Cave Art
Characteristics, Types, Chronology, Meaning.

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Painting of an Ibex.
Rouffignac cave (c.14,000 BCE).

Negative handprint in Gargas cave
(25,000 BCE) Note the mutilated fingers.

Cave Art (c.40,000-10,000 BCE)
Ice Age Painting, Engraving, Sculpture of the Upper Paleolithic


What is Cave Art? (General Characteristics)
What are the Origins of Cave Art?
When was Cave Art Made?
Chronological Timeline
Where is Cave Art Located?
Rock Shelters versus Deep Caves
How is Cave Art Dated?
What are the Different Types of Cave Art?
- Themes
- Handprints
- Abstract signs
- Painting
- Rock engraving
- Relief sculpture
Which are the Most Important Sites of Cave Art?
Why was Cave Art Made? (Meaning)

Note: unless otherwise indicated, all dates are BCE ("Before Christian Era"). This is the same as the older "BC" designation.

• For a detailed set of dates and events relating to the Upper Paleolithic, please see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).

• For a list of the world's most ancient artworks,
please see: Oldest Stone Age Art: Top 100 Works.

Big Horn Rhino (c.30,000 BCE)
Cave painting in Chauvet Cave.

What is Cave Art? General Characteristics

"Cave art" - also known as "parietal art", or occasionally "Ice Age rock art" - is a general term used to describe any kind of man-made image on the walls, ceiling or floor of a cave or rock shelter. It does not refer to "mobiliary art", meaning portable items like venus figurines or loose decorated stones: it must be part of the cave's fabric. Most cave art is found in shallow rock shelters, such as those formed by overhanging rocks, but some was created in total darkness within deep, uninhabited caves, and was rarely seen by humans. Also, the term is used mostly in connection with Stone Age art created during the last Ice Age, between about 40,000 and 10,000 BCE - a period known as the "Upper Paleolithic". Archeologists have yet to pinpoint who created this rock art, although it is generally believed that the vast majority was created by Modern man (Homo sapiens sapiens), who began arriving in Europe from Africa around 40,000 BCE. Important finds have been made in India, Indonesia, Siberia, Australia and elsewhere, but most of our knowledge of Paleolithic art comes from excavations conducted in European caves, notably in southern France and northern Spain. Cave art embraces five different types of art, as follows. (1) Hand prints and finger marks. (2) Abstract signs. (3) Figurative painting. (4) Rock engraving. (5) Relief sculpture. It does not usually include more ancient cultural markings like cupules, since scholars are divided as to their significance and meaning. The prevalence and age of the five main forms varies considerably. In general, hand prints and abstract symbols are the most common form of art, while relief sculpture is least common, occurring in only a few caves. Most pictures that appear in caves are of large animals - either predators or animals hunted for food - although artists also depicted a small number of human figures. The most spectacular images are undoubtedly the polychrome cave paintings at Lascaux and Altamira, and the monochrome imagery at Chauvet. The purpose and meaning of this ancient art continues to be widely debated. Scholars have proposed a wide range of theories involving Shamanism, hunting rituals, cult behaviour and neuro-aesthetics, to name but a few.

Note: leading specialists in cave art (past and present) include: Denis Peyrony (1869-1954), an authority on cave painting in the Perigord; Henri Breuil (1877-1961), perhaps the greatest of the early pioneers; Andre Leroi-Gourhan (1911-86), the first of the great modern archaeologists and paleontologists; Jean Clottes (b.1933), advisor to ICOMOS and UNESCO, arguably the greatest living expert on European Ice Age art.

PLEASE NOTE: For more information about the most famous caves, please see: Which are the Most Important Sites of Cave Art?



What are the Origins of Cave Art?

All known prehistoric art (except cupules and primitive lithic humanoids) is associated with Modern man, who first appeared in Africa around 200,000 BCE, and began migrating northwards into Europe and Asia sometime after 100,000 BCE. He arrived in Australia, via the SE Asian mainland, around 60,000 BCE and appeared in icebound Western Europe about 40,000 BCE. On arrival in Europe, he eradicated the resident Neanderthals, whose DNA disappears completely from the archeological record within about 10,000 years.

Archeologists and paleoanthropologists do not know exactly when or where Modern man first began to create "art", but the oldest art to be scientifically dated is the set of abstract cross-hatch engravings, discovered in the Blombos Cave on the coast of South Africa, dating to 70,000 BCE. Similar finds were made at the Diepkloof Cave near Elands Bay, north of Cape Town, dating to 60,000 BCE. These discoveries - which themselves involve portable art rather than cave art - suggest that the origins of cave art lie in Africa, no later than 70,000 BCE, and it is almost certain that a number of African caves containing paintings and engravings are still waiting to be discovered.

After Diepkloof, the next set of artistic finds, which occur at opposite sides of the world, date to about 37-39,000 BCE. They include: painted abstract signs at El Castillo cave in northern Spain (dated 39,000 BCE); hand stencils at Sulawesi cave in Indonesia (dated 37,000 BCE); and abstract petroglyphs (similar to those at Blombos) at Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar (dated 37,000 BCE).

These finds show quite clearly that Stone Age artists were doing similar things all over the world, which confirms the fact that Modern man acquired his artistic ability before leaving Africa.

When was Cave Art Made?

With the earliest art occurring in Africa, and the earliest known cave art emerging simultaneously in Europe and Indonesia, advances thereafter came in bursts. The high quality of paintings and engravings in the caves of Chauvet (30,000 BCE), Cosquer (25,000 BCE), and Cussac (25,000) demonstrates that progress was not even and steady, but came in spurts. Artistic techniques were developed, then forgotten, then rediscovered. Even so, certain abstract motifs (like Placard-type signs), as well as certain techniques of painting and stone carving, are found in local clusters of sites. In general, the same themes and styles are repeated by artists across the Continent of Europe, and sometimes even further afield. And none of these primitive painters or stone carvers are likely to have been aware of the progress made in other caves.

Chronological Timeline

Here is a chronological timeline which includes the oldest sites of parietal art from around the world.

Note: all dates are BCE ("Before Christian Era") same as "BC".


