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Black manganese drawing of ibex mountain goat on Le Grand Plafond, Rouffignac Cave
About 13,000 years ago, this wild mountain goat was drawn in black manganese on the Great Ceiling of Rouffignac Cave, in the French Dordogne. Image © R.Schnapp.

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What is the Stone Age?

Answer: The Stone Age is the period of prehistory between the invention of stone tools by Australopithecus afarensis (which occurred about 3.3 million years BC), and the start of the Bronze Age (about 3,000 BC).

In terms of geologic time, the Stone Age is preceded by the Pliocene Epoch, coincides (broadly speaking) with the Pleistocene Epoch, and is succeeded by the Holocene Epoch.

It is divided into three very unequal periods:

1. PALEOLITHIC
This period (known as the old Stone Age) was dominated by early humans who pursued a hunter-gatherer culture. It lasted between 3.3 million BC and 10,000 BC.

The Paleolithic is subdivided into 4 periods:

2. MESOLITHIC
This is a transitional period from 10,000 BC to about 7,000 BC.

3. NEOLITHIC
This period (known as the new Stone Age) witnessed the start of a more settled culture based around agriculture and livestock. It was superceded by the Bronze Age about 3,000 BC.

Note: In this article, the terms Stone Age, prehistoric, and paleolithic are used interchangeably.

Was the First Prehistoric Art Very Primitive?

Yes. The earliest prehistoric art was rudimentary and half-formed. And, in fact, some of it is not even recognized as 'art'.

But even if we think it's very primitive, it doesn't stop it being art.

You see, the truth is, developing the cognitive skills necessary for the creation of art is a very long process. So, the first attempts are bound to be a bit wobbly!

For this reason, we take a broad view of prehistoric art, thus we feel that the five earliest types of art, are as follows:

Stone tools

Why are stone tools a form of prehistoric art? Because the art of tool-making required the same basic cognitive toolkit as the art of rock painting and engraving.

Experts now believe the improvements in visual consciousness which are needed to create (say) pictures of animals, likely appeared first in the making of tools.

For instance, between 1.6 million and 300,000 BC, changes in the shape of Acheulean tools revealed a growing understanding of symmetry, which is a function of the visual brain.

In a 2014 article entitled 'The elements of design form in Acheulian bifaces: modes, modalities, rules and language', JAJ Gowlett, professor of archaeology and evolutionary anthropology, discussed how the Acheulean tool-maker needs to develop and hold an image 'in their mind'.

His analysis of biface construction methods suggested that the cognitive abilities needed to create 3D objects from suitably-shaped stones evolved first in flint tool-making, and were only later used to create sculpture, or stone reliefs.

In short, from Oldowan choppers to Acheulean handaxes, Mousterian flake tools, specialized Aurignacian tools, like burins (a key engraving tool), Gravettian backed knives and Gravette points, Solutrean stone projectile points and Magdalenian microliths, the development of lithic technology was a key indicator of cognitive development.

The functional nature of stone tools should not disqualify them from being seen as the first artform of prehistory.

For more, see: History of Stone Tools.

Cupules

Cupules - hemispherical hollows hammered out of rock surfaces - may be another form of ancient paleolithic art.

The term "cupule" was invented by the famous archaeologist Robert G. Bednarik.

Cupules are found on every continent except Antarctica, and have been described as the most common type of rock art.

According to archaeologist Ramesh Kumar Pancholi, cupules found at Daraki-Chattan rock shelter, central India, date to between 500,000 and 200,000 BC, although they could be significantly older.

Face and Body Painting

The earliest use of ochre pigments by early humans, known to archaeology, dates to the Acheulean culture of the Lower Paleolithic, about 500,000 BC.

Although ochre had numerous functional uses, its vivid red hues were undoubtedly used on faces and parts of the body for cultural and/or aesthetic purposes.

This would be consistent with the appearance of certain uncontacted peoples, and others who maintain a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Primitive Engravings

The earliest Stone Age art of a more conventional nature, consists of simple abstract engravings.

The oldest example is the Trinil shell engravings, created in Java by early hominins about 540,000 BC.

The Bilzingsleben engravings carved onto the shinbone of a forest elephant in Germany, around 350,000 BC, are another.

Personal Adornments

Another early form of paleolithic art was decorative jewellery, like bead necklaces and other types of personal adornment.

