Art of the Upper Paleolithic

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"Paleolithic art" redirects here. For disputed claims of earlier artistic expression, see Art of the Middle Paleolithic.
Venus of Laussel, an Upper Paleolithic (Aurignacian) carving

The art of the Upper Paleolithic is amongst the oldest art known (sometimes called prehistoric art). Older possible examples include the incised ochre from Blombos Cave. Upper Paleolithic art originated in the Aurignacian of Europe and the Levant some 40,000 years ago, and continued to the Mesolithic (at the beginnings of the Holocene) about 12,000 years ago. As this corresponds to the final phase of the last glacial period, Upper Paleolithic art is also known as "Ice Age art".

As a notable aspect of what some call the "Upper Paleolithic Revolution",[1][2] and evidence for behavioral modernity, the appearance of art in part helps us define the Upper Paleolithic itself. Indeed, art helps define what makes us human - it is part of what we are or can be (e.g. Steven Mithen, and The Mind in the Cave by David Lewis-Williams). Paleolithic art includes cave painting, jewelry,[3] drawing, carving, engraving and sculpture in: clay, bone, antler, stone and ivory, such as the so-called Venus figurines, and musical instruments such as flutes.

Decoration can also occur on functional tools, such as spear throwers, perforated batons and lamps.

Common subject matters include the animals that were hunted (e.g. reindeer, horses, bison, birds and mammoth) and animals that were not (e.g. lions, other big cats, bears and the woolly rhinoceros); the human form was often expressed - especially female shapes (they often look either: young, old, or pregnant). Men are also depicted, such as the so-called 'Pin Hole man'.

Europe and the Levant (Ice Age Art)[edit]

The vast majority of Ice Age art will not have survived; apart from work in wood, leather and other very perishable materials, the antler and bone which are very commonly used would normally decay if not buried in dry caves and shelters. There is evidence for some craft specialization, and the transport over considerable distances of materials such as stone and, above all marine shells, much used for jewellery and probably decorating clothes, which have been found from Mediterranean species at Gönnersdorf, over 1,000 kilometres from the Mediterranean coast. The higher sea levels today mean that the level and nature of coastal settlements in the Upper Paleolithic remain largely mysterious.[4]

Engravings on flat pieces of stones are found in considerable numbers (up to 5,000 at one Spanish site) at sites with the appropriate geology, with the marks sometimes so shallow and faint that the technique involved is closer to drawing – many of these were not spotted by the earliest excavators, and found by later teams in spoil heaps. Painted plaques are less common. It is possible that they were used in rituals, or alternatively heated on a fire and wrapped as personal warmers. Either type of use may account for the many broken examples, often with the fragments dispersed over some distance (up to 30 metres apart at Gönnersdorf). Many sites have large quantities of flat stones apparently used as flooring, with only a minority decorated.[5]

Ice Age art can be naturalistic and figurative - it can also be geometric and non-representational. Some of the oldest works of art were found in the Schwäbische Alb, Baden-Württemberg, Germany. The so-called Venus figurine known as the Venus of Hohle Fels, dates to some 40,000 years ago.[6] Other fine examples of art from the Upper Palaeolithic (broadly 40,000 to 10,000 years ago) includes: cave painting (such as at Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira, Cosquer, and Pech Merle), incised / engraved cave art such as at Creswell Crags,[7] portable art (such as animal carvings and sculptures like the Venus of Willendorf), and open air art (such as Côa Valley and Mazouco in Portugal, Domingo García and Siega Verde, in Spain, and Fornols-Haut in France). There are a large number of carved or engraved pieces of bone and ivory, such as the Swimming Reindeer found in France from the Magdalenian period. These include spear throwers, including one shaped like a mammoth, and many of the type of objects called a bâton de commandement. One of the most famous pieces of portable art from Britain is the Robin Hood Cave Horse from Derbyshire. Other examples include the Kendrick's Cave Decorated Horse Jaw.

Many of the finest examples were featured in the Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind exhibition at the British Museum in 2013 (7 February - 26 May 2013).