200,000 BCE









Emergence of Modern man in sub-Saharan Africa.
Beginning of last Ice Age (ends 10,000)
Modern man starts to migrate northwards out of Africa.
Blombos Cave Abstract Engravings, South Africa.
Diepkloof Eggshell Abstract Engravings, South Africa.
Modern man arrives in Australia.
Modern man arrives in Western Europe.
Beginning of Aurignacian art (ends 25,000)
El Castillo Cave Painted Signs, Cantabria, Spain.
Sulawesi Cave Hand Stencils and Paintings, Indonesia.
Gorham's Cave Abstract Engravings, Rock of Gibraltar.
Abri Castanet Engravings, Dordogne, France.
Fumane Cave Paintings, Lessini Hills, Verona, Italy.
Altamira Cave: Abstract symbols and handprints.
Chauvet Cave Paintings, Ardeche Valley, France.
Coliboaia Cave Art, Apuseni Natural Park, Romania.
Grotte des Deux-Ouvertures Engravings, Ardeche Valley.
Nawarla Gabarnmang Rock Shelter Drawing, Australia.
Beginning of Gravettian art (ends 20,000)
Cosquer Cave Paintings, near Marseille, France.
Cussac Cave Engravings, Dordogne, France.
Pech-Merle Cave Paintings, Cabrerets, France.
Gargas Cave Hand Stencils, Hautes-Pyrenees, France.
Roucadour Cave Art, Quercy, Lot, France.
Cougnac Cave Paintings, Gourdon, Lot, France.
Laussel Shelter Venus Sculpture, Dordogne, France.
Abri du Poisson Cave Relief Sculpture of Salmon, France.
Beginning of Solutrean art (ends 15,000)
La Pileta Cave Paintings, Malaga, Spain.
Koonalda Cave Finger Fluting, Nullabor Plain, Australia.
Le Placard Cave Abstract Signs, Charente, France.
Roc-de-Sers Stone Reliefs, Charente, France.
Lascaux Cave Paintings: Highpoint of cave painting.
La Pasiega Cave paintings, Puente Viesgo, Spain.
Beginning of Magdalenian art (ends 10,000)
Altamira Cave Paintings: apogee of Stone Age art.
Cap Blanc Rock Shelter Frieze, Dordogne, France.
Font de Gaume Cave Paintings, Dordogne, France.
Tito Bustillo Cave Paintings, Asturias, Spain.
Rouffignac Cave ("Cave of hundred mammoths"), France.
Tuc d'Audoubert Bison Reliefs, Central Pyrenees, France.
Trois Freres Cave Engravings, Hautes-Pyrenees, France.
Kapova Cave Paintings (Shulgan-Tash Cave), Russia.
Niaux Cave Charcoal Drawings, Hautes-Pyrenees, France.
Roc-aux-Sorciers Sculpture Frieze, Vienne, France.
Les Combarelles Cave Engravings, Dordogne, France.
Addaura Cave Engravings, Monte Pellegrino, Italy.
Ice Age ends.
Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands), Argentina.

PLEASE NOTE: For details of individual caves,
see: Which are the Most Important Sites of Cave Art?

Where is Cave Art Located?

Cave art has been found on every continent except Antarctica. In Europe, about 350 sites have been discovered, from the southernmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula (Gibraltar) to the Russian Urals. Of these, nearly half (about 160) are located in France. There are a few hot-spots, all of which are located within the region of Franco-Cantabrian Cave Art (40,000-10,000 BCE), in northern Spain and southern France. These include: (1) Dordogne, in south-west France (Abri Castanet, Cussac, Laussel, Abri du Poisson, Lascaux, Font de Gaume, Rouffignac, Combarelles, Cap Blanc); (2) French Pyrenees (Gargas, Tuc d'Audoubert, Trois Freres, Niaux); (3) French Alps (Chauvet, Grotte des Deux-Ouvertures, Chabot, Ebbou); (4) Cantabria on the north coast of Spain (El Castillo, Altamira, La Pasiega, Tito Bustillo).

A fifth hot-spot of Stone Age art is the plateau of the Swabian Jura, in Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany (Hohlenstein-Stadel, Hohle Fels, Vogelherd, Geissenklosterle - see Ivory Carvings of the Swabian Jura). However it is noted only for its portable carvings, like the Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel, rather than cave art.

Elsewhere in Europe, there are a scattering of caves in Portugal, Italy and Sicily, Serbia and Croatia, Romania and Russia.

NOTE: Information about Paleolithic art in China is very scarce, except for ancient pottery, found at Xianrendong Cave (18,000 BCE) in Jiangxi Province, and Yuchanyan Cave (16,000 BCE) in Hunan.

As you can see, distribution of cave art is very uneven, due partly to the influence of at least three factors. (1) Geological environment. For example, a hilly karst/limestone landscape (eg. the Ardeche Valley in the Rhone-Alps) is likely to have far more caves or rock shelters than a granite landscape or low-lying river basin. (2) Climate. For example, the prevalence of caves in the French Pyrenees and Spanish Cantabria appears to be geographically related to the progress of the Ice cap. As the ice retreated northwards during the Mesolithic (c.10,000-5,000 BCE), taking the reindeer herds wth it, so the caves became less important as ceremonial or ritualistic centres. By comparison, on the island of Sulawesi, in ice-free Indonesia, caves are the only places that offer reliable shelter in the heavy rain and general jungle conditions. (3) Local cultural traditions. For example, a number of caves have a long history of use as art galleries (albeit interspersed with long periods of non-use), showing that artists tend to return to established sites. This may be due to the persistence of rituals or other ceremonies. In addition, the presence of one cave seems to encourage the development of others within the local area. Examples include Monte Castillo, home to several important prehistoric caves in Spain, such as El Castillo, La Pasiega, Las Monedas and Las Chimeneas; and the Tuc d'Audoubert and Trois Freres cave complex in the Ariege department of the central Pyrenees, in southwest France.

