Prehistoric paintings – created in late Palaeolithic age, dated 40k years B.C. First
paintings were discovered in XIX century but most important ones are from XX
century i.e. cave Lascaux (1940). Most paintings consist of human and animal
figures – often hunting scenes. Their strength and natural beauty are astonishing.
Cold, solid rock was their canvas, where simple paints were used to mark contours
of objects, sometimes filled with dark dyes. All dyes were carried in containers
made of moss and sometimes sprayed with primitive bone tools.
Paints – most of them were made of blood, mud, plant and animal dyes. Mix of these
was very effective and impregnated with animal fat survived till today.
Prehistoric “painters” creating their art were making a new stage in their history. They
wanted to preserve their culture and themselves as something great and eternal.
This concept was right. Prehistoric paintings are appreciated even now.
Modern artists came back to prehistoric painting techniques in XX century. Some
expressionists were painting with their hands and Jackson Pollock was using paint
In 1834 in Le Chaffud cave (Vienne, Florence) an animal bone was found, covered with
sketches of two does.
There wasn’t any indexing methods which could help with sorting newly found objects but
discoveries in caverns brought a rush of inexperienced historians and self proclaimed
archaeologists. In 1860-1870 researchers admitted that things found in caves were
real prehistoric items.
Le Chaffaud: Carved roe deer
In 1879 Marcelino de Sautuola was searching for silicon tools in clay near Altamira
cavern in Spain. His 5 year old daughter Maria noticed animals painted on a plain
Altamira:Bisons on the vault
Altamira:Red bison on the vault
Although years passed before prehistoric art was considered as a fact of human
culture, Maria de Sautuola is considered as a discoverer of this kind of art. In 1893-
1903 people discovered another paintings in caves between Rhone and Atlantic
Ocean. In 1940 in Lascaux (Dordogne, France) archaeologists discovered a large set
of animal paintings.
Lascaux: Horses, excerpt of the composition
The term prehistoric art is rather fluent. In 1952 Abbe Henri Breuil who devoted his
whole life for this kind of art, published piece >400 centuries of cave art< in which
he introduced division of prehistoric art for periods and development cycles.
In 1967 Andre Leroi Gourhan in >Treasures of prehistoric art< showed new concepts
of development of systematics in this art. Few years after discovering Chauvet
cavern in Ardeche region near Rhone, Jean Marie Chauvet, Jean Clottes and their
co-workers found out that this art can be placed between 32000BC to 75000BC.
BP – [before present]; przed chwilą obecną.
Until now, traces of prehistoric art or rather Palaeolithic art were found in Europe,
Africa and Australia. There are also few foundings in Asia and America.
Palaeolithic people probably had complicated system of beliefs and rituals, of course
not universal, connected with daily life, which was used to decorate their tools,
walls in caves with symbolic figures, mostly realistic but sometimes really abstract.
Modern understanding of this system is still variously interpreted. We discover new
techniques and dates of this art, layers of paintings, wall carvings, but, we still
don’t know the connection between life of these people and symbols and meaning
of art. We also don’t know why paintings and carvings were found only in
So, were these decorated in hard places caves holy grounds, temples of cults, galleries
of art or schools of art? In Europe, there are about 130 caves decorated with
paintings differing with each other and placed deep inside. Most of these caves
are situated in France and Spain.
Gargas: Hands (negative)
On walls of these caves painted outlines remained
for the hand, symbols about the sexual
pronunciation forcing itself, …
… but first of all animals: mammoths, buffalo, horses and goats, predatory bear, lions,
Santimamine; Bear painted on the stalagmite.
In 1st half of XX century, earliest historians have divided late Palaeolithic into two
main époques: Solutrean and Magdalenian (names came from two regions in
France, Solutre and La Magdelaine).
Andre Leroi-Gourhan has marked four periods: Aurignacian, Gravetian, Solutrean,
Magdalenian and he also divided styles defined by repeating characteristics of
drawing. He stated that there was development of prehistoric art which was
improving greatly over time with large transition periods.
Style I (35 000 - 25 000 BP) :
All foundings with figures, from Aurignacian period to Gravetian period.
Characteristics of these styles are carvings on stone blocks and first coordinated
silhouettes with association of horse, ox, mammoths, female vaginas and male
Style II (25 000-19 000 BP) :
From the ending of Gravetian period to the first phase of Solutrean. Large
sanctuaries appearing in insides of caves but most of carvings and paintings were
made on stone blocks and walls of rock shelters in sight of daylight. Animals were
painted in profiled view with a sinusoidal neck line and disproportionate legs. [i.e.:
Laussel (1909), Pair-Non-Pair (1881), Los Hornos (1903), Gargas Houtes-Pyrenées,
Style III (19 000 - 16 000) :
From the middle phase of Solutrean to the early Magdalenian period. Paintings
and carvings are situated deeper inside of caves, where light cannot reach. The art
of drawing, painting and colouring is mastered. Carvings are filled with manganian
dye or coal. Animals are more realistic, “alive”, but still have too small legs and
heads. [i.e. Lascaux (1940), Pech-Merle (1922, 1949), Cougnac (1949), Le Gabillou
Pech-Merle: The horse and hand.
