Art in the Paleolithic Age

Upper Paleolithic drawings depicting steer at Lascaux.

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The Paleolithic (literally "Old Stone Age") period covered between two and one-half and three million years, depending on which scientist has done the calculations. For art history's purposes, Paleolithic Art refers to the Late Upper Paleolithic period. This began roughly around 40,000 years ago and lasted through the Pleistocene ice age, which ended about 8,000 BCE. This period was marked by the rise of Homo sapiens and their ever-developing ability to create tools and weapons.

What the World Was Like

There was a lot more ice and the ocean shoreline was far different than it is now. Lower water levels and, in some cases, land bridges (which have long since disappeared) allowed humans to migrate to the Americas and Australia. The ice also made for a cooler climate worldwide and prevented migration to the far north. Humans at this time were strictly hunter-gatherers, meaning they were constantly on the move in search of food.

Art of the Time

There were only two kinds of art: portable or stationary, and both forms were limited in scope.

Portable art during the Upper Paleolithic period was necessarily small (in order to be portable) and consisted of either figurines or decorated objects. These things were carved (from stone, bone, or antler) or modeled with clay. Most of the portable art from this time was figurative, meaning it depicted something recognizable, whether animal or human in form. The figurines are often referred to by the collective name of "Venus," as they are unmistakably females of a child-bearing build.

Stationary art was just that: It didn't move. The best examples exist in (now famous) cave paintings in western Europe, created during the Paleolithic period. Paints were manufactured from combinations of minerals, ochres, burnt bone meal, and charcoal mixed into mediums of water, blood, animal fats, and tree saps. Experts guess (and it's only a guess) that these paintings served some form of ritualistic or magical purpose, as they are located far from the mouths of caves where everyday life took place. Cave paintings contain far more non-figurative art, meaning many elements are symbolic rather than realistic. The clear exception, here, is in the depiction of animals, which are vividly realistic (humans, on the other hand, are either completely absent or stick figures).

Key Characteristics

It seems a bit flippant to try to characterize the art from a period that encompasses most of human history. Paleolithic art is intricately bound to anthropological and archaeological studies that professionals have devoted entire lives researching and compiling. That said, to make some sweeping generalizations, Paleolithic art:

  • Paleolithic art concerned itself with either food (hunting scenes, animal carvings) or fertility (Venus figurines). Its predominant theme was animals.
  • It is considered to be an attempt, by Stone Age peoples, to gain some sort of control over their environment, whether by magic or ritual.
  • Art from this period represents a giant leap in human cognition: abstract thinking.