until ca. 4000
Some of the earliest paintings
yet discovered come from Africa, and, like the treasured
pebble in the form of a face found at Makapansgat, the
oldest African paintings were portable objects. Between
1969 and 1972, scientists working in the Apollo 11 Cave
in Namibia found seven fragments of stone plaques with
paint on them, including four or five recognizable
images of animals. In most cases, including the example
we illustrate, the species is uncertain, but the forms
are always carefully rendered. One plaque depicts a
striped beast, possibly a zebra. The charcoal from the
archaeological layer in which the Namibian plaques were
found has been dated to around 23,000 все.
facing left, from the Apollo 11
Charcoal on stone. State Museum
of Namibia, Windhoek.
Like every artist in every age in every medium, the
painter of the Apollo 11 plaque had to answer two
questions before beginning work: What shall be my
subject? How shall I represent it? In Paleolithic
art, the almost universal answer to the first question
was an animal—bison, mammoth, ibex, and horse were most
common. In fact, Paleolithic painters and sculptors
depicted humans infrequently and men almost never. In
equally stark contrast to today's world, there was also
agreement on the best answer to the second question.
Virtually every animal in every Paleolithic, Mesolithic
(Middle Stone Age), and Neolithic (New Stone Age)
painting was presented in the same manner—in strict
profile. The profile is the only view of an animal
wherein the head, body, tail, and all four legs can be
seen. A frontal view would have concealed most of the
and a three-quarter view
would not have shown either the front or side fully.
Only the profile view is completely informative about
the animal's shape, and this is why the Stone Age
painter always chose it. A very long time passed before
artists placed any premium on "variety" or
"originality," either in subject choice or in
representational manner. These are quite modern notions
in the history of art. The aim of the earliest painters
was to create a convincing image of the subject, a kind
of pictorial definition of the animal capturing its very
essence, and only the profile view met their needs.
Campsites and the Use of Tools
The extent of man's
development can be gauged by the tools and hunting weapons he
Another important indicator of this progress is the evidence of
dwelling places that housed ever
larger groups in increasingly permanent shelter.
Alongside skeletal remains,
stone artifacts are the best preserved witnesses of the early
period of man's existence. The hominids of the Lower Paleolithic
made use of materials readily available to them. The first
6 stone tools were fashioned
by striking one stone with another or with a stick to chip
flakes off it, shaping the stone into a tool such as a
5 hand axe. Alternatively,
flakes were used to scrape or 8
chisel the stone into shape. In the Middle Paleolithic,
the demands of the hunt necessitated improvements in hand
weapons and precisely worked blade points. This resulted in the
"thin blade technology"—long, narrow blades of stone or horn
used as spear points or harpoons.
Early man used caves for shelter, though possibly not before the
discovery of fire in the Lower Paleolithic period, as the caves
were often inhabited by cave bears and wild cats. Initially the
caves were probably used only in the cold seasons, but some
7, 9 larger caves might have been lived i n year-round
as early as the end of the Lower Paleolithic period. During the
Paleolithic, early people first made their homes in the
open—often near rivers or lakes—where they probably built mud
huts with leaf roofs. Later dwellings were dug out of the
ground. Tent-like constructions made with skins stretched over
wooden posts or mammoth tusks began to appear during the Upper
Paleolithic period. The dwelling sites of the groups probably
changed with the seasons as the groups migrated, but there were
also long-term habitation sites such as that uncovered at
Willendorf, Austria. The living area was lined with stone slabs
and animal skins. Evidence of houses and permanent settlements
first appears during the Neolithic period.
Mysterious Pierced Staffs
Among the finds
associated with Cro-Magnon man are elaborately
decorated bone or horn staffs. All of them are
pierced. They were first assumed to be cult
status symbols and described as "staffs of
office." Now it is accepted that they were
implements for straightening the stone or bone
points set in spear shafts. Cro-Magnons also
used spear throwers or at-latls—staffs with a
hook on one end; spears were placed against the
hook. These increased throwing distance and
striking force of the spears.
7 Cave life in the Paleolithic period
9 Animal herds depicted in cave painting, France; Lower
Fire and the Hunt
The transition from forager to
hunter broadened man's diet. In addition, it demanded teamwork;
it required an evolution of man's social abilities to enable
coordination within an effective hunting group.
With the taming of fire, man learned to harness a force of
This and associated social changes are considered to be decisive
in the development of modern man.
The earliest hominoids
were probably vegetarians who gathered plants and fruits
and unearthed roots and tubers with digging instruments.
