Prehistoric Art
Origins, Types, Chronology, Characteristics of Stone Age Culture.

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Prehistoric Cupules
The oldest cultural phenomenon,
found throughout the prehistoric
world, the cupule remains one of the
least understood types of rock art.

Prehistoric Art of the Stone Age

Contents

Introduction - Types - Characteristics - Dating
Prehistoric Culture
Human Evolution: From Axes to Art
Paleolithic Period
Lower Paleolithic (c.2.5 million - 200,000 BCE)
Middle Paleolithic (c.200,000 - 40,000 BCE)
Upper Paleolithic (c.40,000-10,000 BCE)
Mesolithic Art (In Europe, c.10,000-4000 BCE)
Neolithic Art (In Europe, c.4000-2000 BCE)
Bronze Age Art (In Europe, 3000-1200 BCE)
Iron Age Art (In Europe, 1500-200 BCE)



Venus of Willendorf (25,000 BCE)
One of the famous Venus Figurines
of the Upper Paleolithic.


Stone Age lions watch prey.
Chauvet Cave Paintings (c.30,000 BCE)
An early example of prehistoric
pictographs.

Introduction to Prehistoric Art

Types
Archeologists have identified 4 basic types of Stone Age art, as follows: petroglyphs (cupules, rock carvings and engravings); pictographs (pictorial imagery, ideomorphs, ideograms or symbols), a category that includes cave painting and drawing; and prehistoric sculpture (including small totemic statuettes known as Venus Figurines, various forms of zoomorphic and therianthropic ivory carving, and relief sculptures); and megalithic art (petroforms or any other works associated with arrangements of stones). Works that are applied to an immoveable rock surface are classified as parietal art; works that are portable are classified as mobiliary art.

Characteristics
The earliest forms of prehistoric art are extremely primitive. The cupule, for instance - a mysterious type of Paleolithic cultural marking - amounts to no more than a hemispherical or cup-like scouring of the rock surface. The early sculptures known as the Venuses of Tan-Tan and Berekhat Ram, are such crude representations of humanoid shapes that some experts doubt whether they are works of art at all. It is not until the Upper Paleolithic (from roughly 40,000 BCE onwards) that anatomically modern man produces recognizable carvings and pictures. Aurignacian culture, in particular, witnesses an explosion of rock art, including the cave murals at Chauvet, the Venus of Hohle Fels, the animal carvings of the Swabian Jura, the Venus of Kostenky, Aboriginal Rock Art from Australia, the Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel and much more. The later Gravettian and Magdalenian cultures gave birth to even more sophisticated versions of prehistoric art, notably the polychrome Dappled Horses of Pech-Merle and the sensational cave paintings at Lascaux and Altamira.

Dating of Prehistoric Art
A number of highly sophisticated techniques - such as radiometric testing and thermoluminescence - are now available to help establish the date of ancient artifacts from the Paleolithic era and later. However, dating of ancient art is not an exact science, and results are often dependent on tests performed on the 'layer' of earth and debris in which the artifact was lying, or - in the case of rock engraving - an analysis of the content and style of the markings. (Animal drawings using regular side-profiles, for instance, are typically older than those using three-quarter profiles.) For a chronological list of dates and events associated with Stone Age culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.


Maikop Gold Bull (c.2,500 BCE)
One of the greatest treasures of
prehistoric sculpture from Russia.
See the Oldest Art Top 50.

PREHISTORY
The main geological epochs include:
PLIOCENE (c.5,300,000 BCE)
This epoch begins roughly with the
emergence of upright early hominids.
They were too busy trying to stay alive
to create art. This period used to end
2.5 million years ago when humans
first started making tools, but
geologists extended it to 1.6 million
BCE, trapping the early Lower
Paleolithic period in it.
PLEISTOCENE (c.1.6m - 10,000 BCE)
This is a geologic period that covers
the earth's most recent glaciations.
It includes the later part of the
Lower Paleolithic as well as the
Middle and Upper Paleolithic periods.
It witnessed the emergence of modern
man and the great works of Paleolithic
rock art, like cupules, petroglyphs,
engravings, pictographs, cave murals,
sculpture and ceramics. The term
pleistocene comes from Greek words
(pleistos "most") and (kainos "new").
For fact-addicts, the Pleistocene is the
third stage in the Neogene period or
6th epoch of the Cenozoic Era.
HOLOCENE (c.10,000 BCE - now)
During its prehistory section this
geological period saw the birth of
Human civilization, as well as a
range of sophisticated paintings,
bronze sculptures, exquisite pottery,
pyramid and megalithic monomental
architecture. Like its predecessor the
Pleistocene, the Holocene epoch is
a geological period, and its name
derives from the Greek words ("holos",
whole or entire) and ("kainos", new),
meaning "entirely recent". It is
divided into 4 overlapping periods:
the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age),
the Neolithic (New Stone Age),
the Bronze Age and Iron Age.

Prehistoric Culture

The longest phase of Stone Age culture - known as the Paleolithic period - is a hunter-gatherer culture which is usually divided into three parts:

(1) Lower Paleolithic (2,500,000-200,000 BCE)
(2) Middle Paleolithic (200,000-40,000 BCE)
(3) Upper Paleolithic (40,000-10,000 BCE).

