Upper Paleolithic Art

Cave painting & engraving by
Modern humans like Cro-Magnons

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Falling Horse or Upside Down Horse, Axial Gallery, Lascaux Cave
The famous 'Falling Horse' or 'Upside Down Horse', Axial Gallery, Lascaux. Image by Source: donsmaps.

What is the Upper Paleolithic?

The Upper Paleolithic is the final period of the Old Stone Age. Traditionally, it runs from about 40,000 to 10,000 BC. However, new discoveries (of art as well as modern tools) have led some experts to talk of an 'initial' Upper Paleolithic, starting about 45,000 BC.

In Europe, the four main periods of the Upper Paleolithic are as follows:

Each of these phases are associated with different tool industries, as well as differing styles of cave painting and rock engraving.

Who Created Upper Paleolithic Art?

Answer: modern humans. Upper Paleolithic art and culture is defined by the migration of modern humans out of Africa, and their displacement of indigenous Neanderthals, Denisovans and other lost relatives of Homo erectus, around the world.

When did the Middle Paleolithic give way to the Upper Paleolithic? Or, when did modern humans (aka Cro-Magnons) become the dominant human species in Europe?

The answer is, we're not sure.

Archaeological evidence from the site of Mandrin Cave in southern France shows that some Cro-Magnons were already established in Eastern Europe by 54,000 BC.

This date supercedes the archaeological sequences documented at Bacho Kiro Cave in Bulgaria, at Ksar Akil (a large rock shelter northeast of Beirut), and at Boker Tachtit, located in the Wadi Zin basin, in Israel's Negev Desert.

All these sites were regarded as key markers in tracing the migration of modern humans from Africa into Europe.

The archaeological material from Boker Tachtit (2013), which was dated by researchers at the Weizmann Institute and the Max Planck Institute, indicates that the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic transition was a fast-evolving event that began at Boker Tachtit no later than 48,000-47,000 BC and ended about 42,000 BC.

However, the discovery of modern human remains at Mandrin Cave, along with modern Neronian-style tools, suggests that this transition may have begun 6,000 years earlier.

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What Happened to Neanderthals?

According to the archaeological record, Neanderthals became extinct by about 37,000 BC. That's about 17,000 years after moderns first arrived in Europe.

The causes and circumstances behind this abrupt vanishing act are still difficult to comprehend, especially since the species had been established in Europe since 300,000 BC.

So what caused Neanderthals to disappear so suddenly? Possible theories include: competitive replacement, assimilation into the modern human genome, disease, demographic factors (such as small population size and inbreeding), or a combination of these factors.

Most scientists favour the common sense idea that competition from moderns drove Neanderthals to extinction. Only this theory explains the remarkable uniformity of the technological advances (e.g. advanced tool technology, hunting habits and brand new forms of representational cave art), across an area spanning 4,000 kilometres from Southern Israel to Northern Spain, during the early stages of the Upper Paleolithic.

The moderns were smarter than Neanderthals and - according to a recent paper in Science - soon outnumbered them by as much as 10:1.

So one doesn't need a PhD in paleoanthropology to work out that one species was overcome by the other. This does not mean that Neanderthals were physically exterminated. They could simply have been excluded from the prime locations and left to survive as best they could.

To put this demographic rivalry into context, researchers estimate the population of Europe in 40,000 BC to be roughly 10,000 individuals.

By the Magdalenian, this figure is believed to have risen to between 20,000 and 40,000 individuals, caused by the inward migration of moderns.

Life expectancy at the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, is estimated at between 25 and 30 years.

Given that Neanderthals were very thinly distributed and enjoyed a relatively short lifespan, it's hardly a surprise to see them wilt in the face of superior numbers and life skills. This peaceful exclusion scenario also helps to explain how small groups of Neanderthals continued to survive in parts of Western Europe until about 35,000 BC.

At any rate, the flowering of prehistoric art which now occurred, was driven entirely by modern H. sapiens.

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Why were Modern Humans More Artistic Than Neanderthals?

Archaeologists believe it was because modern H. sapiens possessed a superior cognitive toolkit to that of indigenous humans like H. neanderthalensis, H. denisova and H. erectus.

The moderns' more advanced cognitive toolkit is evidenced by the following:

Superior Tool-Making

Cro-Magnon tool industries were more advanced and varied than those developed by Neanderthals.

Cultural Advances Due to Better Tool-Making

Better Hunting Methods

In combination with their invention of new hunting tools, Cro-Magnon moderns also introduced better hunting methods and focused their efforts on specific animals.

