Prehistoric Art: History & Explanation

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  • 0:03 What Makes Human Human?
  • 0:49 The Stone Age
  • 2:37 Venus Figurines
  • 3:24 Stone Age Animation
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Patricia ONeill
Expert Contributor
Jenna Clayton

Jenna received her BA in English from Iowa State University in 2015, and she has taught at the secondary level for three years.

Prehistoric art is often depicted as crude, as are the artists. Modern day research is dispelling that fact. In this lesson, learn the facts about prehistoric art and the peoples who created it.

What Makes Humans Human?

Television shows have influenced our perception of Stone Age people, but the reality is different. When we think of the art produced during this time, we might imagine it to be crude and imprecise. If this is your impression of Stone Age humans and their culture, then you'll be surprised by recent research on prehistoric art.

Each of us would have slightly different imaginings of art during the Stone Age, depending on our background and our interests. However, paleontologists, or scientists who study prehistoric life, now tend to link the development of human cognition to their ability to express themselves as artists. These scientists argue that the act of representing the world in symbols actually may have foreshadowed the beginnings of language.

The Stone Age

The first human artistic representations seem to have occurred about 100,000 B.C.E. All were created in the time period before the invention of formal writing, when human populations were migrating and settling on every continent except Antarctica. We refer to this era as prehistoric, or belonging to the stage before recorded history, or as the Paleolithic, the Old Stone Age.

Some of the most dramatic examples of prehistoric art have been found in the caves frequented by Stone Age humans. Many of them are from as early as 30,000 years ago and are located in southern France and northern Spain. The best known are Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain.

The majority of the subjects in these works of art are animals: bison, reindeer, horses, and even mammoth. The explanation for the cave paintings is still a matter of speculation even today. One possibility is that these Stone Age people were creating paintings purely for aesthetic purposes: they just wanted to beautify their surroundings.

However, since many of these works of art were found in places almost inaccessible to humans, such as deep within isolated caves, or at the end of long passages, scholars theorize that paintings in such remote locations must have had some other reason. This hypothesis contends that they had some sort of agency, meaning these paintings were created to exert some power or authority over the world of those who came into contact with them.

This line of reasoning argues that since these were hunting societies, possibly during times of scarcity, the hunters hoped to conjure up game by depicting them on cave walls, and maybe exercise control over the animals by capturing their spirits and coercing them to come closer to the hunters.

Venus Figurines

Words are only symbols for ideas. However, the words we invent reveal a view of the world and can shape our thinking. An excellent example is the name people gave to the hundreds of small prehistoric statues of women they found. They were labeled Venus figurines, after the Roman goddess of love.

The most famous of these is the statuette of a woman called the Willendorf Venus, depicted with exaggerated sexual features. She has no arms or facial features, but she doesn't need them to convey fertility. Most scholars agree that these prehistoric voluptuous figurines reflected a deep interest in fertility, and ultimately, the survival of the individual and the family, all of which were matters of great concern to Stone Age people.

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Additional Activities

Prehistoric Art Writing Activity

Discussion Questions

For this activity, respond to the following discussion questions about prehistoric art. For each question, write at least 2-3 complete sentences, and make sure that you answer all parts of the question. Keep in mind that some of these questions may require further research.

  1. What does prehistoric art reveal about early human life? Explain.
  2. Research the prehistoric artwork found in Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain. Describe in detail the artwork found at these sites.
  3. What materials and tools were used to create prehistoric art? How were the colors in the cave paintings made?
  4. What do you think motivated early humans to draw images on cave walls? Was their purpose purely aesthetic? Explain your opinion.

A Possible Response to Question #1:

Prehistoric art reveals the everyday lives of early humans. For example, many of the images painted on the cave walls were of different animals, such as horses, bison, hyenas, wolves, and deer. This shows that these early people valued these creatures. Without these animals, early people would not have been able to survive. The Venus figurines also suggest that these early people may have had spiritual beliefs and rituals. It is possible that these figurines, which accentuate female anatomy, were created with the hope that they would help increase fertility.

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