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       Prehistoric Cave Art: 

Prehistoric cave-art is important as it serves as some of the best means of showing the interaction between our primitive ancestors and the world as they perceived it.

The Image (right) is the most basic self portrait (From Pech Merle, c. 25,000 BP). Through it we can see the first steps of our awakenings as a species. 

There are certain characteristics of cave-art that allow us to begin to form an impression of the people behind the drawings, often found at the depths of long, deep tunnel systems in small secretive caverns.

 

Quick Links:

 

Article: Nature.com (May, 2013)

'The Earliest Known Cave Paintings Fuel Arguments About Whether Neanderthals Were The Mental Equivalent to Modern Humans'.

 

   Origins of Cave-art: 'Origins of Consciousness'.

Until recently, the earliest European cave-art dates from Chauvet in France, around 32,000 years ago. (2) With over 350 cave-art sites in France and Spain alone, variously occupied over the 25,000 years preceding the end of the last ice-age, it is surprising to find that the range of cave-art is so narrow.

Predatory Felines. Chauvet, France c. 30,000 BP. Some of the earliest cave-art in the world.

 

Article: ScienceDaily.com: (June, 2012)

Oldest Rock Art in Europe Discovered In Spain.

'Recent studies have shown that the 'Palaeolithic paintings in El Castillo cave in Northern Spain date back at least 40,800 years' -- making them Europe's oldest known cave art, according to new research published June 14 in Science. Hand stencils and disks made by blowing paint onto the wall in El Castillo cave were found to date back to at least 40,800 years, making them the oldest known cave art in Europe, 5-10,000 years older than previous examples from France.

A large club-shaped symbol in the famous polychrome chamber at Altamira was found to be at least 35,600 years old, indicating that painting started there 10,000 years earlier than previously thought, and that the cave was revisited and painted a number of times over a period spanning more than 20,000 years'. (8)

(Link to Full Aritcle)

 

The first real claim for the existence of Palaeolithic cave art was that made in 1880 for the Spanish cave of Altamira by a local landowner, de Sautuola. His views were treated with scepticism by the archaeological establishment, because nothing similar had previously been reported, and almost all known portable art had come from France. The rejection of Altamira persisted for twenty years until a breakthrough was made at the cave of La Mouthe (Dordogne) where, in 1895, the removal of some fill had exposed an unknown gallery, the walls of which had engravings including a bison figure. Because of Palaeolithic deposits in the blocking fill, it was clear that the pictures must be ancient. Finally, in 1901, engravings were found in the cave of Les Combarelles (Dordogne) and paintings in the nearby cave of Font de Gaume. In 1902 the existence of cave art was officially recognized by the archaeological establishment.

 

The Distribution of European Cave-art.

The distribution of cave art (art pariétal) is equally patchy, though it is most abundant in areas that are also rich in decorated objects: the Périgord, the French Pyrenees, and Cantabrian Spain. Palaeolithic decorated caves are found from Portugal and the very south of Spain to the north of France. Traces have been found in southwest Germany, and there are concentrations in Italy and Sicily. A handful of caves are also known in Yugoslavia, Romania, and Russia. The current total for Eurasia is about 280 sites. Some contain only one or a few figures on the walls, whereas others like Lascaux or Les Trois Frères have hundreds.

Palaeolithic cave-art. Map of distribution

Distribution of primary Palaeolithic cave-art locations in Eurasia.

In recent years it has become apparent that Palaeolithic people also produced rock art in the open air, where it has survived in exceptional circumstances: Six sites have so far been found in Spain, Portugal, and the French Pyrenees with engravings that are Palaeolithic in style. So cave art is not typical of the period; caves are merely the places where most art has survived.

 

What Materials did they use?

The range of colours Palaeolithic man found in the natural world is quite remarkable – reds in the form of iron ore, blacks in the form of charcoal or manganese, yellows from iron oxide and whites from chalk or even burned bone or shell. Clay ochre too provided some basic colours. The artists displayed incredible ingenuity in applying these pigments to their pictures. At Lascaux, for instance, hundreds of rudimentary pigment crayons were discovered scattered around the floor. Analysis of some of these has revealed that artists used recipes to prepare them, combining the raw colour with talc or feldspar to increase their bulk, and adding animal and plant oils to bind the materials. (4)

Analysis of samples of pigment from Lascaux revealed scarce manganese oxide minerals, including groutite, hausmannite, and manganite. Because there are no known deposits of these minerals in the area, more distant origins and trade-routes are inferred. The nearest modern known Mn-rich province from Lascaux is the Pyrenees, which is 250 km from the Dordoigne area. (7) The early dates attributed to these very specific oxides, and their common use in adornment and covering the dead in funerary rituals worldwide make it a reasonable speculation that the origins of mining are linked in with the need for pigment.

(More about Mining in Prehistory)

 

The Mystery of La Marche. (15,000 B.P.)

Hundreds of beautifully engraved and painted human heads and faces were discovered on slates carefully placed so as to cover the floor of the cave at La Marche. Just to make the discovery even more unique, several of the sketches include representations of clothing.

