Paleolithic Art and Culture
History and Evolution of Prehistoric Arts and Crafts.

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Big Horn Rhino (25-30,000 BCE)
Cave painting from Chauvet Cave.

For the world's oldest art see:
Bhimbetka Petroglyphs and Cupules.
For the earliest polychrome murals,
see: Pech-Merle Cave Paintings.
See also the hand prints on the
walls of Cosquer Cave (27,000 BCE).

Prehistoric Paleolithic Art and Culture
History and Evolution


Prehistoric Society
Origins of Prehistoric Art
Did Art Exist in the Lower Paleolithic Era?
Sources of Prehistoric Figurative Art
From Hand-prints to Works of Art
Hand Stencils
Line Drawing
Figurative Art
Relief Sculpture
Rock Engravings
Cave Murals
Prehistoric Abstract Geometrical Art
Fertility Symbols
Post-Paleolithic Art
Iberian Rock Paintings

Tuc d'Audoubert Bison (c.13,500 BCE)
Relief Clay Sculptures of Two Bison.
Tuc d'Audoubert Cave, Ariege, France.

For details of arts & culture
during the Pleistocene and
Holocene epochs, see:
Irish Stone Age Art.


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.

Such are the facts prehistory puts at our disposal to mark the stages of human types and their civilizations - the nurseries of Stone Age art - from the obscure epoch when man emerged from among the mammals of the end of the Tertiary period, to the time when the rudiments of our civilization appeared in with the domestication of cattle and the beginnings of agriculture. These first human groups are not unrelated to a great number of present-day tribes in both hemispheres - the Bushmen of South Africa, the Tasmanians, the Eskimos, etc. - and their comparative study enables prehistorians to understand fossil man better. (See also: Prehistoric Art Timeline.)

Cave Painting: Hall of the Bulls
Lascaux Caves (c.17,000 BCE)
One of the great ancient galleries
in the history of art.

Aurignacian Art
(40,000-25,000 BCE)
Gravettian Art
(25,000-20,000 BCE)
Solutrean Art
(20,000-15,000 BCE)
Magdalenian Art
(15,000-10,000 BCE)
Mesolithic Art
(from 10,000-variable BCE)
Neolithic Art
(Ends about 2,000 BCE)


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.

On the other hand, at various times primitive man had to overcome difficult obstacles of which we have only the remotest idea. The Caspian extended much further northward as a vast inland sea, and when the great Scandinavian and Russian glaciers advanced, the gateway to the East between western Europe and central Asia was closed, and the Paleolithic peoples could only penetrate from Asia Minor and Africa into Europe by the south-eastern and southern routes. (Perhaps accounting for the location of the Venus of Berekhat Ram [Golan] and the Venus of Tan-Tan [Morocco]). The door did not open again until much later to permit new migrations to the West.

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).

Prehistoric Society

What were the first men - the most recent of whom, at least, sometimes used to bury their dead - but a species of ingenious brutes, well suited to launch the human empire with flint and fire in a world of gigantic monsters? Thanks to them, life was made possible for a more "modern" type of human being (called Homo sapiens sapiens) who did not arrive from Africa in the western part of the prehistoric world until the close of the Ice Age.

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.

The numerous pregnant women of the venus figurines (see examples like the Venus of Lespugue, 23,000 BCE) and the men closely pursuing their women suggest the idea of fertility magic. The deliberate alteration of the essential features of certain animals seems to indicate taboos. Human figures dressed up in animal or grotesque masks evoke the dancing and initiation ceremonies of living peoples or represent the sorcerers or gods of the Upper Paleolithic. A wonderful example is the sacrificial/ritualistic scene depicted in the famous Addaura Cave engravings (11,000 BCE).

Later the rock painting of eastern Spain enable us to follow the natives of that time while hunting, waging war, dancing and even in their family life.

Origins of Prehistoric Art

The history of labour begins only with tools made from stone at a time when their artificial nature was already obvious enough to differentiate them from natural fractures. Tools were essential from the very beginning to rummage in the soil and extract nourishing roots or the nodules of raw stone which were to be dressed. Hammers and anvils were necessary to break them up, according to techniques which underwent great changes down the ages, from crude percussion on a lump of bare stone, stone against stone, then wood against stone, to the fabrication of a bifacial or core tool intended to produce longer and finer flakes and later long narrow blades by procedures which are still obscure, although they undoubtedly included the use of a wooden wedge.

