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Aurignacian Art & Culture

Upper Paleolithic Tool Industry
Created by Cro-Magnons in Europe

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Famous Aurignacian panel of lions from the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave
Black paintings of lions hunting, found in Chauvet Cave, the apogee of Aurignacian cave painting. (34,500 BC) Image by HTO. (Public Domain).

What is Aurignacian Culture?

Aurignacian culture is the first archaeological tool industry and artistic tradition, to be introduced by modern humans in Europe.

It forms the first phase of the 'Upper Paleolithic Revolution', created by modern migrants known as Cro-Magnons, after the Cro-Magnon rock shelter in the French Dordogne.

This so-called revolution affected many different areas of Stone Age culture, including painting, sculpture, tool-making, hunting, and possibly language.

It was followed by the Gravettian, around 30,000 BC.

Introduced by Modern Humans

Aurignacian culture - named after the type site of Aurignac Cave in the Haute-Garonne region of southwest France - was introduced into Europe by modern H. sapiens, who began migrating out of Africa around 100,000 years ago, and settled initially in the Middle East.

Here, they introduced the Emiran culture (c.60,000 BC) - noted for its Emireh point - and afterwards the Ahmarian culture (c.45,000 BC), noted for its blade and bladelet-knapping techniques.

Around 55,000 BC, or perhaps earlier, some of these Middle Eastern settlers began moving north-west into Europe.

The earliest known traces of these Cro-Magnons - dating to 54,000 BC - were recovered from Mandrin Cave in the French Dordogne, although even earlier finds are likely.

When Did the Aurignacian Begin and End?

The dates of the Aurignacian vary with the terminology used. It's the same with the three other tool cultures of the Upper Paleolithic. So, for the sake of simplicity alone, we adopt the following chronology:

Aurignacian Stone Tools

Aurignacian stone tools were archaeology's first Mode 4 technology.

Overall, the Aurignacian - the first of the four Cro-Magnon tool industries - introduced numerous innovations in tool technology of the late Stone Age, which formed a major part of the so-called Upper Paleolithic Revolution. For more, see: History of Stone Tools.

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Art During the Aurignacian

Until the end of the 20th century, many paleoanthropologists doubted that Aurignacian Man was capable of producing representational art.

Abstract signs were common, as were hand stencils and other crude markings, but there were few signs of any prehistoric art that copied nature.

With rare exceptions, almost all cave painting involving animal or human figures was assigned to the later Magdalenian culture, while the oldest known figurative carvings were venus figurines, which dated to the Gravettian.

Then came the sensational discovery of Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave in the French Ardèche, with its stunning imagery of lions, rhinoceroses and bison.

When it was learned that the oldest images were created as early as 34,500 BC, some archaeologists simply refused to accept that such mature cave art could have been created by Aurignacian artists.

Even today, some scientists still can't accept it, despite the fact that no other cave has been as precisely and as scientifically carbon-dated, as Chauvet.

See also: Upper Paleolithic Art (40,000-10,000 BC).

Sculpture

Prehistoric sculpture also underwent a revolution under the Cro-Magnons.

A series of finds in caves of the Swabian Jura in Germany, revealed that Aurignacian sculptors were responsible for a wide range of small-scale mammoth ivory carvings, dating to between 38,000 and 30,000 BC.

In addition, they created the first therianthropic carving known as the Lion-Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel, also dated to the Aurignacian, and the first venus figurine, the Venus of Hohle Fels (see below).

New Finds

New finds of Aurignacian art are ongoing across the region of Franco-Cantabrian art, and further afield.

This is partly due to the emergence of new dating technologies, such as Urianium-Thorium dating.

Examples of these finds include the animal figures at Altxerri Cave in the Basque region, dating to 37,000 BC, and the charcoal drawings of horses and bison at Coliboaia Cave, in Romania (30,000 BC).

Other discoveries include the Fumane animal paintings near Verona and the Abri Castanet engravings in the Dordogne.

Aurignacian-era Art in Asia

Although the Aurignacian culture is limited to Europe and parts of the Middle East, the time period also witnessed the creation of spectacular parietal art in Indonesia, notably in the Maros-Pangkep region of Sulawesi (43,500 BC), and the East Kalimantan Caves of Borneo (38,000 BC).

Aurignacian Art in Australia

Evidence of human occupation at Madjedbebe (Malakunanja II), Arnhem Land, shows that modern humans arrived in Australia from about 65,000 BC. The main sites of rock art are those on the Burrup Peninsula; at Ubirr; and in the Kimberley, all of which date back to at least 30,000 BC.

Cave Signs and Symbols

Paleolithic caves are noted for their numerous abstract signs and symbols, ranging from simple dots and line signs to serpentiforms and flabelliforms.

Recent dating tests on signs at several Spanish caves, including La Pasiega Cave in Cantabria, as well as Ardales Cave northwest of Malaga and Maltravieso Cave in Extremedura, showed that the oldest were created about 62,000 BC - at least 8,000 years before the advent of moderns.

Modern humans continued this abstract signage throughout the Aurignacian, creating additional signs along the way.

How Did Modern Humans compare with Neanderthals During the Aurignacian?

The Aurignacian offers an interesting comparison between H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis.

Neanderthals had dominated the European continent since they introduced the Mousterian tool culture around 300,000 years ago.

Now, some 250,000 years later, a new species of early humans had arrived on their doorstep, and lost no time in demonstrating their cultural and cognitive superiority.

Recent research indicates that moderns were cognitively more advanced than Neanderthals (they developed more brain neurons), and it showed.

In addition to creating new tools, modern humans mastered the use of ochre pigments, introduced the first animal paintings, the first figurative carvings, the first rock engravings and much more.

They achieved all this within the Aurignacian period, while they were still acclimatizing to a colder climate and an unfamilar habitat.

The consequences for indigenous Neanderthals were fatal. For a variety of reasons, they faded from the archaeological record. Their last known remains are dated to 37,000 BC.

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Famous Aurignacian Art

Here is a short chronological list of the most famous items of Aurignacian art.

Other Paleolithic Humans

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

References

(1) "Aurignacian". Wood, Bernard, ed. (2011). Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Human Evolution. John Wiley. ISBN 9781444342475.
(2) "U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art". D. L. Hoffmann; C. D. Standish; M. García-Diez; P. B. Pettitt; J. A. Milton; J. Zilhão; J. J. Alcolea-González; P. Cantalejo-Duarte; H. Collado; R. de Balbín; M. Lorblanchet; J. Ramos-Muñoz; G.-Ch. Weniger; A. W. G. Pike (2018). Science. 359 (6378): 912–915.
(3) "Archeology and the Dispersal of Modern Humans in Europe: Deconstructing the Aurignacian". Mellars, P. (2006). Evolutionary Anthropology. 15 (5): 167–182.
(4) Blades, B (2003). "End scraper reduction and hunter-gatherer mobility". American Antiquity. 68 (1): 141–156.

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