PALEOLITHIC is the name given to that period of man’s history before he invented agriculture, domesticated pnimals, or discovered the use of metals. For his subsistence he depended on hunting and gathering, a way of life that sufficed for more than two million years. Art, however, had not so long a development, and is known only from the latest, or Upper, stage of the Paleolithic, a period we recognize by technological changes in bone- and flint-tool production that took place qo,ooo years ago.
Such art as remains from this period is of two forms: either small objects found among the debris left by Paleolithic hunters in their camps, or murals in rock-shelters and deep caves. The first group is described in French as Art Mobilier and both the terms “mobiliary” and “portable” are used in English, but “miniature art” is a preferable description. The size of these pieces is a clear reflection of the nomadic economy of their makers, for to a nomad all sizable possessions are a burden.
Miniature art consists of three-dimensional figurines of animals and women, of pieces of bone, ivory, or stone with naturalistic or schematic engravings cut upon them, and a number of carefully ornamented tools. Obviously only objects made of the most durable materials have lasted: originally there were perhaps many decorated objects made of wood or leather, but they have not survived.
Mural art is represented in daylit rock-shelters by low-relief carving and, in some cases, engraving, and in more sheltered deep caves by engraving and painting. The pigments used are manganese, carbon, and ochers with a color range of black, red, brown, yellow, and, very rarely, purple. Both naturalistic and schematic motifs are used in mural art, the naturalistic consisting almost exclusively of animals, principally the large herbivores such as horses, bison, and mammoths, and the schematic element of signs. Much of the painting is beautiful and highly accomplished; in its context doubly surprising both by its quality and character, for very few primitive people exploit the naturalistic element in art.
Paleolithic art has a time span of more than 20,000 years, lasting from approximately 30,000 to 9,500 years ago. The first datable art objects that we have are ascribed to the Aurignacian Culture (an early geographical variant within the Upper Paleolithic) and were found at Vogelherd, in West Germany, in a level dated to more than 30,000 years BC. One of the characteristics of Paleolithic art is its homogeneity and its adherence to formulas. The drawings in caves, for example, subscribe to a particular inventory and this persisted with little change throughout the period in which caves were decorated. Such continuity over so great a period of time is unique in the history of art and the only explanation for it is that it reflects the social stability we postulate for its creators.
Beyond the fact that they were all members of the genus Homo sapiens (that is, modern man) we do not know who these men were and so in the absence of almost any skeletal material are forced to group them by their tool types. Equally, it is virtually impossible to identify the artists, although we could speak of “the Painter of the Altamira ceiling” and we can recognize certain objects as made by the same hand (two spear-throwers, for example, from Bruniquel in the Tarn-etGaronne and Laugerie Basse in the Dordogne, France). It is quite probable, however, that each, or many, Upper Paleolithic tribes supported a specialist. Australian Aborigines living in a much poorer environment than prevailed in the Upper Paleolithic are known to have had enough surplus to support one man whose only occupation was making and repairing their tools. On this analogy an Upper Paleolithic group could have supported a tool-maker and decorator, whose work perhaps included painting a nearby cave or carving the rock-shelter wall.
Paleolithic art is in itself the beginning of art, although the earliest surviving pieces are not necessarily man’s first artistic efforts. The Vogelherd figures, for example, are already so accomplished that we should perhaps regard them as the ear-liest surviving objects made of durable material, in this case mammoth ivory, which were originally preceded by an experi-mental series in wood. Within the span of 20,000 years all techniques are found at all periods, that is, sculpture does not precede two-dimensional work, nor engraving painting. In western Europe the latest periods are the richest, however, principally those that are associated with the middle and late stages of the Magdalenian (another industrial variant of the Upper Paleolithic, taking its name, as do the majority of these designations, from a type site in France). As it has no precursors, so Paleolithic art has no direct descendants-the Mesolithic cultures that followed the Paleolithic in Europe produced little art and that of a simple and rudimentary type. With the exception of the narrative rock-shelter painting of the Spanish Levant, which has only tentative links with Paleolithic art, the naturalistic tradition died out completely at the end of the last Ice Age.
