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Paleolithic art, an introduction

Replica of the painting from the Chauvet cave (Anthropos museum, Brno)
Replica of the painting from the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave in southern France (Anthropos museum, Brno)

The oldest art: ornamentation

Humans make art. We do this for many reasons and with whatever technologies are available to us. Extremely old, non-representational ornamentation has been found across Africa. The oldest firmly-dated example is a collection of 82,000 year old Nassarius snail shells found in Morocco that are pierced and covered with red ochre. Wear patterns suggest that they may have been strung beads. Nassarius shell beads found in Israel may be more than 100,000 years old and in the Blombos cave in South Africa, pierced shells and small pieces of ochre (red Haematite) etched with simple geometric patterns have been found in a 75,000-year-old layer of sediment.

The oldest representational art

The oldest known representational imagery comes from the Aurignacian culture of the Upper Paleolithic period (Paleolithic means old stone age). Archeological discoveries across a broad swath of Europe (especially Southern France, Northern Spain, and Swabia, in Germany) include over two hundred caves with spectacular Aurignacian paintings, drawings and sculpture that are among the earliest undisputed examples of representational image-making. The oldest of these is a 2.4-inch tall female figure carved out of mammoth ivory that was found in six fragments in the Hohle Fels cave near Schelklingen in southern Germany. It dates to 35,000 B.C.E.

The caves

The caves at Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc, Lascaux, Pech Merle, and Altamira contain the best known examples of pre-historic painting and drawing. Here are remarkably evocative renderings of animals and some humans that employ a complex mix of naturalism and abstraction. Archeologists that study Paleolithic era humans, believe that the paintings discovered in 1994, in the cave at Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc in the Ardéche valley in France, are more than 30,000 years old. The images found at Lascaux and Altamira are more recent, dating to approximately 15,000 B.C.E. The paintings at Pech Merle date to both 25,000 and 15,000 B.C.E.


What can we really know about the creators of these paintings and what the images originally meant? These are questions that are difficult enough when we study art made only 500 years ago. It is much more perilous to assert meaning for the art of people who shared our anatomy but had not yet developed the cultures or linguistic structures that shaped who we have become. Do the tools of art history even apply? Here is evidence of a visual language that collapses the more than 1,000 generations that separate us, but we must be cautious. This is especially so if we want to understand the people that made this art as a way to understand ourselves. The desire to speculate based on what we see and the physical evidence of the caves is wildly seductive.


The cave at Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc is over 1,000 feet in length with two large chambers. Carbon samples date the charcoal used to depict the two head-to-head Rhinoceroses (see the image above, bottom right) to between 30,340 and 32,410 years before 1995 when the samples were taken. The cave's drawings depict other large animals including horses, mammoths, musk ox, ibex, reindeer, aurochs, megaloceros deer, panther, and owl (scholars note that these animals were not then a normal part of people's diet). Photographs show that the drawing shown above is very carefully rendered but may be misleading. We see a group of horses, rhinos and bison and we see them as a group, overlapping and skewed in scale. But the photograph distorts the way these animal figures would have been originally seen. The bright electric lights used by the photographer create a broad flat scope of vision; how different to see each animal emerge from the dark under the flickering light cast by a flame.

A word of caution

In a 2009 presentation at UC San Diego, Dr. Randell White, Professor of Anthropology at NYU, suggested that the overlapping horses pictured above might represent the same horse over time, running, eating, sleeping, etc. Perhaps these are far more sophisticated representations than we have imagined. There is another drawing at Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc that cautions us against ready assumptions. It has been interpreted as depicting the thighs and genitals of a woman but there is also a drawing of a bison and a lion and the images are nearly intertwined. In addition to the drawings, the cave is littered with the skulls and bones of cave bear and the track of a wolf. There is also a foot print thought to have been made by an eight-year-old boy.
Essay by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

