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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Lobbying for the Compromise of 1850

This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

“the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 penalized officials who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave, and made them liable to a fine of $1,000 (about $29,000 in present-day value). Law-enforcement officials everywhere were required to arrest people suspected of being a runaway slave on as little as a claimant‘s sworn testimony of ownership. The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf.[6] In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Officers who captured a fugitive slave were entitled to a bonus or promotion for their work.

Slave owners needed only to supply an affidavit to a Federal marshal to capture an escaped slave. Since a suspected slave was not eligible for a trial, the law resulted in the kidnapping and conscription of free blacks into slavery, as suspected fugitive slaves had no rights in court and could not defend themselves against accusations.”


You’ve probably grown up seeing political ads on TV.  Most of these are sponsored by PACs or Political Action Committees – groups that aren’t candidates in an election, but wish to influence the outcome with money spent on advertisements.

Imagine that TV and PACs existed in 1850.  Create a television spot either opposing or supporting the Compromise of 1850.  In your ad, be sure to explain the components of the compromise.  Also mention the alternatives – do you have a better plan, or are there alternatives worse than the unpalatable elements found in the compromise.  Be creative, but in order to get 100% on this assignment, in addition to taking an editorial point of view, you will need to include lots of rich historical details, such as who in Congress supports this compromise, who opposes it, and why.TV ads should be one to two minutes in length. They may be filmed and uploaded to YouTube or performed in class. 

For writing (Approximately 250 words): In politics, is it better to compromise to solve disputes, even if that compromise is ugly, or is it better to “stay the course” – sticking to your beliefs about what is right, no matter what, even if it means greater conflict and division?  Make sure that your answer uses historical examples such as the Compromise of 1850.

The Real Oregon Trail

This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.
The Oregon Trail.

The Oregon Trail was a 2,170-mile, historic East–West, large-wheeled wagon route and emigrant trail in the United States that connected the Missouri River to valleys in Oregon.From the early to mid-1830s (and particularly through the years 1846–69) the Oregon Trail and its many offshoots were used by about 400,000 settlers, farmers, miners, ranchers, and business owners and their families. 

The Oregon Trail is a computer game developed by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium and first released in 1985. It was designed to teach students about the realities of 19th-century pioneer life on the Oregon Trail.  In the game, the player assumes the role of a wagon leader guiding a party of settlers from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon‘s Willamette Valley via a covered wagon in 1848.

Play several rounds of the game, embedded below.  While you play, devise a research question about the real life Oregon Trail. For example, what was the leading cause of death for pioneers traveling west?  Are there many grave markers left along the old route of the trail, and if so, what do they say? What was hunting like in the 1800s, and what impact did it have on animals like American Bison?  What were covered wagons really like, and did settlers actually carry spare parts for them?

Create an infographic with facts, figures, images, and at least three paragraphs worth of information on the realities of some aspect of the game.  Be sure to include information about your sources at the bottom of your infographic.  You can see an example of a student infographic here and here.

An Oregon Trail infographic produced, typographical errors and all, by an 8th grade student.

A Eulogy for Andrew Jackson

This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

smithsonian2Pretend that it is June 8, 1845 – former President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) has just kicked the old hickory bucket.  You’ve been tasked with writing a eulogy for Andrew Jackson.  Nowadays, speakers tend to be pretty polite in eulogies, but back then, people weren’t afraid to speak ill of the dead.  Even Andrew Jackson’s pet parrot, Polly, had to be ejected from his funeral for swearing.  No joke.

Make sure to address the significance of (1) annexation of Florida from Spain, (2) the Trail of Tears, (3) the fight over the National Bank, and (4) one other life event of your choosing.  Your job is to explain these key accomplishments of his career – and why they are/were controversial.  You must then summarize your position – is this man one of our greatest presidents, worthy of bronze statues and twenty dollar bills, or one of our worst, worthy of quiet obscurity and George Bushes?

As a starting point for your research, you can use:

  1. Andrew Jackson, For and Against the Common Man

The end result should be a short (3-5 minute) funeral oration addressing the above topics using specific facts and figures to advance your argument – to be recited aloud to stirring effect!  Feel free to include period appropriate curse words to make your point, as a tribute to his parrot.

Build Your Own American System

This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

The American System was an economic plan that played an important role in American policy during the first half of the 19th century. Rooted in the “American School” ideas of Alexander Hamilton, the plan “consisted of three mutually reinforcing parts: a tariff to protect and promote American industry; a national bank to foster commerce; and federal subsidies for roads, canals, and other ‘internal improvements’ to develop profitable markets for agriculture.” Congressman Henry Clay was the plan’s foremost proponent and the first to refer to it as the “American System.”

state outlines Fresh United States America USA Free Maps Blank In Us Map State
Right click to download.

Use this map to plan infrastructure improvements to 19th Century United States.  Link different regions to improve economic connections between different regions – remember, you have to sell your plan to Congress, so you need to make it profitable to as many states as possible in order to secure their votes.

