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What is the Magdalenian?
In prehistoric art, the term 'Magdalenian' describes the stylistic phase that succeeded the Solutrean culture, about 15,000 BC.
Introduced by modern humans (that is, Cro-Magnons) who arrived in Europe from the Middle East about 54,000 BC, it was the fourth and final archaeological tradition of the Upper Paleolithic.
Although it lasted for only 5,000 years, it accounts for more than three-quarters of all known Upper Paleolithic art, as well as the most specialized tools of the period (White 1986: 47-48).
As a result, it made a huge contribution to Stone Age culture, the details of which are only now becoming evident.
Perhaps influenced by social habits developed during the Solutrean, when the Ice Age was at its height, humans living during the Magdalenian were also the first ones to regularly venture deep into caves, in order to create the rock art we now believe was linked to ceremonies held inside the caves.
How Widespread was Magdalenian Culture?
The Magdalenian was centered geographically on the region of Franco-Cantabrian art, in SW France and Northern Spain, which offered pasture for a wide variety of animal game, as well as numerous rivers and streams to support the growth of trees and bushes (for firewood), plus a host of sun-warmed cave mouths and rock shelters for human habitation.
But later it spread throughout western, central and eastern Europe, to influence Stone Age populations from Portugal in the west, to Poland in the east. (Straus 1991b: 265)
The northernmost parietal art of the Magdalenian has been found at Creswell Crags on the Notts/Derby border in the UK. It dates to 12,500 BC. See also Cathole Cave in South Wales.
Upper Paleolithic Cultures
For more about the chronology of Upper Paleolithic culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.
Why the Magdalenian is Important: Behavourial Modernity
- The sophistication of Magdalenian cave art and tool technology is seen as a key marker of the culture's behavioural modernity, and the cognitive skills of its people.
- The Magdalenian culture produced the most advanced tools of the Stone Age, being noted in particular for its small, sharp tools. These so-called microliths consisted of stone microblades made into crescents, triangles, or other geometric shapes.
- They are classified as Mode 5 Technology by British archaeologist Grahame Clark, in his framework of stone tool development, published in the 2nd edition of World Prehistory (1969).
- The period also produced the greatest cave art of the Stone Age, from the magnificent black bulls at Lascaux Cave in the French Dordogne, to the multi-coloured bison at Altamira Cave in Cantabria, and the wonderful relief sculpture at Cap Blanc, home of the 24-year old 'Magdalenian Girl' - the most complete Cro-Magnon skeleton found in Northern Europe.
- Paleoanthropologists believe that the sophistication of Magdalenian art flowed from a unique set of environmental conditions: namely, a climate which - although warming - yielded a food surplus, permitting enough leisure time for the development of religion and aesthetics.
- Innovation and productivity were also boosted by a growing population, and an expanding language. It would be the swan song of the early humans in Europe.
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Why is it Called the Magdalenian?
The culture is named after the type-site of La Madeleine in the Dordogne Valley of southwest France, where the first artifacts were found in 1863.
The site was originally examined by the paleontologist Édouard Lartet, who christened the Magdalenian the 'Age of the Reindeer' (L'âge du renne).
Three years earlier, in 1860, Lartet had excavated Aurignac Cave in the French Pyrenees, where the first evidence of Cro-Magnon toolmaking was unearthed. The tool culture was named Aurignacian in its honour.
- Magdalenian tool technology is best known for its small sharp blades (microliths), notably denticulated blades, as well as its uniserial and biserial projectile points.
- It is also characterized by small implements known as geometric microliths - stone flakes shaped into triangles, trapezoids, crescents, semilunar and other geometric forms. These were hafted to darts, javelins and spears as well as arrows and used as projectile weapons.
- This proliferation of hafted micro-tools may have been driven by the need for versatile, easily transportable hunting tools in an unpredictable environment.
- Microlithic technology combined with the use of wood, antler or bone handles, makes the most use of blades and points, although it required greater manufacturing skill, notably in the Solutrean skills of pressure flaking and retouching.
- Magdalenian craftsmen also continued to develop Solutrean implements, such as burins, scrapers, spear throwers (atlatls), shouldered and leaf-shaped projectile points, needles and awls.
- The use of bone and ivory as tools began during the Solutrean but was further extended during the Magdalenian, to produce a wide range of tools, including adzes, hammers, lance-heads, barbed points, harpoons, borers, needles, hooks and perforated batons. Indeed, the culture became known for its elaborate worked antler, bone, and ivory created for both functional and aesthetic purposes.
The early Magdalenian Period was initially characterized by a return to simple line drawing, ignoring Aurignacian achievements in 3-D modelling and multi-coloured painting.
As a result, cave art during this early phase was dominated by plain black drawings, albeit drawings that owed a great deal to Solutrean perspective and plasticity.
Later, Magdalenian artists succeeded in creating their own high-quality naturalism in both drawing and sculpture.
The great achievement of Magdalenian art, however, was the rock engraving and polychrome cave painting of its later phases. The animal figures were extraordinarily beautiful, with a lively realism, excellent 3-D effects, and subtle design.
