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History of Art: Prehistoric

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This post is part of a series called A Beginner's Guide to Art History.
10 Influential Women of Art Throughout History
History of Art: Mesopotamia

As long as there have been people, there has been art. Knowing a bit about our species’ creative endeavors can bring a greater understanding to what life is all about or to how we view ourselves and our place in the universe. It’s a grand idea, and not all art is meant to be grand, but I can’t help but wax poetic on art history.

Bison painting at the Cave of Altamira
Bison painting at the Cave of Altamira in Cantabria, Spain. Dated to Upper Paleolithic Era. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In this monthly series, we’ll take a snapshot of different eras, artistic movements, and cultures that made an impact upon art through the ages. To start, we’ll reach far back to the Stone Age. We have a lot to cover (thousands and thousands of years of history) in this article, so let’s get going!

Paleolithic Era

Usually this era is split into three sections: lower, middle, and upper. The Lower Paleolithic era starts with the use of tools appearing in the archaeological record 3.3 million years ago to around 300,000 years ago. Art isn’t really something that appears during this time. Our species’ ancestors were still developing simple technology and may or may not even have had control over fire.

The Middle Paleolithic era spans from 300,000 to 30,000 years ago and marks cultural and behavioral development. Jewelry, burial rituals, and possibly body paint are amongst the cultural developments noted during this era. In 2002 CE, researchers found engraved ochre stones and shell beads in Blombos Cave in South Africa. They’ve dated these back to 70,000 years ago or so and suggest that early members of our species were able to create symbolic or abstract art. These findings may be disputed on whether or not they are early forms of art.

Ochre carving found in Blombos Cave in south Africa
Ochre carving found in Blombos Cave in south Africa. Image by Chris. S. Henshilwood via Wikimedia Commons.

The Upper Paleolithic era (50,000 to 10,000 years ago) is where the real art show begins. This is the era that people think of or discuss in terms of prehistoric art. All around the world, remains of our species' artistic creations have been found, from cave paintings to carvings and crude sculptures. Often referred to as “Ice Age art”, this era included naturalistic and representational art as well as abstract and geometric work.

Venus of Willendorf
Venus of Willendorf, circa 28,000 to 25,000 years ago. Image via Don Hitchcock. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A famous example of art from this era is the Venus figurine. Whether a carved sculpture or engraving, these figurative pieces mostly depicted women, rounded in form with enlarged breasts and hips. They have been found throughout Europe and some parts of Siberia. The earliest known figure found dates back to 35,000 years ago or so, and was carved from mammoth tusk. Venus figurines also mark the earliest known use of ceramics, giving us a marker of 29,000 to 25,000 years ago.

Cave paintings found throughout the world range from figurative works, depicting people and animals, to more abstract imagery. In South Korea, depictions of deer were found in Turo-bong that date to around 40,000 years ago or so.

Replica of a painting from Chauvet Cave
Replica of a painting of horses and rhinos from Chauvet Cave. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The most famous example of cave art takes us to France at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, or Chauvet Cave. In 1994 the cave was discovered, giving us hundreds of fantastic animal paintings, human remains, and more. The paintings feature cave lions, rhinoceroses, panthers, horses, cattle, and others. It’s not only a fantastic exploration of the human understanding of an animal’s form but also a record of what animals these people came in contact with, hunted, or were hunted by.

Replica of a painting from Chauvet Cave
Replica of a painting of lions from Chauvet Cave. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Looking at these sketches, which are dated in two eras of 35,000 and 30,000 years ago, feels incredibly similar to looking at the sketchbooks of modern artists and animators. Gesture drawings and sketches overlapping each other show animals in motion or standing or in groups. Aside from maybe a Venus depiction or two, however, there are no images of humans themselves. I’m not really sure what this says about our species or what the artists’ intentions were in their documentation, but it gives you a glimpse into the life of cave dwellers.

Neolithic Era

The Neolithic Era differs from region to region. Generally speaking, it ranges from 8,000 BCE at the earliest (in Africa, the Middle East, and South-East Asia) to 500 CE (in the Americas). Essentially this is the era after the Ice Age in which human beings moved out and away from caves and into more established areas and societies.

