Prehistoric Rock Art
Definition, Types, Characteristics of Petroglyphs, Cave Paintings.

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Examples of Stone Age Cupules,
the oldest form of prehistoric art
from the Paleolithic Era

Rock Art: Prehistoric
c.200,000-2,000 BCE


Definition and Types
Oldest Rock Art
History and Chronology
Rock Art Around the World

Definition and Types

Rock art is a rather vague term which denotes prehistoric man-made markings on natural stone. Similar terms include: "rock carvings", "rock engravings", "rock inscriptions", "rock drawings" and "rock paintings". This type of Stone Age art is traditionally divided into two main categories: (1) Petroglyphs: meaning, rock engravings or carvings; this category also includes works of prehistoric sculpture that are part of the rocks themselves (known as parietal art), such as relief sculpture. (2) Pictographs: meaning, paintings or drawings. While these petroglyphs and pictographs have been found on the walls of caves, or on exposed outdoor sections of rock, in practice, the earliest art of Europe was created in subterranean caves, while in (say) Northern Africa it is found mostly on the surface of the ground. A third, smaller category of rock art is associated with Megaliths or Petroforms, involving the arrangement of stones to create a type of monument (eg. Stonehenge stone circle).




Petroglyphs are generally made by removing the surface of the rock, by carving, scratching, drilling, or sculpting. The markings can be dyed or painted, or enhanced through polishing. Petroglyphs have been discovered all over the populated world, notably in parts of Africa, Scandinavia, Siberia, southwestern North America, Northern and Western Australia, and the Iberian Peninsula. Some of these images have a special cultural and/or religious significance for the societies that created them. The most important, but mysterious, type of petroglyph is the cupule - a non-functional cup-shaped hole created by percussion in the horizontal or vertical surface of a rock. By far the oldest art, cupules have been discovered on every continent except Antarctica, and continued to be created throughout all three eras of the Stone Age. Cupules have also been referred to as "pits", "hollows", "cups", "cup marks" - even "pot-holes".

The most important sites of engraved cave art include: Chauvet Cave (30,000 BCE), Le Placard Cave (17,500 BCE), Roc-de-Sers Cave (17,200 BCE), Rouffignac Cave (14,000 BCE) and Les Combarelles Cave (12,000 BCE).

Deeper rock carving in the form of relief sculpture also appeared at a relatively early stage, as exemplified by the famous Venus of Laussel (c.23,000 BCE) a bas-relief of a naked woman with the typical exaggerated features of a Venus statuette. Other important examples of prehistoric relief sculpture include Cap Blanc rock shelter (15,000 BCE) and Roc-aux-Sorciers (12,000 BCE), all famous for their limestone friezes; and the Tuc d'Audoubert Cave (13,500 BCE) noted for its extraordinary bison reliefs made from unfired clay.

Pictography is the creation of monochrome or polychrome images through the application of pigments, like carbon, manganese and various oxides. As pictographs are far less weather resistant than engravings, most surviving pictography is in the form of underground cave painting, or outdoor markings under overhanging rock. Prehistoric artists began by painting with their fingers. Later, they used lumpy pigment crayons, or brushes constructed from animal hair or vegetable fibre. The most advanced pictographic techniques included spray painting, using reeds or specially hollowed bones. The colour pigments found in cave paintings were generally obtained from mineral, animal or vegetable sources (eg. clay ochres, charcoal, manganese dioxide, calcium phosphate from crushed animal bone, carrot juice and berries, animal blood and urine). See also: Prehistoric colour palette. Stone Age artists produced many different kinds of images. The most popular subjects were hunting scenes, which typically included pictures of bison, horses, reindeer, cattle and aurochs. Other creatures portrayed, included: lions, mammoths, wolves, foxes, hares, hyenas, fish, reptiles, and birds. (See for instance the red ochre mammoth pictures among the Kapova Cave Paintings, 12,500 BCE.) By comparison, images of humans appear less frequently. Prehistoric painters also produced a significant amount of abstract signs incorporating dots, lines, and other geometric motifs. As well as this, cave paintings throughout the world include numerous symbols, ideograms, anthropomorphs and zoomorphs. Regarding these pictographical symbols, it is worth remembering that pictographs were the basis of cuneiform and hieroglyphic writing, as well as the writing systems used in Ancient China, Sumeria, and Egypt. Indeed, they are still used in tribal art and in some non-literate cultures in Africa, South and Central America, and Oceania. Arguably, the most important pictographs are the Magdalenian-period Lascaux Cave Paintings (c.17,000 BCE) in the Dordogne region of France, and the Altamira Cave Paintings (c.15,000 BCE) in Spain - the "Sistine Chapel" of Stone Age painting.

