Earliest Art of Prehistory
When Was Art First
According to the latest paleo-archeological information, the oldest art was created by humans during the prehistoric Stone Age, between 300,000 and 700,000 years ago. The Stone Age epoch of ancient history is divided into three main eras, Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic. The Paleolithic period covers 98 percent of the period, and is therefore sub-divided into Lower, Middle and Upper. Here is a brief chronological timeline:
Paleolithic Era (2,500,000
- 10,000 BCE)
Mesolithic Era (Europe)
Neolithic Era (Europe)
Note: The Neolithic era was triggered by the disappearance of the Ice Age glaciation, which occurred at different times around the globe. Where the ice lingered (eg. Europe), the Mesolithic era lasted longer. Thus in some areas there was almost no Mesolithic stage, and in others the Mesolithic and Neolithic ages began and ended at different times. We have used the dates for Europe.
The first and oldest form of prehistoric art are petroglyphs (cupules), which appeared throughout the world during the Lower Paleolithic. Chronologically, they was followed by rock engravings, then pictographs, after which comes sculpture (in stone, ivory, bone and wood), cave painting, relief sculpture, ceramic pottery and architecture. By the end of the Upper Paleolithic, only bronze and gold sculpture, along with other metallurgical crafts, remained to be developed during the Mesolithic/Neolithic. For a list of the earliest works, see: Oldest Stone Age Art: Top 100 Works.
The earliest prehistoric artists lived in the Lower Paleolthic era, between roughly 300,000 and 1 million BCE. They would have been descendants of Homo erectus, the first type of early human to migrate from Africa, whose brain capacity was 800-1250 cubic centimetres. Later Stone Age artists (from 100,000 to roughly 40,000 BCE) would have been types of Homo sapiens like Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) - see, for instance, Gorham's Cave Art - while the first prehistoric sculptors and cave painters were forms of "anatomically modern man".
The oldest Stone Age art is dominated by a form known as "cupules" - a term coined in 1993 by the famous archeologist Robert G. Bednarik to describe the small hemispherical holes pounded into flat, sloping or vertical rock surfaces, dating from Lower Paleolithic times, which exist in every continent other than Antarctica. Typically they were created in groups, sometimes numbering many hundreds. Cupules are a very ancient form of "art" whose aesthetic and cultural significance is not understood either by paleo-anthropologists or archeologists, far less art historians. All we know is that it was a universal type of public art, and that it often involved a massive physical effort, especially when it was practised on hard rock.
Leaving aside questions like "What is true aesthetics or art?", there is a huge debate among paleontologists (people who study the origins of the human race) concerning the development of "modern" forms of behaviour. Stone tools were clearly developed during the Lower Paleolithic, and had reached an advanced stage by the Middle Paleolithic. Here the disagreement starts. Some experts believe that modern behaviour (characterized, for instance, by language and art) appeared quite recently during the Upper Paleolithic (40,000-10,000 BCE) in Europe; while others theorize that such behaviour originated earlier, in Africa - the birthplace of anatomically modern man. The most recent archeological investigations at the Blombos Cave complex and in the rock shelters of Bhimbetka (see below), tends to support the notion that human aesthetic sensibility emerged earlier rather than later.
The first recorded examples of "human art" are the Bhimbetka Petroglyphs (consisting of 10 cupules and an engraving or groove) discovered during the 1990s in a quartzite rock shelter (Auditorium cave) at Bhimbetka in central India. This rock art dates from at least 290,000 BCE. However, it may turn out to be much older (c.700,000 BCE). Excavations from a second cave at Daraki-Chattan, in the same region, are believed to be of similar antiquity. For the oldest Upper Paleolithic artworks, see the Sulawesi cave art (37,900 BCE).
The oldest recorded African rock carvings are the Blombos Cave Engravings consisting of two decorated ochre stones found in the Blombos caves on the Cape coast of South Africa, dating from 70,000 BCE. After this, the next oldest works of African art are the Diepkloof eggshell engravings (60,000 BCE), then the seven pieces of stone containing traces of animal figures which were discovered at the Apollo 11 Cave in the Huns Mountains of southwestern Namibia (see: Apollo 11 Cave Stones). After this is the cave art in the Cave of Bees at Matopos in Zimbabwe, which dates to about 9,000 BCE, followed by the Wonderwerk Cave engravings (8,200 BCE) and Tassili-n-Ajjer petroglyphs and pictographs (8,000 BCE). However, in view of the fact that the continent has the longest recorded history of human habitation, and that there are at least 14,000 recorded sites of prehistoric antiquity in sub-Saharan Africa alone, it seems likely that even more ancient rock carvings will be unearthed in future.