As human beings turned from hunting and gathering to farming and animal husbandry, they needed to create structures in which to live and work. Homes made from mudbrick, stone walls and towers, and more were created to keep people safe, animals penned, and a place for food storage.

In addition to architecture, pottery, weaving, painting, sculpture, and stylized pictographs were further developed or begun over the course of this era. People were creating practical things for use (pots, structures, etc.) and in turn were decorating them with paint, plaster, and more.  Art forms such as lacquer objects had their earliest start in this era (5000–4500 BCE) in China. As technology advanced, so did art and our ability to create art.

Stonehenge in 2014
Stonehenge in 2014. Image by Diego Delso via Wikimedia Commons.

Megaliths such as Stonehenge (on Salisbury Plain in England) were in the process of being built as well, coinciding with further cultural and possibly religious developments in our species. In the Americas, monoliths such as the Moai of Easter Island, Chile, were carved from large volcanic rocks.

Stonehenge phase 1
Stonehenge phase 1, ca. 3100 BCE. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Much study has gone into figuring out how megaliths and monoliths were not only carved and constructed, but moved around to create the compositions we know them to be today.

Typically, we end the Stone Age here and move on to the Bronze Age where, you guessed it, our species began to work with bronze and advance technology on further to more sophisticated forms of creative and practical craft making.

Stone Age Tools

Practical Tools, Weapons, and More

Before we leave this era for the next, let's take a bit of time to chat about the tools used to create art and objects throughout the Stone Age. Most of the earliest tools were made of stone, wood, or bone. A hammerstone is one of the earliest tools noted. It fit easily in a human hand and was used to shape other objects such as hand axes or flakes, or to crush things such as foraged food.

hammerstones and other stone age tools image via wikimedia commons
Hammerstones and other Stone Age tools. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The use of hand axes, or bifaces, and other chopping tools may have been for hunting, digging, chopping, or to create flake tools. Because we don't have a written account of what hand axes were used for, archaeologists have to use context clues and the research of others in order to figure out what our ancestors did with such tools.

Lower paleolithic hand axes made from quartzite Image via Wikimedia
Lower paleolithic hand axes made from quartzite. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Flake tools, mentioned above, are created by striking stone with something like a hammerstone or hand axe and flaking other pieces off it. These pieces were further shaped into tools like the scrapers seen below. These tools were used for woodworking and hideworking. As they were used, they became smaller and smaller, so the ones we have are mostly useless and are simply remnants of what our ancestors may have used.

A scraper tool excavated in France Image via Wikimedia Commons
A scraper tool excavated in France. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Pigments and Painting

So we have a bit about the tools that may have been used to create carvings and sculptures and architecture, but what about cave paintings? Firstly, what was used for paint? Some sources say dirt or charcoal were mixed with animal fat, water, or other binders in order to create a paste. Others note that pigments included hematite, yellow ochre, and oxides. These were ground up using stone or bone as a mortar within the cave itself.

Possible tools used with pigments included sticks and twigs, feathers or fur, and hands. One of my favorite paintings can be seen below, where hands were used as a stencil. It's theorized that some sort of pipe was used to blow pigment outward to splatter it around the hand, leaving these fantastic painterly impressions behind.

Cueva de las Manos in Spain Image via Wikimedia Coomons
Cueva de las Manos in Spain. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Much like humans today, these early artists used whatever could be used to make a mark. It's only some of these innovations that remain within caves and the earth around the world for us to study.

Conclusion

From our first marks as nomadic peoples in caves to settling down to farm and paint pottery, there’s a long history of art for our species and ancestors of our species. If you follow our ability to use tools and make a mark, you’ll follow our development as artists, documenting the world around us, telling stories, and establishing culture within our history.

These are just some highlights from these eras. Our species has a long history, and the more sophisticated our cultures have grown, the more art and creative expression have grown. Consider this a small taste of our past and a light representation of what’s to come in the next article in this series.

Want to read more about Stone Age art? Check out these books and links below!

Article sources include the following:

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