The Palaeolithic Art of Europe – Palaeoart in the Most Literal Sense

Article By: Lewis Haller
Edited by: J. D. Dixon, Adam Manning, and Harry T. Jones

Cast your mind back 25,000 years, to the last Ice Age. Mammoths, lions, hyenas, rhinos, and many other amazing creatures walk the land. Alongside them are humans, both modern humans (Homo sapiens) and Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis). These humans were much like us. They may have had different languages and cultures to many of us alive today, but there is one thing that links us all together as humans. Art. 

These early humans were the true masters of art. Forget Michaelangelo, forget Da Vinci, Picasso, Rembrandt, or any of the classical maestros. These early humans, who, with nothing but a simple torch to light their way, crawled, climbed and clambered into a cave to create some spectacular art, are the giants on whose shoulders every artist ever since has stood. 

Palaeolithic art includes paintings, carvings, figures and other symbols made during the Palaeolithic period of human history. In geological time that’s roughly the Pleistocene, from 2.8 million years ago to 11,700 years ago. The most famous pieces from this period are the drawings and engravings found in caves, typically on their walls and ceilings. However, some other equally impressive artefacts, not daubed on walls, can be found from this period, such as carved figurines or highly decorated personal effects. 

The art of the Palaeolithic holds special importance for both palaeontology and archaeology/anthropology. Whilst fossils can tell us a lot about an animal’s appearance, cave art can give us information about colouring and patterns, and show us morphology that isn’t preserved in the fossil record. Palaeolithic art also gives us details about human progression, such as the development of cultures and symbolism.

Chauvet Cave
Chauvet cave in Ardèche, France is one of the most famous caves in the world, and possibly houses the oldest cave art in Europe. Discovered in 1994 by three cavers, Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel and Christian Hillarie, the cave has held a high level of significance ever since. This is due to its sheer volume of paintings, featuring over 1000 depictions of humans, animals and human hands, and the exceptional state in which they were found. Some of the many animals that have been painted inside the cave are Megaloceros, cave bears, cave lions and hyenas. Alongside the evidence of human habitation, there are also signs that show that animals lived in the cave at various points. Cave bear footprints have been found on the floor, along with some of their bones, and possibly the bones of their prey.

Three cave bears from Chauvet. As the scale shows these are not small drawings. Available at: https://journals.openedition.org/paleo/3009.

In 2016, a team of scientists dated various samples from the cave and determined that there were two distinct times when the cave was inhabited by humans: 37,000 – 33,500 years ago, and 31,000 – 28,000 years ago. The cave bear footprints and bones show that they inhabited the cave until around 33,000 years ago, though probably not at the same time as the humans did. This makes the cave art some of the oldest in Europe. There is a possibility that Chauvet also contains the oldest depiction of a volcanic eruption in human history. The eruption event that it depicts occurred around 36,000 years ago. This is some 25,000 years before the Çatalhöyük mural painting from Turkey, and 34,000 years before Pliny the Younger wrote to Tactitus about the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD.

The Megaloceros panel (left) and then a redrawing of the panel showing the theorised drawing of the volcanic eruption from Chauvet. Available at: https://www.nature.com/news/cave-of-forgotten-dreams-may-hold-earliest-painting-of-volcanic-eruption-1.19177.

Chauvet cave was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014. Due to Chauvet being discovered after Lascaux and Altamira, and the damage caused by public access to these caves, Chauvet has never been opened to the public. However, a recreation of the cave has been made so that the public can still experience the art for themselves.  

Lascaux
Lascaux in Dordogne, France, is probably the most famous cave in the world. It was discovered in 1940 by four French boys after their dog ran down into the cave. They came back four days later to properly explore the cave, and in doing so, discovered some of the most impressive cave art ever found. Lascaux boasts the largest piece of cave art in the world – some auroch bulls (prehistoric cows) that are 5 m in length. Lascaux has several different areas within the cave that display many animals, including the aurochs as mentioned, alongside horses, deer and lions. There is also a very weird image found in Lascaux. There is a painting of what appears to be a man with the head of a bird, next to a wounded bison and a rhino. People have interpreted this as having some religious or ritual significance but its meaning is ultimately unknown. The majority of paintings in Lascaux were made around 15,000 years ago, but some were made around 7,000 years ago, based on carbon dating of charcoal found in the cave.

The Lascaux birdman (left) with the disemboweled bison. A bird sat on a stick is in the bottom left of the image. Available at: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/global-prehistory-ap/paleolithic-mesolithic-neolithic/a/lascaux.