The oldest prehistoric art from North Africa is the early Stone Age quartzite figurine from Morocco known as the Venus of Tan-Tan. It has been carbon-dated to the period 200,000-500,000 BCE, and probably was created by advanced Acheulian peoples of north-western Africa on the main southerly route into Southern Europe.
The oldest authenticated Aboriginal rock art from the Australian continent is believed to be either the Burrup Peninsula rock art in the Pilbara - consisting of rock engravings, drawings of human figures and extinct animals - or the Ubirr rock painting in Arnhem Land, or Kimberley rock art in the northern part of Western Australia. All these types of art are believed to date to about 30,000 BCE but this remains unconfirmed. The oldest carbon-dated work of art in Australia is the Nawarla Gabarnmang charcoal drawing (26,000 BCE) in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. In general, prehistoric art in the northern area of Australia is classified according to style and iconography into three periods: Pre-Estuarine (c.40,0006,000 BCE), Estuarine (c.6000500 CE), and Fresh Water (c.500present). Meantime, in western New South Wales, aboriginal cylindro-conical stone implements (cyclons) have been reportedly dated to 18,000 BCE. Bradshaw paintings, a style of rock art practised near Kimberley in Western Australia, have been carbon-dated to about 15,500 BCE. Notwithstanding these results, early humans were arriving in Australia from SE Asia as far back as 60,000 BCE, and - according to some archeologists - were already familiar with colour pigments. So it may not be long before we see the emergence of much older rock art from Australia. A major candidate for the first Australian art is the small cluster of highly weathered cupules in the granite rock shelter of Turtle Rock in north Queensland, as are similar cupules discovered in the granitic part of the Pilbara, as well as the very deep cupules found in the dark limestone caves of southern Australia.
The first and oldest works of art produced on the European continent fall into three general categories: cupules, portable art and cave murals.
Cupules (hemispherical, cup-shaped marks) are the oldest known form of rock art and occur throughout the Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic eras in Europe; the earliest cupules (and the oldest art of Europe) are a series of 18 specimens discovered on the underside of a limestone slab covering a Neanderthal grave of a child at La Ferrassie, a large rock shelter in the Dordogne Valley in France. More details, see: La Ferrassie Cave Cupules.
Portable art (also known as mobiliary art) exemplified by ivory or rock carvings of female figures (the famous venus figurines), occurs all across Europe, from Spain to Siberia, while mural art tends to be concentrated in southwest France, Spain, and northern Italy. The oldest figurative sculpture is the mammoth ivory carving known as the Lion Man of the Hohlenstein Stadel (38,000 BCE). This is one of several Aurignacian carved figures from the series of ivory carvings of the Swabian Jura, dating from 33,000 BCE, which were recently discovered in southwestern Germany. After this comes an extraordinary series of so-called Venus Figurines, as exemplified by the mammoth-bone sculpture known as the Venus of Hohle Fels (35,500 BCE), dating to 35,000 BCE. For more information about this period, please see: Aurignacian Art (40,000-25,000 BCE).
Cave art: the earliest known example of parietal art is the El Castillo cave painting of a red-ochre dot/disk, dating to at least 39,000 BCE. Next comes two prehistoric abstract signs (claviforms) found among the Altamira cave paintings in Cantabria (c.34,000 BCE). After this comes the Fumane cave paintings near Verona and the Abri Castanet engravings (both c.35,000 BCE), and the monochrome Chauvet cave paintings in the Ardeche region of France, dating to 30,000 BCE. Other ancient polychrome cave murals the Gravettian Pech-Merle cave paintings near Cabrerets, and the underwater Cosquer Cave paintings near Marseilles, which both date from 25,000 BCE. However, the finest examples come from Lascaux (French Dordogne) dating from 17,000 BCE during the Solutrean period, and Altamira (Cantabria in Spain) dating from 15,000 BCE during the period of Magdalenian Art (15,000-10,000 BCE).
Handprints: including positive handprints as well as negative hand stencils. Among the oldest examples are those at Cosquer Cave (c.25,000 BCE) and the chilling Gargas Cave hand stencils from the same period.
NOTE: Almost all European prehistoric engravings were created inside caves. The major exception to this is the Coa Valley Engravings, Portugal (22,000 BCE), which is the largest open air site of Paleolithic art in the world.