On the left the other horse
returned on the contrary
and the second hand are .
Early Style IV (16 000 BP - 14 000 BP) :
• Middle Magdalenian. Most of sanctuaries are situated in dark caverns, far from the
entrance [i.e. Rouffignac (1947), Villars (1958), Niaux, Le Portel (1908), Les Trois
Frères (1912), Le Tuc d'Audoubert (1912), Montespan (1881, 1923)]. Drawings of
mammoths and reindeers are disappearing, most of them are now showing ox,
horses, deer and goats. Other important caves are Teyjat (1903), Commarque
(1915), Les Combarelles (1901), Font-de-Gaume (1901), Arcy-sur-Cure (1901),
Marsoulas (1883), Las Monedas (1952), Tibiran (1951), Ebbou (1912, 1946).
Rouffignac: Woolly mammoth
Niaux: Excerpt of the composition in the Round Chamber
Niaux: Bison with signs in the shape of arrows
Late Style IV (14 000 - 12 000 BP) :
Late Magdalenian. Mostly additions of earlier styles are used. Horses, ox and deer
can still be seen. New things added are birds, fish and spiky, harpoon symbols –
possibly male symbolism.
Ending Style IV :
Late Magdalenian. End of Paleolithic art and switching to mezolithic stage. In this
example, caverns in Porto Badisco (Sicilia), decorated with symbolic signs and
figures of mezolithic hunters. Dated back to 6000 B.C.
Paleolithic art developed in a complicated way. It had periods of greatness and the
appearance of various styles and motives. It disappeared with the ice age, about
There is a whole section about Paleolithic art, which includes decorations of weapons,
tools and ornaments. This last group can be labeled as cult art: figures, carvings in
stone and symbolic cave paintings.
Lespegue: Figurine of the woman carved
in the fang of the woolly mammoth;
15 cm of the height.
Laugerie Basse: Figurine of the woman
carved in the fang of the
so-called "Shameless Venus";
8 cm of the height .
Laussel: Woman keeping
the horn of the buffalo.
Relief, 45 cm of the height;
Paleolithic decorations appear in two different locations: in stone shelters, where
daylight was present and in underground caves. Decorated inside sanctuaries
begin far from the entrance, that means they could be used for rituals and special
events. If so, signs on walls were used for telling people where they should go and
which places they need to avoid.
People seldom were shown in paintings. Signs which looked like vaginas or penises,
penises specially as a decorations on weapons, appeared much more often. Some
carvings show silhouettes of women bended forwards. It’s interpreted as a
standard sexual position of Paleolithic women.
La Roche á Lalinde: Schematic
women's forms for slab of stone.
Men almost never appear, particularly in earlier periods. There is a famous painting in
Les Troi Freres showing some kind of tribal shaman right above paintings of
animals. Men with an ox head and a tail can be seen in Le Gabillou caves.
Les Troi Frères:
"Sorcerer", 75 cm of
Images of faces are rare, a well known image is one from the Marsoulas cave and from
deco on a tool from late Magdalenian.
Marsoulas: Human face,
20 cm of the height.
Silhouettes of men were sometimes painted with heads of animals. There are known
carvings of “ghosts” which look like present caricatures of ghosts. Images of men
are not grouped with images of women. There are only four known cases which
break this barrier, one is from deco on a tool from La Magdelaine which shows a
sexual act in the presence of a bear.
La Magdeleine: Bear and the sexual stage
Sexual symbols are present in Paleolithic art, but they are very discret in erotic scenes.
La Magdeleine: Erotic cave drawing of the woman
Sex was shown in various ways. For example, females were represented as triangles,
ovals and rectangles, long legs and breasts. Males were shown as spiky lines, just
lines or dots. Sometimes these symbols appear with each other.
El Castillo: Red female signs affiliated with black thorny male signs
Symbols of hands can be seen very often. These signs were found in most of known
caves. The hand found in Chauvet cave is probably the oldest decoration.
Chauvet: Hand, negative
Leroi-Gourhan sees the cave art as something which can
show supernatural meaning of environment, life, death,
new life and also healing, hunting and war.
