Peopling of the World: Europe

The Origins of Mediterranean Cave Art

What did one Neanderthal say to the other Neanderthal?
The Aesthetic Ambivalence of the Neanderthals
The Origins of Mediterranean Cave Art
The Muslim Expansion into Europe
Celts in the British Isles
European Language Development


Visit webpage regarding the Lascaux Cave of France.

Visit this website regarding other cave art sites found throughout the Mediterranean region of Europe, including the cave of Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc.

Explorers discover a cave in southwestern France where Paleolithic artists sketched elaborate engravings nearly 17,000 years ago. The elaborately painted animals of the Lascaux Cave demonstrate an artistic and historic representation of a people who lived centuries ago. The artists of these cave paintings are now known as the Magdalenians and were members of a culture that prospered some 18,000 - 11,000 years ago. It has been suggested that the paintings were completed by a small group of artists, perhaps an art master and his or her pupils. Besides the intricate paintings, archaeologists have discovered engraving and scraping tools among the ruins of the Lascaux Cave, further providing details of the lives of these prehistoric peoples.

Map of the Lascaux Cave Site
This map demonstrates the elaborate and intricate rooms and themes of the art of the Lascaux Cave.


Evidence of the
Origins of
Cave Art

Evidence of the origins of Mediterranean cave art is difficult to gather and even more difficult a concept to analyze. However, anthropologists and other scientists study fossil records and other evidence in order to piece together the puzzle of our early ancestors, including their use of such art and ornament. Other scientists study the lack of art and ornament in order to analyze the origins of such. Clive Gamble of Timewalkers: The Prehistory of Global Colonization (1993), says of the origins of art, “The Pioneer phase is also notable for its lack of art and ornament. The lack of such items as grave goods alongside Neanderthal bodies might, some claim, be evidence that the Pioneers and Ancients had rites and ideologies that did not require such objects” (Gamble, 167). Therefore, the origins of art might be more easily recognizable in later periods of human evolution. However, scientists are regularly discovering such art and ornament of earlier periods of human existence – French explorers of the Lascaux Cave in southwestern France recently discovered Paleolithic artwork dating nearly 18,000-11,000 years ago. This group of people, known as the Magdalenians, sketched elaborate engravings of animals that surely represent these people who lived on the European continent centuries ago (Rigaud). These discoveries allow scientists to piece together evidences of the evolution of modern humans. Thus, as Gamble mentions, “Our innate bias applies equally to the production of art. Those same Paleolithic sites with Modern heads but Ancient flints show very clearly that art in the form of ornament, engraved slabs, figurines (not to mention painted cave walls) is not invariably associated with modern looking skulls. Therefore, “the development of which [is] art, appearing after 40,000 years ago” (Gamble) answers some but not all questions of which anthropologists and other scientists ask, “what are the origins of art?”

Stone Tools and their Relation to Cave Art

The most beneficial and important type of data used in order to study cave art and the origins of cave art and the meaning of cave art to prehistoric man is his/her stone tools. Stone tools were simultaneously used – without such, various cave art carvings and drawings would be nearly impossible.

Cave art has been analyzed, both scientifically and socially, ever since its first discovery years ago. Cave art tends to provide its researchers an abundant amount of information regarding our most ancient ancestors. The notion of pre-historic cave art might also suggest our relatedness to the primitive Neanderthal. Studies by Arizona State University’s own Paul Robert Fish (1979) suggest that, “The principal source for inference and hypothesis about human behavior for much of the span of prehistory lies in stone tools and related debitage.” In addition, these stone tools were the very ones used to carve and mark elaborate drawings on cave walls by these prehistoric peoples.

            Several different types of data has been used (and is currently being used) in order to study cave art, stone tools, etc. The research of numerous anthropologists certainly affirms this notion as well as the notion of the importance of these stone tools. Fish (1979) further suggests, “These materials are highly resistant to physical and mechanical weathering. Lithic artifacts often are recovered in remarkable abundance since utilization of such tools seems to entail frequent replacement due to wear, breakage and loss.” Therefore, the study of such stone tools and the data gathered from analysis of these tools is pertinent to any data also collected from various cave art sites around the world and the stone tools thus gathered nearby.

            Fish (1979) also explains the importance of utilizing correct data when studying such stone tools and cave art. The author suggests, “While this typological system has done much to bring order to Paleolithic terminology and has provided a more realistic basis for the comparison of site assemblages, a more intensive examination based on the systematic study of artifact attributes is almost nonexistent in the Paleolithic literature.” Thus, Fish’s (1979) studies suggest that one means of collecting data may be more accurate than another (less reliable) means of collecting data; hence, the importance of collecting the most accurate data in order to best analyze cave art and stone tools.

            Susan Bierwirth’s (1996) studies also relay the importance of collecting the most accurate data when analyzing cave art and stone tools. Bierwirth’s (1996) study suggests that, “While typology was central to most of this earlier research, recent studies have focused less on individual tool types and more on continuity in tool morphology.” Thus, both Fish’s (1979) and Bierwirth’s (1996) studies reveal that typology is not the most accurate method in which to collect certain data. 

Literature Cited

Bierwirth S. 1996. Lithic analysis in southwestern France. Oxford: BAR.

Fish P. 1979. The interpretive potential of Mousterian debitage. Arizona State University.

Radio-carbon Dating

Scientists realize that radio-carbon dating best analyzes the year of creation for most of the cave art sites found throughout the Mediterranean region of Europe.

Visit this website to better understand the process of radio-carbon dating.

Other Links!!!

Check out these cool links to other cave art sites!

McDougal Littell Cave Art

Cave Art Lesson

Rock Art Net

This section authored by Allie Toth. Last updated April 25, 2005.