Highlights of Magdalenian cave art include:
- Great Black Bull
Lascaux Cave, Dordogne
- Bison Ceiling
- The Lortet Reindeer
Lortet Rock Shelter
- Bison Licking its Side
Abri de La Madeleine
- Horse relief carving
Roc aux Sorciers
- Black weasel drawing
Niaux Cave: Reseau Clastres
- The Sorcerer (engraving)
Trois Frères Cave
- Pair of Bison (reliefs)
Tuc d'Audoubert Cave
- Great Panel of Horses
- Drinking Reindeer
- Swimming Reindeer
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Magdalenian Decorated Caves
Here is a short list of the Magdalenian caves and rock shelters which contain the most important cave paintings, engravings, and relief sculptures.
- Abri Reverdit
Vézère Valley, Dordogne
Noted for its Lower Magdalenian stone frieze.
- Addaura Cave
Famous for its extraordinary ensemble of human figures participating in some type of ritual or sacrificial rite. Two bound victims are being guided by two shamans, while observed by a group of dancers. A unique scene in paleolithic art, anywhere in the world.
- Altamira Cave
Decorated throughout the Upper Paleolithic era, from as early as 34,000 BC, Altamira's showpiece ceiling, filled with polychrome pictures of bison, was painted mostly by Magdalenian artists.
- Atxurra Cave
Basque region, Spain
Noted for its fine incision and deep incision engravings of bison, horses, ibex, aurochs, deer and reindeer, some of which are reinforced with black paint. Includes a high number of animals brought down with spears and arrows.
- Cap Blanc
A touchstone of Magdalenian rock carving, Cap Blanc is home to a famous 13-metre long limestone frieze of relief sculpture, featuring mostly horses and bison, carved onto the rear wall of the shelter.
Some 120 kilometres northwest of Cap Blanc, is Abri de la Chaire-à-Calvin (Calvin's Pulpit), a rock shelter near Mouthiers-sur-Boëme in the Charente. It, too, contains a Magdalenian stone frieze but with a more complex iconography, featuring a headless ox, a mating scene of horses, and a pregnant horse. Traces of red and orange ochre paint were found on the stonework.
- Cougnac Cave
Decorated during the Gravettian, research shows there were at least three phases of decoration on almost all its panels: first red ochre pigment, then brown, then black. The Magdalenian phase (14,000-12,000 BC) includes black dots, as well as the three charcoal drawings of 'wounded men', similar to the speared figures at Pech Merle. The strange Placard-type aviform signs in the cave are similar to those at Chauvet, Pech Merle, Lascaux, Le Placard and Trois Frères Cave. They may have been created during the Magdalenian (as at Trois Frères) or Solutrean (as at Lascaux and Le Placard) or Gravettian (as at Chauvet and Pech Merle). Interestingly, at both Pech Merle and Cougnac, the signs are localised to a single panel, in relatively inaccessible areas deep within the cave.
- Ekain Cave
Basque region, Spain
Famous for its Great Panel of Horses, a group of equines described by the French archaeologist André Leroi-Gourhan as "the most perfect group of horses in Quaternary art".
- Font-de-Gaume Cave
Discovered in 1901, in the Dordogne, it contains nearly 250 multi-coloured paintings and engravings of bison and mammoths, plus a number of ideomorphs. One frieze presents five bison, whose three-dimensional volume has been accentuated by shading along the thighs and under the belly.
- Gabillou Cave
A sister cave to Lascaux, it is noted for its engraved drawings of animals, mostly horses, in motion or at rest, some of which are painted in red ochre. It also features a stunning image of a hare. In addition, it has two images of human figures: one shows a woman giving birth, another - known as the 'Sorcerer' - shows a part human, part animal figure, with beard and horns.
- Isturitz, Oxocelhaya, Erberua Caves
French Basque region, Pyrenees
Noted for its Middle-Magdalenian engraved pillar, and abstract signs, plus its Aurignacian bone flutes.
- Lascaux Cave
Famous for the Hall of the Bulls, and the Shaft of the Dead Man. Contains some of the most powerful and dramatic imagery of prehistory. See: Lascaux Cave Paintings & Layout.
- Le Portel Cave
Noted for its black drawings of horses and bison and its two red male figures, as well as its so-called archaeoacoustics, revealed by the fact that its greatest clusters of cave art seem to be located at spots with the greatest sound resonance.
- Les Combarelles Cave
Contains an astonishing 600–800 engraved drawings of animals, some of which are outlined in black, featuring several reindeer incised so realistically they appear to be drinking from the cave's stream. In addition, it also contains a rare collection of over 50 anthropomorphic figures, as well as a number of indecipherable tectiforms and other abstract signs. Scholars regard Les Combarelles as one of the major sanctuaries of Magdalenian culture, and a key marker of the cultural maturity of the late Upper Paleolithic.
- La Madeleine
Magdalenian type-site, also noted for the reindeer antler carving known as Bison Licking its Side (13,000 BC), and the bone carving Rampant Hyena.