After this comes a transitional phase called the Mesolithic period (sometimes known as epipaleolithic), ending with the spread of agriculture, followed by the Neolithic period (the New Stone Age) which witnessed the establishment of permanent settlements. The Stone Age ends as stone tools become superceded by the new products of bronze and iron metallurgy, and is followed by the Bronze Age and Iron Age.

WARNING: All periods are approximate. Dates for specific cultures are given as a rough guide only, as disagreement persists as to classification, terminology and chronology.

Paleolithic Era (c.2,500,000 - 10,000 BCE)

Characterized by a Stone Age subsistence culture and the evolution of the human species from primitive australopiths via Homo erectus and Homo sapiens to anatomically modern humans. See: Paleolithic Art and Culture.

Lower Paleolithic (2,500,000 - 200,000 BCE)

- Olduwan culture (2,500,000 - 1,500,000 BCE)
- Acheulean culture (1,650,000 - 100,000 BCE)
- Clactonian culture (c.400,000 – 300,000 BCE)

Middle Paleolithic (200,000 - 40,000 BCE)

- Mousterian culture (300,000 - 30,000 BCE)
- Levallois Flake Tool culture (dominant c.100,000 - 30,000 BCE)

Upper Paleolithic (40,000-8,000 BCE)

- Aurignacian culture (40,000 - 26,000 BCE)
- Perigordian (Chatelperronian) culture (35,000-27,000 BCE)
- Gravettian culture (26,000 - 20,000 BCE)
- Solutrean culture (19,000 – 15,000 BCE)
- Magdalenian culture (16,000 - 8,000 BCE)

Note: Neither Perigordian (aka Chatelperronian) nor Solutrean cultures are strongly associated with artistic achievements. Artworks created during their eras are believed to have been influenced by other cultures.

 

 

Mesolithic Era (In Europe, 10,000 - 4,000 BCE)

This era joins the Ice Age culture of the Upper Paleolithic with the ice-free, farming culture of the Neolithic. It is characterized by more advanced hunter-gathering, fishing and rudimentary forms of cultivation.

Neolithic Era (In Europe, 4,000 - 2,000 BCE)

This era is characterized by farming, domestication of animals, settled communities and the emergence of important ancient civilizations (eg. Sumerian, Egyptian). Portable art and monumental architecture dominate.

Human Evolution: From Axes to Art

How did prehistoric man manage to leave behind such a rich cultural heritage of rock art? Answer: by developing a bigger and more sophisticated brain. Brain performance is directly associated with a number of "higher" functions such as language and creative expression.

The consensus among most most paleontologists and paleoanthropologists, is that the human species (Homo) split away from gorillas in Africa about 8 million BCE, and from chimpanzees no later than 5 million BCE. (The discovery of a hominid skull [Sahelanthropus tchadensis] dated about 7 million years ago, may indicate an earlier divergence). The very early hominids included species like Australopithecus afarensis and Paranthropus robustus (brain capacity 350-500 cc).

About 2.5 million years BCE, some humans began to make stone tools (like very crude choppers and hand-axes), and newer species like Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis emerged (brain capacity 590-690 cc). By 2 million years BCE more species of humans appeared, such as Homo erectus (brain capacity 800-1250 cc). During the following 500,000 years, Homo erectus spread from Africa to the Middle East, Asia and Europe.

Between 1.5 million BCE and 500,000 BCE, Homo erectus and other variants of humans engendered more highly developed types of Homo, known as Archaic Homo sapiens. It was a group of artists from one of these Archaic Homo sapiens species that created the Bhimbetka petroglyphs and cupules in the Auditorium cave situated at Bhimbetka in India, and at Daraki-Chattan. These cupules are the oldest art on earth.

From 500,000 BCE onwards, these new types morphed into Homo sapiens, as exemplified by Neanderthal Man (from 200,000 BCE or earlier). Neanderthals had a brain size of about 1500 cc, which is actually greater than today's modern man, so clearly cranial capacity is not the only guide to intellect: internal brain architecture is important too. In all probability Neanderthal sculptors (or their contemporaries) created the famous figurines known as the Venus of Berekhat Ram and the Venus of Tan-Tan, as well as the ochre stone engravings at the Blombos cave in South Africa, and the cupules at the Dordogne rock shelter at La Ferrassie.

Finally, about 100,000 BCE, "anatomically modern man" emerged from somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, and, like his predecessors, headed north: reaching North Africa by about 70,000 BCE and becoming established in Europe no later than the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic (40,000 BCE). Painters and sculptors belonging to modern man (eg. Cro-Magnon Man, Grimaldi Man) were responsible for the glorious cave painting in France and the Iberian peninsular, as well as the miniature "venus" sculptures and the ivory carvings of the Swabian Jura, found in the caves of Vogelherd, Hohle Fels, and Hohlenstein-Stadel.

Note: Traditionally, prehistoric painting and sculpture is not classified as primitivism/primitive art - a category which is usually reserved for later tribal art.

 

Paleolithic Period
(c.2,500,000 - 10,000 BCE)

Traditionally, this period is divided into three sub-sections: the Lower Paleolithic, Middle Paleolithic and Upper Paleolithic, each marking advances (especially in tool technology) among different human cultures. In essence, Paleolithic Man lived solely by hunting and gathering, while his successors during the later Mesolithic and Neolithic times developed systems of agriculture and ultimately permanent settlements.

