Magdalenian Art and Culture
History, Characteristics, Chronology of Prehistoric Cave Painting.

Pin it

Outline of a weasel at Niaux Cave
(Reseau Clastres) c.13,000 BCE.
One of the rarest animal figures
in prehistoric cave painting.
See also: Oldest Art of Prehistory.

Magdalenian Art (c.15,000–10,000 BCE)


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

Chronology of Upper Paleolithic Culture

Aurignacian (40,000 – 25,000 BCE)
Gravettian (25,000 - 20,000 BCE)
Solutrean (20,000 - 15,000 BCE)

Late Stone Age Culture

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


The Tuc d'Audoubert Bison Reliefs (c.13,500 BCE)

The Magdalenian Era: A Summary

In prehistoric art, the term "Magdalenian" refers to a late period of Upper Paleolithic art and culture, named after the type site "La Madeleine", a rock shelter at Plazac in the Dordogne. Magdalenian tool culture is best known for its denticulated microliths, as well as its uniserial and biserial projectile points. Nicknamed the "Age of the Reindeer" in 1875 by Edouard Lartet and Henry Christy, the archeologists who first investigated the type site, Magdalenian parietal art is exemplified by the Lascaux cave paintings in the French Dordogne, the Altamira cave paintings in Cantabria, Spain, and the Font de Gaume Cave paintings in the Perigord. An important influence on Magdalenian rock art was the climate. To begin with, Magdalenian man lived as a hunter-gatherer, living off the herds of reindeer on the continental tundra, just outside the ice pack. Then, between about 13,000 and 10,000 BCE, the Ice Age came to an end and a period of global warming began. This precipitated the extinction of certain ice age megafauna, such as the mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros, and the disappearance northwards of the reindeer herds. All this had a hugely damaging effect on Magdalenian civilization, which proved unable to adjust. Already, well before this, Franco-Cantabrian cave art had begun to run out of steam, as new painters and sculptors found themselves unable to maintain the innovation of their predecessors. Around the start of the Holocene epoch (10,000 BCE), Magdalenian culture was superceded by two other microlithist cultures: the "Azilian" in Spain and southern France, and the "Sauveterrian", in northern France and Germany. With Neolithic civilizations on the horizon, it wouldn't be long before ancient art began to decorate the tombs and cities of Antiquity instead of the caves and rock shelters of Paleolithic man.

Magdalenian Art: History, Characteristics

The Magdalenian era witnessed the full-flowering of cave painting, most exquisitely in the cave sanctuaries of Lascaux and Altamira, which are both noted for their large polychrome murals and decorated ceilings. Perhaps this was because they had a solid tradition of cave art to follow - after all several caves from this period contain large quantities of paintings and rock engravings superimposed several times over. Or maybe it was because many of their galleries were illuminated by daylight. Whatever the reason, Magdalenian painters used colour pigments to a far greater extent than their Aurignacian, Gravettian or Solutrean predecessors, and applied them with a new "spray-painting" technique. Other beautifully decorated rock shelters included those at Font-de-Gaume, Niaux, Les Trois Freres, Les Combarelles, Rouffignac, Ebbou and Le Gabillou.

During the Middle Magdalenian, there appears several advanced examples of prehistoric sculpture - in this case clay modellings - all created within four caves of the Ariege Pyrenees: Bedeilhac, Labouiche, Le Tuc d’Audoubert and Montespan. The forms in the last two caves are best known: Tuc d’Audoubert because of its two outstanding bison reliefs; Montespan, because of its life-sized clay statue of a bear.

In addition, like the Solutrean, the Magdalenian culture was noted for its microlithic technology and functional crafts: see, for instance the "Lortet Reindeer" (c.15,000 BCE), a tool made from a reindeer antler, engraved with images of reindeer and fish, discovered at the Lortet Rock Shelter, in the Hautes-Pyrenees, France. But as well as these utilitarian items, Magdalenian craftsmen were for their highly aesthetic, small-scale plastic art, such as bracelets, pendants, necklaces, pins and other items of jewellery art, made from reindeer antlers, bone and ivory. They also made ivory carvings and spatulars covered with fine figurative or geometrical engravings. By the 11th millennium, however, a certain mannerism started to appear in the decoration of thin slabs and objects in general: as at La Madeleine, Teyjat, and Limeuil. This tendency became more widespread during the millennium, culminating by 10,000 BCE in a marked drop in artistic quality.

Note: The Magdalenian era was preceded by the Solutrean era and succeeded by the Azilian/Sauveterrian. (For more about the timeline of the Upper Paleolithic, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.)

Chronology of Magdalenian Culture

Lascaux Cave (c.17,000-13,000 BCE)
Famous for the "Hall of the Bulls" (actually, aurochs) with its massive "Great Black Bull" and mysterious unicorn, and the "Shaft of the Dead Man". Contains some of the most beautiful decorative art of the Upper Paleolithic.

