Cave Paintings of the Paleolithic Age

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Cave paintings are some of the most intriguing aspects of ancient life, but how much do you know about them? We'll explore this art form in this lesson, and learn about some of the most famous sites.

Paleolithic Cave Paintings

One of the most intriguing aspects of Paleolithic life is cave paintings. Paleolithic people were nomadic hunter-gatherers, so the fact that they took time to create art on the walls of caves is really fascinating. Of course, cave paintings may be interesting to us for other reasons as well. For one, they're huge mysteries, and we honestly know very little about who created them or why. More importantly, however, there's something deeply human about them. Art connects us in a unique way, so these ancient paintings may be the closest we'll ever come to really know the ancient people of the Paleolithic.

Dates and Ranges

Let's start by looking at where, and when, we find Paleolithic cave art. The Paleolithic period realistically begins with the dawn of humanity as a species, and lasts until the advent of farming. That period encompasses most of human history, but cave paintings really only became prominent for the last part of it, roughly 40,000-14,000 BCE.

This is an important time period, because 40,000 BCE is roughly when humanity moved out of Africa and into Europe. In fact, cave painting as a Paleolithic phenomenon is something we closely associate with this transition; most cave paintings are found in Europe. This art is something that seems to have been fairly unique to these societies, and is not found as consistently in Africa, Asia or the Americas.

What Was Cave Art Like?

So, what did cave art actually look like? Cave art can be found in a number of forms. Much of it was painted, using natural pigments like ochre and charcoal to create their artwork. Due to the available resources, cave paintings tend to be black, brown, and reddish colors. Paints could be applied using animal-hair brushes, plants, fingers, or even by spraying the pigment onto the wall through a hollow reed.

Horses from Lascaux Cave
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Besides paintings, cave-wall art also including etchings, in which shapes were carved into the wall. Often, painting and etching was combined, adding some 3-dimensional depth to 2-dimensional shapes, which is pretty sophisticated and really cool.

With these techniques, artists created a number of different images. The vast, vast majority are of animals, from mammoths to deer to cave bears. We've actually learned a bit about Ice Age mammals from how they were represented in cave paintings. In some caves, these animals were anthropomorphized, containing certain human characteristics like bipedalism or human body parts. This was rare, but images of actual humans were even rarer. To round it out, ancient artists also created abstract geometric shapes and patterns, often intermingled with other designs.

What Did It Mean?

One of the biggest questions with cave art is this: what did it represent? This is an easy one to answer. We have no idea. There are many theories about the ritualistic and ceremonial roles of cave art, but they are all just that: theories. No one knows for sure if the animals were painted as part of hunting rituals, or simply to record the world around them.

Part of this confusion is thanks to the fact that we don't even know who the artists were. Were they shaman, hunters, professional artists? Were they men, women, or both? For a long time (for reasons that rely on modern assumptions about gender roles), it was presumed that men were the primary artists of the ancient world. However, a study of handprints in certain caves revealed that more than half of these handprints belonged to women.

An Ice-Age rhinoceros painted in Chauvet Cave
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Important Sites

The last thing we need to talk about is the important sites. When discussing true cave paintings, archeologists are generally referring to deep cave art, or that which is created so far into a cave system that there is no natural light. This is another thing that makes cave art so intriguing; people had to go far out of their way and often risk their safety in order to create it.

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