The expansion of the diet to include meat, which
accompanied the move to hunting—although the early
4 hunters were
definitely scavengers as well—was paralleled by a huge
development in social intelligence. The hunt required
collective effort, skill, strategy, and caution. It
required communication within a group and possibly the
definition of territories through agreements with other
groups. One hunting strategy used by early man was the
battue, in which the animals were driven into ravines or
off cliffs. The essential knowledge of the
3 prey and its
habits also undoubtedly led to the early hunters' first
awareness of their superiority over the other animals.
The most important
weapon in the Lower and Middle Paleolithic was the
pointed wooden spear or lance, which initially was
thrust and later thrown. The bow and arrow did not
appear until the Neolithic period. Shortly afterward the
dog was domesticated to assist in the hunt.
The preferred prey was the aurochs (or wisent) and red
deer in Europe, reindeer and moose in the northern
lands, and antelope in Africa. Early man also hunted
pachyderms such as the mammoth, forest elephant, and
woolly rhinoceros. Cave bears, which played a special
role in their cults, were also hunted. These animals
became extinct during the transition to the Neolithic
The use of
fire, verifiable in numerous places as early as the
Lower Paleolithic, is seen by many researchers as the
truly decisive step in the evolution of modern man. At
first, early man probably made use of prairie fire and
fire resulting from lighting, until he learned how to
create it with
flint stone and control it himself. Thus, he took
control of a force of nature for his own protection and
as a weapon. He also used it for cooking and roasting
his food. Furthermore, it was probably the discovery of
fire that made it possible for him to use caves as
Many theories about the division of labor between the
sexes during this stage of human evolution have been
proposed. Theories have suggested that this may have
been the point at which the distinction between the male
as hunter, and the female as gatherer and custodian of
the fire and children, was first made.
2 Antler spear points
4 Base of
hunting group ca. 10,000 B.C., reconstruction sketch
Mammoth hunt by Cro-Magnon hunting
The use of wooden spears for hunting is
evidenced by the many animal skeletons that have been
found pierced by lances and spears. Near Hannover,
Germany, for example, 400,000-year-old horse skeletons
were found with three-foot-long lances embedded in their
sides. Hunting scenes showing animals shot with spears
and arrows are popular subjects of cave paintings. In
the wisent hunt in Europe and the bison hunt in
prehistoric America, individual animals would be
isolated and then hunted. Nets into which animals were
driven were also used in the battue for wild horses, red
deer, and reindeer.
Language and Burial of the Dead
Mankind's progress also
involved the evolution of mental and intellectual abilities.
The learning and use of a symbolic language, together with the
development of the
early death cults, are considered milestones in this respect.
A "psychological revolution"
took place hand in hand with the technical and social
development of early man. The formation of social groups made it
necessary for individuals to express their conscious concerns
and feelings as well as to recognize differences. It is assumed
that a basic awareness of the self and others and a capacity for
simple speech were present from Homo ergaster onward.
Language serves as a way of transmitting thoughts, using sounds
and words to denote meanings (ideas). Thus, language would have
required an ability to conceptualize the ideas communicated
through words and symbols. Symbols arc characters that—unlike
pictographs—do not need to resemble the things they symbolize.
These symbols are associated with certain agreed-upon
(conventional) meanings, which are then learned by the members
of the group.
The use of language therefore implies the parallel development
of all these faculties between themselves and others. However,
due to the lack of written evidence, only indirect conclusions
as to the exact nature and extent of this development are
A higher degree of intellectual abstraction was also a
prerequisite for the burial of the dead by early man. With
knowledge of the burial rites comes the supposition of an
awareness of the mortality of man.
(burial mounds) made of stone slabs with stone engravings,
6 Megalith graves, reconstruction drawing
7 Dolmens (megaliths) in Evora, Portugal
8 Skeleton excavated from middle Paleolithic burial site,
Les Eyzies, France
The special burial of human
skulls and lower jawbones was practiced as early as the Lower
Paleolithic period, particularly by the groups inhabiting
present-day China. Middle Paleolithic cave dwellers certainly
seem to have performed burial rites. This is evidenced by the
8 human skeletons found
arranged in a way that suggests the dead were buried lying on
their backs or squatting, with stone tools as burial objects.
The skeletons, and particularly the skulls, were frequently
covered with 5,
7 stone slabs. It is unclear whether this was to
protect the dead or to protect the living from the spirits of
Zoomorphic mask; 10 Human skull with ivory inlay;
11 Burial objects from a grave of the Globular
Amphora culture, near Berlin
10 Special treatment of the skull has been
noted almost everywhere, often with the brain having
been removed through holes bored in the rear of the
In Upper Paleolithic times, the bodies of the dead and
especially the skulls were generally sprinkled with
ocher, a red pigment, and buried in separate stone
encasements. Precious 9
jewelry and finely worked, unused
11 stone implements have been found as
burial objects inside the skeletons. Teeth with holes
bored into them have also been found inside the graves
and were probably worn as pendants.
