History, themes, techniques
Famous prehistoric paintings
Cave painting is a form of prehistoric art involving the application of colour pigments to the walls, floors or ceilings of underground rock shelters.
Like all Stone Age painting, it is essentially hunter-gatherer art, created by semi-nomadic humans.
The difference between these three forms of parietal art becomes clear once we understand the three basic stages of producing a picture of (say), a horse.
An animal picture which has an outline but no in-fill is usually referred to as a drawing. If part (or all) of the picture outline is filled in with pigment (which is usually the case), it's a painting. And an engraving is any picture whose outline is scratched or incised into the rock surface, regardless of whether it is painted or not.
Cave paintings are either monochrome, polychrome, or engraved and painted.
These paintings are made with a single colour (most often, black). Some only have outlines, with no in-fill, but most have some sort of in-fill.
The animal paintings at Chauvet, for instance, are mostly monochrome but most appear to have some form of black colouring: horses in particular have coloured manes.
Hence the Chauvet pictures are usually described as black paintings, not drawings. Other examples can be seen at Niaux Cave.
These are created with two or more colours, typically black and differing shades of red, or more rarely, violet.
The finest multi-coloured cave paintings can be found at Lascaux (Dordogne) and Altamira (Cantabria).
Engraved and Painted
This rarer type of painting typically involves incising a preliminary outline in the rock, which is then over-painted with pigment. Typically the body of the picture, or part of it, is also filled-in with pigment, but not always.
Examples of this combined method can be seen at Cosquer Cave (Marseille), Font-de-Gaume (Périgord), Atxurra (Basque Country), and Candamo de la Pena (Asturias).
This evidence comes from several South African sites of the Late Acheulean culture, such as Kathu Pan 1, Canteen Kopje, and Wonderwerk Cave (Watts et al., 2016).
Similar traces are known from sites in Kenya (Brooks, 2011), Zambia (Barham, 2002) and Ethiopia (Chavaillon & Berthelet, 2004).
One of the most complete ochre 'tookits' was found at Blombos Cave in South Africa, where archaeologists recovered more than 8,000 pieces of ochre, dating to between 75,000-100,000 BC, many of which had been fashioned into crayons.
This evidence shows that humans were becoming increasingly familiar with pigments from a relatively early date.
BUT, none of this necessarily involves cave painting.
This is because ochre was used for a variety of purposes, the most common being protection against the sun.
It was also widely used in face and body painting, and in the decoration of personal objects, as at Krapina (Croatia) and the Cave of Los Aviones (Spain).
For information about dating techniques applicable to cave paintings and drawings, see: Dating Methods in Archaeology.
For more about the origins of painting, see: World's Oldest Art.
Note: Numerous caves contain evidence of several periods of activity, sometimes separated by thousands of years.
The famous Spanish cave of Altamira, for instance, was decorated over a span of 21,000 years, from roughly 34,000 to 13,000 BC.
Its oldest art (a red claviform symbol) was created no later than 34,160 BC. A second period of activity around 20,000 BC, saw horses painted on the ceiling of the Chamber of Frescoes. Finally, a third period of activity culminated in the cave's most famous animal paintings - the multi-coloured bison - between 15,000 and 13,000 BC.
Most decorated caves we know about are located in Europe, notably in France and Spain. The most spectacular cave art is found in the region of Franco-Cantabrian art - namely, the Dordogne/Lot region, the Ardèche, the foothills of the French Pyrénées, Cantabria, the Asturias and the Basque Country.
See, for instance the cluster of Vézère Valley Caves in the Dordogne.
This spatial distribution is due mainly to historical events. Europe was severely impacted by the Ice Age, and the Franco-Cantabrian region was a refuge for northern immigrants fleeing the cold.
This influx of population had a significant impact on the Stone Age culture of the region, including the production of cave art.
However, there are also more modern reasons why Western Europe has more cave art.
First, the area has a relatively high population density, so discoveries occur quite regularly.
Second, it's a wealthy region, better able than most to finance excavations and dating tests.
Third, cave location is also determined by geology, with most caves occuring in limestone or dolomite rock. Thus the famous paleolithic Indonesian caves in Sulawesi and East Kalimantan are located in limestone karsts that are riddled with cavities.
In general, instances of paintings in deep caves outside Europe are rare, except for SE Asia. They are seen in the Americas (mesoamerican Maya caves in Mexico, as well as mud-glyph caves in the southeastern United States, or Cueva de las Manos in Argentina), but most of these examples date to much more recent times.
