The Prehistoric Imagination

By Vialou, Denis | UNESCO Courier, April 1998 | Go to article overview

The Prehistoric Imagination

Vialou, Denis, UNESCO Courier

Prehistoric art combines unity of subject and technique with an astonishing symbolic diversity in different cultures and periods

Prehistoric art was an art closely bound up with the lives of the hunters and herdsmen who created it, an art of nature and, first and foremost, an art of the open air. Scattered all over the world are millions of rock-art sites bearing witness to the creative activities of human beings over a period stretching back at least ten millennia into prehistory. The art in question consists of engravings and, to a lesser extent (probably because they have not been so well conserved), drawings and paintings, on surfaces that vary from region to region in accordance with their geological characteristics - single boulders or blockfields (boulder-covered areas), flat rocks and laterite surfaces, protruding parts of mountainsides or the walls of rock shelters. In comparison with this abundance of rock art in open-air sites, there are relatively few examples in caves.

By contrast, the art of Palaeolithic Europe and especially that of the Magdalenian period (17,000-10,000 years ago) is mainly to be found underground. About 250 caves decorated with paintings or engravings have so far been discovered, mainly in France and Spain, as against ten or so open-air sites, either engraved rocks or shelters decorated with carvings. Unlike the art, open to light and life, created by societies on the move, the parietal (i.e.wall) art of the caves is hidden away in the dark depths of the earth.

The symbolic conquest of the dark

Signs of prehistoric human habitation discovered in cave mouths in the nineteenth century lent credence to the old myth of the cave man. In actual fact, however, the great hunters of the Palaeolithic never lived or stayed for long in dark caves, and indeed it would be impossible for humans to live there for long. This only serves to emphasize the symbolic significance of the parietal art which was invented by Palaeolithic painters and engravers and of which they became masters. These artists must have enjoyed a high status in society by virtue of their skills and of the fact that they gave expression to the lore and beliefs of the communities to which they belonged.

The artists of the Gravettian culture (25,00020,000 years ago), named after the La Gravette site in south-western France, were the first to dare set foot in caves, some ten of which have so far been reconnoitred, but they never ventured too far in and away from daylight. The Pair-non-Pair cave (in France's Gironde departement) with its dozens of engravings and the Gargas cave (Haute-Garonne, France), which contains both engravings and paintings (outlines of hands), are splendid examples of the work of these pioneers. The artists of the Solutrean period (21,000-18,000 years ago), named after the La Solutre site, also in France, were scarcely more adventurous: fewer than twenty caves decorated by them have been found in France and Spain, but on the other hand they were remarkably skilful at creating low-relief carvings at sites in the open air.

The examples of Magdalenian parietal art scattered about the chambers and galleries of caves, some of them vast (those at Rouffignac in France's Dordogne region, for instance, stretch for several kilometres), show that the Magdalenians had acquired and perfected the skills required for working underground: they used bowls hollowed out of stone, usually limestone, filled with animal fat and with wicks made of vegetable material, as lamps that, as recent experiments have shown, could burn for several hours.

Cave art and cave architecture

With one or more entrances, chambers, galleries and one or more accessible extremities, caves are an ordered and restricted space in which to work, unlike open-air shelters, which provide a more or less vertical, two-dimensional surface like a screen blocking out the horizon, and even less like an open area of more or less horizontal rock. …

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