Lascaux: Man killed by the
bison; perhaps symbolic
In 1985 Henry Cosquer, a professional diver, discovered a narrow corridor, 37 meters
below the sea level, near Marigou Cliffs. In 1991 he explored the whole cave,
which was partially flooded. Its walls were covered with paintings and carvings. It
was the first known underwater cave with prehistoric decorations.
Cosquer cave in the diameter
In 1991, 1992 and 1994, three expeditions organized by Jean Clottes and Jean Courtin
analyzed the whole cave. Marks of fireplaces were found on not flooded areas.
The remains of clay pots with red dye, tools and primitive silicon blades were also
found. Most important were decorations which show us that at least two periods
existed in this cave.
Cosquer: Hand put on
the rope of fingers
Contours of hands were dominating, about 55 of them were grouped on multiple
panels. Symbolism of smudging with fingers is not known. These smudges could
have had esthetical meaning, be signs of “owners” of a cave or only primitive
Meaning of hand prints is also not known. Even if they are universal in Palaeolithic art
on all continents, most of hands (25) in Cosquer have uncomplete, shortened
fingers. Earlier it was interpreted as ritualistic cut-offs or frostbites. Clottes and
Courtin are stating that these are normal hands with fingers bended inside, it can
be connected with methods of communication, hunting or rituals.
Cosquer: Hands with incomplete fingers
Paintings and carvings of animals are grouped on panels, walls and vaults. Horses,
goats, deer, ox, bison, bear, lion, three penguins, eight seals and even jellyfishes
can be seen. There are also lots of unrecognized animals and harpoon like signs.
Cosquer: Mountain goat
koń na stalagmicie,
Cosquer: Horse painted on the stalagmite
horse painted on the low vault
Cosquer: Horse on the vault
and put horse on of smearing fingers.
Cosquer: Drawing of the horse
A marvelous head of ox can be seen on a vault. Other dynamic carving shows a
A special carving known as “Killed Human” can be seen on one of Cosquer walls. It
shows a man, who was killed by a harpoon or a spear. Probably, he was killed in a
tribe war or executed.
Of course, each painting or carving, which was flooded by water, was destroyed.
In 1994, in Ardeche region (south Rhone valley), French archaeologists, Jean Marie
Chauvet, Eliette Brunel Deschamps and Christian Hillaire, discovered a small cave.
They were the first people in 20000 years who entered this place. In its giant
corridors they have seen stunning paintings. Stunning with quality, variety and
count. The cave was named Chauvet and became the most beautiful in the world.
Near the pictures, carvings are present, also presenting horses, rhinos, mammoths
and even an owl.
Chauvet: The horse and two woolly mammoths engrave out in the prospect
Chauvet: Only known
image of the night owl
in the prehistorical art
In the beginning, 216 paintings were identified. Jean Clottes in his early work counted
47 rhinos, 36 lions, 34 mammoths, 26 horses, 19 bisons, 12 bears, 7 European
bisons, 7 goats, 3 deer. In June 1999 the number of discovered animals rose to
447. Mammoths, rhinos and lions dominate in Chauvet “menagerie”. Lots of
animals are shown in dynamic poses, in action. Toning, shading, smudging is used
to obtain grading.
Chauvet: Character set in the shape of the bison
Like in other caves, images of men are not present in Chauvet. In the entrance
corridor, two hand panels can be seen, one with three negatives and five positives,
the second with four negatives of hands. Next to the lion panel, anthropomorphic
bison is painted, similar to the shaman of Les Trois Freres.
Chauvet: Creature bison-man
Explorers found bear skulls and lots of partially crystallized bones on the “floor”. They
found also places where bears hibernated.
Chauvet: Skull of a bear on
the block of rock
Cave Chauvet was more like a sanctuary than a living place. There is a small amount of
normal objects inside. No fireplaces, only few tools and torches. In 1999 Jean
Marie Chauvet discovered footprints of a 8-10 year old child (probably a boy)
dated back to 30000-20000 BP. Those are the oldest footprints of homo sapiens in
Prehistoric art was present about 25000 years and it was the longest artistic period
in our history.
It was connected to daily life of paleolithic societies, hunters, shamans and normal
people. After thousands of years and long period of inactivity it changed into
religious symbols in Asia and came back to Europe (specially in Mediterranean
In these days, paintings seen on walls of buildings and walls are considered as
vandalism (graffiti). So, where should we put prehistoric cave paintings? People of
Palaeolithic ages were performing their art on walls, in living places. That is the
real art. Paintings survived longer than anything and today they can show us how
they hunted, what they did in their free time and how early homo sapiens lived.
Art or vandalism? Definitely art.
Presentation they made:
Małgorzata Wojciechowska i Patrycja Cichos from the
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