Note: Australian Bradshaw paintings, produced in the Kimberley area, date to the same period as Lascaux. Other contemporaneous aboriginal art includes the Burrup Peninsula rock engravings of the Pilbara and the Ubirr rock paintings of the Northern Territory. These two traditions endured throughout the Stone Age, although their earliest forms are estimated to have occurred around 30,000 BCE.

Vela Spila Pottery (c.15,500 BCE)
An independent Balkan tradition of ceramic art, centred on Korcula Island off the coast of Croatia, which was established and developed over a period of 2,500 years (15,500-13,000 BCE) before vanishing from the archeological record. Noted for its finely made ceramic animal figures.

Altamira Cave (c.15,000 BCE)
Although now known to have been decorated by engravers and painters throughout all four main cultures of the Upper Paleolithic era, from as early as 34,000 BCE, its showpiece polychrome pictures of bison were all created by Magdalenian artists. Its recently dated abstract signs represent some of the earliest art in the history of cave painting.

Cap Blanc Frieze (15,000 BCE)
The benchmark of Magdalenian rock carving, Cap Blanc is famous for its 13-metre long limestone frieze of relief sculpture, which includes images of horses and bison, all carved into the contoured rear wall of the shelter. The central horse is roughly 2 metres in length. The cave was also the site of a rare, well preserved human grave.

Font-de-Gaume Cave Paintings (c.14,000 BCE)
Discovered in 1901 near Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil in the Dordogne, the shelter contains nearly 250 polychrome cave paintings and engravings, including 80 images of bisons and 40 mammoths, plus a number of ideomorphs. The most remarkable work is a frieze of five bison, whose three-dimensional quality has been enhanced with shading under the belly and along the thighs, executed in an utterly modern manner. The first cache of Stone Age art to be uncovered in the Perigord province, it is, in terms of the quality of its art, second only to Lascaux.

Cougnac Cave Paintings (second phase, c.14,000 BCE)
Located close to Gourdon, in the Lot, the shelter contains charcoal drawings and polychrome paintings of various herbivores - notably, a beautiful picture of a large red ibex, placed so that the flowstone on the wall imitates hair hanging from its belly - many of which were drawn during an earlier phase of Gravettian culture c.25,000. The Magdalenian art includes three human figures, thought to be wounded men, similar to figures found at Pech Merle, as well as some 50 hand stencils and many fingerprints in black and red. Scholars believe the Gravettian phase was artistically more significant.

Rouffignac Cave Art ("Cave of the hundred mammoths") (c.14,000 BCE)
Rouffignac cave, also known as Miremont cave, is located in the French commune of Rouffignac-Saint-Cernin-de-Reilhac in the Dordogne. The Rouffignac cave complex is the most extensive prehistoric cave system in the Perigord, with 5 miles of underground passageways, and more deeper levels still to explore. The cave features more than 240 pictures, executed in the form of engravings or black drawings. The most popular animal figure is the mammoth (158 images), followed by the bison (28), horse (15), capricorn (12), woolly rhinoceros (10) and cave bear (1). Unlike the pictures at Lascaux and Font-de-Gaume, the ones at Rouffignac are monochrome. There is also a quantity of symbols, including tectiforms and serpentiforms.

Venus of Eliseevichi (14,000 BCE)
Discovered at a site in Bryansk Province, southwest of Moscow, it is unlike any of the other Russian venuses, but it resembles the French Magdalenian carving known as the Venus Impudique (14,000 BCE).

Tito Bustillo Cave (14,000 BCE)
Located in the municipality of Ribadesella in the Principality of Asturias, Spain, the cave is noted for its red and black paintings of animals, notably in the Gallery of Horses ("Galeria de los Caballos").

Tuc d'Audoubert Bison Reliefs (c.13,500 BCE)
Found in Tuc d'Audoubert cave, in the Haute Pyrenees, this extraordinary pair of animals, a bison bull and cow in pre-mating mode, is one of the oldest and most striking examples of prehistoric relief sculpture. Only 2-feet long, eighteen inches high and about 4 inches thick, the pair are modelled in clay, and appear to be resting on a rock. The animals' jaws were shaped by the artist's fingernail and other finger marks can be seen along the length of the composition. On the walls of the cave are charcoal drawings, coloured paintings and engravings of bison and other animals.

La Marche Cave Art (c.13,000 BCE)
Discovered in 1937 near Lussac-les-Chateaux, in the department of Vienne, western France, the cave contained some 155 painted engravings of human heads and faces, carved onto limestone slabs that had been carefully arranged on the floor. Some engravings even had items of clothing represented. Although the legitimacy of the art has been 'accepted' by the French Prehistoric Society and the French Ministry of Culture, its supposed Magdalenian origins remain highly controversial and many experts doubt its authenticity for two reasons: first, human figures are extremely rare in paleolithic cave art - those that do exist are typically indistinct and lack any sort of real detail; secondly, the slabs upon which the La Marche pictures were engraved might have been carried into the cave later than the Magdalenian era.