Establishing clear patterns for the distribution of Stone Age caves is made uncertain by the likelihood that many decorated caves remain undiscovered, sealed off or underwater. To begin with, not all caves are accessible - some (eg. Chauvet and Lascaux) were sealed off for millennia by landslides, and others may be similarly entombed. Even certain chambers in known caves may still be sealed off. Next, many coastal caves and shelters are likely to have been destroyed by the rise in sea levels. For example, following the last glaciation, the Mediterranean sea rose about 115 metres (375 feet), flooding a number of caves including Cosquer. Meanwhile, the Coliboaia Cave in Apuseni Natural Park, Romania, suffers from constant flooding which - until recently - prevented spelunkers from discovering its rock art. Lastly, due to lack of resources, some rock shelters may remain undated and unexcavated. In Africa, for example, there are literally hundreds of ancient caves that might contain art of some description, but which are unlikely to be investigated due to lack of money.

Rock Shelters versus Deep Caves

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, cave art is found in two different types of location - either in shallow rock shelters, or in deep caves.

The shelters were usually occupied (by hunter gatherers and their families), thus people lived and worked in close proximity to the engravings, paintings and low-relief sculptures. As a result, images were often defaced, destroyed or erased, especially the paintings. On the other hand, only shelters - typically lit by sunlight - tended to be used as sites for stone sculpture such as wall friezes.

In contrast, archeological evidence shows that the deep caves were typically uninhabited except by the artists and perhaps a tiny family circle. Moreover, they were only visited by a very small number of people. Thus deep cave art was not created for general viewing, but for some other reason - perhaps to do with ceremonial purposes. For more on this, see: Why was Cave Art Made?

How is Cave Art Dated?

The age of a cave painting has profound consequences for the cave itself and for the imagery on its walls and ceiling. Coliboaia Cave, for instance, a partly flooded site in north-west Romania, was seen as completely unimportant until 2009, when amateur explorers found some charcoal drawings. These were investigated and dated by French experts to about 30,000 BCE. As a result, the cave has been virtually sealed off, and is shortly to be the subject of a multi-disciplinary international project, involving archeologists, anthropologists, paleoontologists as well as a raft of specialist equipment. In addition to considerable prestige, this will bring employment to the region as well as long term tourist revenues. So dating is very important.

At present, for example, there are three methods of dating cave paintings.

Stylistic dating

This method is used when there is no relevant organic material available to test. Researchers compare the images or painting techniques used in a particular picture, to others whose dates have already been established. In the Coliboaia Cave, for instance, French experts estimated the date of the drawings at 23,000 to 30,000 BCE, based on a stylistic comparison with similar drawings at Chauvet, which had already been carbon dated to 30,000 BCE. Scientific tests later produced a definite date of 30,000 BCE. This approach was first pioneered by Abbe Henri Breuil, a French priest and archeologist, who based it mainly on the presence or absence of 'twisted perspective' - where an animal is depicted in profile but with its horns, antlers, tusks or hoofs facing the front. Proved to be inaccurate, Breuil's scheme was later replaced by a more complex scheme - involving four basic styles - designed by Andre Leroi-Gourhan. But this too proved inadequate. Today, prehistorians use more sophisticated comparative techniques, based on computer mapping software, but even these have their limitations. For example, the fact that painting A (in a French cave) is drawn in a similar way to painting B (in a Spanish cave) does not mean that it must have been created at the same time. Another problem is to determine exactly which stylistic elements are to be compared?

Indirect dating

This method is used when datable materials are available but are not part of the actual artwork. For example, if the painting is covered by a thin layer of calcite, then dating the calcite can establish a minimum age. Or if a fragment of painting (or sculpture) breaks off and is later found in datable archeological strata, then dating the strata can give a rough date for when the art fell and thus a minimum age for the art itself. Or, if the cave contains materials indirectly associated with the artwork, such as datable colour pigments or pigment-making tools, then these too can help to provide an approximate age. A modern example of indirect dating in Australia, involved the use of optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) to date a wasps's nest lying on top of a Bradshaw painting in the Kimberley. The nest was OSL-dated to 15,500 BCE, proving that the image was at least as old.

Direct dating

This method can only be used when the painting itself contains material such as charcoal or other organic compounds, which can be directly tested. The most commonly used and most reliable direct dating method is radiocarbon dating. Radiocarbon dating - a technique invented by Willard Libby in the late 1940s - used to require so much charcoal that a whole painting would have to be sacrificed, which was hardly feasible. Fortunately, the development of accelerator mass spectrometry (1977-87) means that it is now possible to obtain radiocarbon dates from samples the size of a pinhead, which can be abstracted from the painting without causing noticeable damage. Even so, the technique is not problem-free. For example, if an artist uses charcoal obtained by burning a piece of wood from a very old tree, its radiocarbon date will be much older than that of the painting.

New Dating Techniques

Where no organic materials are available to test, thus ruling out the use of radiocarbon dating, researchers can try a variety of other techniques. These include: electron spin resonance (ESR), thermoluminescence (TL), optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) and Uranium/Thorium testing (U/Th). In 2012, the Uranium/Thorium technique was used to date tiny calcite stalactites in the El Castillo Cave, which had formed over a red ochre painting. It dated the painting to at least 39,000 BCE - making it the oldest cave painting in the world.

What are the Different Types of Cave Art?

As stated at the beginning of this article, there are five different types of cave art: hand prints (including finger marks), abstract signs, figurative painting, engraving and relief sculpture. The last three are concerned with figurative works and, broadly speaking, follow similar themes.

PLEASE NOTE: For detailed information about specific caves, please see: Which are the Most Important Sites of Cave Art?


