In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Paleolithic Art

  • Introduction
  • Art Definitions
  • Other Archaeological and Chronological Definitions
  • Historical Background
  • General Overview—Extent of Concept
  • General Overview—Content
  • Paleolithic Art from the Perspective of the Artist
  • Anthologies
  • Review Articles and Bibliographies
  • New Media Resources
  • Major Works
  • Conservation of Ancient Art
  • The End of Paleolithic Art

Anthropology Paleolithic Art
Iain Davidson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0173


Paleolithic art first came to the attention of scholars through excavations in French caves (Lartet and Christy 1875, cited under Engraved on Bone/Antler/Ivory). The art was mostly found as broken fragments of bone, stone, antler, or ivory engraved with images of animals, in layers of sediment that included stone tools and other remains of animals. The animals depicted included mammoths and reindeer, one extinct, the other now confined to the Arctic Circle, such that it was possible to attribute the art (for so it was called) to a period of colder climate, known as the Pleistocene period. When subsequently paintings were found on the ceiling of the Spanish cave of Altamira (see Altamira) there was initial skepticism that the paintings could be genuine despite the well-known abundance of images on bone and antler. But once the finding had been repeated in France and the Spanish paintings were deemed genuine, cave art was accepted as dating to the last Ice Age (Moro Abadía 2006, cited under Oscar Moro Abadía). Early interpretations concentrated on the possible religious content of the art and the relations between magic and religion (Breuil 1952, cited under Historical Background). After the discovery of the French cave of Lascaux in 1940, Paleolithic cave art became very well-known and excited the popular imagination (see the definitive publication of Lascaux in Aujoulat 2004, cited under Major Works). As a result, the cave art of the Upper Paleolithic of western Europe became synonymous with the art of the Ice Age, Pleistocene period (see Other Archaeological and Chronological Definitions), often said to end at 10,000 years ago, but probably ending earlier. Subsequent discoveries in Africa (Henshilwood, et al. 2009, cited under Blombos), Asia (Marshack 1997, cited under Western Asia), Island South East Asia (Aubert, et al. 2014, cited under Leang Timpuseng) and North America (Benson, et al. 2013, cited under Winnemucca Lake) have shown that Europe is not unique in having art dated to the Pleistocene. The question of the relationship between these images and other forms of art is a complex one (see discussion in Is It Art?). This bibliography will guide readers to some of the important publications about art—pictographs, petroglyphs, and engravings—earlier than 10,000 years ago all over the world. And there are also recommendations about how it is studied and how it should be approached. In preparing this bibliography, I received help in various ways from Helen Arthurson, Sam Bowker, Meg Conkey, Bruno David, Philip Edwards, Jillian Huntley, David Lewis-Williams, April Nowell, June Ross, Pat Shipman, George Sauvet, Alan Walker, and David Whitley. The work is much improved as a result. Any deficiencies are my fault.

Art Definitions

It is convenient to distinguish between image production (or mark making) that adds material to a surface and image production that subtracts material from a surface. The commonest images in the first category are made by adding pigment and may be generally referred to as pictographs (Bahn 1998, 288): if the pigment was applied wet, they may be paintings, or if the paint was blown onto the surface with an object, such as a hand, next to the surface they may be stencils; if the pigment is applied dry, they may be drawings. In the second category, removal of rock surfaces by pecking, grinding or carving produced petroglyphs (Bahn 1998, 288). The engraved or sculpted bone/antler/ivory objects of the European Upper Paleolithic are also made by subtraction, sometimes called engraving, and they are also sometimes grouped together as portable or mobiliary art.

  • Bahn, P. G. 1998. The Cambridge illustrated history of prehistoric art. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Useful glossary with definitions of pictographs, petroglyphs as above. Also defines parietal art as made on walls or any non-moveable surface, in contrast to portable art.

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