Burial Rites and Skull Holes
During the Upper Paleolithic, the dead were buried in
graves dug especially for this purpose. These were often
in the middle of the dwelling area or near a fire site.
Presumably the dead were buried there only after the
group had moved on. The circular holes in the back of
many skulls are a greater riddle. Probably the brains of
the deceased were removed through these holes. However,
some skulls have been found in which the cranial bones
had partially healed or grown back at the edges,
suggesting that the person lived for some time after
"trepanation" was performed.
Skeleton of a Neolithic
woman buried in a sitting position, found in Backaskog,
Religion and Cults
A series of prehistoric
finds indicates the existence of ritual cults and sacrificial
Opinions diverge widely as to whether a form of religion had
It is generally assumed, however, that there was a link between
the primitive cults,
hunting mysticism, and the preparation of food.
Among the indications
of man's psychological evolution, a fundamental one is
the emergence of the belief in a transcendental power to
whom sacrifices must be made.
Another is the consciousness of a special relationship
between man and animal, hunter and prey (animalism), and
man and his environment. It is widely accepted that the
earliest "religions" or cults were associated with
hunting. One of the oldest cult rituals, evidenced since
the end of the Lower Paleolithic period, was the
ceremonial sacrifice of animals. Examples of this
include female reindeer that were submerged in lakes and
moors with stones and wooden stakes in their open breast
cavities. The buried skeletal remains of animals,
especially mammoths, draped with jewelry have also been
The cave dwellers of the Middle Paleolithic decorated
and reworked the skulls of cave bears and buried them or
stood them up behind stone walls. This practice has led
to the supposition that a particular cave bear cult
Parallel to the shaman concepts of Siberian hunting
tribes, some researchers interpret the decoration and
special treatment of animal bones as either a
"compensation ritual" for the killing of the animal or
an expression of early man's belief that through the
burial, the prey would "arise anew." Others theorize
that the early humans were sacrificing a portion of the
kill to a hunting god or animal totem. Related to this
are the representations of half-human creatures, such as
the "Sorcerer of 1,
which have been the subject of particularly
from the cave at Trois-Freres in French Pyrenees.
drawing of a human figure,
possibly a shamanistic dancer
(Venus of Willendorf), from Willendorf,
Austria, ca. 28,000-25,000 все.
Limestone. Naturhistorisch.es Museum, Vienna.
The nickname is inappropriate and
misleading. Not only does no evidence exist for named
gods and goddesses in human form during the Old Stone
Age, but also it is doubtful these figurines represented
deities of any kind.
WOMEN IN PALEOLITHIC ART
feline-human from Germany is exceptional for the Stone
Age. The vast majority of prehistoric sculptures depict
either animals or humans. In the earliest art, humankind
consists almost exclusively of women as opposed to men,
and the painters and sculptors almost invariably showed
them nude, although scholars generally assume that in
life both women and men wore garments covering parts of
their bodies. When archaeologists first discovered
Paleolithic statuettes of women, they dubbed them
"Venuses," after the Greco-Roman goddess of beauty and
love, whom artists usually depicted nude
One of the oldest and the most famous of the
prehistoric female figures is the tiny (only slightly
more than four inches tall) limestone figurine of a
woman that long has been known as the Venus of
its findspot in Austria. Its cluster of almost ball-like
shapes is unusual, the result in part of the sculptor's
response to the natural shape of the stone selected for
carving. The anatomical exaggeration has suggested to
many that this and similar statuettes served as
fertility images. But other Paleolithic stone women of
far more slender proportions exist, and the meaning of
these images is as elusive as everything else about
Paleolithic art. Yet the preponderance of female over
male figures in the Old Stone Age seems to indicate a
preoccupation with women, whose child-bearing
capabilities ensured the survival of the species.
One thing at least is clear. The Venus of
Willendorf sculptor did not aim for naturalism
in shape and proportion. As with most Paleolithic
figures, the sculptor did not carve any facial features.
Here the carver suggested only a mass of curly hair or,
as some researchers have recently argued, a hat woven
from plant fibers — evidence for
the art of textile manufacture at a very early date. In
either case, the emphasis is on female fertility. The
breasts of the Willendorf woman are enormous, far larger
than the tiny forearms and hands that rest upon them.