Survival wasn't easy, not least because of numerous adverse climatic changes: on four separate occasions the northern latitudes experienced ice ages resulting insuccessive waves of freezing and thawing, and triggering migrations or widespread death. In fact, the development of human culture during Paleolithic times was repeatedly and profoundly affected by environmental factors. Paleolithic humans were food gatherers, who depended for their subsistence on hunting wild animals, fishing, and collecting berries, fruits and nuts. It wasn't until about 8,000 BCE that more secure methods of feeding (agriculture and animal domestication) were adopted.

Stone Tools – The Key to Civilization, Culture and Art

Stone tools were the instruments by which early Man developed and progressed. All human culture is based on the ingenuity and brainpower of our early ancestors in creating ever more sophisticated tools that enabled them to survive and prosper. After all, fine art is merely a reflection of society, and prehistoric societies were largely defined by the type of tool used. In fact, Paleolithic culture is charted and classified according to advancing tool technologies.

Incidentally, many of the earliest archeological finds of Stone Age artifacts were made in France, thus French place-names have long been used to chart the various Paleolithic subdivisions, despite the huge regional differences that exist.

Stone Age Tool Technology

The first stone tools, (eoliths) were made more than two million years ago - not just from stone but from all types of organic materials (wood, bone, ivory, antler). However, most archeological finds comprise the more durable stone variety. The oldest human tools were simple stone choppers, such as those unearthed at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania.

According to paleoanthropologists, Paleolithic Man produced four types of better and better tools. These were: (1) Pebble-tools (with a single sharpened edge for cutting or chopping); (2) Bifacial-tools (eg. hand-axes); (3) Flake-tools; and (4) Blade-tools. All types eventually came into use, and new tool techniques were created to produce them, with the older technique persisting as long as it was needed for a given purpose.

 

The Lower Paleolithic Era
(2,500,000 - 200,000 BCE)

This is the earliest period of the Paleolithic Age. It runs from the first appearance of Man as a tool-making mammal to the advent of important evolutionary and technological changes which marked the start of the Middle Paleolithic. It witnessed the emergence of three different tool-based cultures: (1) Olduwan culture (2,500,000-1,500,000 BCE); (2) Acheulean culture (1,650,000-100,000 BCE); and (3) Clactonian culture (c.400,000–300,000 BCE). In a sense, stone tools represented the "art" of this period - the key form of creative human expression.

Lower Paleolithic Tool Cultures

Oldowan Culture (2,500,000 - 1,500,000 BCE)

Oldowan describes the first stone tools used by prehistoric Man of the Lower Paleolithic. Oldowan culture began about 2.5 million years ago, appearing first in the Gona and Omo Basins of Ethiopia. The key feature of Oldowan tool manufacture was the method of chipping stones to create a chopping or cutting edge. Most tools were fashioned using a single strike of one rock against another to create a sharp-edged flake.

Acheulean Culture and Art (1,650,000 - 100,000 BCE)

Acheulean culture was the most important and dominant tool-making tradition of the Lower Palaeolithic era throughout Africa and much of Asia and Europe. Named after the type-site village of Saint Acheul in northern France, and associated with Homo ergaster, Homo heidelbergensis and western Homo erectus, Acheulean tool users with their signature style oval and pear-shaped hand-axes were the first humans to expand successfully across Eurasia. Judging by the sophisticated design of these implements, it is no surprise that the earliest art by Stone Age man dates from Acheulean Culture. Also, archeologists now believe that Acheulean peoples were the first to experience fire, (around 1.4 million years BCE), as a result of lightning, although amazingly it wasn't until about 8,000 BCE that man learned exactly how to control it.

Clactonian Culture (c.400,000 – 300,000 BCE)

Clactonian describes a culture of European flint tool manufacture or "art", associated with Homo erectus, dating from the early period of the interglacial period known as the Hoxnian, the Mindel-Riss or the Holstein interglacial (approx 300,000 – 200,000 BCE).

It was named after type-sites located at Clacton-on-Sea, on the SE coast of England and at Swanscombe in Kent. The latter also provided evidence for the existence of a sub-species of Homo erectus known as Swanscombe Man. Clactonian tools were sometimes notched, indicating they were attached to a handle or shaft.

Lower Paleolithic Rock Art

The earliest recorded examples of human art were created during the Lower Paleolithic in the caves and rock shelters of central India. They consisted of a number of petroglyphs (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). Archeological excavations from a second cave, at Daraki-Chattan in the same region, are believed to be of a similar age.

The next oldest prehistoric art from the Lower Paleolithic comes almost at the end of the period. Two primitive figurines - the Venus of Berekhat Ram (found on the Golan Heights) and the Venus of Tan-Tan (discovered in Morocco) were dated to between roughly 200,000 and 500,000 BCE (the former is more ancient).

