Prehistoric & Ancient Art
The Art History Archive - Cave Art

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Anthropological Art

By Charles Moffat - December 2007.

Prehistoric cave art isn't really an art movement as it is a period in mankind's artistic development. It predates writing, printmaking and basically encompasses the genesis of both early sculpture and painting. It is also not a hot topic for art historians, but always of interest to historical anthropologists.

Anthropology is the study of mankind's behaviour and origins, and asides from studying bones and fossils, it also studies the ancient architecture, tools and artwork mankind left behind. Very few art pieces stand the test of time and only the toughest sculptures and paintings made with plenty of pigment (and presumably sheltered from the elements) have managed to last tens of thousands of years.

Like we do, prehistoric people often represented their world and beliefs through visual images. Art emerged with the appearance and dispersion of homo sapiens from Africa, Europe, Asia, Australasia, and the Americas. Paintings, sculptures, engravings and later pottery reveal not only a quest for beauty but also complex social systems and spiritual concepts.

Their lifestyles depended on hunting and foraging for food or later on pastoral agriculture. It is possible that earlier peoples might have decorated their bodies and clothes or marked trees or features in the landscape but, if they did, evidence of that art has not survived. Recognizable art dates from at least 38.000 BC in Europe, Africa, Australia and South America.

Works from this prehistoric period are not always simple, but can be quite complex. The Lascaux Cave paintings for example were made with brushes made from animal fur. Because the people who made these art pieces were amateurs there is evidence of their desire to show both realism and to use abstraction in an effort to make the art more portable.

Paleolithic artists have five main colors at their disposal: yellow, red, brown, black and white. White is more rare, but it is seen at Lascaux cave. In some cases features from lost pigmentation or worn features may have been lost due to time and we will never know what the original looked like.

The art produced are the products of minds as intellectually capable and sophisticated as our own. In Europe and Africa, early works of art depict animals, humans and include archaic symbols. The former may be drawn or sculpted realistically or represented by the clever emphasis of a distinctive characteristic, such as the tusks of the mammoth or the horn of a rhinoceros. Paintings, low relief sculptures, and engravings adorned areas of caves and rock shelters where hunter-foragers lived.

They also covered dark caverns and recesses visited less frequently where light from fires and lamps illuminated occasions which probably had special social and spiritual significance. With the spread of farming as a way of life, people began to settle in villages, and territories were defined. Drawings like maps and landscapes appeared, along with domesticated animals and more human figures. Changing styles of decorated pottery became the designer labels of successive generations of prehistoric peoples.

Of all the known prehistoric works of art, some 70 per cent may be attributed to hunter-foragers, 13 per cent to herders and stock raisers, and 17 per cent to people with an organized economy (farmers, livestock breeders, and the like). The cave art of all social groups consists of five principal motifs: human figures, animals, tools and weapons, rudimentary local maps, and symbols or ideograms.These motifs occur on portable objects (engraved, sculpted or claymodelled) and immovable surfaces (rock paintings and engravings).


Early farming communities depicted their view of the area in which they lived. So-called topographical compositions include animal pens and "maps" of villages and, later, towns.

In Valcamonica, several of these constitute the most ancient maps known in Europe, such as the Bedolina Map. In this example, it is possible to make out cultivated fields, access paths, houses, and other topographical details. One large composition found at Okladnikov on Lake Baikal (Siberia) includes human figures and areas filled with squares or circles in solid or dotted lines, which are suggestive of a harvest scene. The Wall-map of Çatal Huyuk (Turkey) is unique, showing an urban settlement with an erupting volcano, the oldest documentation of such an occurrence. The Topographical Stone of Jebel Amud in the Jordanian desert, reproduces the layout of a zone comprising 150 settlements (indicated by various shapes) joined to one another by engraved paths.


