Cave Painting: History & Pictures

Instructor: Trenton Mabey

Trenton has a master's degree in global history and has developed college Asian history courses.

The earliest known paintings are located in caves across Europe, dating from the Stone Age. Explore the cave paintings and the mystery surrounding why they were painted.

Cave Paintings

Why do painters paint, sculptors hammer figures from stone, or photographers record snapshots of the modern world? Art has been a facet of human existence since before the written word. One constant in the long march of history is the artistic expression during each age. Artists have existed in every civilization and age of humanity, recording the human experience with whatever tools are available to them. Before writing was invented and history recorded, the artists used the walls of caves as their canvas.

The Aurignacian Culture

The oldest examples of cave paintings in Europe date from the Upper Paleolithic period, about 35,000 B.C.E. The Paleolithic period is also known as the Stone Age. Hundreds of caves across France, Germany, and Spain contain paintings from the Aurignacian culture. The oldest dated paintings were discovered in 1994 in a cave in France named Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc.


The Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave is located in the Ardeche valley in France. The cave has two large chambers, filled with paintings, with a total length of more than 1,000 feet. The majority of the paintings in the cave depict several different species of animals, red dots, and handprints. There is one possible human representation, but it's not a full image - only the lower half of a woman. Animals painted on the cave walls included rhinoceroses, horses, mammoths, lions, reindeer and other animals. Not all of the animals have been identified but it is clear to archaeologists that the pictures did not represent animals that were hunted by the Aurignacian culture.

Rhinoceros in the Chauvet cave
Chauvet Rhinoceros

The Chauvet cave paintings are divided into two major sections. These sections are defined by the color of paint used on the walls. The first section is defined by the color red. Most of the paintings in this section are done in red paint, with a few in black or actually engraved into the wall itself. The second section reverses the paint colors, with the majority of the paintings in black with a few in red. The animals are primarily depicted in profile, with no pictures representing the natural world.

Painting in the Chauvet cave
Chauvet Images


Also located in France, the cave paintings at Lascaux are more recent than those at Chauvet, dating from 15,000 B.C.E. The paintings in Lascaux contain many of the same elements seen in the earlier paintings at Chauvet. Animals are the subject for the majority of the paintings, with many of the same animals making an appearance. These include bison, horses, mammoth, bears, wolves, and ibex. Similar to Chauvet, there is one human representation and no pictures of the natural world included with the animals. One striking difference at Lascaux is the inclusion of abstract design elements.

Cave painting at Lascaux
Lascaux Paintings

The paintings at Lascaux also show a natural progression from the single stroke and shaded paintings at Chauvet. The Lascaux paintings include animals whose bodies are filled with pigment, adding to the realistic representation of the animal. More colors were added to the paintings' palette, including yellow, brown, and violet.

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