Timeline of World History: Year by Year from Prehistory to Present Day


  Illustrated History of the World

Prehistory - until ca. 4000 B.C.



until ca. 4000 B.C.



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.

Animal facing left, from the Apollo 11 Cave, Namibia,ca. 23,000 все.
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 body,
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 used.
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.


right: Pierced staffs by Cro-Magnon man

8 Flint daggers

6 Neolithic ax and hammer

5 Various stages in the production of the stone ax,
worked in 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 Paleolithic


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 nature.
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 2 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 period.


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 dwelling places.
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


Bison sculpture

4 Base of hunting group ca. 10,000 B.C., reconstruction sketch after finds

Mammoth hunt by Cro-Magnon hunting group

Hunting Techniques

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 possible.
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.

5 Tumuli (burial mounds) made of stone slabs with stone engravings, France
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, 6, 7 stone slabs. It is unclear whether this was to protect the dead or to protect the living from the spirits of the dead.


9 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 skull.
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, Sweden



Religion and Cults

A series of prehistoric finds indicates the existence of ritual cults and sacrificial ceremonies.
Opinions diverge widely as to whether a form of religion had already developed.
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 unearthed.
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 existed.
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, 4 Trois-Freres," which have been the subject of particularly controversial interpretations.

4 Shaman from the cave at Trois-Freres in French Pyrenees. Paleolithiс period

1 Rock drawing of a human figure,
possibly a shamanistic dancer


Nude woman (Venus of Willendorf), from Willendorf, Austria, ca. 28,000-25,000 все. Limestone. Naturhistorisch.es Museum, Vienna.

The composite 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. 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.

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 Willendorf  after 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

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
, 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.

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.



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 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.

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, the Pech-Merle 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 be determined.

Spotted horses and negative hand imprints, wall painting in the cave at Pech-Merle,
Lot, 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. 15,000-10,000 все.

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 to 17,000 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

As already noted, sculptors fashioned ivory mammoth tusks into human and animal forms from very early times. 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.

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. 12,000 все. 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 illustrate 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 irregular surfacesthe projections, recessions, fissures, and ridgesto 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.



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
. 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. Otherssuch 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 directions.

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 painter's approach

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 at 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 art.


Aurochs, horses, and rhinoceroses, wall painting in Chauvet Cave,
Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, Ardeche, France,
30,000-28,000 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. When the 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 50 bear skulls are still there. When the bears resided in the cave, it was a dangerous place for anyone to venture into.

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, and Pech-Merle, the 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 frustration and the excitementof 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 people.
Prehistoric art forms— including stone engraving, carvings, and figurines—
are diverse in style and allow for a variety of interpretations.





Horse, cave painting at Lascaux in France. Lower Paleolithic

6 Horse, bone carving, Middle Paleolithic

7 Fish, bone carving, Middle Paleolithic

8 Handprint, cave wail

9 Fighting ibex, cave wall engraving, Le Roc de Sers in France, Lower Paleolithic

10 Statue, mammoth bone, Paleolithic

5 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 human handprint.

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 bone.

In addition to paintings, sculptured pieces were also produced in the Upper Paleolithic. Many 6, 7 small 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 10 females and are considered to have been fertility symbols. The figures vary from coarse cone shapes to ones with well-detailed facial features.

Painting 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, Spain



Paleolithic Cave Painting

The caves of Altamira, Lascaux, 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 together.

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. 12,000-11,000 все.

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
1879 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.

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 1880, they 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 200 sites. 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 10,000 to 20,000 years.


"FLOATING" BISON The bison at Altamira are 13,000 to 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 possibleeven if their meaning remains a mystery.

Rhinoceros, wounded man, and disemboweled bison, painting in the well,
Lascaux, Dordogne, France, ca. 15,000-13,000 все.


Perhaps the most perplexing painting in all the Paleolithic caves is the one deep in the well shaft at Lascaux, 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 remains enigmatic.


Art in the Old Stone Age

From the moment in 1879 that cave paintings were discovered at Altamira, scholars have 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 destruction of bison 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 enigmaand always will, because before the invention of writing, no contemporary explanations could be recorded.