At all times tools fashioned by finishing the edges of flakes were needed to work wood and bone. Weapons were indispensable. At first they were massive. Held in the hand or hafted, they were intended for striking with the cutting edge, like an axe, or with the point, like a halberd; later, preference was given to lighter types which were used as daggers or as heads for lances, javelins and arrows. Cutting tools, too, were always necessary for dismembering carcasses and for the preparation and making of fur garments. Already, during the early Aurignacian culture (c.35,000 BCE), these advances in tool technology had enabled significant advances in prehistoric sculpture, as exemplified by the Venus of Hohle Fels (38,000-33,000 BCE).

In the Magdalenian, the use of bony materials - ivory, the bones or antlers of the deer tribe - became widespread; from these were made awls, spears, daggers, smoothers, scissors, etc., and, towards the end, eyed needles and barbed harpoons. In addition, a huge variety of mineral colours were used in cave painting.

Upper Paleolithic man was capable of penetrating right to the end of what were literally subterranean labyrinths, with lights which could be relit in case of accidental extinction. This presupposes a bold people, for in all countries the unsophisticated are terrified of the smallest dark caves. These dark galleries (and perhaps other places as well) were the theatres for magical ceremonial rites connected with the increase of desirable and the disappearance of dangerous animals and with the successful conclusion of hunting expeditions.


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.

It is noteworthy that neither on the walls of decorated caves nor on the painted rocks do we find any trace of the geometrical or stylised decorations of portable art. Thus notable variations in mental trends presided over each of the branches of art.

The vestiges which are so precious to the ethnographer are the only positive evidence of the origins of art, whether figurative or decorative. The beautiful ivory carvings of the Swabian Jura at the beginning of the Aurignacian, prove that art was not by any means in its infancy. Indeed, the intricate and extraordinary Venus of Brassempouy alone is evidence of a lengthy artistic past which is quite unknown to us.

Did Art Exist in the Lower Paleolithic Era?

Undoubtedly. In addition to primitive petroglyphs known as cupules, in the midst of smooth pebbles we have found nodules of flint with curious shapes which were finished by Quaternary man. The fractures, which are supposed to be accentuated likenesses, were certainly caused by natural or mechanical agents which shattered the cavities or the more fragile projecting points. There are only a very few pieces to which the explanation of accidental resemblance might apply.

Later on, the development of the working of bone and the spread of this technique was the starting point of decorative art. Once it had produced utilitarian results, bone-working was to become an element of art; the rhythm of repeated incisions became appreciated and was copied, either to make a workaday or decorative object pleasing or to consecrate a magical or religious object.

But decorative art is not figurative art, which includes various elements: firstly, a mental element, which consists in recognising the resemblance given and taking pleasure in stating it - that is, imitation. Subsequently, a gesture of selection or reiteration, directed by the desire to preserve for oneself, to improve or to reproduce the image apprehended - that is, duplication.

See also: Oldest Stone Age Art: Top 100 Artworks.

Sources of Prehistoric Figurative Art

Imitation is connected with deep psychological needs; every being tends to harmonise with its background by an unconscious mimetic urge. There is genuine imitation among the higher animals: two animals incite each other to reproduce their actions mutually by example. Some of them, parrots and monkeys for instance, even imitate types widely different from their own. This kind of aping is a spontaneous pantomime which in certain phases of existence can lead to a sort of game or drama: for example, the kitten which chases a dead leaf, the puppy which snatches at a stick as if it is his real prey. In the same way children have an extraordinary propensity for mimicry, and even for drama.

The instinct of children and primitive peoples which drives them to imitate the walks and cries of various animals corresponds to the imitative phase of art, which presupposes an appreciation of the plastic likeness in action.

Hunting camouflage introduces another element: disguise, which may also spring from the desire to increase the resemblance to the animal. Such disguises have certainly played an enormous part among hunting peoples. The animals' actual remains have supplied the raw material (for the Eskimos, the reindeer; for the North American Indians, the wolf; for the Bushmen, the ostrich).

The success of these stratagems has been interpreted in terms of hunting magic; the mask was considered to have supernatural power, and the imitative dances in which it was used were thought to confer power over the coveted animal. (See: Tribal Art).