Label:

  • the borders of the United States circa 1840
  • The most important big cities circa 1840: New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, Atlanta, Baltimore, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, Charleston, New Orleans, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh
  • The rivers: Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Potomac
  • The mountain ranges
  • The Great Lakes (by name)
  • Proposals for the routes of at least three canals linking various regions (naming at least one commodity that will travel in each direction – find out what resources/products come from the cities you’re linking)
  • Proposals for the routes of at least three railroads linking various regions (name the commodities)
  • Proposals for the routes of three toll roads (name the commodities)
products before the civil war

The Bottom Line

  1. Compare and Contrast: Consider factors like cost, weather, topography, efficiency — what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of toll roads, railroads, and canals?
  2. Why is it important for the government to invest in these kinds of infrastructure?  In what ways does it impact your daily life?
  3. We often refer to the United States as a capitalistic country, successful because the government’s lack of intervention in the economy.  Does the existence of the American System support or refute this label?

Comparing Slavery and Factory Life

This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

The negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and in some sense, the freest people in the world. The children and the aged and infirm work not at all, and yet have all the comforts and necessaries of life provided for them. They enjoy liberty, because they are oppressed neither by care or labor. The women do little hard work, and are protected from the despotism of their husbands by their masters. The negro men and stout boys work, on the average, in good weather, no more than nine hours a day. The balance of their time is spent in perfect abandon. Besides, they have their Sabbaths and holidays. White men, with so much of license and abandon, would die of ennui; but negroes luxuriate in corporeal and mental repose. With their faces upturned to the sun, they can sleep at any hour; and quiet sleep is the greatest of human enjoyments. “Blessed be the man who invented sleep.” ‘Tis happiness in itself—and results from contentment in the present, and confident assurance of the future. We do not know whether free laborers ever sleep. They are fools to do so; for, whilst they sleep, the wily and watchful capitalist is devising means to ensnare and exploit them. The free laborer must work or starve. He is more of a slave than the negro, because he works longer and harder for less allowance than the slave, and has no holiday, because the cares of life with him begin when its labors end. He has no liberty and not a single right. . . .   -George Fitzhugh, 1857

Lewiston Mill Regulations, 1867, and Rules of Plantation Management, 1853.

Use the documents contained in the link above to develop a 5-6 sentence answer for each question below.  Each answer requires direct quotes or examples from the documents to support it.  

  1. Compare and contrast the way time is organized on the plantation with the way time is organized in the factory.
  2. Describe a regular day in the life in both the factory and on the plantation.
  3. What do the rules as written miss about the experience of slaves and workers? 
  4. Do you agree with George Fitzhugh’s claim that slaves are better off than workers? Can we (and should we?) compare the lives of factory workers to those of the enslaved?
  5. How would you compare the factory and plantation rules to the rules of your school? – Take a look at your school handbook and cite specific examples to support your answer.
  6. Consider the real children’s book below, published in 2016 — given what you have learned here, what false impressions might it give children about the experience of slavery?

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From the publishers description: “Everyone is buzzing about the president’s birthday! Especially George Washington’s servants, who scurry around the kitchen preparing to make this the best celebration ever. Oh, how George Washington loves his cake! And, oh, how he depends on Hercules, his head chef, to make it for him. Hercules, a slave, takes great pride in baking the president’s cake. But this year there is one problem–they are out of sugar.

This story, told in the voice of Delia, Hercules’s young daughter, is based on real events, and underscores the loving exchange between a very determined father and his eager daughter, who are faced with an unspoken, bittersweet reality. No matter how delicious the president’s cake turns out to be, Delia and Papa will not taste the sweetness of freedom.

New York Times food writer Ramin Ganeshram and acclaimed illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton serve up a slice of history in a picture book narrative that will surely satisfy.”

How I Spent My Voyage of Discovery

This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

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A page from Lewis’s journal.

From May 1804 to September 1806, the Corps of Discovery under the command of Captain Meriwether Lewis and his close friend Second Lieutenant William Clark, was the first American expedition to cross the western portion of the United States. Also along for the mission was York, Clark’s slave, who who carried a gun and hunted on behalf of the expedition and was also accorded a vote during group decisions, more than half a century before African Americans could actually participate in American democracy.  Along the way, the Corps picked up they met a French-Canadian fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau, and his teenage Shoshone wife Sacagawea, who had purchased as a slave and who was pregnant with their child.  The Shoshone lived in the Rocky Mountains, and Sacagawea’s knowledge of nature, geography, language, and culture proved to be invaluable to the expedition. (Excerpted from The United States: An Open Ended History)

The primary goals of the Lewis and Clark expedition were:

  1. Map the Missouri River and related tributaries.
  2. Find the easiest possible route across the continent.
  3. Make detailed observations of the natural resources and geography of the west.
  4. Establish good relations with native groups.

Your group will be assigned to document one of the following segments of the Lewis and Clark journey, which in total lasted from 1803-1806 – 

Pretend that you are Lewis and Clark. President Thomas Jefferson has asked you to the White House to deliver a detailed report about your expedition.  In particular, Jefferson wants to see evidence that you have made a good effort to achieve each of your four goals.

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A good presentation will document and describe all of the following: the major events of the assigned portion of the journey, the members of the expedition who provided indispensable contributions to its success, what tools and techniques they used, the people Lewis and Clark met during this segment, and the wildlife they encountered.  Use these details as evidence to show how Lewis and Clark worked toward the four goals that Jefferson assigned to them. 

In order to present your findings, you can make a webpage, a mock up of Lewis’s journal, a song, a rap, a comic, a Prezi, a WeExplore, or anything else you can imagine.  Aside from this, the main requirement is – DON’T BE BORING!!  You should also supply some enticing visuals to supplement your report.

A Starting Point for Your Research: A Timeline of the Lewis and Clark Expedition