Prehistoric Art, Imagined and Real

For those of us who work on prehistoric symbolic expressions, writing about Ice Age art is often an exercise in taming popular imagination. Archaeologists are well aware how much interest the topic generates, but also how much misinformation floats around it (Venus figurines were not the most common or popular form of art 20,000 years ago). This essay offers a simple roadmap, so as to provide a brief guide to anthropological attempts to understand the diverse and impressively long-lasting forms of symbolic expression generally labeled as “prehistoric art.” Here I will direct attention to three central issues that archaeologists discuss: 1) the emergence of artistic expression; 2) the geographic locations of materials; and 3) the various material forms of expression. I hope to leave the reader with a sense of awe, curiosity, and continuing questions, but questions rooted in factual information that we currently have.

Art and its origins

Art is a form of cultural communication. It is a type of language that helps people express ideas, mull over pressing issues and social values—to think through what matters to them the most. It is also a way to express sentiment: humor, anger, frustration, or express desire, sadness and longing. However, in order to communicate, we have to understand the vocabulary. No artists, whether current or one who lived ten thousand years ago, spend their days in isolation. Hence the vocabulary used to express ideas can only have an effect in a community that shares values, grasps the ideas, and is familiar with the ways of being. Words, thoughts and symbols are learned in interactions with others. One has to try them out and figure out when and how they convey a meaning, when they fall flat, generating either no response, or misunderstanding. Therefore one of the central issues in our conversations about the emergence of art has to involve social context. When we wish to talk about “the origins of art,” we have to ask, “When did people feel the need to communicate with others in symbolically enduring, material ways?” Be it painting, carving, or music, the importance of social, collective life is essential. Our earliest ancestors may have had the “capacity” to make all kinds of objects but what we imagine as art would only emerge alongside the need to say something socially meaningful and enduring in a shared material form.

One of the ongoing but also contentious scholarly debates about prehistoric art is the timing of the emergence of symbolic abilities. At the risk of oversimplification, we can divide this argument between those who suggest that artistic abilities developed gradually, over a long period of time (100,000 years or more), and those who argue for a “revolution,” a sudden change that occurred around 40-50,000 years ago. The central issue in this conversation is whether “art” is unique to our immediate species, Homo sapiens sapiens, or whether we shared this capacity with our close cousins, particularly the Neanderthals, who overlapped in time with early modern humans. If art developed gradually and slowly, then we need to entertain the possibility that it is not completely the domain of modern humans—that we might not be so special after all.

Beyond species level chronology we have questions about the geography of human creativity. For the past few decades the issue of authorship dominated the debate about the “origins of art.” Who were the first artists? The conversation became more complicated last year (2014) with the publication of the discovery of painted Maros Pangkep caves in Sulawesi, Indonesia with dates ranging between 17,000 to 40,000 years ago. The dating of hand stencils (39,900) or the whimsical looking, flying or dancing pig-deer (35,400) suggests that humans have been communicating through images for quite some time. Moreover these Sulwasi cave paintings give credence to those who argue that we need to look beyond Europe and the Mediterranean for origins of symbolic behavior, taking account of the rest of the world. Art may not only have emerged earlier than we thought, but also in many places independently, whether or not at the same time, or as a lasting tradition.

Even the apparently simple geographic question of “where did art first appear?” grows complex when combining evidence and definitions. If we continue to insist that “art” emerged full blown as a sudden revolution, it would likely place such birth in Europe and the Mediterranean, outside Africa or Asia. Yet if we accept a more gradualist perspective, then the recent finds of perforated beads, abalone shell with traces of paint, and engraved pieces of ochre at Blombos cave in South Africa—at the very tip of that continent and about as far away from Europe as one can get—push not only the boundary of time but also of geographic location. Dated to about 77,000 years ago, the portable ornaments and the large shell, which might have served as a painter’s palette for mixing colors, suggest that by the time modern humans migrated out of Africa and settled other regions of the world, they had well-developed symbolic capacities and, more importantly, used those abilities with enthusiasm. Where did some of those migrants go, and when did they start to express their thoughts, joys and fears in material symbols? These remain big questions for archaeologists in the 21st century. The Sulawesi caves fall into the range of European Paleolithic art—the Spanish cave El Castillo being currently the oldest at about 40,800 years. Yet these images are located in a very different direction from Europe, if heading out of Africa. Assuming that these ancestral people did not run to get to Indonesia as quickly as possible to paint the walls of Maros Pangkep, we are facing the exciting possibility of finding other older examples of prehistoric art in many other places in Asia. As a consequence, it looks increasingly likely that we have to rethink the idea of the “birth of art” being a singular event, located in one region