Inside Lascaux, besides the cave art, many tools of the trade were also found. These include lamps, the tools used to prepare the colours for painting, such as a very basic mortar and pestle, and some hollow stones that contained small amounts of powdered pigment. One of the best examples of a Palaeolithic lamp we have is from Lascaux. Carved in red sandstone, it still has its handle and bowl intact, along with some engravings etched into its surface.

Red Sandstone Lamp with Engraved Handle. Available at: http://archeologie.culture.fr/lascaux/en/lighting.

It is likely that they used some sort of animal fat in these lamps as the fuel. It is unlikely that all their lamps were this ornate, and it is probable that they just used an unshaped stone with a slight hollow in the centre for fuel a lot of the time. Evidence from other caves suggests that resin torches were used to provide light, as they would have been better suited for carrying through tunnels, but no evidence of this has been found in Lascaux. 

Many of the paintings in Lascaux are polychromatic, using ochre and manganese oxide, some of which came from as far as 5 km away from the cave. There is evidence that these artists were using Lascaux to test new pigments, specifically by heating ochre to create new colours, and by mixing other minerals into their paints. It is likely that the paint would have been blown onto the wall or applied via a pad of some kind. 

Lascaux was open to the public for a number of years, until 1968 when it was closed due to the ‘green sickness’ (a proliferation of algae) and the ‘white sickness’ (a crystalline growth). These are likely linked to the volume of people who were going into the cave and disturbing the internal environment. An accurate replica of the cave, Lascaux II, was built in 1983 which the public can now visit in place of the original.  

Rouffignac Cave
Rouffignac Cave, or the Cave of the Hundred Mammoths, is an 8 km long cave in Dordogne, France. The cave is quite flat, with no stalactites or stalagmites jutting out of the ceilings or floors. What it has instead are flint nodules that stick out of the walls. The approximately 250 drawings found in the cave since 1956 have been dated to ~ 14,000 years ago. However, this hasn’t been done through the use of chemical analyses of the art, or using any evidence of human habitation. This is because as far as we can tell, humans did not live in this cave during the Palaeolithic. The art has been given this date due to the style of the art, which can be seen across Europe at this time. 

The cave is often called the Cave of the Hundred Mammoths. This is because out of the 250 + images, nearly 160 of them are Mammoths. This is an outstanding amount of mammoths to be found in a single cave and makes up around one-third of all mammoths represented in cave art. Alongside the mammoths are ibex, deer, woolly rhinos, bison, and horses. 

Mammoth and Ibex Panel from Rouffignac Cave. Available at: http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/france/rouffignac/index.php.

Whilst it appears no humans inhabited the cave, it seems that cave bears inhabited it for at least part of the year. Bones of these bears have been found, along with the hollows they dug out for themselves to hibernate in. Scratch marks have also been found on the walls of the cave, furthering the idea that bears were hibernating in the cave. 

Unlike Lascaux, Chauvet and Altamira, this cave is open to the public. In 1959, an electric railway was installed in the cave and is still used today to show visitors around the cave and let them see some of the highlights.

Grotte de Bédeilhac
Grotte de Bédeilhac, Ariège, France has the most varied history of any of the caves mentioned. Starting back ~ 14,000 years ago, when humans first inhabited parts of the cave and started creating the artwork that we see today, the cave has been used periodically throughout history. Fast forward to the 20th Century, the French and then German military used the cave during WWII as a hangar for planes, though none ever took off or landed from here during wartime. The cave’s art was discovered in 1906, and features mainly animals, but there are also some handprints and a relief of a vulva. Many of the images can no longer be accessed by the public, with some of the impressive images having been damaged by the military operations. Bison are a common feature in Bédeilhac and form a majority of the artwork present in the cave. 

One universal feature of cave art globally is handprints, and there are some examples found in Bédeilhac alongside the other pieces. There are four prints in total, all found on a stalagmitic column, two from each hand in both red and black pigment. Whilst not particularly special in terms of cave art, handprints are useful in attempting to identify men and women. In men the index finger tends to be longer than the ring finger and whilst this isn’t 100% accurate for sexing handprints, especially for small populations, its accuracy improves with larger groups.

Grotte de Bédeilhac handprint. Available at: http://grotte-de-bedeilhac.org/Galeries.