 

Middle Paleolithic Era
(200,000 - 40,000 BCE)

The Middle Paleolithic period is the second stage of the Paleolithic Era, as applied to Europe, Africa and Asia. The dominant Paleolithic culture was Mousterian, a flake tool industry largely characterized by the point and side scraper, associated (in Europe) with Homo neanderthalensis. This was not a period of great invention - plain hand-axes, for instance, were still regularly employed - but major improvements were made in the basic process of tool-making, and in the range and proper utilization of manufactured implements. Towards the end of the period, Mousterian tool technology was enhanced by another culture known as Levallois, and practised in North Africa, the Middle East and as far afield as Siberia.

Mousterian Culture (300,000 - 30,000 BCE)

The name Mousterian derives from the type-site of Le Moustier, a cave in the Dordogne region of southern France, although the same technology was practised across the unglaciated zones of Europe and also the Middle East and North Africa. Tool forms featured a wide variety of specialized shapes, including barbed and serrated edges. These new blade designs helped to reduce the need for humans to use their teeth to perform certain tasks, thus contributing to a diminution of facial and jaw features among later humans.

The Tool-Making Process

Mousterian Man was able to standardize the tool-making process and thus introduce greater efficiency, possibly through division and specialization of labour. Tool-makers went to great efforts to create blades that could be regularly re-sharpened, thus endowing tools with a greater lifespan. Their production of serrated edge blades, special animal-hide scrapers and the like, together with a range of bone instruments such as needles (suggesting the use of animal furs and skins as body coverings and shoes) reveal a growing improvement in cognitive ability - something illustrated by Neanderthal Man's success in hunting large mammoths, an activity which required much greater social organization and cooperation.

Levallois Flake-Tool Culture (c.100,000 - 30,000 BCE)

Named after a suburb of Paris, the Levalloisian is an important flint-knapping culture characterized by an enhanced technique of producing flakes. This involved the preliminary shaping of the core stone into a convex tortoise shape in order to yield larger flakes. Levallois culture influenced many other Middle Paleolithic stone tool industries.

Middle Paleolithic Art

One of the few works of art dating from the Middle Paleolithic, is the pair of ochre rocks decorated with abstract cross-hatch patterns found in the Blombos Caves east of Cape Town. They are one of the oldest examples of African art, and have been carbon-dated to about 70,000 BCE. It is probable that towards the end of the Upper Paleolithic, human artists began producing primitive forms of Oceanic art in the SW Pacific area, and very early types of Tribal art throughout Africa and Asia, although little has survived. See also the cupules at the La Ferrassie Neanderthal cave in France.

 

Upper Paleolithic Era
(40,000 - 8,000 BCE)

The Upper Paleolithic is the final and shortest stage of the Paleolithic Age: less than 15 percent of the length of the preceeding Middle Paleolithic. When referring to Africa it is more commonly known as the late Stone Age. In addition to more specialized tools and a more sophisticated way of life, Upper Paleolithic culture spawned the first widespread appearance of human painting and sculpture, which appeared simultaneously in almost every corner of the globe. Also, from the start of the Upper Paleolithic period, the Neanderthal Man sub-species of Homo sapiens was replaced by "anatomically modern humans" (eg. Cro-Magnon Man, Chancelade Man and Grimaldi Man) who became the sole hominid inhabitants across continental Europe.

Stone Tool Cultures

The five main tool cultures of the Upper Paleolithic were (1) Perigordian (aka Chatelperronian; (2) Aurignacian; (3) Gravettian; (4) Solutrean; and (5) Magdalenian.

Upper Paleolithic Society

The era saw the construction of the earliest man-made dwellings (mostly semi-subterranean pit houses), while the location of settlements indicates a more complex pattern of social interreaction, involving collective hunting, organized fishing, social stratification, ceremonial events, supernatural and religious ritual. Other developments included the beginning of private property, the use of needle and thread, and clothing.

Upper Paleolithic Art

The Upper Paleolithic period witnessed the beginning of fine art, featuring drawing, modelling, sculpture, and painting, as well as jewellery, personal adornments and early forms of music and dance. The two major art forms were cave painting and miniature figurative carvings.

Upper Paleolithic Sculpture

Upper Paleolithic artists produced a vast number of small sculptures of female figures, known as Venus Figurines. During Aurignacian times, they included: the Venus of Hohle Fels (ivory, 35,000-40,000 BCE), the Venus of Kostenky (mammoth bone carving: c.30,000 BCE), and the Venus of Monpazier (steatite carving: c.30,000 BCE). During the following Gravettian culture, a great many more appeared, such as: the Venus of Dolni Vestonice (ceramic clay figurine: c.26,000 BCE), the Venus of Willendorf (limestone sculpture: c.25,000 BCE), the Venus of Savignano (serpentine sculpture: c.25,000 BCE), Venus of Kostenki (limestone sculpture: c.24,000 BCE), the Venus of Moravany (mammoth ivory carving: c.24,000 BCE), the Venus of Laussel (limestone sculpture: c.23,000 BCE), the Venus of Brassempouy (mammoth ivory: c.23,000 BCE), the Venus of Lespugue (mammoth ivory: c.23,000 BCE), the Venus of Laussel (bas-relief sculpture in limestone: c.23,000), and the Venus of Garagino (volcanic rock: c.22,000 BCE), to name but a few. Other non-female examples include the ivory Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel (c.28,000 BCE). Outside Europe, Upper Paleolithic sculpture includes the Siberian Venus of Mal'ta (mammoth ivory: c.21,000 BCE), among many others.