Whether found in sunlit rock shelters or in the dark deep caves, cave art is the art of animals. True, animal images are greatly outnumbered by abstract symbols (dots, bars, circles, lines, triangles), quantities of which are found in almost every cave, but animal paintings remain - at least optically speaking - the dominant visual art of the Ice Age, and the key to understanding the aesthetics of our ancestors

Most animals shown are adults drawn in profile, with no care for scale. The most common images are horses. In some caves they may be outnumbered by bison (Altamira) or reindeer (La Pasiega), sometimes even by rhinos and lions (Chauvet during the Aurignacian) or, much later, by mammoths (Rouffignac during the Magdalenian). But overall horses predominate across most regions and styles, despite the fact that they were a far less common food than bison or reindeer, whose images are also found in high numbers throughout the Upper Paleolithic. Less popular are lions, rhinoceroses and bears, except at Chauvet. Indeed, Aurignacian artists gave much more attention to predators, a tendency which changed at the start of the Gravettian around 25,000, when hunted animals became the favourite theme. Fish are rarely depicted: two exceptions being the salmon relief at Abri du Poisson, and the halibut drawing at La Pileta. There are also a few rare examples of imaginary animals, such as the two-horned "unicorn" of Lascaux. Animals can be depicted whole or represented just by their heads or other parts. Images tend to be drawn precisely and more often as individuals: there are no pictures, for instance, of herds or mating scenes, although pregnancy is seen (La Pileta). The ground is rarely drawn and there is never any landscape. Size is usually determined by wall contours and space, but some images - like the great bulls or aurochs at Lascaux - can exceed 5 metres in length.

Pictures of humans or human-like figures are also found (less than 100 to date), but much less often compared to paintings and engravings of animals. Apart from being very scarce, drawings of humans tend to be only partially complete, and non-naturalistic (mostly stick figures). Drawings of complete human figures are exceptional (less than 20): they include: carved women (Laussel, La Magdelaine, Le Roc aux Sorciers), or incised sketches of women on soft surfaces (Cussac, Pech-Merle), or engraved men (Gabillou, Saint-Cirq, Sous-Grand-Lac). There are several enigmatic representations of shaman-type anthropomorphs, such as the "Sorcerer" in Les Trois Freres, as well as others in Fumane, Lascaux, Niaux, Gabillou and Addaura.

Body segments - including hands and heads, as well as female and male genitals - are much more numerous, and tend to be most common in the more ancient caves (Abri Castanet, Chauvet, Cosquer, Pech-Merle, Gargas), although depictions of female organs are seen throughout the Upper Paleolithic (Bedeilhac, Font-Bargeix, Tito Bustillo).

Note: humans are seen much more often in portable art, which accounts for threequarters of all human images created during the Ice Age. Venus figurines, for instance - sculptures of obese females - have no equivalents in cave art.

Handprints (and finger markings)

The simplest and oldest form of self-expression found in prehistoric caves is finger marking, or tracing, sometimes called "finger-fluting". This ancient art, seen on soft clay walls, usually consists of formless squiggles but can also depict animal and even humanoid figures. Good examples can be seen at Altamira, Antillana del Mar, Baume Latronne, Cosquer, Koonalda (Australia) and Rouffignac.

Handprints are one of the most common images of rock art, and appear in Stone Age caves throughout the world, including Sulawesi (Indonesia), Cosquer (France), Fern Cave (Australia), Elands Bay Cave (South Africa), El Castillo (Spain), Gargas (France), Maltravieso (Spain), Cueva de las Manos (Argentina), Altamira (Spain), East Kalimantan Caves (Borneo) and many others. According to recent analysis, the majority of painted hands in caves belong to women.

There are two basic types of handprint: painted prints or stencilled silhouettes. Either the hand was painted (usually with red, white or black pigment) and then applied to the rock surface, producing a crude image of the hand; or the hand was placed on the wall or ceiling and pigment was then blown through a hollow tube over it, leaving behind a silhouette of the hand on the rock. Sometimes the stencil was made simply by painting around it with a pad dipped in pigment.

The most striking instances of hand painting occur when the prints appear in a cluster. The most famous examples occur at: Chauvet Cave (4 panels of over 400 handprints, including the "Panel of Hand Stencils" and the "Panel of the Red Dots"); El Castillo Cave (a cluster of 44 in the "Gallery of the Hands"); Cuevas de las Manos (a rock face covered in hand stencils); East Kalimantan Caves (1,500 negative handprints in 30 caves).

Some handprints are missing a finger, or part of a finger. The most tragic example of this phenomenon is the series of mutilated hands at Gargas Cave in the French Pyrenees. Although deliberate finger mutilation is practised in certain parts of the world, such as southern Africa, the Gargas handprints are believed to be the result of ill health.

Abstract Signs

Ice Age caves contain more than twice as many abstract signs as animal images. According to recent research by Genevieve von Petzinger and April Nowell, this mysterious type of cave art may be the earliest known pictorial language. Particularly noteworthy, is the fact that 75 percent of all the main prehistoric signs were introduced during the Aurignacian era - that is, the first phase of Paleolithic cave art. This suggests that human understanding of symbolic art is likely to have first occurred in Africa, a proposition which appears to be supported by the discoveries of cross-hatch symbols at Blombos Cave and Diepkloof rock shelter in South Africa.

In total, Petzinger and Nowell have identified 24 main signs. They include: Aviforms, Circles, Claviforms, Cordiforms, Crosshatching, Cruciforms, Dots, Fan-Shapes, Half-Circles, Lines, Open-Angles, Ovals, Pectiforms, Penniforms, Quadrangles, Reniforms, Scalariforms, Serpentiforms, Spirals, Tectiforms, Triangles, Unciforms, W-signs, and Zigzags. Over the period known as the Upper Paleolithic (40,000-10,000 BCE), most these of these shapes were repeated over and over. Such continuity proves that these markings were not random doodles but deliberate signs.

They occur singly or in groups, on walls, ceilings and floors in deep caves as well as rock shelters; they are found in isolated locations within a cave, or beside figures of animals and humans. One of the 'Chinese horses' at Lascaux has feathery Penniform signs on either side of its front legs, and a pectiform above its head. The famous picture of a "Man Wounded by Spears" at Pech Merle includes a Placard-type aviform symbol next to the man's head.

NOTE: The most prevalent symbol in Ice Age caves - found at roughly 70 per cent of the sites across all time periods - is the line. The next most common was the open angle sign and the dot - both found in about 42 per cent of caves. Interestingly, both the spiral and the zig-zag were rare occurrences, despite being extremely common during the Holocene epoch, notably in megalithic art.



