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Paleolithic Art
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Paleolithic Art is art produced from about 32,000 to 11,000 years ago, during the Stone Age. It falls into two main categories: portable pieces, such as small figurines or decorated objects, and cave art. The portable art was carved out of bone, antler, or stone, or modeled in clay. It has been found in much of Europe, in Northern Africa, and in Siberia. Cave art, discovered primarily in northern Spain and southern France, takes the form of paintings, drawings, and engravings on cave walls. A possible third category comprises pictures and symbols engraved on rock surfaces in the open air, but very little of this art has survived.


Paleolithic art was first discovered in the 1860s, when French paleontologist Edouard Lartet found portable decorated objects in caves and rock shelters in southwestern France. The objects were recognized as ancient by their proximity to Stone Age tools and the bones of Ice Age animals. The discoveries triggered a craze for digging in caves in search of objects, but little attention was paid to the drawings on the walls.

A local landowner's discovery in 1880 of Paleolithic paintings in the Spanish cave of Altamira was greeted at first with skepticism by archaeologists. In 1895 walls covered with engravings were discovered in the cave of La Mouthe, in the Dordogne region of southwestern France. Rubble had previously blocked the entrance to this cave, and Paleolithic deposits in the rubble indicated that the cave paintings were of considerable age. In 1901 engravings were found in the cave of Les Combarelles and paintings in nearby Font de Gaume, in the same region of France as La Mouthe. In 1902 archaeologists publicly recognized the existence of cave art. Thereafter, numerous new sites were revealed, and discoveries continue, especially in France and Spain. In 1994 a Frenchman named Jean-Marie Chauvet discovered a cave in the Ardèche Valley of southeastern France. The Chauvet cave contains paintings of a wide variety of animals that date back 32,000 years, making them the oldest cave paintings yet discovered.

Until recently, very little Paleolithic art had been found outside of caves. But since 1981, archaeologists have discovered a number of outdoor sites in Spain, Portugal, Australia, and South Africa. In 1994, along the River Côa in northeastern Portugal, explorers came across rocks engraved with human figures, horses, ibex, and wild cattle. The artists apparently hammered dotted outlines of the animals and then connected the dots with scored lines. Archaeologists estimate that these paintings are about 20,000 years old. Scientists now believe that such art may have been quite common, although little of it has survived erosion by wind and rain.


Paleolithic art usually is classified as either figurative - that is, depicting animals or humans, or nonfigurative, taking the form of signs and symbols.

The most commonly depicted animal species in Paleolithic art vary according to period and region. Cave art most often portrays horses and bison, although mammoth or deer dominate at particular sites. Fish and birds are occasionally found in cave paintings or engravings, but are far more plentiful in portable art. Representations of insects and plants have been found in only a few portable objects.

Nearly all animals in cave paintings are drawn in profile, most of them adults of a recognizable species. Many of these images are incomplete or ambiguous, however, and a few are of imaginary creatures, such as the unicorn depicted in a cave in Lascaux, France. The number of figures represented in cave paintings ranges from a few in some caves to several hundred in caves such as Lascaux or Les Trois Frères, also in France. Because of the difficulty of demonstrating a deliberate relationship among drawings, scholars have identified only a small number of scenes, or pictures in which figures interact. More often, juxtapositions appear coincidental, and in some cases images are layered on top of each other.

Human images are rare in cave paintings but more frequent in portable art. Small female statuettes known as Venus figures, with exaggerated breasts, abdomen, and hips, have been found principally in central Europe. The so-called Venus figurine from the area of Willendorf, Austria (23,000 BC, Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria) is one of the best-known examples.

Signs and symbols are far more abundant in cave art than depictions of humans or animals. Markings range from a single dot or line to a large panel of complexly grouped linear marks. In some cases these signs are totally isolated in a cave, but in other cases they appear alongside figurative images. The simpler symbolic motifs, including handprints outlined in colored earth, are abundant and widespread. Some scholars believe that the more complex series of marks, found in only a few places, could be ethnic markers for groups of Paleolithic people.


Scholars first thought cave art was purely decorative, with no complex meanings. As they made further discoveries, meaningful patterns began to emerge, raising certain questions. Why did artists depict a limited range of species? Why do so many paintings, drawings, and engravings appear in inaccessible places within caves? Why were some caves decorated but apparently not inhabited? Mysterious symbols, figures that are purposely incomplete or ambiguous, and certain associations of figures all seem to indicate that there is some underlying meaning to this art. Although most of these questions remain unanswered, scholars have explored a number of theories.

According to a theory popular in the early 20th century, Stone Age people drew pictures of animals for the purpose of affecting real animals in some way. Those who supported this theory saw ritual and magic in every aspect of Paleolithic art. They concluded, for example, that ritual destruction was the reason for the large number of broken decorated objects found on cave floors, and that superimposing darts or other weapons on the images of some animals may have been intended to ensure successful hunting. However, ritual breakage is still a debatable theory, and the arguments for ritual painting of weapons are not conclusive either. Very few Paleolithic animal figures have weapons drawn on them, weapons also appear on some human figures, and many caves have no images of this type at all. Other problems with the theory include the absence of any clear hunting scenes and the fact that animal bones found in many decorated caves are not of the same species as those depicted on the walls.