 

Upper Paleolithic Painting

During this period, prehistoric society began to accept ritual and ceremony - of a quasi-religious or shaman-type nature. As a result, certain caves were reserved as prehistoric art galleries, where artists began to paint animals and hunting scenes, as well as a variety of abstract or symbolic drawings.

Cave painting appeared during the late Aurignacian culture, as exemplified by the Chauvet Cave paintings (c.30,000 BCE) - mainly monochrome pictures of animals and abstract drawings. Examples of Gravettian art include the hand stencils at Cosquer Cave (c.25,000 BCE), and the polychrome charcoal and ochre images at Pech-Merle (c.25,000 BCE). During the Solutrean period, prehistoric painters (influenced by late Gravettian traditions) began work on their magnificent polychrome images of horses, bulls and other animals in the Lascaux Caves and at Font de Gaume (both from 17,000 BCE), and the Spanish Cantabrian Cave of La Pasiega (from 16,000 BCE). Magdalenian cave painting is well represented by the polychrome images of bison and deer at Altamira Cave in Spain (from 15,000 BCE), the reindeer pictures on antlers found at the French Lortet Cave (from 15,000 BCE) and the amazing bison relief sculpture at the Tuc d'Audoubert Cave (from 13,5000 BCE), also in France.

For details of the colour pigments used by Stone Age cave painters, see: Prehistoric Colour Palette.

Outside Europe, Upper Paleolithic cave painting and rock art includes Australian Aboriginal rock art from Ubirr (from 30,000 BCE) and Kimberley (Bradshaw paintings) (from 17,000 BCE), the animal figure paintings in charcoal and ochre at the Apollo 11 Cave (from 25,500 BCE) in Namibia, and the hand stencil images at the Cuevas de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) (from 9500 BCE) in Argentina, among many others.

Upper Paleolithic Tool Technology

Tool-making received something of an overhaul. Out went the old hand axes and flake tools, in came a wide range of diversified and specialized tools made from specially prepared stones. They included spear and arrow points, and a signature figure-eight shaped blade. Hafted tools appeared, as did the harpoon, specialist fishing equipment and a range of gravers (or burins) and scrapers. In addition to flint, materials like bone, ivory, and antlers were utilized extensively.

Art and Tool Cultures During the Upper Paleolithic

Aurignacian Culture (c.40,000 - 26,000 BCE)

One of several cultures which co-existed in Upper Paleolithic Europe, it was also practised as far away as south west Asia, its name derives from the type-site near the village of Aurignac in the Haute Garonne, France. Its tools included sophisticated bone implements like points with grooves cut in the bottom for attachment to handles/spears, scrapers (including nose-scrapers), burins, chisels, and military-style batons.

Aurignacian culture also witnessed the first significant manifestations of fine art painting and sculpture: a phenomenom which continued throughout the rest of the Upper Paleolithic era. Notable examples include the monochrome cave murals at Grotte Chauvet and the early venus figurines from across Europe. Other Aurignacian rock art included hand stencils, finger tracings, engravings, and bas-reliefs.

In addition, Aurignacian humans produced the first personal ornaments made from decorated bone and ivory, such as bracelets, necklaces, pendants and beads. This growing self-awareness, together with the birth of fine art, marks the Aurignacian as the first modern culture of the Stone Age.

Perigordian/Chatelperronian Culture: (33,000-27,000 BCE)

Châtelperronian was an important Upper Paleolithic culture of central and southern France. Derived from the earlier Mousterian, practised by Homo neanderthalensis, it employed Levallois flake-tool technology, producing toothed and serrated stone tools as well as a signature flint blades (possibly used to make jewellery) with blunted backs known as "Châtelperron points". No particular art is associated with this culture.

Gravettian Culture (26,000 - 20,000 BCE)

The Gravettian was a European Upper Palaeolithic culture whose name derives from the type-site of La Gravette in the Dordogne department of France. Practised in eastern, central and western Europe, its signature tool (derived from the Châtelperron point) was a small pointed blade with a blunt but straight back - called a Gravette Point. Personal jewellery continued to be manufactured, and more personal property is evident, indicating an increasing degree of social stratification.

The Gravettian period is immensely rich in both cave painting and portable sculptural works. The former is exemplified by the wonderful stencil art at Cosquer cave and the coloured charcoal and ochre pictures at Pech-Merle cave. The most famous Gravettian sculpture consists of venus figurines, such as the Venuses of Dolni Vestonice (Czech Republic), Willendorf (Austria), Savignano (Italy), Kostenki (Russia), Moravany (Slovakia), Laussel (France), Brassempouy (France), Lespugue (France), and Garagino (Ukraine).

Solutrean Culture (19,000 – 15,000 BCE)

This culture comes from the type-site of Solutré in the Mâcon district of eastern France. Curiously, Solutrean tool-makers appear to have developed a number of uniquely advanced techniques, some of which were not seen for several thousand years after their departure. In any event, Solutrean people produced the finest Paleolithic flint craftsmanship in western Europe.

