Cave Paintings, the Parietal Art of the Ancient World

Full frame shot of handprints on the cave wall at Cueva De Las Manos.
Handprints at Cueva De Las Manos. H_ctor Aviles / EyeEm / Getty Images

Cave art, also called parietal art or cave paintings, is a general term referring to the decoration of the walls of rock shelters and caves throughout the world. The best-known sites are in Upper Paleolithic Europe. There polychrome (multi-colored) paintings made of charcoal and ochre, and other natural pigments, were used to illustrate extinct animals, humans, and geometric shapes some 20,000-30,000 years ago.

The purpose of cave art, particularly Upper Paleolithic cave art, is widely debated. Cave art is most often associated with the work of shamans—religious specialists who may have painted the walls in memory of past or support of future hunting trips. Cave art was once considered evidence of a "creative explosion", when the minds of ancient humans became fully developed. Today, scholars believe that human progress towards behavioral modernity began in Africa and developed much more slowly.

The Earliest and Oldest Cave Paintings

The oldest yet dated cave art is from El Castillo Cave, in Spain. There, a collection of handprints and animal drawings decorated the ceiling of a cave about 40,000 years ago. Another early cave is Abri Castanet in France, about 37,000 years ago; again, its art is limited to handprints and animal drawings.

The oldest of the lifelike paintings most familiar to fans of rock art is the truly spectacular Chauvet Cave in France, direct-dated to between 30,000-32,000 years ago. Art in rock shelters is known to have occurred within the past 500 years in many parts of the world, and there is some argument to be made that modern graffiti is a continuation of that tradition.

Dating Upper Paleolithic Cave Sites

One of the great controversies in rock art today is whether we have reliable dates for when the great cave paintings of Europe were completed. There are three current methods of dating cave paintings.

  • Direct dating, in which conventional or AMS radiocarbon dates are taken on tiny fragments of charcoal or other organic paints in the painting itself
  • Indirect dating, in which radiocarbon dates are taken on charcoal from occupation layers within the cave that are somehow associated with the painting, such as pigment-making tools, portable art or collapsed painted roof or wall blocks are found in datable strata
  • Stylistic dating, in which scholars compare the images or techniques used in a particular painting to others which have already been dated in another manner

Although direct dating is the most reliable, stylistic dating is the most often used, because direct dating destroys some part of the painting and the other methods are only possible in rare occurrences. Stylistic changes in artifact types have been used as chronological markers in seriation since the late 19th century; stylistic changes in rock art are an outgrowth of that philosophical method. Until Chauvet, painting styles for the Upper Paleolithic were thought to reflect a long, slow growth to complexity, with certain themes, styles and techniques assigned to the Gravettian, Solutrean, and Magdalenian time segments of the UP.

Direct-Dated Sites in France

According to von Petzinger and Nowell (2011 cited below), there are 142 caves in France with wall paintings dated to the UP, but only 10 have been direct-dated.

  • Aurignacian (~45,000-29,000 BP), 9 total: Chauvet
  • Gravettian (29,000-22,000 BP), 28 total: Pech-Merle, Grotte Cosquer, Courgnac, Mayennes-Sciences
  • Solutrian (22,000-18,000 BP), 33 total: Grotte Cosquer
  • Magdalenian (17,000-11,000 BP), 87 total: Cougnac, Niaux, Le Portel

The problem with that (30,000 years of art primarily identified by modern western perceptions of style changes) was recognized by Paul Bahn among others in the 1990s, but the issue was brought into sharp focus by the direct dating of Chauvet Cave. Chauvet, at 31,000 years old an Aurignacian period cave, has a complex style and themes that are usually associated with much later periods. Either Chauvet's dates are wrong, or the accepted stylistic changes need to be modified.

For the moment, archaeologists cannot move completely away from stylistic methods, but they can retool the process. Doing so will be difficult, although von Pettinger and Nowell have suggested a starting point: to focus on image details within the direct-dated caves and extrapolate outward. Determining which image details to select to identify stylistic differences may be a thorny task, but unless and until detailed direct-dating of cave art becomes possible, it may be the best way forward.


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Hirst, K. Kris. "Cave Paintings, the Parietal Art of the Ancient World." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 27). Cave Paintings, the Parietal Art of the Ancient World. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Cave Paintings, the Parietal Art of the Ancient World." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).