The idea of likeness has other concomitant sources. Facial decoration has given rise in New Zealand to a closely parallel series; there, all figurative and even decorative art derives from the tattooed human face which has regenerated the other parts of the body. And there is another very rich source of the hunting peoples: the intentional observation and reproduction of the footprints of men or animals on the ground. The oldest engraved rocks of South Africa are sometimes covered with them. Other traces have been left by the human hand dipped in colour and pressed on a rock.

To bring out the hand, use was also made of the stencil process: outlines of hands surrounded by colours. Then people began to draw hands directly, instead of using these primitive procedures.

From Hand-prints to Works of Art

At the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic men extracted the clayey deposit from the walls of certain caves. Their fingers as they plunged into the soft material left grooves of varying depth or holes side by side; these were not art - merely marks. The Aurignacians observed them; they noted the regularity of these imprints, the rhythm of the deep punctuations, of the parallel lines, and they reproduced them, no longer for the purpose of removing the clay but for themselves. They took pleasure in repeating them, complicating them and increasing their decorative value. (Note: for details, see: Prehistoric hand stencils and handprints.) That other ideas superimposed their influence on the preliminary step and transformed an aesthetic whim into ritual is quite possible and indeed, probable here as it was for figurative art.

Hand Stencils and Other Handprints

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.

Line Drawing

If the Aurignacians traced numerous decorative meanders in the caves of Gargas (Pyrenees), Homos de la Peiia (Spain), etc.) certain of their contemporaries made the same discoveries elsewhere. Fingers smeared with ochre or clay leave four parallel lines when they are trailed across a blank rock surface. This was the origin of the meandering lines in the La Pileta Cave (near Malaga), the equivalent of the 'macaronis' of Gargas. If the idea of resemblance was born in the minds of the people who doodled like this, then, just as children do, they interpreted their marks on the spot and subsequently completed them to increase the likeness they had observed. Then they were able to reproduce the outline intentionally, and line drawing proper began.

The transition must have been made quickly, for scarcely any definite examples have been found; the first figures are extremely simple but already frankly naturalistic. It is true that during the same period the Aurignacians were already carving remarkable statuettes of people in ivory and stone (eg. the Venus of Galgenberg) and soon after, were making bas-reliefs as well (eg. the limestone Venus of Laussel, c.23,000).

Once the idea of resemblance was implanted, the systematic interpretation of irregular rocks, stones and pieces of wood with natural forms could develop. We see numerous examples of this as from the Aurignacian. The resemblances were accentuated by touching up or by adding lines. At first statuettes were made from clay, which was easy to handle, then from more durable materials.


Figurative Art

Starting from the instinct for the active imitation of the living by the living and from the feeling for likeness which is inherent in it, it developed first of all through dramatic art and disguises using animal remains, then from man-made masks which established their own autonomy.

When the mind was sufficiently evolved to interpret figuratively the imprints left by fingers trailed across walls, it passed on to the free representation which developed later in Paleolithic drawing and painting.

While the figurative art which we saw in the mask, the tattooed face, and foot-print or hand-print resulted only in highly conventional patterned creations, visual realism predominated in the drawings issuing from the interpretation of the smears which were later reproduced deliberately, and in the drawings and carvings stemming from accentuated natural irregularities, as well as in the subsequent figurines. It developed more particularly among peoples living by hunting, in which eyesight plays a vital role.

Relief Sculpture

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 stunning 13-metre long Cap Blanc frieze (15,000 BCE) in the Dordogne; 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.

Rock Engravings

Although little can compare with the magnificent black bulls of Lascaux, or the glorious multi-coloured bison at Altamira Cave, prehistoric artists within the region of Franco-Cantabrian cave art 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.

Cave Murals

That is how the great mural art for which the prehistoric caves are famous would seem to have originated. It was independent of the art of small contemporary objects in which human statuary, derived from fur dolls, was already widespread.

A profound knowledge of animal shapes formed the basis of this artistic reaction. In the course of their eventful lives, the hunters of mammoths, rhinoceroses, bears, big stags, etc., accumulated a wealth of powerful visual and dynamic impressions. They were the men who created and developed the mural art of the French caves, of the rock shelters of the Spanish Levant and Italy, of the engraved and painted rocks of the Sahara and South Africa: in every case it was big-game-hunting man who engendered naturalistic art. For the oldest figurative pictures, see the Fumane Cave paintings (35,000 BCE), although note that the very earliest cave painting was purely abstract: see, for instance, the red-dots among the El Castillo cave paintings, dating to 39,000 BCE.)

