Aurignacian Art and Culture
History, Characteristics, Chronology of early Upper Paleolithic Parietal Arts.

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Red Sign, El Castillo Cave, Spain
The smudged red disk under the hand stencils has been dated to 39,000 BCE.
This makes it the earliest art of the Aurignacian period. For more, see:
Hand Stencils Rock Art (c. 40,000 BCE)

Aurignacian Art (c.40,000-25,000 BCE)


The Aurignacian Era: A Summary
Aurignacian Art: History, Characteristics
Related Articles

Chronology of Upper Paleolithic Art

Gravettian (25,000 - 20,000 BCE)
Solutrean (20,000 - 15,000 BCE)
Magdalenian (15,000 - 10,000 BCE)

Late Stone Age Culture

Mesolithic Art (10,000 to about 6,000 BCE)
Neolithic Art (about 6,000 to about 2,000 BCE)

For the evolution of Ice Age rock painting in France and Spain,
see: Franco-Cantabrian Cave Art (40,000-10,000 BCE).

Red Symbol, Altamira Cave, Spain.
These double club shapes have been
U/Th dated to about 34,000 BCE.
For details of colour pigments used,
see: Prehistoric Colour Palette.

The Aurignacian Era: A Summary

In prehistoric art, the term "Aurignacian" describes the very earliest period of Upper Paleolithic art and culture in Europe, which coincided with the entry of anatomically modern humans into Europe and the progressive disappearance of the indigenous Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis). Named after the type site of Aurignac in the Haute-Garonne area of France, the Aurignacian period was preceded by the Mousterian era of the Middle Paleolithic, and succeeded by the Gravettian period. (For details, please see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.) Up until the 20th century, the majority of Paleolithic archeologists doubted that Aurignacian Man was capable of producing fine art. This changed during the 1930s with the first discoveries of ivory carvings in the Swabian Jura. Indeed, the earliest example of figurative art, the Venus of Hohle Fels (38-33,000 BCE) was carved during the Aurignacian. This masterpiece of prehistoric sculpture was discovered in September 2008 at the Hohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura of southwestern Germany. The most famous example of cave painting created during the Aurignacian culture was found in 1994 at the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave, in the Ardeche valley in the Rhone-Alpes region of southern France. However, new Uranium/Thorium tests show that the El Castillo cave paintings (red dot and hand stencils) and some of the Altamira cave paintings also belong to the art of the Aurignacian period. More recent discoveries of Aurignacian cave art include the primitive Fumane cave paintings near Verona and the Abri Castanet engravings in the Dordogne, both dating to 35,000 BCE.

Aurignacian Art: History, Characteristics, Chronology

As the period progressed, both parietal art and mobiliary art gradually became less stylistic and more naturalistic, although it remained relatively primitive. Animals, for instance, were drawn with a degree of anatomical accuracy. Human figures, however, remained more symbolic, particularly in the case of the ubiquitous Venus Figurines which first appeared during the Aurignacian period. The latter were small fertility carvings of obese females, made with exaggerated depictions of their pelvic regions and reproductive organs. As dating methods improve, we can expect more ancient art to be designated Aurignacian.

Chronology of Aurignacian Culture

Abstract Art in the cave of El Castillo (c.39,000 BCE)
In 2012, a red dot and a hand print discovered in the Cave of El Castillo - a Cantabrian rock shelter - were dated to at least 39,000 BCE and 35,500 BCE respectively, making them the oldest art of their type from a cave in Europe. Only La Ferrassie Cave Cupules (c.60,000 BCE) are more ancient. For more details, please see: Prehistoric Abstract Signs 40,000-10,000 BCE.

NOTE: For contemporaneous Aurignacian painting in Southeast Asia, see: Sulawesi Cave Art (Indonesia) (c.37,900 BCE).

Abstract Engraving in Gorham's Cave (c.37,000 BCE)
Experts believe that small rock engravings discovered at Gorham's Cave in Gibraltar, were created by Neanderthal artists. Sceptics disagree citing the fact that the petroglyph was not directly dated. The debate continues.