Altamira Cave
The Altamira Cave in Cantabria, Spain has earned the nickname of the “Sistine Chapel of Cave Art”, and rightfully so. First discovered in 1868 by a hunter, a man by the name Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola revisited the caves in 1876, but it wasn’t until he returned in 1879 with his eight year old daughter, Maria, that the impressive ceiling paintings were found. When Sanz de Sautuola told the academic world of his findings, he was widely rejected and accused of fraud by some individuals. 

Altamira is most famous for its polychrome (painted in multiple colours) ceiling, which depicts mainly bison, in various positions. These are likely to be some of the younger images in the cave, dating back to around 14,000 years ago, based on radiocarbon dating of the charcoal used to paint them. However, the cave appears to have images which date back to as early as those found in Chauvet, 36,000 years ago, and so Altamira is a contender for the oldest cave art in Europe. The polychrome images are done in a mix of pigments, namely ochre, charcoal and manganese. It is theorised that all these bison, 18 in total, were made by a single artist, with possible touch-ups throughout the centuries, until the cave mouth was sealed by a rock collapse ~10,000 years ago.

One of the polychrome bison found in the Altamira cave near some geometric symbols and a deer. Available at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/310/.

Much like Lascaux and Chauvet, Altamira also has a replica cave near the original site, and this has been painstakingly made to be an exact replica of the original, with every crack, lump and chipped piece of rock being exactly where it is in the original cave. This replica is open to the public, unlike the actual cave, which was closed due to microbial growth, much like what happened in Lascaux 50 years prior. 

Creswell Crags   
Creswell Crags, Nottinghamshire, UK, house the oldest cave art found in the UK so far. The Crags are a number of caves that line a small limestone valley, which document, in good detail, who was living here during the last Ice Age. In many of the caves, bones of rhinos, bears, hyenas, and horses have been found. In these caves, the UK’s only examples of portable figurative art have been found, one being an engraving of a horse and the other an engraving of a small human on a rib bone. All the art here has been dated to around 12,000 years ago through carbon dating and Uranium/Thorium dating. 

Church Hole is the site where the most pieces have been found. Up to 30 figures have been found in that cave since the first was discovered in 2003. The cave was excavated by the Victorians, and, in doing so, they lowered the floor by 2 m. This meant that the carvings, which were high on the ceiling, couldn’t be seen easily, and so went undetected for more than a century. It is likely that Church Hole was inhabited for a period, as flint and quartzite tools have been found.

Robin Hood Cave is the largest of the caves in Creswell. It is most important as a Palaeolithic home for our ancestors, but only has one engraving that has been found so far: a small triangle on the wall as you enter the cave. This has been Uranium/Thorium dated to the Palaeolithic, like the rest of the art found in the Crags. It is likely that Neanderthals first used this cave as a home until around 40,000 years ago, and then modern humans moved in some 20,000 years later. 

Stadel Lion-man
The Hohlenstein-Stadel Lion-man, or the Löwenmensch figurine as it’s also known, is the oldest piece of art that is known whose subject doesn’t exist in the real world, along with being the world’s oldest piece of figurative art. Found in the Swabian Jura mountain range of Germany, the Lion-man is ~ 40,000 years old, which is older than both Chauvet and Altamira. The Lion-man was found in Holhenstein-Stadel cave, along with a few Arctic fox teeth and some reindeer antlers. There is limited evidence for human habitation of the cave, and this has led to some speculating that this cave was used for religious gatherings rather than as a dwelling. 

The Hohlenstein-Stadel Lion-man figure. It’s roughly 31cm tall from head to toe. Available at: https://blog.britishmuseum.org/the-lion-man-an-ice-age-masterpiece/.

The Lion-man was carved from mammoth ivory, using stone tools. Practical archaeology carried out by Wulf Hein involved him carving the figure in a fresh tusk using the same tools as the people who made the original. It took him 370+ hours to carve, over the span of 3 months; that’s the equivalent of nearly 17 days of straight work to produce. Therefore, it can be reasoned that it is likely that the Lion-man held a special significance in the life of the people who crafted it so carefully.

The Lion-man represents a key moment in human development, in the fact that it shows humans in the Palaeolithic had the capacity to imagine things which did not exist in our world. The Lion-man is the world’s oldest example of this concept, and so is of great importance globally. It is possible that the Lion-man was carved by a Neanderthal, rather than a modern human, but this is likely to remain a secret to all but those who carved it. 