Some of the human heads and faces discovered on slates on the floor at La Marche, France.

 

 

   Cave-art and Astronomy:

Lascaux Cave. These drawings are over 17,000 years old. They are suggested to have astronomical relevance.

At Lascaux, sockets in the walls show that a scaffold system was used for painting the ceiling drawings.

Lascaux, France. (Left) Pleiades and Taurus, (Right) Suggested Lunar Count (3).

 

Article: Lascaux Under Threat.

'The cave has been under attack since 1998 from mould, fungi and bacteria. A new air conditioning system put into place in 2000 involved many workers coming in and out of the cave and it is believed that they did not properly disinfect their shoes upon entering, thereby bringing a common local mould into the cave. Authorities began spraying massive doses of antibiotics and fungicides in an effort to stop the rapidly spreading organisms. The foreign organisms continued to advance so most of the air conditioning system was shut down raising the temperature of the cave.

In 2001, authorities aggressively poured quicklime over the floor of the cave in an effort to stop the fungus. Compresses soaked in a mixture of fungicides and antibiotics were then applied directly on the paintings.

By 2002, the fungi and mould retreated, but the bacteria were still causing large dark spots to grow in the cave. An invasive and highly labour intensive, mechanical removal treatment was then tried. This involved the removal of the bacteria's roots and proved to be damaging because crews were constantly inside physically removing the spots. Furthermore, the brown bacterial spots that remain are highly visible.

By 2006, colonies of black spots, some as large as human hands, were quickly proliferating, spreading over painted and unpainted surfaces. The spots have yet to be identified by a microbiologist. Some of the paintings are in critical condition and colour tones are fading.

The cave, in addition, is currently very wet and water can be seen running over the face of paintings. The limestone which gave the cave a remarkable brilliance, has turned grey. Current managers have found no treatment and the spots continue to spread'.

(More about the Lascaux Caves)

 

 

Pleiades and the Taurus Constellation.

Research into the prominence of clusters of seven dots alongside images of Auroch's  in European cave-art has led to the suggestion that they may represent the first indications of constellations. (5)

The heliacal rising of Pleiades was one of the most important celestial markers after the moon to prehistoric people around the world. It represented the beginning of the new-year and of the agricultural season. Markings on bones, stones and paintings on cave walls have shown that the sky was probably used for orientating in time and space.

As well as Lascaux, a panel in the cave of La-Tete-du-Lion, France c 21,000 BP) also has a combination of Auroch (Bull-Aldebaran) and seven dots (Pleiades). In addition, at both sites, the eye of the bovine marks the position of Aldebaran, the primary star in the Taurus constellation.

 

(More about Palaeolithic Astronomy)

 

 

   Palaeolithic Writing:

 A survey of cave-symbols has highlighted the appearance of 26 symbols which appear to repeat themselves around the Palaeolithic world.

 

Article; New Scientist. (February 17th, 2010) Chauvet Cave and it's Palaeolithic art.

The most famous of the paintings is the group of trotting horses, or the two rhinoceros in a bad mood, or even the depiction of wild cattle. What is generally ignored by the art critics who manage to enter the cave system are the semi circles, lines and zigzag signs marked on the same walls - they have mostly been ignored. Until now. Two students have proposed these signs are actually symbols - not doodles by idle hands, and they form a written 'code' that is akin to an early form of transmitting information. It seems the Palaeolithic people are sending us a message - but what does it mean? Alas, the students don't know - or the archaeologists, anthropologists, and anyone else, it seems. The students come from the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island and they have compled a comprehensive database of all recorded cave signs from 146 sites in France covering 25,000 years of time - from 35,000-10,000BC. It seems that 26 signs, all drawn in the same style, appear again and again at different sites. Some of them are quite simple brush strokes, such as straight lines, circles, semi-circles and triangles. Others are more complex - such as the tusks of mammoth (without a body). This is the kind of thing developed much later in the pictographic languages, it is suggested, and evolved into abstract symbols. Some signs appear repeatedly in pairs as in for example hands, or dots, fingerplanting and thumb stencils. The symbols, it is now realised, might represent a rudimentary language - they are telling us something (see also Van Pezinger and Nowell in Antiquity and in The Journal of Human Evolution). The research didn't end there however as they tried to date and track the symbols - lines, dots, love heart shapes, kidney shapes, ladder shapes, and the spiral for example. The spiral only appeared in 2 out of the 146 locations which surprised them as in the Holocene era it became a common motif. Likewise, the zig zag symbol appeared very late in the sequence (in the Palaeolithic) but once again is a common Holocene symbol (on pottery for example, or at Newgrange and other megalithic monuments). However, three quarters of the signs as defined by Petzinger and Nowell occur from the earliest point (after 35,000BC). In other words, the signs were already established at that point in time - with no evidence of a transition phase (a building process as different signs were added to the collection) and therefore they argue, quite realistically, the signs have an origin before 35,000BC - and before the arrival of modern humans in Europe (expect a lot of resistance to this idea). Of course, there could be a catastrophic reason for a sudden emergence of such symbols around 35,000BC - and they may in fact be describing some unusual events they experienced. Similar symbols turn up in Australia and southern Africa and it might be argued that early human migrants brought them Out of Africa. The race is on to interpret the meaning behind the signs.