They grouped their settlements in certain specific locations, such as particular river valleys, which served as major migratory routes used by herbivores whom they hunted, like reindeer, bison, and horses.

In southwest France, for instance, the valleys of the Dordogne and Vézère rivers attracted seasonal migrations of reindeer from higher altitude summer pastures on the Massif Central to the warmer, low-lying winter pastures of the Atlantic plain.

In Central and Eastern Europe similar clusters of sites occupied by modern humans have been found in the valleys of the Rhine and Upper Danube in South Germany, and along the Dnestr and Don Valleys in Southern Russia.

In addition, especially in more northerly latitudes, some hunter gatherer settlements set up storage facilities to balance out depletion of resources during the winter.

Better Trading Skills

Fossils and artifacts recovered from decorated caves occupied by moderns reveals that modern humans used long-distance exchange networks, spanning several hundred kilometres, to obtain and barter raw materials and other materials like pigments and tools.

These extended supply chains contrasted with the much shorter supply lines built up by Neanderthals and others during the Middle Palaeolithic.

More Sophisticated Cave Art

There's no doubt that cave art is the greatest achievement of modern humans at this time, and it exemplifies the sort of quantum leap in cognitive and symbolic thinking, which they introduced into Upper Paleolithic culture wherever they went.

Although Neanderthals, and other now-extinct species created a variety of parietal art, including pictographs and petroglyphs, they did not produce any representational paintings or engravings.

With the arrival of modern Cro-Magnons, we see a far more sophisticated style of work, which puts Neanderthal art well and truly in the shade

Examples of this new style of cave art, include:

These early artistic examples of Stone age culture prove that modern humans did not undergo a creative metamorphosis after arriving in Europe, but already possessed the necessary imagination and visual retention skills to produce artwork of an exceptional quality.

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Evolution of Upper Paleolithic Cave Art

Here is a short synopsis of the most famous artworks, listed by period. For more information, see Paleolithic Caves around the world.


In addition to the works mentioned above, this period is noted for the following art, listed in chronological order:


This period is best known for its venus figurines, although it also witnessed some outstanding cave painting. Examples, listed in chronological order, include:


In France, this period is best known for its relief sculpture, such as the frieze at Roc de Sers (17,200 BC) and the finely incised engravings at Le Placard Cave, both in the Charente. Le Placard is also famous as the type site for aviform signs, also known as 'Placard-type signs'. Some of the early paintings at Lascaux also date from the Solutrean.

In Spain, the period is exemplified by the painted engravings of herbivores at La Pena de Candamo Cave, including the large stag pierced by spears; the multi-coloured cave painting at La Pileta Cave, including a drawing of a giant fish and a pregnant mare annotated with red dot signs; and the red ochre animal paintings with stippled outlines at Covalanas Cave.


This period represents the apogee of paleolithic art, in painting, engraving and sculpture.




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Geometric Abstract Signs

Abstract signs and symbols began appearing in European caves about 20,000 years before the arrival of modern H. sapiens.

Eventually outnumbering pictures by 2:1, these signs consisted of 32 basic shapes, about two-thirds of which were introduced during the Aurignacian period, between 40,000 and 30,000 BC.

Simple signs included: linear markings, as well as circles and triangles, crosshatches and zigzags. More complex signs included Spanish tectiforms and Penniforms.

Simple cultural markings like cupules first emerged in the Lower Paleolithic, and other abstract motifs appeared on portable carvings, but the first known cave sign was the Neanderthal scalariform in the Cave of La Pasiega which dated to 62,000 BC.

During the Upper Paleolithic, about 32 basic signs were used in caves, about two-thirds of which were introduced during the Aurignacian period, between 40,000 and 30,000 BC.

There is no consensus as to the purpose of these symbols, but as the term suggests they must symbolize something. At the very least we can say that they served as a crude form of graphic communication.

Upper Paleolithic Open Air Art

This is a relatively new discovery. The first discovery was in Mazouco (Portugal), in 1981. After this came Domingo García (Segovia, Spain), Piedras Blancas (Andalusia, Spain), Campôme and Fornols-Haut (French Pyrenees), and in 1989, Siega Verde, the largest site in Spain. Shortly afterwards, in the early 1990s, Côa Valley rock art was found in Portugal, which is the most extensive open air site of rock art in the world.

Australia, too, has some impressive areas of open air aboriginal rock art dating back to the Paleolithic.

They include: the Burrup Peninsula (Murujuga) in northwest Australia; the neighbouring Kimberley area; and Ubirr inside the Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory.