Vase decoration is a typically Neolithic art form. The first, fairly simple buff-coloured terracotta vases date from tile Peiligang culture of China (seventh to sixth millennium ??). Later findings from the Yang-Shao culture (fifth to fourth millennium ??) include vases decorated with fish and other animals and tripodal vessels shaped like owls. The figures not only had symbolic significance, but also modified the appearance of the vase by focusing attention on the decoration, the background colour contrasts, and the rhythm of the outlines. The motifs shown, although the same as those used for mural art, also assumed other meanings. By the third millennium ??, the variety of form and ornamentation of pottery was already well developed. Goblets, bowls, and covered dishes had now come into existence. In the Near and Middle East, the production of ceramics had begun by the sixth millennium DC. Simple, rough, burnished or reddish-coloured wares were made, the mouths of which formed holes.

They were decorated with impressed or rolled shells and geometrical and figurative motifs. In Africa, the oldest known pottery has been found in Egypt at Merimda and then Faiyum (fifth millennium dc), whereas in southern Europe, it dates from the seventh millennium ??. The latter was often well finished and painted with red or black geometric designs. By the sixth millennium ??, banded pottery known as Bandkeramic had appeared across Central Europe from France to the Ukraine. It was decorated witti incised parallel lines, often infilled with dots or cross-hatching.


The cave and rock art of the later Old Stone Age or Upper Paleolithic (which ended in about 10,000bc) is especially famous and has certain particular characteristics. In these oldersites, large pictures of animals are only rarely associated with human figures, whereas in more numerous. Within sites, one animal may be more frequently represented than others. Some animals may be restricted to certains parts of the cave, others may occur throughout. Animal associations vary but compositions including particular pairs of animals, such as bison and horses in Europe or elephants and giraffes in Africa, are known. On both continents mythical beasts including half animal, half human creatures are occasionally depicted. Portraits of people are rare and landscapes, plants, fruit, and flowers are unknown.

In Africa, south of the Sahara, and in present-day Tanzania (Kondoa and Singida in the Rift Valley), ancient hunters left black and yellow paintings and graffiti in granite caves and sandstone galleries.

Later polychrome works are also found here, including ideograms, paintings, handprints and rare human figures, together with the traditional association of elephants and giraffes. In densely inhabited North Africa, art is found on rock walls at the root of mountain massifs such as Tibesti and Tassili, now surrounded by vast deserts.

In Europe, some 200 caves and rock shelters are known to contain art. The majority occur in France and Spain, and a few in Italy, Portugal. Romania, and Russia. The oldest sites are attributed to the Aurignacian period (36,OOO-3O,OOObc). It is notable that paintings and figurines of this phase often depict dangerous animals such as lions, bears, hyaenas, and woolly rhinoceroses, as well as humans, horses, and other food animals. Handprints and dot motifs also appear.

The colours used were produced from ochre (reds and yellows), manganese dioxide (violet and black) and charcoal (black). These minerals were pulverized on stone palettes and mixed with animal fat to moisten them before they were applied with the fingers, bone spatulae or brushes. Stone engraving tools known as burins were used to engrave and carve portable works. In the later European periods of the Solutrean-Magdalenian (24,000-12,OOObc), large low relief sculpture, engravings, clay modelling, and big compositions including many animals are characteristic at sites such as Roc-de Sers, Lascaux, and Niaux in France.

In some sites like Altamira in Spain (the first example of cave art to be discovered), wooden scaffolding must have been used to paint the remarkable friezes on high walls and ceilings. In the Near and Middle East, Paleolithic art made its first appearance prior to 12,000??. Archaic hunter-foragers of central Arabia left art in the form of shallow to deep engravings, while, in India, some of the rock paintings of the Vindihya Hills may date from about 14,000bc. However, many of the earliest depictions drawn in yellow have been over-painted with scenes in red dating from the Bronze Age and white historical pictures. The red paint was obtained from plant stems and leaves.


