Stone Age Cave Painting
Prehistoric Characteristics, Origins, History, Types.

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The world's oldest hand stencil
(Top Centre, Slightly Right)
in the Leang Timpuseng Cave,
on the Indonesian Island of
Sulawesi, dating to 37,900 BCE.
For details, see: Sulawesi Cave art.

Prehistoric Cave Painting (40,000-10,000 BCE)

Contents

What is Cave Painting? Definition, Characteristics
Origins and History
Types
Cave Painting in 3 Stages
Where are Most Cave Paintings Located?
Which are the Oldest Cave Paintings?
What Sort of Pictures were Painted in Prehistoric Caves?
What Painting Methods Did Stone Age Artists Use?
How did Prehistoric Artists Obtain their Paint Colours?
Did Stone Age Painters Make Preliminary Sketches?
What Was the Purpose of These Cave Paintings?
Do Prehistoric Caves Contain Sculpture?
Famous Caves
- France and Spain
- India - South Africa - Namibia - Australia - Argentina - SE Asia



Polychrome cave painting of
a bison head. (c.15,000 BCE)
Altamira cave main gallery.


Big Horn Rhino (25-30,000 BCE)
Cave painting from Chauvet Cave.
See: Oldest Stone Age Art.

What is Cave Painting? Definition, Characteristics

In prehistoric art, the term "cave painting" encompasses any parietal art which involves the application of colour pigments on the walls, floors or ceilings of ancient rock shelters. A monochrome cave painting is a picture made with only one colour (usually black) - see, for instance, the wonderful monochrome images at Chauvet. A polychrome cave painting consists of two or more colours, as exemplified by the glorious multi-coloured images of bison on the ceiling at Altamira, or the magnificent aurochs in the Chamber of the Bulls at Lascaux. In contrast, the term "cave drawing" refers (strictly speaking) only to an engraved drawing - that is, one made by cutting lines in the rock surface with a flint or stone tool, rather than one made by drawing lines with charcoal or manganese.

Origins and History

At present we have no firm idea when cave painting first began. One theory links the evolution of Stone Age art to the arrival of anatomically modern humans in Europe during the period of the Upper Paleolithic. According to this theory, the development of fine art coincided with the displacement of Neanderthal man by anatomically modern man, starting around 40,000 BCE. Indeed, it was from about this date that the earliest rock art began to emerge in the caves and rock shelters of the Franco-Cantabrian region. (But see the Fumane Cave paintings discovered near Verona, Italy.) Painting comes first, followed closely by mobiliary art, exemplified by the portable Venus figurines like the Venus of Hohle Fels (38-33,000 BCE). Broadly speaking, cave painting techniques and materials improved across the board, century by century. Thus we see the monochrome paintings of Aurignacian culture (40-25,000 BCE) give way to the polychrome art of the Gravettian (25-20,000 BCE), leading to the apogee of cave painting which is traditionally acknowledged to occur during the Magdalenian era (c.15-10,000 BCE) at Lascaux, Altamira, Font de Gaume and Les Combarelles. During the Late Magdalenian, the Ice Age ended and a period of global warming led to the destruction of the Magdalenian reindeer habitat, along with its culture and its cave art. For more about the evolution of cave painting, and how it fits into Stone Age culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).

PREHISTORIC ART in IRELAND
For details of arts & culture
during the Pleistocene and
Holocene epochs, see:
Irish Stone Age Art
Mainly megalithic architecture
Irish Bronze Age Art
Celtic metalwork, tomb-building
Irish Iron Age Art
La Tene Celtic culture, sculpture

 

Types

The majority of prehistoric cave paintings were figurative and 99 percent of these were of animals. At first, Stone Age artists painted predator animals (lions, rhinoceroses, sabre-toothed felines, bears) almost as often as game animals like bison and reindeer, but from the Solutrean era onwards imagery was dominated by game animals. Pictures of humans were an exceptionally rare occurrence, and were usually highly stylized and far less naturalistic than the animal figures. Abstract imagery (signs, symbols and other geometric markings) was also common, and actually comprises the oldest type of Paleolithic art found in caves of the Late Stone Age, as shown by recent dating results on paintings at El Castillo and Altamira. In addition to figure painting and abstract imagery, prehistoric caves are also heavily decorated with painted hand stencils rock art, most of which - according to recent research by Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University - were made by females, but men and children were also involved. Some of the best examples of this form of painting are the Gargas Cave Hand Stencils (Haute-Garonne), the Panel of Hand Stencils at Chauvet (Ardeche), and the prints throughout the Cuevas de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) in Argentina.