Paleolithic art, then, experienced an extraordinary flowering in western Europe. Its unfolding was almost identical in places considerable distances apart: from the Yonne to the Straits of Gibraltar and from Sicily to the Gulf of Gascony, but especially in the regions of Aquitaine and the French Pyrenees and in their western Cantabrian extension. All these works of art can first be dated in relation to geological times. (It is obvious that drawings of extinct animals or animals which have moved elsewhere are contemporary with those animals or are modern forgeries. Partial or entire submergence in an untouched piece of ground and the existence of stalagmitic exudations covering them are adequate arguments for dismissing fraud.) Their evolution can be followed with relative precision.

After comparatively mediocre beginnings dominated by conventions (frontal horns on a body in profile; legs on one side of the body only, concealing the other pair, etc.) Quaternary art exhibited an increasingly lively feeling for animal forms. From the Perigordian onwards, in the painted silhouettes of Lascaux where the red, black or bistre patch applied with a kind of primitive air-brush was outlined in black, the development was astonishing.

After a break in our information corresponding to the first two-thirds of the Solutrean, we rediscover mural art with bas-reliefs reduced to incised outlines (Les Combarelles), which easily led to shallow engraving on the over-hard rock of the Pyrenean and Cantabrian regions. Soon the latter became graffiti of no great importance - although the purity of outline is charming (Marsoulas, Teyjat, Font-de-Gaume) - and gave way to painting, which continued to develop. After the achievements of the Perigordian, mural art reverted to simple black line-drawings, as if in charcoal; later the line grew firmer and thicker; the down strokes and up strokes were differentiated. Then hatching developed; colours were modelled. The naive realism of the first phases tended to disappear before the calligraphic techniques of the various schools; this sometimes resulted in a search for violent attitudes which led to mannerism - at Altamira, for example, where the painting makes use of the rock formations to convey the illusion better. From around 17,000 BCE genuine polychromy was established by surrounding, with a powerful black line, modelled areas of various colours ranging from bistre to vermilion via purplish and orange tones. It was the culminating point of Magdalenian art, which was to die a sudden death.

In its final phases, this art resumed the linear style of the Aurignacian. The Mediterranean infiltration which was beginning was to give birth to the Azilian culture, but these newcomers, primarily fishermen and collectors of snails and shellfish, did not have the powerful creative imagination of the great hunters.

It was not individual caprice which produced the painted caves. Even if a few outstanding individuals may have been needed at the very beginning to lay the ground-work for the discovery of artistic expression, the development of mural art was evidence of an exceptional collective interest and control.

The whole of western Europe was won over by the first illumination of beauty, born of the spark of genius of a few; but this upsurge was 'standardised' in rites considered as fundamental by all the Franco-Cantabrian tribes.

Nevertheless eastern Spain, almost isolated from France by the Pyrenees which were once again impassable as a result of glaciation, followed a different path and, probably owing to a mixture of Aurignacian traditions and African art, (Capsian culture), ended up with a rock art in which pictures with several figures together are common, in which the human figure, hunting, making war or in his family or social life, is multiplied as in South African art.

It is not impossible that Western naturalistic art made contact with the Capsian and Neolithic pre-Egyptian world. We may also assume a parallel appearance in Africa of an art of hunters who, becoming pastoral in the north (see the decoration of the rock shelters in the Libyan desert and the Sahara), supplied the foundations for the development of proto-Egyptian and Cretan art. The existence of contacts between the Upper Paleolithic men of Parpallo (Valencia) and the Africans is highly probable. The origin of Saharan naturalistic rock art - mostly Neolithic - and its relations with the Upper Paleolithic art of western Europe remain open questions, as does that of its relations to the south-east with the rock art of Tanganyika and South Africa.

For an example of cave painting during the Magdalenian period, see the famous Rouffignac Cave (14,000 BCE) and the Kapova Cave (12,500 BCE), both noted for their red ochre and/or black manganese pictures of woolly mammoths. See also Tito Bustillo Cave (14,000 BCE), noted for its red and black horses.

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.