Another popular theory proposes that cave art served as fertility magic. According to this theory, humans drew pictures of animals that they hoped would reproduce and provide food in the future. Yet artists very seldom indicated the gender of the animals shown, and genitalia are rarely emphasized in the drawings. Copulation appears in only one or two questionable examples. Some scholars are exploring a variation on this theory: that cave art was created in a ritual of renewal and that redrawing a picture each year, sometimes directly on top of an old drawing, was intended to ensure the return of that species each spring.

Two French scholars, Annette Laming-Emperaire and André Leroi-Gourhan, put forth a theory in the late 1950s that cave art had been created in carefully composed configurations within each cave. They saw the animal pictures not as portraits of animals, but as symbols. Because images of horses and bison, the most common by far, were typically concentrated in central panels, they concluded that these two dominant images represented a basic duality, which they understood to be male and female.

Some researchers are currently attempting to develop criteria for identifying the work of individual artists, who may have been women or men. Other researchers have found that the most richly decorated panels appear in caves with especially good acoustics, suggesting that sound played an important part in any ceremonies that might have accompanied the making of cave art.

Many other theories are under investigation, but no single explanation is likely to apply to all Paleolithic art, since it comprises artwork created over a period of at least 20,000 years and from widely varying parts of the world.


Paleolithic artists made objects from a variety of materials. They made simple forms by modifying natural objects - making holes in teeth, shells, and bones, or carving them to form beads or pendants. Beads, bracelets, and armlets were also made out of ivory. Engraved drawings appear on small flat stones, flat bones, the shafts of bones, and antlers. The vast majority of Paleolithic statuettes are made of ivory or soft stone, but a few clay figurines of humans and animals have survived.

Art on cave walls was created using an astonishing variety of techniques. Some images incorporate the natural contours of the rock or of mineral formations known as stalagmites to represent or accentuate parts of animal figures. Other marks come from fingers pressed into a soft layer of clay that covered the rock. In some caves, finger lines trace recognizable figures in clay. Work in clay, found only in sites in the Pyrenees Mountains of southwestern Europe, also includes engravings in cave floors and low-relief figures modeled in artificial clay mounds. Cave artists modeled bison in high relief in the French cave of Le Tuc d'Audoubert, while at the cave of Montespan, also in France, a three-dimensional bear sculpture was formed out of about 700 kg (about 1500 lb) of clay.

Wall sculpture, in both low and high relief, has only been discovered in the central regions of France, where the limestone could be shaped. Traces of red pigment remain on almost all wall sculptures, evidence that, like most portable art, they were once painted.

The red pigment used to paint on cave walls consists of iron oxide, found in clays and ores, while the black pigment is manganese or charcoal. These materials were usually available locally. Analysis of these pigments has revealed that artists used recipes to prepare paint, combining pigments with talc or feldspar to increase their bulk and adding animal and plant oils to bind the materials.

One of the simplest methods available to paleolithic painters would have been to apply the pigment with their own fingers, but researchers believe cave artists also developed specific tools for painting. Experiments suggest that animal-hair brushes or crushed twigs would have made good tools. Lumps of pigment discovered on cave floors could have been used as crayons, but were more likely sources of powder, as they do not mark rocks well. To produce some of the dots and figures as well as the hand stencils (made by placing the hand flat on the cave wall), artists must have sprayed paint (a solution of powdered pigment, water, and possibly some form of oil used as binder) directly from their mouths or through a tube. Artists also painted figures on the ceilings of caves. In some caves, the ceilings were too high to reach without a ladder or scaffolding. At Lascaux, cave walls show holes where scaffolding may have been attached.

Hearths sometimes provided light in caves, but deep within caves artists would have needed a portable source of light. Archaeologists have found only a few dozen stone lamps, suggesting that torches were more often used for light. Fragments of charcoal on cave walls offer evidence that torches were burned inside caves.

The size of cave paintings varies enormously, but some of the largest exceed 2 m (6.5 ft) in length, and drawings of bulls at Lascaux measure as long as 5.5 m (18 ft). Small figures commonly appear together with large ones in seemingly random relationships, with no ground lines or other landscape elements to unify them in a single picture.


Since the late 1940s scientists have used a process known as the radiocarbon dating method to determine the date of many archaeological finds with a fair degree of accuracy; the process analyzes the carbon contained in an object. Since 1989, advances in radiocarbon dating have allowed scientists to obtain this information even from minute amounts of pigment, so that the method can now be used to pinpoint the age of cave paintings. These tests have revealed that certain figures on the same walls were created at different times, accumulating gradually over a long period of time.

Most of the oldest art found in Europe and Asia consists of small animal and human figurines. These figurines were carved from ivory and stone about 32,000 years ago and excavated at sites in southwestern Germany and Austria. The first cave paintings close to this age were discovered in 1995 in the Chauvet cave in France. Tests on charcoal from paintings of woolly rhinoceroses and bison in the cave indicate that these images, although similar in style and sophistication to much later cave art, are about 32,000 years old, making them the earliest dated paintings in the world.

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