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

Megalithic rock art is best exemplified by the complex spiral engravings at the entrance of the Newgrange Neolithic Passage Tomb, in Ireland. However, although Newgrange is the most famous site within the Bru na Boinne complex in County Meath, the mound at the Knowth megalithic tomb (Newgrange's sister site) has a huge number of rock engravings around its circumference. Indeed, Knowth is reputedly home to about one third of all megalithic art in Western Europe.

Of course, the most obvious characteristic of rock art (whether petroglyph or pictograph) is its "artistic" quality, but this is sometimes the most difficult attribute to establish. Take cupules, for instance. These non-utilitarian cup-like hollows are the most ubiquitous and varied type of prehistoric human markings, yet archeologists and anthropologists remain baffled as to their meaning or significance. Are cupules art? Nobody yet knows, although it seems reasonable to assume they have cultural significance of some kind, which should be sufficient. After all, Rock art traditionally includes a wide variety of man-made markings, such as those created to mark/map territory (geocontourglyphs), pictorialize the stars, record events, or illustrate myths and other rituals.

Oldest Rock Art

Dating this ancient art can be a very difficult process, often involving radiometric and thermoluminescence methods. Establishing the chronology of extremely old works from the Lower Paleolithic Era (2,500,000 - 200,000 BCE) is even more difficult, not least because it is often almost impossible to establish that certain marks are "man-made". With that in mind, experts believe that the earliest recorded rock art is the Bhimbetka petroglyphs - a series of 10 cupules and an engraving, which were uncovered during the 1990s in a quartzite rock shelter at Bhimbetka in central India. These markings date from at least 290,000 BCE but are likely to be much older (c.700,000 BCE or earlier). For more about the chronology and history of Stone Age engravings and paintings, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.

History and Chronology

Rock art was created throughout all three periods of the Stone Age, as follows:

(1) PALEOLITHIC ERA (2,500,000 - 3,000 BCE)
- Lower Paleolithic (2,500,000 - 200,000 BCE)
- Middle Paleolithic (200,000 - 40,000 BCE)
- Upper Paleolithic (40,000-10,000 BCE)
--- 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).

--- c.10,000 - 4,000 BCE: Northern and Western Europe
--- c.10,000 - 7,000 BCE: Southeast Europe
--- c.10,000 - 8,000 BCE: Middle East & Rest of World

--- c.4,000 - 2,000 BCE: Northern and Western Europe
--- c.7,000 - 2,000 BCE: Southeast Europe
--- c.8,000 - 2,000 BCE: Middle East & Rest of World

See also: Paleolithic Art & Culture.

Lower Paleolithic Rock Art
This period is associated with very primitive petroglyphs, like cupules and crude engravings. Major works include:

Auditorium Cave Petroglyphs, Bhimbetka (290,000-700,000 BCE)
Auditorium Rock Shelter, Madhya Pradesh, Central India

Daraki-Chattan Cave Petroglyphs (290,000-700,000 BCE)
Indragarh Hill, Madhya Pradesh, Central India

Middle Paleolithic Rock Art
During this period, more complex forms of rock carvings appear. Major works include:

Blombos Cave Abstract Engravings on Ochre (c.70,000 BCE)
Blombos Cave, 200 miles east of Capetown, South Africa

La Ferrassie Cave Cupules (c.70,000-40,000 BCE)
Les Eyzies, Dordogne, France

Upper Paleolithic Rock Art
The most productive era of prehistoric rock painting, drawing and carving, exemplified by the magnificent polychrome cave paintings of Altamira. Major works include:

El Castillo Cave Paintings (39,000 BCE)
Abstract symbols, hand prints and animal paintings, in Cantabria, Spain

Fumane Cave Paintings (c.35,000 BCE)
Primitive figurative paintings found in a rock shelter near Verona, Italy

Abri Castanet Engravings (c.35,000 BCE)
Rock engravings and abstract signs found in the Dordogne, France

Ubirr Rock Art (Pre-Estuarine) (c.30,000 - 20,000 BCE)
Arnhem Land, Northern Australia. See Aboriginal Rock Art: Australia

Coliboaia Cave Art (30,000 BCE) Romania
Oldest known cave painting in Central or South-East Europe.

