Stone Age Art (ca. 500.000 - 11,000 BC)


These are Oldowan chopping tools, and date certainly from over 1 million years ago.

Initially it was thought that the core of a stone tool was the important bit, but it is now suggested that the hominins were trying to obtain the rough small sharp flakes and discarded the flint cores as waste. Above is an example of a very simple “core and flake (also called Mode 1 tool), and pre-dates Acheulean tools (often called Mode 2 tools) where the rough flakes would have been re-worked (or “re-touched”) several times to produce sharp symmetrical blades.

It is difficult for the untrained eye to identify these tools made of broken rock, but the reality is that they were used for more than two million years (running from ca. 2.6 million to 500,000 BC) alongside more advanced technologies, e.g. spears, handaxes.

It has been suggested that these early tools shaped the forms of socialising, food consumption and sharing of early man. Also it has been suggested that the genus Homo evolved his brain cortex and upper limbs as he adapted to the new bio-mechanical functions imposed by these first tools. The above inset image shows the pressure distributed over our fingers in using an Oldowan bi-facial chopper. The important thing to note is that the pressure and force on the thumb is significantly lower than on the other two digits, suggesting that the tool required a “precision grip” (thumb and fingers) rather than a “power grip”  (thumb against palm), with implications on the evolution of fine motor skills. Some experts have even suggested that a precision grip might predate walking (walking may have been a by-product of busy hands).

It is also interesting to note that there is something called HACNS1, a gene enhancer, that is thought to have contributed to the evolution of the human thumb, ankle and foot, and it is also known to have undergone the most change during human evolution.

Acheulean handaxe from Kalambo Falls in Northern Zambia

Above we have a late Acheulean handaxe probably about 100,000 years old. It is quite large being around 24 cm long, 13 cm wide, and 3 cm think, and would have been “re-touched” using a soft hammer percussion flaking tool made of either antler, bone, ivory or wood (so-called Mode 2 industries).

The inset image is of a much older “almond” shaped bi-facial Acheulean flint handaxe from St. Acheul in France and dating from 350,000 to 300,000 BC. The basic shape would have been made with a hard hammer, but it would also have been reworked with a softer tool to get the final shape.

This type of tool was far more useful than the older Oldowan tools and they would have been employed for cutting, scraping, chopping, hacking, digging and as projectiles. The cores could have been used to produce flakes by hitting other stones. These oval or pear-shaped handaxes were the dominate technology for over a million years, and in many ways the Acheulean handaxe can be considered the most successful tool ever made by man.

The reality is that the Lower Paleolithic period offers very little evidence for symbolic or artistic activity.

Some people claim that the symmetry and shape of artifacts such as the Acheulean handaxe denotes an attention to detail which points to some degree of artistic expression, or at least a preference for the aesthetic. On the other hand these handaxes have been found in many different places (depending on the availability of the raw material) with no real stylistic or cultural variation - they all look more or less the same from the Middle East, Europe or Africa. In addition experts have noted that the style and form of handaxes remained constant over a very long time - during which the hominin brain dramatically increased. These facts have been used to suggest that the tool was not a major driver for hominin brain evolution. However paleo-anthropologists have recently discovered in Africa stone blades that date from 543,000-509,000 BC and were struck using cores. This suggests that these toolmakers were capable of more sophisticated behavior than previously thought, possibly linked to that dramatic increase in brain size noted about 600,000 years ago. So the link tool-making to brain size is still an open question.

Some experts claim that the very first art objects date to the period of Acheulean technology, e.g. up to 280,000 years ago. The Venus of Tan-Tan (an artifact found in Morocco dating from between 500,000 and 300,000 BC) is supposed to be an naturally occurring object having a “human-like” shape that has been accentuated by carving it with a stone-wedge. Other experts think that this is just a rock having that shape as the result of natural weathering and erosion. The Venus of Berekhat Ram (an artifact found on the Golan Heights in Lebanon dating possibly from around 230,000 BC) is another anthropomorphic pebble with some grooves in it made by a sharp-edged stone. The finders claim that it looks like a female human figure, but this conclusion has been contested. There are reports of fragments of ochre found at the Kapthurin formation in Kenya and the Duinefontein site in South Africa that may have been used as body ornaments, but I can not find any reliable information on this.

