Humans make art. We do this for many reasons and with whatever technologies are available to us. Extremely old, non-representational ornamentation has been found across Africa. The oldest firmly-dated example is a collection of 82,000-year-old Nassarius snail shells found in Morocco that are pierced and covered with red ochre. Wear patterns suggest that they may have been strung beads. Nassarius shell beads found in Israel may be more than 100,000 years old and in the Blombos cave in South Africa, pierced shells and small pieces of ochre (red Haematite) etched with simple geometric patterns have been found in a 75,000-year-old layer of sediment.
The oldest known representational imagery comes from the Aurignacian culture of the Upper period (Paleolithic means old stone age). Archaeological discoveries across a broad swath of Europe (especially Southern France, Northern Spain, and Swabia, in Germany) include over two hundred caves with spectacular Aurignacian paintings, drawings and sculptures that are among the earliest undisputed examples of representational image-making. The oldest of these is a 2.4-inch tall female figure carved out of mammoth ivory that was found in six fragments in the Hohle Fels cave near Schelklingen in southern Germany. It dates to 35,000 BCE.
The caves at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, Lascaux, Pech Merle, and Altamira contain the best-known examples of pre-historic painting and drawing. Here are remarkably evocative renderings of animals and some humans that employ a complex mix of naturalism and abstraction. Archaeologists that study Paleolithic-era humans believe that the paintings discovered in 1994, in the cave at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in the Ardéche valley in France, are more than 30,000 years old. The images found at Lascaux and Altamira are more recent, dating to approximately 15,000 BCE. The paintings at Pech Merle date to both 25,000 and 15,000 BCE.
What can we really know about the creators of these paintings and what the images originally meant? These are questions that are difficult enough when we study art made only 500 years ago. It is much more perilous to assert meaning for the art of people who shared our anatomy but had not yet developed the cultures or linguistic structures that shaped who we have become. Do the tools of art history even apply? Here is evidence of a visual language that collapses the more than 1,000 generations that separate us, but we must be cautious. This is especially so if we want to understand the people that made this art as a way to understand ourselves. The desire to speculate based on what we see and the physical evidence of the caves is wildly seductive.
By the end of this module you will be able to:
- Describe Paleolithic dwellings and shelters and the characteristics of the artifacts during the Paleolithic era
- Identify the types of images found in cave paintings in Europe dating from the Paleolithic era
- Discuss the aspects and characteristics of Paleolithic cave sculptures
The , or Old Stone Age, spanned from around 30,000 BCE until 10,000 BCE and produced the first accomplishments in human creativity. Due to a lack of written records from this time period, nearly all of our knowledge of Paleolithic human culture and way of life comes from archaeologic and ethnographic comparisons to modern hunter-gatherer cultures. The Paleolithic lasted until the retreat of the ice, when farming and the use of metals were adopted.
A typical Paleolithic society followed a hunter-gatherer economy. Humans hunted wild animals for meat and gathered food, firewood, and materials for their tools, clothes, or shelters. The adoption of both technologies—clothing and shelter—can not be dated exactly, but they were key to humanity’s progress. As the Paleolithic era progressed, dwellings became more sophisticated, more elaborate, and more house-like. At the end of the Paleolithic era, humans began to produce works of art such as cave paintings, rock art, and jewelry, and began to engage in religious behaviour such as burial and rituals.
Dwellings and Shelters
The oldest examples of Paleolithic dwellings are shelters in caves, followed by houses of wood, straw, and rock. Early humans chose locations that could be defended against predators and rivals and that were shielded from inclement weather. Many such locations could be found near rivers, lakes, and streams, perhaps with low hilltops nearby that could serve as refuges. Since water can erode and change landscapes quite drastically, many of these campsites have been destroyed. Our understanding of Paleolithic dwellings is therefore limited.
As early as 380,000 BCE, humans were constructing temporary wood huts. Other types of houses existed; these were more frequently campsites in caves or in the open air with little in the way of formal structure. The oldest examples are shelters within caves, followed by houses of wood, straw, and rock. A few examples exist of houses built out of bones.
Tents and Huts
Modern archaeologists know of few types of shelter used by ancient peoples other than caves. Some examples do exist, but they are quite rare. In Siberia, a group of Russian scientists uncovered a house or tent with a frame constructed of mammoth bones. The great tusks supported the roof, while the skulls and thighbones formed the walls of the tent. Several families could live inside, where three small hearths, little more than rings of stones, kept people warm during the winter. Around 50,000 years ago, a group of Paleolithic humans camped on a lakeshore in southern France. At Terra Amata, these hunter-gatherers built a long and narrow house. The foundation was a ring of stones, with a flat threshold stone for a door at either end. Vertical posts down the middle of the house supported roofs and walls of sticks and twigs, probably covered over with a layer of straw. A hearth outside served as the kitchen, while a smaller hearth inside kept people warm. Their residents could easily abandon both dwellings. This is why they are not considered true houses, which were a development of the period rather than the Paleolithic period.