- Niaux Cave
Impressive show case of Magdalenian cave art, centred on a cathedral-like chamber known as the Salon Noir. In addition, in one passageway of the complex, known as Reseau Clastres, archaeologists discovered several black paintings, including an extremely rare drawing of a weasel, produced in 10 flawless strokes. The cave is also famous for its collection of abstract signs and symbols.
Famous for its relief sculpture frieze of bison, horses, goats, felines, and several stylized female figures in the Abri Bourdois, as well as the engravings of bison, horses, goats, felines and a single human figure, from the collapsed ceiling of the Cave Taillebourg.
- Rouffignac Cave
Christened the Cave of the hundred mammoths, the complex is the most extensive cave system in the Perigord. The cave art features numerous panels of engravings or monochrome black drawings, containing almost 250 animal pictures - two-thirds of which are mammoths. The cave also contains numerous tectiforms and serpentiforms.
- Santimamiñe Cave
Basque region, Spain
Noted for its beautiful black charcoal drawings of horses, ibex, bison, and deer, as well as its spectacular karst formations, including a mass of stalactites and stalagmites.
- Tito Bustillo Cave
Decorated over tens of thousands of years, the cave is noted for its large-scale Magdalenian images of horses and reindeer, produced in violet and black, notably in the Gallery of Horses ("Galeria de los Caballos"). The outlines of these huge horses and reindeer (similar to those at Las Monedas at Monte Castillo) are also engraved, for added definition.
- Trois Frères Cave
Famous for its 300 engraved drawings of horses, bison, stags, ibex, reindeer, mammoths, and two part-human, part-animal figures, located in one of its deepest chambers, known as the Sanctuary. The most famous engraving (also painted) is the Sorcerer or Horned God - a human wearing a headdress of antlers, with a cat-like face, and a horse's tail. It overlooks a herd of animal figures from a position high above the floor.
- Tuc d'Audoubert Bison
One of the caves carved out by the river Volp, adjacent to Trois Frères, contains numerous images of bison, in particular the remarkable bison bull and cow in pre-mating postures. It is perhaps the greatest high relief sculpture of the Magdalenian, with some of the animals' features shaped in clay by the artist's fingernail.
- Venuses of Petersfels
The Magdalenian tradition of making micro-tools no doubt contributed to the tiny venus figurines carved out of semi-precious jet stone (Lignite). Similar to the later Venus of Monruz-Neuchatel, also carved out of jet stone and found in the nearby Swiss commune of Neuchatel.
See also: 80 Paleolithic Caves.
Magdalenian culture depended upon the herds of reindeer who roamed the continental tundra, south of the ice sheets.
These animals provided food as well as materials for tools, clothing and shelter.
During the Last Glacial Maximum - roughly between 20,000 and 14,000 BC - the region of southern France and Spain had served as a sanctuary for migrants from northern Europe fleeing the big freeze.
Unfortunately, as the climate warmed and the Ice Age came to an end, the environment changed from tundra, to grassland and woodland.
By the time of the Tardiglacial period around 11,000 BC, this change of climate began to cause existential problems for the network of Magdalenian hunter gatherer communities across France and Spain, as certain megafauna, like the woolly mammoth and rhinoceros, became extinct and the reindeer herds disappeared northwards, in the wake of the retreating ice.
Some prehistorians have even suggested, that the depiction of game animals in Late Magdalenian rock art served as a sort of ritual, to bring good luck to the hunters and to cause the animals to become abundant once again.
As Magdalenian culture gradually faded it was superceded by a series of other microlithist cultures across Europe. These included:
- Hamburgian culture, active in northwestern Europe between 13,500 and 11,100 BC
- Federmesser/Tjongerian culture, active in the North European Plain between 12,000 and 10,800 BC
- Ahrensburg nomadic hunter culture, in north-central Europe between 11,000 and 9,700 BC
- Creswellian culture, in Britain between 10,000 and 8,000 BC
- Azilian culture, in France, Spain and Portugal between 10,500 and 8,000 BC
- Sauveterrian culture in western and central Europe between 6,500 and 4,500 BC
(1) "Modern Humans in Europe" in "Ancestral DNA, Human Origins, and Migrations". Rene Herrera, Ralph Garcia-Bertrand. Chapter 12. pp. 433-473. ISBN: 9780128041246.
(2) "Hunter–Gatherer Societies, Archaeology of" in "International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences". (2001) H.Lourandos. Pages 7078-7082.
(3) "Art by firelight? Using experimental and digital techniques to explore Magdalenian engraved plaquette use at Montastruc (France)." Needham A, Wisher I, Langley A, Amy M, Little A (2022) PLoS ONE 17(4): e0266146.
(4) "Bone Art in the Upper Paleolithic: Regional, Temporal, and Art Class Comparisons." Patricia C. Rice and Ann L. Paterson.
Volume 30, Issue 3.
(5) "Painted Caves: Palaeolithic Rock Art in Western Europe". Lawson, A., 2012: OUP Oxford. ISBN: 9780199698226.