As the content of Paleolithic art is constant, so its distribution is limited. It is confined to the northern hemisphere of the Old World and to certain regions within this area, although the products of Upper Paleolithic industries with which it is associated have a much wider distribution. Miniature art is found in Spain, principally in the Cantabric region; in France, principally in Aquitaine and the Pyrenees; in Italy; in central and eastern Europe in the Ukraine and the Don Valley; and in Siberia, near Lake Baikal. Culturally this distribution forms two major groups: the western group including Spain, France, and Switzerland; the eastern, Italy, central Europe, European Russia, and Siberia. The arts of these two groups show great similarity, their principal difference being that in the East art is only known in its miniature form and is mainly three dimensional, while in the West the existence of mural art strengthens the two-dimensional factor, and enriches the total.
Mural art, by its nature, demands a location in caves or rock-shelters, but in fact the occurrence of karst formation limestone does not determine the distribution of this art form, which is concentrated in the Dordogne, the French Pyrenees, and the Basque provinces of Spain. Suitable caves exist elsewhere, in Moravia for example, but with the exception of Krapova in the Urals no painting is known outside France and Spain and very little engraving. There is a group of engraved caves in South Italy and Sicily, the most famous being the Grotta Romanelli near Otranto and Addaura near Palermo, but in style they are closer to the eastern cultural group than to the western. That the earliest examples of art, either miniature or mural, are widely scattered gives further support to the idea, put forward above, that the earliest pieces of art we have do not represent the first made.
The first pieces of Paleolithic art to be recognized as such were excavated in France in the middle years of the 19th century. After Darwin had established the antiquity of man, the search for human remains moved from the gravel pits of the Somme to the rock-shelters of the Perigord, rich in Upper Paleolithic deposits. By 1878 enough miniature art pieces had been retrieved to fill a case at the Exposition Universelle in Paris: they attracted great interest. In the I 890s Piette and others extended the search to the Pyrenees. We have a large corpus of art objects from these 19th-century exca ations, although due to poor early methods of excavation we possess little scientific data about them.
Miniature art in the East is a much more recent discovery:
with the exception of Predmosti in Moravia• which was first dug in 1880, the major sites have all been explored in this century and, in comparison to the West are still few in number.
In France miniature art was accepted without question as
the work of “early cave man” but mural art, interestingly, was at first firmly rejected. It is true that its date can seldom be established except by comparative means, that is, miniature art is found in the accumulated layers of domestic rubbish while mural art stands clear on the wall of a cave or shelter, except in a few instances where rubbish has accumulated against a wall, giving a terminal date. However, such proofs exist and, since the drawings on miniature-art pieces are similar to those in caves, it is hard to see why 19th-century scholars, having accepted the first, repudiated the second.
The story of the discovery of Altamira, in northern Spain, is well known. A famous ceiling there shows bison and other animals, painted with a marvelous utilization of the natural bosses on the stone roof. The accidental shapes suggested to the Paleolithic artist that he should depict a number of bison lying down and use the stone projections to add to the illusion of relief in each painting. They are painted in polychrome and are perhaps some of the mosrsophisticated and elegant work known from the Paleolithic. Their modern discoverer, the Marquis de Sautuola, believed in their authenticity and Paleolithic origin but could convince no one else of these. Indeed, he died without vindicating his opinions, although funher discoveries made after his death have forced archaeologists to accept that Altamira and other similar caves- are genuine and of great antiquity. Perhaps it was the actual quality of Altamira that made it unacceptable as the work of primitive man, or perhaps it was that this form of painting, which is almost idiomatic and is easily understood in the aoth century, after the impact of Matisse, for example, was quite alien to 19th-century eyes. Whatever the reason Altamira, one of the most beautiful of Paleolithic caves, was not unanimously accepted as such until r 902, 2 3 years after its discovery.
