3,000,000-9000 BCE – Paleolithic Art

Waterworn pebble resembling a human face, from Makapansgat, South Africa,ca. 3,000,000 BCE.  Reddish-brown jasperite, 2 3/8″ wide. Natural History Museum, London.

This pebble was discovered in 1925 by Raymond Dart in a cave at Makapansgat in South Africa alongside the bones of an Australopithecus africanus, a cousin of the earliest predecessors of Homo Sapiens who lived around 3 million years ago.  It is considered that this pebble was picked up and carried by the Australopith to the site (which is mostly surrounded by limestone) because of its resemblance to a face.  The only problem with that hypothesis is that the pebble doesn’t really resemble the elongated ape-like features of an Australopithecus africanus. 

Human with feline head, from Hohlenstein-Stadel, Germany, ca. 30,000-28,000 BCE. Mammoth ivory, 11 5/8″ high. Ulcer Museum, Ulm.

The human with feline head sculpture was found in fragments and meticulously restored.  It is one of the earliest sculptures discovered , made of mammoth ivory and nearly a foot tall which was quite a feat for its era.  As material culture is a defining trait of humans, the significance of this statue is immense.  The fact that this statue was important enough to carve provides insight into the thoughts of symbolism and creativity in early man.  The purpose and function of statuettes like this one can only be speculated on but they are believed to be very important to whomever created them because the process of carving this from a mammoth tusk would have taken much care and several days.

Aurochs, horses, and rhinoceroses, wall painting in the Chauvet Cave, Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, France, ca. 30,000-28,000 or ca. 15,000-13,000 BCE.  Right rhinoceros 3’4″ long.

Discovered in 1994 by a team led by Jean-Marie Chauvet, radiocarbon dating has established the murals in the cave to be thousands of years older than any other previously discovered.  Of course the radiocarbon dating doesn’t relieve the controversy surrounding the drawings.  The horns of the aurochs (extinct long-horned wild oxen) are depicted naturalistically and the two rhinos attacking one another suggests narrative, both are uncharacteristic of Old Stone Age art.  The way the animals are layered on top of each other seems to be a form of palimpsest, an early method of recycling to reflect history.  When were the drawing applied to the cave and when were the latest drawing applied?  We may never have all the answers to these questions but the questions can only encourage speculation and further discovery.

Nude woman (Venus of Willendorf), from Willendorf, Austria, ca. 28,000-25,000 BCE. Limestone, 4 1/4″ high. Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The shape of the Venus of Willendorf is unusual and is a result in part of the natural shape of the stone used for the carving.  The anatomical exaggeration suggests it served as a fertility image.  The use of statuettes like the Venus of Willendorf makes sense since women’s child-bearing abilities ensured the survival of Paleolithic humans.  Neanderthals were recently out-survived and the control of nature through agriculture and domestication is still about 6,000 years away so survival is clearly a number one priority. Since archaeologists have discovered elaborate burial plots with offerings, life seems to be of more importance and significance.  Her body fits perfectly in the palm of an adult hand so that she can be easily transported during nomadic traveling.  The statuette has no facial features, only the suggestion of curly hair or a woven hat.  The breasts are enormous and the arms and hands that rest upon them are tiny.  The pubic triangle is a prominent aspect of this female figure which seems to confirm her use as a fertility image.  The Venus of Willendorf seems to represent the general female form instead of any specific woman.

Head of a woman from the Grotte du Pape, Brassemouy, France, ca. 25,000-20,000 BCE.  Ivory, 1 1/2″ high.  Musée d’Archéologie National, Saint-Germaine-en-Laye.

This mammoth ivory statuette is a notable exception to the lack of facial features being carved in Paleolithic Europe, but is an example of a furthering sophistication of carving.  Being one of the most realistic human sculpture of the Paleolithic age, this male or female representation could be proof of Homo sapiens‘ closer observation and appreciation of the human form and the natural world at this time.  It was discovered in 1892 alongside 11 other ivory figurines.

Woman holding a bison horn, from Laussel, France, ca. 25,000-20,000 BCE.  Painted limestone, 1’6″ high.  Musée d’Aquitane, Bordeaux.

