Paleolithic Art

Evolution, subjects and themes:
Animal paintings, abstract signs
How modern man introduced art

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Paleolithic cave painting from East Kalimantan, Indonesia. One of the oldest known figurative paintings
This paleolithic painting of a bull (c.38,000 BC), in Lubang Jeriji Saléh Cave, East Kalimantan, is the world's second oldest figurative painting. Image by Luc-Henri Fage. (Public Domain).

What is the Paleolithic?

Answer: the Paleolithic (Latin for 'Old Stone Age') occupies 99 percent of the Stone Age, and runs from about 3.3 million BC, to the end of the last Ice Age, about 10,000 BC.

It is followed by two short periods - Mesolithic and Neolithic – which mark the end of the Stone Age.

The term "Paleolithic" was first used by John Lubbock (1834-1913) in his book Pre-Historic Times (1865).

Evolution of Paleolithic Art

Lower Paleolithic

(3.3 mya - 300,000 BC)
Lower Paleolithic art and culture is extremely primitive. It consists of a few simple patterns carved by early humans onto marine shells, or animal bones. See, for example:

- Trinil engravings.
- Bilzingsleben engravings.

Middle Paleolithic

(300,000 - 40,000 BC)

Upper Paleolithic

(40,000 - 10,000 BC)
This period is usually divided into four archaeological tool cultures:

During the period of Upper Paleolithic art, modern humans use their already developed cognitive tool-kit to create all sorts of dynamic cave art, including paintings, engravings and relief sculptures.

In Spain, France, Germany and elsewhere, deep caves began to be used as ceremonial sanctuaries, and are decorated with a variety of parietal images and motifs.

This phase of prehistoric art is exemplified by the black drawings of animals at Chauvet Cave, the complex animal paintings at Lascaux Cave, and the polychrome bison at Altamira Cave.

It actually begins in Lubang Jeriji Saleh Cave located in the forested limestone peaks of East Kalimantan, Borneo, around 38,000 BC.

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Paleolithic Art: Key Features

Human Cognitive Development

Paleolithic art is not just a range of pretty pictures. It serves as a series of cultural footsteps that reveal the evolution and speed of human cognitive development.

Figurative art, for example, includes various elements. First, a mental element, which involves the recall of the animal figure in question. Second, the mental and physical ability to capture the essence of the animal. All this involves a degree of conceptual thinking and expression.

Abstract signs, which outnumber all other paintings by at least two to one, are another case in point.

Their meaning may be completely unknown, but their spread from one cave to another, one region to another, allows us to trace patterns of contact, trade, even ritualistic ceremonies, across time and space.

This gives us important information about paleolithic society and how communities interacted.

In addition, these abstract pictograms and ideomorphs may comprise a rudimentary form of writing, or at least graphic communication.

Social Development: Collective Effort

A paleolithic gallery or decorated cave is an important indicator of social development in the area.

Cave artists had to be fit and strong to work in a low-oxygen, deep-cave environment - they were the sort of people the community could least afford to release from hunting duty.

In addition, cave artists needed painting implements, paint pigments, charcoal, animal-oil lamps and juniper wood torches for cave lighting, and sometimes scaffolding - all of which had to be sourced and manufactured by others.

In a nutshell, paleolithic rock art created significant extra work for the community as a whole, and could not be achieved successfully without a major collective effort.

This explains why the most complex, polychrome displays of prehistoric art were achieved only in large caves during the Magdalenian - the final phase of the Paleolithic. They required the concentrated effort which only a large and successful hunter-gatherer community could mount.

Main Types of Paleolithic Art

Cave Painting

Cave painting can only be understood in situ, because typically it was created to be seen by lamp-light in a remote chamber inside a pitch-dark cave.

What's more, many paintings follow the contours of the rock so cleverly, that the animals appear to jump out or disappear into the cave wall. Other animals can only be glimpsed from certain vantage points.

Chauvet Cave and Niaux are the benchmark sites for charcoal drawings, while Lascaux, together with Altamira Cave and Ekain Cave contain some of the best examples of polychrome painting.

Rock Engraving

Even though little can compare with the awesome black bulls in Lascaux Cave, or the glorious multi-coloured bison at Altamira prehistoric artists produced an enormous number of magnificent rock engravings during the Upper Paleolithic period.

The finest engravings are at Font-de-Gaume and Gabillou plus Les Combarelles in the Dordogne, and Les Trois Frères in the Ariège.

Relief Sculpture

Relief sculpture is also mostly about animals, with only a tiny number of human figures. The best examples can be seen at: Cap Blanc and Roc de Sers, as well as Roc-aux-Sorciers, and Tuc d'Audoubert.

