Parietal Art
Definition, Characteristics, Types, Interpretation of Cave Painting & Engravings.

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Cave painting of a bison head.
Altamira cave main gallery.
Magdalenian parietal art
c.15,000 BCE.
See also: Earliest Art.

Parietal Art (40,000-10,000 BCE)
Prehistoric Cave Painting, Engravings, Reliefs


Definition and Characteristics
Types of Parietal Art
Meaning, Interpretation
Famous Sites
- Aurignacian Era (40-25,000 BCE)
- Gravettian Era (25-20,000 BCE)
- Solutrean Era (20-15,000 BCE)
- Magdalenian Era (15-10,000 BCE)
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Note: For chronology, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE)

Definition and Characteristics

In archeology, the term "Parietal art" (also referred to as "cave art") is used to denote any prehistoric art found on cave walls. It embraces all types of cave painting, all forms of engraved rock art, or other petroglyphs, as well as any relief sculpture carved on walls, floors or ceilings. artwork done on cave walls or large blocks of stone. The opposite of such immobile "parietal art" is "mobiliary art", meaning any small-scale portable art of prehistory, such as the Venus figurines, or other ivory carvings, as well as jewellery and other similar items. Although parietal artworks have been found in Africa, the Middle East, India, China, Siberia, Australia and the Americas, the main body of this form of Paleolithic art has been discovered in the 300 or so prehistoric rock shelters of southwestern France and northern Spain, and forms what is known as Franco-Cantabrian cave art (40,000-10,000 BCE).

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


Some early paleolithic scholars, such as Andre Leroi-Gourhan and Henri Breuil, developed a chronological typology of their own, based upon stylistic comparisons of the parietal art examined. Then radiocarbon dating became available, after which the cave, as well as its art and other artifacts became subject to proper scientific study. Further developments in prehistoric dating technology, such as Uranian/Thorium (U/Th) tests, now permit a wider range of materials and types of art to be dated, with a corresponding rise in historical accuracy.

Types of Parietal Art

As mentioned above, this category of Stone Age art includes: cave painting (typically coloured with red ochre and other earthy colours - for details, see Prehistoric colour palette); cave drawing (typically involving charcoal drawings or outlines in manganese); figurative rock engravings (typically executed with flints or other sharp tools); abstract signs, in the form of geometric symbols and other markings (including: Aviforms, Claviforms, Half-Circles, Lines, Pectiforms, Quadrangles, Tectiforms and Zigzags); and immoveable sculpture (that is, reliefs).

Nearly all the figurative pictures are representations of animals. At first, during the Aurignacian era, a sizeable percentage were predators (lions, bears, rhinoceroses); later, during the Gravettian and Solutrean eras, most images were those of game animals hunted for food or skins (bison, aurochs, mammoths, horses). Only a very small number of human figures have been found - either half-human, half-animal, or wounded humans. Two unique figures are the Bird Man in the Shaft of Lascaux, and the Sorcerer in the Trois Freres Cave.

Meaning, Interpretation

Because most of the parietal art in question has been found in uninhabited caves that were used by small, elitist, groups of one kind or another, it is probable that the caves were seen as some sort of sacred sanctuaries. The engraved painting of "The Sorcerer", and the "Chapel of the Lioness" with its votive objects, both discovered at the Trois Freres cave in Ariege, are clear indications of supernatural practices. Even so, interpretations vary greatly among archeologists and anthropologists as to the exact meaning of parietal art. Some experts see it as evidence of shamanism or sympathetic magic; others, as evidence of rituals promoting fertility and successful hunting; some think it had something to do with initiation ceremonies; while others see it as part of an attempt to contact the spirit world.



Famous Sites of Parietal Art

Aurignacian Art and Culture (40,000-25,000 BCE)

El Castillo Cave Paintings (c.39,000 BCE)
Located within the overall complex of the Caves of Monte Castillo, in Puente Viesgo, Cantabria, this shelter contains the oldest art of any cave, except for the La Ferrassie Cave Cupules (c.60,000 BCE) and the Lower Paleolithic finds like the Bhimbetka Petroglyphs in India.

Sulawesi Cave Art (c.37,900 BCE)
Hand stencils and animal paintings in Leang Timpuseng Cave on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia, were dated in 2014 to 37,900 BCE and 33,400 BCE respectively, ranking them amongst the oldest cave art on the planet.

Gorham's Cave Art (37,000 BCE)
Some scientists are convinced that petroglyphs found in Gorham's Cave on the southeast face of the Rock of Gibraltar were created by Neanderthals. Others are more sceptical.

Fumane Cave Paintings (c.35,000 BCE)
Residential cave in the Lessini Hills, near Verona, Italy, it was inhabited by reindeer hunters since Mousterian times. Crude red ochre paintings of animals and an anthropomorphic figure, discovered on rock fragments of a collapsed wall, were indirectly dated to 35,000 BCE.

