Prehistoric Paleolithic Art and Culture
All we have available to throw light on
Stone Age culture in general and prehistoric
art in particular, is anonymous debris: chipped and polished stones,
broken shards, decorated and fashioned bones, entombed skeletons or the
scanty buried remains of ancient men, rock panels decorated with painted
or engraved figures and lastly funerary monuments and ruined places of
worship and fortified sites.
For its part, the geography of those early
times shows us (until a date quite close to our own from the geological
viewpoint) entire continents, such as the south Asian shelf, today submerged
beneath the waves, and continental bridges, now broken, between the two
Mediterranean shores, between England and Europe and between Anatolia
and the Balkans.
That is why Europe, the only fully explored region today, should be considered not as a self-sufficient unit but as a peninsula attached to the north-west of the prehistoric world, over which each new human wave rolled in turn.The presence of successive stone tool-cultures also poses racial problems, as the introduction of new civilizations in Europe normally coincides with the appearance of new human types whose origin is not in western Europe.
India, Asia Minor, western Europe, eastern, southern and western Africa, and Java stand out as areas which have gone through comparatively similar human phases. In spite of the notable variations in tool-cultures, we can see that they are related; even if the combinations are comparatively varied, the constituent elements reappear, and in approximately the same order of succession. Moreover, there seems to be little doubt that Siberia and even northern China became, as from a certain moment at the end of the Quaternary period, components of this ensemble and probably the sources of the principal variations. See: Chinese Art Timeline (c.18,000 BCE - present).
Please note in passing that recent discoveries - the Blombos cave engravings (c.70,000 BCE) and the more delicate Diepkloof eggshell engravings (c.60,000 BCE) - prove that these modern men had already developed an understanding of and use for art. This viewpoint is strongly supported by the recent dating of the Sulawesi Cave art (Indonesia) to 37,900 BCE. This discovery raises the strong probability that Asian "modern man" and European "modern man" did not coincidentally develop independent painting skills at exactly the same time, but already possessed those skills when they left Africa.
Man was only belatedly forced to frequent caves because of a cold phase towards the end of the last interglacial (c.40,000-10,000 BCE); then the curtain began to rise on his social life. This more stable and preserving habitat reveals hearths and sometimes tombs.
Both the mobiliary
art (portable carvings) and the parietal
art (murals, reliefs inside caves and shelters) of prehistory, apart
from their great artistic interest, pose many other problems concerning
the magical and perhaps religious aim of this earliest
art. Strangely enough the totemic female symbols of the mid-Aurignacian
period - like the mysterious Lion
Man of Hohlenstein Stadel (c.38,000 BCE) and the Venus
of Willendorf (c.25,000 BCE) - disappear later, giving way to the
animal art already in the course of development. Animals are represented
pierced with symbolical arrows (bison and ibexes at Niaux; horses at Lascaux),
clay models are riddled with spear marks (at Montespan, a headless lion
and bear, which seem to have received new skins at various times) - facts
which evoke the idea of sympathetic magic.
As among the Eskimos, the winter was undoubtedly
a dead season for hunting; early man had to live largely on the provisions
he had accumulated. It was a time for celebrating the rites of the tribe
in the Eskimo manner: the initiation of adolescents into traditions and
beliefs and the rights and duties of adults; ceremonies for the increase
of useful animals, for the destruction of the biggest wild beasts and
for hunting magic; and appeals for these ends to the higher powers who
preside over these things, to the souls of slain animals which they wanted
to be reincarnated. All these customs, which still exist among the Eskimos,
may also have existed in the Upper Paleolithic, and they would provide
a satisfactory explanation of the religious and magical nature of the
figurative representations. A number of engraved or carved bones were
probably fashioned to serve as hunting charms.
Sources of Prehistoric
One of the earliest expressions of Upper
Paleolithic art are the hand stencils and other forms of hand painting
that first appeared in the Spanish Cantabrian caves of El Castillo (c.39,000
BCE) and Altamira (c.34,000 BCE) during the early Aurignacian period.
In France, the most striking examples are the chilling Gargas
Cave Hand Stencils (c.25,000 BCE), while other examples include the
prints at Cosquer Cave (c.25,000 BCE), Pech Merle (c.25,000 BCE), Roucadour
Cave (c.24,000 BCE), and Cougnac Cave
(c.23,000 BCE), as well as the famous Cave of Hands (Cueva de las Manos)
(c.7,000 BCE) in Argentina.