However, around 15,000 BCE, Solutrean culture mysteriously vanishes from the archeological record. Some paleoanthropologists believe there are affinities between Solutean and the later North American Clovis culture (as evidenced by artifacts found at Blackwater Draw in New Mexico, USA), indicating that Solutreans migrated across the frozen Atlantic to America. Other experts believe that Solutrean culture was overcome by a wave of new invaders.

Solutrean Art

Perhaps because of its focus on tool technology, Solutrean culture is not noted for its artistic achievements, despite the fact that the amazing Lascaux cave paintings date from the period. Experts believe that the artists who created the cave murals at Lascaux, Font de Gaume, and La Pasiega were influenced either by late Gravettian or early Magdalenian culture.

Magdalenian Culture (16,000 - 8,000 BCE)

Magdalenian is the final culture of the period and the apogee of Paleolithic art, of the Old Stone Age. Its name comes from the type-site of La Madeleine near Les Eyzies in the French Dordogne. Magdalenian tool technology is defined by the production of smaller and more sophisticated tools (from barbed points to needles, well-crafted scrapers to parrot-beak gravers) made from fine flint-flakes and animal sources (bone, ivory etc), whose specialized functions and delicacy testify to the culture's advanced nature.

Magdalenian Art

Magdalenian culture attached a growing importance to aesthetic objects, such as personal jewellery, ceremonial accessories, clothing and especially fine art.

Indeed, the cultural horizons of Magdalenian people are easily appreciated by studying the upsurge of drawing, painting, relief sculpture of the period, especially the Altimira cave paintings, whose symbolism in particular represents the first attempt by humans to impose their own sense of meaning on a relatively uncertain world. This unstoppable trend would - within only a few millennia - lead to the appearance of pictographs, hieroglyphics and written language.

[Note: Dates for the next four periods of prehistory are strictly approximate. In the case of Mesolithic and Neolithic, this is because their defining characteristics appeared at differing times according to the ice conditions of the region or country. In the case of the Bronze and Iron Ages, this is because certain civilizations developed metallurgical skills at different times. Thus, there are no universal dates for the beginning and end of these eras, so our focus is on Europe.]

 

Mesolithic Era
(Approximately 10,000 - 4,000 BCE, Europe)

The Mesolithic period is a transitional era between the ice-affected hunter-gatherer culture of the Upper Paleolithic, and the farming culture of the Neolithic. The greater the effect of the retreating ice on the environment of a region, the longer the Mesolithic era lasted. So, in areas with no ice (eg. the Middle East), people transitioned quite rapidly from hunting/gathering to agriculture. Their Mesolithic period was therefore short, and often referred to as the Epi-Paleolithic or Epipaleolithic. By comparison, in areas undergoing the change from ice to no-ice, the Mesolithic era and its culture lasted much longer.

European Mesolithic Humans

Archeological discoveries of Mesolithic remains bear witness to a great variety of races. These include the Azilian Ofnet Man (Bavaria); several later types of Cro-Magnon Man; types of brachycephalic humans (short-skulled); and types of dolichocephalic humans (long-skulled).

European Mesolithic Cultures

As the ice disappeared, to be replaced by grasslands and forests, mobility and flexibility became more important in the hunting and acquisition of food. As a result, Mesolithic cultures are characterized by small, lighter flint tools, quantities of fishing tackle, stone adzes, bows and arrows. Very gradually, at least in Europe, hunting and fishing was superceded by farming and the domestication of animals. The three main European Mesolithic cultures are: Azilian, Tardenoisian and Maglemosian. Azilian was a stone industry, largely microlithic, associated with Ofnet Man. Tardenoisian, associated with Tardenoisian Man, produced small flint blades and small flint implements with geometrical shapes, together with bone harpoons using flint flakes as barbs. Maglemosian (northern Europe) was a bone and horn culture, producing flint scrapers, borers and core-axes.

Mesolithic Rock Art

Artworks created during the Mesolithic period reflect the arrival of new living conditions and hunting practices caused by the disappearance of the great herds of animals from Spain and France, at the end of the Ice Age. Forests now cloaked the landscape, necessitating more careful and cooperative hunting arrangements. European Mesolithic rock art gives more space to human figures, and is characterized by keener observation, and greater narrative in the paintings. Also, because of the warmer weather, it moves from caves to outdoor sites in numerous locations across Europe, Asia, Africa, Australasia and the Americas. For example, in Africa, a number of bushman rock paintings were found in the Waterberg area which date from about 8,000 BCE. In India, the paintings in the Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka, derive from Mesolithic artists. A good deal of Australian Aboriginal art (eg. from Arnhem Land) dates from Mesolithic as well as Paleolithic periods. Most of the Aborigines' ancient artwork is stylized rock painting, often executed in a symbolic or abstract manner as many were created from a 'bird's eye view'.

Mesolithic Sculpture

As well as these stylized cave paintings, the Mesolithic era also featured more 3-D art, including bas-reliefs and free standing sculpture. Early examples of the latter include the anthropomorphic figurines, typically embellished by animals, uncovered in Nevali Cori and Göbekli Tepe near Urfa in eastern Asia Minor (now Turkey), dating to 9,000 BCE. The mesolithic statues of Lepenski Vir (eg. The Fish God) in Serbia date from about 5,000 BCE and depict either humans or hybrid figures, part-human, part-fish.

