Stone Age Cave Painting
Prehistoric Drawings, Photographs: Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira, Pech-Merle, Cosquer.

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Cave Painting from Grotte Chauvet
dating to about 30,000 BCE.

EARLIEST FIGURATIVE CARVING
For the oldest known sculpture,
see: Venus of Hohle Fels. See
also the totemic animal sculpture
Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel.

Prehistoric Cave Painting (30,000-10,000 BCE)

Contents

What is Cave Painting?
Where are Most Cave Paintings Located?
Which are the Oldest Cave Paintings?
What sort of Pictures Were Painted in Prehistoric Caves?
How Were Prehistoric Cave Pictures Painted?
Do All Cave Paintings Contain Colour?
How Did Prehistoric Artists Obtain Their Colours?
Did Stone Age Painters Do Preliminary Sketches?
What Was the Purpose of Cave Paintings?
Do These Caves Contain Sculpture?
Do These Caves Contain Engravings?
Famous Caves
Chauvet - Cosquer - Pech-Merle - Lascaux - Font de Gaume
Cueva de La Pasiega - Altamira
Where are the Other Famous Paleolithic Cave Paintings Located?
India - South Africa - Australia - Namibia - Argentina - Southeast Asia



Big Horn Rhino (25-30,000 BCE)
Cave painting from Chauvet Cave.
See also: Oldest Art: Top 50 Works.


Works from "Hall of the Bulls" Lascaux
dating to about 17,000 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

What is Cave Painting?

The expression "cave painting" usually refers to drawing, stencil art and painting on the walls and ceilings of prehistoric caves, of the Stone Age (Paleolithic Era). The earliest form of mural painting, it is also called "parietal art". Evidence indicates that this type of prehistoric art began during the Aurignacian period (around 30,000 BCE) but reached a highpoint during the late Magdalenian culture. (To see how the evolution of cave painting compares with that of petroglyphs, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.)

Where are Most Cave Paintings Located?

The most spectacular examples of this rock art have been discovered in France and Spain, where archeologists have found some 350 caves containing Paleolithic artworks, but other decorated caves have been found in many parts of the world - in Africa (eg. Namibia), Argentina, India, China, Australia and other locations.

Which are the Oldest Cave Paintings?

At present, the earliest art in prehistoric caves, whose dates of origin have been authenticated by radiocarbon dating, are those in Grotte Chauvet (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 prehistoric cave art were the Gravettian and Magdalenian cultures, dating from 26,000-20,000 BCE and 16,000-8,000 BCE respectively. Australia too has numerous examples of ancient mural pictures, such as the Bradshaw-style Sash Painting (c.17,000 BCE) at Kimberley, Western Australia. See also: Aboriginal Rock Art: Australia. Note, that many caves contain evidence of repeated painting, sometimes extending over thousands of years. Thus some of these "cave studios" may be found to be older than originally thought.

 

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. Images of humans appear only occasionally. Abstract imagery was also common. Paleolithic murals frequently contain a variety of dots, lines, signs and symbols (ideomorphs), together with a mixture of zoomorphs, anthromorphs and polymorphs.

How Were Prehistoric Cave Pictures Painted?

Using sea-shells as paint containers and working by candlelight, Stone Age 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 even employed spray painting techniques using reeds or specially hollowed bones. They employed foreshortening and shadowing 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.

Do All Cave Paintings Contain Colour?

No. Some of the earliest painting of Stone Age art (eg. in Chauvet Cave) is executed in monochrome. But most of the later Magdalenian painting is polychrome. The most common pigments are black and red.

How Did Prehistoric Artists Obtain Their Colours?

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 and 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.

For details of the colour pigments in Stone Age cave painting, see: Prehistoric Colour Palette.

Did Stone Age Painters Do 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. Sometimes, the silhouette of the subject was incised in the rock first, 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 only temporarily inhabited by Upper Palaeolithic man and their presence was purely associated with cave art activities. 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. See also: Paleolithic art.

Do Prehistoric Caves Contain Sculpture?

Yes. There are a few surviving examples of unfired clay sculpture, such as the Bison bas-relief carvings (c.13,500 BCE) in the Cave of Tuc d'Audoubert at Ariege, France. Experts believe that Stone Age sculpture was probably as common as mural art: unfortunately, most of it has crumbled or perished.

Do Stone Age Caves Contain Engravings?

Yes. In addition to paintings, Stone Age artists produced a huge number of engravings, both figurative and abstract. In fact, at present, the world's oldest art consists of engravings on rock surfaces - either in caves, on cliffs and on stones. Famous examples of Paleolithic engraving include: the quartzite petroglyphs at the Auditorium Cave and Daraki-Chattan Cave in Madhya Pradesh, Central India (both dated from the Acheulian culture c.200,000 - 500,000 BCE). The abstract engravings found on two pieces of ochre at the Blombos Cave, 200 miles east of Capetown, South Africa, are dated from the Mousterian culture, roughly 70,000 BCE. It is the oldest known site of African Art. Other examples include: the French Lortet Cave reindeer engravings on a fragment of antler (c.15,000 BCE), and the figurative engravings of the Addaura Cave in Sicily (c.11,000 BCE).

 

Famous Caves Containing Stone Age Paintings

At present, the most spectacular prehistoric cave murals are in France and Spain, in the following locations (listed chronologically).

Chauvet Cave, Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, France

Discovered in 1994 and dating from 30,000 BCE, Chauvet cave comprises two main parts. In the first, most pictures are red, while in the second, the animals are mostly black. The most spectacular images are the Horse Panel and the Panel of Lions and Rhinoceroses. For details and photos, please see: Chauvet Cave Paintings.

Cosquer Cave, near Marseille, 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. It contains, hand stencils, charcoal drawings and about 100 polychrome paintings of horses and other animals. For details and photos, please see: Cosquer Cave Paintings.

Pech-Merle Cave, Cabrerets, Midi-Pyrénées, France

Discovered in 1922, and dating from 25,000 BCE, Pech-Merle is famous for its Dappled Horses, painted in charcoal and ochre on limestone. For details and photos, please see: Pech-Merle Cave Paintings.

Lascaux Cave, Montignac, Dordogne, France

Discovered in 1940 and dating from 17,000 BCE, Lascaux contains seven decorated chambers with over 2000 painted images, including the extraordinary Hall of the Bulls which, despite its name, features mostly horses as well as the male aurochs (wild cattle) from which its name derives. For details and photos, see: Lascaux Cave Paintings.

Font de Gaume, in the Dordogne Valley in France

Discovered in 1901 and dating from 17,000 BCE, Font de Gaume cave contains over 200 polychrome paintings from the Solutrean-Magdalenian culture - second only in France to Lascaux in quality - featuring some 80 bison, 40 horses and 20 mammoths.

Cueva de La Pasiega, Cuevas de El Castillo, Cantabria, Spain

Discovered in 1911 and dating from 16,000 BCE, 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.

Cave of Altamira, near Santillana 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. Its ceiling is regarded as the crowning artistic achievement of the Magdalenian period. The so-called polychrome chamber houses some 30 large animal pictures, mostly bison, vividly executed in red and black pigment. For details and photos, please see: Altamira Cave Paintings.

Where are the Other Famous Paleolithic Cave Paintings Located?

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

Stone Age Cave Art in India

The Auditorium and Daraki-Chattan Caves in Madhya Pradesh, Central India, have recently been discovered to contain the world's oldest known art, in the form of engravings (petroglyphs) incised on hard quartzite. 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.

Stone Age Cave Art in South Africa

Africa is home to much 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.

Stone Age Cave Art in Australia

Australian aborigines were responsible for all the continent's paleolithic art. So far, the oldest Australian rock painting - executed in red ochre pigment and dating from 30,000 BCE - is at Ubirr, Arnhem Land, Northern Australia. Later works include the Bradshaw figurative rock paintings, dating from 17,000 BCE, at Kimberley, Western Australia. These represent the earliest known examples of Oceanic art.

Stone Age Cave Art in 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. 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.

Stone Age Cave Art in 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 9500 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 anthropologists, archaeologists, and other scholars, have revealed an art that developed from simplistic early forms to detailed, accurate figures over several chronological periods. Up to 32,000 BCE, the artists drew simple outlines of small animals; from 32,000 to 30,000 BCE, they drew larger animals and filled in the animals' bodies with red or black paint; and from 30,000 to 10,000 BCE, they drew massive animals, washed over the animals' bodies with earthy tones of brown or black, and detailed the animals' anatomy with thick shading.

Stone Age Cave Art in 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 caves at Maros in Sulawesiand in the Sangkulirang area of Kalimantan).

Information About Stone Age Sculpture

For more about prehistoric sculpture from the Lower Paleolithic, see: the humanoid figures, Venus of Berekhat Ram and Venus of Tan-Tan. For Upper Paleolithic works, see: Ivory Carvings: Swabian Jura (c.33,000 BCE) and Venus Figurines. The latter include the Venuses of Kostenky (c.30,000 BCE), Willendorf (c.25,000 BCE) and Brassempouy (c.23,000 BCE), among others.

• For the origins of painting and sculpture, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.


ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE ART
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