Ice Age art forms

Whether or not one is inclined to accept the possibility of greater antiquity and geographic distribution of symbolic expressions, the fact remains that around 45,000 years ago the amount and diversity of symbolic expressions appears to have dramatically increased. Were there many more people who had something to say to their companions? Did social life get more complex and some topics needed to be engraved, painted, made durable or made exclusive in hidden corners of caves? Was it an expression of commonality and shared values, or was it an expression of difference and standing apart from neighbors? Either way, this sudden upsurge of symbolic activity leads archaeologists to focus on the rich and sophisticated materials from the past forty thousand years, thus far mainly found in Central and Western Europe. Archaeological materials generally labeled as “prehistoric art” divides into two basic categories: portable objects and “parietal” art painted or carved on rock walls. This division enables us to talk about not only the objects themselves but also who might have made them and who might have had access to them once they were completed.

The most obvious characteristic of a cave or rock shelter wall is its immobility. Cave walls are locations that had to be visited; they were permanent markers on a landscape. Furthermore most of the sites we know are hidden landmarks. Whether one wishes to see the caves in France or Spain, or rock shelters in Italy or Portugal, the prehistoric paintings are not easily accessible or immediately visible. Rather, the images on cave walls only appear after at least a twenty minutes walk inside, through corridors and internal caverns that would have been light only with torches or small oil lamps. These contextual facts raise their own questions about production and reception for archaeologists. Were the drawings completed in one “sitting,” or through repeated visits? Were the results visible only in bits and pieces, images flickering, or did a large gathering with many torches allow a general viewing? The remote and relatively inaccessible location also meant that those who made the paintings could have kept it a secret, choosing a few select visitors who would come along for the experience. These are all possible scenarios, but we do know that since none of the images were removable, only stories about them could have travelled.

Portable carved objects present the perfect counterexample to cave wall paintings. Their central characteristic is that they are much smaller and literally portable, as most would easily slip into pouches or pockets, or attach to clothing. Nevertheless, despite these general features we do not know if they were personal or communal property, shared across either a small or large group. When taken together, fixed and portable art suggest different senses of authorship, audience, viewers, and possible practices associated with each. Having to walk into a dark space, through corridors and enclosed spaces, carrying paint, brushes and tools was most likely a different experience than carving a figurine or making a musical instrument, an activity that could have taken place anywhere, with a product would fit into the palm of a hand.

We have little to go on when trying to picture the first artists. There is little archaeological evidence for a claim that the art was made predominantly by either men or by women. Some of the hand stencils in painted caves are the size of a child’s hand, so we know that children were present. However, the skill and stylistic consistency displayed in most cave paintings or carvings suggests that a long learning period or an apprenticeship would likely have had to take place before one would have achieved the desired outcome. The images of horses or rhinos show not only a skilled painter but also a person greatly familiar with minute details of animal behavior—the flicker of a tail, the lowering of a head, or the movement of legs when galloping. Many portable objects were carved out of hard materials like ivory or stone, and their manufacture would require physical strength and hours of dedicated detailed work. Thus it seems probable that not all these artifacts resulted from child’s play, or indeed, from any one group or activity.

Painting in the dark for thousands of years

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

From IMDb: Werner Herzog gains exclusive access to film inside the Chauvet caves of Southern France and captures the oldest known pictorial creations of humanity.


