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Prehistoric pictograms
Definition, types, history

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Famous pictograph of the wounded man at Pech Merle
Wounded man pictograph, Pech Merle. Its meaning remains a matter of debate. Copyright Wendel Collection. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

What is a Pictograph? (Pictogram)

During the Stone Age, thousands of years before writing appeared, early humans recorded information and expressed ideas by painting them on the walls of caves and rock shelters.

These primitive pictorial markings are now known in prehistoric art as pictographs or pictograms.

These terms stem from the Latin "pictus" meaning painting, and "graph" meaning drawn (or "gram" meaning written).

Pictographs painted on rocks are also known as petrograms, while pictographs chiselled into rock are called petroglyphs.

If you want a definition, one might define a pictograph/pictogram as: any image, sign, symbol or motif which is produced in order to express an idea or piece of information.

The key element is the use of a picture or symbol to communicate something.

Note also, that painting wasn't the only option. Early humans in possession of sharp stone tools, could chisel or incise their message into the rock. These markings are known as petroglyphs.

The 'Inscription' panel of pictographs, abstract symbols, at La Pasiega
'Inscription' at La Pasiega. Most archaeologists believe these pictographs were created to convey some sort of information, or message. (Public Domain).

Main Types of Pictograph

Pictographs (pictograms) come in two main categories:

In addition, some scientists believe it likely that handprints and hand stencils were also intended to convey messages.

Parietal and Mobiliary Art

Most pictographs are found on cave walls and constitute parietal art. However, they are also found on items of mobiliary art, such as carvings. The Signbase database, for instance, records some 30 abstract signs on 500 objects.

Abstract Signs

The most obvious type of pictograph are the abstract signs and symbols which appear in almost all paleolithic caves, notably those within the region of Franco-Cantabrian art, in France and Spain.

The development of these signs reached their peak during the Magdalenian period of the Upper Paleolithic, as evidenced by a panel of symbols in the Cave of La Pasiega, known as 'The Inscription' (c.14,000 BC).

Experts believe that this and other similar panels served as a precursor to systems of writing developed during the Neolithic culture, like the Sumerian cuneiforms and Egyptian hieroglyphs.

According to prehistoric-sign expert Genevieve von Petzinger, some 32 signs were employed during the Paleolithic. These included:

Various attempts have been made to interpret these signs, but verification is impossible without a detailed knowledge of local and regional Cro-Magnon culture.

One thing we do know, is that signs often accompanied the animal pictures - sometimes appearing within the actual outline of the animal. Examples of this juxtapositioning, include:

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Cave Painting

The idea that Stone Age cave painting was a form of home decoration or 'art for art's sake', has long been abandoned, for three reasons.

First, decorated caves were not used for habitation but for ceremonies. Experts think they served as sanctuaries, in connection with some religious or shamanistic purpose.

Second, much of the cave art was deliberately created deep underground, in remote chambers that were difficult to access. So it seems the pictures were not intended for public appreciation.

Third, because paleolithic artists focused exclusively on depicting animals, and a tiny handful of human-like figures. There are no rivers, trees, hills or mountains in any of their pictures. No long grass, no huts, no rock shelters, no portraits and (with one or two exceptions) no scenes involving humans.

In light of the above, experts believe that many paintings are more symbolic than previously thought - they symbolize ideas. In this sense, they must be seen as pictographs rather than mere pictures.

Handprints & Hand Stencils

One of the most common symbols in Stone Age art is the handprint, or (more precisely) the 'positive handprint'.

It is made by coating the hand in ochre pigment (usually red), and then pressing it against a rock surface. When the hand is withdrawn, it leaves behind a filled-in colour imprint.

By contrast, 'negative handprints' or hand stencils are made by placing the hand on the rock surface and then spraying pigment over it. When the hand is withdrawn, it leaves behind a silhouette image of the hand.

Are these hand symbols trying to convey a message? It's hard to say.

It's tempting to regard these painted hand markings as simple examples of self-expression, along the lines of 'Kilroy was here' or 'Hello Mum!'

The latest research suggests that both types of handprint were created by women and children, although the significance of this is unclear.

Research also downplays the idea that many handprints were those of mutilated hands.

Instead, researchers believe the owners deliberately folded back their fingers to create the impression of mutilation.

This seemingly playful action is more consistent with a lighthearted interpretation of the handprint genre.