This is one of the earliest known relief sculptures.  She was originally part of a stone block that measured about 140 cubic feet and it stood in front of a Paleolithic rock shelter.  After the sculptor carved out the female form, red ocher was applied to the body.  The left arm draws attention to the midsection and pubic triangle and the right hand holds a bison horn with 13 parallel incised lines.  The sense that she is a fertility image can be deduced by the use of 13 lines; there are 13 full moons and 13 menstrual cycles in a year.

Spotted horses and negative hand imprints, wall painting in the cave at Pech-Merle, France, ca. 23,000-22,000 BCE. 11’2″ long.

There are many theories surrounding the cave paintings like the ones found at Pech-Merle, elaborate mythologies have been constructed and magical properties have been attributed to the paintings, but no one knows for sure what exactly the paintings represented for the Paleolithic Europeans.  What is clearly evident, and extremely amazing, is the use of the rock side to find the shape of the horse. The negative hand prints could represent a signature of the clans or individuals that made the paintings.

Left wall of the Hall of the Bulls in the cave at Lascaux, France, ca. 16,000-14,000 BCE.  Largest bull 11’6″ long.

Exhibited on these murals, side by side, are the two basic approaches to drawing and painting found throughout the history of art: silhouettes and outlines.  Different painters created the hall as a whole, probably at different times, but the process can be broken down.  The painters would have made themselves some kind of scaffolding inside the caves.  The painting would have been done with the aid of lamps made out of moss and animal fat.  The painting was a bound pigment; red and yellow ochers mixed with charcoal and magnesium dioxide, all bound by animal fat, beeswax, urine or spit.  While the animals are all in strict profile, the bulls’ horns are shown using twisted perspective or composite view in order to enforce the concept that it is a bull.

Rhinoceros, wounded man, and disemboweled bison, painting in the well of the cave at Lascaux, France, ca. 16,000-14,000 BCE.  Bison 3′ 41/2″ long.

This painting in a well deep in the caves at Lascaux continues to perplex art historians because of the fact that it contains the first depiction of man, not woman, in Paleolithic art and it is the only human being represented in the caves.  It is unclear what the relationship is between the bison and the rhinoceros and the man.  The rhino is moving toward the left, the man is ambiguously slanted to the left and he has what seems to be a bird mask on.  His ambiguous position makes it difficult to know if he is dead, dying, or possibly just tilted back because he’s relaxing.  However, when the well is full of water the man takes a vertical stance, only leading to more questions as to what his purpose in the painting is.  The bison has been wounded; his bowels are falling out due to the spear or arrow that has pierced his body.  His rage is evident in the outline and he seems poised to attack.  Art historians aren’t entirely sure what the context of the painting is but if it was meant to read as a hunt, it would be the earliest example of narrative art ever discovered.

“Chinese horse,” detail of the left wall in the Axial Gallery of the cave at Lascaux, France, ca. 16,000-14,000 BCE.  Horse, 4′ 11″ long.

Early explorers of the caves dubbed this the “Chinese horse” on account of its similarities to representations of horses in some Chinese Art. The possibly pregnant, running horse found in the Axial Gallery at Lascaux is found hovering over a natural, wavy projection of the rock which is believed to be an intentional ground line; the Lascaux caves feature the earliest known use of ground lines.  The horse seems to be surrounded by arrows or traps (the symbols which may represent traps could be early forms of writing or a counting system), only furthering the enigmas surrounding the cave paintings.

Two bison, reliefs in the cave at Le Tuc d’Audoubert, France, ca. 15,000-10,000 BCE.  Clay, right bison 2′ 7/8″ long.

Sculptures like this were created by building up forms out of clay.  The two bison are located in a low-ceilinged circular space at the end of a succession of cave chambers.  They are in strict profile and each is about 2 feet long.  They are among the largest paleolithic sculptures known.

Bison licking its flank, fragmentary spear-thrower, from La Madeleine, France, ca. 12,000 BCE.  Reindeer horn, 4′ 1/8″ long.  Musée d’Archéologie Nationale, Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

When compared with other bison sculpture of the Paleolithic age, the detail of this spear-thrower fragment is much more extensive.  The horns, eye, ear, nostrils, mouth, tongue and the hair on the face are all clearly represented.  Due to the shape of the antler that was used, the neck is turned a full 180 degrees in order to maintain the strict profile that was customary in Paleolithic sculpture and painting.

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