Originally, it was thought that cave painting improved gradually across the board, millennium by millenium. This assumption was wrecked when the art at Chauvet was discovered in 1994. In simple terms, it was too sophisticated for its presumed age. And when radiocarbon dating results confirmed that the art was as old as 30,000 BCE, it became clear that Modern man was producing very high quality art much earlier than previously thought - within a mere 10,000 years of arriving in Europe. Even so, cave painting techniques do not appear to show gradual, steady progress. Instead, there seems to have been sudden breakthroughs, followed by lulls or even backward steps (or advances in different types of art, like portable sculpture), followed by further progress. For instance, the next major improvement over Chauvet, did not occur until Lascaux (17,000-13,000), some 13,000 years later. Yet 2,000 years after this came the glorious multi-coloured bison at Altamira, seen as the apogee of Ice Age cave art.

Cave painting was generally done either in red or black pigment. The red colours are iron oxides, such as hematite or ochre. The blacks, either manganese dioxide or charcoal. For details, see: Prehistoric Colour Palette. Studies of the pigments used have revealed the addition of 'extenders' like talc or feldspath, to make the paint go further, as well as'binders' such as animal and plant oils, to make the pigments adhere to the wallsurface.

Paintings were typically executed using simple outlines or with some infill added, although a high degree of sophistication was sometimes achieved - some of the monochrome animals at Chauvet, for instance, display high quality shading. The two-colour and three-colour figures that appeared during the Magdalenian (including the polychrome bison on the ceiling at Altamira) were rare exceptions. Colour pigments were applied in various ways. Either directly with the finger, or with a piece of charcoal held like a pencil, or with a chunk of red ochre, or with a brush made of animal hair, or with a moss pad. Sometimes, similar to the hand stencil technique, pigment was liquified then blown through a hollow tube made from animal bone.

Paintings have been found not only on walls and floors but also on ceilings - a task which sometimes (eg. at Lascaux) required the erection of a ladder or some kind of scaffolding.

Typically a cave painting was created in three stages, varying with the experience of the artist, the contour of the rock surface, the availability of light, and the abundance raw materials. Take a bison-painting, for example. First, the outline and main features of the animal are drawn on the rock surface in black, using charcoal or manganese (or it can be incised with the edge of a stone). After this, the finished drawing is filled in with red ochre or other pigment. Lastly, the edges of the animal's body are shaded typically with more black, so as to increase its three-dimensionality.

Rock Engraving

Prehistoric rock engravings are more numerous than paintings but far less spectacular. Indeed some are barely noticeable. Their incised lines - made with anything from a sharp flint to a crude pick - can be deep and wide, or thin and superficial, according to the nature of the rock surface. Alternatively, if the surface is too rough for fine incisions, the artist may rely on scratching and scraping techniques. Shading can be added by taking advantage of the contrast between the white of the engraved lines and the dark colour of the rock. These petroglyphs constitute some of the earliest art on the planet (Blombos, Diepkloof), and are generally found alongside other forms of art, like painting and relief sculpture. In fact, sometimes it's difficult to distinguish between engraving and sculpture (Abri du Poisson, Roc de Sers). Only a few caves (Abri Castanet, Cussac, Les Combarelles) are decorated exclusively with engravings.

Note: outdoor engravings are much more plentiful than those in caves. Australia, for instance, is especially rich in petroglyphs of all description - see Burrup Peninsula Rock Art (c.30,000 BCE). See also: Coa Valley Engravings Portugal (22,000 BCE).

In Europe, the earliest Ice Age engraving occurs at Gorham's Cave (37,000), and Abri Castanet (35,000), while the finest examples appear at Lascaux, Roc de Sers, Les Trois-Freres, and Les Combarelles. The most enigmatic example is perhaps one of the Addaura Cave engravings, found at Mount Pellegrino, near Palermo, Italy. It depicts a unique scene of human sacrifice, with two painfully bound prostrate victims surrounded by others (including two shamans) who are dancing.

Although the vast majority of rock engravings depict animals, a number of engraved abstract signs and human figures are also seen, along with male and female genitalia.

Relief Sculpture

Prehistoric sculpture - that is relief sculpture - is the least common art form of the Upper Paleolithic. In France, it is found in only about 10 percent of known sites, and then only in rock shelters, not deep caves. The most important examples are the friezes of stone sculpture at Cap-Blanc in the Dordogne, Roc de Sers in the Charente, and Roc-aux-Sorciers in the Vienne. In addition, there are several magnificent individual reliefs, such as the Venus of Laussel and the salmon at the Abri du Poisson, both in the Dordogne. There is one other type of cave sculpture - namely, clay modelling. Created exclusively during the Middle or Late Magdalenian, clay reliefs are found only in four caves of the French Pyrenees: Tuc d'Audoubert, Bedeilhac, Labouiche and Montespan. The most important is Tuc d'Audoubert, which is famous for its striking floor-level bison reliefs, depicting two animals in a premating scene. Bedeilhac contains a bas-relief of a bison, sculpted on the clay wall of the shelter, while Montespan's clay sculpture depicts a crouching bear.

Which are the Most Important Sites of Cave Art?

This is a very difficult question. Cupules, for example, represent the most common, the most mysterious and the most ancient type of "cave art". Which makes the Auditorium Cave in India pretty important. (For more, please see: Bhimbetka Petroglyphs, Madhya Pradesh.) But cupules look pretty boring and no one understands quite what they are. Cave art proper begins (so far as we know) around 40,000 BCE in Europe (El Castillo Cave in northern Spain) and in SE Asia (at Sulawesi Cave in Indonesia).

As far as different types of art are concerned, caves that contain the most important collections of figurative drawing and painting include: Chauvet, Lascaux and Altamira, along with Niaux, Font de Gaume and La Pasiega. Caves with the most important collections of figurative engravings include Trois Freres, Les Combarelles, Cussac and Roucadour, while relief sculpture is best represented at Laussel, Roc-de-Sers, Cap Blanc, Tuc d'Audoubert and Roc-aux-Sorciers. The best examples of hand stencils can be seen at Sulawesi, Gargas Cave and Cueva de las Manos, while the best sites of finger-fluting include: Koonalda Cave and Rouffignac Cave. Lastly, caves with the most interesting abstract signs include: El Castillo, Altamira, Chauvet, Pech-Merle, Roucadour, Le Placard, Lascaux and La Pasiega. For more details, see the following list of the best-known sites of Stone Age art.