Cave Painting in Three Stages

Typically a polychrome cave painting was created in three basic stages, which might vary significantly according to the experience and cultural maturity of the artist, the nature and contours of the rock surface, the strength and type of light, and the raw materials available. Take a picture of a bison, for instance. First, the outline and basic features of the animal are drawn on the cave wall, either by scoring the surface of the rock with a sharpened stone, or by applying a black outline using charcoal or manganese. Second, the completed drawing of the animal would be coloured or filled in with red ochre or other pigments. Third, the edges of the animal's body would be shaded with black or another pigment to increase its three-dimensionality. Alternatively, depending on whether or not the contour of the cave wall made it necessary, additional engraving or even sculpting would be applied to boost volume and relief.

 

Where are Most Cave Paintings Located?

The most spectacular examples of this rock art have been discovered in southwestern France and northern Spain - hence it is sometimes referred to as Franco-Cantabrian cave art - where archeologists have found some 350 caves containing Upper Paleolithic artworks. The largest cave clusters are in the Dordogne (Lascaux, Cussac, Laussel, Font-de-Gaume, Les Combarelles, Rouffignac), and around Monte Castillo in the district of Puente Viesgo, Cantabria, but other magnificently decorated caves have been found in various parts of the world - including South Africa, Argentina, India, China, Australia and elsewhere. See for instance the Magdalenian Kapova Cave Paintings (12,500 BCE) in the southern Urals of Russia.

Which are the Oldest Cave Paintings?

At present, the earliest art in prehistoric caves, whose dates of origin have been authenticated by radiocarbon dating, consists of abstract signs - namely a red dot and a hand print - found among the El Castillo cave paintings in Cantabria, Spain. These images have been dated to at least 39,000 BCE and 35,500 BCE respectively, making them the oldest art of their type from a cave in Europe.

However, in 2014 in Indonesia, on the other side of the world, archeologists used Uranium-Thorium dating techniques to date hand stencils among the images found at Leang Timpuseng Cave, Sulawesi, to 37,900 BCE. (Animal paintings at the site were dated to 33,400 BCE.) Next in age comes the Fumane Cave pictures (c.35,000 BCE), then two claviform symbols found at Altamira, dated 34,000 BCE. The next oldest paintings are those in Chauvet Cave, situated in the Ardeche region of France. They were discovered in 1994, and date from 30,000 BCE. The most productive periods of cave art were the Gravettian and Magdalenian cultures, dating from 25,000-20,000 BCE and 15,000-10,000 BCE respectively.

Note: Many caves contain evidence of repeated painting, sometimes extending over tens of thousands of years. Therefore some of these "cave studios" may be found to be older than originally thought. This is exactly what happened at Altamira, where the main body of art is Magdalenian (c.15,000 BCE), but recent tests showed that one particular abstract image dates back to the Aurignacian era about 34,000 BCE.

What Sort of Pictures were Painted in Prehistoric Caves?

Stone Age artists created a variety of figurative and abstract images. The naturalistic pictures mostly depict hunting scenes, or arrangements of animals - usually bison, horses, reindeer, cattle, aurochs, and mammoths, although a wide variety of other creatures were depicted, such as: lions, musk ox, ass, saiga, chamois, wolf, fox, hare, otter, hyena, seals, fish, reptiles, birds and other creatures also appear. But there is no landscape painting in prehistoric art, or even any elements of landscape depicted, like mountains or rivers. Images of humans appear only very rarely: even then, they are human-like, rather than realistically human. Good examples include: the 'wounded men' at Cougnac; the painting of the man with the bird-like head, in the "Shaft of the Dead Man" at Lascaux; and the engraved painting of the "Sorcerer" at the Trois-Freres Cave.

As mentioned, abstract art is also common. Cave walls abound with a variety of dots, lines, signs and symbols. For example, researchers from the University of Victoria on Vancouver island have identified more than 20 signs, all painted in the same style, that appear time and again in different shelters. Some of them are made with simple brushstrokes, like circles, semi-circles, triangles and straight lines; others are slightly more complex. In addition to those just mentioned, they include: aviforms, claviforms, cordiforms, crosshatches, cruciforms, flabelliforms, negative hands, open angles, ovals, pectiforms, penniforms, positive hands, quadrangles, peniforms, scalariforms, serpentiforms, spirals, tectiforms, zigzags, and others.

What Painting Methods Did Stone Age Artists Use?