Abri Castanet Engravings (c.35,000 BCE)
Aurignacian rock shelter located near Lascaux in the Dordogne, noted for engraved images of female genitalia, on a collapsed limestone ceiling.

Altamira Cave Paintings (first phase c.34,000 BCE)
Located close to Antillana del Mar in Cantabria, most of Altamira's richly coloured cave paintings, notably of bison, are dated to Magdelenian culture. However, a club-shaped image discovered in the most remote part of the cave was dated to at least 34,000 BCE.

Chauvet Cave Paintings (c.30,000 BCE)
Left undisturbed for 25,000 years - longer than any known cave - the cave paintings and drawings at Chauvet all belong to the Aurignacian culture, and are the oldest examples of figure painting known to man.

Grotte des Deux-Ouvertures /Cave of Two Openings (26,500 BCE)
Excavated in 2008, Chabot is situated in the Ardeche gorge, near Aigueze, close to Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave. It boasts a number of engraved pictographs, including more than 50 figures of mammoths and aurochs.

Nawarla Gabarnmang Rock Shelter Charcoal Drawing (26,000 BCE)
Oldest carbon-dated Aboriginal art in Australia.
Nawarla Gabarnmang, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia.

Note: For other sites of parietal art in Australia, see: Ubirr Rock Art in Arnhem Land (from 30,000 BCE), Kimberley Rock Art in northern Australia (30,000 BCE), Burrup Peninsula Rock Art in the Pilbara (30,000 BCE), and Bradshaw Paintings in the Kimberley (15,500 BCE).

Gravettian Art and Culture (25,000-20,000 BCE)

Cosquer Cave Paintings (c.25,000 BCE)
Decorated before the end of the Ice Age when sea levels rose precipitously, the interior is now only accessible via an underwater passage off the French coast near Marseilles. Its parietal works include paintings, drawings, a quantity of hand stencils rock art and other abstract motifs like Placard-type signs.

Cussac Cave Rock Engravings (c.25,000 BCE)
Discovered in 2000, close to Le Buisson-de-Cadouin in the Dordogne region, its parietal works feature large scale engraved drawings of bison, horses and mammoths, similar to the Gravettian images in the Quercy caves, especially Pech Merle.

Pech-Merle Cave Paintings (c.25,000 BCE)
Located near Cabrerets in the Midi-Pyrenees, it is renowned for its dramatic polychrome images of Dappled Horses. Also features a few Placard-type signs.

Gargas Cave Hand Stencils (25,000 BCE)
This Hautes-Pyrenees rock shelter is best known for its evocative collection of more than 200 hand stencils, most of which are missing fingers or finger parts. In addition, the cave contains over 150 large scale engraved drawings.

Roucadour Cave Art (c.24,000 BCE)
A neighbour of Pech Merle and Cougnac, Roucadour is noted for its vivid hand stencils, abstract symbols and animal engravings.

Cougnac Cave (first phase, c.23,000)
Situated near Gourdon, in the department of the Lot, the cave features a range of Gravettian paintings and drawings of game animals, along with strange Placard-type signs. The more interesting human-type figures were completed during a second phase which occurred during the Magdalenian era.

Venus of Laussel (c.23,000 - 20,000 BCE)
Found in the commune of Marquay in the Dordogne, this 18-inch high bas-relief limestone carving of a reclining nude female is now one of the highlights of the Stone Age art collection at the Musee d'Aquitaine in Bordeaux.

Salmon of Abri du Poisson Cave (c.23,000 BCE)
Discovered near Perigord in the Dordogne, this rock shelter is world famous for its relief sculpture of a salmon - one of only ten fish that feature in Paleolithic parietal art.

Solutrean Art and Culture (20,000-15,000 BCE)

La Pileta Cave (c.18,000 BCE)
Discovered in the municipality of Benaojan, in Andalucia, Spain, this former Neanderthal shelter contains a diverse range of painted abstract symbols, as well as beautiful paintings of animals, including a rare image of a fish.

Le Placard Cave (c.17,500 BCE)
Found next to the Tardoire river, 8 miles upstream from La Rochefoucauld, it is famous for its mysterious Aviform pictographs (officially known as "Placard type" signs), identical to others found at Pech-Merle, Cougnac and Cosquer.

Cosquer Cave (second phase 17,000-15,000 BCE)
During the Gravettian period, Cosquer experienced a second phase of cave painting between 17500 and 16000 BCE.

Roc-de-Sers Cave (c.17,200 BCE)
Located in the valley of the Echelle river, some 12 miles north of Gachedou, Roc de Sers is "the" standard for prehistoric sculpture during the Solutrean era. Its main highlight comprises a series of limestone blocks sculptured, engraved and painted with pictures of animals, portrayed with large bodies and short legs.

Lascaux Cave (first phase c.17,000 BCE)
The decoration of Lascaux cave - located close to the village of Montignac, in the Dordogne - spanned both the Solutrean and Magdalenian periods, from about 17,000 to 13,000. Some experts consider Lascaux to represent the apogee of Paleolithic cave painting.

