Palaeolithic art.
The art of animals

Palaeolithic cave painting, located in Altamira, Santillana del Mar (Cantabria). image of a bison, with bright colors due to the natural humidity of the place. Image courtesy of © Museo de Altamira. Photo: Pedro Saura


During the last Ice Age, anatomically modern humans spread throughout the world. They arrived in South-western Europe, around 40,000 years ago, bringing with them technological innovations and an extraordinary progress in the arts.

The seasonal variability of plant and animal resources required a nomadic lifestyle to ensure survival. Caves and huts served as temporary shelters, and hunting and gathering provided food.

Nature also offered materials to produce tools, clothing and ornaments. A new tool, the spear thrower, and the gradual improvement of the spears made hunting more efficient.

Cold-weather animals (bison, mammoths, bears, reindeer, cave lions or woolly rhinos) and temperate animals (horses, aurochs, deer and goats), refugees in these lands and hunting prey, would soon become inspirational elements for their creativity.

Carved Propeller (not photographed): Carved Propeller (fawn) Grotte du mas d'Azil, Le Mas d'Azil, France. Magdalenian 20,000-13,700 years before now. Prehistory Park Collection. Tarascon-sur-Ariège, France Replica.

Cave art

In the spread of modern humans around the world and in their adaptation to new landscapes, climates and other human groups (such as Neanderthals in Europe), the seed is sown for a new creative twist in the evolution of symbolic thinking: the emergence of figurative art.

Between 36,000 and 11,700 years ago, the arts experienced unprecedented developments in South-western Europe. Deep caves, rock shelters and open-air boulders made natural canvases for drawings, engravings and paintings, in which the beauty and naturalism of the animals, and the importance of the signs, contrasts with the low number of human representations.

What did the motifs depicted mean? Why were they painted? Scientific research debates several theories, but the disappearance of the artists has left these artworks surrounded in mystery.

Musical creation

Music, songs and dances are universal cultural expressions with little archaeological visibility. The presence of musical instruments indicates that they appeared at least 40,000 years ago. Flutes are the most documented, but in Europe we also find whistles, bullroarers and musical bows throughout the Palaeolithic.

The flutes were made of bird bones and the holes allowed several tones to be made. The bullroarers, used by many human groups around the world, are oval in shape and are made of bone, ivory or wood. They emitted a characteristic deep sound when they were swirled around thanks to a string tied to one of its ends.

Interpretation Santi Faro
Flute. Isturitz Cave, France. Gravettian (32,000-25,000 years before present). Musée d'Archéologie Nationale. Saint-Germanin-en-Laye. Replica: Santi Faro
The little sorcerer of the Grotte des Trois Frères, France. It is the representation of an anthropomorph called a small sorcerer. He is one of the most cited figures to "represent" music in prehistory. The "sorcerer", in a dance posture, is connected to an object, interpreted as a musical bow or a kind of nose flute.

The Palaeolithic Palette

Palaeolithic art was produced both on rock walls and other portable media. Stone, bone, antlers, ivory, animal teeth and other potential perishable materials such as wood served as media for engraving, painting and carving.

There was no improvisation in the artistic production as it required an investment of time to collect materials, prepare tools and pigments, select locations and surfaces, and plan the designs. Men and women drew and painted with natural pigment materials, such as charcoal or manganese (black) and iron oxides (red). They mixed powdered pigments with natural binders (animal fats or plant extracts).

The paint was applied with the fingers, with brushes, with pads or spitting it directly from the mouth.

Inside the caves, the flickering flames of torches and animal fat lamps accompanied the artistic creation bringing to life the stories told in light of the images.

Artistic techniques of Palaeolithic art
Stoneware lamp with handle: Carved from sandstone, with a round basin and worked quadrangular handle. These types of lights used animal fat as fuel and were used to illuminate caves. This piece dates from the ancient Magdalenian. Site of Solvieux National Museum of Prehistory (Les Eyzies-de-Tayac).

Where were the humans?

Palaeolithic artists emphasized the animal world in their artworks paying less attention to humans. The few known explicit references to humans include complete but very simplified and idealized figures, human-animal hybrids, and even certain isolated anatomical parts, such as heads, sexual attributes and hands.

The presence of small hands could be attributed to both young individuals and women. But partial representations of male and female sexual attributes (penises, vulvas and breasts)
give both sexes a prominent role, reminding us that women were also present in prehistory.

The most realistic human representations are the famous statuettes known as Venus. Were they idols, goddesses, amulets, toys? Did they have a symbolic, sexual or maybe gynaecological purpose? The debate among the specialists is still very much on-going.

Venus of Willendorf. Willendorf, Austria. Gravettian (32,000-25,000 years before present). Naturhistorisches Museum Viena. Replica.

A Mediterranean art

The eastern side of the Iberian Peninsula offered a temperate environment during the last glacial era thanks to the influence of the Mediterranean Sea. Species depicted in caves,
rock shelters and other rock surfaces confirm this. Here, horses, aurochs, deer and wild goats, painted and engraved, dominate.

The largest set of pieces of this territory comes from Parpalló cave (Gandia), the most prolific and enduring school of Palaeolithic art, with more than 5,600 slabs showing the evolution of art between 32,000 and 14,000 years ago.

Other exceptional findings are located in Catalan lands. The shelter of Molí del Salt (Vimbodí) has provided what could be the first map of a hunter-gatherer camp dating some 13,800 years ago.

At Hort de la Boquera site (Margalef de Montsant) an extraordinary engraving captures the interaction between humans and birds (unusual in European Palaeolithic art), which foreshadows the advent of narrative art.

Engraving on a slate block, where a doe is drawn looking to the left. San Gregorio, Falset, Priorat. Late Upper Magdalenian (12073-11704 years before now). Museu de Reus. Museu de Reus Photographic Archive.