I do feel that some of the later handaxes are aesthetically pleasing to look at, but I think we need to look for something substantially more compelling as an indicator of the start of art history. And it looks as if jewellery is the answer.

To the left we have the Venus of Berekhat Ram and above the Venus of Tan-Tan. You decide - are these man-made or just products of natural processes?

In most of the literature it is suggested that the oldest known art objects generally (though not entirely) accepted by scientists are pieces of ochre carved with crosshatching and jewellery made from small perforated Nassarius kraussianus shells dating back 75,000 years, and found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa. More than 60 beads have been found and 27 of them may come from a single personal ornament. The pea-sized shells have holes in them to allow them to be strung together. Perhaps the most important aspect of this find is that it tells us that man (or woman) possessed abstract thought. Beads carry a symbolic message, as do cave paintings, personal ornaments, etc. Important to note is that the shells would have been brought back from the river more than 20 km away. They would appear to have been selected for their size and shape and perforated in an identical way. They have been rubbed together as if they were in a necklace or bracelet. There are traces of red ochre on some of the beads, so they might have been coloured or the wearer might have been painted with an iron oxide pigment. Scientists speculate about the link between the symbolic nature of such jewellery and our  ability to conceptualise. They also speculate about the use of such jewellery to help identify individuals in large groups, the possible link to status in a group, and the emergence of the sense of identity in man.

A nice summary of the findings in the Blombos Cave can be found here (which is a good source of maps and photo’s from archaeological sites around the world). In 2011 it was reported that a pair of 100,000-year-old abalone shells were found containing a bright red powder. It was a clay made of ochre (a form of iron ore), crushed seal bones, charcoal, and quartzite chips which would originally have been mixed with something like water or urine. In one shell the ochre was covered with a stone, and it still had it’s bright red colour intact. In addition they found grindstones, a small fire pit and animal bones used to transfer small amounts of the paint.

So 100,000 years ago early humans had found out that seal bones were rich in oil and fat (useful for making a paint-like substance) and that charcoal can bind and stabilise the mix. And in addition the experts also found some tiny pieces of a yellow mineral called geothite which could have been added to change the colour of the paint paste.

Also in the same cave they found more than 8,000 pieces of ochre which were more than 70,000 years old. Many were rubbed smooth (possibly to make the pigment powder), and some were decorated with complex geometric patterns (lines and cross-hatching).

The story now goes that at least 70,000 years ago early man was “behaviourally modern”. They made objects that were not exclusively utilitarian, and the signs on the ochre might even involve a syntactical language. Some experts consider the markings a form of artistic expression implying abstract thought, others disagree. Others experts even suggest that the Blombos Cave was the “world’s first art studio”.  

Recently it has been reported that some shell beads actually date from 132,000-98,000 BC, so people may have been using jewellery 25,000 years earlier than originally suggested. These authors also equate jewellery making with symbolic thought and with what they also termed “behaviourally modern” man. On the two sites studied it is clear that there was a deliberate selection and transportation (over 200 km in one case) by humans of the seashells. The authors also mentioned the possible use of the beads to strengthen social or economic relationships. And they ask why were the same type of shells used at two different sites, one in Israel and the other in Algeria?

More generally the Blombos Cave (ochre and shells included) are classed as part of the Aterian industry period, traditionally considered to have emerged around 82,000 years ago. Aterian is usually taken to mean the emergence of some form of prehistoric human adaptation. For some experts, it is associated with some of the earliest evidence for projectile technology, for others the stone bifacial points may indicate hunting in a grassland ecosystems (in North Africa where the Aterian is found). There are now reports of a new cave site Ifri n’Ammar in Morocco in which Aterian-like activity has been dated to about 175,000 BC. If these dates are correct, they push back the age for the earliest Aterian assemblages by some 65,000 year. Others have reported finding ochre pigments and paint grinding “equipment” dating back to 400,000-350,000 BC in Zambia.

Before we move on, another useful resource is Jermy Norman’s “From Cave Paintings to the Internet” and his prehistory timeline.

So even today what we thought was “written in stone” is actually a constantly changing view of early mans progress through space, time, and evolution.