El Castillo Cave Painted Signs (39,000 BCE) Cantabria, Spain
This Cantabrian cave contains a range of stencilled hand prints as well as images of horses, reindeer, mammoths and dogs. It is famous in particular for its panel of red discs, a cross-shaped sign made up of almost 200 red dots, a number of fine engravings of horses in the Rotunda chamber, and the cave's famous vertical bison-man. The oldest art in the cave is a large red disc which scientists have dated to 39,000 BCE, using the Uranium/Thorium (U/Th) method. This represents the oldest cave painting in Europe.

Sulawesi Cave Art (37,900 BCE) Indonesia
The oldest known Asian art of the Paleolithic, the discovery - in the Leang Timpuseng Cave, Maros-Pangkep - of a hand stencil dating to at least 37,900 BCE, and a painting of a "pig-deer" dating to at least 33,400 BCE, is further proof that cave art did not begin in Europe, but was developed in Africa by anatomically modern man prior to his migration around the globe.

Gorham's Cave Abstract Engravings (37,000 BCE) Rock of Gibraltar
This Neanderthal cave is noted for its eight rock engravings with patterns similar to those found at Blombos and Diepkloof. These petroglyphs have raised doubts as to whether all cave engraving was done by Modern man, although scholars remain convinced that Neanderthal man was artistically backward.

Abri Castanet Engravings (35,000 BCE) Dordogne, France
Noted for its circular incised drawings of female genitalia. Represents the oldest cave art in France.

Fumane Cave Paintings (35,000 BCE) Lessini Hills, Verona, Italy
Fumane features a number of paintings in red ochre, including a picture of an animal with a long neck (perhaps a weasel), a strange five-legged creature, and an anthropomorphic figure - known as "The Shaman" - wearing a mask with horns. The oldest of these figures have been dated to 35,000 BCE, which makes it the oldest known example of figurative art, being 1,600 years older than the animal pictures at Sulawesi.

Altamira Cave Paintings (34,000 BCE) Cantabria, Spain
The prehistoric art in this cave - considered to be the finest in the whole of Spain - was created during several different periods including the Aurignacian and the Magdalenian. The earliest painting comprises a pair of red ochre club-shaped abstract symbols (claviforms), which have been dated by U/Th methods to at least 34,000 BCE. Later, around 15,000 BCE, cave painters decorated The Great Ceiling with a mass of polychrome bison, which are among the finest animal paintings yet discovered.

Chauvet Cave Paintings (30,000 BCE) Ardeche Valley, France
Chauvet (30,000 BCE) ranks alongside Lascaux (c.17,000 BCE) and Altamira (c.15,000 BCE) as one of the most important sites of Stone Age painting. Due to the unusual sophistication of its monochrome paintings and drawings, they have been subjected to a huge amount of direct dating, which has produced definitive ages of between 31,000 and 28,000 BCE. Highlights of Chauvet's drawings include: the "Panel of the lions"; the "Panel of the horses"; the "Panel of the rhinos"; and a drawing/engraving of "The Sorcerer". Unusually, many of the animals depicted were not hunted for food. There is also an abundance of abstract geometric symbols, like those on the panel of the red dots.

Coliboaia Cave Art (30,000 BCE) Apuseni Natural Park, Romania
Eight animal drawings in charcoal, stylistically similar to those at Chauvet in France, the oldest of which have been radiocarbon dated to at least 30,000 BCE. This makes it the oldest rock art in Central or South-Eastern Europe.

Deux-Ouvertures Cave Art (26,500 BCE) Near Chauvet
Noted for its very fine rock engravings, the oldest of which have been carbon-dated to about 26,500 BCE. Mostly found in a remote area of the cave, they include some 30 mammoths, aurochs, bison and ibexes, plus an indistinct form (half-human, half-animal) reminiscent of "The Sorcerer" in Gabillou Cave.

Nawarla Gabarnmang Charcoal Drawing (26,000 BCE) Australia
Nawarla Gabarnmang is home to the oldest authenticated Aboriginal rock art in Australia - a faded charcoal drawing made on a piece of rock, and consisting of 2 crossed lines with some infill. The stone fragment is aged between 28,000 and 45,600 years old, while the drawing has been directly dated to 26,000 BCE. It represents the oldest known cave art in Australia, although - given the age of the Sulawesi Cave pictographs - it is likely that far older works will be found in the future.

Cosquer Cave Paintings (25,000 BCE) Near Marseille, France
Created in two phases - first, in the Gravettian period, then the Solutrean - the (now mostly underwater) Cosquer cave is famous for its hand stencils, handprints and animal images (including some fine pictures of black horses and a variety of sea creatures) of which two-thirds are engraved. In addition, it contains a rare prehistoric engraving of a human penis and testicles, as well as a mysterious human figure with a seal's head.

Cussac Cave Engravings (25,000 BCE) Dordogne, France
Noted for its Paleolithic engravings of animals (mammoths, bison, rhinos, horses, ibexes), as well as some birds (geese), as well as an unidentified animal with an open mouth and elongated snout. Silhouettes of female figures, plus a few schematic images of vulva, are also present, along with numerous examples of shapeless finger-fluting. The cave's oldest works date to 25,000 BCE.

Pech-Merle Cave Paintings (25,000 BCE) Cabrerets, France
Decorated in a series of phases from 25,000 to 13,000 BCE, the cave is particularly famous for its spectacular painting known as "The Dappled Horses of Pech-Merle", accompanied by several hand stencils. Other highlights include "The Black Frieze" featuring bison and horses and the "Wounded Man" accompanied by several Placard-type abstract signs.

Gargas Cave Hand Stencils (25,000 BCE) Hautes-Pyrenees, France
Best known for its gruesome collection of over 200 hand prints, in red and black, many of which are missing fingers or finger-parts. But it also has over a hundred outstanding animal engravings, examples of which may be seen on the "Panel of the Great Bull" and the "Panel of the Mammoths".