Kimberley Rock Art (30,000 BCE)
Cupules, handprints found in the northernmost part of Western Australia

Burrup Peninsula Rock Art (from 30,000 BCE but unconfirmed)
Granite engravings and petroglyphs, Pilbara, Western Australia

Grotte des Deux-Ouvertures /Cave of Two Openings (26,500 BCE)
Very fine rock engravings of horses in the Ardeche valley, France

Nawarla Gabarnmang Rock Shelter charcoal drawing (26,000 BCE)
Arnhem Land, Northern Territory.

Apollo 11 Cave Stones (c.25,500 BCE)
Painted stones in the Huns Mountains, SW Namibia, Africa.

Cosquer Cave Paintings (c.25,000 BCE)
Hand stencils, pictographs, at Calanque de Morgiou, Marseille, France

Dappled Horses of Pech-Merle (Polychrome) (c.25,000 BCE)
Cave paintings, handprints discovered at Cabrerets, France

Cussac Cave (c.25,000 BCE)
Outstanding large scale animal engravings in the Dordogne river valley, France

Gargas Cave Hand Stencils (c.25,000 BCE)
Tragic collection of disfigured handprints in the Hautes-Pyrenees, France

Roucadour Cave Art (c.24,000 BCE)
Engravings, abstract symbols and hand stencils at Quercy, Lot, France

Cougnac Cave (c.23,000 BCE) Lot, France
Noted for its wounded human figures and Placard-type signs

Abri du Poisson Cave Salmon Engraving (c.23,000 BCE)
A bas-relief sculpture from the Gravettian culture. The only known sculpture of a fish from the Paleolithic era.

Coa Valley Engravings, Portugal (22,000 BCE)
The oldest open air rock art in Europe.

Xianrendong Cave Pottery (c.18,000 BCE)
World's most ancient pottery, discovered in northeastern Jiangxi Province in southeast China. Other early ceramics include the Yuchanyan Cave pottery (16,000 BCE) from China's Hunan province and Vela Spila pottery from Croatia.

Koonalda Cave Art (18,000 BCE)
Famous for its unique displays of Aboriginal finger fluting, two hundred feet below the Nullarbor Plain in Australia.

Cave of La Pasiega (c.16,000 BCE)
Largest quantity of animal engravings and paintings in any cave in Spain

Bradshaw Paintings (c.15,500 BCE)
Highly stylized figure paintings found in the Kimberley, Western Australia

Font de Gaume Cave Paintings (c.17,000 BCE)
Famous for its Magdalenian painted engravings. Les Eyzies, Dordogne, France

Tito Bustillo Cave (14,000 BCE)
Black and red animal paintings. Ribadesella, Asturias, Spain

Addaura Cave Engravings (c.11,000 BCE)
Extraordinary figurative engravings. Addaura Cave, Monte Pellegrino, Italy

Mesolithic Rock Art
As the Ice Age drew to a close, petroglyphs and pictographs appeared around the world. For more, see: Mesolithic Art.

Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) (c.9,500 BCE)
Rio de las Pinturas, Argentina

Cave of Bees (Figurative Paintings) (c.9,000 BCE)
Matopos, Zimbabwe

Bhimbetka Rock Paintings and Stencilled Images (c.9,000-7,000 BCE)
Madhya Pradesh, India

Pachmari Hills Rock Paintings (c.9,000–3,000 BCE)
Satpura Range of Central India

Wonderwerk Cave Engravings (c.8,200 BCE)
Wonderwerk Cave, Northern Cape Province, South Africa

Tassili-n-Ajjer Paintings and Engravings (c.8,000 BCE)
Tassili-n-Ajjer, Algeria, N Africa

Coldstream Burial Stone with Coloured Engravings (c.6,000 BCE)
Lottering River, Western Cape Province, South Africa

Dabous Giraffe Engravings (Taureg Culture) (c.4,000 BCE)
Agadez, Niger, Africa

Neolithic Rock Art
Neolithic art is noted for its open air rock painting and a variety of megalithic tomb-building, as well as engravings and other works.

