Paleolithic to Neolithic Art


Paleolithic, Hall of the Bulls from Lascaux Cave, c. 25,000 BCE, By I, Peter80, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The history of human art begins at least 35,000 years ago with the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age (c.1,500,000 BCE-c. 8000 BCE), so named because of the use of stone tools. People and hominids, such as the Neanderthals, began to create works, often in caves, that were representations of their world. These images may have been religious in nature, with some scholars putting forth the idea that, because these images were far back in the caves, away from natural sources of light, they were used in rituals associated with hunting or fertility rites.

Whatever the reason for the creation of these works, Paleolithic groups used these caves over and over, often for thousands of years, creating overlapping images of animals, hand prints, birds, and, more rarely, human, shamanic, or anthropomorphic figures.


Panel of the Horses, Chavet Cave, c. 30,000 BCE photo by Thoams T. ( [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

These panels, such as the ones above and to the right, then, become heavily worked surfaces with naturalistic observations of the animals the Paleolithic people probably hunted and lived near. Often, the artists who created these works, such as the one below, took into account the natural forms of the rock to create an even more naturalistic image of the animal they were painting.


Bison, Altamira Cave, Spain, c. 15,000 BCE, photo by HTO (Own work (own photo)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The hand print images were often made using either the palms of the hand dipped in pigment, or blowing pigment over the hand to create a negative image of the hand.


Pech-Merle Cave, France, c. 25,000-16,000 BCE Public Domain,

Often, such as in the image on the right, the artist used both techniques to create their images.

Paleolithic artists also created sculptural images, either directly into the malleable mud of the cave floor, or from small, portable pieces of rock, bone or antler. The bison pictured below were originally molded onto the floor of the cave, and became solidified as the mud of the cave floor dried out over time.


Bisons from Tuc-d’Audoubert Cave, France, c. 13,000 BCE photo by Guerin Nicolas (Self-Photographed) [CC BY-SA 3.0 9http://creative], via Wikimedia Commons

Often, these small-scale images were meant to be held in the hand and/or represent female figures with the breasts and genitalia emphasized. These so-called Venus figures may represent fertility, either that of humans, animals, or the world around the people who created them.

M0000440 A female Paleolithic figurine, Venus of Willendorf

Venus of Willendorf, c. 25,000 BCE This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundations based in the UK. [CC BY 4.0 (http://creative], via Wikimedia Commons.

The Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age (c.8000 BCE-c.6000/4000 BCE), was a period of transition, as the hunter-gatherer societies of the Paleolithic period slowly began to transform into more settled, agrarian societies. The last of the glaciers of the Ice Age were also receding north to the Arctic as well. The art of this period reflects these changes in environment and culture.


Rock art from Tassili, Algeria, Mesolithic period, photo by Fondazione Passaré [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The full shift to settle, agrarian societies comes with the Neolithic, or New Stone Age (c.6000/4000 BCE-2000 BCE). This was the period of the first Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions. Humans finished domesticating plants and animals and settled into communities, with production of ceramics and weaving as part of the output of these groups, in the Ancient Near East first, and then these settlement patterns expanded to Europe.

Sites such as Jericho had heavily fortified walls and conical towers that imply defensive needs. This site also shows evidence for the cult of ancestor worship because of the plastered skulls that have been found at the site. This implies some conflict over settlement areas, patterns, or possibly food sources.


Plastered skull from Jericho, c. 7200 BCE, photo by Jononmac46 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


Detail of the Fortified walls and towers of Neolithic Jericho, c. 9000 BCE, photo by Deror_avi (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

At sites in Anatolia, in modern Turkey, there is also evidence of conflict in the construction of the communities, such as Çatalhöyük. Here, the site is laid out so that there were few openings in the outer walls, and living and ritual spaces were closely packed in a small area. The images of the goddess figures also start to shift and change, becoming larger and more individualized, with a continued emphasis on the breasts and genitalia of the forms. These goddess types also seem to be seated on thrones, with lions on either side, a form that becomes associated with the goddess in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean area in the Bronze Age.Ankara_Muzeum_B19-36



Mother Goddess Figure from Çatalhöyük, c. 5800 BCE, photo By User:Roweromaniak – Archiwum “Roweromaniaka wielkopolskiego” No_B19-36, CC BY-SA 2.5,



Çatalhöyük, c. 7500 BCE, photo by CC BY-SA 3.0,

Anatolia also gives us what is possibly the first temple at the site of Göbekli Tepe. Here we have monolithic stone architecture built c. 10,000 BCE. The upright columns at the site have some of the pictographs representing animals and other forms.


Göbekli Tepe, photos by By Teomancimit (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


Monolithic stone architecture was also constructed in Europe, with forms such as menhirs, dolmens, and cromlechs erected at sites in Spain, Brittany, and the British Isles. These marked various sacred sites, with menhirs generally forming lines. Dolmens were tombs that consisted of 2 or more vertical support posts with a horizontal lintel placed over them.


coetan_arthur_burial_chamber2c_st_davids_head_-_geograph-org-uk_-_1529808 Neolithic Dolmen, called Coetan Arthur Burial Chamber, St. Davids Head, England, c. 4000 BCE, photo by Andy F [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Neolithic Menhirs near Carnac in Brittany, France, c. 4500-3300 BCE, photo by Karsten Wentink (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


Probably the most famous of the cromlechs is Stonehenge, located on the Salisbury Plain in England. This structure, built for religious purposes, was built and rebuilt between c. 3000 BCE and c. 1800 BCE. It is built with post and lintel construction, with mortises and tenons holding the lintels in place. There are a number of questions as to the use of the site, and the meaning of it within the religious context of the people who built it. The processional way connects the main cromlech to a small village that seems to have been inhabited seasonally, based on archaeological evidence, possibly at the summer and winter solstices. There were some cremation burials found at the site, probably of high status individuals within the community that constructed it.


Photo By Julie Anne Workmanderivative work: Julia\talk – Stonehenge_from_north,_August_2010.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0,


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