Paleolithic art (pā´lēəlĬth´Ĭk, –lēō–, păl´–), art produce during the Paleolithic period. Present study and knowledge of this art has been largely confined to works discovered at more than 150 sites in W Europe, particularly to the magnificent cave paintings in N Spain and the Dordogne valley of SW France. Cave art dated to 40,000 years ago also exists in caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. It is not known if cave art was part of the cultural heritage of Homo sapiens as they spread from Africa into Asia and Europe or if it developed independently in various regions.
Most of the European works that constitute the bulk of the known Paleolithic art were produced during two overlapping periods. The Aurignacio-Perigordian (c.14,000–c.13,500 BC) includes the powerful Lascaux paintings, the outdoor sculpture at Laussel, and the several small female figurines, known as Venuses, found at several sites. The second period, the Solutreo-Magdalenian (c.14,000–c.9500 BC), includes the murals at Rouffignac and Niaux and the ceiling of the cave at Altamira, Spain, the Magdalenian's crowning masterpiece. Both of the great cave complexes were discovered by accident—Altamira in 1879, Lascaux in 1940.
The painting styles, known as Franco-Cantabrian and ascribed to Cro-Magnon man, embrace a variety of techniques, including painting with fingers, sticks, and pads of fur or moss; daubing; dotting; sketching with colored materials and charcoal; and spray painting through hollow bone or by mouth. Several pigments were used, and foreshortening and shadowing were skillfully employed. Images were often crowded close to and on top of each other, sometimes with obvious respect for previously applied paintings. Irregular surfaces were decorated in relief. Separate styles, presumably from different eras, can be discerned, 13 at Lascaux alone.
In most Paleolithic caves animal figures (mainly horses, bison, cattle, and hinds) predominate, suggesting that the art may have had ritual significance related to hunting; there are few group or hunting scenes, however, and human figures are extremely rare. Drawn with vitality and the elegance of great simplicity, the animals are the masterworks of prehistoric art and are of an accuracy that provides invaluable evidence to paleozoologists. The Lascaux cave was closed when the paintings began to deteriorate. Some of Lascaux's painted rooms show no signs of human habitation and may have been used for ritual. Engravings on soft stone, bone, and ivory, as well as low reliefs and a few freestanding sculptures, have been found in or near many of these caves.
In 1994 and 1999 richly decorated limestone caves were discovered at Grotte Chauvet in SE France—again by accident. The stone engravings and many paintings, long thought to be the most ancient known, c.32,000 years old, depict lions, rhinoceroses, bears, horses, and other creatures with bold realism. During the late 1990s and early 2000s more than 20 ivory figurines depicting animals and birds and dating from approximately the same period, were discovered at sites in Swabia, SW Germany. Subsequently, however, improved dating led scientists to conclude that a single red dot in a cave in El Castillo, N Spain, was more than 40,800 years old; hand stencils there are more than 37,300 years old. The first known migration of early modern human beings into Europe is contemporary with the red dot, but it is not known if they or Neanderthals made it. Europe's standing as the birthplace of cave art was challenged by the 2014 identification of art at least 40,000 years old in caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The images—hand stencils (c.40,000 years old), piglike animals (c.35,400 years old), and human figures and hoofed animals (c.27,000 years old)—indicate that art was created in both Europe and Asia when H. sapiens was still young.
Another style predominates in E Spain and bears a strong resemblance to the rock carvings and paintings of N and S Africa. The pictures, drawn chiefly in silhouette, are found on the walls of shallow rock shelters and are usually small; they depict human as well as animal figures in scenes of hunting, fighting, ceremonial, ritual, and domestic activities. This art seems to have reached its peak in the Mesolithic period. A third style, largely of Aurignacian origin, ranges from France to W Siberia and consists almost entirely of small sculptured figures of animals and human beings. The latter are chiefly female, often abnormally voluptuous, and are generally regarded as fertility goddesses; one of the most famous is the Venus of Willendorf, Austria, which is approximately 24,000 years old. The oldest such work found so far, a tiny (less than 2.5 in./6.35 cm), squat, and blatantly sexual ivory statuette of a woman, was discovered (2008) in a cave in SW Germany and has been dated at at least 35,000 years old. It is the most ancient of some 25 similar carvings found since the 1940s in the region.
The damp climate of the British Isles is believed to have caused the destruction of most of the islands' Paleolithic art, but some examples have survived. In the first years of the 21st cent. archaeologists discovered what was believed to be the earliest extant works of prehistoric art in Great Britain, engravings of two birds (possibly a crane or swan and a bird of prey) and an ibex, in a cave at Creswell Crags, Derbyshire. They were carved some 12,000 years ago, and are done in a style similar to that of contemporary works on the continent. The engravings are neither as old nor as accomplished as continental examples. An even older work, a wall carving of a speared reindeer, was discovered in 2010 in a cave on the Gower peninsula of Wales. It is estimated that the image was drawn more than 14,000 years ago, making it the oldest rock art found in Britain to date.
See also African art and Paleolithic period.
See studies by A. Leroi-Gourhan (tr. 1967, repr. 1982), J. Van Tilbura (1981), and D. Mazonowicz (1984); P. G. Bahn, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art (1997); D. Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (2002); R. White, Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Humankind (2003).