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 in the 21st cent. by discovery and dating of art 40,000 years old and older in caves in Indonesia, on Sulawesi and Borneo. Some of the images—hand stencils and cattlelike animals (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. A hunting scene, discovered on Sulawesi, has been dated as 44,000 years old, and a hand stencil found in a Borneo cave may be as much as 58,000 years old. What may be the oldest known drawing by H. sapiens, a crosshatched design in red ocher on a flake of smooth rock found in a South African cave, has been dated to 73,000 years ago; carving with a similar pattern as well as tools for producing ocher paint, both dating to 100,000 years ago, have been found in the same cave.
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).
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