Let us summarise - our own species, Homo sapiens or ‘wise human’, appeared 200,000 years ago (according to estimates based upon DNA), probably in Africa, and developed further into Homo sapiens sapiens, or modern humanity. This species (often called the Cro-Magnon) is believed to have migrated from Africa, replacing other archaic species of human: it had reached China by 68,000 years ago, Australia 60,000 years ago, and Europe 40,000 years ago. Since the disappearance of the Neanderthals 28,000 years ago, Homo sapiens has been the only surviving species of the Homo genus. These people had an unprecedented level of culture: they buried their dead, created rituals, made and wore jewellery, sewed clothing, carved artifacts, painted cave walls, and diversified into different communities with different cultural behaviours. Over several thousand years they have created, and are still creating today, immensely diverse art.

And on this page what we now need to find is some manifest and incontestable evidence of that art. So lets move on!

Nassarius kraussianus shell beads from the 75,000 year old levels at Blombos Cave

a) aperture made with bone tool

b) flattened facets produced by use wear, probably by rubbing against other beads, string or gut

c) ochre traces inside shell, possibly transferred from body of wearer

d) shell beads external view

So we will move in to the Upper Paleolithic period (50,000-10,000 BC) with its shift to organised settlements, seasonal campsites, and advanced technologies such as blades, darts, fish hooks, harpoons, oil lamps, rope and eyed needles. Artistic work blossomed, with Venus figurines, cave painting, carvings and engravings on bone or ivory, petroglyphs (rock engravings) and exotic raw materials found far from their sources, which suggests emergent trading links.

Before looking at cave painting lets have a look at what are called Venus figurines, and for more details check out a recent thesis on Female Figurines of the Upper Paleolithic. As you can well imagine they are prehistoric statuettes of women. In total there are more than 100 of these modestly sized figurines dating from between 35,000-11,000 BC. They were caved of stone, bone, or ivory, or formed of clay and fired. The latter are among the oldest ceramics known.

The majority of the Venus figurines appear to be depictions of females that follow certain artistic conventions, on the lines of schematisation and stylisation. Most of them are roughly lozenge-shaped, with two tapering terminals at top (head) and bottom (legs) and the widest point in the middle (hips/belly). In some examples, certain parts of the human anatomy are exaggerated and other anatomical details are neglected. The heads are often of relatively small size and devoid of detail. Some may represent pregnant women, while others show no such signs. One expert noted that "...they rarely show signs of pregnancy. If Paleolithic artists were interested in representing the fertility of women, there are obvious ways in which to do this (such as making female figures that are indisputably pregnant or holding an infant) yet these images have not been found in Paleolithic art."

To be honest only one of these figurines is worth showing here, and that is the 25,000-year-old ivory Brassempouy Venus.

This last image is in many way the most surprising on this page. What we see is a sculpture of cow and a bull bison, dating from around 15,000 years ago, and they were found in the Le Tuc d’Audoubert cave in France. The two sculptures are about 60 cm long, modelled in clay, with a smooth “wet” finish. The finger strokes of the artist can still be seen, and a tool has been used to sculpt the mane and beard. On the cave floor you can still see where the block of clay was removed, and there are also children’s footprints still visible (for some reason everyone in this part of the cave appears to have walked on their heals). There is also an engraving of a bison on a limestone pebble, and bison head finger-drawings on the clay floor. In some of the reports on these statuettes it is mentioned that the cow bison is giving birth, supporting the idea that these early artistic masterpieces were created as part of a fertility ritual. 

So what can we really say about Paleolithic art. We have cave paintings and personal decoration. Did they focus on decorating their dwellings, tools, and bodies? Were they more motivated by rituals and ceremonies? Were they just trying to record important events? Was it to do with the spirits of the dead? Or fertility? Or curing illness? Or simply to identify other clan members?

Why is there only one painting of a human figure in the Lascaux cave? Stylised figures dancing, singing and playing do appear in other caves around the world, but why do the figures not have faces? Do the children’s footprints near the bison sculptures point to an initiation ceremony? Are the Venus figurines a way to worship a goddess, or for fertility?

Who knows!

