Stone Age Art: Art Made of Stone? Part 1

Way before any of the art you see today existed, it had to have had a start. It didn’t start with a canvas; it definitely didn’t start with a computer; it began with a stone wall. We’re not talking about finger painting like a child would do on their parents’ walls; we’re talking about a society of ancient people who lived in caves and pondered their life enough to record it.

The proper name for this era is the Paleolithic period, and if you really need to know where this word came from; it came from the Greek word paleo, meaning ‘old’and lithos meaning ‘stone.’ This period started about 40,000 BCE, to put it in perspective, this was around the time where there was an overlap of society, the Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens. This not only changed history but started up art history.

Caves were discovered in southern France and northern Spain containing cave art. You probably think it’s a bunch of stick figures and animals. Not so much. Some of these paintings had some realism to them. There was color and shading. The most famous of these caves are the ones from Lascaux. Most of the walls are covered in images of animals. A large area of the Lascaux caves is the Hall of the Bulls; in here, bulls and horses were drawn. Imagine being an ancient person, drawing what he/she saw that day, by the light of a make-shift lamp. Why paint bulls and horses when they weren’t part of a healthy diet for these people? Perhaps, they admire these creatures. No one knows for sure.

Another peculiar part of cave paintings is that the images were of different animals, not of any particular herd. There are also other art styles, from silhouettes to outlines. Now, what could that mean? Well, it appears that the cave paintings weren’t all from one artist. Different painters had added to the walls for generations. Like graffiti artists who add another layer to a mural or some wise guy or girl adds to a crass image in a public bathroom.

These cave painters were fixated on perspective, where the images were front view or profile. In other words, a selfie or a side selfie. Except for the bulls, the animals were shown from the side to see the legs, head, body, and tail. The bulls were shown front to show off their horns.

The animal paintings weren’t just relegated to the cave walls. Plaques were found in Namibia, Africa, inside a cave named Apollo 11. Seven fragments were found depicting five distinct animals, one of which is possibly a zebra. They date back to 23,000 BCE. This transition from wall to plaque continued into sculpture.

The earliest known sculpture was found in Hohlenstein-Stadel, Germany, and is made out of ivory of a woolly mammoth, and it is a foot tall. It may date back to 40,000 BCE. What’s fascinating about the sculpture is it hints at the theory that the development of the brain sprang out of that era as being imaginative. To look at the statue of a human body with a feline head is to view it as something from a dream. The conceptual idea behind the sculpture and any others produced is that they are magicians wearing masks. Does that mean that there was magic during the Stone Age? Perhaps only in the eyes of those ancient peoples. 

Most of them depicted naked women outside of this sculpture, known as ‘Venuses’ by archaeologists. Which when you study the context of figurines, these Venuses don’t represent deities at all. The most famous of all is the Venus of Willendorf, a limestone figurine of a naked woman found in Austria’s findspot (discovery area). It is believed that the multitude of female figures is due to the fascination with child-bearing abilities. 

When you first look at the figurine, you tend to want to start a fit of giggles because her body is disproportionate in a strange way. The sculptor was using the shape of the stone to create the image with no sense of naturalism. There is a textured detail on the head that suggested either curly hair or a woven hat, an idea that textiles started early.

Both the Venus of Willendorf and the Hohlenstein-Stadel figure were sculpted in the round, and no, it doesn’t mean that they had used a round-shaped rock to carve them. They are freestanding sculptures and not attached to a wall or a plaque, unlike a relief sculpture. The earliest known relief is the Laussel woman. She was found in a rock shelter in France and was part of a bigger block of stone. The sculptor chiseled her into shape, giving her a 2D look. She was also given the bulbous body as the Venus of Willendorf. What’s notable is that the sculptor gave her a pose, where she has a hand placed near her pelvic area and the other holding what’s believed to be a bison horn. The Laussel woman was among many other open-air art during the Old Stone Age (25,000 -20,000 BCE). No more dark, creepy caves. These sculptors were also familiar with color because red ochre could be found on the Venus of Willendorf and another famous relief, the Reclining Woman.

This is the start of more images of the reclining woman to come. There are many famous paintings with the iconic beauty lounging blissfully; think of Titian’s Venus of Urbino and Henry Moore’s sculpture Reclining Figure. Found in the La Magdeleine, France, it dates back to 12,000 BCE. Also found in this location is the depiction of a bison licking his flank made out of a reindeer horn. This piece served the function of being part of a spear-thrower. It has delicate detailing contributed by the tool of a burin; the texture is seen on the bison’s mane, around his eyes, nose, ears, and tongue.

Yet, another set of reliefs were found in Le Tuc d”Audoubert France dating back to 15,000 – 10,000 BCE. This time they were created with the use of clay against a freestanding rock. In profile, they measure two feet making them the most enormous Paleolithic sculptures. The sculptor shaped the body, mouth, eyes, nose, and manes with his hands. It probably didn’t look like the scene of Demi Moore playing with clay in the movie Ghost.  