We should never forget that cave paintings and carvings were made over the span of many thousands of years. That fact alone makes it harder to explain them with a single story, no matter how convincing or enticing. In the 1990s David Lewis-Williams, a South African rock art specialist, suggested “shamanic rituals” as the explanation for painted rock shelters in South Africa and later also painted caves in Europe. While this hypothesis generated a lot of discussion and may have some validity in some locations, the ultimate disagreement rested on the question whether “an explanation” can capture thousands of years of creativity. Each one of the objects deserves our full attention and educated guesses based on facts gathered through a range of scientific methods. Even the most famous and majestic painted caves display considerable variation. While the spectacular Lascaux cave in France remains the best-known site with prehistoric art, a few other fascinating locations illustrate the diversity and richness of these prehistoric sites. El Castillo, a cave in the Cantabria region of northern Spain, is currently the very oldest known painted cave with a distinct sequence of large red dots and hand stencils painted some 40,800 years ago. Chauvet cave (the subject of Werner Herzog’s 2010 film Cave of Forgotten Dreams) lies in the Ardèche region of Southwestern France, and dates to approximately 32,000 years ago. It is a cavern full of horses, bison, and bear, most exquisitely depicted in charcoal. Currently these are the two oldest examples of cave art that we know. Hundreds of miles apart, they are distinct and unique in a number of ways. They differ in stylistic terms, the dots and hands in El Castillo contrasting with the animals in Chauvet cave, and each featuring colors made out of different pigments of red and black. Yet should this really surprise us, given that well over 8,000 years separate the two? By way of comparison going back the same amount of time from our present would put us in the Neolithic, well before the ancient civilizations we see as leading to our own. Even if the rate of cultural change may have accelerated, it is hard for anthropologists to imagine hundreds of generations living in timeless uniformity.

From Wikipedia: The Cosquer cave is located in the Calanque de Morgiou in Marseille, France, not very far from Cap Morgiou. The entrance to the cave is located 37 m underwater, due to the rise of the Mediterranean [after] Paleolithic times. [Corrections made 08 July 2015.]

Another find that demands attention is the recently discovered Cosquer cave on the Mediterranean coast of France, not far from the modern French city of Marseille. Since the coast shifted quite dramatically since the Ice Age with rising sea levels, the cave is now only accessible to divers. Yet we know that throughout prehistory it occupied prime waterfront, as marine animals are uniquely represented among the paintings, including a now extinct form of penguin known as the Great Auk. Cosquer cave also features rare adult hand stencils with missing fingers, carvings as well as paintings decorating the walls and a large animal vocabulary with over 11 different species represented (nine appear in Lascaux and 14 in Chauvet cave). We also know that visits to the cave stretched over a long period of time, with paintings added for well over five thousand years. At the same time the site illustrates how much we have literally lost to the tides of time: due to the rising seawater the majority of the paintings in Cosquer cave have likely been destroyed by natural erosion. For a more accessible cave experience, I would direct any interested traveller to Niaux in the French Pyrenees, just south of the medieval town of Foix. Located high up above the valley with a spectacular view from the cave entrance, Niaux offers ample evidence of the range and complexity of ancient symbols. The walls at the entrance are decorated with hundreds of black and red geometric symbols, lines, dots, and dashes all placed in a pattern that remains an enigma to us. Deep inside one finds bison, ibex, horses with thick manes, as well as a rare image of a fish. Niaux is one of the more recent decorated caves, dated to some 12,000 to 15,000 years ago. Shortly afterward, for unknown reasons, the great Ice Age art wave ended.

The research to date and decipher cave paintings continues. We have made major strides in understanding the chemical composition of the paint used in the different caves, and this chemical analysis of the pigment has enabled us to date some of paintings. We consequently have a much better sense of the long duration of this particular genre of symbolic activity, which lasted some 30,000 years. We likewise recognize its complexity, as each cave had unique “recipes” to make the colors, with hematite, iron ores and charcoal as the starting base. We also have a better sense of the geographic distribution of the caves, which all appear to concentrate in southwestern Europe. Archaeologists continue to puzzle over why caves, present throughout Europe, were painted only in certain regions and remained blank in others. Do they represent a cultural region? Or might they be the legacy of series of successive, overlapping or competing traditions? Spectacular and shrouded in mystery, such caves should compel archaeologists to think about more than our own modern notions of “art galleries” or “temples.” At the same time, they also remind us of our own limits when it comes to understanding people who lived in the deep past.

A pocketful of symbols

Like decorated caves, the portable objects we have inherited from prehistory display remarkable variety and endurance over thousands of years. However, unlike the geographically restricted cave paintings, carved, perforated or otherwise shaped objects appear to have been widespread in the deep past, as they have been found all across Europe and in Africa and Asia as well. They are older than the painted caves, dating to at least 70,000 years ago, and relatively more abundant. A few female figurines, labeled with the unfortunate moniker “Venus figurines,” have dominated popular imagination, particularly those found at Willendorf in Austria (24,000 years old), Dolní Věstonice in the Czech Republic (27,000 years), Hohle Fels in Germany (40,000 years), Lespugue (24,000 years) or Brassempouy (22,000 years) in France or Kostenki in Russia (24,000 years). However, they only represent a small fraction of the much larger array of portable prehistoric art.