A few deep caves have been found in Australia (Koonalda Cave, Nullarbor Plain), but most aboriginal rock art is found in the open, or in shallow shelters (like Nawarla Gabarnmang) or on rocks, is extremely abundant all over the world and generally belongs to much later times.
Africa remains an enigma. After all, we know that cave art (engravings) was being created by modern humans in southern Africa tens of thousands of years ahead of anyone else.
The continent is home to more than 14,000 recorded - but as yet unexplored - Stone Age sites in sub-Saharan Africa alone.
Yet the oldest known animal paintings in Africa - found at Apollo 11 Cave in Namibia - were dated only to 25,500 BC.
If moderns migrating out of Africa were producing beautiful cave paintings in Indonesia no later than 43,500 BC, why weren't African artists producing similar works at the same time, if not earlier?
The obvious answer is, they were, but we haven't found them yet.
Until quite recently, cave painting was believed to have started in Europe, for the simple reason that all the oldest and most important sites of paleolithic art (Altamira, Lascaux, Font de Gaume, Niaux, Les Trois Frères and Les Combarelles) were located in France and Spain.
What's more, very few paintings were dated directly, Instead, the pictures were dated by comparative analysis with pictures in other caves.
Lastly, due to lack of knowledge, the main period of cave painting was thought to have occurred around 13,000 BC, during the Magdalenian period (15,000-10,000 BC).
So who painted the first pictures? Well, there were two candidates: Neanderthals, who had been resident in Europe since about 500,000 BC, and modern humans, who began arriving in Europe from Africa about 40,000 BC.
(Note: Modern humans are the latest variant of Homo sapiens, the most recent species of human being - the one we belong to. They appeared about 160,000 BC in East Africa, and began migrating out of Africa about 100,000 BC. The largest wave of modern migrants left Africa about 70,000 BC.)
As it was, within 10,000 years of their arrival in Europe, the moderns totally displaced the Neanderthals, who vanished completely from the archaeological record.
As a result, most archaeologists assumed that the first cave painters were modern humans.
But recent discoveries have muddied the waters.
First, Chauvet Cave was discovered. The unusually sophisticated animal pictures at Chauvet - dating to the Aurignacian period (40,000-30,000 BC) around 34,500 BC - showed that humans had been painting quality pictures far longer than previously thought.
Second, archaeologists using new dating methods (Uranium/Thorium dating technology) discovered that several Spanish caves contained paintings dating as far back as 64,700 BC - twenty thousand years before the arrival of modern man.
Third, more dating tests confirmed suspicions raised at Chauvet and showed that humans had begun decorating caves much earlier than previously expected.
Paintings in the limestone caves of Maros-Pangkep, a remote area in southwest Sulawesi, and in caves on the Sangkulirang-Mangkalihat Peninsula in East Kalimantan, were found to be older than any figurative paintings discovered to date.
Conclusion: (1) Neanderthals were likely the first cave painters. (2) Moderns were the first humans to paint animals, only not in Europe but in SE Asia.
Note: Neanderthal involvement in cave painting is supported by their sporadic use of ochre, the most reliable evidence of which comes from Maastricht-Belvédère in the Netherlands, dating to between 250,000 and 200,000 years BC (Roebroeks, 1988; Roebroeks et al. 2012).
Following this, however, no significant trace of ochre use in Europe was found for another 100,000 years. Indeed, not until about 60,000 BC do we see any substantial evidence of Neanderthals using pigment.
For more about the chronology of cave painting, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).
Stone Age cave painting follows a fairly static iconography, and has a very narrow focus in terms of thematic content.
For example, Stone Age pictures contain no landscape (no pictures of streams, rivers, cliffs etc.), no scenes of everyday life (no hunting or campfire scenes) and no pictures of the settlements in which most people lived.
Instead, as Jean Clottes - one of France's leading prehistorians - has noted: the main types or themes of cave painting can be summarized in one sentence: "big animals, few humans, and many geometric signs".
Above all, paleolithic art is the art of animals. It's true that animal pictures are outnumbered more than 2:1 by abstract symbols (lines, dots, tectiforms, circles, half-circles, triangles, and the like), but animal pictures are without question the most powerful visual imagery of the Ice Age.
Some of the paintings of the great black bulls at Lascaux exceed 5 metres in length.
Curiously, paintings of humans are extremely scarce.
This iconographic scheme of cave painting is seen throughout Europe, from Altamira in the west, through to Coliboaia Cave (Romania) in the centre, and as far as Kapova Cave in the Urals, in the extreme east.
