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Parietal Art

Definition, characteristics
General category of cave art

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Black drawing of wounded ibex from Niaux Cave
Wounded ibex, Salon Noir, Niaux Cave. Copyright Wendel Collection. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

What is Parietal Art?

In Stone Age culture, the term 'parietal art' means art created on the walls or ceilings of caves. More commonly known as cave art, it comes from the Latin word parietalis, meaning 'relating to walls'.

The most common forms of parietal art are cave paintings, engravings and relief sculptures.

Obvious examples are the famous bison ceiling at Altamira Cave in northern Spain, and the Drinking Reindeer at Les Combarelles, in the French Dordogne.

Two aurochs, with horse and reindeer in the background, Hall of the Bulls, Lascaux
Two aurochs face to face in the Hall of the Bulls, Lascaux, with horses and reindeer in the background. Image by EU. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Parietal versus Mobiliary Art

Parietal artworks are part of the fabric of the cave and cannot be moved. An example is the exquisite engraving known as the Drinking Reindeer at Les Combarelles.

In contrast, a work of art like an ivory carving, a decorated piece of bone, or a venus figurine, is referred to as 'mobiliary art', because it is moveable (portable).

A famous example of mobiliary art is the antler carving, known as the Swimming Reindeer, which was found at Montastruc rock shelter in southwest France.

Parietal versus Rock Art

What's the difference between parietal and rock art? Answer: rock art is a wider category which also includes images created on natural rock surfaces in the open air.

However, parietal artworks are only found in caves or rock shelters.

Related Terms

Where is Parietal Art Found?

Stone Age cave art has been discovered in Africa, the Middle East, India, China, Siberia, SE Asia, Australia and the Americas, the main body of this type of prehistoric art has been found in the 350 or so paleolithic caves of southwestern France and northern Spain, and forms what is known as Franco-Cantabrian cave art.

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In general, decorated caves were not inhabited. Instead, archaeologists believe they were used as sanctuaries or venues for religious or ceremonial activities.

When was Parietal Art Made?

Most parietal artworks were created during the era of Upper Paleolithic art, which spanned roughly 30,000 years, between 40,000 and 10,000 BC. The Upper Paleolithic is commonly divided into four stylistic periods:

How is it Dated?

Cave paintings and engravings are dated in one of four ways:

Main Types of Parietal Art

This type of paleolithic art includes:

Types of Images

Parietal art is dominated by animals. Almost all figurative pictures on cave walls are representations of animals.

To begin with, during the Aurignacian era, they featured numerous 'dangerous animals' (lions, bears, rhinoceroses, mammoths).

Later, during the Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian eras, artists focused almost entirely on game animals, such as bison, horses, reindeer, ibex and red deer.

Famous panels of animals can be seen at Chauvet in the Ardèche - see Chauvet Cave paintings and layout - and Ekain Cave in the Basque region.

Humans also appear but only in a tiny percentage of caves. Also, they often take the form of anthropomorphs, like the Sorcerer at Trois Frères Cave.

Another unique humanoid image in parietal art is the Bird Man in the Shaft at Lascaux - see Lascaux cave paintings and layout.

For more about the type of paints used by cave artists during the Paleolithic era, see Stone Age Colour Palette.


Interpreting cave art twenty thousand years after the event, is fraught with difficulty. We have almost no idea of the cultural context of these pictographs and petroglyphs, or their association with the ceremonies held in the caves.

At present, the main theories revolve around shamanic or supernatural activities - due partly to the prevalence of the 'Sorcerer' motif at Trois Frères, Gabillou and elsewhere, and partly to the almost sacred role played by animals in human survival at the time.

See: Shamans in Paleolithic Art (from 30,000 BC).

That said, there is no general consensus among archaeologists and anthropologists as to the exact meaning of parietal art.

While some experts see it as evidence of shamanism or an attempt to contact the spirit world, others believe it to be linked to fertility or hunting ceremonies.

Then again, some experts point to possible connections with altered states of consciousness, while others focus on the connection between the art and the archaeoacoustics of the cave. For more, see: Meaning of Cave Art.

For more about the chronology of cave painting, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).


(1) "Cave Art" Jean Clottes. (2008) Phaidon. ISBN 978-0-7148-5723-7.
(2) "La chronologie de l’art pariétal à l’heure actuelle." González JJA, and Behrmann RdB. 2007. C14 et style: L'Anthropologie 111(4):435-466.
(3) "Thinking about 'style' in the 'post-stylistic era': reconstructing the stylistic context of Chauvet." Moro Abadía O, and Morales MRG. 2007. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 26(2):109-125.
(4) "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.
(5) "A Question of Style: reconsidering the stylistic approach to dating Palaeolithic parietal art in France." von Petzinger G, and Nowell A. 2011. Antiquity 85(330):1165-1183.

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