Physical Anthropology

Introduction to Prehistoric Art

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Prehistoric Art in Europe: Lascaux and Altamira

Prehistoric art in Europe dates back to the Upper Paleolithic period, spanning from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago and is sometimes known as the Late Stone Age and ending with the Little Ice Age. The Upper Paleolithic coincides with the dawn of high civilization, bringing with it numerous advances in technology and an explosion of art from the Cro-Magnon man throughout the continent. The artwork of prehistoric Europe helps us to understand the daily lives and beliefs of early man. A brand new era of human complexity was born and we began to see evidence of abstract ideas incorporated into the expression of every day life, leaving a surprisingly detailed and accurate account. The Cro-Magnon flourished in the changing world, their ability to adapt ensured the survival of the species. The new lifestyle of Paleolithic man explains why their artwork changed so radically and we begin to see very detailed and realistic cave paintings of animals, abstract shapes and people in vivid color. A majority of the known Paleolithic cave paintings in Europe are found near the Pyrenees Mountain Range between Southern France and Spain. Two of the most notable sites are Lascaux Caves in France and Altamira Caves in Northern Spain both believed to have been used by the Magdalenians.

The caves at Lascaux have been dated back about 17,000 years by the French Government and may have been used by ancient man to perform sacred rites and ceremonies. They were discovered accidentally by four teenage boys in 1940. A majority of the complex system of caves contain beautiful and realistic pictures of large animals, many of which are now extinct. Strangely, there are no reindeer depicted even though we know they were a primary source of food. Most of the animals depicted are horses, stags, bison and cattle. One of the most famous paintings is four large, black bulls located in the appropriately named Hall of the Bulls. One of these bulls, at 17 feet, is currently the largest animal depicted in a cave painting. Even more amazing is that the bulls appear to be in motion demonstrating impressive understanding and skill. The artist draws in three dimensions, paying special attention to the proportion of legs to the body and the placement of figures both in relation to each other and the natural features of the wall. The Lascaux Caves were closed to the public in April of 1963, due to rapid deterioration from visitors. The paintings can be viewed in a virtual gallery online, found at A replica cave was opened in 1983 just 200 Meters from the original site and showcases the most popular rooms.

Altamira Caves in Northern Spain were used for both living and painting by the Magdalenians about 14,500 years ago but we know it was actually occupied by prior cultures starting 18,500 years ago. A few details that separate the Altamira Caves from others in the area are the extension of the living area into the first painted cavern and the lack of soot on the ceiling of the living spaces suggesting advanced lighting technology. The Magdalenians sometimes used three colors or more in one creation while other caves in the area mainly used one charcoal color which is why Altamira is sometimes referred to as the Paleolithic Sistine Chapel. Similar to the caves at Lascaux, Altamira features very realistic three dimensional animals that take advantage of the walls natural textures. Fifteen prancing bison on the ceiling of the main cavern have been admired by visitors since its first excavation in 1879. The bison are interspersed with other animals including a horse but there is no landscape or horizontal line to the artists work. The "Ceiling of the Polychromes" is located just after the living area and features colorful paintings superimposed with monochrome red paintings. The reason for superimposing one depiction by another is completely lost to archaeologists but it is one of the few rooms that display the red paint, suggesting a special significance. An Intriguing feature in Altamira is the repeated use of abstract symbols. There is much debate as to what the symbols could mean and every archaeologist has their own explanation. Theories have claimed they are sexual or fertility representations, early counting methods, lunar variations and architectural structures. We may never know the true meaning of the symbols but they represent Prehistoric Man's ability to transfer complex thoughts, as well as images, into art.

Lascaux and Altamira are only two of hundreds of known Paleolithic Caves in Europe. Most seem to be located between France and Spain but have also been found in Italy, Portugal and Austria. Prehistoric sites are still being discovered all over the world, making it an exciting field that is changing constantly. A few years ago it was believed Lascaux Caves were the oldest example of prehistoric art, now we know that prehistoric humanoids were making and decorating statues over 35,000 years ago and possibilities are endless. The art of Prehistoric Man allows us a rare glance into our own beginnings and helps us to understand the lives and beliefs of our ancestors so we can map their social development. Through their art, Prehistoric Man has also left a very detailed catalog of now extinct animals, providing a first hand account that otherwise would be lost. Paleolithic art, along with excavation and photography techniques help archaeologists track the development of human civilization thru time.


Lascaux Caves Official WWW
History of Altamira Archaeology Dictionary
UNESCO World Heritage Center

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