Newgrange Passage Tomb with Engraved Spirals (c.3,300-2,800 BCE)
Co Meath, Ireland

"Beautiful Ladies" Niola Doa Rock Engravings (c.3,000 BCE)
Niola Doa, Ennedi Plateau, Chad Africa

Gavrinis Stone No 10 with Engravings (c.3,000 BCE)
Gavrinis Neolithic Passage Grave, Brittany, France

Egyptian Pyramids (2680­1786 BCE)
World's largest tombs filled with various forms of megalithic rock art.

Brandberg Rock Paintings (San Culture) (c.2,000 BCE)
Branberg Massif, Namibia

Kolo Figurative Paintings (Ancient Sandawe Culture) (c.2,000 BCE)
Kolo, Dodoma Region, Tanzania


Rock Art Around the World

European Rock Art

Europe is particularly famous for its pictographic cave murals in southern France and Spain. They include: the Horse Panel and the Panel of Lions and Rhinoceroses at Chauvet Cave; the hand stencils and polychrome paintings in the underwater Cosquer Cave; the charcoal and ochre pictures of Dappled Horses at Pech-Merle Cave; the incredible Hall of the Bulls at Lascaux Cave; the animal paintings at Font de Gaume Cave and Cueva de La Pasiega; the extraordinary large scale wall paintings in the polychrome chamber at Altamira.

Franco-Cantabrian cave art can be divided into three phases. In the first or Lower Aurignacian phase, there are engravings drawn with the finger on soft clay walls. They are either simple spirals and frets, or crude representations of animals. There are paintings of animals, the crude contours done in black, yellow or red. And there are stencilled silhouettes of human hands, produced by laying the hand on the wall and blowing the colour over it or tracing the outline.

In the second or Upper Aurignacian phase we find engravings, paintings and charcoal drawings of animals represented with remarkable adherence to nature. The colours used are red and black, and the most essential details of the body are reproduced as well as the contours.

In the third or Lower Magdalenian phase both engravings and paintings reach the highest stage of their development. Proportions and details are masterfully portrayed. In the engravings, spaces are often rendered by hatching. Paintings are black partially filled in with brown or red, and there is expert use of shading. Quite apart from their artistic interest, these representations give us an idea of the life of these paleolithic men. We see them in their principal occupation, hunting, and we can study their weapons, tools and ornaments. The stone age painters were complete masters in the art of rendering movement. A large number of their pictures are full of excitement and animation, as for instance the fighting scene from the Galeria del Roble, near Morella la Vella, Castellon in Spain.

For a description and photo of the oldest known carving of a human figure, see: Venus of Hohle Fels (38,000-33,000 BCE). See also the therianthropic Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel (c.38,000 BCE).

African Rock Art

Famous for being the birthplace of Homo Sapiens, Africa is home to more than 14,000 recorded but as yet unexplored sites of prehistoric antiquity in the sub-Saharan zone alone. In eastern Africa, most rock art has been found on the huge inland plateau extending from the Zambezi River valley to Lake Turkana. The bulk of these prehistoric artworks are paintings, mainly located in central Tanzania, produced - it is believed - by ancestors of the present day Sandawe tribe. See also: African Art.

Australian Rock Art

Major finds of Aboriginal rock art in Australia have occurred at Ubirr in Arnhem Land, northern Australia ("X-Ray pictures"); Kimberley in Western Australia (Bradshaws); Western New South Wales (cylindro-conical stone implements, called cyclons); Burrup Peninsula (Murujuga) in Western Australia (Rock Carvings); Sydney NSW (Rock Engravings). Although the earliest authenticated Australian rock art (Ubirr) is dated to about 30,000 BCE, other materials found at the site of this art have been estimated to be up to 50,000 years old. See also: Oceanic Art.

Asian Rock Art

The Auditorium and Daraki-Chattan Caves in Madhya Pradesh, Central India, contain the world's oldest known petroglyph engravings. Another important site of Stone Age rock art in India is the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters, a UN World Heritage Site which was known to Indian archeologists as early as 1888. See also: Painting & Sculpture from India.

Rock Art in the Americas

The most famous South American pictographs are the hand stencils in the Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) near Rio de las Pinturas in Argentina. That said, there are numerous ancient art sites throughout the Americas. They include: Monte Verde in Chile; Fell's Cave in Patagonia; Blackwater Draw in eastern New Mexico, among many others.


The legacy of this so-called "primitive art" is nothing less than the entire history of art, because everything - including Greek sculpture, Chinese pottery, Roman architecture, the Renaissance, even Damien Hirst's pickled tiger shark - derives from the first inexplicable human impulse to create.

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