Mesolithic Decorative Crafts

Other examples of this type of new portable art include adornments, like bracelets and painted pebbles, together with decorative drawings on functional objects like paddles and weapons. Ceramic art was also developed, notably by the Jomon culture - an early highpoint of Japanese Art - whose sophisticated pots have been dated to the 11th millennium BCE. Their clay figures and vessels were typically decorated with patterns created by impressing the wet clay body with cord and sticks. Chinese pottery begins during the Mesolithic period.

Mesolithic Masterpiece: The Thinker From Cernavoda (5000 BCE)

One extraordinary example of Neolithic art is the sculpture known as the Thinker From Cernavoda (c.5,000 BCE), discovered in the lower Danube in Romania. It belongs to the Hamangia culture, usually classified as a Neolithic culture practised in Dobruja (Romania and Bulgaria) on the right bank of the Danube in Muntenia, and in the south, but may be connected with mesolithic hunter-gatherers. The uniqueness of the sculpture stems from the fact that the figure is neither a hunting or fertility idol, but simply sits in deep thought. A near-perfect illustration of a 'thinking' Neolithic man.

Other Famous Works of Art From the Mesolithic Period

Famous works of painting and sculpture created by Mesolithic artists include the following:

Artwork: Cuevas de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) (c.9500 BCE)
Type: Stencils of Hands; Pigments on Rock
Local Period: Upper Paleolithic/Neolithic
Location: Rio de las Pinturas, Argentina

Artwork: Bhimbetka Rock Art (c.9,000-7,000 BCE)
Type: Paintings and Stencil Art
Local Period: Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic
Location: Madhya Pradesh, India

Artwork: Paintings on Pachmari Hills (9000–3000 BCE)
Type: Pigments on Sandstone
Local Period: Mesolithic
Location: Satpura Range of Central India

Artwork: Wonderwerk Cave Engravings (c.8200 BCE)
Type: Geometric Designs and Representations of Animals
Local Period: African Neolithic
Location: Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape Province, South Africa

Artwork: Tassili-n-Ajjer Rock Art (c.8000 BCE)
Type: Paintings and Engravings
Local Period: Archaic Tradition
Location: Tassili-n-Ajjer, Algeria, N Africa

Artwork: Jiahu Carvings (c.7000–5700 BCE)
Type: Turquoise Carvings, Bone Flutes
Local Period: Mesolithic
Location: Yellow River Basin of Henan Province, Central China

Artwork: Coldstream Burial Stone (c.6,000 BCE)
Type: Pigments on Quartzite Pebble
Local Period: Mesolithic
Location: Lottering River, Western Cape Province, South Africa

Artwork: The Seated Woman of Catal Huyuk (c.6000 BCE)
Type: Terracotta Sculpture
Local Period: Neolithic
Location: Catal Huyuk, Anatolia, Turkey

Artwork: Egyptian Naquada I Female Figurines (c.5500-3000 BCE)
Type: Small Carved Figures: Bone, Ivory, Stone (Ornamented w. Lapis Lazuli)
Local Period: Egyptian Predynastic Period (Naquada I Period, 4000-3500 BCE)
Location: Egypt

Artwork: Persian Chalcolithic Pottery (c.5000-3500 BCE)
Type: Ceramic Ware painted with Human, Bird, Plant or Animal Motifs
Local Period: Chalcolithic Culture
Location: Iran (Persia)

Artwork: Thinker of Cernavoda (c.5,000 BCE)
Type: Terracotta
Local Period: Mesolithic Hamangia Culture
Location: Romania

Artwork: Fish God of Lepenski Vir (c.5000 BCE)
Type: Sandstone Carving
Local Period: Mesolithic
Location: Danube Settlement of Lepenski Vir, Serbia

Artwork: Iraqi Samarra and Halaf Ceramic Plates (c.5000)
Type: Ceramic Dish with Figurative or Geometric Decoration
Local Period: Samarra/Halaf Style, Mesolithic
Location: Iraq and Syria

 

Neolithic Era
(Approximately 4,000-2,000 BCE)

The Neolithic era witnessed a fundamental change in lifestyle across Europe. OUT went the primitive semi-nomadic style of hunting and gathering food, IN came a much more settled form of existence, based on farming and rearing of domesticated animals. Neolithic culture was characterized by stone tools shaped by polishing or grinding, and farming (staple crops: wheat, barley and rice; domesticated animals: sheep, goats, pigs and cattle), and led directly to a growth in crafts like pottery and weaving. All this began about 9,000 BCE in the villages of southern Asia, from where it spread to the Chinese interior - see Neolithic Art in China - and also to the fertile crescent of the Tigris and Euphrates in the Middle East (c.7,000), before spreading to India (c.5,000), Europe (c.4,000), and the Americas (independently) (c.2,500 BCE).

The establishment of settled communities (villages, towns and in due course cities) triggered a variety of new activities, notably: a rapid stimulation of trade, the construction of trading vehicles (mainly boats), new forms of social organizations, along with the growth of religious beliefs and associated ceremonies. And due to improvements in food supply and environmental control, the population rapidly increased. For tens of millennia before the advent of agriculture, the total human population had varied between 5 million and 8 million. By 4000 BCE, after less than 5,000 years of farming, numbers had risen to 65 million.