Invention of Pottery Pushed Back by 10,000 Years
Since the late 1990s, archeological evidence obtained from Stone Age sites in China and Japan shows that ancient pottery was not invented at the start of the Neolithic (c.8,000 BCE) but much earlier, during the Paleolithic era. The world's oldest example of clay-fired ceramic ware is the Xianrendong Cave Pottery, dating to 18,000 BCE, followed by Yuchanyan Cave Pottery, dating to 16,000 BCE. This was followed by Vela Spila Pottery (15,500 BCE) from the Balkans and the Amur River Basin Pottery (14,300 BCE) from Russia's Far East. Meantime, in Japan, clay-fired ceramic pots, known as Jomon Pottery appeared from about 14,500 BCE. For a comprehensive list of dates and other chronological material, please see: Pottery Timeline (26,000 BCE - 1900).

Prehistoric Abstract Geometrical Art

Cave art in the Upper Paleolithic developed with a keen observation of nature and an extraordinary degree of fidelity to it, but side by side with this development artists of varying efficiency and vitality copied and distorted the works from which they drew their inspiration. This resulted in the modification, destruction and sometimes even the reversal of the meaning of naturalistic figures, until they were reduced to the role of minimalist pictographs or ornamental motifs.

NOTE: Abstract signs outnumber figurative images in Paleolithic cave art by at least 2:1. One particularly interesting symbol is the "Placard-type" sign (bird-like or aviform sign), named after the Solutrean Le Placard Cave (17,200 BCE). For more about the location and prevalence of these symbols, see: Prehistoric Abstract Signs (40,000-10,000 BCE).

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.

It is not uncommon to find on one and the same object all the transitions from a recognisable figure to a complete stylisation. These valuable pieces give us the key to many others such as the head of a goat-like animal, from Massat, or the stick from La Madeleine decorated with horses' heads which gradually turn into ovals.

Nevertheless, these diagrams do not result only from the degeneration of better executed drawings. Stylised figurative art, as scholars have shown, springs from a genuine realism which is not visual but of the conceptual type observable among children. During the Upper Paleolithic it existed side by side with and independent of the great naturalistic art. The significance of these simplified figures is not easy to define. The elements of this original stylised art greatly enriched ornamental art from the beginning of the Magdalenian.


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.

But decorative art had still other sources. In the course of removing the meat from big game, man accidentally traced parallel lines on the bones by steady, successive blows with a flint. From the later Mousterian onwards, both at La Quina and at La Ferrassie, there have been occasional finds of bones incised with careful parallel lines which are evidence no longer of a chance result of butchery but of intentional work which transposed a fortuitous line into decoration.

When the working of bone, ivory and reindeer-horn developed widely in the Aurignacian and then in the Solutrean and Magdalenian, its technique became more accurate and to the accidental traces of dismemberment were added those caused by cutting up these raw materials to make narrow, elongated tools out of them.

Certain objects such as spears were meant to be fixed to a stave. This produced other elements by which decoration profited: transverse incisions or flanges to ensure the firmness of the fastenings; incisions or grooves on the surfaces in contact with the shaft to make the adhesive substance stick more firmly. The habit of seeing a binding round a stick also resulted on various occasions in its being copied in a carved representation.

One of the most certain origins of the geometrical decoration of many Neolithic vases in both worlds comes from the first pots, (eg. Jomon Culture ceramics, the earliest form of Japanese Art) often supported in baskets which were destroyed by the firing and whose weaving left its trace on the belly. When the basket was superseded, the zig-zags of its imprints were imitated by hand out of sheer force of habit. (See also Chinese Pottery).

Thus decorative art was born of the ornamental transposition of elements of technical origin; it was enriched with the residues of other elements, also technical but fallen into disuse and ornamentalised - or from the decorative imitation of neighbouring techniques; it made use of primitive diagrams by amalgamating and separating them; it reached its apogee by altering for its own enhancement elements borrowed from great art - mutilating, debasing, re-grouping and dissociating them.

Fertility Symbols

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 BCE).

Post-Paleolithic Art

What was the fate of art after the great Magdalenian phase? The years between the epoch when Upper Paleolithic man hunted the last herds of reindeer in south-western Europe and the age when semi-civilised invaders ploughed the first furrows there and put the first flocks out to pasture, make up the Mesolithic and the Neolithic.

It must be admitted, however, that there were already pastoral and agricultural Neolithic men in Africa and Asia Minor at a time when Europe's Upper Paleolithic was at its zenith.

