Prehistoric cave paintings are as beautiful as they are mysterious. No one can be sure of their purpose, but they provide a tantalizing record of the earliest days of human existence, along with an insight into the first stirrings of art itself.
The oldest examples of prehistoric art date from the Upper Paleolithic. The first artists adorned their caves with a wide range of engravings and paintings. The latter were produced with a limited range of earthy colors–blues and greens were rarely available. The pigments were obtained mainly from mineral extracts, mixed with animal fat or blood.
The most popular subjects were animals. Human figures were less common and were generally portrayed in a more cursory manner. Abstract signs are plentiful, but are much harder to interpret. There is considerable debate over the purpose of the animal paintings. Some may have been decorative, but there are good reasons for believing that they fulfilled some ritual purpose. Often, they were produced in parts of a cave that were barely accessible, where they could never have been seen properly; sometimes, they were located in areas where no human debris has been found, suggesting that these were sacred spots, deliberately left uninhabited; in many cases, too, images were drawn on top of earlier paintings, which would detract from any decorative effect they might have. The most common theory is that the act of drawing the animals formed part of some magic ritual that was designed to bring the cavemen better hunting.
Lower Paleolithic Era – Appearance of the earliest forms of primitive humans.
Middle Paleolithic Era – Neanderthal era.
c38,000 BCE – Upper Paleolithic era Modern Humans appear. The earliest examples of cave paintings are created.
c15,000-c10,000 BCE – Magdalenian era, named after the La Madeleine site, in the Dordogne region of France. Produces the finest examples of cave painting in Europe.
c12,000-3000 BCE – Mesolithic era, or “Middle Stone Age”.
30,000 BCE – 10,000 BCE
Some of the finest European cave art was produced in southwestern France and northern Spain during the final phase of the Ice Age, from 15,000-10,000 BCE. The paintings at Altamira in Spain, which were discovered in 1879, are so well preserved that for many years archeologists doubted their authenticity. Most of the images depict bison, although there are also a number of horses and red deer.
The paintings at Lascaux in France were discovered accidentally, by four boys playing in the woods. The cave, which contains more than 600 paintings, boasts some of the most spectacular prehistoric artworks ever found, most notably in the celebrated “Hall of Bulls.” This is dominated by pictures of four black bulls, each measuring up to 16ft long. The cave complex at Chauvet in France also includes a remarkable array of animal paintings and is much older, dating back to around 30,000 BCE.
c40,000 BCE – ?
Australian art has a very long pedigree. Rock engravings at Wharton Hill and Panaramitee North in South Australia are thought to be more than 40,000 years old, while traces of pigment at Cape York in Queensland appear to date back to c25,000 BCE. Many Australian Aboriginal paintings are more difficult to date, however, as they have often been retouched on several occasions. Australian Aboriginals believed that the original designs had been formed by creation spirits during the Dreamtime–the ancestral past–when their shadows passed over the landscape. The most important concentrations of rock paintings can be found at Arnhem Land and Kimberley, near the northern coast, and Victoria in the south-east. The images usually consist of slender, anthropomorphic figures or “X-ray” paintings of animals.
c4000 BCE – c1500 BCE
The finest surviving examples of prehistoric African art are located remote, mountainous regions. In many cases, the sites were occupied for centuries, and contain thousands of paintings and engravings. At Tassel N’Ajjer in Algeria, paintings are so numerous that different periods can be detected. The earliest feature hunters pursuing animals that are now extinct. Following this, there are scenes of herdsmen tending cattle and, finally, images of more recent animals, such as horses and camels.
The most intriguing paintings, perhaps, were produced by San bushmen in the Drakensberg area. Some prehistorians believe these depict shamans and therianthropes (composite human and animal forms), involved in trance ceremonies with elands (large antelopes). The elands were thought to possess spiritual power, which shamans tried to harness through ritual dances and trances.
c30,000 BCE – c10,000 BCE
Alongside their rock art, early humans also produced a variety of portable objects. Weapons were often decorated with images of prey, presumably as a form of hunting magic. There was also an intriguing group of very ancient European sculptures known collectively as “Venus” figurines. Dating from the Paleolithic era (c35,000-8000 BCE), most of the statuettes represent women, but their purpose is still unknown.
More than a hundred of the figures have been found, at sites ranging from France to Russia. They generally have tiny legs and arms–indeed, the arms on the Willendorf figure, folded across her chest, are barely discernible. Most of the statuettes could not have stood independently, and it is possible that they were designed to be held in the hand.
Content for this article was taken from Art: Over 2,500 Works from Cave to Contemporary by DK Publishing. Copyright 2008.