Some general references are:


The Archaeology News Network


Finally here are a few additional video resources specifically on stone age art:

Prehistoric Art: Part 1 of 2

Prehistory 2 Paleolithic Cave Painting Part 2 of 2

The Paleolithic Painted Cave of Lascaux

Lasxaux. The Prehistory of Art. 1/6

Lasxaux. The Prehistory of Art. 2/6

Lascaux.The Prehistory Of Art. 3/6

Lasxaux. The Prehistory of Art. 4/6

Lasxaux. The Prehistory of Art. 5/6

Lasxaux. The Prehistory of Art. 6/6

Art History Abbreviated: Woman of Willendorf

Prehistoric Europeans: People Who Invented Art 1 of 4

Prehistoric Europeans: People Who Invented Art 2 of 4

Prehistoric Europeans: People Who Invented Art 3 of 4

Prehistoric Europeans: People Who Invented Art 4 of 4

The small (3.65 cm high) Venus of Brassempouy was carved from mammoth ivory and dates from between 24,000-26,000 BC. The statuette is renowned for her tranquil face, and although the style looks realistic the proportions of the head do not correspond to any known human population, past or present. The lines on the head represent either hair or eventually a headdress. Originally the lines were interpreted as an intricate Egyptian headdress and used to justify a link between Upper Paleolithic people and Egypt (a link that has been proven not to have existed).

Now we come to the high-point of this page - cave paintings, and for us here that mean the Lascaux caves in the Corrèze, France. We really do not know why early man went to so much trouble to create cave paintings (certainly not for simple decorative reasons), but we do know that he started about 42,000 years ago (Aurignacian period in the Upper Paleolithic). Concentrated in France and Spain today there are nearly 350 decorated caves, but cave paintings have also been found in Africa (25,000-1000 BC), Australia (>40,000 BC), India (10,000 BC), South America (10,000 BC), and Southeast Asia (9000 BC - 900 AD).

Here we can see something of the scope of the paintings in the Lascaux caves.

So we start with what is a simple introduction to the cave painting in Lascaux (check the official site), The key point is that these are mans first great works of art and not the simple products of a savage. They are works of people who observe their surrounds and who were able to realistically render what they saw, so well that you can recognise each type of animal depicted.

When the Lascaux caves were painted Paleolithic Europe was inhabited by animals such as the Wisent (or European bison), large Elks, Caribou, the Red Stag, the so-called “barren ground” Reindeer, wolves (or wolverine), the Auroch (the ancestor of domestic cattle), some types of early horses, Roe deer, the Chamois, the Ibex, early forms of sheep, and possibly cave lions. On the other hand the mammoth and hippopotamus would have already disappeared from Europe, but skeletons of the woolly mammoth have been found in various caves in France.

The painted figures are large with some heads being bigger than 1 m long, bulls over 3.5 m in length and one of them is more than 5 m long. So the artists went to the trouble to construct scaffolding in order to paint high on the walls and on difficult to access ceilings. The figures could only have been created with the aid of torches and stone lamps filled with animal fat. The figures of horses, cattle and deer (and even one black bear and some felines) are striking both in their detail and artistic value, and in the sense of animation and dynamic movement conveyed. Words such a vitality, energetic and rhythmic visual power, and mystical are often used in the descriptions of cave paintings.

The artists used techniques such as "spray" - the blowing with the mouth of pigment powder or liquid to obtain shading or an outline (stencil process). They used different size brushes for the lines and used spots applied with a finger to depict animal hides. Paint stained hollowed-out bones have been found in the caves, which could have been used in the spray technique. No brushes have been found, so it is probable that moss or animal hair was used.

Here we can see the abundance of painting found in the Lascaux Caves.

There are some pictures of a human hand used as a stencil with a spray outline in red, certainly the first realistic and life-sized pictures of man. Hands are 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, or "in negative" by outlining the hands in colour. They also adopted a "pseudo-positive" style, involving 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, in the Cueva de las Manos in 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, Cueva de Santián in Spain). At times, the hands are of children (for example, at Gargas, Les Combarelles, and Le Portel 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.

Deer and Hands. Las Manos Cave, Argentina. ca. 15,000 BC.

Interestingly a recent statistical analysis of hand measurements suggests that most of the cave painters were boys aged 12 and under. So the kids making the hand prints were likely the same kids who were drawing the animals. This underlines the fact that although many cave paintings are masterpieces, they are vastly outnumbered by little known drawings that were done by less talented or less experienced artists. 

Great ingenuity was displayed by artists. At Lascaux pestles and mortars were found in which colours were mixed, together with no less than 158 different mineral fragments from which the mixtures were made. There seems to have been no shortage of pigment since large lumps have been found at some sites. Shells of barnacles were used as containers. One master employed a human skull. Cave water and the calcium it contained were used as mixers, and vegetable and animal oils as binders.