In temples dating from ancient times, structures and images may be superimposed over one another. The same happened over periods of thousands of years with inscriptions and paintings on rocks in the open air or deep in caves. This may signify a spiritual need to establish a sense of continuity. In many sites, there are examples of multiple superimpositions, dating from prehistory to modern times. They range from Valcamonica in Italy to sites in Australia, where ancient compositions are worshipped to this day and sometimes "freshened up" for new ceremonies.


Animals are to be found everywhere in prehistoric art. being the favourite subjects of hunters, herdsmen, and breeders. We can recognize species and breeds that still exist today. These pictures also furnish us with precious contemporary documents of animals now extinct from the region of the paintings, such as the cave lion, bear, sabre-toothed tiger, mammoth, Ilomoicerus (large-horned buffalo), and giant deer. There are elaborate paintings of animals in the cave "sanctuaries'' of France and Spain and in open-air shelters all over the world. In Europe, the animals most often depicted were horses, bison, mammoth, reindeer, aurochs, wild boar, fish, eels, birds, and other animals valued for food and raw materials such as fur, leather, antlers, and ivory.

In Tassili and Tibesti in Africa the teeming fauna of rivers and lakes (hippopotami, crocodiles, fish, and birds), the plains (cattle, goats, and sheep), and the savannah (elephants, giraffes, and rhinoceros) is brought to life on rock walls. Among the most prized animal images are those at Altamira, near Santander in nothern Spain. There are life-size images of bison, as well as naturalistic portrayals of stags, wild boar, and wild horses.


In Australia, the Murray culture (20,000-8,000bc) and the Panaramitee culture (10,000-3, ?????) produced notable ideographic engravings. In Patagonia (the southernmost region of South America), the "Toldense" people covered their caves and shelters with handprints. After about 12,000??, a new sryle derived from Africa and depicting numerous humans and smaller animals appears in the Spanish Levant and Italy. This coincides with a phase known in Europe as the Mesolithic, a period sometimes regarded as transitional between Paleolithic hunting and foraging and the earliest phases of farming referred to as Neolithic. Scandanavian pictures of this period and the Neolithic include depictions of boats and skis.

In North Africa, the period 12,000-?????? also sees the introduction of branches, fruit, and leaves into paintings with people and animals. Drawings changed to reflect the change of environment which caused the spread of the desert and the extinction from these areas of elephants, giraffes, lions, rhinoceroses, and crocodiles. They also show the introduction of domesticated dogs, cattle, sheep, and goats as the hunter-forager economies were replaced.

South of the Sahara between 5,000 and 1,000 BC, representations became more naturalistic and identifiable. The outlines are particularly precise and expressive, but the figures of elephants, deer, giraffes, and other wild animals still represent archetypes rather than particular individuals of the species. As a part of an unbroken artistic tradition, rock art in sub-Saharan Africa continued into comparitively recent times. The tradition has also persisted in Australia where it still fulfills important social and spiritual functions.

Prehistoric art, in general, can be seen as the representation of a symbolic system that is an integral part of the culture that creates it. It is therefore not readily intelligible or accessible to other cultures.

The symbols often appear ambiguous, and it is likely that they have also changed in meaning within the same culture that originally produced them.


Hands arc frequently encountered in Upper Paleolithic cave art. Prints were obtained either "in positive", by pressing the hands, smeared with red, white, or black, over the wall surface; "in negative", by outlining the hands in colour; or in "pseudo-positive", by outlining the hands in one colour and pressing them against the wall, which was painted with a different colour. They are almost always left hands (the right hand was used for painting) and often female (for example, at Patagonia), with the fingers sometimes appearing mutilated (Laussel and Gargas in France, El Castillo in Spain) or confined to the nails at the end of a long arm (for example, Santian in Spain).

At times, the hands are of children (for example, at Gargas, Les Combarelles, and Le Postel in France and Altamira in Spain) or of babies (Lascaux in France). Interpretations vary: they may be symbols of possession or marks of rituals and ceremonies. Handprints dating from the early Neolithic have been found at Catal Huyuk in Turkey.