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  • blobby green style avatar for user cgraue
    If I make a sketch today with charcoal my great-grandfather bought 100 years ago, does the age of the pigment change if I use it now? In terms of carbon-dating the pigment itself, is it not possible that the charcoal itself is 30,000 years old but the drawing is not? And how scientific is it to date a cave drawing based on the age of other artifacts found nearby or shouldn't that be considered more circumstantial? If I move into an older house and buy brand new stuff, I can put my stuff in a room with 20-year-old paint on the walls.
    (140 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user David Steel Coxon
      The background radiation of today makes eveything after 1950 impossible to differentiate so anything produced after that time is "now",but I take your point I think most dating is a conbination of location and object. but one could argue that a stone built crofters cottage in scotland is both 18th century and thousands of years old. As a side issue it is quite a dangerous construct to imagine that 21st century mindsets equate to neolithic reasoning. (you end up with "whoever holds the stick can speak" nonsense). BTW some interesting theories have been put forward regarding a different "type" of spatial awareness, which mkes many antiquarian images difficult, if not impossible for modern researchers to fully understand what they are looking at (imagine popping a bluray on for your neolithic neighbour and you get the picture) Yet viewing (for example) the cover of the tomb found at palanque with an alternative spatial viewpont, overlaid and overlapping imagery can be discerned
      (1 vote)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Ezekiel Bentley
    So, I have been wondering for a while: how do they date cave paintings?
    (34 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user Dusko Stamenic
    Are these paintings the same ones, that we can see in the movie Cave of forgotten dreams?
    (4 votes)
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    • old spice man green style avatar for user Gene Vaughn
      these paintings are also in the books by Jean Ault starting with Clan of the Cave Bear .The pictures then are heavily written about in books 4 an 5.They make the paintings due to their rituals an by the artists that are shamanistic an their travels to each of the 19 different caves that are painted
      (3 votes)
  • leaf blue style avatar for user marcthis2
    Any speculation as to why the animal figures seem to be very accurate representations of the real thing, yet the human drawings are stick-like and much less realistic? Apparently the ability was there to make remarkably accurate sketches of many living things besides humans. Perhaps, some kind of taboo or fear. . . ?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Joshua Tree
    What can we learn about the values of prehistoric people by looking at the images they created?
    (2 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user Michele Hansen
      As noted by the scholar above, and my Art History professor, the Chauvet paintings were not representative of animals that were part of the peoples' diet. (See Art Through the Ages textbook: 14th Ed. for supportive commentary of Paleolithic artworks.) According to the text, the typical diet consisted of deer meat.

      It has been speculated that the large animals shown may have been hunted for sport, or proofs of Manhood, etc. Or, they may have been early creative works (see the comment by itsmichellesandoval above.) created by someone with an artistic bent who decided to take coal, and other pigments to paint what he/she saw.

      My Art History professor has also told us that a Significant Point of this work is the clash of the rhinos. It is, evidently, the first known example of narrative art ever found. The artist may have been recording a story before written language was invented.
      (3 votes)
  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user evan.anapliotis
    Where did they find paint back then?
    (2 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user rowenalucretia
    Did human beings carve these or Neanderthals. I thought humans were only 6000 years old.
    (2 votes)
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  • piceratops seed style avatar for user 17_jnino
    How long did this take to make the website and did u get these facts from wikipedia?
    (1 vote)
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    • starky ultimate style avatar for user Steven Zucker
      Beth and I started Smarthistory in 2005, so we've been working on this for roughly nine years and Khan Academy is a year older than that. We do sometimes refer to Wikipedia but more often, we read scholarly journals and books that discuss the research done by art historians.
      (3 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user jjanleerich
    Could it be possible that the overlapping horses represent a herd of horses on the run? Also it seems a chaotic scene as if there is a giant stampede with animals retreating from something perhaps a fire? I know we were asked not to speculate & I'm sorry but it's just so tempting.
    (2 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Micah
    In the last paragraph, why is the cave littered with skulls, bones and tracks? Are these warnings?
    (2 votes)
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