Using sea-shells as paint containers and working by candlelight, or occasionally weak sunlight, prehistoric artists employed a wide variety of painting methods. Initially, they painted with their fingers; before switching to lumpy pigment crayons, pads of moss, or brushes made of animal hair or vegetable fibre. They also employed more sophisticated spray painting techniques using reeds or specially hollowed bones. A hollowed out bone of a bird, stained with red ochre, dating to about 16,000 BCE, was found at Altamira cave, revealing that Solutrean-Magdalenian artists must have been proficient at spray painting by this date. Stone Age painters also used foreshortening and chiaroscuro techniques. Each era introduced new cave painting methods, and caves decorated over many generations exhibit numerous styles - at Lascaux, for instance, archeologists have identified over a dozen different painting styles.

How Did Prehistoric Artists Obtain Their Paint Colours?

All colour pigments used in cave painting were sourced locally, mostly from mineral sources found in the earth. Stone Age painters employed several different combinations of materials to make coloured paints. Clay ochre provided three basic colours: numerous varieties of red, plus yellow and brown. For black colour, artists used either manganese dioxide or charcoal. After grinding the pigments to fine powder, artists mixed the powder with cave water (typically high in calcium carbonate) animal fats, vegetable juice, blood or urine to help it stick to the rock surface. They also used extenders like biotite and feldspar, or ground quartz and calcium phosphate (obtained from crushed, heated animal bone). It's conceivable that artists were familiar with pigments through body painting and face painting - arts which they were practicing for millennia before they started decorating caves. For more details about the type of colour pigments used in Stone Age cave painting, see: Prehistoric Colour Palette.

Did Stone Age Painters Make Preliminary Sketches?

Sometimes. In the cave of La Vache, archeologists found a layer of charcoal underneath the black pigment of the paintings, indicating that a preparatory sketch had been made prior to the application of paint. More often, the silhouette of the animal, together with its basic features, was engraved in the rock with a flint, then painted with pigment.

What Was the Purpose of These Cave Paintings?

We don't know exactly. Initially, most paleoanthropologists thought that this type of ancient art was purely decorative. However, detailed archeological evidence shows that painted caves were not inhabited by ordinary people. Instead, they were inhabited only by a small group of artists, or others involved in the cave's ceremonial activities and role. As a result, it is now thought that cave painting was created by shamans for ceremonial reasons - perhaps in connection with social, supernatural or religious rituals. There is no clear pattern in the iconography used, so at present most theories as to the precise meaning or function of Stone Age cave painting are mere guesswork.

Do Prehistoric Caves Contain Sculpture?

Yes. Several beautiful examples of relief sculpture have survived. They include the Venus of Laussel (c.23,000 BCE), one of six bas-relief sculptures engraved on a large block of limestone, in the Laussel rock shelter, near Lascaux; and also the famous Tuc d'Audoubert Bison relief carvings (c.13,500 BCE) made from unfired clay that were found at Ariege, in France. Experts believe that prehistoric sculpture might have been as common as mural painting, except that most of it has crumbled or perished.

Famous Caves Containing Stone Age Paintings

Europe (Mostly France and Spain)

Franco-Cantabrian prehistoric cave painting is probably more famous than any other tradition of parietal art around the world. Here are the region's most famous decorated caves.

Cave of El Castillo (39,000 BCE) Puente Viesgo, Spain
Discovered in the complex of the Caves of Monte Castillo, this rock shelter contains the oldest art of any cave in Europe, except for the La Ferrassie Cave Cupules (c.60,000 BCE).

Fumane Cave (c.35,000 BCE)
Italian prehistoric cave inhabited by Aurignacian reindeer hunters, in which a number of primitive animal cave paintings were found on fragments of a collapsed cave wall.

Abri Castanet (c.35,000 BCE)
Dordogne rock shelter containing engraved images of female genitalia and male phalluses, along with ochre paintings of horses and some abstract symbols.

Altamira Cave (first phase 34,000 BCE) Antillana del Mar, Spain
A club-shaped symbol found in the most remote part of the cave was U/Th dated to 34,000 BCE.

Chauvet Cave (c.30,000 BCE) Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, France
Discovered in 1994, Chauvet cave - a showcase of Aurignacian Art - comprises two main parts. In the first, most pictures are red, while in the second, the animals are mostly black. The most striking images are the Horse Panel and the Panel of Lions and Rhinoceroses. See Chauvet Cave Paintings.

Grotte des Deux-Ouvertures (Cave of Two Openings)
(c.28,000-26,000 BCE) Ardeche Gorge, near Chauvet Cave
Noted for its rock engravings of animals including more than 50 figures of bulls and mammoths.