This was a specialty of Neanderthal art during the Mousterian culture.

See, for example, the Los Aviones Cave jewellery and the Krapina Cave eagle jewellery.

How Did Stone Age Art Develop?

From its early beginnings, listed above, there developed five main types of Stone Age art.

Cave Painting

Cave painting is surely the most dramatic form of prehistoric art. And prehistoric artists became experts in positioning images to exploit every contour, fissure and angle in the cave.

The finest known animal paintings remain those in the region of Franco-Cantabrian art, in Southern France and Northern Spain, nearly all of which were produced by Cro-Magnons - the species of modern Homo sapiens who superceded Neanderthals in Europe.

The most famous black paintings (made with charcoal or manganese) are in Chauvet Cave (Rhino Panel), and Niaux Cave (iconic weasel image).

The most famous polychrome paintings are in Altamira Cave (bison ceiling), Lascaux Cave (Hall of the Bulls) and Font de Gaume, three of the great Magdalenian cave sanctuaries.

An earlier site with exceptional paintings includes Pech-Merle (spotted horses) in the Lot.

Rock Engravings

Rock engravings - are drawings typically made by a sharpened tool, like a burin, on the wall, floor or ceiling of a cave.

Caves with the most famous engravings include: Addaura Caves (human sacrifice dance scene), and Trois Frères Cave (The Sorcerer).

Rock engravings are most commonly found at outdoor sites, notably in Australia, where most aboriginal rock art was created in the open.

For instance, the Burrup Peninsula in Western Australia has around 2,300 sites with an estimated one million petroglyphs.

For the largest collection of open-air rock carvings in Europe, see the Coa Valley rock art, in Portugal.

Abstract Signs

Abstract symbols are a key feature of Stone Age culture and the most prevalent type of parietal art in most paleolithic caves.

Some caves contain panels or whole chambers, with nothing but signs. The famous 'Inscription' panel at La Pasiega Cave in Spain, is one such example.

These ideomorphs, or pictographs, first appeared during the Mousterian, and continued to be produced throughout the Upper Paleolithic, from the Aurignacian to the Azilian.

They range from simple dots, lines, and circles, to more complex cave symbols such as aviforms, flabelliforms, penniforms and Spanish tectiforms.

Prehistorians remain baffled as to their purpose. Some experts believe they are a precursor of later writing systems, such as hieroglyphics.

In addition to these abstract and geometric signs, paleolithic caves also contained star signs, handprints, hand stencils, finger tracings (also known as digital tracings, finger-fluting, or 'macaroni'), and gender imagery.

Abstract symbols have also been found on a range of artifacts and figurines. A Stone Age research project, known as SignBase, identifies and catalogues prehistoric symbols on mobile objects belonging to the European Upper Paleolithic, and African Middle Stone Age (MSA).

Sculpture

Prehistoric sculpture consisted of either reliefs, or stand-alone works.

Relief sculpture

This type of rock art is present in numerous caves, either as a single item (see: Abri du Poisson) or as a stone frieze made up of several items (see Cap Blanc, and Roc de Sers).

The most famous relief sculpture is probably the two bison at Tuc d'Audoubert Cave in the Pyrenees.

The relief tradition was greatly advanced by the innovative tool-making techniques of the Solutrean culture, as shown in the frieze at Roc de Sers in the Charente.

Stand-Alone Sculpture

This category mainly includes small items of mobiliary art.

Many portable items are embellished with abstract or geometric signs.

Early examples include: the Löwenmensch figurine and the animal figurines from the caves of the Swabian Jura, Germany.

Ceramic Art

This category of Stone Age art includes all objects made from clay and then baked in a kiln or equivalent.

The world's oldest known ceramic object is the Venus of Dolní Věstonice (29,000 BC).

The oldest known pots are the shards found at the Kostenki I site in Southern Russia, dated to 23,000 BC.

For more, see Ancient Pottery: Prehistoric Ceramics.

For the history and dates of prehistoric ceramics around the world, see: Ancient Pottery Timeline.

What Were the Key Stages of Development?

Prehistoric art did not reveal its potential until after 50,000 BC, and reached its apogee during the Magdalenian culture around 15,000 BC, just as the Ice Age declined.

All this coincides with several large migrations out of Africa by modern Homo sapiens.

