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Magdalenian Art & Culture

Tool technology, sharp microliths
Cave painting & relief sculpture

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Magdalenian Horse, a masterpiece of Upper Paleolithic relief sculpture
The 'Magdalenian Horse' bas-relief sculpture, now in the National Archeology Museum, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. Image by World Imaging. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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.

Horses Panel, Ekain Cave: masterpiece of Magdalenian cave painting
Part of the famous Panel of Horses at Ekain Cave in the Spanish Basque region. Image by GipuzkoaKultura from Donostia, Euskal Herria. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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.

One of three charcoal drawings of rhinos, Rouffignac Cave, Dordogne
Black drawing of a rhinoceros from Rouffignac Cave, Dordogne. Image by unknown photographer. Source: donsmaps.

Upper Paleolithic Cultures

For more about the chronology of Upper Paleolithic culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.

Why the Magdalenian is Important: Behavourial Modernity

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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.

Tool Technology

Magdalenian Art

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:

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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.

See also: 80 Paleolithic Caves.

The End

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:



(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.

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