Pictographs of the Stone Age
Prehistoric Pictorial Symbols: Characteristics, Types, Meaning and Interpretation.

Pin it

A pair of red club shaped symbols
(claviforms), which appears among
the Altamira Cave paintings, Spain.
They are dated to at least 34,000 BCE.
This type of pictograph appears in
severalSpanish caves and in at least
25 sites in France. In total, this type
of abstract pictographic image
outnumbers figurative pictographs
by a factor of 2:1.

Prehistoric Pictographs


What is a Pictograph? (Pictogram)
When were Pictographs (Pictograms) first used?
Meaning and Interpretation
Related Articles

NOTE: For the chronological development of Stone Age pictorial imagery, please see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).

NOTE: For the 100 oldest artworks, see: Oldest Stone Age Art.

"The Shaft Scene" Lascaux Caves.
One of the most complex scenes
in Franco-Cantabrian cave art,
the meaning of this cluster of
pictographs, found in the Shaft of
the Dead Man, one of the remotest
parts of the cave, continues to
baffle Paleolithic scholars.

Aurignacian Art
(40,000-25,000 BCE)
Gravettian Art
(25,000-20,000 BCE)
Solutrean Art
(20,000-15,000 BCE)
Magdalenian Art
(15,000-10,000 BCE)
Mesolithic Art
(from 10,000-variable BCE)
Neolithic Art
(Ends about 2,000 BCE)
Bronze Age Art
(c.3500-1100 BCE)
Iron Age Art
(c.1100-200 BCE)

What is a Pictograph? (Definition and Characteristics)

In prehistoric art, the term "pictograph" or "pictogram" (derived from the Latin "pictus" meaning painting, and "graph/gram" meaning drawn or written) describes an image, sign or symbol which is created in order to express some idea or information. In addition, note that pictographic symbols that are cut or carved into the rock surface are known as "petroglyphs", while those drawn or painted on rocks are called "petrograms". A pictograph that represents one particular idea is usually referred to as an "ideogram". The most obvious type of Stone Age pictograph were the prehistoric abstract signs (aviforms, circles, claviforms, cordiforms, quadrangles, tectiforms, triangles and the like) which, experts believe, functioned as pictographs or pictograms, in that they were intended to express some simple message. (A good example-site is Le Placard Cave, near La Rochefoucauld.) However, paintings of animals or hunting scenes may also have been carefully arranged to communicate some kind of message. Pictographs are characterized by their stereotyped execution which is standardized at least within their group or locality. This type of pictographic rock art served as an early forerunner of Neolithic written languages, such as Sumerian cuneiforms (wedge-shaped symbols) and Egyptian hieroglyphs.

When were Pictographs (Pictograms) first used?

Few archeologists or anthropologists would agree on a specific starting date, or even period, for the first pictograph. It depends whether certain very early non-functional hemispherical indentations in the surface of rocks, known as "cupules", can be said to constitute incised pictographs (petroglyphs). If so, then it is possible that Neanderthal humans (Homo neanderthalensis) were creating petroglyphs in the Lower Paleolithic, as far back as 700,000 BCE. See, for instance, the Bhimbetka Petroglyphs, discovered in Central India. Otherwise, the earliest known rock pictographs are likely to be the geometric Blombos Cave engravings, which date to the Middle Paleolithic, around 70,000 BCE. For more about the oldest works, see: Earliest Art.

The oldest known pictographs of the Upper Paleolithic are the red-ochre blobs among the El Castillo Cave paintings, which have been Uranium/Thorium dated to at least 39,000 BCE, about the time that anatomically modern man first set foot in Europe.