 

A Chart of the 26 reccurring shapes (proto-alphabet) from the 146 French rock art sites.

(More about Palaeolithic Writing)

 

 

 

   Shamanic Cave-art: 'The Evolution of Imagination'.

This interpretation of Palaeolithic cave-art reflects the suggestion of an interest in the metaphysical side of life. Images of mixtures of humans and animals are proposed to be 'visionary' and suggestive of profound experiences, often suggested to have been drug-induced.

    

Left: Mushroom/Bee Man. Centre: Moab Shaman. Right: Australian Petroglyphs.

(More about Drug-Use in Prehistory)

 

    

Left: The 'Sorcerer', from Trois Freres, France. Right: Similar figure, Dordoigne.

These hybrid figures are considered as evidence of early shamanic practices from the Palaeolithic era.

 (More about Shamanism)

 

 

   Erotic Cave-art:

There is apparently little cave-art concerned with reproduction or fertility in cave-art. However on occasion on can find painted on the walls of caves in Europe, illustrations of the Palaeolithic sexuality as seen through the following images:

La Marche, France. One of several 'erotic' drawings discovered there.

 

These examples of Palaeolithic 'vulva' art are only a couple of several found associated with European cave-art. The image on the right is from Chauvet cave in France. It has a feline on one side, and a bull on the other. The two animals combine to create the image of a female vulva..

These three women are called the 'Angles sur l'Anglin', France.  (Iakovleva, Pinçon 1997, fig. 162-169).


Reclining female nude, cave wall engraving, The Dordogne, France, c. 12,000 B.C.

Reclining female nude, cave wall engraving, La Magdelaine Cave, France, c. 15,000-10,000 B.C.

(Hohle Fels Phallus and Venus Figurine, Germany)

 

 

   Palaeo-acoustic Art.:

The study of Palaeo-acoustics has revealed that several ancient structures were built so as to incorporate acoustic phenomena in their design. Examples such as the Hypogeum in Malta, and the Mayan Temples at Chitzen Itza demonstrate that this science was well recognised and understood in Neolithic times but remarkably, this same effect was already being initiated at several cave systems in Palaeolithic Europe as the following articles demonstrate:

Article: (New Scientist, p. 14, November 28, 1992) - 'The Acoustics Of Rock Art'

'"..S. Waller has visited rock art sites in Europe, North America, and Australia. Standing well back from the painted walls, he claps or creates percussion sounds, and records the echo's bouncing back. It turns out, that rock art seems to be placed intentionally where echo's are not only unusually loud but are also related to the pictured subject matter. Where hoofed animals are depicted, one easily evokes echo's of a running herd. If a person is drawn, the echo's of voices seem to emanate from the picture itself!

"At open air sites with paintings, Waller found that echo's reverberate on average at a level 8 decibels above the level of the background. At sites without art the average was 3 decibels. In deep caves such as Lascaux and Font-de-Gaume in France, echo's in painted chambers produce sound levels of between 23 and 31 decibels. Deep cave walls painted with cats produce sounds from about 1 to 7 decibels. In contrast, surfaces without paint are 'totally flat'."

(More About Prehistoric Acoustic Phenomena)

 

 

   Three-dimensional Palaeolithic Art:

 

Left: One of several 3-dimensional Buffalo at Altamira, Spain, and Right: Hand and horse at Chauvet in France.

Note the use of the rock outcrop at Peche Merle, France.

Only 18 sites of sculptures are known in France (6). At Montespan in France (c. 20,000 BP), a three-dimensional bear was formed out of a whopping 700 kg of the stuff. Sometimes the natural contours and features of a cave, rock or wall – stalagmites or other mineral formations – would be used to accentuate and augment images (most often animals’ genitals).

Carvings of Horses and Bison. L'Abri-du-Cap-Blanc, France. 15,000 BP.

 

(Chauvet: The origin of Cave-art)

(Lascaux, France)

(La Marche, France)

(Shamanism)   (Archaeoastronomy)   (Venus Figurines)

(Palaeolithic Homepage)

 

References:

1). http://www.jrank.org/history/pages/6452/Paleolithic-Art.html
2). Clottes, Jean (2003). Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times. Paul G. Bahn (translator). University of Utah Press.
3). http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/975360.stm
4). http://heritage-key.com/world/cave-paintings-techniques-and-materials
5). http://www.scribd.com/doc/39220669/The-Pleiades-the-celestial-herd-of-ancient-timekeepers
6). http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/clottes/page5.php
7). http://www.slac.stanford.edu/cgi-wrap/getdoc/slac-pub-12224.pdf
8). http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/06/120614142840.htm
 
 
Further Research:
 
http://www.bradshawfoundation.com
Lascaux and Chauvet: Mural Art of the Paleolithic.
 
 
 
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