Kapova Cave Paintings
Location and description of oldest cave painting in Russia.

Pin it

Red-Ochre Painting of Mammoths
(12,500 BCE) Hall of Drawings
Kapova Cave, Bashkortostan, Urals.
Earliest art of its type in Russia.

Kapova Cave Paintings (c.12,500 BCE)


Location and Discovery
The Kapova Cave
Cave Paintings
Paleolithic Cave Painting
Related Articles

• For the earliest cave painting, see: Oldest Stone Age Art: Top 100 Works.


Kapova Cave (also known as Shulgan-Tash Cave) is a rock shelter in the southern Ural Mountains which is famous for its cave painting, notably its red ochre pictures of mammoths and horses, dating back to the period of Magdalenian art (c.15,000-10,000 BCE). Although the cave itself was known since the mid-18th century, its prehistoric art was only discovered in the 1950s. In addition to animal paintings, the cave's galleries contain numerous pictographs and abstract signs, as well as hand stencils and handprints. The Upper Paleolithic period in North-Central Eurasia existed throughout the last Ice Age until about 10,000 BCE, although the time profile for archeological sites in the region is generally younger than for sites in European Russia. Thus the Russian sites responsible for the Venus of Kostenky (Voronezh Oblast), the Venus of Gagarino (Lipetsk), the Avdeevo Venuses (Kursk) and the Zaraysk Venuses (Moscow Oblast) all date to about 20,000 BCE, some 8 millennia before Kapova. Even the rare Magdalenian Venus of Eliseevichi (14,000 BCE) from Bryansk, just southeast of Moscow, is older than Kapova. Exceptions to the rule include the Mal'ta Venuses of Siberia which are as old as any of the Stone Age art found in European Russia.

For the chronology of ancient art in European Russia and North-central Eurasia, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).

Location and Discovery

Kapova Cave (Kapovaya Cave) is one of several limestone karst caves located on the Belaya River in the Shulgan-Tash Preserve, Burzyansky Region, in Bashkortostan - a Russian Republic which lies between the Volga and the Ural Mountains. The cave was first recorded by the explorer and geographer P.I.Rychkov, in 1760. In 1959, the Russian archeologist A.V.Ryumin examined part of the cave network, where he found a mile-long series of cave paintings and drawings featuring more than 50 pictures of woolly mammoths, horses, bison and rhinoceroses, as well as anthropomorphic figures and various geometric markings. This discovery a more thorough examination of the cave, in the 1960s, by experts from the Institute of Archeology of the USSR, led by O.N.Bader, who indirectly carbon-dated the cave painting to the final period of Paleolithic art, around 12,500 BCE. Further investigations were carried out in the 1980s by V.E.Shchelinsky, and by scientists from the Russian Geological Institute and the Russian Geographical Society, although the deeper parts of the cave have yet to be properly examined, due to deep holes, flooding and other dangers.

For another work of Stone Age art from the Russian interior, see the Shigir Idol (7,500 BCE), the oldest surviving wood carving. For another important site of cave painting from Eastern Europe, see: Coliboaia Cave Art (30,000 BCE).

The Kapova Cave

One of the largest limestone caves in Europe, Kapova has two levels of galleries and its passageways extend for at least two kilometres. There are several decorated chambers including the Hall of Chaos on the lower level and the Hall of Drawings on the upper level. However, visitors are only permitted to visit the first chamber, where they can view murals recreated by conservationists from the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, not unlike the recreation of the Lascaux Cave paintings at Lascaux II.

Cave Paintings

Kapova's rock art includes more than 170 rock drawings of animals (including mammoths, horses, rhinoceroses) and a few human-type figures, as well as scenes from daily life, mostly painted with ochre and animal fat. Kapova cave also contains some prehistoric sculpture, painted bones and other items of mobiliary art, but very few rock engravings or any significant petroglyphs. There are four basic types of art, as follows:

(1) Drawings or paint marks in ochre which are red-coloured with a faded yellow contour. These images comprise the majority in the cave. A good example is the west panel in the Hall of Drawings, which contains red ochre paintings of four woolly mammoths, two horses, one rhinoceros and, underneath, ten vertical parallel lines inside a a quadrangular sign. Another example is the panel in the Chaos Chamber which contains a large red ochre image of a mammoth and, next to it, the figure of a man. (2) More vivid images done with a mixture of ochre and other colour pigments. (3) A growing quantity of black drawings in charcoal/soapstone. (4) Painted relief sculpture made in clay affixed to the wall. A good example of this is the "Ilyine Horse" on the north wall of the Hall of Paintings. Alas, nearly all these bas-reliefs are in a badly preserved state, since clay does not stick very well to the limestone walls.

For more about Stone Age colours, see: Prehistoric Colour Palette.


Kapova Cave is the only known example of Paleolithic-era parietal art as far east as the Urals. The other decorated rock shelter, the nearby cave of Ignatievska, has been excavated and carbon-dated but all its dates are post-Paleolithic - that is, younger than 10,000 BCE. So, is the cave art at Kapova part of the European-wide "creative explosion" that occurred during the last Ice Age, or is it an independent phenomenon? The evidence suggests the former, since Kapova's art has several elements in common with that of Western Europe.

NOTE: For a comparison with the earliest painting in Asia, see: Sulawesi Cave Art (Indonesia) (c.37,900 BCE). For contemporaneous painting from Spain, see: Tito Bustillo Cave (14,000 BCE).

To begin with, the subject matter is a combination of realistic animal imagery and pictographic geometric symbols (compare Altamira Cave paintings). The animal compositions are also arranged in similar patterns - groups but not hunting scenes. Second, the paintings are in relatively inaccessible parts of the cave and are not associated with any signs of habitation. The cave was a sanctuary not a domestic site (compare Chauvet Cave paintings). Third, both the geometric symbols and the line drawings, as well as the small amount of portable art in the cave, illustrate a clear cognitive capability on the part of the artists (compare the aviform Placard-type signs and the animal pictures among the Pech Merle Cave paintings). In other words, Kapova's cave art exemplifies the continuity of ideas and traditions that existed across vast distances of territory and time throughout the Upper Paleolithic.

Please Note: For other Paleolithic art from the Russian interior, see: Amur River Basin Pottery (from 14,300 BCE).

Paleolithic Cave Painting

In addition to those cited above, here are some of the most beautiful examples of Upper Paleolithic cave painting from Western Europe:

Cosquer Cave (c.25,000 BCE) France
Contains hand stencils, signs, and polychrome paintings of horses.

Cougnac Cave (c.23,000 BCE) France
Features Gravettian era animal paintings and Placard-type symbols.

Le Placard Cave (c.17,500 BCE) France
Famous for its strange aviform signs.

Lascaux Cave (c.17,000-13,000 BCE) Montignac, Dordogne, France
Contains world-famous paintings of the Great Black Bull and the Bird Man, among others.

Cave of La Pasiega (c.16,000 BCE) Spain
Contains a huge gallery of more than 700 animals and abstract symbols.

Font de Gaume Cave (14,000 BCE) France
Contains the first Stone Age cave paintings to be found in the Perigord.

Niaux Cave (13,000-11,000 BCE) France
Has a unique picture of a weasel, and many other glorious cave paintings.

Les Combarelles Cave (c.12,000 BCE) France
Has a huge number of animal drawings, humanoid figures, and geometric symbols.

Related Articles

• For more art from the Urals, see: Russian Art (22,000 BCE - present).


• For more about arts and crafts in North-Central Eurasia, see: Homepage.

© visual-arts-cork.com. All rights reserved.