A virtual revolution occurred in the creation of art during the period of the Upper Paleolithic in Europe. Beginning around 40,000 B.C., the archaeological record shows that anatomically modern humans effectively replaced Neanderthals and remained the sole hominid inhabitants across continental Europe. At about the same time, and directly linked to this development, the earliest art was created. These initial creative achievements fall into one of two broad categories. Paintings and engravings found in caves along walls and ceilings are referred to as “parietal” art. The caves where paintings have been found are not likely to have served as shelter, but rather were visited for ceremonial purposes. The second category, “mobiliary” art, includes small portable sculpted objects which are typically found buried at habitation sites.
In the painted caves of western Europe, namely in France and Spain, we witness the earliest unequivocal evidence of the human capacity to interpret and give meaning to our surroundings. Through these early achievements in representation and abstraction, we see a newfound mastery of the environment and a revolutionary accomplishment in the intellectual development of humankind.
The painted walls of the interconnected series of caves in Lascaux in southwestern France are among the most impressive and well-known artistic creations of Paleolithic humans. Although there is one human image (painted representations of humans are very rare in Paleolithic art; sculpted human forms are more common), most of the paintings depict animals found in the surrounding landscape, such as horses, bison, mammoths, ibex, aurochs, deer, lions, bears, and wolves. The depicted animals comprise both species that would have been hunted and eaten (such as deer and bison) as well as those that were feared predators (such as lions, bears, and wolves). No vegetation or illustration of the environment is portrayed around the animals, who are represented in profile and often standing in an alert and energetic stance. Their vitality is achieved by the broad, rhythmic outlines around areas of soft color. The animals are typically shown in a twisted perspective, with the heads depicted in profile but the pair of horns or antlers rendered frontally visible. (In contrast, a strictly optical profile would show only one horn or antler.) The intended result may have been to imbue the images with more visual power and magical properties. The combination of profile and frontal perspectives is an artistic idiom also observed in ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian art.
At Lascaux and Chauvet, another magnificently painted cave in France, images of animals are superimposed on top of earlier depictions, which suggests that the motivation for the paintings may have been in the act of portraying the animals rather than in the artistic effect of the final composition. However, their purpose remains obscure. Most of the paintings are located at a distance from the cave’s entrance, and many of the chambers are not easily accessible. This placement, together with the enormous size and compelling grandeur of the paintings, suggests that the remote chambers may have served as sacred or ceremonial meeting places.
In addition to the painted images, Lascaux is rich with engravings of animals as well as abstract designs. In the absence of natural light, these works could only have been created with the aid of torches and stone lamps filled with animal fat.
The pigments used to paint Lascaux and other caves were derived from readily available minerals and include red, yellow, black, brown, and violet. No brushes have been found, so in all probability the broad black outlines were applied using mats of moss or hair, or even with chunks of raw color. The surfaces appear to have been covered by paint blown directly from the mouth or through a tube; color-stained, hollowed-out bones have been found in the caves.
Tedesco, Laura Anne. “Lascaux (ca. 15,000 B.C.).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/lasc/hd_lasc.htm (October 2000)
Leroi-Gourhan, André. The Dawn of European Art: An Introduction to Palaeolithic Cave Painting. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Lewin, Roger. The Origin of Modern Humans. New York: Scientific American Library, 1993.