In all cave art, from the Aurignacian onwards, abstract motifs are found alongside human and animal figures, and are given equal prominence. Abstraction arose from the need to represent, in a sign, an idea with a meaning unknown to outsiders, and it -was achieved either simply or symbolically.

Paleolithic people practised abstraction in the form of repetitive symbols, which represented primitive logical constants that were widely shared and diffused. These included schematic figures of animals, signs of vulvas and phalluses, handprints, series of dots and notches, which possibly had a numerical significance, and the occasional stylized anthropomorphic symbol.

Other representations were grouped in similarly associated sequences. These take various forms: pictograms, mythograms, schematic figures or barely indicated figures of humans and animals, ideograms, abstract repetitive signs - such as arrows, sticks, tree shapes, discs, crosses and "V" shapes, parallel lines, series of dots - and psychograms, signs that have no obvious reference to objects or symbols.


The oldest portable art from Russia and central and western Europe includes carvings of animals such as bears, lions, and mammoth, as well as remarkable human figures, including one with a lion's head from Hohlensteinstadel, Germany. These figures were made from bone, antler, ivory, and stone. Spearthrowers were the most effective hunting devices before the development of the bow, and carved and decorated examples of these have been found, The technique of working in these materials gradually became more accurate. Simple incised and dot decoration began to appear on equipment and personal ornaments, such as pins and pendants, which began to appear more often.

The period between 30,000 and 20,000bc is most noted for images of women. Generally characterized by large breasts, stomachs, buttocks, and thighs and exaggerated pudenda, these figures represent women in all of the stages of their lives: pubescence, pregnancy, childbirth, and the obesity of later life.

Only rarely do they have faces, such as the lovely portrait head on the Brassempouy "Venus", found in France, although they often show individual touches in their hairstyles and jewellery. "Venuses", as archaeologists have called the more detailed female sculptures, are more common outside France, especially across Russia, and some particularly fine examples have also been found in Germany and Italy. Later portable art is noted for its more naturalistic representations of animals on items of everyday equipment and personal ornaments.


Also known as the Woman of Willendorf, the Venus is an 11.1 cm high statuette of a plump female figure. It was discovered in 1908 by archaeologist Josef Szombathy at a paleolithic site near Willendorf, a village in Lower Austria near the city of Krems. It is carved from a limestone that is not local to the area, and tinted with red ochre. Since the discovery and naming, several similar statuettes and other forms of art have been discovered. They are collectively referred to as Venus figurines.

In 1990 a new analysis estimated it to have been carved between 24,000 and 22,000 BC. Very little is known about its origin, method of creation or cultural significance, but there is plenty of theories.

The Venus is not a realistic portrait but rather a crude version of the female figure. Her vulva, breasts, and swollen belly are very pronounced, suggesting a strong connection to fertility or pregnancy. Her tiny arms are folded over her breasts, and she has no visible face, her head being covered with circular horizontal bands of what might be rows of plaited hair or a kind of headdress. The lack of a face has prompted some archaeologists and philosophers to view the Venus as an Mother Goddess.

"The ironic identification of these figurines as 'Venus' pleasantly satisfied certain assumptions at the time about the primitive, about women, and about taste." - Christopher Witcombe.

The statue's feet don't allow it to stand on its own. Due to this it has been speculated that it was meant to be held, rather than simply looked at. The purpose of the carving is subject to much speculation.

Theories include: A doll, a holy fertility symbol, a portrait, a teaching tool, erotica.