Neolithic Art

In general, the more settled and better-resourced the region, the more art it produces. So it was with the Neolithic period. And although most ancient art remained essentially functional in nature, there was a greater focus on ornamentation and decoration. For instance, jade carving - one of the great specialities of Chinese art - first appears during the Neolithic period, as does Chinese lacquerware and porcelain. See: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present)

Neolithic Portable Art

With greater settlement in villages and other small communities, rock painting begins to be replaced by more portable art. Discoveries in Çatal Hüyük, an ancient village in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) include beautiful murals (including the world's first landscape painting), dating from 6,100 BCE. Artworks become progressively ornamented with precious metals (eg. copper is first used in Mesopotamia, while more advanced metallurgy is discovered in South-East Europe). Free standing sculpture, in stone and wood begins to be seen, as well as bronze statuettes (notably by the Indus Valley Civilization, one of the early engines of painting and sculpture in India), primitive jewellery and decorative designs on a variety of artifacts.

Neolithic Ceramics

However, the major medium of Neolithic art was ceramic pottery, the finest examples of which (mostly featuring geometric designs or animal/plant motifs) were produced around the region of Mesopotamia (Iran, Iraq) and the eastern Mediterranean.

Neolithic Culture

Other important art-related trends which surface during the Neolithic art include writing and religion. The appearance of early hieroglyphic writing systems in Sumer heralds the arrival of pictorial methods of communication, while increased prosperity and security permits greater attention to religious formalities of (eg) worship (in temples) and burial, in megalithic tombs.

Neolithic Architecture and Megalithic Art

The emergence of the first city state (Uruk, in Mesopotamia) predicts the establishment of more secure communities around the world, many of which will compete to establish their own independent cultural and artistic identity, creating permanent architectural megaliths in the process. (See: History of Architecture). The Neolithic age also saw the emergence of monumental tomb buildings like the Egyptian pyramids and individual monoliths like the Sphinx at Giza - see Egyptian Architecture for details. Other megalithic sites featured assemblages of large upright stones (dolmens or menhirs), like those at the Stonehenge Stone Circle, as well as complex subterranean tombs like that of Newgrange Megalithic Tomb, whose entrance stone incised with a complex design of spirals represents the first significant step in the history of Irish art, and the larger Knowth Megalithic Tomb. For more about Celtic-style culture in Ireland during this period, see Irish Stone Age art.

Neolithic Masterpiece: Ram in the Thicket (c.2500 BCE)

This extraordinary 18-inch high sculpture (British Museum, London) features a ram standing on its hind legs, peering through a symbolic piece of undergrowth. The minimalist depiction of the thicket, allied to the focused, forlorn look on the face of the animal, demonstrates a breathtaking artistic sensibility.

Other Famous Works of Art From the Neolithic Period

Famous works of painting and sculpture created by Neolithic artists include the following:

Artwork: Dabous Giraffe Engravings (c.4000 BCE)
Type: Saharan Rock Engravings
Local Period: Taureg Culture
Location: Agadez, Niger, Africa

Artwork: Artwork: Valdivia Figurines (c.4000–3500 BCE)
Type: First representational images in the Americas, in limestone and marble
Local Period: Neolithic
Location: Real Alto and Loma Alta sites, Ecuador

Artwork: Pig Dragon Pendant (Hongshan Culture) (c.3800 BCE)
Type: Jade Carving
Local Period: Hongshan Culture
Location: Tomb 4, Niuheliang, Jianping, Liaoning Province, NE China

Artwork: Ram in the Thicket (c.2500 BCE)
Type: Sculpture in gold-leaf, copper, lapis lazuli, red limestone
Local Period: Early Dynastic
Location: Great Death Pit, Ur, Mesopotamia (Iraq)

Artwork: Maikop Gold Bull (c.2500 BCE)
Type: Gold Sculpture (Lost-Wax Casting Method) (Found with 3 more; 1 silver, 2 gold)
Local Period: Maikop Culture
Location: North Caucasus, Russia

Artwork: Chinese Bronzeworks (from c.1750 BCE)
Type: Bronze Plaques/Sculptures (Piece-Mold Casting) with Jade Decoration
Local Period: Chinese Neolithic - Xia Realm & later Shang Dynasty Period
Location: Yellow River Basin of Henan Province, Central China
[See: Traditional Chinese Art: Characteristics.]

Bronze Age (In Europe, 3000 BCE - 1200 BCE)

Characterized by the development of metallurgy, in particular copper mining and smelting, along with tin-mining and smelting, as reflected in the exquisite bronze, gold and silver sculptures. Emergence of Egyptian architecture, metallurgy, encaustic painting and stone sculpture. See: Bronze Age Art.

Iron Age (In Europe, 1500 BCE - 200 BCE)

Characterized by the processing of iron ore to produce iron tools and weapons. In northern Europe, Hallstatt and La Tene styles of Celtic art flourished, while around the Mediterranean there emerged the great schools of Greek art and Persian art as well as the culture and architecture of the Minoan, Mycenean, and Etruscan civilizations. See: Iron Age Art.

• For more history and facts about Stone Age arts and crafts, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.


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