The carved items suggest that prehistoric symbolic communication was sophisticated and complex for thousands of years, while displaying distinct and changing aesthetic conventions. Early on, we find drilled animal teeth and seashells in large quantities, either connected to form necklaces or bracelets, or attached to clothing and headdresses. Tooth size and type of animal appear to be carefully selected and matched; these were not random remnants of someone’s dinner, recycled or repurposed. Ivory (valued by many cultures to this day) was another popular material, used for buttons, small plaques and figurines. Strikingly, seashells also appear with great frequency, often at inland sites, far from any coast. Was this a memory of the visit to the shore hundreds of miles away, or the result of exchange with a traveler telling tales about those distant places? We find fossil shells incorporated into decorative ensembles, and even replicas of seashells were made out of bone. The longing for an ocean view may have deeper roots than we can fathom. Or perhaps some feature of the material itself beguiled ancient peoples; beyond their visual appeal seashells and bone ornaments are all smooth and warm to touch, especially when rubbed. Archaeologists are increasingly paying attention to other human senses besides vision when thinking about the experience of prehistoric art. The acoustics of caves, the sounds some objects make when suspended, the touch of materials, and the smells associated with certain locales are finding their way into scholarly discussion, enlarging the scope of our collective imagination.

Carved figurines, displaying a clear representational aesthetic, appear in greater quantities after 40,000 years ago. The German sites of Vogelherd and Geisenklosterle offer some of the best-known early examples of this early symbolic expressions, with exquisitely shaped and perfectly proportioned, horse, mammoth, rhino or lion figurines, none more than two inches tall, . The “Löwenmensch” (a lion person) figurine from another German site, Hohlenstein Stadel, has fascinated scholars since the 1930s. After decades of painstaking work to piece together its many fragments, the item has been reassembled into a 30 cm tall half human, half lion, standing figurine carved out of ivory. This figurine would have taken months to make, and required notable skills and strength, as demonstrated by the carving of a replica. The meaning of the human animal hybrid remains speculative, but many argue it reflects some form of animist belief in a human animal connected world. In any case a tie to animal forms is appropriate when considering the wider array of prehistoric symbolic expression. Fascinated as we may be by depictions of the human form, animals and geometric designs dominate the overall collection.


A tiny soapstone replica of a human animal hybrid sits in a seashell on my desk. I may never know what this object meant to the person who made it. Yet every day when I look at the warm reddish brown figurine, less than two inches high, it reminds me the degree of skill and imagination that already existed some 20 or 30, 000 years ago. Like its more famous cousins, the painted caves and the female figurines, it both invites interpretation and ultimately resists it. These ancient artifacts still humble us, suggesting that despite all the expanding array of modern technology, all the advances of science, some things may forever lie just beyond our grasp. Yet they also push the boundaries of our imagination, offering glimpses of different ways of being in the distant past. This elusive legacy, perhaps, is the most enduring legacy of prehistoric art.

Read more

For readers interested in more detailed studies of the mentioned sites or archeological materials I recommend:

  • Bahn, Paul G. 2010. Prehistoric Rock Art: Polemics and Progress. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bahn, Paul G., and Jean Vertut 1997. Journey through the Ice Age. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Bradley, Richard 2009. Image and Audience: Rethinking Prehistoric Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Clottes, Jean and J. David Lewis-Williams 1998. The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves. New York: Abrams.
  • Conkey, Margaret W., Olga Soffer, Debora Stratman, and Nina Jablonski (eds.) 1997. Beyond Art: Pleistocene Image and Symbol. San Francisco, Calif. Berkeley: California Academy of Sciences. Distributed by University of California Press.
  • Lewis-Williams, David J. 2002. A Cosmos in Stone: Interpreting Religion and Society Through Rock Art. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
  • Nowell, April 2006. From a Paleolithic Art to Pleistocene Visual Cultures, Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 13 (4): 239-249
  • Tomášková, Silvia 2013. Wayward Shamans: The Prehistory of an Idea. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • White, Randall 2003. Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Humankind. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

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