A little girl and her father stumble upon a cave while exploring their land in Altamira, Spain; in 1879, they find a massive cave bearing colored paintings of bison. It sounds like a movie that was made not too long ago about this, but it’s a real encounter. Marcelino Sans de Sautuola and his young daughter Maria found a 60-foot mural on the cave ceiling, made some time around 13,000 – 11,000 BCE. The age of the cave paintings became an issue when some of the pompous archaeologists and academics labeled it a fraud. This view changed when other caves were discovered, sharing the same mineral-rich environment.

A theory that has been racking art historians’ minds is the ‘grouping’ of the bison in the Altamira paintings. Associating the bison to a group is wrong since there is no ground line, which is an invisible baseline that figures are poised on. Imagine a long line at the grocery store but in a painting. The painter was haphazard when it came to positioning the bison; he pretty much put them where he felt like putting them. The idea that there were different painters was used again.

Around 23,000 – 22,000 BCE, cave painters started leaving their ‘signatures’ on the wall next to their masterpieces. They would use their handprints in either a negative style or a positive style. The negative technique was used by placing their hand on the wall and brushing or blowing pigment over them, and in the positive style, the painter would dip their hand in paint and press it on the walls. I guess they did do some finger painting.

An example of the printed hands can be seen at Pech-Merle, France, where the prints went hand in hand (forgive the pun) with spotted horses. Some spots surrounded the horses, which implied that they were stones. The majority of the hands were in negative style. An interesting theory about the Pech-Merle is that the painters made their paintings from the inspiration of their environment. It is believed that one of the spotted horses was created because of a rock formation that looked like a horse’s head. Think back to the La Magdeleine bison, where they used clay on top of craggy outcroppings.

These Stone Age artists were particular when it came to using surfaces. Bison and cattle were exclusive to convex areas, and horses and hands were to concave regions. Convex is painting on a curved surface, like how you would imagine someone painting a globe. Concave is painting on an inward curve, similar to Native Americans painting bowls. What the preference means has been a mystery.

A theory that has many archaeologists underwears in a bunch since 1994 is the dating dilemma of the Chauvet caves in Vallon-Pont-d’Arc in France. They can’t seem to get the carbon dating of the pigment from the paintings correct. The issue causing these people to split up into parties is that the images indicated that the developmental style of art seems way too advanced, figuring that the Chauvet cave art is older than Lascaux Altamira and Pech-Merle. Remember I mentioned that in those caves, the art was mostly in outlines, silhouettes, and profiles? But in the Chauvet caves, the animals face each other, seen in one of the art pieces of battling rhinoceroses, or they follow each other in a procession; as if telling a narration. It seems like these painters were telling bedtime stories to their kids with cave art.

So, when exactly did these Stone Age painters develop artistic skills from profile images to narrative images? Is it between 30,000 – 28,000 or 15,000 – 13,000 BCE? The theory is still being tested and debated. Recently in 2020, the pigments were dated with a more advanced carbon dater, and it estimates that it’s around 36,000 BCE. Now it’s up to the archaeologists to study the art style against other cave paintings.

Ultimately, the big question is, why are there cave paintings in the first place? Why did these ancient people felt the need to cover the walls of dark, gloomy caves with images of animals? Guess what? There are many theories about this. Did you think there would be an actual answer?

Theory Number 1: Pure decoration. Maybe they wanted to make things livelier by decorating the caves, yet it’s not consistent with the fact that many of the images are in remote, tight spots.

Theory Number 2: The paintings had magical properties. The thought is that the painters believed that if they painted these creatures on the wall, they would control them. They would have rituals and dances that would bring them luck. Not sure how archaeologists figured that out. Maybe they found used ancient glow sticks.

Theory Number 3: Classroom setting. It’s possible that they used the images to teach each other about the animals that they would see. It has been suggested they wanted to learn about the creatures to ensure the survival of the species. Seems like the first signs of animal activism. Yet that doesn’t seem right because many of the animals depicted weren’t animals they ate. The ancient people of Altamira ate red deer, not bison.

Theory Number 4: A belief system. Some scholars got really imaginative to the point where they tried to come up with a story behind every image, such as the spots and squares. They thought that certain species were equated to humans or that the animals were deities. That would make for an amusing novel.

Unfortunately for these thinkers, these theories were flushed down the toilet. Without written, recorded proof, no idea will turn into fact to explain the Paleolithic cave paintings. After the Paleolithic came the Neolithic around 9000 BCE.

UPDATE: Recently it has been determined that the cave painting artists may have suffered from hypoxia, which is when there is barely any light and little air to breath causing one to hallucinate. This could be the answer as to why they chose to be in dark caves to paint – because of the possibility of having mystical senses.

Published by Jeydie W

I'm a creative writer, blogger, podcaster and YouTube gamer. I have three books published, two blogs and a gaming channel that I participate in as Woolly Mammoth Gaming on YouTube. I have a successful podcast called Chillingly Bizarre, it's a fiction horror short stories podcast. I recently moved from Miami to Denver, and I live with my husband and shelter dog.

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