Animals constituted the main visual theme of cave painting. Typical characteristics of animal pictures are as follows:
The 'human' theme is handled quite differently from that of animals.
Ideomorphs constitute the strangest and least comprehensible theme in cave art. Numerically, abstract signs are the most common type of painted imagery in paleolithic shelters.
That said, only 32 sign types are seen during the period of Upper Paleolithic art (40,000-10,000 BC).
The most common of these include: Line signs (drawn with a single stroke), Dot signs (points, disks, or blobs), Open-angles (like a horizontal V-sign), Ovals (elongated sphere), and Triangles (regular geometric symbol).
These geometric signs appear in almost every known cave in Europe, and their appearance supports the idea that modern man arrived in Europe already capable of symbolic thought.
This is because 66 percent of all signs were in use by 30,000 BC. In other words, they were not invented, tried out and developed after moderns arrived in Europe - they were already part of modern man's cognitive 'toolbox'.
Cave signs are frequently seen on or next to pictures of animals, and even humans. Examples include:
Two especially interesting groupings of abstract signs can be seen at two neighbouring caves in Monte Castillo, Cantabria.
How did cave painters decide on a specific location for a painting or drawing? The answer, according to a growing body of research, concerns archaeoacoustics - the relationship between art and sound in Stone Age caves.
For example, at some sites, cave paintings are located at spots with exceptionally strong sound resonance.
Why? In order to enhance the impact of ritual and shamanic ceremony in the caves.
Typically a paleolithic animal painting was created in four steps, which varied according to the skill and experience of the artist, the contours and nature of the rock surface to be painted, and the raw materials available.
During the Upper Paleolithic we see at least three phases of cave painting.
Lower Aurignacian Phase
During this period, engravings are drawn with the finger on soft clay walls. They consist of simple spirals and frets, or crude representations of animals.
There are paintings of animals, with crude contours drawn in black, yellow or red. Also we see stencilled silhouettes of human hands, produced by laying the hand on the wall and blowing colour over it.
Upper Aurignacian Phase
During this period, engravings, paintings and charcoal drawings of animals are rendered with great accuracy. Colours used are typically red and black, and the most essential anatomical details are reproduced as well as the contours.
Lower Magdalenian Phase
Engravings and paintings reach their apogee. Artists master details as well as proportions. In the engravings, spaces are often reproduced by hatching. Black paintings are partially filled in with brown or red, and there is an expert use of shading. New colours (e.g. purple) appear, while artists show great skill in capturing the essence of an animal - a mammoth, a horse, or a weasel - with a minimum number of brushstrokes.
For more about the type of colour pigments used in cave paintings during the Paleolithic, see Stone Age Colour Palette.
Here is a short selection of the best known caves, the date of their oldest works, and the paintings or painted panels for which they are famous. For more details, see: 80 Paleolithic Caves.
'Dotted Animal Panel'
'Panel of the Sacred Heart'
'Panel of the Fighting Rhinos and Horses'
'Panel of the Megaloceros'
'Panel of the Rhinoceroses'
'Great Panel of the Lions'
For more details, see: Chauvet Cave Paintings.
Famous for its hand stencils and its highly unusual images of marine life, such as seals, fish, seabirds, jellyfish, penguins and squid.
Famous for its beautiful image of a long-haired ibex, as well as two pictures of wounded men - one with three spears sticking in him, the other with seven. Also contains a number of strange aviform signs.
Second only to Lascaux as a centre of Magdalenian painting in France. Noted for 'The Licking Reindeer', 'The Leaping Horse' and the 'Bison frieze'.
Famous for its huge collection of hand stencils, in red and black, many seemingly deformed.
Grande Grotte Arcy-sur-Cure
Famous for its paintings of dangerous animals like mammoths, rhinos, bears and lions. Also noted for its giant Megaloceros, and several rare pictures of fish (especially pike). Also contains numerous ideomorphs, including trapezoidal figures akin to 'Spanish tectiforms'.
'Hall of the Bulls'
'Great Black Bull'
'Three Chinese Horses'
'The Falling Cow'
'Shaft of the Dead Man'
'Great Black Cow'
'Niche of the Felines'
For more details, see: Lascaux Cave Paintings.
Famous for its black paintings, and unique weasel drawing.
Famous for its 'Spotted Horses of Pech-Merle', the 'Black Frieze of bison and horses', and the 'Wounded Man' bracketed by Placard-type aviforms. Abbé Breuil christened Pech Merle the 'Sistine Chapel of the Lot'.