The Paleolithic or Old Stone Age originated around 30,000 BCE, lasting until 10,000 BCE, and is separated into three periods: the Lower Paleolithic (the earliest subdivision), Middle Paleolithic, and Upper Paleolithic. The Paleolithic era is characterized by the use of stone tools, although at the time humans also used wood and bone tools. Other organic commodities were adapted for use as tools, including leather and vegetable fibres; however, due to their nature, these have not been preserved to any great degree. Surviving of the Paleolithic era are known as paleoliths. The Paleolithic era has a number of artifacts that range from stone, bone, and wood tools to stone sculptures.
The earliest undisputed art originated in the Upper Paleolithic. However, there is some evidence that a preference for aesthetics emerged in the Middle Paleolithic due to the symmetry inherent in discovered artifacts and evidence of attention to detail in such things as tool shape, which has led some archaeologists to interpret these artifacts as early examples of artistic expression. There has been much dispute among scholars over the terming of early prehistoric artifacts as “art.” Generally speaking, artifacts dating from the Lower and Middle Paleolithic remain disputed as objects of artistic expression, while the Upper Paleolithic provides the first conclusive examples of art-making.
Mask of la Roche-Cotard
Also known as the Mousterian Protofigurine, the Mask of la Roche-Cotard is an artifact from the Paleolithic period that was discovered in the entrance of the La Roche-Cotard cave, situated on the banks of the Loire River in France. Constructed using and bone, the stone is believed to represent the upper part of a face, while the bone has been interpreted as eyes. While some archaeologists question whether this artifact does indeed represent a rendered face, it has been occasionally regarded as an example of Paleolithic figurative artistic expression.
Bilzingsleben is a site of early Paleolithic human remains discovered in Thuringia, Germany. The area was also the site of discovery for many stone and bone tools such as hoes, scrapers, points, and gougers. One bone fragment, an elephant tibia, has two groups of incised parallel lines which some have interpreted as an early example of art-making. The regular spacing of the incisions, their sub-equal lengths, and V-like cross-sections suggest that they were created at the same time, with a single stone; however, no conclusive agreement has been made.
Parietal vs. Pocket
Two main types of Upper Paleolithic art have survived. The first type we can classify as permanently located works found on the walls within caves. Mostly unknown prior to the final decades of the nineteenth century, many such sites have now been discovered throughout much of southern Europe and have provided historians and archaeologists new insights into humankind millennia prior to the creation of writing. The subjects of these works vary: we may observe a variety of geometric motifs, many types of flora and fauna, and the occasional human figure. They also fluctuate in size; ranging from several inches to large-scale compositions that span many feet in length.
The second category of Paleolithic art may be called portable since these works are generally of a small-scale—a logical size given the nomadic nature of Paleolithic peoples. Despite their often diminutive size, the creation of these portable objects signifies a remarkable allocation of time and effort. As such, these figurines were significant enough to take along during the nomadic wanderings of their Paleolithic creators.
Paleolithic Cave Paintings (Parietal)
The Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, ranges from 30,000 BCE to 10,000 BCE and produced the first accomplishments in human creativity, preceding the invention of writing. Archeological discoveries across a broad swath of Europe (especially southern France and northern Spain) include over two hundred caves with spectacular paintings, drawings, and sculptures that are among the earliest undisputed examples of representational image-making. Paintings and engravings along the caves’ walls and ceilings fall under the category of .
Paleolithic cave paintings demonstrate early humans’ capacity to give meaning to their surroundings and communicate with others.
The most common themes in cave paintings are large wild animals, such as bison, horses, aurochs, and deer. The species found most often were suitable for hunting by humans but were not necessarily the typical prey found in associated bone deposits. For example, the painters of Lascaux, France left mainly reindeer bones, but this species does not appear at all in the cave paintings; equine species are the most common. Drawings of humans were rare and were usually schematic in nature as opposed to the detailed and naturalistic images of animals. Tracings of human hands and hand stencils were very popular, however, as well as abstract patterns called finger flutings.
The pigments used appear to be red and yellow ochre, manganese or carbon for black, and china clay for white. Some of the colours may have been mixed with fat. The paint was applied by finger, chewed sticks, or fur for brushes. Sometimes the silhouette of the animal was incised in the rock first, and in some caves many of the images were only engraved in this fashion, taking them out of a strict definition of “cave painting.”
Lascaux (circa 15,000 BCE), in southwestern France, is an interconnected series of caves with one of the most impressive examples of artistic creations by Paleolithic humans. Discovered in 1940, the cave contains nearly two thousand figures, which can be grouped into three main categories—animals, human figures, and abstract signs. Over nine hundred images depict animals from the surrounding areas, such as horses, stags, aurochs, bison, lions, bears, and birds—species that would have been hunted and eaten, and those identified as predators. The paintings contain no images of the surrounding landscape or the vegetation of the time.
The Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave (circa 30,000 BCE) in the Ardèche department of southern France contains some of the earliest known paintings, as well as other evidence of Upper Paleolithic life. The Chauvet Cave is uncharacteristically large, and the quality, quantity, and condition of the artwork found on its walls have been called spectacular. Hundreds of animal paintings have been catalogued, depicting at least thirteen different species—not only the familiar herbivores that predominate Paleolithic cave art, but also many predatory animals, such as cave lions, panthers, bears, and cave hyenas.