Throughout the Upper Paleolithic prehistoric cave artists demonstrated a growing ability to match the painting or engraving to the rock surface, taking full advantage of the natural contours and fissures of the cave wall to give their images maximum three-dimensionality. Relief sculpture is merely another step in the process. Outstanding examples of relief stonework created during the Stone Age include: the limestone bas-relief known as the Venus of Laussel (c.23,000-20,000 BCE), discovered in the Dordogne; the rare carving of a salmon in the Abri du Poisson Cave (c.23,000-20,000 BCE), found in the Perigord; the limestone frieze at Roc-de-Sers (17,200 BCE) in the Charente; the unfired clay reliefs of two bison at the Tuc d'Audoubert Cave (c.13,500 BCE), in the Ariege; and the carved stone frieze at Roc-aux-Sorciers (c.12,000 BCE), found at Angles-sur-l'Anglin in the Vienne.
Although little can compare with the magnificent black bulls of Lascaux, or the glorious multi-coloured bison at Altamira Cave, prehistoric cave artists created rock engravings of great beauty throughout the Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian eras.
The earliest and most primitive of these
can be seen in Gorham's Cave (c.37,000
BCE) in Gibraltar, and the Abri
Castanet Engravings (c.35,000 BCE) in the Dordogne. Thereafter, the
most famous examples include: the Grotte
des Deux-Ouvertures (Cave of Two Openings) (26,500 BCE) in Ardeche;
Cussac Cave (25,000 BCE), Font-de-Gaume
Cave (c. 14,000 BCE) and Les Combarelles Cave (12,000 BCE) in the Dordogne;
La Marche Cave (13,000 BCE) in the Vienne. See also the Coa
Valley Engravings, Portugal (22,000 BCE), the oldest and largest example
of open air petroglyphs in Europe.
For an example of Russian cave painting during the Magdalenian period, see the famous Kapova Cave paintings (12,500 BCE), noted for their red ochre pictures of woolly mammoths.
For more far-flung works see: Aboriginal Rock Art: Australia, of which the oldest examples include: Ubirr Rock Art in Kakadu National Park, Arnhem Land (from 30,000 BCE), Kimberley Rock Art in northern Australia (30,000 BCE), Burrup Peninsula Rock Art in the Pilbara (c.30,000 BCE), the authenticated Nawarla Gabarnmang Rock Shelter charcoal drawing (26,000 BCE) in Arnhem Land, and Bradshaw Paintings in the Kimberley (c.15,500 BCE). See also the widespread Oceanic Art of Polynesia, Melanesia and the other Pacific islands.
Abstract Geometrical Art
From about 17,000 BCE onwards, when sculpture
was progressively abandoned, the ornamentation of everyday objects - perforators,
spears, and the like - borrowed its elements increasingly from the naturalistic
art of line engraving. The transposition of figures on to narrow surfaces
could not take place without difficulty and waste. The law of least effort
simplified these figures until they became mere diagrams.
A large number of Magdalenian bone blades
exhibit very rich decorations which were obtained by grouping motifs of
this origin: ellipses, zigzags, chevrons and fleurons. Among the figures
there are representations of fish and animal heads and also of inanimate
objects various implements and even huts. Many of the designs were engraved
or painted on cave walls.
The survival of Stone Age man was determined
by his ability to eat and reproduce, and this human condition was fully
expressed in his art. In his cave painting, which depicts both game animals
and rival predators, he expressed his cares and concerns about hunting,
with very few pictorial references to humans. In his sculpture - notably
in his venus figurines - he celebrated the mystery of procreation and
birth. These fertility symbols of obese females, carefully sculpted with
exaggerated breasts, buttocks and genitalia, appeared first during the
early Aurignacian, became widespread during the Gravettian and vanished
in the Magdalenian. The most important examples of these venus figurines
include: the "Venus of Hohle Fels" (ivory) (35,5000 BCE), "Venus
of Dolni Vestonice" (ceramic) (c.26,000 BCE), "Venus
of Monpazier" (limonite) (c.25,000 BCE), "Venus of Willendorf"
(limestone) (c.25,000 BCE), "Venus
of Savignano" (serpentine) (c.24,000 BCE), "Venus
of Moravany" (ivory) (c.24,000 BCE), "Venus of Brassempouy"
(ivory) (c.23,000 BCE), "Venus of Lespugue" (ivory) (c.23,000
BCE), the "Venus of Kostenky"
(ivory) (c.22,000 BCE), the "Venus of
Gagarino" (volcanic rock) (c.20,000 BCE), the Avdeevo
Venuses (20,000 BCE), the Mal'ta Venuses
(ivory) (20,000 BCE), the Zaraysk Venuses
(mammoth tusk) (20,000 BCE) and the later Magdalenian figurines known
as the Venus of Eliseevichi (14,000
BCE), the Venus of Engen (13,000 BCE)
and the Venus of Monruz-Neuchatel (10,000
Ceramics, exemplified by Chinese
pottery and forms of Japanese pottery, also emerged. For more details,
see Traditional Chinese
For the origins of painting and sculpture, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE ART