The so-called Neolithic peoples were in reality the issue of Upper Paleolithic tribes which had migrated. Their migration was related to the improved climate in what were previously glacial regions. Also, the progressive drying-up of vast regions now deserted but where there once had been abundant rainfall forced the tribes which had formed at the end of the Quaternary and were already pastoral or agricultural to seek new lands for their flocks and crops.

In the classical regions of the Upper Paleolithic, such as south-western France and north-western Spain, several successive cultural waves have been recorded, differing widely from one another from the point of view of the evolution of art: the Azilian culture affords an instructive contribution.

In the cave of Mas d' Azil (Ariege), superimposed on a layer of late Magdalenian material there appears a category of characteristic objects, consisting of pebbles which are either painted or engraved, or both. They are also found at the same level in other caves in the French Pyrenees and in Perigord; and others, possibly of an even earlier date, have been found in several caves in the north. It is quite possible that further careful research might disclose them at any level of the European Upper Paleolithic, for the painted caves have on their walls groups of dots or bars and signs similar to those on the pebbles.

The caves of Castillo and Niaux enable us to observe that at an earlier epoch certain artists already possessed a large repertory of conventional signs from which the Azilian figures were derived. The origin of these painted pebbles, then, goes far back into the Upper Paleolithic, especially into that of the Mediterranean region, where tribes lived along the littoral, existing mainly by collecting shellfish, a labour requiring little effort.

The painted motifs are most frequently dots or bars in different groupings: crosses with one or two arms, barred circles, fern-leaves, rectangles with two diagonals, circles with a central dot, and a few rare alphabetiform signs: E, F, etc. The painted pebbles mark a first stage in stylised art.

Iberian Rock Paintings

When we first had the opportunity to study the paintings of the valley of Batuacas, we noted the striking similarity of the dots or bars aligned in series to the paintings on stones from the Mas d' Azil. In fact, it is possible to interpret the Mas d' Azil symbols in the light of the less stylised Spanish rock figures which generally represent human forms: the double or triple chevron comes close to the diagram of a seated man; the single or two-armed cross and the ladder-shaped sign with a single vertical cutting through the middle of a large number of rungs recall an upright man. There are too many agreements between the series for their origins to be separate.

In our existing state of knowledge, prehistoric Iberian art seems to present the following picture: in Upper Paleolithic times there existed on the Peninsula an Atlantic province, primarily Cantabrian, but which also spread into Castile and extended as far as southern Andalusia, to La Pileta, for example, and the neighbourhood of Malaga and Cadiz; its naturalistic art was the geographical extension of the Aurignacio-Magdalenian art of the Upper Paleolithic in the south-west of France.

Altamira is the most famous example. Nevertheless, at an early date it yielded a profusion of schematic signs which are found again, only in very small numbers and at a late date, from the Pyrenees to the Dordogne, and more rarely in the latter. La Pileta is particularly rich in numerous and varied early signs.

The second artistic region of Paleolithic Iberia was almost exclusively Mediterranean: it extended from Catalonia to the province of Almeria. Although, through its splendid animal paintings, this is a particular development of Upper Paleolithic art - notably of Franco-Cantabrian cave art - it is distinguished from it, as we have already mentioned, by the abundance and the animated nature of equally realistic but summarily treated human figures - the product of complex figurative scenes of hunts and battles. It should be noted that certain stylised elements which preceded the realistic figures in some cases - at Minateda (Albacete) for example - are found in ever greater numbers towards the end of this art and appear to arise from a mixture with coastal Mediterranean influences, which become more and more numerous in relation to the original more northerly element. The influence of Saharan and even South African paintings seems undeniable, but, on the other hand, this influence could have come to Africa from the Mediterranenan coast of Iberia.

The arrival, at the end of this period, of pastoral and agricultural Neolithic peoples enriched rock art with a number of new conventional elements; such as megaliths and the representations of the 'owl-headed' female figures of the dolmen world and the rectangular and triangular idols of the Iberian Neolithic, among others. This new tendency was most widespread in Andalusia, the Sierra Morena and Extremadura, in the south-west.

Ceramics, exemplified by Chinese pottery and forms of Japanese pottery, also emerged. For more details, see Traditional Chinese Art: Characteristics.

Megalithic art, in the form of coloured drawings on the one hand and rock engravings on the other, undoubtedly continued down to the beginning of the Bronze Age. This may have influenced Iron Age art like the abstraction of the Celtic Hallstat and La Tene styles.


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