Cosquer Cave (c.25,000 BCE), Marseille Coast, France
Discovered by the deep-sea diver Henri Cosquer in 1985, and dating from 25,000 BCE, the entrance to Cosquer cave is situated over 100 feet below sea level. Its paintings include hand stencils, Placard-type signs, charcoal drawings and about 100 polychrome paintings of horses and other animals. For details, see: Cosquer Cave Paintings.

Cussac Cave (c.25,000 BCE) Le Buisson-de-Cadouin, Dordogne, France
Discovered in 2000, its painted engravings of bison, horses and mammoths, are similar to the Gravettian art in the Quercy caves of Roucadour and Pech Merle.

Pech-Merle Cave (c.25,000 BCE) Cabrerets, Midi-Pyrenees, France
Discovered in 1922, Pech-Merle is famous for its dramatic polychrome Dappled Horses, painted in charcoal and ochre on limestone, and its Placard-type signs. For details, see: Pech-Merle Cave Paintings.

Roucadour Cave Art (c.24,000 BCE)
Similar to imagery discovered at Pech Merle and Cougnac, Roucadour's art consists of hand stencils, engravings and abstract symbols.

Cougnac Cave (first phase, c.23,000 BCE) Gourdon, Lot, France
The cave features Gravettian era animal paintings and strange Placard-type signs.

Le Placard Cave (c.17,500 BCE) La Rochefoucauld, France
Renowned for its undeciphered Aviform signs almost identical to those discovered at Cosquer, Pech-Merle and Cougnac.

Cosquer Cave (second phase 17,000-15,000 BCE) Marseilles, France
A second period of Solutrean painting occurred at Cosquer during the Late Solutrean.

Le Roc-de-Sers Cave (c.17,000 BCE) Near Gachedou, France
The cave is world famous for its limestone engraved paintings of animals, depicted with large bodies and short legs.

Lascaux Cave (c.17,000-13,000 BCE) Montignac, Dordogne, France
Discovered in 1940, Lascaux contains Solutrean art as well as Magdalenian. The cave complex has seven decorated chambers with over 2000 painted images, including the awesome Hall of the Bulls which, despite its name, features mostly horses as well as the male aurochs (wild cattle) from which its name derives. Contains renowned pictures like the Great Black Bull, the Unicorn and the Bird Man. For details, see: Lascaux Cave Paintings.

Cave of La Pasiega (c.16,000 BCE) Cuevas de El Castillo, Cantabria, Spain
Discovered in 1911, the cave of La Pasiega consists of one main gallery, some 80 yards in length, with openings to several secondary galleries. Its cave art consists of over 700 painted images (roughly 100 deer, 80 horses, 30 ibex, 30 cattle, along with reindeer, mammoth, birds and fish) including numerous abstract symbols (ideomorphs) and engravings.

Altamira Cave (final phase c.15,000 BCE) Antillana del Mar, Cantabria, Spain
Discovered in 1879 and dating from 15,000 BCE, Altamira is considered by archeologists and art historians to be "the Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic Art", due to its high quality large scale wall paintings. The ceiling of its so-called polychrome chamber - decorated with 30 large animal pictures (mostly bison) vividly executed in red and black pigment - is regarded as the crowning artistic achievement of Magdalenian art within the Franco-Cantabrian region. For details, see: Altamira Cave Paintings.

Font-de-Gaume Cave (14,000 BCE) Dordogne, France
The first cache of prehistoric cave painting to be discovered in the Perigord, the cave is renowned for its frieze of five bison, enhanced with sophisticated shading around the body.

Cougnac Cave Paintings (second phase, 14,000 BCE) Gourdon, Lot, France
Its Magdalenian artworks include a stunning image of a red ibex, deftly rendered so that the flowstone on the wall suggests hair hanging from its belly, and some unique human-type figures.

La Marche Cave (c.13,000 BCE) Lussac-les-Chateaux, France
Discovered in 1937, archeologists were stunned to find a series of painted engravings of human heads and faces, some with details of clothes depicted. Authenticated by the French authorities, but experts remain skeptical about the dating of its paintings.

Niaux Cave (13,000-11,000 BCE) Foix, Haute-Pyrenees, France
One of the most important galleries of Magdalenian art after Lascaux and Font-de-Gaume. Famous for its Stone Age footprints, its unique picture of a weasel, and other high quality cave paintings.

Trois-Freres Cave (13,000-12,000 BCE) Haute-Pyrenees, France
World famous for the painted engraving of a human-like figure known as the "Sorcerer", with the features of different animals. Understood to depict a shaman.

