Information on Paleolithic and Neolithic Art

This page is meant to be viewed by students who have already completed the activity Interpreting Paleolithic and Neolithic Art.

The art of the Upper Paleolithic represents the oldest form of prehistoric art. Figurative art is present in Europe as well as in Sulawesi, Indonesia, beginning at least 35,000 years ago. Non-figurative cave paintings, consisting of hand stencils and simple geometric shapes, is at least 40,000 years old.

According to a 2018 study based on uranium-thorium dating, the oldest examples of Iberian cave art were made as early as 64,000 years ago, implying Neanderthal authorship, which would qualify as art of the Middle Paleolithic.

The emergence of figurative art has been interpreted as reflecting the emergence of full behavioral modernity, and is part of the defining characteristics separating the Upper Paleolithic from the Middle Paleolithic. The discovery of cave art of comparable age to the oldest European samples in Indonesia has established that similar artistic traditions existed both in eastern and in western Eurasia at 40,000 years ago. This has been taken to suggest that such an artistic tradition must in fact date to more than 50,000 years ago, and would have been spread along the southern coast of Eurasia in the original coastal migration movement. It is important to note that most of the art of this period is expected to have been lost, as it was submerged in the early Holocene sea level rise.

Niaux
A. Grotte de Niaux.

This painting of a bison hunt is between 17,000 and 11,000 years old, dating from at the latest 9000 BCE.  It is located deep inside a cave in southern France known as Niaux, meaning that ancient humans would have needed to carry lit torches to reach this site.

A scholar has described this giant artwork, saying: “The predominating animal is the bison, represented in the upper part of the panel. The bison standing out in the left central part is usually catalogued as a female, due to the shapes presented, such as the scarcely prominent hump. By contrast and in opposition to this is the male, found on the right-hand side and showing a more prominent hump.

The lower part of the wall represents several horses which, with painted hair, represent a member of the equine family with a great amount of hair, the Przewalski. The bestiary is finished off with two goats.”

Laas_Geel
B. Laas Geel.

Laas Geel are cave formations on the rural outskirts of Hargeisa, Somaliland (situated in the Woqooyi Galbeed region of the self-declared but internationally unrecognised Republic of Somaliland). They contain some of the earliest known cave paintings in the Horn of Africa. Laas Geel’s rock art is estimated to date to somewhere between 9,000 and 3,000 years BCE.

Laas Geel rock – the paleolithic art is preserved under the pronounced overhang near the top of the formation.

Although the Laas Geel rock art had been known to the area’s inhabitants for centuries, its existence only came to international attention after the 2002 discovery.

The Laas Geel cave paintings are thought to be some of the most vivid rock art in Africa. Among other things, they depict cattle in ceremonial robes accompanied by humans, who are believed to have been inhabitants of the region. The necks of the cattle are embellished with a kind of plastron. Some of the cattle are also portrayed wearing decorative robes. Besides long-horned cattle, the rock art also shows an image of a domesticated dog, several paintings of Canidae as well as a giraffe. The site is excellently preserved due to the location of the paintings which are covered by the granite overhangs.

CuevaManos
C. Cueva de las Manos.

Cueva de las Manos is located in modern day Argentina. The art in the cave dates to between 11,000–7,000 BCE.

SantaCruz-CuevaManos-P2210079b
Canyon at the Pinturas River, view from the caves.

The images of hands are negative painted, that is, stencilled. Most of the hands are left hands, which suggests that painters held the spraying pipe with their right hand or they put the back of their right hand to the wall and held the spraying pipe with their left hand.

The age of the paintings was calculated from the remains of bone-made pipes used for spraying the paint on the wall of the cave, then discarded thousands of years ago on the cave floor.

Venus_von_Willendorf
D. Venus of Willendorf.

The Venus of Willendorf is an 11.1-centimetre-tall (4.4 in) figurine estimated to have been made 30,000 BCE. It was found on August 7, 1908 at a paleolithic site near Willendorf, a village in Austria. It is carved from an oolitic limestone that is not local to the area – meaning that it was probably traded for with people who lived far away – and tinted with red ochre.

Similar sculptures, first discovered in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are traditionally referred to in archaeology as “Venus figurines,” due to the widely-held belief that depictions of nude women with exaggerated sexual features represented an early fertility fetish, perhaps a mother goddess – an item with supernatural powers that  could help a man and woman conceive a child. The reference to Venus is metaphorical, since the figurines predate the mythological figure of Venus by many thousands of years.

800px-Willendorf-Venus-1468Like other similar sculptures, it probably never had feet, and would not have stood on its own, although it might have been pegged into soft ground. Parts of the body associated with fertility and childbearing have been emphasized, leading researchers to believe that the Venus of Willendorf may have been used as a fertility fetish. The figure has no visible face, her head being covered with circular horizontal bands of what might be rows of plaited hair, or perhaps a type of headdress.

Other scholars hypothesize that the figurines may have been created as self-portraits by women. This theory stems from the correlation of the proportions of the statues to how the proportions of women’s bodies would seem if they were looking down at themselves, which would have been the only way to view their bodies during this period. They speculate that the complete lack of facial features could be accounted for by the fact that sculptors did not own mirrors. This reasoning has been criticized by still others, who note that water pools and puddles would have been readily-available natural mirrors for Paleolithic humans.

Bradshaw_rock_paintings
E. Bradshaw Rock.

Bradshaw rock art or Gwion Gwion art is found in the northwest Kimberley region of Western Australia.  This particular piece is referred to by modern archeologists as tassel figures: identified by their characteristic tassels hanging from their arms and waists, various other accessories can be recognised, such as arm bands, conical headdresses and sometimes, boomerangs.

The Bradshaws are not the regions’ earliest paintings. The earlier art consists of crude animal drawings that are believed to be up to 40,000 years old. The Bradshaws have nothing in common with this earlier art and is dated between 26,500 and 20,000 years ago.

The height of the art is variable; most are between 40 and 50 cm in length with some examples up to 2 metres in height.

Artistically, Bradshaws are unusually advanced both in technique and style. Image processing has revealed that the outline of the Bradshaw figures are often painted first, then filled in. Engraving in the rock often follows the outlines of figures and may have served as a preliminary sketch which implies planning. Some faces of the figures are painted with anatomically correct features with enough detail to be considered portraits. Due to the fine detail and control found in the images, such as strands of hair painted in 1-2mm thicknesses, it has been suggested that feather quills may have been used as a technique to apply the paint to the rock walls; an imprint of a feather found at one site may support this possibility. No evidence has yet been found of any corrections or changes in composition during or after painting, while evidence of restoration has been found. In a detailed study of 66 Bradshaw panels, approximately 9% of the Bradshaw images have clearly been vandalized. Some were scratched with stones, some damaged by thrown stones, and some have been broken by hammering with large rocks.

What art will you leave behind as a testament to your presence on Earth?  Create your own piece of “rock art” – though please don’t paint it on the classroom wall – depicting the important things in your life.
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