As is typical of most cave art, there are no paintings of complete human figures in Chauvet. There are a few panels of red ochre hand prints and hand stencils made by spitting pigment over hands pressed against the cave surface. Abstract markings—lines and dots—are found throughout the cave.
The artists who produced these unique paintings used techniques rarely found in other cave art. Many of the paintings appear to have been made after the walls were scraped clear of debris and concretions, leaving a smoother and noticeably lighter area upon which the artists worked. Similarly, a three-dimensional quality and the suggestion of movement are achieved by incising or etching around the outlines of certain figures. The art also includes scenes that were complex for its time—animals interacting with each other. For instance, a pair of woolly rhinoceroses are seen butting horns in an apparent contest for territory or mating rights.
Altamira (circa 18,000 BCE) is a cave in northern Spain famous for its Upper Paleolithic cave paintings featuring drawings and polychrome rock paintings of wild mammals and human hands. The cave has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The long cave consists of a series of twisting passages and chambers. Human occupation was limited to the cave mouth, although paintings were created throughout the length of the cave. The artists used polychromy—charcoal and ochre or haematite—to create the images, often diluting these pigments to produce variations in intensity, creating an impression of chiaroscuro. They also exploited the natural contours in the cave walls to give their subjects a three-dimensional effect.
Like all prehistoric art, the purpose of these paintings remains obscure. In recent years, new research has suggested that the Lascaux paintings may incorporate prehistoric star charts. Some anthropologists and art historians also theorize that the paintings could be an account of past hunting success, or they could represent a mystical ritual to improve future hunting endeavours. An alternative theory, broadly based on ethnographic studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, is that the paintings pertained to shamanism.
Paleolithic Sculpture (Pocket)
Paleolithic sculptures found in caves are some of the earliest examples of representational art. The Paleolithic or Old Stone Age existed from approximately 30,000 BCE until 10,000 BCE and produced the first accomplishments in human creativity. Archeological discoveries across Europe and Asia include over two hundred caves with spectacular paintings, drawings, and sculptures that are among the earliest undisputed examples of representational art-making. Sculptural work from the Paleolithic consists mainly of figurines, beads, and some decorative utilitarian objects constructed with stone, bone, ivory, clay, and wood. During prehistoric times, caves were places of dwelling as well as possible spaces for ritual and communal gathering. Unsurprisingly, caves were the locations of many archeological discoveries owing to their secluded locations and protection from the elements.
Disputed Art(ifacts): Early Venuses
The Venus of Tan-Tan is an alleged artifact found in Morocco that is believed by some to be the earliest representation of the human form. The Venus, a 2.3-inch long piece of quartzite rock dated between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago during the Middle Paleolithic, was discovered in 1999 in a river terrace deposit on the north bank of the Draa River, just south of the Moroccan village of Tan-Tan. There is controversy among archaeologists as to its nature and origin. Some archaeologists believe it was created by a combination of geological forces as well as tool-based carving. Visible smudge stains have been interpreted by some as remnants of red ochre pigments. For others, the rock’s shape is simply the result of natural weathering and erosion, and any human shape is a mere coincidence.
The Venus of Berekhat Ram is a contemporary of the Venus of Tan-Tan, found at Berekhat Ram on the Golan Heights in 1981. Some believe it to be a representation of a female human figure, dating from the early Middle Paleolithic; however, the claim is highly contested. The object is a red tufic pebble, about 1.4 inches long, which has at least three grooves, possibly incised with a sharp-edged stone tool. The grooves have been interpreted as marking the neck and arms of the figure by some, while others believe these to be purely naturally-occurring lines.
“Venus figurines” is an umbrella term for a number of prehistoric statuettes of women that have been found mostly in Europe, but also in Asia and Siberia, dating from the Upper Paleolithic. These figures are all quite small, between 4 and 25 cm tall, and carved mainly in steatite, limestone, bone, or ivory. These sculptures are collectively described as “Venus” figurines in reference to the Roman goddess of beauty, as early historians assumed they represented an ideal of beauty from the time.
The Venus figurines have sometimes been interpreted as representing a mother goddess; the abundance of such female imagery has led some to believe that Upper Paleolithic (and later Neolithic) societies had a female-centred religion and a female-dominated society. Various other explanations for the purpose of the figurines have been proposed, such as the hypothesis that the figurines were created as self-portraits of actual women.
Venus figures are characterized by shared stylistic features, such as an oval shape, large belly, wide-set thighs, large breasts, and the typical absence of arms and feet. Hundreds of these sculptures have been found both in open-air settlements and caves. The Venus of Hohle Fels, a 6 cm figure of a woman carved from a mammoth‘s tusk, was discovered in Germany’s Hohle Fels cave in 2008 and represents one of the earliest found sculptures of this type.
Additionally, the Venus of Willendorf is a particularly famous example of the Venus figure. While initially thought to be symbols of fertility, or of a fertility goddess, the true significance of the Venus figure remains obscure, as does much of prehistoric art.