Mobiliary Art

The most common type of prehistoric sculpture is the series of venus figurines that depict obese women with exaggerated female features.

Scientists believe these small carvings symbols of fertility and abundance, although there are several competing theories.

Famous examples include: the Venus of Willendorf (Austria) and the Venus of Dolní Věstonice (Czech Republic).

Two other noteworthy examples of prehistoric mobiliary art are: The Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel - the world's oldest sculpture - found in the Swabian Jura, and the Shigir Idol - a larch wood carving - found in a peat bog near Yekaterinburg.

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Subjects: Animals and Signs

There is only one main subject in paleolithic cave painting - animals.

The most common ones are bison, horses, aurochs, deer, mammoths and ibex, although lions, bears, fish, wolves and birds are also found.

Some of the greatest examples appear on the Panel of Lions and Rhinos, at Chauvet Cave.

Animals are mostly depicted as stand-alone images, although there are numerous groups of animals at Chauvet, Lascaux and elsewhere. The meaning behind these images is unknown.

Abstract signs form the next largest cohort of images. According to sign-expert Genevieve von Petzinger, only 32 signs were used in Upper Paleolithic cave art, over a period of thirty thousand years.

Scientists still have no idea what these signs mean.

The third and final category of paleolithic imagery consists of human or therianthropic figures. These are exceptionally rare.

An excellent example is the Sorcerer at Trois Frères Cave. Other examples can be seen at Cougnac cave, Lascaux and Pech Merle.

Human-like figures can be extremely dramatic - a number of them are speared - but the meaning of the pictures remains a mystery.

What is most interesting is what is not pictured in any paleolithic cave art. There are no trees, no rivers, no hills or mountains.

And the lack of human figures is extraordinary. There are not even any pictures of group activities, including hunting or dancing - with one exception, in the Addaura Caves in Sicily.

Themes: Food and Fertility

The survival of Stone Age humans was determined by their ability to eat and reproduce, and this human condition is fully expressed in their art.

From a visual perspective, animals dominate all other forms of cave art during the Upper Paleolithic.

Artists pictorialized animals they feared (rhinos, cave bears, cave lions, mammoths, wolves) as well as animals they ate (bison, reindeer, horses, ibex, aurochs).

In addition, they created hundreds of portable venus figurines - plus numerous parietal images of intimate female features - to address themes of female fertility and abundance.

Who was Paleolithic Man?

Actually there were numerous species of paleolithic people. The only thing they had in common was the fact they were hunter-gatherers and lived a nomadic existence.

The Paleolithic era begins about 2.5 million BC and ends about 10,000 BC. During this time, we see the emergence of - and coexistence between - at least six separate species of early humans.

Digging Up the Past

How do archaeologists find out about our past? See: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient. For an explanation of archaeological terms, see: Archaeology Glossary.

Who are "Modern Humans"?

Modern humans are a variant of Homo sapiens, the most recent species of human being - the one we belong to.

The Homo species evolved in Africa around 300,000 BC and is traditionally divided into two variants.

Do All Human Species Come From Africa?

Mostly, Yes. DNA analysis shows that all early human species originated in Africa.

According to the latest thinking, there were multiple centres in south and east Africa, that acted as 'incubators' for the development of modern man.

When Did Humans Leave Africa and Spread Around the Globe?

Homo erectus began migrating out of Africa on a continual basis from 2 million BC.

Archaic Homo sapiens continued this trend of migration from when it appeared about 300,000 BC.

Indeed, it co-existed for a long time in Europe and the Middle East with H. neanderthalensis and possibly with Homo erectus (and the Denisovans) in Asia, and Homo floresiensis (and Denisovans) in Indonesia.

Strangely, some archaeological sites with a long history of human occupation, may have no traces of humans. An interesting example is La Micoque, in the Périgord, which was occupied by humans from 400,000 to 160,000 BC, who left no trace of themselves.

Why Did Early Humans Leave Africa?

Answer: to escape climate changes and food supply problems that occurred periodically.

Typically, they went north to the Middle East, and from there (a) northeast to central and east Asia, (b) east to SE Asia and Australasia, or (c) west into Europe.

According to the dominant anthropological model, all modern humans are substantially descended from the waves of H. sapiens that left Africa after 300,000 BC.

However, their entry into new lands led to a process of coexistence and interbreeding between them and the indigenous populations.

So the DNA of modern humans, although dominated by H. sapiens, also includes contributions from resident populations, including Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Geography of the Paleolithic World

The geography of the Paleolithic world was quite different to that of today. Sea levels were much lower, allowing easier access between England and Europe, North Africa and SW Europe, from Turkey to the Balkans and from SE Asia to Australia.