Drawing of bracelets from Mousterian period (Mizyn site)

East Asia[edit]

A cave at Turobong in South Korea containing human remains has been found to contain carved deer bones and depictions of deer that may be as much as 40,000 years old.[8] Petroglyphs of deer or reindeer found at Sokchang-ri may also date to the Upper Paleolithic. Potsherds in a style reminiscent of early Japanese work have been found at Kosan-ri on Jeju island, which, due to lower sea levels at the time, would have been accessible from Japan.[9]


The oldest African petroglyphs are dated to approximately the Mesolithic and late Upper Paleolithic boundary, about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Zimbabwe's oldest art finds date to at least 10,000 years (dated to sediment layers containing painted rock fragments).[10]

The earliest undisputed African rock art dates back about 10,000 years, apparently originating in the Nile River valley and spread as far west as Mali.

Zoomorphic pictogram on stone slab from the MSA of Apollo 11 Cave

From the Apollo 11 Cave complex in Namibia, seven stone plaquettes painted with figures of animals painted have been recovered from a horizon dated to between 22,500 and 27,500 years ago.[10][11]

The Blombos cave in South Africa yielded hatched patterns incised on pieces of ochre dated to as early as 70,000 years ago, which has been classified as "art" in some publications.[12]


The Bradshaws are a unique form of rock art found in Western Australia. They are predominantly human figures drawn in fine detail with accurate anatomical proportioning. They have been dated at over 17,000 years old.[citation needed]


Further information: Pre-Columbian art

Peru, including an area of the central Andes stretching from Ecuador to northern Chile, shows evidence of human habitation dating to roughly 10,000 BCE.[13] Early art from the area includes rock paintings that date as far back as 9500 BCE in the Toquepala Caves.[14] Burial sites in Peru like one at Telarmachay as old as 8600-7200 BCE contained evidence of ritual burial, with red ocher and bead necklaces.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ "Mind: What archaeology can tell us about the origins of human cognition". Retrieved 23 September 2013. 
  3. ^ Marian Vanhaeren, Francesco d’Errico, Grave goods from the Saint-Germain-la-Rivière burial: Evidence for social inequality in the Upper Palaeolithic, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, Volume 24, Issue 2, June 2005, Pages 117-134, .
  4. ^ Bahn and Vertut, 88
  5. ^ Bahn and Vertut, 90-91
  6. ^ Maugh II, Thomas H. (14 May 2009). "Venus figurine sheds light on origins of art by early humans". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 15 May 2009. Retrieved 14 May 2009. 
  7. ^ Pettitt, P. 2003. Discovery, nature and preliminary thoughts about Britain's first cave art Capra 5 available at -
  8. ^ Portal, p. 25
  9. ^ Portal, p. 26
  10. ^ a b Coulson, pp. 76–77
  11. ^ "Apollo 11 Cave" in: Cave"] in: I. Shaw, R. Jameson (eds.), A dictionary of archaeology, Wiley-Blackwell, 2002, ISBN 978-0-631-23583-5.
  12. ^ "'Oldest' prehistoric art unearthed". BBC News. 10 January 2002. Retrieved 30 October 2010. 
  13. ^ Lavallée, p. 88
  14. ^ Lavallée, p. 94
  15. ^ Lavallée, p. 115


  • Bahn, Paul G. and Vertut, Jean, Journey Through the Ice Age, University of California Press, 1997, ISBN 0520213068, 9780520213067, google books
  • Chase, Philip G (2005). The Emergence of Culture: The Evolution of a Uniquely Human Way of Life. Birkhäuser. ISBN 978-0-387-30512-7. 
  • Coulson, David; Campbell, Alec (2001). African Rock Art. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ISBN 0-8109-4363-8. 
  • Lavallée, Danièle; Bahn, Paul G [translator] (1995). The First South Americans. University of Utah Press. ISBN 0-87480-665-8. 
  • Portal, Jane (2000). Korea: Art and Archaeology. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-7141-1487-1. 
  • Thackeray, Anne I., et al; Thackeray, JF; Beaumont, PB; Vogel, JC (2 October 1981). "Dated Rock Engravings from Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa". Science 214 (4516): pp. 64–67. doi:10.1126/science.214.4516.64. PMID 17802575. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Cook, Jill (2013). Ice Age art: the arrival of the modern mind. The British Museum Press. ISBN 978 0 7141 2333 2. 

External links[edit]