Unfortunately, archaeologists have not yet succeeded in obtaining reliable dates for this rock art, although several factors point to a date (for some of it) of around 30,000 BC.

Why is Upper Paleolithic Cave Art Located Mostly in France & Spain?

The most striking feature of Stone Age art at this time is its concentration in certain specific regions of Europe:

This Franco-Cantabrian zone accounts for at least two-thirds of all important paleolithic art in Europe.

What's the reason for this lopsided distribution of cave art? After all, there are many other regions in Europe where limestone caves are comparatively abundant and which have been repeatedly searched for signs of decorations.

The answer - according to experts - is all down to population density.

The areas with the greatest amount of rock art are known to have contained the densest human population, a situation no doubt related to the economic and ecological resources available in these areas.

It's worth noting that the zone of Franco-Cantabrian art served as the most southerly region of open tundra/steppe within ice-age Europe, and likely contained the highest concentration of animal herds, that followed the main seasonal migration routes along the major river valleys.

How is Population Density Linked to Cave Art?

Answer: Because cave art requires the participation of strong individuals, capable of working in arduous physical conditions, as well as considerable resources - from specialized charcoal and mineral pigments, to lamps, torches and scaffolding.

Only relatively large hunter gatherer communities can afford to spare these resources.

Large settlements of moderns can be seen in Southern France, such as the Abri Pataude, Laugerie-Haute and Laugerie-Basse grouping and the Castel-Merle grouping (Abri Blanchard, Abri Castanet and Abri Reverdit) - both in the Vézère Valley.

Few occupation deposits compare with the massive concentrations of debris at these rock shelters.

There are also extensive encampments at Pavlov and Dolní Věstonice in Czech Republic, Willendorf in Austria, and Kostenki in southern Russia.

In southwest France there are at least four times as many cave and rock shelter sites with substantial traces of UP occupations as there are for the preceding Middle Paleolithic period.

Meaning of Upper Paleolithic Art

No one knows the meaning of cave art, but some scholars believe that as the number of hunter gatherer groups increases within a region, so does the need for clearly defined social territories and social identities, and perhaps even social hierarchies.

One way of conferring and reinforcing identity as well as ranks within a hierarchy, is through ritualistic or ceremonial events, likely conducted inside deep cave sanctuaries.

How the cave art functioned in this context is not known. Perhaps it served as a backdrop or an enhancement for these ceremonies, similar to the way that Baroque art enhanced Mass in the Catholic Church and competed for worshippers with the Lutheran Church.

The cave paintings could have been used and controlled by hunter gatherer chiefs or shamanic leaders in the same way, to solidify and legitimize their roles. See also: Shamans in Paleolithic Art (from 30,000 BC).

The End of the Upper Paleolithic

The Upper Paleolithic era comes to a close with the end of the Ice Age and the retreat of the ice sheets northwards.

Rapid warming transformed the environment of hunter gatherer communities in radical ways.

Open tundra and steppe landscapes were soon replaced by densely forested conditions, which were quite unsuitable for herds of herbivores. Forest habitats are able to support only about a quarter of the animals that survive in a grassland habitat.

As a result, the number of human settlements in regions like the Dordogne shrank by about two-thirds.

As the density of the human population fell, and groups became more dispersed, many of the old social mechanisms disappeared and were replaced by less structured forms of social organization.

Cave sanctuaries were abandoned and, along with them, the cave art that defined them.

For more about the chronology of Stone Age culture, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).

References & Resources

(1) "The false dichotomy: A refutation of the Neandertal indistinguishability claim". Wynn, Thomas; Overmann, Karenleigh A; Coolidge, Frederick L (2016). Journal of Anthropological Sciences. 94 (94): 201–221.
(2) "Campanian Ignimbrite volcanism, climate, and the final decline of the Neanderthals" (PDF). Black, B. A.; Neely, R. R.; Manga, M. (2015). Geology. 43 (5): 411–414.
(3) "Tenfold population increase in Western Europe at the Neanderthal-to-modern human transition." Paul Mellars, Jennifer C French. Science. 2011 Jul 29; 333(6042): 623-7.
(4) "The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols." Genevieve von Petzinger. Atria; Illustrated edition (28 Mar. 2017) ISBN-10: 1476785503. ISBN-13: 978-1476785509.
(5) "Cave Art" Jean Clottes. (2008) Phaidon. ISBN 978-0-7148-5723-7.
(6) "The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists." Curtis, Gregory (2006). Knopf. ISBN 1-4000-4348-4.

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