The oldest form of Stone Age art in Russia and Siberia are the Gravettian venus figurines, sculpted in mammoth ivory and soft stones like limestone, steatite and the like. The oldest Siberian statuettes are the Mal'ta Venuses (20,000 BCE), while the earliest Russian sculpture is the Venus of Kostenky (22,000 BCE) followed by the Venus of Gagarino (20,000 BCE) and the Avdeevo Venuses (c.20,000 BCE) - all from the Voronezh region of central Russia. See also the Russian Magdalenian Venus of Eliseevichi (14,000 BCE), from Bryansk.
The oldest prehistoric art of the Americas - the last Continent other than Antarctica to be colonized by man - is reckoned to be the display of wonderful hand stencils rock art at the Cuevas de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) near Rio de las Pinturas in Argentina, which dates to roughly 9,500 BCE. However, there are a number of ancient Stone Age sites throughout North, Central and South America - such as Monte Verde in Chile (inhabited from 12,500 BCE) 10,500-9500 BCE), Fell's Cave in Patagonia (inhabited from 9,000-8,000 BCE), Blackwater Draw in eastern New Mexico (active 9,500-3000 BCE), among others, which may yet yield very ancient art. Furthermore, there are reports of Californian petroglyphs dating from around 20,000 BCE. Thus American Stone Age art may have started a good deal earlier than we think.
The oldest Stone Age art of the Mediterranean is the Venus of Berekhat Ram, a piece of volcanic rock in the shape of a human body. A contemporary of the Venus of Tan-Tan, it is the oldest piece of primitive figurative art known to archeology, and dates to the period 200,000 - 700,000 BCE.
Carvings of male figures are extremely rare in the Paleolithic era. The first semi-male sculpture is the therianthropic Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel (c.38,000 BCE), a mammoth ivory figurine dating to 38,000 BCE which was found in the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in the Swabian Jura. Another important Stone Age sculpture of a man is the Thinker of Cernavoda, made out of clay about 5,000 BCE by an artist of the Hamangia culture in Romania. The next oldest male sculptures derive from Egyptian art.
The oldest known prehistoric sculpture of a woman is the German Venus of Hohle Fels, carved from mammoth ivory. The European "venus" figurines were stylized carvings of women, characterized by extreme exaggeration of female body parts like breasts, belly, hips, thighs and genitalia. Other prehistoric venus figurines from the Upper Paleolithic include: the Venus of Galgenberg (30,000 BCE) (Austria); the Venus of Willendorf (25,000 BCE) (Austria); the Venus of Monpazier (25,000 BCE) (France) and the Venus of Moravany (24,000 BCE) (Slovakia); to name but a few. The majority of venus figurines were created during the period of Gravettian Art (25,000-20,000 BCE).
The oldest known ceramic artwork is the Venus of Dolni Vestonice, a 4-inch figure made from clay and bone ash and dating to roughly 26,000 BCE, found near Brno in the Czech Republic.
The oldest known cave painting comes from four successive Upper Paleolithic cultures: (1) Aurignacian - El Castillo Cave (c.39,000 BCE), Altamira Cave (c.34,000 BCE), Fumane Cave (c.35,000 BCE) and Chauvet (c.30,000 BCE); (2) Gravettian - Cosquer Cave (c.25,000 BCE) and Peche Merle Cave (c.25,000 BCE); (3) Solutrean - Lascaux (c.17,000 BCE); and (4) Magdalenian - Altamira (c.15,000 BCE). Of these, the most magnificent are Lascaux (renowned for its "Hall of the Bulls") and Altamira (described as "the Sistine Chapel of Stone Age art").
The oldest known prehistoric relief sculpture is a title shared by two Stone Age works of art. The beautifully relaxed Venus of Laussel, carved out of an ochre stained slab of limestone and dated 23,000 BCE; and The Salmon of Abri du Poisson Cave - a metre-long, bas-relief limestone carving of an Atlantic salmon (Salmon Salar), dating from the same period. It is the only prehistoric sculpture of a fish ever discovered. See also: Mesopotamian Sculpture (c.3000-500 BCE)
The oldest known 3-D prehistoric portrait is the Venus of Brassempouy, dating from 23,000 BCE. Sculpted from mammoth ivory, it is the first of all Upper Paleolithic venus carvings to contain facial markings.