The carver also took pains to scratch into the stone the
outline of the pubic triangle. Sculptors often omitted
this detail in other early figurines, leading some
scholars to question the nature of these figures as
fertility images. Whatever the purpose of such
statuettes, the makers' intent seems to have been to
represent not a specific woman but the female form.
2 "Venus of Willendorf," statuette, Upper
Paleolithic period, ca. 28000-25000 CE
3 Female idol, Neolithic period
Cult rituals may also have developed around the dividing
up of the kill among the group and the preparation of
food around the hearth. Possible evidence of this are
the many 2,
3 female statuettes
with voluptuous forms that have been found around
hearths dating back to the Upper Paleolithic. These
probably symbolize either fertility or a mother deity.
Another controversial subject is the religious or cult
interpretation of the art of early man. The
representations of game and hunting themes found in cave
paintings may have been intended to invoke success in
the hunt or protection against dangerous game.
Woman holding a bison horn, from
Laussel, Dordogne, France, ca. 25,000-20,000 вce.
Painted limestone. Musee d'Aquitaine, Bordeaux
THE LAUSSEL SHELTER ,
from Laussel in France. The Willendorf and
Hohlenstein-Stadel figures were sculpted in the round (that is,
they are freestanding objects). The Laussel woman is one of the
earliest relief sculptures known. The sculptor employed a stone
chisel to cut into the relatively flat surface of a large rock
and create an image that projects from its background.
Because precision in dating is
impossible for the Paleolithic era, art historians usuallv can
be no more specific than assigning a range of several thousand years to
each artifact. But probably later in date than the Venus of
Willendorf is another female figure
Today the Laussel relief is exhibited in a museum, divorced
from its original context, a detached piece of what once was a
much more imposing monument. When the relief was discovered, the
Laussel woman (who is about 1,5
feet tall, much larger than the Willendorf
statuette) was part of a great stone block that measured about
140 cubic feet.
The carved block stood in the open air in front of a Paleolithic
rock shelter. Such shelters were a common type of dwelling for
early humans, along with huts and the mouths of caves. The
Laussel relief is one of many examples of open-air art in the
Old Stone Age. The popular notions that early humans dwelled
exclusively in caves and that all Paleolithic art comes from
mysterious dark caverns are false.
After chiseling out the female form and etching the details
with a sharp burin, the Laussel sculptor applied red ocher to
the body. (The same color is also preserved on parts of the
Venus of Willendorf.)
Contrary to modern misconceptions about ancient
art, stone sculptures were frequently painted in antiquity, not
only in prehistoric times and in the ancient Near East and Egypt but in the Greco-Roman era as well. The Laussel woman has the
same bulbous forms as the earlier Willendorf figurine, with a
similar exaggeration of the breasts, abdomen, and hips. The head
is once again featureless, but the arms have taken on greater
importance. The left arm draws attention to the midsection and
pubic area, and the raised right hand holds a bison horn. The
meaning of the horn is debated.
SIGNS AND HANDS
in France, painted hands accompany
representations of spotted horses. These and the majority of
painted hands at other sites are "negative," that is, the
painter placed one hand against the wall and then brushed or blew or spat pigment around it. Occasionally, the painter
dipped a hand in the pigment and then pressed it against the
wall, leaving a "positive" imprint. These handprints, too, must
have had a purpose. Some scholars have considered them
"signatures" of cult or community members or, less likely, of
individual painters. But like everything else in Paleolithic
art, their meaning is unknown.
That the paintings did have meaning to
the Paleolithic peoples who made and observed them cannot,
however, be doubted. In fact, signs consisting of checks, dots,
squares, or other arrangements of lines often accompany the
pictures of animals. Several observers have seen a primitive
writing form in these representations of nonliving things.
Representations of human hands also are common. At Pech-Merle
The mural (wall) paintings at Pech-Merle also allow
some insight into the reason certain subjects may have been
chosen for a specific location. One of the horses (at the right
in our illustration) may have been inspired by the rock
formation in the wall surface resembling a horse's head and
neck. Like the reclining woman at La Magdelaine,
representations may have been created after someone noticed a
resemblance between a chance configuration in nature and an
animal or person. The perceived forms were then "finished" by
accentuating the outlines with stone tools, as at La Magdelaine,
or by the addition of color, as at Pech-Merle. Prehistorians
also have observed that nearly all horses and hands are painted
on concave surfaces, whereas bison and cattle appear almost
exclusively on convex surfaces. What this signifies has yet to
Spotted horses and negative
hand imprints, wall painting in the cave at Pech-Merle,
France, ca. 22,000 все
The "Sorcerer of Trois-Peres,
cave painting, ca. 14,000 a.c.