Figurative Carvings in Southwestern Germany (c.39,000-28,000 BCE)
From the 1930s onwards, the prehistoric rock shelters of the Swabian Jura, including the caves of Vogelherd, Hohlenstein-Stadel, Geissenklosterle and Hohle Fels, have yielded a large number of Aurignacian carvings. Examples are: (1) the anthropomorphic figure known as the Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel (c.38,000 BCE); (2) the Venus of Hohle Fels (38,000-33,000 BCE), mentioned above; (3) the mammoth ivory figurine (c.33,000 BCE) the oldest known carving of an animal; (4) the Hohle Fels Flute (c.33,000 BCE) the oldest known musical instrument, made from a vulture's wing bone.

Figure Paintings in Fumane Cave (c.35,000 BCE)
An important site with extensive evidence of occupation by Neanderthal and later anatomically modern man, noted for crude images of animals and a half-man, half-animal figure (or shaman) on rock fragments from a wall, found buried in debris.

Engravings at Abri Castanet (c.35,000 BCE)
Engravings, paintings and abstract signs discovered on the underside of a huge limestone block which had become detached from the ceiling, some 37,000 years ago.

Geometric Imagery in the Altamira Cave (c.34,000 BCE)
In 2012, U/Th tests on a club-shaped image found in the Horse's Tail passageway at Altamira, showed that it was painted no earlier than 34,000 BCE, making it one of the oldest examples of Stone Age art in Spain.

Paintings in Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave (c.30,000 BCE)
The discovery of the Chauvet cave paintings - a glorious cache of Aurignacian rock art - raises questions about the relationship between the prehistoric painters of Chauvet and the prehistoric sculptors of the Swabian Jura.

Paintings in Coliboaia Cave (c.30,000 BCE)
Found in 2009 and now radiocarbon dated to at least 30,000 BCE, the charcoal drawings of horses, bison and reindeer found in this Romanian cave represent the oldest cave art in Central Europe. For more details, please see: Coliboaia Cave Art, Apuseni Natural Park, Romania.

Venus Figurine at Galgenberg (c.30,000 BCE)
Carved from serpentine stone, the Venus of Galgenberg (also known as the Stratzing Figurine) was found at a hunter-gatherer camp site in Lower Austria, near the location of the Venus of Willendorf. It is the oldest known prehistoric sculpture in Austria.

Grotte des Deux-Ouvertures (c.28,000-26,000)
The Grotte des Deux-Ouvertures (Cave of Two Openings) was first discovered in 1878 but not properly excavated until 2008, this extensive Aurignacian complex is located in the Ardeche gorge, near Aigueze, not far from Chauvet cave, with which it is contemporaneous. It is best known in particular for its rock engravings and pictographs, featuring 52 figures including mammoths and aurochs.

Nawarla Gabarnmang charcoal drawing (26,000 BCE)
Discovered in June 2011, in the Top End of Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, the Nawarla Gabarnmang charcoal drawing is Australia's oldest confirmed example of Australian aboriginal art. Other examples of Australian art believed to originate during the Aurignacian era, include: Ubirr Rock Art in Arnhem Land (from 30,000 BCE), Kimberley Rock Art in northern Australia (30,000 BCE) and Burrup Peninsula Rock Art in the Pilbara (c.30,000).

For a comparison with ancient African art, see the animal pictures on the Apollo 11 Cave Stones (c.25,500 BCE).

Related Articles About Prehistoric Art

Oldest Stone Age Art: Top 100 Artworks
All the greatest art of the early Aurignacian.

Blombos Cave Rock Art (70,000 BCE)
South African stone engravings dating back to the Mousterian culture.

Venus of Berekhat Ram and Venus of Tan-Tan (c.230,000 - 700,000 BCE)
Earliest known stone figurines, or effigies.

Petroglyphs of Bhimbetka (c.290,000 - 700,000 BCE)
The earliest known type of art - in this case, cupule art - found at Auditorium Cave, Bhimbetka and at Daraki-Chattan Cave, both in Madhya Pradesh, India.


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