Paleolithic art or old stone age art is a form of prehistoric art that encompasses the first roughly 200,000 years of artistic creation, spanning from the first Homo sapiens’ appearance until about 10,000 years ago. The Paleolithic spans the Middle and Upper Paleolithic periods of the Old World, ending 12,000 to 10,000 years ago with the advent of civilization and written history.
Learn about the Paleolithic Period
The Paleolithic Period, which began around 2,500,000 years ago, is called that because the oldest cave paintings in Europe were discovered in the Paleolithic era.
The Paleolithic is not to be confused with the Paleolithic diet, which refers to an eating style prevalent today, popularized by the paleo movement.
The Paleolithic Era, which lasted from about 2,500,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago, represents some of the oldest art. Many scientists believe that cave art was a form of communication. Some believe that it involved complex math, or possibly even a form of music.
The cave paintings found at Pech Merle in France are roughly 32,000 years old and are the oldest known art. Some of the animals in the paintings were still evolving. The cave paintings at Lascaux in France, 18,000 years old, show animals still evolving into modern humans.
In the Paleolithic era, people lived in caves and smaller shelters. The cave paintings at Lascaux were created in caves.
The word “cave” comes from the Latin word for shelter. The Paleolithic Era, the era in which cave paintings were created, was called the Paleolithic Era because Paleolithic cave paintings existed during this time.
The Paleolithic Period ended around 10,000 years ago because humans, primarily hunters, and gatherers, began to make tools out of bones, and they used those tools to get food. They took to farming, and as time went on, they began to create art.
Paleolithic art is undoubtedly fascinating. But it’s a mistake to think it’s all we have to show for early man’s artistic abilities.
The Paleolithic was a time of hunter-gatherers when stone tools. The art that survives was made with these tools by people who already had some degree of control over how they could use them. In other words, it’s art made by artists.
In the modern era, artists have advanced their art in remarkable ways. The art found in caves and on rocks from the Paleolithic is primitive by comparison. It lacks the sophistication of later art. But it is revealing of how the Paleolithic artists saw the world.
The art shows some typical patterns of thought of the time. For example, it shows a kind of love of nature. It depicts animals and other creatures from the natural world. It also shows some social patterns. On the walls, in caves and shelters, are human figures standing together. Some hold objects, such as a club or spear, in their hands. Or they gesture at one another.
Learn about how art evolved during this time
In the days before writing, people had many ways of communicating information. Sometimes they used signs, a few words like “here” and “there.” When people spoke, they could also use gestures or art.
But art was much more powerful. Art was a way to imagine the future. You could paint a picture of the future, and when you looked at the picture, you would feel certain about what the future would be like.
Art was so powerful because we became so good at making art. We became so good at making art that people started thinking that art alone could predict the future.
But art is not magic. Art is as limited a tool as anything else. You can paint a landscape, but landscapes are as limited as landscapes can be.
Art is good at telling stories. Art is good at showing people things. Art is also good at showing people how things are. Art can help you imagine the future, but it cannot predict the future.
Art is a supplement to speech. When an anthropologist wanted to find out how certain customs evolved in prehistoric times, he would look at pictures and songs. If he found pictures of a certain custom in a culture’s art, he would assume the custom must have existed in that culture before art was invented.
Art is not a substitute. Art cannot replace language.
Art and religion are closely linked. Art is the expression of religion. If you see a sculpture, you are seeing part of religion in action. The religion might be abstract, as in churches, or concrete, like totem poles and cave paintings.
Religions are about relationships between people, and painting pictures is a way of expressing that relationship. As societies get more complex and specialized, they need other ways to express their relationships. Art is one way to do that.
Art gets its ideas from the society that created it. The society that made the cave paintings wasn’t the 20th-century Soviet Union; it was hunter-gatherers living 20,000 years ago in Europe.
The cave paintings show animals, plants, human beings, or a combination of the two, and the symbolism that goes along with them. The symbolism was specific to that society, and was difficult for us to understand, because it used concepts like “thunder” and “light” that we take for granted.
The cave paintings show us that the people who made them could think abstractly and symbolically. We don’t know what they were thinking. Maybe they were thinking of a time when hunting was easier. Maybe they were thinking of a time when there were fewer people. Maybe they were thinking of all the times in their lives when they had been scared but made it through anyway. (It would be very interesting to know.)
But we know that art had an important function for them, and it was an important function for us. They were a form of communication—a way to communicate ideas to people who might not understand you and express ideas to people who might not want to.
Learn about the context and purpose of the paleolithic art
The tradition of Paleolithic art, the oldest figurative art, is fascinating. Prehistoric cave artists created art in a variety of ways. Some decorated the walls of caves with abstract designs. Others made pictures of animals. The most famous kind of cave art shows people—often naked.
What are we to make of these images? How are they related to us? Are they just a random collection of dots? Are they meaningful?
Such questions are crucial to understanding Paleolithic art. They depend on the relation between art and life.
Paleolithic art is associated with humanity’s first great technological advantage: the invention of tools. These tools allowed humans to be more independent—to hunt, gather, and work by themselves. This technological advance, in turn, changed what it means to be human. Before, humans were dependent. They lived in groups, spent the day foraging, and slept at night. Their bodies were adapted to these patterns. They spent half their time sleeping.
After the invention of tools, humans were different. They were not dependent on others, so they could be independent. They spent more time working and less time sleeping. And their bodies were adapted to this new way of living. They spent more time awake.
Paleolithic art reflects this technological advance. It reflects humans’ new status. The art shows people working. It shows them hunting. It shows them sitting in groups. It shows them doing all the things that humans no longer had to do.
The art also reflects the fact that humans now had time for art. Before, there was no time. Humans had to work to survive. Art was something they occasionally did as a distraction from hard work.