The "Sorcerer of Trois-Freres"
No cave painting has provoked as many
different attempts at interpretation as the famous
"Sorcerer of Trois-Freres." The name itself is rejected
by many researchers. The sorcerer is one of three hybrid
creatures discovered on a cave wall in 1916. The
painting depicts all three creatures with animal heads
and front limbs. The rear part of the body, however, is
human. Some researchers, referring to shaman practices
in other cultures, see this figure as a "medicine man"
dressed in animal skins and an animal mask. They suggest
he might be performing a mystical hunting dance as a
supplication for the successful outcome of the hunt.
Other researchers doubt this theory and see him simply
as an imaginative cross between man and animal which
testifies to the creativity of early man.
Two bison, reliefs in cave at Le
Tuc d'Audoubert, Ariege, France, ca.
Other Paleolithic sculptors created reliefs by
building up forms out of clay rather than by cutting into stone
blocks or stone walls. Sometime 12,000
years ago in the low-ceilinged circular space at
the end of a succession of cave chambers at Le Tuc d'Audoubert,
a master sculptor modeled a pair of bison in clay against a
large, irregular freestanding rock.
The two bison, like the much older
painted animal from the Apollo 11
Cave in Namibia,
are in strict profile. Each is
about two feet long. They are among the largest Paleolithic
sculptures known. The sculptor brought the clay from another chamber in the cave complex and modeled it by hand
into the overall shape of the animals. The artist then smoothed
the surfaces with a spatula-like tool and finally used fingers
to shape the eyes, nostrils, mouths, and manes. The cracks in
the two animals resulted from the drying process and probably
appeared within days of the sculptures' completion.
Bison with turned head,
fragmentary spearthrower, from La Madeleine, Dordogne, France,
ca. 12,000 все.
Reindeer horn. Reunion des Musees Nationaux
ANTLER SCULPTURE . Prehistoric carvers also used antlers as a sculptural medium,
even though it meant they were forced to work on a very small
scale. Our example,
found at La Madeleine in France, is a broken
spearthrower in the form of a bison. It is only four inches long
and was carved from reindeer antler.
As already noted, sculptors fashioned
ivory mammoth tusks into human and animal forms from very early
The sculptor incised lines
into the bison's mane using a sharp burin. Compared to the bison
in the cave at Le Tuc d'Au-doubert,
the engraving is much more detailed
and extends to the horns, eye, ear, nostrils, mouth, and the
hair on the face. Especially interesting is the engraver's
decision to represent the bison with the head turned. The small
size of the reindeer horn may have been the motivation for this
space-saving device. Whatever the reason, it is noteworthy that
the sculptor turned the neck a full 180
degrees to maintain the strict profile
Paleolithic sculptors and painters insisted on for the sake of
clarity and completeness.
Reclining woman, rock-cut relief,
La Magdelaine cave, Tarn, France, ca.
Approx. half life-size.
At La Magdelaine in France, archaeologists
have discovered relief sculptures of nude women on cave walls.
The rock-cut reliefs are about half life-size. The example we
is typical of many Paleolithic reliefs in that
the sculptor used the natural contours of the stone wall as the
basis for the representation. Old Stone Age painters and
sculptors frequently and skillfully used the caves' naturally
projections, recessions, fissures, and ridges—
to help give the illusion of real
presence to their forms. Once
an appropriate rock formation was selected, the sculptor then
accentuated the outlines and added internal details to the
figure with a stone chisel. The La Magdelaine woman reclines
with extended arms and her left leg crossed over her right one.
She lacks a head, but the sculptor carefully delineated her
large breasts and pubic triangle.
THE BULLS OF LASCAUX .
Not all of the painted animals are bulls,
despite the modern nickname, and the several species depicted
vary in size. Many are represented using colored silhouettes, as
in the cave at Altamira
and on the Namibian plaque.
as the great bull at the right in our illustration
— were created by outline
alone, as were the Pech-Merle horses .
On the walls of
the Lascaux cave one sees, side by side, the two basic
approaches to drawing and painting found repeatedly in the
history of art. These differences in style and technique alone suggest that the animals in the Hall of the
Bulls were painted at different times, and the modern impression
of a rapidly moving herd of beasts was probably not the original
intent. In any case, the "herd" consists of several different
kinds of animals of various sizes moving in different
Perhaps the best-known Paleolithic cave
is that at Lascaux, near Montignac, France. It is extensively
decorated, but most of the paintings are hundreds of feet from
any entrance. The most magnificent is a large circular gallery,
characteristically far removed from the daylight, called the
Hall of the Bulls
Another feature of the Lascaux paintings deserves attention.