Where Was Prehistoric Art Made?

Archaeological excavations show that prehistoric art was created on every continent, except Antartica. Examples include:

Africa

Americas

Asia

Australasia

Europe

The End of Cave Culture

By 10,000 BC, the ice sheets had retreated to Scandinavia, along with the herds of reindeer upon which hunter gatherer culture depended. The era of prehistoric cave art was over.

Paleolithic cave culture duly gave way to the outdoor Mesolithic and Neolithic cultures, while cave art was replaced by open air petroglyphs, as well as megalithic architecture like the temples at Göbekli Tepe and the stone circles at Stonehenge.

Stone Age Art: Background Context

As stated above, the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic (UP) coincided with the arrival of modern humans into Europe; and its end, with the transition to the Neolithic, when hunter-gatherer culture was slowly replaced by a more static agriculture-based lifestyle.

Tools

During the UP, there were continuous improvements in tool manufacture, which led to ever more specialized implements. First in stone tools, then in bone, antler and ivory tools.

As a result, despite regional variations in the evolution of these artifacts, tools provide a convenient framework for identifying cultural progress over time and space.

The main lithic cultures in Europe, are: Aurignacian, Gravettian, Solutrean, and Magdalenian.

So much happened during the Magdalenian that it is sub-divided into early, middle and late.

Human Species

At the same time, when the UP began, around 40,000 BC, Neanderthals - a robust species of big-brained humans - had been established in Europe and throughout the Northern Hemisphere for more than 300,000 years.

Incredibly, this species of humans vanished completely from the archaeological record about 37,000 BC, due in part to pressure from Cro-Magnon modern humans, whose tool-making, hunting and artistic behaviours have completely overshadowed those of their Neanderthal rivals.

For example, cave paintings of animals, a key indicator of cognitive development, is attributed exclusively to modern humans, as is figurative sculpture, and a wide range of other rock art.

Note also that stone tool-making skills are closely linked to standards of stone sculpture.

Climate

Climate conditions during the UP is another important part of the background context to Stone Age art.

The arrival of modern humans coincided with warmer temperatures during the Würm Interstadial period (36,000 to 32,000 BC).

Sea levels were considerably lower than they are today, making lateral as well as northern movement quite unproblematic for Cro-Magnon migrants moving up from Africa and the Levant.

What's more, when they arrived in Europe, Cro-Magnons would have encountered an animal-rich landscape, along with more temperate conditions, fully justifying their relocation.

Far from being inhospitable, Western Europe in particular contained a higher animal biomass than any landscape where hunter-gatherers live today.

Even during the freezing conditions of the Late Glacial Maximum, which followed from about 26,000 BC onwards, Southern France and Northern Spain remained hospitable enough to attract thousands of climate refugees from the North, as well as migrants from North Africa.

The precise effects of climate on the production of Upper Paleolithic art are still being debated.

For instance, were the ground-breaking drawings at Chauvet Cave, which are directly dated to 34,000 BC, engendered by the excellent living conditions of the Würm Interstadial?

Was the surge in the quality of Magdalenian cave art in the Franco-Cantabrian region, related to the rapid inflow of climate refugees from the North, or was it pure coincidence? It's impossible to say.

Manpower

An added factor here, is the issue of manpower. A hunter-gatherer clan needed a relatively large number of able-bodied people to sustain a program of cave painting and engraving.

Pigments and other raw materials had to be procured, sometimes from 30 miles away or more. Charcoal required its own special production process.

Often extra materials were needed to build scaffolding, as at Lascaux and many other caves.

Chambers inside the cave needed to be surveyed to determine the best locations for the art.

Rock surfaces needed to be cleaned and smoothed. And so on.

All this diverted manpower away from the primary activities of hunting, butchery, tool-making, cooking and clothing manufacture.

Which means that only large cave-based clans would likely have sufficient resources to create prehistoric artworks.

Progress Came in Fits and Starts

In any case, cave art did not progress in a straight line but in fits and starts, as demonstrated by the charcoal images at Chauvet, Pech-Merle and Cougnac in the Lot, the animal frieze at Roc de Sers, and the bison ceiling at Altamira, to name but a few highpoints.

NEXT: See our MAIN A-Z INDEX for hundreds of articles about prehistoric art, and the humans who created it.

Or see Archaeology Glossary.

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