Les Combarelles Cave (c.11,000 BCE) Dordogne, France
Another major site of Magdalenian art, it boasts some 600–800 highly naturalistic drawings of animals, along with a collection of more than 50 anthropomorphic figures, plus a quantity of tectiforms.

Rouffignac Cave Art (c.11,000 BCE) Rouffignac, Dordogne
Contains the largest complex of underground passages in the Perigord. Decorations include over 240 engravings and monochrome drawings. Subjects include bison, mammoths, horses, and woolly rhinoceroses, plus a number of abstract symbols.

REST OF THE WORLD

Other very old caves containing Stone Age parietal art are found in central India, South Africa, Australia, Namibia, Argentina and South-East Asia, among other locations around the world.

India

The Auditorium and Daraki-Chattan Caves in Madhya Pradesh, Central India, have recently been discovered to contain the world's oldest known cupule art, in the form of cup-like indentations (petroglyphs) incised on hard quartzite, dating back into the Lower Paleolithic era. For details and photos, see: Bhimbetka Petroglyphs and Daraki-Chattan Cave Art.

Another important site of Stone Age art in India is the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters, a UN World Heritage Site which was known to Indian archeologists as early as 1888. Located in the district of Madhya Pradesh south of Bhopal at the edge of the Vindhyachal hills, this site contains the earliest traces of human life in India, although its rock art is only about 9,000 years old. Featuring a host of different scenes (eg. hunting, dancing, horse riding, elephant riders, animal fights, domestic scenes and the like), and subjects (eg. bisons, tigers, lions, wild boar, elephants, antelopes dogs, lizards, crocodiles), all commonly painted in red and white, with occasional use of green and yellow, the pictures span most of the Mesolithic and Neolithic eras of the Stone Age, as well as the Bronze, Iron and later Medieval ages.

South Africa

African art includes some of the world's most ancient art, including cave paintings. The oldest African rock art was discovered in the Blombos Caves, not far from Capetown. It features a number of geometric engravings on two small pieces of ochre coloured stone, and dates from 70,000 BCE. For details and photos, please see: Blombos Cave Art.

Namibia

A series of geometric and animal images engraved and painted on seven stone slabs have been found at the Apollo 11 Caves in the Huns Mountains, dating to 25,500 BCE. (For details, see: Apollo 11 Cave Stones.) Unusually, the images - painted in charcoal, red ochre and white - were painted onto the slabs at a different location and then brought to the cave. Experts consider them an early exemplar of Tribal art.

Australia

Australian aborigines were responsible for all the continent's paleolithic art. The oldest traditions of Aboriginal art - believed to date from 30,000 BCE, although this is unconfirmed - include Kimberley rock art (Western Australia), Ubirr rock art, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, and Burrup Peninsula rock art (Pilbara). Later works include the Bradshaw paintings (now called Gwion art), dating from 15,500 BCE, at Kimberley, Western Australia. However, the oldest art in Australia is the Nawarla Gabarnmang Rock Shelter charcoal drawing, which was carbon-dated to 26,000 BCE.

Argentina

The Cuevas de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) at Rio de las Pinturas is home to the oldest cave painting in the Americas. The oldest murals, dating from the era of Mesolithic art, about 9,000 BCE, comprise dozens of hand stencils painted in red, black and white pigments. Later images include paintings of animals, hunting scenes and complex abstract patterns (ideomorphs).

Studies of their cave art, sculptures and decorated bones, pebbles and rocks by archeologists, and other scholars, have revealed an art that developed from simplistic early forms to detailed, accurate figures over several chronological periods. The artists began by drawing simple outlines of small animals. Later, they drew larger animals and filled in the animals' bodies with red or black paint; and finally, they drew massive animals, washed over the animals' bodies with earthy tones of brown or black, and detailed the animals' anatomy with thick shading.

Southeast Asia

Rock paintings have also been found in Thailand (in the Petchabun Range of Central Thailand, and in Nakorn Sawan Province), Malaysia (at Gua Tambun in Perak, and in the Painted Cave at Niah Caves National Park) and Indonesia, in the Sangkulirang area of Kalimantan. Recent finds in the Maros-Pangkep caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, show that some of the oldest art on the planet was created by migrants island-hopping towards Australia. These finds suggest that modern man's artistic ability did not emerge "coincidentally" across the world, but was developed before he left Africa, around 80,000 BCE. See also: Oceanic art.

• For more about paintings in the rock shelters of the Upper Paleolithic, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.


ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE ART
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