The great detail of some of the depictions shows that there were many artists at work, but we know virtually nothing about who the artists were. It is not even sure that a specialist artist existed in their culture, it is far more probable that in nomadic cultures (hunting and gathering) people had multiple roles. Some experts have suggested that some of the paintings were also made by women.

The exact purpose for cave painting remains obscure, but the caves were not lived in (no signs of ongoing habitation), and most are not easily accessible so it is unlikely to have been simply for decoration. Rituals for fertility and successful hunting are the most likely suggestions.

The so-called “Third Chinese Horse”, Lascaux.

In addition it is worth also noting that:

The region around Lascaux is very rich in similar sites, e.g. Roc-de-Sers, Fourneau-du-Diable, Pech-Merle, but there are 100's of cave sites around the world, e.g. the Altamira caves in Spain.

Cave paintings are "parietal" art (wall paintings) as opposed to the "mobility" art of small portable sculptured objects. There is evidence that many paintings were modified over a period of several thousands of years, but the overall style remained the same over those 1,000's of years.

The Lascaux caves contains over 2,000 figures, with over 900 animals, but strangely enough no reindeer which would have been their principle source of meat. Paintings of people are also rare. There are around 600 paintings and 1,500 engravings. Equally there are no pictures about the local landscape or local vegetation.

Radiocarbon dating on a reindeer antler fragment from the cave floor dates the works to between 18,600 and 18,900 BP (meaning "before present" set to 1950), although there are reports suggesting that the cave paintings in Chauvet could be 30,000 years old and paintings 40,000 years old are reported in Spain and Australia.

In some of the paintings there is even a primitive form of perspective, and both frontal and side perspectives are used. The animals are typically shown in a twisted perspective, with the heads depicted in profile but the pair of horns or antlers rendered frontally (a combination of profile and frontal perspectives is an artistic idiom also observed in ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian art).

There is some evidence that clay was used to render some pictures three-dimensional. There is a famous set of lines scratched into the rock making up XIII, and quite a number of signs ( e.g. squares and lines) can also be found. And some experts have even suggested that the dots painted on the walls could be primitive star maps.

The pigments used to paint Lascaux and other caves were derived from readily available earths and included red and yellow ochre, hematite, manganese oxide and charcoal.

The Chauvet cave also in France contains some of the earliest cave paintings (ca. 30,000-32,000 years ago). This cave is unusual in that the artists preferred to depict predatory animals such as cave lions, panthers (see here), bears and cave hyenas. Equally unusual is the fact that the walls were scraped and cleaned and are noticeably lighter than the other walls, that incising and etching provided a certain 3-dimensional quality, and that many of the animals are set in “scenes”, e.g. animals interacting with each other.

It is almost impossible to imagine that the above image has not been extracted from an artists sketch book. But this artist, or these artists, were working nearly 30,000 years ago.

Recently there have been reports that the “panel of hands” in the El Castillo Cave in Spain has been dated to be older than 40,800 years, making them the oldest known cave art in Europe. This is 15,000 years older than originally thought. This in fact does “change things” in that the authorship could now be either “modern man” or the former tenant, the Neandertal. Does this mean that “modern man” displaced the Neandertal earlier than originally thought? Some experts suggest that the Neandertal had already been pushed further south by then.

Whilst we have looked in detail at Lascaux in France, in fact northern Spain is also the home of 18 different caves decorated between 41,000-11,000 BC. The most famous is probably Altamira, but the most extensive set of caves are found around Monte Castillo near Santander, with Cueva de La Pasiega being well documented. Two points worth making here are, firstly, that dating mans past depends upon what we find, how we interprete what we find, and the scientific dating techniques employed. Secondly it is not surprising that the region is rich in cave paintings, since in the Atapuerca mountains  (near Burgos) hominid fossils and stone tools have been dated back to 1.2 million years ago.

It may be that the hominid stayed in this region of Spain, and the associated southern region of France (and also the Caucasus region), to escape the prolonged cold (and dry) periods known in northern Europe. Judging by the remains of teeth and jaws it would appear that early man did not rely on hunting (scavenging may explain the bones found in camp sites), and would not have been able to occupy regions poor in plant food. In addition he would have had to make some form of warm clothing and shelter. The later move into northern regions is correlated with increasing brain size, which may be related to the need to adapt to a new harsher environment.   

And now for something a little different, but equally impressive.