Roucadour Cave Art (c.24,000 BCE) Quercy, Lot, France
Roucadour's art consists of some 150 engravings of animal figures (horses, megaceros, bison, aurochs, woolly mammoths and birds), plus a large quantity of abstract signs, notably vertical lines and circles.

Cougnac Cave Paintings (23,000 BCE) Gourdon, Lot, France
Famous for its two images of wounded men - one with three spears sticking in him, the other with seven. In the same gallery there is a carefully prepared frieze of red ochre animal paintings, including a beautiful image of a long-haired ibex. The cave also has an important set of six aviform signs, identical to those at Pech Merle and to the type site at Le Placard in the Charente.

Laussel Shelter Venus Sculpture (23,000 BCE) Dordogne, France
This 18-inch high bas-relief sculpture was one of 6 reliefs discovered on a large block of limestone in the Laussel rock shelter, near Lascaux. Unlike other famous venus figurines, the Laussel Venus is not portable, and is thus considered to be cave art, rather than a portable figurine. Originally painted red, it is also known as the "Venus with a Horn".

Abri du Poisson Cave Relief Sculpture of Salmon (23,000 BCE) France
1-metre long sculpture of a male salmon carved in low relief on the ceiling, originally enhanced with red ochre. The shelter also has hundreds of images which look like animal silhouettes, as well as a large quantity of geometric symbols (red and black dots and lines).

La Pileta Cave Paintings (18,130 BCE) Malaga, Spain
The cave contains art from the Stone Age and from the later Iron Age. The former consists of about 60 animal figures (horses, goats, bulls and ibexes) painted in yellow, orange, red, white and black (some painted with fingers), as well as some hunting scenes containing human figures armed with raised spears. In addition, the cave has about 50 abstract signs (serpentiforms, spirals, zig-zag, criss-cross lines, meanders).

Koonalda Cave Finger Fluting (18,000 BCE) South Australia.
The walls and ceiling of this limestone sink-hole, which lies about 70 metres (235 feet) below the burning hot flat surface of the Nullarbor Plain, are covered with primitive finger markings (finger-fluting) and stick scratches executed in lattices, grids and herringbone patterns.

Le Placard Cave Abstract Signs (17,500 BCE) Charente, France
Famous for its bird-like abstract symbols, which are also seen at Pech Merle Cave, Cougnac Cave, and Cosquer Cave. Because Placard Cave is the only one of the four whose art has been directly dated (to 17,500-18,000 BCE), the strange aviform symbols it contains have been christened "Placard-type signs".

Roc-de-Sers Stone Reliefs (17,200 BCE) Charente, France
Seen as a very significant benchmark of Solutrean rock art, Roc-de-sers is famous for its frieze of limestone blocks, decorated with more than 50 rock engravings and relief sculptures, depicting bison, horses and other animals.

Lascaux Cave Paintings (17,000-13,000 BCE) Dordogne, France
One of the world's greatest sites of prehistoric cave painting, Lascaux's most famous chambers include the "Hall of the Bulls" (decorated with aurochs, horses and unicorn); the "Axial Gallery" (featuring the great black bull, the three 'Chinese' horses and the frieze of the small horses; the "Nave", with its back-to-back bison; and the "Shaft", featuring the famous black drawing of the dead man, the bird and the bison. Lascaux also has a large variety of abstract signs.

La Pasiega Cave Paintings (16,000 BCE) Puente Viesgo, Spain
Part of the same network of caves as El Castillo, La Pasiega contains more cave art than any site in Spain. It comprises more than 700 separate images, including engravings and paintings of animals, plus numerous abstract pictographs such as dots, rods, claviforms, polygonals, tectiforms and feather-shaped symbols, plus a number of human-like figures. The oldest art in the cave - a series of red ochre dots - was created about 19,000 BCE.

Cap Blanc Frieze (15,000 BCE) Dordogne, France
Contains the finest example of Magdalenian relief sculpture in the world. Its 13-metre frieze has images of horses and bison up to 2 metres in length. Ranks alongside Roc-de-Sers and Roc-aux-Sorciers as a benchmark of Paleolithic stone carving.

Font de Gaume Cave Paintings (14,000 BCE) Dordogne, France
Nominated as one of the six best examples of Franco-Cantabrian Cave art by the famous archeologist Abbe Henri Breuil (1877-1961), the cave is one of the outstanding showcases of Magdalenian art from the final period of the Paleolithic. Indeed, it is second only to Lascaux as a centre of polychrome cave painting in France. Its highlights include: "The Licking Reindeer", "The Leaping Horse" and the "Bison frieze".

Tito Bustillo Cave Paintings (14,000 BCE) Asturias, Spain
Decorated over nine separate phases, the oldest dating back to 14,000 BCE, the cave's most famous galleries are: the "Gallery of Horses", the "Chamber of Vulvas", the "Anthropomorph Gallery", with two human figures depicted on a single stalactite; and the "Cavern of la Lloseta", decorated with male phallic symbols.

Rouffignac Cave Art (14-12,000 BCE) Dordogne, France
This huge 8-kilometre long cave - the largest site of Franco-Cantabrian cave art - is decorated with paintings and engravings of animals (dominated by mammoths including its most famous image of a mammoth, known as "The Patriarch"), anthropomorphic figures, abstract signs and 500 square metres of finger flutings. Its best known galleries include the "Sacred Way", the "Breuil Gallery" and the "Grand Ceiling".

Tuc d'Audoubert Bison Relief Sculpture (13,500 BCE) Pyrenees, France
Best known for its spellbinding clay reliefs of three bison set into the floor of the cave, it also contains engravings of mysterious-looking animals known as "the Monsters" next to a narrow passage known as the Cat's Hole.

Trois Freres Cave Engravings (13,000 BCE) Hautes-Pyrenees, France
Best known for the cave art in its most remote chamber, known as the "Sanctuary". This consists of a magnificent array of animal engravings, plus the extraordinary image of the anthropomorphic figure known as "The Sorcerer". The cave also contains the celebrated life-size engraving of a lioness in the "Chapel of the Lioness" gallery.

Kapova Cave Paintings (c.12,500 BCE) Bashkortostan, Russia
The most easterly site of cave art in Europe, Kapova is noted for its red ochre paintings of mammoths and horses, dating back to the Magdalenian period.