La Tete du Lion Cave (c.17,000 BCE)
Situated near Bidon in the Ardeche (not far from the rock shelters of Chauvet and Chabot), it is best known for a panel, thought to represent a map of the stars (Taurus constellation). Similar markings have been found at Lascaux.

Cave of La Pasiega (c.16,000 BCE)
Situated in the Spanish district of Puente Viesgo, in the same cluster of rock shelters as Las Monedas, Las Chimeneas, and the cave of El Castillo, this cave contains a large number of animal figures (deer, horses, aurochs) and undeciphered symbols.

Magdalenian Art and Culture (15,000-10,000 BCE)

Lascaux Cave Paintings (second phase 15,000-13,000 BCE)
World famous for its "Hall of the Bulls", the "Painted Gallery", and the "Shaft of the Dead Man", it contains renowned pictures like the Great Black Bull, the Unicorn and the Bird Man.

Cap Blanc Frieze (15,000 BCE)
Contemporaneous with Lascaux's cave art, the Cap Blanc rock shelter has a stunning 13-metre long frieze, depicting horses, bison and reindeer: the best known example of Magdalenian stone carving.

Altamira Cave Paintings (final phase c.15,000 BCE)
Although this cave is believed to have been painted and engraved during all four of the principal tool cultures of the Upper Paleolithic, its glorious polychrome bison on the ceiling of the main gallery were all done by Magdalenian artists during a final phase.

Font de Gaume Cave Paintings (c.14,000 BCE)
Located near Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil in the Dordogne, its highlight is a frieze of five bison, enhanced with sophisticated shading around the body. The first Stone Age art to be found in the Perigord district, it is second only to Lascaux in the ranking of French prehistoric art.

Rouffignac Cave Mammoths (c.14,000-12,000 BCE)
Situated in the French commune of Rouffignac-Saint-Cernin-de-Reilhac in the Dordogne, this cave has the largest subterranean complex of passageways in the Perigord. The cave decorations include over 260 engravings and monochrome drawings with black outlines. Subjects include mammoths, bison, horses, and woolly rhinoceroses, as well as a number of abstract signs (tectiforms and serpentiforms).

Tito Bustillo Cave (14,000 BCE)
One of the most important sites in Asturias, Spain, it is renowned for red and black paintings of horses, notably those in the "Galeria de los Caballos".

Cougnac Cave Paintings (second phase, c.14,000 BCE)
Its Magdalenian artworks include a stunning image of a red ibex, deftly rendered so that the flowstone on the wall suggests hair hanging from its belly.

Tuc d'Audoubert Bison Reliefs (c.13,500 BCE)
Located in the Haute Pyrenees, rock shelter is renowned for its magnificent clay relief sculpture of two bison. Fingermarks left by the artist remain clearly visible.

La Marche Cave Art (c.13,000 BCE)
Discovered in 1937 close to Lussac-les-Chateaux, in western France, the cave was found to contain a series of sensational engravings of human heads and faces, carefully arranged on the floor. Experts remain skeptical of its Magdalenian origins.

Niaux Cave Drawings and Footprints (13,000-11,000 BCE)
Located in the northern foothills of the Pyrenees, near Foix, Niaux is one of the most spectacular Magdalenian galleries of parietal art after Lascaux and Font-de-Gaume. It is probably most famous for its series of 'footprints' left by Stone Age children aged about 10, and their older companion.

Trois Freres Cave (13,000 BCE)
Located in the Haute Pyrenees, close to the Tuc d'Audoubert cave, it is famous for the extraordinary image (painted and engraved) of the "Sorcerer", a human with the features of several different animals. Believed to represent a shaman or magician, it is one of the rare pictures of a human figure in Paleolithic cave art.

Kapova Cave Paintings (12,500 BCE)
Located in the Shulgan-Tash Preserve, in the southern Urals of Russia, it is noted for its red-ochre pictures of woolly mammoths.

Roc-aux-Sorciers (c.12,000 BCE)
Noted for its rock carvings and outstanding frieze of relief sculpture.

Les Combarelles Cave Engravings (c.12,000 BCE)
Located near Les Eyzies de Tayac in the Dordogne, this major site of Magdalenian art contains 600–800 highly naturalistic drawings of animals (reindeer, horses, lions, cave bears, mammoths), along with an assembly of over 50 anthropomorphic figures, plus numerous tectiforms.

Addaura Cave Engravings (11,000 BCE)
Unusually modern human figures - including two victims, two shamans and a group of dancing observers - composed in an extraordinary scene of sacrificial or ritualistic activity at Mount Pellegrino, on the outskirts of Palermo, in Sicily

For important examples of later cave painting - including the famous site of Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) (c.7,300 BCE), see: Mesolithic Art (c.10,000-6,000 BCE).

Related Articles

• For a guide to the earliest parietal artworks, see: Oldest Art.
• For the earliest cultural markings, see: Cupule Art.


• For more information about prehistoric parietal crafts, see: Homepage.

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