Types of Pictograph

During the Stone Age, most artworks including pictographs/pictograms were created inside rock shelters or deep caves. This parietal art consisted of four main types, listed here in order of age: abstract symbols (please see above), hand stencils (handprints or palm-prints), rock engravings (painted or unpainted), and cave painting (monochrome or polychrome). This cave art was not "art for art's sake", but a means of expression with a shamanistic, or ceremonial, or hunting function. If this is true then all these different types of imagery qualify as pictographs. As it happens, most of the abstract symbols are to be found around or actually inside the paintings of animal figures, almost as if they are providing a primitive commentary on the illustrations. Thus we may have to consider the art "as a whole" rather than separating it into types.

Meaning and Interpretation

Paleolithic scholars continue to debate the meaning of these early prehistoric pictographs. Probably these images had a variety of meanings, which varied from region to region. In any event, it is worth emphasizing that, as a rule, decorated caves were not occupied by domestic inhabitants. Indeed, judging by the lack of footprints and other signs of human presence, only a small group of artists and other decision-makers ever ventured inside. This leads credence to the idea of the prehistoric cave as a sanctuary or sacred place, and the paintings as an iconographic backdrop for whatever ceremony or ritual was performed therein. Unfortunately, no one knows exactly what kind of ceremonial activity might have occurred. But two basic possibilities suggest themselves.

First, given the overwhelming visual effect of the animal figures, engraved, drawn or painted in almost every cave, it is clear that Paleolithic art is essentially the art of the hunter. Thus the cave paintings might be interpreted as a primitive type of hunting "wish-list". Dangerous predators (such as lions and bears) might have been pictorialized in order to demonize or cast spells upon them, in the way that voodoo dolls are first made then pierced with pins and the like. (See: Chauvet Cave paintings, for instance.) Game animals hunted for food might have been pictorialized in order to improve hunting prospects. (See: Lascaux Cave paintings, for example.)

Second, given the fact that these small groups of humans kept going into these (deep and dark) caves for thirty thousand years, not to live or shelter there, but to draw on the walls, something significant must have been going on. And since time immemorial, the dark - and especially the underground dark - has been seen as a sort of supernatural realm, harbouring any number of spirits in contact with higher powers. Furthermore, the influence of "shamans" - witchdoctor-type individuals in contact with the spirit world - was a widespread cultural phenomenon among Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies. (See, for instance, the extraordinary painted and engraved image of the "Sorcerer" in the Trois Freres Cave c.13,000 BCE.) Therefore it seems reasonable to agree with archeologists Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams (Clottes & Lewis-Williams, 1998) who suggest that Shamanism is at the root of this Stone Age art and that early humans may have regarded the cave as a bridge between this world and the next. This "supernatural" interpretation is the only one which explains the lack of visitors to the cave: people were probably too terrified by voodoo-type fears and superstitions to enter.

Among the less portentous explanations of ancient art inside caves, please note the recent extensive study into the meaning of hand stencils, conducted by Paul Pettitt of the University of Sheffield. Pettitt demonstrates that the handprints were quite often created in places that were difficult to reach. He suggests that a possible interpretation of this is that they represented navigational pictographs in dimly lit caves, giving advice such as "do not use this passageway". See also: Gargas Cave Hand Stencils (25,000 BCE).

Pictographs are also widespread in Aboriginal Rock Art in Australia, where the oldest forms include: Ubirr Rock Art in Kakadu National Park (from 30,000 BCE), Kimberley Rock Art in the north of Western Australia (30,000 BCE), Burrup Peninsula Rock Art in the Pilbara (c.30,000 BCE), and Bradshaw Paintings (Gwion) in the Kimberley (15,500 BCE). See also the Nawarla Gabarnmang charcoal drawing (26,000 BCE) - Australia's oldest confirmed artwork.

Related Articles

• For an example of how hand stencils were interspersed among paintings of animal figures, see: Pech Merle Cave paintings.

• For pictographic symbols on stones, see: Megalithic Art.

• For Neolithic pictograms in Africa, see: African Art.

• For more details of primitive native artworks, see: Tribal Art.


• For more information about pictograms and petroglyphs, see: Homepage.

© visual-arts-cork.com. All rights reserved.