What's more, there were times when the expansion of Scandinavian and Russian glaciers - as well as the Caspian Sea - prevented movement between Europe and Asia, via Russia.

As a result, the Middle East became the main gateway into Asia, via today's Tashkent, north of the Himalayas. Such heavy migrant traffic may explain the discovery in Israel of the Venus of Berekhat Ram, which dates to around 230,000 BC.

Waves of 'modern man' leaving Africa for Asia, also went via the Middle East and Tashkent, or else passed through the Indian subcontinent to the south of the Himalayas.

Meanwhile, the two main routes into Europe were either via Turkey and the Balkans into central Europe, or via North Africa into Spain.

A lower Mediterranean also facilitated 50-mile boat journeys from Tunisia to Sicily.

The numbers of migrants moving through North Africa may explain the discovery in Morocco of the Venus of Tan-Tan which dates to around 200,000 BC.

When Did Modern Man Leave Africa?

It is believed that 'modern humans' began to leave Africa around 100,000 BC.

This is because the oldest known fossil of "modern humans" outside of Africa, is a 90,000-year-old skull discovered in Skhul Cave, Mount Carmel, Israel. However, it is possible that they did not expand much beyond the Middle East at this stage.

Archaeogenetics studies of mitochondrial DNA suggest that the major migration from Africa occurred 60,000–70,000 BC, following the supervolcanic eruption at Toba (Sumatra) about 72,000 BC.

The 'Toba Catastrophe' is believed to have caused very significant climatic disturbance, and may have contributed to the extra-large migration of Homo sapiens out of Africa some 2,000 years later.

When Did Modern Man Arrive in Europe?

Modern humans began arriving in SE Asia and Australia around 55,000 BC (or later), and in Europe about 40,000 BC.

What was the Population of the Paleolithic World?

Which was the First Human Species to Create Art?

Answer: Homo erectus was the first species of humans to make art.

The zigzag motifs on the Trinil marine shell engravings are the oldest art in the world. They were carved by 'Java Man', whose bones are the first known fossils of the species which became known as Homo erectus.

(Note: It is believed that the earliest cupule signs may have been made around 1.6 million BC.)

Neanderthals too, created art. The world's oldest hand stencils - found in the Maltravieso Cave, in Spain - were the work of Neanderthal artists. So, too, was the Los Aviones Cave shell jewellery.

Who were the Greatest Paleolithic Artists?

Without any doubt, the greatest painters, engravers and sculptors were modern Homo sapiens.

Homo erectus may have been the first artists, while Neanderthals created decorative art as well as a range of handprints and abstract signs.

But modern H. sapiens - notably those who arrived in Europe, who became known as Cro-Magnons) - were a different breed altogether.

The moderns turned paleolithic caves into special sanctuaries, where artists created whole galleries of magnificent animals and animal scenes, often in the most inaccessible parts of the cave.

The remote location of the bison sculptures at Tuc D'Audoubert Cave, is a famous example of 'hiding' art in this way.

Above all, art was treated as something special: something to be used in ceremony and ritual. Few decorated caves in Europe show any signs of human occupation.

Where Did Modern Man Learn to Create Art?

Until recently, many scientists believed that modern man underwent a 'creative explosion' when he arrived in Europe from about 40,000 BC.

They paid little attention either to overseas cave art, or to European abstract cave signs. As a result, they believed modern H. sapiens learned their art in Europe.

Now we know different. Now we know they already possessed a sense of art before they left Africa. For example, consider these facts:

Modern Man Revolutionized Paleolithic Culture

Art is only one aspect of a population's culture. Modern humans enriched Stone Age culture in numerous different ways.

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


(1) "Cave Art" Jean Clottes. (2008) Phaidon. ISBN 978-0-7148-5723-7.
(2) "Journey Through the Ice Age." P.G. Bahn, J. Vertut. (1997). Berkley: University of California Press, 1st edition. ISBN-13: 978-0520213067.
(3) "The Dawn of European Art: An Introduction to Palaeolithic Cave Painting." A. Leroi-Gourhan (1982). Cambridge University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0521244596.
(4) Pedro Soares, et al. "Correcting for Purifying Selection: An Improved Human Mitochondrial Molecular Clock." American Journal of Human Genetics, 2009.
(5) "Resequencing data provide no evidence for a human bottleneck in Africa during the penultimate glacial period". Sjödin, Per et al. (2012). Mol Biol Evol. 29 (7): 1851–60.
(6) "The bases of paleodemography". Angel, J. Lawrence (May 1969). American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 30 (3): 427–437.

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