Paleolithic art

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Paleolithic art

Paleolithic art (pā´lēəlĬth´Ĭk, –lēō–, păl´–), art produced during the Paleolithic period. Study and knowledge of this art largely have been confined to works discovered at many sites in W Europe, where the most magnificent examples are paintings in a number of caves in N Spain and S France, but Paleolithic cave art also has been found in Indonesia. It is not known if cave art was part of the cultural heritage of Homo sapiens as they spread from Africa into Asia and Europe or if it developed independently in various regions, but the earliest evidence for the use of pigments, found in S South Africa, dates to more than 160,000 years ago. Dating of certain cave art and ornamental artifacts found at a number of Spanish sites indicates that Neanderthals (H. neandertalensis) also created artwork.

Most of the European works that constitute the bulk of the known Paleolithic art were produced during two overlapping periods. The Aurignacio-Perigordian (c.14,000–c.13,500 BC) includes the powerful Lascaux cave paintings in SW France, the outdoor sculpture at Laussel, and small female figurines, known as Venuses, found at several sites. The second period, the Solutreo-Magdalenian (c.14,000–c.9500 BC), includes the murals at Rouffignac and Niaux, also in SW France, and the ceiling of the cave at Altamira, N Cantabria, Spain, the Magdalenian's crowning masterpiece. The great cave complexes Altamira and Lascaux were discovered by accident in 1879 and 1940, respectively.

The painting styles, known as Franco-Cantabrian and ascribed to Cro-Magnon man, embrace a variety of techniques, including painting with fingers, sticks, and pads of fur or moss; daubing; dotting; sketching with colored materials and charcoal; and spray painting through hollow bone or by mouth. Several pigments were used, and foreshortening and shadowing were skillfully employed. Images were often crowded close to and on top of each other, sometimes with obvious respect for previously applied paintings. Irregular surfaces were decorated in relief. Separate styles, presumably from different eras, can be discerned, more than ten at Lascaux alone.

In most of the Paleolithic caves from these periods animal figures (mainly horses, bison, cattle, and hinds) predominate, suggesting that the art may have had ritual significance related to hunting; there are few group or hunting scenes, however, and human figures are extremely rare. Drawn with the vitality and elegance of great simplicity, the animals are among the masterworks of prehistoric art and are of an accuracy that provides invaluable evidence to paleozoologists. Some of Lascaux's painted rooms show no signs of human habitation and may have been used for ritual. Engravings on soft stone, bone, and ivory, as well as low reliefs and a few freestanding sculptures, have been found in or near many of these caves.

Another style predominates in E Spain and bears a strong resemblance to the rock carvings and paintings of N and S Africa. The pictures, drawn chiefly in silhouette, are found on the walls of shallow rock shelters and are usually small; they depict human as well as animal figures in scenes of hunting, fighting, ceremonial, ritual, and domestic activities. This art seems to have reached its peak in the Mesolithic period.

A third style, largely of Aurignacian origin, ranges from France to W Siberia and consists almost entirely of small sculptured figures of animals and human beings. The latter are chiefly female, often abnormally voluptuous, and are generally regarded as fertility goddesses; one of the most famous is the Venus of Willendorf, Austria, which is approximately 24,000 years old. The oldest such work found so far, a tiny (less than 2.5 in./6.35 cm), squat, and blatantly sexual ivory statuette of a woman, was discovered (2008) in a cave in SW Germany and has been dated as at least 35,000 years old. It is the most ancient of some 25 similar carvings found since the 1940s in the region.

In 1994 and 1999 richly decorated limestone caves were discovered at Grotte Chauvet in central S France—again by accident. The stone engravings and many paintings, long thought to be the most ancient known, c.32,000 years old, depict lions, rhinoceroses, bears, horses, and other creatures with bold realism. During the late 1990s and early 2000s more than 20 ivory figurines depicting animals and birds and dating from approximately the same period, were discovered at sites in Swabia, SW Germany.

Since then, however, improved dating led scientists to conclude that a single red dot in a cave in El Castillo, N Spain, was more than 40,800 years old; hand stencils there are more than 37,300 years old. The first known migration of early modern human beings into Europe is contemporary with the red dot, but it is not known if they or Neanderthals made it. Subsequently, scientists have dated hand stencils and geometric cave art at three other Spanish sites to at least 65,000 years ago, predating the known arrival of H. sapiens, and two pigment-stained seashells perforated for a necklace or other use have been dated to c.115,000 years ago.

Europe's standing as the presumptive birthplace of cave art by H. sapiens was challenged by the 2014 identification of art at least 40,000 years old in caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The images—hand stencils (c.40,000 years old), piglike animals (c.35,400 years old), and human figures and hoofed animals (c.27,000 years old)—indicate that art was created in both Europe and Asia by H. sapiens at equally early times.

The damp climate of the British Isles is believed to have caused the destruction of most of the islands' Paleolithic art, but some examples have survived. In the first years of the 21st cent. archaeologists discovered what was believed to be the earliest extant works of prehistoric art in Great Britain, engravings of two birds (possibly a crane or swan and a bird of prey) and an ibex, in a cave at Creswell Crags, Derbyshire. They were carved some 12,000 years ago, and are done in a style similar to that of contemporary works on the continent. The engravings are neither as old nor as accomplished as continental examples. An even older work, a wall carving of a speared reindeer, was discovered in 2010 in a cave on the Gower peninsula of Wales. It is estimated that the image was done more than 14,000 years ago, making it the oldest rock art found in Britain to date.

See studies by A. Leroi-Gourhan (tr. 1967, repr. 1982), J. Van Tilbura (1981), and D. Mazonowicz (1984); P. G. Bahn, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art (1997); D. Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (2002); R. White, Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Humankind (2003).

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Paleolithic art
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.