The bulls there show a convention of representing horns that has
been called twisted perspective, because viewers see the
heads in profile but the horns from the front. Thus, the
is not strictly or consistently optical (seen from a
fixed viewpoint). Rather, the approach is descriptive of
the fact that cattle have two horns. Two horns are part of the
concept "bull." In strict optical-perspective profile, only one
horn would be visible, but to paint the animal in that way
would, as it were, amount to an incomplete definition of it.
This kind of twisted perspective was the norm in prehistoric
painting, but it was not universal. In fact, the recent
discovery of Paleolithic paintings in the Chauvet Cave
Vallon-Pont-d'Arc in France, where the painters represented
horns in a more natural way, has caused art historians to
rethink many of the assumptions they had made about Paleolithic
Aurochs, horses, and
rhinoceroses, wall painting in Chauvet Cave,
or ca. 15,000-13,000 все.
Approx. half life-size.
The World's Oldest Paintings?
ne of the most spectacular archaeological finds of the past
century came to light in December
1994 at Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, France, and was announced
at a dramatic press conference in Paris on January
18, 1995. The next day,
people around the world were startled when they picked up their
morning newspapers or turned on their televisions and saw a
sampling of pictures of extraordinary Paleolithic cave
paintings. Unlike some other recent "finds" of prehistoric art
that proved to be forgeries, the paintings in the Chauvet Cave
(named after the leader of the exploration team, Jean-Marie
Chauvet) seemed to be authentic. But no one, including Chauvet
and his colleagues, guessed at the time of their discovery that
radiocarbon dating (a measure of the rate of degeneration
of carbon 14 in
organic materials) of the paintings might establish that the
murals in the cave were more than 15,000
years older than those at Altamira.
scientific tests were completed, the French archaeologists
announced that the Chauvet Cave paintings were the oldest yet
found anywhere, datable around 30,000-28,000 все.
Such an early date immediately
caused scholars to reevaluate the scheme of "stylistic
development" from simple to more complex forms that had been
nearly universally accepted for decades.
Many species of animals appear on the Chauvet Cave walls,
including several ferocious animals that were never part of the
Paleolithic human diet, such as lions and bears. Bears, in fact,hibernated in the cave, and more than
bear skulls are still there. When the bears
resided in the cave, it was a dangerous place for anyone to
Several of the paintings discovered by Chauvet's team occupy
a special place in the history of art. In the Chauvet Cave, in
contrast to Lascaux,
the horns of the aurochs (extinct long-horned
wild oxen) are shown naturalistically, one behind the other, not
in the twisted perspective thought to be universally
characteristic of Paleolithic art. If the
paintings are twice as old as those of Lascaux, Altamira,
assumption that Paleolithic art "evolved" from simple to more
sophisticated representations is wrong.
Much research remains to be conducted in the Chauvet Cave,
but already the paintings have become the subject of intense
controversy. Recently, some archaeologists have contested the
early dating of the Chauvet paintings on the grounds that the
tested samples were contaminated. The paintings, therefore, may
not be revolutionary after all. The dispute exemplifies the
studying the art of an age so remote that almost nothing remains
and almost every new find causes art historians to reevaluate
what had previously been taken for granted.
The Art of Early Man
The best known examples of the
diverse and impressive artwork of early man are cave paintings.
Predominant motifs include game animals and representations of
Prehistoric art forms— including stone engraving, carvings, and
are diverse in style and allow for a variety of interpretations.
Horse, cave painting at Lascaux in France.
6 Horse, bone carving, Middle
7 Fish, bone carving, Middle
8 Handprint, cave wail
9 Fighting ibex, cave wall engraving,
Le Roc de Sers in France, Lower Paleolithic
10 Statue, mammoth bone, Paleolithic
Cave paintings and 9 wall engravings first appeared
during the Upper Paleolithic period. The
caves of France and northern Spain are
particularly rich in art. For a long time,
it was believed that motivation for these
artworks originated from observation of the
cracks and fissures on cave walls, which
inspired early man to create first geometric
designs and then drawings. However, the
painted looping lines have been shown to be
no older than the developed picture motifs.
Thus from the start the artists must have
been aware of the possibility of
representing their environment in images.
Generally, it is assumed that the cave
paintings did not primarily serve an
aesthetic purpose, nor were they the work of
one gifted individual but rather represented
the world of the group. The dominant theme
of the cave paintings is game animals, all
depicted in profile and in motion. The rare
human figures appear abstract by comparison.