As you can see, Palaeolithic artists were very capable, and skilled with a variety of materials and tools. Through their work we’ve gained an understanding of the world in which they lived and survived.

Image References
[1] Panel of the Patriarch Mammoth from Rouffignac Cave. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Panel-of-the-Patriarch-Rouffignac-Dordogne-with-Mammoth-Rhino-horn-photo-J-et-F_fig3_290973654.
[2] Three cave bears from Chauvet. As the scale shows these are not small drawings. Available at: https://journals.openedition.org/paleo/3009 .
[3] The Megaloceros panel (left) and then a redrawing of the panel showing the theorised drawing of the volcanic eruption from Chauvet. Available at: https://www.nature.com/news/cave-of-forgotten-dreams-may-hold-earliest-painting-of-volcanic-eruption-1.19177.
[4] The Lascaux birdman (left) with the disemboweled bison. A bird sat on a stick is in the bottom left of the image. Available at: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/global-prehistory-ap/paleolithic-mesolithic-neolithic/a/lascaux.
[5] Red Sandstone Lamp with Engraved Handle. Available at: http://archeologie.culture.fr/lascaux/en/lighting.
[6] Mammoth and Ibex Panel from Rouffignac Cave. Available at: http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/france/rouffignac/index.php.
[7] Grotte de Bédeilhac handprint. Available at: http://grotte-de-bedeilhac.org/Galeries.
[8] One of the polychrome bison found in the Altamira cave near some geometric symbols and a deer. Available at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/310/.
[9] The Hohlenstein-Stadel Lion-man figure. It’s roughly 31cm tall from head to toe. Available at: https://blog.britishmuseum.org/the-lion-man-an-ice-age-masterpiece/.

Information References and Further Sources
[1] Bahn, P. G. (2007). Cave Art A Guide to the Decorated Ice Age Caves of Europe. London: Frances Lincoln.
[2] Bradshaw Foundation (2011) ‘Rouffignac Cave – The Cave of the Hundred Mammoths’. Available at: http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/france/rouffignac/index.php. Accessed 24th October 2019.
[3] Cohen, K. M., Finney, S. C., Gibbard, P. L. & Fan, J.-X. (2013; updated). The ICS International Chronostratigraphic Chart. Episodes 36: 199-204. URL:http://www.stratigraphy.org/ICSchart/ChronostratChart2019-05.jpg Accessed 22nd October 2019.
[4] Creswell Crags. (Unknown). Available at: https://www.creswell-crags.org.uk/explore/our-caves/. Accessed 22nd October 2019.
[5] Grotte de Rouffignac. (Unknown). ‘Visit By Electric Train’. Available at: http://www.grottederouffignac.fr/index.php/en/visit-by-electric-train Accessed 24th October 2019.
[6] Hammer, J. (2015). ‘Finally, the Beauty of France’s Chauvet Cave Makes its Grand Public Debut’, Smithsonian Magazine. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/france-chauvet-cave-makes-grand-debut-180954582/. Accessed 24th October 2019.
[7] Kind CJ., Ebinger-Rist, N., Wolf, S., Beutelspacher, T., and Wehrberger, K., (2014) ‘The Smile of the Lion Man. Recent Excavations in Stadel Cave (Baden-Württemberg, south-western Germany) and the Restoration of the Famous Upper Palaeolithic Figurine’ Quartar 161 pp. 129-145. Available at: http://www.quartaer.eu/pdfs/2014/2014_07_kind.pdf.
[8] Ministère de la Culture. (Unknown). ‘Parietal Art: Lighting’. Available at: http://archeologie.culture.fr/lascaux/en/lighting. Accessed 24th October 2019. 
[9] Toth, N. and Schick, K. (2007). ‘Overview of Paleolithic Archeology’, in Henke, W., and Tattersall, I. (eds.). Handbook of Paleoanthropology; New York: Springer-Verlag.
[10] Ulm Museum. (Unknown). ‘14C Dating – The Age of the Lion Man’. Available at:
http://www.loewenmensch.de/figur_3.html. Accessed 22nd October 2019
[11] Ulfr23. (2014). Lion Man 2.0 – The Experiment. Available at: https://youtu.be/hgbvT9_pjzo. Accessed 22nd October 2019.
[12] UNESCO. (Unknown). ‘Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley’. Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/85/. Accessed 24th October.
[13] UNESCO. (Unknown). ‘Decorated Cave of Pont d’Arc, known as Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, Ardèche’. Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1426. Accessed 24th October 2019.