Examples of Prehistoric Art

  • The Venus of Willendorf - 24,000 BC

  • Man from Brno, Czech Republic - c.30,000 BC

  • Mammoth from Vogelherd Cave, Germany c.25,000 BC

  • Mother Goddess from Laussel, France - c.22,000 BC

  • Woman's Head from Brassempouy, France - c.22,000 BC

  • Clay Bison, Tuc d'Audoubert, Ariege - c.15,000 BC

  • Mother Goddess of Catal Huyuk - c.6000 BC

  • Man and Woman from Cernavoda Romania - c.4000 BC

  • Stone Henge, Salisbury England - c.2100 BC

  • Moai Statues, Easter Island, Chile - Disputed Time Range

  • Lascaux France Cave

  • Lascaux France Bull


  • Paleolithic: The paleolithic era is distinguished by the development of stone tools and hence known as the Stone Age. It covers the greatest portion of humanity's time on Earth, extending from 2.5 million years ago, with the introduction of stone tools by early hominids such as Homo habilis, to the introduction of agriculture around 10,000 BC.

  • Lower and Middle Paleolithic: 750,000 - 40,000 BC. The early paleolithic periods chart the evolution of neanderthals, cro-magnon man and homo erectus into more modern humans and early nomadic patterns of the human species. The appearance of homo sapiens sapiens (modern humans) at approx. 130,000 BC. The cro-magnon man is responsible for much of the artwork and tools left behind during this period.

  • Upper Paleolithic: 40,000 - 10,000 BC. This was a period of evolutionary change for the human species as neanderthals became extinct, the last ice age and human tribes spread across the earth.

  • Mesolithic: 10,000 - 7,000 BC. Transition period between nomadic tribesmen and development of agriculture. More sophisticated tools and weapons appear.

  • Neolithic: 7,000 - 1,500 BC. The end of the last ice age included the development of technology such as the wheel, wide spread agriculture, domesticated animals and the rapid spread of the human species.

  • Petroglyphs: Petroglyphs are images created by removing part of a rock surfaces by incising, pecking, carving, and abrading. Outside North America, scholars often use terms such as "carving", "engraving", or other descriptions of technique to refer to such images. Petroglyphs are found world-wide, and are often (but not always) associated with prehistoric peoples. The word comes from the Greek words petros meaning "stone" and glyphein meaning "to carve" (it was originally coined in French as pétroglyphe).

  • Geoglyphs: A geoglyph is a drawing on the ground, or a large motif, (generally greater than 4 metres) or design produced on the ground, either by arranging clasts (stones, stone fragments, gravel or earth) to create a positive geoglyph (stone arrangement/alignment, petroform, earth mound) or by removing patinated clasts to expose unpatinated ground (negative geoglyph). The most famous negative geoglyphs are the Nazca Lines in Peru. Other areas with geoglyphs include Western Australia and parts of the Great Basin Desert in SW United States.

  • Megaliths: A megalith is a large stone which has been used to construct a structure or monument, either alone or together with other stones. Megalithic means structures made of such large stones, utilizing an interlocking system without the use of mortar or cement. Famous examples include Stone Henge and the Moai statues of Easter Island.

  • Relative Dating: Dating relies on stylistic analysis, superimposition analysis, weathering, and inter-site patterning. When considering the weathering method, it is mostly based upon common-sense observation: a less weathered engraving could be younger. Factors of the weathering method are micro-environment, or the depth of an engraving. Through stylistic dating researchers study superimposition and weathering in order to create a chronology of different styles and activity of different groups.

  • Absolute Dating: Mch less reliable, comparing one object to another to obtain a chronology. The concept of stratified art holds some bearing, in which the layers of soil, varnishes, or deposits can date an object over the object in question. Association dating, however, is extremely unreliable. The concept with this method holds that an object can be compared to another object of a known date, thus dating the object in question. However, if an Egyptian object is brought to Greece, although the Egyptian object might at one time have been contemporary with the Grecian object in question, the Egyptian piece could have been kept as an heirloom, and not buried until some centuries after it was originally brought over.

  • Carbon-ratio Dating: A technique based on the fact that the ration of calcium and potassium/titanium in rock varnish may decrease exponentially with age.

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