See also the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cueva de Las Manos (7,300 BC) in Argentina, which boasts the largest number of handprints and hand stencils in the world.

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Which are the Oldest Pictographs?

According to the archaeological record, the world's oldest pictographs are the five Quesang handprints deliberately and carefully arranged by a 12-year old child on a travertine boulder in Tibet, no later than 169,000 years ago. The hand artist was likely from a family of Denisovans or Neanderthals, since the prints predate the dispersal of modern humans into East Asia.

See: World's Oldest Art.

History of Pictographs

For more about the chronology of pictograms and petrograms, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Interpretation of Pictographs

When we talk about the meaning of cave painting, we are really talking about ourselves. Our interpretation is based on our knowledge and experience, along with that of our contemporaries, and assessed with reference to our values and culture.

A simple comparison of Western and Eastern attitudes to religion and death, for instance, shows how different cultures influence our views on universal topics.

How is it possible, therefore, to comprehend the thoughts of our ancestors, who lived a short and often violent life, in constant danger of ferocious predators, and starvation - a situation we can scarcely imagine, let alone understand.

With that in mind, let's look at two speculative possibilities.

Hunting Magic

To begin with, it is abundantly clear that paleolithic art - being dominated by animals - is essentially the art of the hunter gatherer.

Thus it is not unreasonable to see the pictures as a primitive type of hunting 'wish-list' - a form of 'hunting magic'.

Dangerous animals (like rhinoceros, cave bears and lions) could have been pictorialized in order to cast spells upon them, in the way that a voodoo priest first creates an effigy of someone, which is then strung up or stabbed.

Game animals, on the other hand, could have been depicted in ways that doomed them (by placing arrow-shaped signs next to them, or by inflicting wounds on them, or by showing them falling), or made them easier to kill.

By painting them on the walls of the sanctuary, the artists took possession of the image of the animal they wanted to kill, and thus of the animal itself.

Put simply, they painted what they wanted to happen. A sort of Stone Age Law of Attraction.

Connecting with Spirits

Other experts focus on the caves themselves, their function and the dense underground darkness that cloaked their ceremonies.

Many primitive cultures have understood darkness to be a supernatural realm, full of spirits in contact with higher powers.

Shamanism was a widespread feature of Stone Age culture and - given that shamans typically claim the power to communicate with spirits, and connect with the otherworld - animal paintings could have played an important role in supernatural shamanic drama. For more, see: Shamans in Paleolithic Art (from 30,000 BC).

Shamanic ceremonies were probably reinforced by the effect of archaeoacoustics - the concordance of cave art and acoustic resonance. See archaeoacoustics in Stone Age caves, for details.

Shamanism is one of the few explanations that seem to account for the dramatic potential of deep caves, the carefully chosen inaccessible galleries of animal paintings, the mysterious geometric signs, and the extraordinary images of sorcerers at Trois Frères Cave in the Ariège, as well as Gabillou Cave in the Dordogne.


(1) "Pleistocene Figurative Art Mobilier from Apollo 11 Cave, Karas Region, Southern Namibia." Riaan F. Rifkin, Christopher S. Henshilwood & Magnus M. Haaland. South African Archaeological Bulletin 70 (201): 113-123 (2015).
(2) "U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain". Pike, A. W. G.; Hoffmann, D. L.; Garcia-Diez, M.; Pettitt, P. B.; Alcolea, J.; De Balbin, R.; Gonzalez-Sainz, C.; de las Heras, C.; Lasheras, J. A.; Montes, R.; Zilhao, J. (14 June 2012). Science. 336 (6087): 1409–1413.
(3) "An abstract drawing from the 73,000-year-old levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa". Henshilwood, Christopher S.; d'Errico, Francesco; van Niekerk, Karen L.; Dayet, Laure; Queffelec, Alain; Pollarolo, Luca. (2018) Nature. 562 (7725): 115–118.
(4) "Making the Abstract Concrete: The Place of Geometric Signs in French Upper Paleolithic Parietal Art." (2005) (Thesis) Genevieve von Petzinger. University of Victoria, Canada.
(5) "Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves." Jean Clottes & David Lewis-Williams. Harry N. Abrams, 1998. ISBN 0810941821 (ISBN13: 9780810941823)
(6) "SignBase, a collection of geometric signs on mobile objects in the Paleolithic." Dutkiewicz, E., Russo, G., Lee, S. et al.  Sci Data 7, 364 (2020).

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