Dubbed the 'cave of the hundred mammoths', it is famous for its magnificent ceiling ('Le Grand Plafond de Rouffignac') decorated with a swirling assemblage of 60 large black drawings of horses, mammoths, ibex and bison. Also noted for a strange black drawing of a bearded human face.
Altamira is the centre of paleolithic art in Spain. It is best known for its multi-coloured bison on the low ceiling in the Sala de los Frescos.
Contains Europe's oldest animal paintings, nearly 60 percent of which are bison.
Its most famous animal painting is the Great Black Deer (Gran Cierva en Negro).
Best known for its 'Great Panel of Horses' which was described by André Leroi-Gourhan as "the most perfect group of horses in Quaternary art".
Contains more cave art than any site in Spain. It has more than 280 animal paintings and a host of pictographs, which include: dotted signs, linear signs, claviforms and 'Spanish tectiforms' such as those on the famous panel known as 'The Inscription'.
La Pileta also contains a mass of abstract signs as well as animal paintings (horses, goats, bulls and ibexes) painted in yellow, orange, red, white and black. Highlights include a drawing of a giant halibut as well as a pregnant mare decorated with red dots.
Best-known for its red and black paintings of horses, notably those in the "Galeria de los Caballos", and its unusual use of red and dark violet colour pigments. Its oldest painting is a human-like figure in red ochre.
Famous for its ritualistic scene involving over a dozen human figures dancing around a single victim.
Painting highlights at Coliboaia include eight charcoal drawings executed in a style very similar to that used at Chauvet.
Cueva de las Manos
Rock shelter in a remote Patagonian canyon famous for its hand stencils and other handprints.
Famous for its red ochre wall paintings, featuring an animal with a long neck (a weasel?), a strange five-legged creature, and a human-like figure - known as 'The Shaman' - wearing a mask with horns.
Famous for its red ochre paintings of mammoths and horses - the oldest cave paintings in Russia.
This rock shelter contains the oldest carbon dated painting in Australia, namely an abstract crosshatch charcoal drawing.
Home to the world's oldest figurative paintings found at Leang Tedongnge Cave and Leang Bulu' Sipong 4 - and also the world's second oldest hand stencil found at Leang Timpuseng Cave (37,900 BC).
Why did our ancestors decorate their caves with pictures of animals? What were they trying to say? Answer: we don't know.
To begin with, most anthropologists thought that cave art was simply a pleasant form of interior decoration, created to brighten up living spaces.
Then archaeological evidence began to show that painted caves were not used as general shelters or for housing. Instead, they were sanctuaries inhabited by a select group of artists, shamans and others, who conducted ceremonial activities in the caves. See also: Shamans in Paleolithic Art.
As a result, scientists now believe that the paintings were created for ceremonial reasons - perhaps connected with social or shamanic rituals.
Whatever the precise reason for cave painting, it was almost certainly driven by an overriding desire to communicate - to communicate with other men, to transmit a vision of the world and to perpetuate a memory.
In a nutshell, cave art (along with body ornamentation and stone tools) constitutes the primary archaeological evidence which is commonly used to differentiate modern human behaviour from that of earlier hominin species. Cave painting was one of the ways by which culture could be maintained across thousands of miles (space) and thousands of years (time).
Cave painting ended around 10,000 BC, when the ice sheets retreated northwards taking with them the herds of reindeer, upon which Magdalenian society depended.
This led to the destruction of the Magdalenian reindeer habitat, along with its culture and cave art.
As the Paleolithic gave way to the Mesolithic, nomadic hunter-gatherer communities disappeared and were replaced by more static settlements. The great cave sanctuaries were left in silent darkness and ignored over the centuries, except by curious spelunkers and potholers.
(1) "Cave Art" Jean Clottes. (2008) Phaidon. ISBN 978-0-7148-5723-7.
(2) "The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists." Curtis, Gregory (2006). Knopf. ISBN 1-4000-4348-4.
(3) "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.
(4) "The Dawn of European Art: An Introduction to Palaeolithic Cave Painting." A. Leroi-Gourhan (1982). Cambridge University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0521244596.
(5) "Making the Abstract Concrete: The Place of Geometric Signs in French Upper Paleolithic Parietal Art." (2005) (Thesis) Genevieve von Petzinger. University of Victoria, Canada. (6) "Cave Art and Climate Change." O'Hara, K. (2014). Archway Publishing.