting and sculpture in India - produces bronze statuettes, jewellery and decorative designs on a range of artifacts.

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Architecture and Megalithic Art

The Neolithic age also witnessed the construction of a range of tombs - including the monumental Egyptian pyramids at Giza, as well as the Newgrange Passage Tomb (3,200 BC) and the Knowth Megalithic Tomb (3,200 BC), in Ireland.

Another famous example of megalithic architecture and engineering is Stonehenge (3,100 BC) an important site of Neolithic tomb culture, on Salisbury Plain, England.

The monument is the central point in a network of other Neolithic monuments which include hundreds of prehistoric burial mounds.

Noteworthy artworks created by Neolithic artists includes the following:

For more details about the origins and evolution of art during the Stone Age, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art.

Terminology

Here is a short list of terms used in Prehistoric art.

References & Resources

(1) "Cave Art" Jean Clottes. (2008) Phaidon. ISBN 978-0-7148-5723-7.
(2) "The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art." Bahn, Paul (ed), 1998, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521454735
(3) "The Oldest Known Rock art in the World." Robert G. Bednarik. Anthropologie - Vol. 39, No. 2/3 (2001), pp. 89-98.
(4) "Scientific study of the cupules in Daraki-Chattan Cave, India." Giriraj Kumar, Robert G. Bednarik. Rock Art Research 2019 - Volume 36, Number 2, pp. 148-156.
(5) "The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists." Curtis, Gregory (2006). Knopf. ISBN 1-4000-4348-4.
(6) "East Asia: Rock Art". O'Sullivan, Rebecca (2018). Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology (2 ed.). Springer. pp. 1–11.
(7) Introduction to Rock Art Research. Whitley, David S. (2005). Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press. ISBN 978-1598740004.
(8) "Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia." M. Aubert et al., Nature volume 514, pages 223–227.
(9) "U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain". Pike, A. W. G. et al. (14 June 2012). Science. 336 (6087): 1409–1413.
(10) "Making the Abstract Concrete: The Place of Geometric Signs in French Upper Paleolithic Parietal Art." (2005) (Thesis) Genevieve von Petzinger. University of Victoria, Canada.

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