The figures are always standing alone and
are not uniform in style. Realistic
pictographic representations can be seen
alongside stark abstractions of human and
animal images with overly emphasized
details. Another special subject in the
caves is the 8
Even more numerous than the paintings are
the cave and rock engravings that
occasionally overlap and portray themes
similar to the paintings. Engravings are
also found on stone, antler horn, and animal
In addition to paintings, sculptured pieces
were also produced in the Upper Paleolithic.
sculptures made of limestone, soapstone,
bone, and antler horn—as well as baked-clay
figurines—have been found. The smaller ones
were probably worn as pendants.
The statuettes most often depict
and are considered to have been fertility
symbols. The figures vary from coarse cone
shapes to ones with well-detailed facial
Techniques in the Upper Paleolithic
Upper Paleolithic cave
paintings can be found in Western Europe,
particularly in France and Spain, the Urals,
and Siberia. Cave artists used various iron
ochers dissolved in water for coloration.
Egg whites, fat, plant juice, and blood
created shades from red to yellow and brown
(visible in paintings of the wisent of
Altamira, Spain, for example) were used in
the paintings. Black tones were achieved
with animal charcoal or manganese.
Handprints in the caves usually appear in
black or red. In some cases, the artist's
hand was painted with a liquid color and
then pressed against the cave wall (a
positive print); in others, the hand was
placed on the wall and paint was sprayed
around it so that when the hand was removed
a negative handprint remained.
Cave draving in Altamira,
Paleolithic Cave Painting
The caves of Altamira,
and other sites in prehistoric Europe had
served as underground water channels, a few hundred to several
thousand feet long. They are often choked, sometimes almost
impassably, by deposits, such as stalactites and stalagmites.
Far inside these caverns, well removed from the cave mouths
early humans sometimes chose for habitation, painters made
pictures on the walls. For light, they used stone lamps filled
with marrow or fat, with a wick, perhaps, of moss. For drawing,
they used chunks of red and yellow ocher. For painting, they
ground these same ochers into powders they mixed with water
before applying. Recent analyses of the pigments used show that
Paleolithic painters used many different minerals, attesting to
a technical sophistication surprising at so early a date.
Large flat stones served as palettes. The painters made
brushes from reeds, bristles, or twigs, and may have used a
blowpipe of reeds or hollow bones to spray pigments on
out-of-reach surfaces. Some caves have natural ledges on the
rock walls upon which the painters could have stood in order to
reach the upper surfaces of the naturally formed "rooms" and
corridors. One Lascaux gallery has holes in one of the walls
that once probably anchored a scaffold made of saplings lashed
Despite the difficulty of making the tools and pigments,
modern attempts at replicating the techniques of Paleolithic
painting have demonstrated that skilled workers could cover
large surfaces with images in less than a day.
Bison, detail of a painted ceiling
in the Altamira cave, Santander, Spain, ca.
THE DISCOVERY OF ALTAMIRA
at Altamira, Spain. Don Marcelino Sanz de
Sautuola was exploring on his estate a cave where he had already
found specimens of flint and carved bone. His little daughter
Maria was with him when they reached a chamber some
85 feet from the cave's
entrance. Because it was dark and the ceiling of the
debris-filled cavern was only a few inches above the father's
head, the child was the first to discern, from her lower vantage
point, the shadowy forms of painted beasts on the cave roof.
The works examined here thus
far, whether portable or fixed to rocky outcroppings or cave
walls, are all small. They are dwarfed by the "herds" of painted
animals that roam the cave walls of southern France and northern
Spain, where some of the most spectacular prehistoric art has
been discovered. The first examples of cave paintings were found
accidentally by an amateur archaeologist in
Sanz de Sautuola was certain the bison painted on the
Altamira ceiling dated back to prehistoric times. Professional
archaeologists, however, doubted the authenticity of these
works, and at the Lisbon Congress on Prehistoric Archaeology in
officially dismissed the paintings as forgeries. But by the
close of the century, other caves had been discovered with
painted walls partially covered by mineral deposits that would
have taken thousands of years to accumulate. Skeptics were
finally persuaded that the first paintings were of an age far
more remote than they had ever dreamed. Examples of Paleolithic
painting now have been found at more than
Prehistorians still regard painted caves
as rare occurrences, though, because the images in them, even if
they number in the hundreds, were created over a period of some
"FLOATING" BISON The bison at Altamira are
14,000 years old, but the
painters of Paleolithic Spain approached the problem of
representing an animal in essentially the same way as the
painter of the stone plaque from Namibia ,
who worked in
Africa more than 10,000
years earlier. Every one of the Altamira bison
is in profile, whether alive and standing or curled up on the
ground (probably dead, although this is disputed). To maintain
the profile in the latter case, the painter had to adopt a
viewpoint above the animal, looking down, rather than the view a
person standing on the ground would have.
