Monday, 22 December 2008

Paleolithic art, part 3: The flowering of culture

The artistic achievements of Homo sapiens are unambiguous and magnificent. This was the first true art to be created by a human species, and it seems to have emerged fully-formed. Paleolithic artists had to practice their skills like anyone else, but the works they produced are the equals of those of subsequent ages. Art, as we shall explain elsewhere, does not ‘progress’ in the way science does; it simply takes different forms depending upon its historical context. What it has in common is that it is the affirmation of human creative and intellectual powers, and in Paleolithic people those powers were the same as our own. This was the first great period of art, and it was also the longest.

The richest source of Paleolithic art has been Western Europe, not because Europe was ‘superior’ but because it has been most extensively explored. This emphasis is due to resources and racism, not to differing ability amongst various peoples, as prehistoric art of comparable quality has also been discovered in Eastern Europe, Africa, Australia and the Americas. Outside Western Europe many important sites exist, of which the following are the merest handful — in Eastern Europe, Dolní Věstonice in the Czech Republic, Kostienki and Borshevo in the Don Valley in Russia, and Sungir; in Africa, Apollo 11 in Namibia and the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa; in Australasia, the Niah Cave in Borneo, and Arnhem Land and Kimberley in Australia; in the Americas, Pedra Furada in Brazil.[1]

The Upper Paleolithic has been divided by art historians into periods, each representing a technical advance upon its predecessor. Of course, these exist only as labels used to try and make sense of stages of development. They vary from region to region: in Western Europe, the best documented region, they are the Aurignacian (beginning 40,000 years ago), the Gravettian (28,000 years ago), the Solutrian (21,000 years ago) and the Magdalenian (18,000 years ago) — the Magdalenian saw a particularly rich blossoming of symbolic artifacts. In other parts of the world, these labels must be either applied differently or discarded altogether. On our current evidence, there was no generalised flowering at the same time across all human communities.

Most Paleolithic art is now lost. Story-telling, music or dance take no concrete form that may survive into subsequent epochs, and many objects would have been made of perishable materials such as bark, feathers, mud, wood or hide. Many images would have been painted upon open-air surfaces and have simply worn away. The anthropologist Olga Soffer found imprints left on ceramics 25,000 years ago by textiles, but these textiles have long ago disappeared.

There are two sets of exceptions, surviving examples of which number many thousands. One of them is known as ‘mobiliary’ art, which consists of portable objects such as sculptures.

Mobiliary art of the Paleolithic

These sculptures portray humans, animals, and even mixtures of the two. In the Aurignacian there appear sculpted female figures, like the figurines found at Willendorf and Lespugue — there are few such sculptures of males. Their exaggerated sexual characteristics have led some archaeologists to suggest they were symbols of fertility (more on that topic in a dedicated article).

The Gravettian site of Dolní Věstonice in the Czech Republic has been particularly rich in these finds, and the remains of little clay figurines, baked in kilns, provides evidence that around 26,000 years ago ceramics had been invented; the site gave us a female statuette which is the oldest known ceramic in the world. It also revealed a male statuette or marionette made of ivory, of which all that remains are the head, torso and left arm.

Dame à la Capuche from BrassempouyThe so-called Dame à la Capuche (‘lady with the hood’), discovered at Brassempouy in France in 1892. About 25,000 years old, it is the oldest known depiction of a human head. Very probably female, it is carved from ivory and is just 3.6cm high.

Interestingly, such figurines are not found outside of Europe and Russia, even though our species was distributed over most of the world by the end of the Pleistocene.

In the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in Germany, a statue was found made of carved mammoth tusk, representing a half-human, half-lion figure; its purpose may have been shamanistic. Another beautiful example is a tiny horse carved from mammoth ivory found in the Vogelherd caves in Germany, which had been perforated to be worn as a pendant. A cave site at Mas d’Azil in the French Pyrenees has yielded some of the finest carvings of the Stone Age: among them a horse’s head and an ibex beautifully captured in a moment of tension.

Other mobiliary art includes small objects of bone, stone or ivory engraved with markings of uncertain meaning: they have been described as tallies or astronomical records. We also have personal adornments such as beads and perforated shells and animal teeth. There were even musical instruments, such as the 36,000-year old flute found at the cave at Geissenklösterle in Germany — and if they made music, Paleolithic people must have sung and danced too. You can read my article on Paleolithic music here.

Parietal art

The other set of surviving Paleolithic art works is known as ‘parietal’ art — paintings and engravings in caves and on rocks. The most famous are the magnificent paintings of European sites like Lascaux, Altamira and Chauvet, but there are thousands of rock art sites in Africa and Australia too, and new sites are being discovered every year. In Europe parietal art appeared 32,000 years ago at French sites like the cave at Chauvet, home to the oldest known paintings in the world, but the great majority of European parietal art was created by the Magdalenians, with those of Lascaux dating to around 15,000 years ago.

Paintings from LascauxPaintings from Lascaux. Photo: Jack Versloot.

The artists painted with the materials available to their technology: ochre (a pigment made of tinted clay), manganese oxide (a source of black), hematite (an iron oxide that leaves reddish marks) and charcoal. Their techniques showed sophistication from the beginning, such as ‘pointillist’ dot paintings, using the natural contours of the cave to give form to the representations, and scraping the rock surface to indicate negative space by revealing lighter rock beneath.

