Thoughts on “Pre-Historic” Art

In looking back over the great arc of human art (mimesis), we encounter the earliest examples of human creation originating thousands of years ago. We are told that some 30,000 years ago prior to the first Ice Age, there was a seemingly spontaneous explosion of human creativity in Europe. This is called by modern scientists: the Paleolithic era, Paleo coming from the Greek word for “old”, and Lithic coming from the Greek word for “rock”. The epoch is characterized by its age and the emphasis on rocks, or the need for caves (recall Plato’s famous allegory). During this time, after a long silence in human history, caves were suddenly adorned with remarkable and ornate paintings, figurines were fashioned out of clay, wood, and stone, and man was obsessed with the form and idea of the female. In connection with the rise of basic agriculture – foraging, and the early domestication of animals, man began to fashion the world he knew, though perhaps not in a way to ‘stamp his being upon the world’, but rather to look upon the world in a new way.

Consider a few examples:

The Cave of Chauvet

Werner Herzog made a famous documentary about the cave of Chauvet (pronounced “shaw-vee” or “show-vay”) called the “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” in 2010. The cave, located in southern France not far from the Ardeche River, was named after its discoverer, Jean-Marie Chauvet, and his two friends in December of 1994 – one of the greatest discoveries in human culture. Due to a rock slide, the cave had been sealed from the outside for thousands of years. The last visitors to the cave are believed to have been 27,000 years prior. The cave was otherwise perfectly pristine, untouched by the passage of time. Inside the cave, aside from the astounding artwork, hearths were found, indicating domesticity, as well as marks on the walls from torch use, footprints from a child and a dog that were preserved, and bones from now extinct animals, like cave bears and an ibex.

There are hundreds of paintings in the cave, primarily of animals, but also of odd geometric shapes and patterns of red dots. Unlike the modern artist, who looks at everything around him for inspiration, the “Pre-historic” artist looked primarily to animals for artistic inspiration. As Werner Herzog notes, the presence of these early human creations leaves one with a sense of wonder and a unique reverence for the sacred.

Here are a few examples:

chauvet 1

This panel of lions above shows the intricate preparations the artist underwent. First, the rock wall of the cave was scraped clean to allow for a brighter effect. The outlines of the animals were then sketched in red and black. In the work, a pride of lions are drawn onto the wall, conveying a sense of motion, as they hunt bison. The primary representation in the Chauvet paintings is of predatory animals on the hunt.

chauvet 2

chauvet 3

chauvet 4

Why were these works of art put together? What do they mean? What do they tell us about our past? As Plato says about the origins of the cosmos, we may only venture a “likely story” (Timaeus) and can merely look upon them with a sense of awe – hands reaching across tens of thousands of years, telling the human story. The cave was an ongoing creation, across thousands of years with new human representations being added over time. Torch marks appear fresh in the cave as they were used to keep the flaming wood torches alight. In testing the fragments from one of the torch marks, someone last scraped the wall of the cave 28,000 years ago.

Other famous Paleolithic caves include:

Lascaux Cave

In September of 1940, four boys fell down a fox hole in southwestern France and discovered a symphony of animal artwork preserved in the underground cave. The hill above the cave was called the hill of Lascaux. Scientists suggest the artworks in the cave were created somewhere around 17,000-15,000 BCE. The primary colors used in the cave are: red, yellow, and black. Pigments were created by grinding or heating. They were drawn with either fingers or charcoal. The blend of color, outline, and motion present a cosmos for modern man to consider. Recall, at the time of the drawings, Europe was an icy world filled with wildlife, and sparsely populated with human beings. Upon first viewing the extraordinary paintings, Picasso remarked, “we have learned nothing.”

lascaux 1

lascuax 2

lascaux 3

The cave was opened to the public in 1948, however in the 1960s, the decay and destruction of the artworks due to carbon dioxide from visitors was apparent. It was closed to the public permanently.

Altamira Cave

In 1868, a hunter in northern Spain came upon a majestic cave, not unlike the cave of Lascaux. He informed a local nobleman of his discovery, Marcelino Sanz de Sautola, who began excavations of the site. Though it was doubted for years, the sophisticated paintings of the cave have spawned consideration and re-representations from contemporary artists, such as the famous bison painting:

altamira 1

The cave works are thought to have begun some 15,500 years ago.

Venus Willendorf

In excavations throughout Germany and the surrounding regions, thousands of small female figurines have been discovered. In 1904, in Austria, archaeologists (coming the Greek words meaning “old” and “account” – an account of the old) discovered a now famous figurine of a woman in the small village of Willendorf in lower Austria.


It is carved of limestone, not native to the region, and is thought to have been carved some 22,000-24,000-28,000 years ago. Again, a wide panoply of purposes for the figurine have been suggested: comparisons to Venus, or to be used for celebrations of fertility as a result of the exaggerated hips and breasts. At any rate, we note an early desire to represent that which is life-giving: animals and women. The Paleolithic artists were fascinated by the cycle of life. Animals seem to go about life without awareness. They hunt to survive as a part of nature, in contrast to civilization (Aristotle termed physis to mean nature in contrast to the polis). The key is the origin of motion: there are things which are in motion as a result of something else moving them, and there are things for which motion originates within themselves, in a world of causes. In the world of motion, man looks to hold onto things and make them fixed in time through representations, or what Aristotle called “imitations” of nature. At any rate, these considerations are not comprehensive in scope, as works of art have been found from this period all over the world in similar fashion.

While today a pictographic, two-dimensional representation is not a cause for exclamation, consider the novelty of capturing a hunting bison in the Paleolithic era. The artist must have been a kind of magician, capable of fixing a moment in time, exempt from the cycle of motion: birth, death and decay. All the animals of the Paleolithic era appear to us, as if on a Euclidean plane: as the eye sees them as shapes from ground level, yet the complexity of the animal anatomy, the careful construction of the jaw of a horse, for example, and the shadowing on their bodies is astounding. The Paleolithic artist carefully prepared his creation, and whether or not he created for the purposes of shamanic religious practices, or as educational materials for hunters, it matters little. In creating representations, humans become like imperfect gods.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s