Modern critics often refer to the Altamira animals as a group
of bison, but that is very likely a misnomer. The
several bison in our illustration do not stand on a common ground line
(a painted or carved baseline on which figures
appear to stand in paintings and reliefs), nor do they share a
common orientation. They seem
almost to float above viewers' heads, like clouds in the sky.
And the dead(?) bison are seen in an "aerial view," while the
others are seen from a position on the ground. The painting has
no setting, no background, no indication of place. The
Paleolithic painter was not at all concerned with where the animals were or with how they related to one another, if at
all. Instead, several separate images of a bison adorn
the ceiling, perhaps painted at different times, and each is as
complete and informative as possible—even
if their meaning remains a mystery.
Rhinoceros, wounded man, and
disemboweled bison, painting in the well,
France, ca. 15,000-13,000 все.
PALEOLITHIC NARRATIVE ART? ,
where man (as opposed to woman) makes one
of his earliest appearances in prehistoric painting. At the left
is a rhinoceros, rendered with all the skilled attention to
animal detail customarily seen in cave art. Beneath its tail are
two rows of three dots of uncertain significance. At the right
is a bison, more schematically painted, probably by someone
else. The second painter nonetheless successfully suggested the
bristling rage of the animal, whose bowels are hanging from it
in a heavy coil. Between the two beasts is a bird-faced
(masked?) man with outstretched arms and hands with only four
fingers. The man is depicted with far less care and detail than
either animal, but the painter made the hunter's gender explicit
by the prominent penis. The position of the man is ambiguous. Is
he wounded or dead or merely tilted back and unharmed? Do the
staff(?) with the bird on top and the spear belong to him? Is it
he or the rhinoceros who has gravely wounded the bison
— or neither? Which
animal, if either, has knocked the man down, if indeed he is on
the ground? Are these three images related at all? Researchers
can be sure of nothing, but if the figures were placed beside
each other to tell a story, then this is evidence for the
creation of complex narrative compositions involving humans and
animals at a much earlier date than anyone had imagined only a
few generations ago. Yet it is important to remember that even
if a story was intended, very few people would have been able to
"read" it. The painting, in a deep shaft, is very difficult to
reach and could have been viewed only in flickering lamplight.
Like all Paleolithic art, the scene in the Lascaux well shaft
Perhaps the most perplexing
painting in all the Paleolithic caves is the one deep in the
well shaft at Lascaux
Art in the Old Stone Age
From the moment in
1879 that cave paintings were discovered at Altamira,
wondered why the hunters of the Old Stone Age decided to cover
the walls of dark caverns with animal images. Various theories
have been proposed, including that the painted and engraved
animals were mere decoration, but this explanation cannot
account for the narrow range of subjects or the inaccessibility
of many of the representations. In fact, the remoteness and
difficulty of access of many of the images, and indications that
the caves were used for centuries, are precisely why many
scholars have suggested that the prehistoric hunters attributed
magical properties to the images they painted and sculpted.
According to this argument, by confining animals to the surfaces
of their cave walls, the Paleolithic hunters believed they were
bringing the beasts under their control. Some have even
hypothesized that rituals or dances were performed in front of
the images and that these rites served to improve the hunters'
luck. Still others have stated that the animal representations
may have served as teaching tools to instruct new hunters about
the character of the various species they would encounter or
even to serve as targets for spears!
In contrast, some scholars have argued that the magical
purpose of the paintings and reliefs was not to facilitate the
and other species. Instead, they believe prehistoric painters
and sculptors created animal images to assure the survival
of the herds on which Paleolithic peoples depended for their
food supply and for their clothing.
A central problem for both the hunting-magic and
food-creation theories is that the animals that seem to have
been diet staples of Old Stone Age peoples are not those most
frequently portrayed. At Altamira, for example, faunal remains
show that red deer, not bison, were eaten.
Other scholars have sought to reconstruct an elaborate
mythology based on the cave paintings and sculptures, suggesting
that Paleolithic humans believed they had animal ancestors.
Still others have equated certain species with men and others
with women and postulated various meanings for the abstract
signs that sometimes accompany the images. Almost all of these
theories have been discredited over time, and most prehistorians
admit that no one knows the intent of these representations. In
fact, a single explanation for all Paleolithic animal images,
even ones similar in subject, style, and composition (how the
motifs are arranged on the surface), is unlikely to apply
universally. The works remain an enigma—and
always will, because before the invention of writing, no
contemporary explanations could be recorded.