Niaux Cave Drawings and Footprints (13,000-11,000 BCE)
Excavated in 1906, Niaux cave is situated in the northern foothills of the Pyrenees, close to Foix, and is one of the most impressive Magdalenian galleries of cave paintings. In addition to its huge cathedral-like main chamber known as "Salon Noir", it is noted for its unique series of prehistoric 'footprints' left by children aged 8-12, and an older companion. In addition, in one of the caves of the complex, now called Reseau Clastres, archeologists found several beautifully executed charcoal images, including an extremely rare drawing of a weasel, executed by an obvious master-artist in 10 flawless strokes. (See the weasel-shaped image in the Fumane Cave paintings c.35,000 BCE.) The cave is also famous for its collection of abstract art, which includes more than a hundred red and black dots, dashes, bars and lines, some applied with paint 'brushes', some with fingers. None have been deciphered. Many of the other animal figures in the cave complex have been executed in a very sophisticated manner. Throughout the galleries, Magdalenian artists exploited the topography of the rock surfaces and the interplay of light and shadow.

Trois Freres Cave - Painting of the "Sorcerer" (13,000-12,000 BCE)
Discovered in 1914, near Montesquieu-Avantes, in the Haute Pyrenees, close to the Tuc d'Audoubert cave, it is best known for the parietal art of one of its deepest chambers, known as the Sanctuary. It features nearly 300 engraved figures of horses, bison, ibex, stags, reindeer, and mammoths, along with two therianthropes (part-human, part-animal figures). But the Sanctuary's most famous figure painting (painted and engraved) is a small composition known as the "Sorcerer" or "Horned God". Consisting of a human with the features of several different animals, it looks down on the herd of animal figures from a height of 13 feet above the floor. The scholar Abbe Henri Breuil, whose sketch of the Sorcerer was the original cause of its fame, concluded that the painting represented a shaman or magician, an interpretation to which most scholars largely adhere. At any rate, the consensus among Magdalenian archeologists is, that the Sorcerer was a cult figure of great ritualistic significance to the group or community who used the cave. The idea of the Sanctuary as a sacred place is borne out by its remote interior location inside the cave, and by the existence of a second sacred chamber, known as the Chapel of the Lioness. This features a life-sized engraving of a lioness on a natural "altar" surrounded by votive objects in the form of animal teeth, shells, and flints. See also: Religious Art (700,000 BCE - present).

Venus of Engen/Petersfels (c.13,000 BCE)
One of several tiny stylized female figurines carved out of semi-precious jet stone (Lignite), discovered in the 1920s at the important Petersfels site, near Engen, Germany. Similar to the Venus of Monruz-Neuchatel (10,000 BCE).

Kapova Cave Paintings (c.12,500 BCE)
Also known as the Shulgan-Tash Cave, this extensive network of underground chambers in Burzyansky Region, Bashkortostan, is best-known for its red ochre paintings of mammoths and horses.

Les Combarelles Cave Engravings (c.12,000 BCE)
First discovered in the early 1890s, near Les Eyzies de Tayac in the Dordogne, this narrow (1-metre wide) cave contains 600–800 drawings of animals - mostly finely engraved, with a minority outlined in black - which include some exceptionally lifelike representations of reindeer - cleverly rendered so that they appear to be drinking from the cave's stream - horses, lions, cave bears, and mammoths. Traces of colour pigments suggest that the engraved pictures were originally painted. (For details, see: Prehistoric Colour Palette.) In addition, the cave also contains a remarkable collection of over 50 anthropomorphic figures, as well as a number of indecipherable tectiforms (house-like ideomorphs). Due to the quantity and quality of its art, scholars see Les Combarelles as one of the major sanctuaries of Magdalenian culture, and a key indicator of the cultural maturity of the late paleolithic era.

Addaura Cave Engravings (11,000 BCE)
Discovered in a rock shelter at Mount Pellegrino near Palermo, in Sicily, they include a sensational ensemble of human figures involved in some kind of ritualistic or sacrificial rite. Two bound victims are being guided by two shamans, while watched by a dancing crowd.

Venus of Monruz-Neuchatel (c.10,000 BCE)
Prehistoric fertility symbol and pendant, carved out of jet stone; it is the oldest art in Switzerland and ranks among the world's oldest items of jewellery art. Discovered in 1991 in the commune of Neuchatel.

See also: Oldest Stone Age Art: Top 100 Artworks.

Related Articles

For more information about paleolithic art and culture, please see the following:

Venus Figurines
Enigmatic Stone Age fertility statuettes of obese females.

Petroglyphs (290,000 - 4,000 BCE)
Cupules and other rock scratchings from around the world.


• For more information about Magdalenian arts and crafts, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.