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Art & Culture in the Stone Age

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Member of the San people in the Kalahari Desert, South Africa
Present-day San bushman hunter-gatherer in the Kalahari Desert, South Africa. The San people are the oldest surviving culture of the region. Image by SAT. (CC BY 2.0)

The Hunter-Gatherer Lifestyle

Prehistoric archaeology tells us that the Stone Age, a period defined by the development and use of stone tools, which lasted from approximately 3.3 million years ago to 10,000 years ago, was populated by paleolithic hominins who led primarily a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Who were the Hunter-Gatherers?

Social Structure

Economic Structure


Social Problems

Hunter-Gatherer Culture

We know relatively little about prehistoric hunter-gatherer culture. Take burials and tools, for instance.


We know they developed a widespread practice of burying their dead. It started no later than 100,000 BC, and it was done all over Europe and southwest Asia, at the very least.

Burial details varied from region to region but such practices indicate sme type of belief in an afterlife, or at least a deep reverence for the deceased.


Tools played a critical part in hunter-gatherer life. Stone tools were the most important and were used throughout the Stone Age.

Later, during the Upper Paleolithic if not before, tools became smaller and more specialized, and were made from a wider selection of materials, including: stone, wood, antler, ivory, animal bones and teeth, vegetation and more.

For more about the different hunter-gatherer tool industries, and the 5 Tool Modes devised by British archaeologist Grahame Clark, see: History of Stone Tools.

The role of tools in hunter-gatherer culture cannot be overstated. They were vital in hunting, butchery and in the exploitation of animal hides, bones and teeth.

Tools also reflected the ingenuity and innovative talents of their creators. Advanced flint-knapping, for instance, required the ability to envisage 3-D shapes and conceptualize the process before starting.

The invention of the spear-thrower (atlatl) is another excellent example of applied art.

The inventor had to conceptualize the dynamics of spear-throwing and then fashion a hardy, convenient tool.

As it was, many spear-throwers were decorated with carvings: witness the 'Bison Licking Its Side' antler carving from Abri de la Madeleine.

Most importantly, spear-throwers became life-saving instruments that helped hunter-gatherers to hunt large game at a distance, thus saving them from a host of close quarter injuries.

How are Stone Age Fossils Dated?

Answer: By using a mix of relative and absolute dating technologies. For details, see: Dating Methods in Archaeology.

Hunter-Gatherer Art

Paleolithic hunter-gatherers left behind a huge body of cave art, including abstract and figurative paintings and engravings, plus a wide variety of sculpture.

They also produced a mass of open-air art, including petroglyphs and cupules.

Although we still don't understand the meaning of cave art, we do know it required enormous skill, keen observation and a good memory, plus a lot of time and organizational support to accomplish.

Lighting, scaffolding, pigments, special charcoal, paint brushes, and specialist stone and bone tools, were just some of the materials needed.

In addition, the hunter-gatherer band or clan had to be large enough to afford to train a sufficient number of young strong men and women, as artists, without compromising its hunting activities.

Bottom line, cave painting and engraving required exceptional artistic talent, and significant resources, both of which are important signs of cultural advancement.

Types of Hunter-Gatherer Art

Here are some examples of the extraordinary creativity shown by prehistoric hunter-gatherers across the world.

Body and Face Painting

Hunter-Gatherers began using ochre pigment during the Acheulean culture of the Lower Paleolithic, about 500,000 BC.

Although ochre has functional uses (e.g. as a sunscreen and mosquito repellent), it was widely used in face and body painting (as well as cave painting), and is an important indicator of cognitive development.

Archaeologists have unearthed dozens, if not hundreds, of ochre 'toolkits' with fragments of pigment, paint grinding equipment, and used 'crayons'.

Important archaeological sites with evidence of ochre use were found at: Canteen Kopje, Twin Rivers, Olorgesailie, Maastricht, Bambata Cave in Zimbabwe, Sai Island Sudan, Pinnacle Point and Blombos Cave, South Africa.

For more, see: Ochre Pigments in the Stone Age.

Early Engravings

These include the Trinil Shell Engravings created by Homo erectus (c.540,000 BC), and the Bilzingsleben Engravings (c.400,000 BC). See also the the Venus of Berekhat Ram (c.230,000 BC) and the Venus of Tan-Tan (200,000 BC).


Cupules are mysterious cup-shaped hollows hammered out of stone surfaces all over the world.

The oldest dated cupules are those in the Auditorium Cave at Bhimbetka and the Daraki-Chattan rock shelter near Bhanpura (c.200,000 BC), but experts believe cupules were made up to two million years ago.