The earliest ancient pottery was produced during the late Paleolithic era. The first known example is the Xianrendong Cave pottery, from Jiangxi province, China, dating to roughly 18,000 BCE, followed by Yuchanyan Cave Pottery (16,000 BCE). For more about Chinese pottery, see Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present). Other ceramic art made during the Paleolithic era includes Japanese Jomon pottery (from 14,500 BCE). Ceramic remains taken from the Odaiyamamoto I site in Aomori Prefecture - one of the most ancient sites of Japanese art - were carbon-dated (using INTCAL98) to between 14,540 and 13,320 BCE. The name "Jomon" means "twisted cord" and derives from the fixing of cord strictures around the clay body to create artistic patterns prior to firing. Most Jomon pots are small with rounded bottoms. The Jomon tradition is classified into six time-related styles: Incipient Jomon (10,500-8,000 BCE); Earliest Jomon (8,000-5,000 BCE); Early Jomon (5,000-2,500 BCE); Middle Jomon (2,500-1,500 BCE); Late Jomon (1,500-1,000 BCE); Final Jomon (1,000-300 BCE). In Europe, the oldest pottery was developed around the Moravian basin, in the Czech Republic. This was followed by Vela Spila Pottery (15,500 BCE) from Croatia and Amur River Basin Pottery dating to 14,300 BCE. For more chronological details, see: Pottery Timeline.
Ceramics were also an important feature of Ancient Persian art. According to Farzaneh Ghaeini, director of the Abgineh Museum in Tehran, an example of prehistoric Persian pottery dating to between 8,000 and 7,000 BCE, was discovered in Ganj Dareh (Valley of Treasure), a district of Kermanshah province. It is the oldest piece of ancient Iranian pottery ever discovered.
The word "megalith" derives from the two Greek words "megas" meaning great and "lithos" meaning stone. It refers to structures (buildings, monuments, menhirs) built out of large stones, during the Neolithic era of the Stone Age, and the later Chalcolithic and Bronze Ages. The first known megaliths include: the megalithic arrangement at Guadalupe, Évora, in Portugal (dated c.5,000-4,000 BCE); the Cairn of Barnenez in Brittany (dated c.4,450-4,000 BCE); the tombs and monuments of Carrowmore on the Knocknarea or Cúil Irra Peninsula in County Sligo, Ireland (dated c.4,300-3,500 BCE). Other famous examples of megalithic architecture include the Newgrange megalithic Tomb (c.3,300 BCE), Knowth megalithic tomb and Stonehenge (whose stonework is dated c.2,800 BCE). Other important megalithic buildings are the Egyptian Pyramids, a unique form of funerary Egyptian architecture practised mostly in the third Millennium BCE. For more details of monolithic and other monumental stone buildings in Ancient Egypt, see: Early Egyptian Architecture (c.3000-2100); Egyptian Middle Kingdom Architecture (2055-1650); Egyptian New Kingdom Architecture (1550-1069); Late Egyptian Architecture (1069 - 200 CE).
In comparision with megalithic architecture, the term megalithic art is traditionally used to denote art carved onto megaliths in Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe. Typically characterized by abstract geometric patterns and other interlaced flora and fauna motifs, as exemplified by Celtic La Tene designs, it was often employed to decorate orthostats or capstones of megalithic tombs. The magnificent engravings at Newgrange represent the first step in the history of Irish visual art.
Bronze age art developed at different times around the world, depending on the availability of the two main ingredients, copper and tin. Because of this, some relatively advanced cultures - like China - with limited access to these minerals actually proceeded directly to the Iron Age before developing bronze. So the early use of bronze is not an automatic indicator of an advanced culture. So far as we know, the oldest known prehistoric bronze sculpture was produced by the Maikop culture in the Russian North Caucasus region around 3,500 BCE. However, these works would have been cast using arsenic bronze, a naturally occurring metal. By comparison, copper-and-tin bronze casting is more complex and needs more advanced technology. Such techniques appear to have emerged first in the Indus Valley Civilization of India during the period 3,000-1,000 BCE, where the local Harappan culture invented new methods in metallurgy production using copper, bronze, lead and tin. One of its great prehistoric bronze sculptures is "The Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro", a 10 centimetre high statuette, made about 2,500 BCE, using the lost wax method. Bronzework was also a feature of early Chinese art: see, for instance, the Sanxingdui Bronzes (1200-1000 BCE).
Other forms of metalwork were practised widely in Mesopotamian art, in various strands of Aegean Art, and along the Black Sea and Danube trading routes as far as Ireland, the latter dominated by the Iron Age La Tene culture. One of the oldest and greatest examples of metallurgical art is the 6-cm high Gold Bull of Maikop, dating from around 2,500 BCE, now in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. See also: History of Art Timeline.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART