Franco-Cantabrian Cave Art
Characteristics, Types, Origins of Paleolithic Parietal Art in France and Spain.

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Painting of a Bison (c.15,000 BCE)
Altamira Cave, Cantabria, Spain.

Cave Painting in "Hall of the Bulls"
at Lascaux (c.17,000 BCE).

Franco-Cantabrian Cave Art (40,000-10,000 BCE)


Origins of Franco-Cantabrian Cave Art
The Discovery of Altamira
Types of Franco-Cantabrian Art
The First Appearance of Colour
Using Natural Cave Contours
Pictorial Creation
Lascaux Cave: Gesture and Movement
The Use of Myth
The Function and Symbolism of Abstract Signs
Household Mobiliary Art
Stone Friezes
Realism and Paleolithic Compositions
Superpositions and Organic Figures
Synthetic Figures
Disappearance of the Franco-Cantabrian Sanctuaries
Sites of Prehistoric Art in Cantabria
Sites of Prehistoric Art in Southern France


This article examines the characteristics and development of cave art within the Franco-Cantabrian region (also known as Franco-Cantabric region). This zone includes the southern half of France, especially the Dordogne and Pyrenees area of southwest France, and the northern coastal strip of Spain including Asturias, Cantabria and northern Catalonia. Paleolithic art from the Franco-Cantabrian area shows a high degree of homogeneity, a reflection of the fact that the area had a bearable climate and, as a result, a relatively dense population. (Note: The total world population at this time was less than 5 million people - or less than half the current population of London, and life expectancy was around 32 years.) In addition, where appropriate, additional references are made to archeological sites in other areas of the world.

The Stone Age art in France and Spain that we examine, includes: primitive forms of self-expression, such as finger markings and handprints; cave murals, featuring paintings and engraved drawings; deeper engravings including some relief sculpture; a few examples of household mobiliary art. In addition, additional references are made to other types of art, that would normally lie outside the scope of this article.

The time period involved is the Upper Paleolithic - roughly 40,000-10,000 BCE. It was this period that witnessed the artistic explosion in prehistoric art triggered by the arrival of anatomically modern humans in Europe: a creative revolution that - in the absence of contemporaneous artworks from other areas - continues to define the evolution of early human culture. Although the caves (as opposed to mere rock shelters) in which Stone Age artists worked are often described as being "decorated" with murals and the like, it is important to note that the vast majority were not used by ordinary people for domestic habitation, but by an elite few for ceremonial purposes only.

NOTE: For the evolution of artistic activity in the Franco-Cantabrian region, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).

NOTE: For the earliest artworks, see: Oldest Stone Age Art.



Origins of Franco-Cantabrian Cave Art

It is probable that man first began using paint to decorate the human skin. In a very old South African site fragments of red ochre were discovered which were used for body painting and for face painting as well as the marking of domestic items. (See Blombos Cave Art.) Indeed, excavations of floor deposits in numerous very ancient rock shelters around the world - well before the advent of cave painting - have disclosed huge quantities of red ochre paint pigments, indicating that a great deal of painting was taking place well before it metamorphosed into "art".

Even so, prehistoric painting has a long history spread over the thousands of years which preceded the epoch of cave painting in Europe, which are not more than forty thousand or so, years old. And it is to men like ourselves, "Homo sapiens", that we owe this pictorial art.

It began about 40,000 years ago when these men appeared in Europe, probably coming from Africa and the Middle East. Gradually they eliminated or absorbed Neanderthal Man who from the beginning of the last Ice Age, about 70,000 years ago, had occupied our Continent. Neanderthal men were of various types, sometimes quite similar to us physically. They have left in certain parts where they lived, fragments of coloured objects, little plaques carrying traces of painting, perforated bones and geometrically engraved horns. It is thus very probable that a certain number of them painted and engraved. It is also known that they celebrated rites in the caves and that they buried their dead with objects that probably had a religious significance. See also the Neanderthal engraving at Gorham's Cave (37,000 BCE) in Gibraltar.

It is evident that cave art is the work of many generations. It can be established that wall painting arose at the final period of the last Ice Age, after which the climate of western Europe, still very different from ours, improved. But during the course of thousands of years of prehistoric art there were numerous changes in climate; during the last 20,000 years western Europe has undergone six principal climatic phases.

Prehistoric artists lived in a Europe dominated by the Steppe, where forests were not widespread, where the winters were rigorous, and the summers relatively mild, that is to say in a climate analogous to certain parts of Siberia today.

Herds of great mammals wandered the plains and valleys and were the means of life for men living in small scattered groups. These species also changed considerably. Some became rarer - thus the mammoth, the cave bear and the long haired rhinoceros disappeared before the end of Paleolithic art.

The Discovery of Altamira

Until the beginning of the 20th century such confused and contradictory ideas about prehistoric art were held that even the idea of pictorial art going back thousands of years seemed absurd. The history of the discovery of the Altamira Cave is a good example.

In 1868 a hunter named Modesto Peres having seen his dog disappear into a hole, discovered a passage leading to a cave: Altamira! He went no further once his dog had reappeared, but he told his adventure to anyone who would listen: with no result. Ten years later, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, a land owner of the district on a visit to the Paris Exhibition, admired a collection of prehistoric objects - sharpened stones, engravings on bone, painted shields, and female statuettes. On returning to Spain, Sautuola remembered the story of the hunter and wondered if the cave of Altamira might not yield similar treasures. He therefore began to dig at the front and there found traces of human occupation, but it did not occur to him to examine the walls. It was his grand-daughter who drew his attention to them. She had in fact discovered the famous polychrome ceiling of bison and other animals in a composition of extraordinary movement and life: a masterpiece of Magdalenian art.

Sautuola made several sketches to send to Professor Vilanova of Madrid University. Vilanova came to Altamira. He thought the paintings very old. In 1880 in a letter to the Archeological Congress taking place in Lisbon he proposed, in vain, an exploration of the site, but in the face of the general lack of interest he did not press the matter.

However, during the last years of the 19th century discoveries in the caves of southwest France gave rise to new controversies about prehistoric art. The sceptics were numerous and their objections only slowly dispelled. It was necessary to wait till the archeologist and anthropologist Abbe Henri Breuil (1877-1961) and the Paleohistorian Emile Cartailhac (1845-1921) had extensively explored Altamira in 1906 for the existence of prehistoric wall painting to begin to be accepted.

Which are the areas where paleolithic paintings and engravings are found in Europe? First of all, the Franco-Cantabrian region: the basin of the Dordogne and its neighbourhood, part of the Charentes, a sub-Pyreneen zone which extends into the Cantabrian chain of northern Spain, and the southern site of Arcy-sur-Cure in the Yonne. Then there is the region which runs from Escoural in south Portugal to Nerja in eastern Malaga. One must also add, in the Castilles, two or three sites with decorated walls. Elsewhere in Europe there is little wall painting: traces in central Europe and Belgium, whilst in Italy there are a few decorated caves - Fumane Cave (35,000 BCE) in the Lessini Hills near Verona; Addaura Cave (11,000 BCE) near Monte Pellegrino; the caves of Grimaldi in Liguria; and the Romanelli grotto in Otranto.

Types of Franco-Cantabrian Art

Finger markings, like Robert Bednarik's "finger fluting" (see, for instance the aboriginal Koonalda Cave in Australia), or plain fingerprints (Cougnac Cave), are almost certainly the first manifestation of pictorial parietal art. After these first primitive attempts at drawing, or at least self-expression, we see the widespread appearance of hand stencils (see Cosquer Cave paintings), and the imprints of hands coated with colour used for body painting, and placed on the rocky walls. These handprints are found moreover in all the periods of wall painting and it is curious to note that they often have a finger or phalanx missing. It is known to-day that among certain peoples (the Dani of New Guinea and the African hunter-gatherer Khoekhoe people) there exists the custom of cutting off a phalanx or finger to denote mourning or as a ritualistic sacrifice, although current opinion on this matter is that these disfigured hands were caused by disease. For more, see: Gargas Cave hand stencils (c.25,000 BCE).

The bulk of all Stone Age cave painting and engraving occurred during the period 30-10,000 BCE, reaching its apogee during the era of Magdalenian art, in the Franco-Cantabrian region. Although new discoveries can appear at any time, the finest achievements are acknowledged to be: the monochrome Chauvet Cave paintings (30,000 BCE); the Lascaux Cave paintings (17,000 BCE); and the Altamira Cave paintings (c.15,000 BCE) with their glorious representations of polychrome bison. Other important sites from the Magdalenian include: the Rouffignac Cave ("Cave of the hundred mammoths") (14,000-12,000 BCE), the Font-de-Gaume Cave (14,000 BCE); and Les Combarelles Cave (12,000 BCE).

The evidence shows that in the subterranean sanctuaries where this painting was created, human habitation was restricted to a tiny handful of artists and others, indicating that the art was not created for public consumption but, instead, as part of a religious or shamanistic ceremony.

Around 10,000 BCE, the glaciers of the north began to disappear and forests soon covered the steppes. A milder more humid temperature succeeded the rigorous cold as the ice retreated northwards taking with it the huge herds of reindeer upon which Stone Age hunter-gatherers had relied for all their necessities. Most significant of all, humans abandoned their caves and built new dwelling places on the shores of lakes, rivers and the sea. Thus ended the mysterious but magnificent era of prehistoric parietal art - a creative sequence that chronicled the evolution of human expression from primitive finger mark to dazzling large scale compositions, many of which remain undiscovered in silent darkness, deep underground.

Franco-Cantabrian Painting

Because of our ignorance of prehistoric peoples' social structure, we can date the principal periods of evolution only by accepting a classification system based on techniques of which we have material proof.

Apart from various types of tools and arms which have come down to us (valuable indications of how humanity lived at the time), certain kinds of transport, beliefs and the first signs of artistic activity help us to distinguish the different primitive humanities.

A first group, the "predatory" peoples, lived by hunting, berry-picking and fishing - nomads who gradually improved their arms and tools, and developed a highly expressive and skilled art. They belonged to Paleolithic humanity. A second group, the "producers", invented agriculture; they reared and domesticated animals, built and settled in villages, developed institutions, beliefs and techniques. They belonged to Neolithic humanity (for more, please see: Neolithic Art.)

As time passes, we tend to draw our conclusions more from the evidence of cultural activities than from the morphological evolution of tools. However, we still lack data on certain phenomena, and cannot entirely disregard the first chronologies established at the beginning of the century. On the other hand, we know know that the history of humanity is not continuous, that a uniform development of technique throughout the world did not exist; and that classification systems used for the prehistory of western Europe cannot be systematically applied to other continents. For the European Upper Paleolithic, the most recent chronology extends from Aurignacian, via Gravettian and Solutrean to the Magdalenian, and a number of sub-divisions; it is concerned with Spain and France, above all with the Franco-Cantabrian area. At present, owing to the richness of the sites, the high aesthetic quality of the finds in them, and their excellent state of preservation, these places alone can provide material for a synthetic sketch. Elsewhere, the chronologies are different.

NOTE: The first chronology of Franco-Cantabrian cave art was proposed by the archeologist Andre Leroi-Gourhan (1911-86). Based on a detailed comparison of parietal art from different sites, it associated four "styles" of painting/engraving with four different chronological periods: Style I, covered the Aurignacian and Early Gravettian (c.30,000- 25,000 BCE); Style II, covered the remainder of the Gravettian and the Early Solutrean (c.24,000-19,000 BCE); Style III, covered the Solutrean and the Early Magdalenian (c.18,000-14,000 BCE); Style IV, covered the rest of the Magdalenian (c.13,000- 10,000 BCE). Recent research, however, has cast doubt on this timeline, as new archeological finds and new dating methods prove that modern man began creating art earlier than Leroi-Gourhan believed. The El Castillo Cave paintings (39,000 BCE) and the anthropomorphic Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel (38,000 BCE), for instance, show that the earliest art in European caves was produced almost ten thousand years earlier than originally thought.

The shape of a Levalloisian flake, an Acheulean hand-axe, the shape of an Aurignacian blade, or the flaking of the Solutrean period cannot reveal the foundations of a society; however the study of painted subterranean sanctuaries enables us to glimpse an entire elaborated system of thought, the social relationships implied and the existence of a culture.

Before painting or expressing himself through the medium of mineral colouring, man left his traces and printed his mark - the only indications he has left of intellectual activity. The tools of the early hominids bear witness to constant efforts both formal and functional. Later, the "stone figures", flint nodules formed by natural causes, as well as shells, perforated teeth or fragments of bone, objects of veneration or ornament, reveal magical activity, as if they indicated an obscure need for creation.

NOTE: For contemporaneous Paleolithic cave painting in Asia, please see: Sulawesi Cave Art (Indonesia) (c.37,900 BCE).

Franco-Cantabrian Engraving

We know that during the Upper Paleolithic period, about 40,000 years before our era, during the last glaciation, when Homo sapiens succeeded Neanderthal man, revolutionizing tools and arms by the use of flint blades (scrapers, knives, awls), the first collections of cuttings appear on bones and plaques. Whether they were of a practical nature, magical or simply decorative, these repeated incisions reveal through the period of Aurignacian art evidence of conscious artistic activity. When man engraved them, he was no doubt trying to recapture and deliberately recreate the traces of an animal sharpening its claws on stone, or those of his hand on the clay walls of the caves. Whether through imitation or mimicry, he produced in these fragments of bone which are cut, crenellated or in dotted design, apart from experiment in the technique of engraving, the outline of a still unformulated decoration, above all, the objective desire to achieve a form of visual expression.

Although this manner of portrayal was rough and imprecise, it succeeded in achieving, during the Aurignacian period, the schematic line of the heads or the front parts of animals. These rock engravings - which were found at La Ferrassie Cave in the Perigord region; at Isturitz in the French Basque area of the Basses-Pyrenees; and in the Bernous Cave north of Bourdeilles; and among the Abri Castanet Engravings from Sergeac, also in the Dordogne - reveal some of the most ancient engraved and painted figurative compositions we know. One should note at the outset that a certain number have a purely symbolic character; in particular, the presence of the vulva (vagina) adjacent to pictures of animals emphasizes the sexual aspect of this symbolism, connected doubtless with some fecundity cult (Abri Castanet). This association of the female element with the animal, implying probably the early beginnings of religion, appears often during the Paleolithic period in wall painting art.

Painting and engraving are found simultaneously, sometimes on the same site. We should therefore study them with equal attention, not only because many incised figures have been painted, and still bear the traces of colour; but also because engraving (essentially graphical before becoming, through the relief and bas-relief, a form of extended prehistoric sculpture) starts in a space and area similar to that of painting. They arose and developed together, but engraving, by exploiting the possibilities of a material, broke new ground, with a means of expression later to be adopted by painting. In engraving, lie the sources of painting.

While colour at the outset is frequently confined to blobs or patches, to uncertain finger tracings as if in soft clay, engraving in stone, bone or reindeer-antler reveals a greater technical assurance, combined with a desire to dominate and explain the nature of the world by employing its materials. We cannot tell with certainty if painting and engraving were regarded as two separate kinds of activity; nevertheless, it appears probable that engraving on an object, or on a wall, continually stimulated wall painting, but without ever achieving its fullness or lyrical quality.

This stimulatory quality of engraving beginning with Gravettian art (c.25,000 BCE) yields many and varied results. It is found on a piece of shale in the Pechialet Cave, in the simplicity of the line depicting a bear standing between two men, as well as in the linear entanglement of superposed animal figures which cover the pebbles of the Colombiere shelter. In another domain, the same experimental and expressive intensity is to be found in a pebble in Laugerie-Haute near Eyzies. Here the gradations of scratches, the sharpness and firmness with which the surface is attacked, cannot be explained as decorative in intention, but by a determination to enliven the surface, to alter the appearance of the material, to create a rhythm, a certain "colour", all due exclusively to the act of engraving.

The First Appearance of Colour

It was during this period, in the first sanctuaries near the light of day, that the hand of man is found on the rocks. It was placed on a flat wall and then its outline was traced with some coloured matter. These coloured prints delight us, as much as they mystify us. We understand neither their uncertain shape nor their meaning; they are no more than vaguely anthropometric evidence, at the most signatures. They must not be confused with stencilled images of hands, in black or red - formed by blowing liquid pigment (through hollow tubes) over the hands onto the wall, after the manner of Australian aborigines. These hand stencils also gave man the illusion that he could create. His recognition of colour was no longer passive, as when he placed his red ochre-stained fingers on the rock to trace involuted and winding designs, but active and, to a certain degree, consciously directed. He increased the colour, placing it carefully and no longer confining it to the outlines of the hand but to the rocky material of the stone; he even drew an image of some kind. If he had not yet reached through colour a form of expression as rich as that of engraving, he appears to have discovered an original new language.

NOTE: For details of the colours and types of colour pigments used by Stone Age artists, see: Prehistoric Colour Palette.

By varying the traceries of his own hand, he gradually began to outline figures, drawing a picture of the world around him. His awkwardness seems less important to us today than the freshness of this first impression; the figures he drew delight us less on account of his only partially successful attempt at depicting reality, but for his conscious intention of expressing himself in terms of that reality. The animals painted on the stone blocks of El Parpallo Cave, on the coast of Valencia in Spain, are clumsy daubs, if we judge them by the normal criteria of "beauty". In fact, they possess a certain freedom in their awkwardness, allowing us to follow the variations of line, less concerned with modelling a shape than with enclosing a space. Another painting on a block of stone, the deer spreading his antlers in the Labatut shelter (Sergeac, Dordogne), gives an even greater feeling of this conquest of space; this is primarily due to the drawing, which is bursting with life.

Repetition is already rare, due entirely it appears to chance or a particular difficulty. In spite of the problems of the surface, of which the artist attempted to take advantage, he felt the need of a greater graphic continuity. Finger tracings or scratchings were no longer enough for him. Engraving once again shows its experimental nature; apart from certain heavy incisions in the rock, such as those at Belcayre (Thonac, Dordogne) it is less hesitating than painting, and seldom abandons the course it has set itself. In the bison of La Greze (Marquay, Dordogne), for example, the deeply incised line is precise and powerful, drawn in one movement with no attempt at hiding its artificiality. Nothing appears to hinder or distract the artist when he attempts the stronger, more varied engraving of the delicate dorsal line in the Pair-non-Pair Cave (Gironde), and which henceforth enlivens most of the animal figures in the Franco-Cantabrian world.

The horse, the ox, the ibex, the mammoth, the feline, the bison, are never the subject of a description or an anecdote, but the movement of their bodies are graphically seized, as if to symbolize their whole lives. Man knows that he wants. He deliberately sacrifices the details of his subject, having no intention of copying from nature. From each subject he elaborates his own vision, his own way of expressing himself and depicting the world.

It was at first believed that most of these creations, isolated or simply juxtaposed, had no organic link; but recent research has shown that they are connected, and should be regarded as a whole. The petroglyphs disposed at intervals along the corridor of the Croze-a-Gontran (Eyzies, Dordogne), influence one another as they unfold. The set of engravings opens and closes with signs, or rather with a set of delicate rapid incisions, haphazardly placed. Apart from certain indeterminate animals, they include a central group of horses and bovids placed between a mammoth and an ibex. It is perhaps too early to speak of composition; but it is true to say that, from the later Gravettian, we are aware of a definite theme running through the work.

Using Natural Cave Contours

The intrinsic qualities of engraving tell us towards what goal that art was aspiring. While engraving on bone or reindeer-antler, is exclusively graphic, incisive, dominated by a constant desire for a diagram, wall-engraving is notable from the outset for its attempt to discover the gradations between the actual incision and the form of the rock. The artist, addressing himself to the wall surface, is aware that he is working in a tangible, a living material; he therefore takes advantage of the slightest flaws, of the hollows, influences whose effect cannot be foreseen. He attempts less to outline a figure, to set down its contours, than to let the form or shape flourish on its own flush with the surface of the rock. This invention of natural "passages", this altering of the surface by the act of engraving, is the forerunner of an essentially pictorial technique.

Our estimate of Paleolithic art would therefore be wrong if we attempted to associate most of the reliefs and bas-reliefs created directly by engraving, by following the surface of the walls, to sculpture. Interpretation of this work, which is both self-confident and skilled, is difficult in the blocks of stone at Laussel, particularly in that of the Venus of Laussel with horns. Here it appears that the artist, through the act of engraving, confident in his use of material, suddenly began to hollow out the stone, thereby producing shapes.

The means employed, although based on engraving, are not necessarily sculptural - in the same way that certain light tracings of red ochre do not mean that the artist was attempting to paint a picture. We must go beyond conventional analysis and approach things from a more modern angle. What impresses us most, apart from the crudity of this Laussel figure holding what appears to be a bison's horn in an allegorical gesture, is the feeling of space. The figure is not detached from the rock, but is an intimate part of it; and it is this which gives it life. The deep and varied incision altering the surface of the stone, gives it a life of its own. The stone accentuates the broad flanks of the woman, and she stands out sharply from the rock surface.

In the same way, any comparison between the relief of Laussel and the many feminine statuettes, generally called "Venus Figurines", appears unjustified. Although they are no longer considered Aurignacian (most of them are Gravettian), the fact that their female characteristics are exaggerated alone justifies any connection with a fertility symbol. On the other hand, the space connected with the embossment has nothing to do with the relief, nor with an act of creation common to both. Both the Venus of Lespugue and the Venus of Willendorf escape from their material, and become part of a space we understand; but the Laussel relief is unconnected with sculpture, the result of an expressive use of the material in which it is bedded and its formation. The result is that the space is exclusively visual, hollowed out like a colour under the action of the engraving.

During the period of Solutrean art (c.20,000 BCE) engraving became more precise. The spearheads and perforated bones are now covered with geometrical designs; this graphic character is finally seen in the stylisation of the feminine body in the ivory carving of a mammoth from Predmost (Moravia, Czech Republic), which is full of scratchings, chevrons, triangles, concentric curves and ovals. During the Gravettian, engraving on blocks or walls stopped being only graphic, taking advantage of the configuration of the rock to shape its own space and produce its own light and shadow.

The engraved stone blocks at Roc-de-Sers Cave (17,200 BCE) - the basic benchmark for Solutrean sculpture in France - illustrate the point to perfection. They reveal a remarkable band of moving animals - a bull charging a small man, pregnant mares, a mythical creature with a bison's body and the groins of a wild boar, two ibex charging one another. Meanwhile the block of stone at Fourneau-du-Diable, Bourdeilles, is equally imposing, although its impact is less due to the violent movement, but to the intense animation of the heavy static masses which communicate the internal power of its composition. Flush on the rock, a bull and a cow are superposed, becoming a part of the space, which they immediately transform. The space becomes a landscape of coarse stone, open to the play of light.

Rock is never neutral; as the artist works it, he uses its collaboration. He accepts it as it is, hard or soft, smooth or rough, taking advantage of its defects as well as its help, causing its expressive possibilities to work for him. Nor is this transformation of the material without its effect on the artist. His creative impulse increases as he discovers and reinvents, the natural shapes. The more we examine the rock art of Roc-de-Sers, Bourdeilles, and Laussel, the more we understand the feelings of the painter, his chromatic treatment of material, his organic sense of space.

Wall painting did not evolve in the same definite way. For long dominated by finger tracings and hand imprints, it took time to modulate its own line, before rendering its shapes more subtle, reproducing movement and using the rich experience of engraving. Colour played only a secondary or subjective role, confining itself to the delimitation of contours. Not until the Early Magdalenian period did it take possession of the stone in the caves, developing its own language, in conformity with its own technique and requirements.


Pictorial Creation

After about 15,000 BCE, the caves of Las Chimeneas (Santander, Spain), Gabillou (Dordogne) and Ebbou (Ardeche) reveal this slow movement towards pictorial creation, of which Cougnac (Lot) and Pech-Merle (Lot) are a definite stage. At Cougnac, the distribution of the great red figures follows the lay-out of the surroundings, using the whitened and irregular surface of the stalactite halls. The deer, moose, and mammoths enclose within their profile ibex, and men transfixed by spears whose mythical character is undoubted. But this symbolism is not limited to any given figure; its influence is spread to different compositions on the site, in association with the signs, and figures. In any given group, it is still hard to determine the exact meaning.

One of the designs of Pech-Merle is more decipherable. It combines, in a small room on the same panel, figures deriving from a bison, a mammoth and a woman. There is no attempt at decoration, and they are closely associated by a double movement at once both graphic and symbolic. They both share the same supple, precise, continuous line and reveal an identical thought. In fact, it is this common line shared by all of them which makes the shape of the bisons and the women if not similar, at least closely related. Nothing could be simpler, yet at the same time more elaborate, than the self-possessed profile of this female leaning forward, the movement of whose breasts is superimposed in a manner as graphic as it is sensuous.

At Pech-Merle, with its animated hand stencils in black and red ochre, painting has become an act of incantation, by which man inaugurates the series of great theatrical sanctuaries, in a gesture celebrating the Universe. Powerful mammoths stand along the walls, traced with a firm hand in black; but they are not depicted-by simple contours enclosed in silhouettes; the line is hachured, brief, rhythmical. With a few rapid lines he seizes the outline of a cow, but he uses complicated hachuring in his portraits of the mammoths, widening the gap between them, or closing it in order to illuminate or obscure them. Although the line seems to be pencilled, it already contains colour. What delights us most is the speed of his composition, the energy in a hand determined to create.

The man who achieves this is never made prisoner by reality. We recognise today that a certain clumsiness in the hypothetical "naturalism" of Paleolithic art is the expression of a reality which is more complex than we suppose. The mammoths of Pech-Merle are not described; nor are they sketches for a more elaborate work. Their deliberate simplicity, their terrifying, ghostly appearance, is a part of their nature as mythical creatures; they are the projection of man's thought. In the same way, in the imposing allegory of two "Dappled Horses", there is no "realism" in the strict sense of the term, but the invocation of a myth. Partly superposed and turned, one to the right, the other to the left, the two horses are powerfully drawn, their bodies speckled with great black points which reverberate irregularly around them. The mane and the withers, painted in black, blend together, while the hands "in reserve" frame them, "freezing" them in space. Everything tends to intensify the conventional quality of the composition, and the esoteric nature of the subject, which is emphasised by a big fish painted in red on the right-hand horse, and which is only just visible.

For the man of the Ice Age, as for us today, the act of painting appears to be essentially a refusal of pretence. Reality takes form through the myths, as does an active participation in creation.

Lascaux Cave: Gesture and Movement

Lascaux (Dordogne), one of the great centres of parietal art in the history of humanity, reveals the measureless creative power of man faced by nature. (For details, see: Lascaux Cave Paintings.) Of all the painted caves yet known, Lascaux possesses undoubtedly the richest collection of works of art. Here we are aware of that great privileged moment when colour found its expression, accentuating and diversifying its melodic line, without however reaching polychromy. Supporting the engraving or modifying the drawing of the shapes, it passes from black to brown, from ochre to yellow, turning sometimes to violet red or mauve with the influence of time and natural phenomena.

The impressive movement which gave life to the vast rock compositions of Lascaux was determined by the shape of the rooms, galleries and alcoves. There was never any question of decoration, of arbitrary occupation of available emplacements, but rather of extolling the places - and this confirms a religious intention. As soon as we enter the Hall of the Bulls, we are struck by the headlong movement of these animals. About a hundred animal figures, whose dimensions vary'from nine inches to fifteen feet, unfold in precipitous flight. The smallest, probably the oldest, are no more than shadows, spots of colour on the wall; the others are full of lustre and vigour in their gallop. They are dominated by four enormous bulls, of which the biggest measures five and a half metres in length; although we are conscious of their enormous bulk, the general unity remains. Freed of their weight, their trembling masses seem impelled into the air, in a continuous conquest of space, revealing the impulsive force of man's first truly pictorial gesture.

The bulls of Lascaux have a monumental grandeur which is not only due to their scale, exceeding that of all other examples of Franco-Cantabrian art. Through their impulsive movement, they seem to inhabit the wall, the texture of the stone; they are superposed on several moving figures, in varying proportions, which absorb them into their own space. Between the two bulls facing one another a group of stags can be distinguished, leaping and flaunting their horns, the dark red becoming indistinct in a background where a dark horse can be seen. Elsewhere, other horses with flowing manes, gallop about with brown cows, introducing new rhythms into the composition.

In the neighbouring halls and corridors are other painted or engraved figures of deer, ibex, bovids, horses, coloured with black, ochre or dark brown by the finger of man, his brush or his saliva. There are bisons whose heavy mass seem to stand out from the wall; but in no other place is the lyrical inspiration which gives the hall of the Bulls its great majesty to be found. If the meaning of this highly coloured troop of animals is still uncertain, we should not underestimate the fantastic creature with long pointed horns in front, a figure considered by some to be a masked man, by others a unicorn. It is more likely a mythical incarnation, which is at the base of the whole composition.

There is a strange painting in the lower gallery at Lascaux. It shows a man with the head of a bird, his sex emphasised, lying on the floor in front of a bison; the animal has been transfixed by a spear and has lost its entrails. In the foreground, a bird is perched on a stick planted in the ground, while a two-horned rhinocerous is leaving the group. This has been interpreted as a hunting drama, the man being identified as a hunter wearing the mask of a bird, a totem sign found again in a stick signifying a funeral post. Other commentators have seen in this no more than a human stylisation beside a wounded bison; they regard the stick as a simple spear-thrower, carved in the form of a bird, of which there are many examples.

The Use of Myth in Franco-Cantabrian Cave Art

Ridding ourselves of all picturesque notions, it appears difficult not to admit here, even more than in the case of the female bisons of Pech-Merle, the intervention of mythical creatures in the midst of symbolical themes. We must free ourselves quickly from any notion limiting the significance of these pictures, or regarding them as no more than exercises in magic, a sort of wishful thinking.

The fertile body of the Venus of Laussel, the feminine figures of Pech-Merle, whose graphical variations are interwoven with those of the bisons, the fabulous animal in the Hall of the Bulls, the wounded bison of Lascaux, belong to a conception of the world in keeping with the cultures which have created them. The themes of the artists in the reindeer age reflect less the anecdotes of their daily life, than their system of thought; less, their habitual beliefs than the cultural basis of their spiritual feelings, and of the society in which they live. Their creations are not the remains of magical and ultilitarian operations; they regard hunting as no more than the means of social communication; on the contrary, they tend, by using this common language, to increase the presence of the myth by conferring an aspect of reality on it.

Most of the themes dealt with are not therefore derived from the magic of the hunt, or very rarely, but from the opposition between destruction and fertility. On this subject, Andre Leroi-Gourhan rightly says that "fecundity and destruction are not incompatible; a metaphysical conception of birth and death are to be found behind every figurative group - something so common to all religions as to appear banal." From this point of view, a vast composition as complex and many-sided as that of the hall of the Bulls takes on all its symbolical sense, and reveals the sacred nature of the cave.

At Lascaux, as in all the caves containing paintings and engravings, we have as yet found no trace of religious ceremonies which the Paleolithic hunters could have celebrated here. Only the systematic excavations at the foot of the wall revealed material evidence of these rites, of which up to now we possess only intuitive knowledge. On the other hand we know that these caves were never occupied and, if we judge by the foot-imprints in the earth, nothing would indicate these places for cults had been regularly visited by numbers of people.

The paintings and engravings are neither passive nor commemorative, but have a social significance, part of group life, on which they comment while possessing their own intrinsic qualities. We should not consider the walls of these sanctuaries as hunting notebooks, nor as logbooks for men of the Old Stone Age.

All interpretations proposed since the beginning of the century - of the ritual image of magical ceremonies, or totemic initiations, or attempts to relate the savages living today with them morphologically or culturally - are singularly lacking in daring. They are generally confined to conceding some magical activity to Paleolithic man, even a religious activity, by carefully emphasising the "savage" aspect of his behaviour; but they refuse him an essential factor, the ability to think and to act which he had conquered from nature, to develop his powers and make his presence felt.

The Function and Symbolism of Abstract Signs

We must first learn to look at the painted or engraved rocks of the sanctuaries of prehistory properly, then to decipher their figures and compositions one by one, before being able to interpret their melodic line in all its meaning. It is at this point that the abstract signs intervene, still considered today as a phase of evolution leading to the supposed "realism" of the archaic figures, towards an increasing schematisation, ending in the alphabet signs of the Azilian pebbles. In fact, Paleolithic art did not evolve from realism to abstraction as certain people like to think, but from a period of research and experiment to a period in which man's desire for self-expression is seen, before he declines into decadence, to gradually disappear as the culture which created him disappears. The painted signs of Mas-d'Azil do not mark the "degeneration" of art in the Ice Age, but with their original symbolism, they inaugurate a new kind of art.

During the Upper Paleolithic period, these signs are continually appearing, notable for their graphic variety. From the Aurignacian vulvas, the stencilled hands, up to the "abstract" signs and the wounds of the Magdalenian, these pictographs are extremely common in the sanctuaries, outnumbering figurative images by more than 2:1. They are probably connected with an extremely complex system of punctuation, introducing and putting an end to a group of figures, or isolating them. The signs known as "abstract" are those which, paradoxically, have given rise to the greatest number of ingenious interpretations, inspired by the desire of finding an anecdotic sense in the paintings. They have been classed as tectiforms, pectiniforms, scaleriforms, and claviforms, and their commentators have discovered in them snares, hunting nets, weapons, enclosures, huts, even coats of arms.

Deriving largely from masculine and feminine paintings, these signs are part of a sexual symbolism; they are sometimes found coupled together, more often with animal figures. At first sight their role does not seem essential, but a more thorough analysis enables them to be situated in the evolution of the compositions, and enables us to understand why they are there. Thus, there is a relationship between the assegai and the male sign, between the female sign and the wound, in such a way that wounded animals sometimes replace animals accompanied by signs. This relationship implies a complete revision of our ideas about wall painting in the Paleolithic period; it removes all notion of the voodoo of wild game depicted by "magic" figures, and confirms the mythical nature of the works, their extremely elaborated form of expression.

Household Mobiliary Art

The artist's mastery becomes evident towards 12,000 BCE, in the decoration of objects of household mobiliary art - an invention which flourished during the Middle Magdalenian period. The spearheads are covered with a geometrical decor, the harpoons with one or two rows of spikes, the hunting spears are made of reindeer or red horn, as are the spatulae, and pendants are made of stone or bony matter. In this abundant production a place apart must be reserved for the perforated bones, and for the spear-throwers which, without losing their functional qualities, reveal the creative ability of the artist-hunter.

Considered at first as a sceptre of rank, the perforated bone (in which some people today see a phallic allusion) was probably used after the manner of the modern straightener for arrows of the Eskimos, in a movement similar to that of a screw-spanner. Combining animal figures with geometrical decoration, these perforated bones discovered in the caves of Laugerie-Basse (Eyzies), Arudy (Basses-Pyrenees), Gourdan (Lot), La Madeleine (Dordogne), Bruniquet (Tarn-et-Garonne), Le Portel (Ariege), Isturitz (Basses-Pyrenees), El Castillo (Cantabria, Spain), are delicately engraved in a most imaginative way. We may sometimes be tempted to associate the spear-throwers found in the same places with sculpture because they seem to have such a sculptural shape; but a careful examination reveals that many are not rounded. We then observe a flattening of the animal's volume, a graphical translation of his shape and posture, relating him closely to figures with well cut contours. The bison turning his head from the cave of La Madeleine is an example, the incision shallow, the muzzle depicted in light relief, giving an effect of depth without destroying the unity of the whole. For the same reason, the artist is careful to depict only one side of the head.

While these perforated bones and spearthrowers are covered with motifs which can be related directly to wall painting, the strange semi-round wands have a very individual form of decor. We still do not know if the pronounced scratches which cover their flat face have a purely mechanical purpose, but the geometric decoration which enlivens their convex face, and particularly the subtle curvilinear relief of the wands from Lourdes (Hautes-Pyrenees) and D'Arudy, are evidence of a real desire to create something.

We again see animal figures, combined sometimes with human figures, on engraved or painted plaques, pebbles, fragments of bone or stone found at the foot of the sanctuary walls. The entanglement of their lines, making them frequently difficult to decipher, the more scratched than incised appearance of their engraving, have been interpreted in the most fanciful ways. Some people claim that these small plaques are "sketching pages" of some kind, for use with vast rock compositions, even the exercises of students under the direction of a master. Some authors have even claimed that at Limeuil (Dordogne), as at Parpallo (Valencia, Spain) and elsewhere, there were real "studios of prehistoric art". Bearing in mind the importance given to graphic research, there may well be "studios"; for there are remarkable similarities of theme between most of these small plaques and the great wall painting groups, in particular those associating the horse and the bison. If these are "studies", then they were undertaken by the artists themselves. But their great freedom in draughtsmanship, their repeated superpositions (even to the point of becoming inextricably confused), indicates that they were not produced gratuitously, but with a specific intention, implying a desire for repetition rather than obliteration. It would seem therefore that because of the quantity and variety of these figures, the small plaques have an essential votive purpose.

Stone Friezes

This dazzling technique, displayed in objects of household art, appeared in all sections of artistic production during the Middle Magdalenian period; paintings, engravings and reliefs reached their highest development.

Thus, the great monumental frieze of the Cap-Blanc shelter (Dordogne) with its seven horses, accompanied by three bovids and two bisons, unrolling in a magnificent relief on a dozen metres of wall, is a repetition of the stone modulation, and the space used at Roc-de-Ser, Bourdeilles. The two feminine figures of the La Madeleine cave which stand out slightly from the rock are equally significant. Nude, half-reclining, the upper part of the body supported on an arm, they are symmetrically disposed, one on the right, the other on the left; the shapes are supple and lively, well illuminated, and still after the passage of the millennia, full of sensuality. But it is undoubtedly the many reliefs of Angles-sur-l'Anglin (Roc-aux-Sorciers Cave) (Vienne) which confirm the expressive maturity of this art. Combined with bisons, the feminine silhouettes, representing half the body, nude, upright, slender as at La Madeleine, emerge from the stone, with emphasis on the belly, the pubic area, and the sensually treated thighs. With superb technical assurance, the horses, bisons, and ibex move along the whole extent of the stone, becoming part of its material, even surpassing the splendours of the Solutrean period. Moreover, the traces of colours which they retain prove that relief, by its modelling of surfaces, its use of gaps caused directly by the engraving, is the proper experimental field for pictorial purposes. One of the reliefs at Angles-sur-l'Anglin, a human bust, gives an effect of polychrome, thanks to the subtleties of the black and ochre. If we rely on these painted reliefs, the various spots found on those of Laussel, Roc-de-Sers, Bourdeilles, Cap-Blanc and on the wild horses of the Chaire-a-Calvin at Mouthiers (Charente) appear less enigmatic.

As for engraving, the extreme graphic complexity of the innumerable small Magdalenian plaques is on a different scale; they invade the walls of the Combarelles Cave (Les Eyzies de Tayac, Dordogne) with even more incisions, a greater variety of figures, and reveal free artistic activity. Among several hundred figures, there are oxen, ibex, reindeer, bears, deer, mammoths, lions, rhinoceroses and above all, many kinds of horses, bisons and anthropomorphic figures. At first sight, they were considered as sketches, and their confused scratchings as proof of a clumsiness in dominating the subject; but a detailed examination reveals that several engraving techniques were used at Combarelles, and never in an arbitrary or haphazard way. The fine rock abrasions are followed by more pronounced scratches; the line becomes more distinct in the remoter parts of the gallery, although making no attempt to encircle the figures. On the contrary, it remains free, open, vital, thereby preserving all its liberty. Far from attempting to enclose a shape, it allows the shape to follow the close rhythms of the passages - a characteristic of the parietal engravings in Paleolithic sanctuaries - at the same time recreating the richly varied "colour", the expression of painters rather than sculptors.

Realism and Paleolithic Compositions

The question raised by the anthropomorphic figures is still answered in a variety of ways. Many authors, dominated by a naturalist conception of ancient art, are led astray by these figures, which seem to them the product of pure fantasy, or the anecdotal portrayal of an event or a cult. They too class them as hunters, dancers, or masked and disguised magicians, when they are in reality no more than "grotesques". But the reality of the reindeer age presupposes another kind of realism, permitting the artist to define for his fellows the system of thought on which the activity of the social group was founded and directed.

The interpretation of this realism has proved as difficult as that of the walls in Combarelles; but it would be superficial to deduce from it any disordered or instinctive expression, connected with the many needs and demands of hunting magic. Combarelles would then be no more than a huge stock of "voodoo" game, which would conceal the essential qualities of a sanctuary. In fact after the recent researches of Annette Laming-Emperaire (1917-77) and Leroi-Gourhan, we see at Combarelles, and elsewhere, that most of the superpositions of the engravings are due to a need for artistic expression, and are not intended to obliterate the earlier figures. They were carried out deliberately, simultaneously, with various techniques, in order to vary the effect of the incision. These engravings are distributed in an orderly manner; their confusion is only apparent. They are not only a part of the rock, deeply penetrating it while conforming to its idiosyncrasies - but the freeze unrolls according to the shape of the gallery, using the turnings as a full stop, or hiatus in the general disorder of the composition, grouping together the associated figures at the centre of a troop.

There are sanctuaries where themes follow one another, repeated according to a well determined programme. At Marsoulas (Haute-Garonne) where the colour hachuring attempts to translate the shape of certain animals by a graphic effect similar to that of engraving, the figures and signs increase; their relationship becomes more complicated as they get farther from the entrance, then become simplified and further apart as they approach the end of the cave. A similar phenomenon is found at Arcy-sur-Cure (Yonne), where the big mammoths of the central compositions emphasise the evolutionary character of this system of symbolic figures. The signs reappear frequently in the picture; rapid, closely massed, sometimes even obscure, they add expression to the picture.

In the same region, the caves of Labastide (Hautes-Pyrenees) and of Le Portel possess series of figures which are equally ordered; in particular the second, which with the exception of some archaic figures, appears to observe a rule in the distribution of bisons and horses, assembled respectively in different galleries. In other caves, the general plan is to separate two varieties of animals; here we may note the extremely symbolical juxtaposition, which is exceptional, of a bison and a horse wounded by an arrow. Lastly, it is not by chance, nor the result of some decorative fantasy, that at Le Portel near the galleries, but set back inside a small room, there is a kind of recapitulation picture of the principal figures, which control the composition of the sanctuary, accompanied by the punctuation of a set of signs.

In the same way at Rouffignac ("Cave of the Hundred Mammoths) (Dordogne), long trains of mammoths escorted by bisons, ibex, rhinoceroses, painted and incised horses, reveal the aesthetic preoccupations in which myth takes a dominating place; for instance, the procession in which two files of mammoths face one another, led by two males.


Superpositions and Organic Figures

However at Lascaux, as at Les Combarelles, the Paleolithic artist often shows his preference for more complex and ambitious means of portrayal. It is again in the Dordogne, at Les Eyzies, in the cave of Font de Gaume, at Niaux Cave (Ariege), and in the Trois Freres Cave (Hautes-Pyrenees), that themes and multiple superpositions, the richest in the whole of Magdalenian art, are discovered. To understand such works, those criteria which we have already shown to be without foundation must be avoided. We now know that most of these superpositions are not the result of an accumulation of figures over several epochs, that they played no part in the needs of the hunter. On the contrary they reveal the creative desire which obeys the particular demands of expression while partaking in a narrative, in the celebration of a myth. This is not only an aesthetic convention, an artifice of composition, but a principle of communication, a language reflecting the mythical or religious thought of a social group.

At Font-de-Gaume, among more than two hundred overlapping figures, is a herd of polychrome bison, whose red and brown masses are depicted by short and sharp incisions in the rock. A group of small mammoths, superficially engraved and coloured, full of life and crammed together, surround them. In spite of a different scale, changing the treatment of space, there is great unity of style in the two portraits, the result of a similar kind of drawing. Thus, the modulations of the dorsal line, common to both the bisons and mammoths, is used with the sole aim of creating a similar rhythm between them, a graphic concordance. It goes without saying that such a concordance implies others, more intimate and decipherable only with difficulty, of which we still perceive only the symbolical association of two species evidently united in a mythical space. But there can be no doubt that this manner of composition by superpositions cannot be read continuously, logically, or in a detailed manner, because its aim is to give a global view of the expressed action.

This search for an organic way of depicting figures, presupposing a coherent form of thought, is found again at Niaux, and at Les Trois Freres in a more elaborate form. At Niaux, where there is great similarity between the wall paintings and the engravings in the clay soil, the observer is struck by the highly effective manner in which this natural canvas is used. This creative work - and only true painters could have undertaken it - is well described by Annette Laming-Emperaire: "The rock has never been smoothed or prepared; it must be used as it is, a living natural canvas in which all its crevices, ridges, hollows, and the reliefs, far from embarrassing the artist have guided and inspired him."

It must have required extremely receptive painters to react to this so sincerely, in the definite manner which even today delights and fascinates us. No attempt is made to use polychromy, or coloured flat tints - an absence of colour which could not fail to blind the first commentators on the Niaux cave, so that they even described the principal hall by the term "black salon". It is true that black dominates, effective in its firm direct tracing, as incisive as an engraving, imprinting itself on the stone better than other colours; it appears to have been chosen essentially for these graphic qualities and the many possibilities of superposition. It is clear, simple, effective, and the scenes which it depicts can be immediately read. The lines are not concerned only with the figure which is drawn, but with the unity of the artist's inspiration as seen in the whole composition.

The "black salon" is not a thing apart; it belongs to the four groups which compose the sanctuary, repeating the central theme of the whole cave. The principal role in this theme is played by powerful bison, sometimes wounded by black or red arrows; ibex, deer, a lion, and especially horses are associated with them, have a part in their movement, initiating it or terminating it, without ever complying with the same plan. In spite of the clumsiness of the line, and its multiplicity, all these associations are harmoniously accomplished, organically, in a space where the shapes become lighter, purer and more transparent. This takes nothing from the monumental character of the composition which relies on the principles of superposition - to be found spread over the entire Franco-Cantabrian domain; one animal between the paws of another, some of them doubled up, one on top of the other, confused one with the other, facing one another, alternating. There is, moreover, at Niaux a recapitulation panel at the end, where all the elements of the theme are repeated, as well as the actors who people the walls of the sanctuary, and the graphical situations in which they take part.

The cave of the Trois Freres has equally varied superpositions, no less disciplined, although there is a certain lyrical quality in the groups. The animals are painted to different scales, yet related to one another. A troop of small bisons, for example, accompanied by ibex, deer, rhinoceroses, is placed above an enormous bison associated with a horse between his paws. Elsewhere in the deepest part of the cave, the composition is divided into three groups, each an individual unity, in which bison, horses and reindeer are preponderant, all dominated by the strange and celebrated figure of the "magician".

Synthetic Figures

This "magician" has been interpreted in a number of ways, most of which betray an inadequate view of Paleolithic realism. Attempts have been made to justify this anthropo-zoomorphic person, whose sex is clearly marked, by identifying him with a masked and disguised hunter, dancing or celebrating some magic cult. He has been described as a magician, but also as a great spirit, the god of hunting or fecundity.

We must go beyond these ideas of voodooism, and not always look for illustrated stories of the daily life of the Ice Age in the rock paintings. If we do not know how they are connected, or cannot follow the thread which explains them, or the ideology which inspires them, we nevertheless possess enough proofs of the social and cultural activity of Paleolithic humanity not to regard it and its artistic works only as something "curious". We must attempt to read these designs, to decipher them in their natural context.

In this way, Leroi-Gourhan considers the "magician" of the Trois Freres as a "synthetic" person, similar to the recapitulatory panels which end the groups of Niaux and of Le Portel, gathering together all the main characters of the principal theme. Combining painting and engraving, the human as well as the animal element, the "magician" takes on the various characteristics of the species which surround him: from the reindeer, he takes the antlers; from the bisons, the beard and the ears; from the horses, the tail and the movement of the bodies. He is therefore a composite figure, occupying a position which allows him to dominate the whole of the composition and the entire sanctuary, thereby displaying his holy quality. This is not the portrait of a masked dancer, whether a magician or not; but rather of a mythical creature, a supernatural being expressed by the means of a symbolism preceding from a general conception of the world, and whose effects are to be found again in the bearded person with the antlers and horse's tail, engraved on a small plaque at Lourdes.


At the boundaries of the Franco-Cantabrian expansion area in Spain, in the province of Santander, the Altamira Cave paintings rival those of Lascaux. Covering the vault of a relatively low and narrow room, the paintings have long been considered as independent of one another, although Altamira has been described as the Sistine Chapel of pre-history. But we have no need to compare the work with that of Michelangelo, to recognise the greatness of this sanctuary. About a hundred horses, stags, ibexes, wild boar, among other animals are distributed across the wall; while about twenty life-sized bisons project their brutal bulk into this swarming mass of shapes and colours, as if to petrify it.

The horns, the eyes, the nostrils and hoofs are often set in with a firmly incised line, and most of these animals possess a polychrome effect hitherto unknown in Paleolithic rock art, underlining the presence of highly contrasted flat tints of colour. The big figures particularly, while conceding nothing to naturalism, are powerfully modelled by the application in varied styles of red, yellow, brown and an extremely subtle and delicate rhythmical line. Moreover, to accentuate the modulation of the surfaces, the Altamira painters have exploited the uneven nature of the rock, combining their colour with that of the rock, which confers on their works a natural intensity. The animals are not simply attached to the wall, coloured pictures on stone, but seem to be born from the stone, to live in terms of the material.

It is clear that before undertaking these paintings, the artists must have studied the shapes of the caves most carefully, drawing up a plan for the distribution of the different groups of figures, a general order of composition. But this would mean that certain parts of the rock surface are best suited to certain animals, as we can judge by the frequence with which given associations reappear, in particular that of the bison and the wild boar. The whole animal group is connected by punctuation signs, feminine and masculine, which were long thought to be clubs and ladders, manual imprints, incomplete paintings, and anthropomorphic figures engraved with a bird's head. The composition is most clearly ordered, with the great bison as the central element, full of light and chromatic variations.

Altamira has often been compared to Lascaux, particularly for the rare plastic quality of the wall paintings; it has even been said that the figurative conventions are the same in the two sanctuaries. This comparison appears doubtful, because if the conventions have a common source, and correspond to the designs of the same inspiration, they are expressed differently in each cave. At Lascaux, most of the compositions, in particular in the hall of the Bulls, give the impression of violent movement, tumultuous yet full of lyricism. The theatrical nature of the place endows the whole scene with a monumental quality; a painting of action and celebration.

Altamira however reveals a more static form of pictorial expression. The composition of the vault in the principal hall has a maximum concentration of figures, ending with the formation of a compact coloured mass; taken individually these figures, and particularly the biggest ones, seldom appear to be in movement, they differ further from those of Lascaux. The bison of Altamira, and to a lesser degree the does and the wild boars, are part of a subtle arabesque design, an effect enhanced by close hachuring. It is a painting of tensions, pent up forces, oppositions, while at Lascaux the movement is simple and direct.

In the province of Santander, the caves of El Castillo, and Pandal possess further interesting groups of paintings and engravings. Isolated from the Franco-Cantabrian cultural area, but displaying certain affinities with it, the caves of Levanzo, in the Egadi Isles, and of Addaura near Palermo, possess engravings with deep incisions, but of considerable finesse.

Disappearance of the Franco-Cantabrian Sanctuaries

After about 10,000 BCE, the great Magdalenian period entered its last phase preparatory to the sudden decay which Paleolithic art experienced. Severe climatic changes at the end of the last glaciation drove the great herds of reindeer northwards, destroying the Magdalenian economy and culture, and giving its civilization the death-blow. After this we find no more sanctuaries; the rock engraving becomes set in a sterile naturalism notable only for conventional painting and technical artifice. By 8,000 BCE it was all over. The last examples of Franco-Cantabrian art are found in the Dordogne sites of Teyjat, Limeuil, La Madeleine, and Villepin and the Basses-Pyrenees shelter of Isturitz.

The many engraved stones found at Limeuil, long considered the work of students from some "studio of prehistoric art", are difficult to decipher, and have little graphic interest. The superpositions of the bovids are still visible; a bull in an unusual position is well adapted to the surface of a small plaque; there is a mysterious scene which may be a parturition, or a funeral lamentation. The bone engravings of Teyjat reveal a sure sense of ornament; one depicts in a confusion of antlers a line of reindeer in movement. But these are the last liberties which the Paleolithic allowed itself. Henceforth, painting in the caves is precious and mannered, while the decoration remains geometric and schematic, little altered since the earliest Aurignacian period.

The cave art of the Franco-Cantabrian hunter-gatherers of El Castillo, Chauvet, Altamira, Lascaux, Pech-Merle, Font de Gaume, Tito Bustillo and Les Combarelles, is the result of a creative process which appears to be much closer than we think to historical periods which we know better, or even to those which we live in. This art which we thought was magical, to satisfy some obscure need of the intellect to escape from the present, is now, thanks to patient research, revealed to us in all its original fullness; and these first attempts at expression, face to face with nature seem to us contemporary and neighbourly.

Sites of Prehistoric Art in Cantabria

Aurignacian art is as rare in Spain as it is in France: the only notable examples appearing in the caves of El Castillo and Altamira. However, the only major Spanish centre of Gravettian art is the Cave of La Garma. This compares unfavourably with the situation in France, where there are several outstanding examples of Gravettian cave painting. Cave murals become more common in Spain during the Solutrean increases in frequency in the Solutrean period, when French prehistoric artists are preoccupied with stonework, and then blossom during the era of Magdalenian art, the final phase of the Upper Paleolithic.

The Paleolithic cave art of Northern Spain is found in about 20 caves across Cantabria, Asturias and the Spanish Basque country and many have been designated World Heritage Sites. The Stone Age art inside many of these caves was entombed for millennia by rockfalls which effectively preserved it from vandalism and climatic effects.


Cave of El Castillo (39,000 BCE)
Situated on Monte Castillo near Puente Viesgo, El Castillo Cave contains the oldest art ever found in Spain, and the world's oldest cave painting in the form of hand stencils red-ochre disks, all dating to the early Aurignacian, from 39,000 BCE onwards. It is one of the most important caves within the Franco-Cantabrian region.

Altamira Cave (from 34,000 BCE)
Located in the town of Santillana del Mar, Cantabria, Altamira's cave art was created in every era of the Upper Paleolithic, from 34,000 BCE onwards. Beginning with a series of red ochre club-shaped pictographs (claviforms), its most famous paintings are the bison on the ceiling of the main gallery. Altamira remains one of the most important centres of Franco-Cantabrian art.

Cave of La Garma (c.24,000 BCE)
The La Garma Cave is located in Luena, in southern Cantabria. Its important and complex art features about 100 red ochre paintings of animals, a number of geometric signs and red dots, some 40 hand stencils and various items of mobiliary art - mostly bone carvings. These works were created in one or other of two main periods: Gravettian (c.24,000 BCE) and Magdalenian (c.13,000 BCE).

Cave of Covalanas (18,000 BCE)
Located close to the village of Ramales de la Victoria, the Covalanas Cave contains over 20 red ochre paintings of prehistoric animals (all noted for their stippled outlines created with the fingers) together with an anthropomorphic figure. Its gallery also has a number of abstract symbols, red and black dots, and lines. The art dates to between 18,000 and 12,000 BCE.

Cave of La Pasiega (c.16,000 BCE)
Another of the celebrated caves of Monte Castillo, it was discovered in 1911 during the excavation of El Castillo Cave. Pasiega's cave art - dating to the Upper Solutrean and Lower Magdalenian, about 16,000-10,000 BCE - includes hundreds of images of deer, horses, cattle, bison, ibexes, aurochs, reindeer, chamois, megaloceros, birds, fish, as well as hand stencils and nearly 150 abstract symbols (claviforms, tectiforms, polygonals, triangles etc.) and other pictographs. Along with Altamira and El Castillo, La Pasiega Cave is one of the most significant centres of Franco-Cantabrian cave painting.

Cave of Chufin (16,000 BCE)
Discovered by Manuel de Cos Borbolla, Chufin Cave is located in the town of Riclones, Cantabria. Its galleries feature images of animals (bison, horses, deer, and goats) dating to between 16,000 and 11,500 BCE.

Cave of Hornos de la Pena (15,000 BCE)
Discovered in 1903, the Cave of Hornos de la Pena is located near the village of Tarriba in San Felices de Buelna. Its paintings of aurochs, horses, bison, ibexes and other animals dates to between 15,000 and 12,000 BCE.

Cave of El Pendo (15,000 BCE)
Located in the heart of the Camargo Valley, Cantabria, El Pendo Cave contains a number of red ochre animal pictures dating to about 15,000 BCE.

Cave of Las Chimeneas (15,000 BCE)
Located on Monte Castillo, Las Chimeneas (Cave of the Chimneys) was discovered in 1953. It contains several panels of macaroni-type "finger fluting" engraved in the soft clay. In addition there are a number of black animal paintings, together with some quadrangular symbols. The earliest art in the cave dates to 15,000 BCE.

Other Stone Age caves in Cantabria include the Cave of Las Monedas in Puente Viesgo, the Cave of El Pendo in Camargo, and the Cave of Covalanas in Ramales de la Victoria.


Cave of Candamo de la Pena (19,000 BCE)
Discovered in 1914, the Candamo de la Pena Cave is located in Candamu, Asturias. Highlights include the Wall of the Engravings (featuring a complex assortment of painted engravings of deer, ibexes, horses and bison), the Talud Stalagmite (with its mural of horses which leads into the Batiscias gallery), and the Hall of the Red Signs (with a collection of dots, lines and other symbols). The most renowned engraving is that of a big stag wounded by numerous spears. The oldest art in the cave dates to around 19,000 BCE.

Cueva del Pindal (16,000 BCE)
Discovered in 1908 near the town of Pimiango in Asturias, the Pindal Cave has numerous paintings of horses and bison, plus fish and mammoths, as well as abstract symbols. Both red and black colors were used. They date to between 16,000 and 11,000 BCE.

Cave of Tito Bustillo (c.14,000 BCE)
Located in Ribadesella, Asturias, Tito Bustillo is one of the most important caves in the Franco-Cantabrian region. Its cave paintings and engravings of reindeer and horses have exceptional power due to their size, naturalism and complexity, and the use of red and dark voliet colour pigments. Highlights include the Chamber of Vulvas, with representations of the female gender; the Anthropomorph Gallery, with two human-like figures depicted on a single stalactite; and the Gallery of Horses with its wonderful series of engraved drawings. Tito Bustillo's art dates to roughly 14,000 BCE.

Other Stone Age caves in the Asturias region include: the Cave of La Covaciella in Cabrales, the Cave of Llonin in Penamellera Alta, and the Cuevona de Ardines in the Ardines massif.


There are three Stone Age caves in the Spanish Basque Country: two in the province of Gipuzkoa and one in Bizkaia. They include: the Cave of Altxerri in Aia, the Cave of Ekain in Deba; and the Cave of Santimamine in Kortezubi.

In addition to the caves and rock shelters listed above, two other important centres of Paleolithic painting in Spain are: La Pileta Cave (18,130 BCE) near Malaga, famous for its cycle of prehistoric painting, notably hand stencils; and Maltravieso Cave (18,000 BCE) in Extremadura, noted for its animal paintings, engravings and 70 stencilled handprints.

Sites of Prehistoric Art in Southern France

The "Franco-Cantabrian region" extends across the southern half of France as far as Provence, with clusters of caves in the Dordogne Basin, the Pyrenees and the Ardeche Gorge in the Rhone-Alpes region. Its most important cave art includes the following examples:

Abri Castanet Engravings (c.35,000 BCE)
Located in the in the Vezere valley of the Dordogne, its engraved images of male and female genitalia are the oldest engravings in the Franco-Cantabrian area.

Chauvet Cave Paintings (c.30,000 BCE)
Located in the Ardeche Gorge, Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave contains the most powerful and naturalistic cave painting from the Aurignacian era.

Grotte des Deux-Ouvertures (Cave of Two Openings) (26,500 BCE)
Aurignacian hunter-gatherer shelter in the French Ardeche famous for its engraved drawings of aurochs and woolly mammoths.

Cosquer Cave Paintings (c.25,000 BCE) France
Located on the south coast of France and now partly submerged, Cosquer Cave is best known for its 65 hand stencils, its pictures of marine animals and its collection of abstract symbols, dating to the Lower Gravettian.

Pech Merle Cave Paintings (c.25,000 BCE)
This Gravettian shelter in the Lot is famous for its charcoal and ochre mural known as "The Dappled Horses of Pech-Merle", which also contains a number of stencilled handprints. The earliest art at Pech Merle dates to the early Gravettian.

Cussac Cave Engravings (c.25,000 BCE)
Also located in the Lot, Grotte de Cussac is noted for its large scale engraved drawings of horses, bison and mammoths, dating to the Lower Gravettian, as well as a number of mysterious human burials.

Gargas Cave Hand Stencils (25,000 BCE)
Situated in the Hautes-Pyrenees, Gargas Cave is world famous for its chilling mutilated hand stencils, believed to be caused by disease, including frostbite. The shelter also contains a number of fine engravings, and a variety of mobiliary art and other artifacts.

Roucadour Cave Art (c.24,000 BCE)
Another cave from the Lot region, Roucadour is noted in particular for its Gravettian engravings of animals and birds.

Abri du Poisson Cave (c.23,000 BCE) France
Located at Les Eyzies de Tayac in the Perigord district, the cave is best known for its rare relief sculpture of a salmon - one of only a handful created during the Stone Age - and a single legible hand stencil.

Le Placard Cave (c.17,500 BCE)
Located close to the Tardoire river, 8 miles upstream from La Rochefoucauld, in the Charente, the Grotte du Placard is the type-site for the mysterious Aviform pictographs, known as "Placard type" signs, found also at Pech-Merle, Cougnac and Cosquer.

Roc-de-Sers Cave Engravings and Reliefs (c.17,200 BCE)
Located about 12 miles north of Gachedou, in the Charente, Roc de Sers is "the" benchmark for Solutrean rock engraving and relief sculpture in the Franco-Cantabrian area. In particular, it is renowned for its series of limestone blocks carved with an assortment of stylized pictures of animals.

La Tete du Lion Cave (c.17,000 BCE)
Situated near Bidon in the Ardeche (not far from the prehistoric caves of Chauvet and Chabot), it is noted for a panel, believed to depict a map of the stars (Taurus constellation), reminiscent of markings found at Lascaux.

Lascaux Cave (c.17,000-13,000 BCE)
Discovered near the village of Montignac, in the Dordogne, Lascaux remains "the" French showcase of Magdalenian art. Famous galleries include the Hall of the Bulls, the Axial Gallery (also called the Painted Gallery) the Apse, the Nave and the Chamber of the Felines. Many archeologists consider Lascaux to be the apogee of Franco-Cantabrian cave painting.

Cap Blanc Frieze (15,000 BCE)
The most important example of Magdalenian rock carving, the 13-metre long limestone frieze of relief sculpture at the Cap Blanc rock shelter includes figures of horses and bison, some of which are up to 2 metres long. The cave was also the site of a rare, well preserved grave of a Magdalenian girl.

Rouffignac Cave (c.14,000-12,000 BCE) France
Located in the commune of Rouffignac-Saint-Cernin-de-Reilhac in the Perigord, and known also as the "Cave of the hundred mammoths", Rouffignac contains five miles of underground passageways, with more than 250 animal images, in the form of black drawings or engravings. The cave also boasts a variety of symbols, including tectiforms and serpentiforms.

Font de Gaume Cave (c.14,000 BCE)
Located near Les Eyzies in the Dordogne, it contains over 200 engraved drawings of bisons and mammoths, as well as hand stencils and handprints. An important Magdalenian sanctuary, Font-de-Gaume Cave is regarded as second only to Lascaux.

Tuc d'Audoubert Cave Bison Sculpture (c.13,500 BCE)
Located just metres away from Les Trois Freres Cave, Tuc d'Audoubert is located in the Ariege department of the central Pyrenees. It is best known for its relief sculptures of two bison about to mate, carved on the floor of the cave in soft clay.

La Marche Cave Art (c.13,000 BCE)
Located near Lussac-les-Chateaux, in the Vienne, western France, the cave has more than 150 engraved drawings of human heads and faces, incised onto limestone slabs. Even though the authenticity of the art has been confirmed by the French Ministry of Culture, its Magdalenian origins remain the subject of controversy.

Trois Freres Cave (13,000-12,000 BCE)
Located near Montesquieu-Avantes in the Haute Pyrenees, close to the Tuc d'Audoubert cave, the "Three Brothers Cave" is famous for the 300 engraved animal pictures and the two therianthropic images (part-human, part-animal), one of which is a small composition known as the "Sorcerer".

Niaux Cave (13,000-11,000 BCE)
Located in the northern foothills of the Pyrenees, Niaux Cave is one of the most impressive centres of Magdalenian cave art. In addition to its cathedral-like chamber known as "Salon Noir", it is famous for several sets of footprints left by young Stone Age children, as well as an extremely rare picture of a weasel, executed by a master-artist in 10 flawless strokes. The shelter also contains an assortment of abstract art, including more than a hundred red and black dots, dashes, bars and lines, some created with paint 'brushes', others with fingers.

Les Combarelles Cave (c.12,000 BCE)
Located at les Eyzies de Tayac, in the Dordogne, Les Combarelles is a major example of Magdalenian rock engraving, renowned for its collection of 600 engraved images of animals, some of which are also outlined in black. In addition, Les Combarelles Cave also has a remarkable collection of anthropomorphic figures, as well as a quantity of abstract pictographs known as tectiforms. Due to the quantity and quality of its parietal works, prehistorians regards Les Combarelles as one of the major sanctuaries of Late Magdalenian culture, within the Franco-Cantabrian region.


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