Niaux Cave Drawings/Engravings (12,000 BCE) Pyrenees, France
A wonderful showpiece of Magdalenian cave art, Niaux's 2 kilometres of galleries includes the "Salon Noir" with its spectacular charcoal drawings and engravings, including a detailed drawing of a female ibex; and the Reseau Clastres chamber with its extremely rare sketch of a weasel and a unique series of prehistoric 'footprints'.

Roc-aux-Sorciers Relief Sculpture (c.12,000 BCE) Vienne, France
Best known for its frieze of relief sculptures, featuring numerous animals and human figures, Roc-aux-Sorciers ranks with the Roc de Sers cave in the Charente, and the Cap Blanc shelter near Perigueux, as one of the most important centres of prehistoric stone sculpture within the Franco-Cantabrian region.

Les Combarelles Cave Engravings (12,000 BCE) Dordogne, France
Contains over 600 engraved drawings which were drawn over a period of about two millennia (12,000-10,000 BCE). The images are mostly of animals - the best-known of which is the "Drinking Reindeer".

Addaura Cave Engravings (11,000 BCE) Monte Pellegrino, Italy
Best known for its rock carvings which show one of the most enigmatic scenes ever to appear in prehistoric art - an apparent ritualistic sacrifice or punishment, populated by over a dozen human figures in dance-like postures.

Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) (7,500 BCE) Argentina.
Rock shelter in Southern Patagonia famous for its collages of hand stencils and other handprints, carbon-dated to about 7500-7000 BCE. In fact the handprints are located just outside the cave, on various rock faces flanking the cave entrance.

Why was Cave Art Made? (Meaning)

Ice Age rock art was created almost continually from 40,000 BCE to 10,000 BCE. And it disappeared almost certainly (at least in Europe) because of climate change rather than cultural change. (Note: As the Ice retreated northwards to the pole, taking the reindeer with it, the land warmed and underground shelters were gradually superceded by surface settlements.) For the tradition of cave art to have persisted for such a long time, generations of artists across Europe must have been taught how to draw; how to obtain, mix and use pigments; how to engrave and sculpt reliefs; and so on. Furthermore, cave art (especially in the deep caves and some of the larger rock shelters) must have been regarded as a highly important activity, with great cultural significance. After all, crawling for perhaps 500 metres or more, along narrow passages in pitch darkness, in order to paint a beautiful picture that only a tiny handful of other humans will ever see, requires a compelling justification.

This alone tends to undermine the trivial answer that cave painting was merely a form of decorative art made by reindeer or bison hunters with time on their hands. The limited range of species represented; their associations on panels; the strange stick-like human figures, including those pierced by spears, as well as hybrid animal-humans); mysterious abstract signs; all this is suggestive of a much more complex meaning behind both the content, patterns and location of Ice Age imagery.

Another popular but over-simplistic answer, promoted by Henri Breuil and others, is known as "Sympathetic magic". Breuill believed that cave painting was inherently functional: created to bring good fortune to hunters. Thus bison were painted as a kind of magic spell to increase the numbers of real-life animals, and so provide more food. Widely believed for decades, this explanation eventually collapsed under the weight of questions it couldn't answer. Why, for instance, are there no hunting scenes? Why are there no animal mating scenes? Why are humans the only figures killed by spears? Why are many of the animals depicted not those that were eaten regularly by inhabitants of the cave? Why are predators, like lions and bears, painted? How does it explain abstract symbols? Eventually experts concluded that cave artists were not painting game animals that they wanted to kill. Things were too complicated for such a utilitarian answer.

More recently a consensus has emerged that cave art is linked to ceremonial activities. According to this theory, the fact that many of the best-decorated caves were uninhabited, that a significant number of decorated chambers were located in the least accessible areas of the cave complex, and that deep caves were visited only by a very small number of people, suggests that cave art was not created for public viewing. Instead, it was part of a ceremonial or quasi-religious activity - perhaps not unlike the way that Greek temples - staffed by a small body of priests - acquired and maintained precious images of their particular cult figure. (Example: the ivory and gold sculpture of the Goddess of Athena, kept in the Greek Parthenon temple on the Acropolis at Athens.) According to this view, rock art - like these precious objects - was used to enrich and enhance the ceremonial significance of the cave.

Meanwhile, other prehistorians prefer the Shamanistic answer - a perfectly logical step in view of the fact that shamanism was widespread among Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. They believe that cave art was made in order to enhance the trance-like state engendered by conditions in the cave. After all, deep and dark caves are very atmospheric environments, devoid of any sound (except dripping water) or light. Cut off from normal stimuli, a person experiences total silence, total blackness, a complete loss of direction, perhaps even a sense of fear and claustrophobia. These unworldly sensations are an ideal stimulus for communing with supernatural forces, and the paintings might have been created so as to summon and resonate with those forces.

A variation of the Shamanistic theory, developed by David Lewis-Williams, proposes that shamans typically would retreat into the darkness of the caves, go into a trance, and then paint images of what they 'saw', so as to draw strength and wisdom from the cave walls themselves.

Shamanism theory works for certain painted images, but not for art that is more time-consuming (like relief sculpture), or more 'complex' (like abstract symbols).

The latest crop of explanations as to why cave was made, are more focused. One scientist, for example, bases his explanation on the relationship between the type of animal and the shape of wall surface beneath it. John P. Miller, Professor of the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience at Montana State University, links abstract motifs in ancient rock art to the anatomical and neurophysiological characteristics of the human visual cortex. Researcher R. Dale Guthrie, considers that the main themes in Paleolithic art (such as dangerous beasts, powerful game animals and the obese nude Venus figurines) represent the fantasies of adolescent males, who made up a large part of the human population at the time. Other researchers believe that Stone Age artists created their richest art in those areas with the best acoustics, because sound was an important element in whatever ceremonies were conducted in the cave.

No one explanation can explain the huge body of Ice Age art. Some of it is almost certainly linked to some type of religious ceremony or ritual - either like the cloistered world of ancient priests, or the trance-like activities of the Shaman.


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