There are also images that have been engraved or pecked into the rock, and even bas-relief sculptures. Two sculptures of bison modelled in clay, found in the Tuc d’Audoubert cave in France in 1912, show a skill equal to that of subsequent eras.

There is an extremely rich tradition of rock art in Africa, but dating the sites is more problematic. Cave painting there seems in general to date to about 12,000 years ago, after the Pleistocene, which poses something of a puzzle for archaeologists — given that Homo sapiens originated in Africa, why does parietal art appear there so much later than in Europe, which our species only colonised some 40,000 years ago? Why was the flowering of cave art in what is now France and Spain such a localised phenomenon? As yet, we cannot say.

The subject matter of cave art is extremely limited, and is striking for what it does not show or tell. There is little evidence of composition or of narrative. There are no structures, no objects, no suns or landscapes or horizons. The art tells us little directly about everyday life, social structure, family life, the role or status of the artist, etc. The images predominantly depict animals such as bison, horses, mammoths and bears. People are relatively rare, although they become more common later.

In addition to representational paintings there is a wide variety of symbolic markings. These include handprints, both as silhouettes and as direct impresses of a hand marked with paint, or finger-markings like those of Koonalda Cave in Australia. Other, geometrical, symbols have been described in various ways, for example as vulvas. Such descriptions may owe more to modern observers’ striving to make sense of them than to the evidence. The markings’ indisputable point of interest is that they are repeated in the same form over and over again, that is they are not necessarily random acts of mark-making or doodling — although these do exist — but seem to have symbolic consistency. Just as the symbols of modern hunter-gatherers, and of modern urban society, have a broad and rich variety of meanings, we can expect that Paleolithic people invested their symbols with meanings of similar complexity.

The earliest architecture

Although we think of the Paleolithic hunter-gatherers as living a nomadic lifestyle, there is evidence that they built shelters. The very first glimmerings of this would have been campsites or hearths bearing evidence of controlled fire use. Our first examples of this date to the Middle Paleolithic.[2]

The earliest proposed evidence for actual buildings dates as long ago as 380,000 years ago: at the Terra Amata site near Nice, alongside Acheulian flint tools, archaeologists found arrangements of stones which have been interpreted as being the foundations for temporary shelters. This evidence is, however, very inconclusive.

During the Upper Paleolithic, the existence of buildings becomes indisputable. The most striking are huts found in the Czech Republic, Poland and the Ukraine, where the open plain offered less protection via natural features like caves. These shelters were built from the bones of woolly mammoths, and are sometimes a handful are clustered together, like a prototypical village. A structure at Mezhirich in the Ukraine required the bones of 95 mammoths and was made about 15,000 years ago. (You can find images here.)

Further west, such structures were less necessary, but there is still evidence that Paleolithic people altered the interiors of caves with hearths and partitions.


Prehistory spans an immense period of time, most of it falling in the Paleolithic. If we consider humans to have begun creating art 40,000 years ago, and that the period ends 10,000 years ago with the Neolithic, this gives us a very approximate span of 30,000 years. By the end of this period, art can be found on all the continents save human-free Antarctica. So all we can do here is skim across the surface of a vast topic.

In addition, we must remember that the surviving examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Paleolithic societies probably produced an immense amount of painting, textiles, music, dancing body-painting, figurines and so on, the vast majority of which would have been created using perishable materials and are irretrievably lost. Absence of proof for such objects is of course not proof of absence. If our knowledge of surviving hunter-gatherer societies were to be limited to objects that fossilised, we would have only the barest impression of their culture, and some might even conclude that they were less intelligent or had no art.

Not only is the Paleolithic the longest artistic ‘period’, it is also the first. We can spend thousands of words speculating on the origins of symbolic communication in our species, but these images and objects represent the first unequivocal evidence of information being stored symbolically outside of the human mind, being externalised through human labour. This is why exploring it is important — it will help explain human evolution and the origin and nature of art. This process of exploration can never be straightforward, as Colin Renfrew observed: “The image of the past that we see is one that we ourselves have constructed. It is one that is continually changing.”[3] We shall consider the interpretation of Paleolithic art in the next article.

Read also my article on Women in Paleolithic Art.

[1] In Asia, the record for Paleolithic art is very scanty, despite the presence of Homo erectus in China and Java half a million years ago. The only reliably dated rock art in China to my knowledge is the rock face at Huashan, which is just over 2000 years old and thus not of Paleolithic origin.
[2] There is a difference between being able to control fire and deliberately building fireplaces. Humans may have begun to control fire as early as Homo erectus, but exactly how and when remains moot. The earliest known evidence of fire use comes from Swartkrans in South Africa and dates to 1.5 million years ago, but is disputed by many scientists. A probable date for the widespread controlled use of fire is about 125,000 years ago.
[3] Colin Renfrew, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007).

Further reading
It is not my intention in this blog to provide a comprehensive survey of Paleolithic art, which would be impossible anyway. To readers who want to know more, here’s a handful of recommendations:
• The Prehistory section of the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (starts 20,000 BCE).
Parietal and mobiliary art at the Palanth forum (International Journal of Palaeoanthropology).
A virtual tour of Lascaux (click ‘Discover’).
• Paul Bahn, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art (Cambridge University Press, 1997)
• Randall White, Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Humankind (Harry N. Abrams, 2003)
• Denis Vialou, Prehistoric Art and Civilisation (Harry N. Abrams, 1998)


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