Neanderthal examples include the Krapina Eagle Jewellery (130,000 BC) at Hušnjakovo Hill. See also the Los Aviones Cave jewellery (115,000 BC) from south-eastern Spain.

African Engravings

The most famous are the Klasies River Engravings (c.100,000 BC), the Blombos Cave Art (c.75,000 BC) and the Diepkloof Ostrich Eggshell Engravings (60,000 BC) - all incised with geometric patterns.

Cave Painting

Homo sapiens hunter-gatherers are probably best known for their cave painting of animals.

The earliest examples of these images are the warty pigs in the Sulawesi Cave paintings (43,500 BC).

Later examples include the huge black bulls at Lascaux Cave (19,000 BC) and the multi-coloured bison at Altamira Cave (15,000 BC).

Hunter-Gatherers also devised a series of abstract signs and symbols, which are found in most decorated caves around the world. These have still not been deciphered.


Hunter-gatherer culture from 30,000 BC onwards was closely associated with various forms of shamanism.

Shamans were spiritual or religious leaders who could enter self-induced trances (altered states of consciousness), during which they 'communicated' with the 'spirit world'.

There are numerous depictions of therianthropic sorcerers or shamans in Magdalenian art, and scientists believe some cave art was closely associated with shamanic ceremonies. See: Shamans in Paleolithic art (from 30,000 BC).

Prehistoric Sculpture

The most famous examples of hunter-gatherer sculpture include the Aurignacian era Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel (38,000 BC) and the Gravettian era Venus figurines, such as the Venus of Willendorf and the Venus of Dolní Věstonice.


Ancient pottery was another artform practised by hunter-gatherers. Examples include Siberian Amur River Basin pottery (ware) and .

Relief Sculpture

The most famous hunter-gatherer reliefs include the bas-reliefs at Roc-aux-Sorciers and the Cap Blanc Frieze (13,000 BC).

Wood Carving

This would undoubtedly have been a popular and widespread craft, not least because of its close links to weaponry (javelins, spears, bows and arrows) and specialist tools. The oldest surviving figurative carving is the larchwood Shigir Idol (10,000 BC), found in a peat bog at Kirovgrad in Russia.


Famous hunter-gatherer petroglyphs include those at Les Trois Frères Cave (The Sorcerer), and Les Combarelles Cave (Drinking Reindeer).


Examples of megalithic architecture produced by hunter-gatherer clans include the temples at Göbekli Tepe (9,500 BC) and Nevalı Çori (8,600 BC).

These sites are also known for their megalithic art, chiefly animal relief sculpture.

Outdoor Art

Stone Age hunter-gatherers also created a vast number of rock engravings in the open air. The largest expanse is probably the aboriginal rock art on the Burrup Peninsula (Murujuga) in northwestern Australia.

In Europe, the most extensive collection is in the Côa Valley, Portugal.


Hunter-Gatherers were creating applied-art, like tools, for millions of year. Early tool artists included hominins like Homo habilis and Homo erectus as well as Homo ergaster.

Rudimentary carvings and other crude forms of conventional art - mostly the work of Neanderthals - appeared much later, from around 350,000 BC.

But there was no real leap forward until about 43,000 BC - when caves began to be painted and engraved with images of animals.

This burst of creativity is chiefly associated with Cro-Magnons and other modern humans, as it coincides with the migration of H. sapiens around the globe.


(1) Barnard, A. J., ed. (2004). Hunter-gatherers in history, archaeology and anthropology. Berg. ISBN 1859738257.
(2) Biesele, Megan; Barclay, Steve (March 2001). "Ju/'Hoan Women's Tracking Knowledge And Its Contribution To Their Husbands' Hunting Success". African Study Monographs. Suppl. 26: 67–84.
(3) Chase, Philip G (2005). The Emergence of Culture: The Evolution of a Uniquely Human Way of Life. Birkhäuser. ISBN 978-0-387-30512-7.
(4) Gowdy, John M. (1998). Limited Wants, Unlimited Means: A Reader on Hunter-Gatherer Economics and the Environment. St Louis: Island Press. ISBN 155963555X.
(5) Guenevere, Michael; Kaplan, Hillard (2007). "Longevity amongst Hunter-gatherers" (PDF). Population and Development Review. 33 (2): 326.
(6) Keeley, Lawrence H. (1996). War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. Oxford University Press. p. 272. ISBN 9780195119121.
(7) Smith; Alden, Eric; Hill, Kim; Marlowe, Frank W.; Nolin, David; Wiessner, Polly; Gurven, Michael; Bowles, Samuel; Borgerhoff Mulder, Monique; Hertz, Tom; Bell, Adrian (2010). "Wealth transmission and inequality among hunter-gatherers". Current Anthropology. 51 (1): 19–34.

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