Having briefly considered the modern history of Paleolithic art, let us look at the present state of knowledge. In eastern, central, and western Europe there are respectively 14, r 8, and 71 sites that contain miniature art pieces in significant quantities, while in western Europe there are more than 80 decorated caves of major importance and as many again of minor. From this evidence, although it is still extremely inadequate, we may attempt some analysis of styles and chronology.
Miniature art is found in both eastern and western cultural provinces. The sites in central Europe and European Russia, though few, are often very rich and the Venuses are probably the most famous series of objects known from them. They are naked female figurines, usually less than 3 in (8 cm) in height, made of stone or ivory, in which certain features are much exaggerated at the expense of others. Breasts, buttocks, and stomach are usually voluminous, while hands, feet, and facial features are not represented at all. Their appearance is of age, rather than youth, and although so fat, few can be described as pregnant. The Venus of Willendorf in Austria is typical of them, and there are notable series from Kostienki on the Don (USSR) and two sites nearby (Avdeevo and Gagarino), as well as from Dolni Vestonice in Czechoslovakia. Not all Venuses are fat, nor are all figurines feminine; for example, an ivory male figure was found in the grave of an adult man at Brno, Czechoslovakia. All figures are associated with settlements, however, and because of their placing in the houses, very often near the hearths, or grouped at one side, it is considered that they are perhaps house guardians whose importance is domestic rather than erotic.
Most Venuses are very naturalistic, even if exaggerated in form, but with time very schematic and stylized syntheses of these figures were developed. At Mezin in the Ukraine such stylized figures were covered with decorative patterns of chevrons and “Greek key” designs. These geometric patterns were used in the East for the decoration of ornaments, such as the ivory bracelets from Mezin, and even for tools. The designs are often elaborate and beautifully executed, being cut with a sharp flint point on ivory or bone. A few engravings of animals on such material are also known and a number of animal statuettes, usually of marl. Often only fragments survive, as at Kostienki (ussn), but at Dolni Vestonice (Czechoslovakia), where they are very numerous, some complete figures have been found. Here they were made of a mud compound, and baked in a kiln.
Venuses are both more numerous and of greater variety in the East, suggesting that this was the cult’s area of origin, but they occur in western Europe and appear at a similar date, that is early in the Upper Paleolithic, between approximately 26,000 and 24,000 years BC. As in the East it is common to find a group of Venuses at one location, and such groups have been found at Grimaldi, on the Cote d’Azur, and at Brassempouy in the Landes (France) but there are a number of single finds also: the very stylized Venus from Lespugue (Haute Garonne, France) is one example. The western Venuses are similar to the eastern and follow the same later pattern of stylization, finally making a transition to mural art, as at Angles sur-l’ Anglin in Vienne (France) where, on the frieze, three half-figures are carved in low relief among the animals.
Schematic decoration is used on tools and ornaments in western Europe, but it is here that the naturalistic tradition has its greatest development and this is reflected in both miniature and mural art. Engravings of animals occur on nonmanufactured pieces and on bone and antler tools, and lowand full-relief carving are used. Decorated pieces are known from all Upper Paleolithic stages in France and Spain but more than 80 percent of such work, as well as that of greatest quality, belongs to the middle and late stages of the Magdalenian, that is from cr y.ooo to 8,000 years BC. Much of the most beautiful work is found on antler tools, tools that a man would retain, such as spear-throwers, or thong-softeners, rather than on expendible objects such as javelin points. For example, spear-throwers are weighted with three-dimensionally carved animals, thong-softeners are decorated with enraved head and forequarters, and rib bones are made into spatulas, decorated with animal heads or fish.
Magdalenian IV is a particularly rich period, not only are a number of objects and techniques peculiar to this stage, but the way in which animals are drawn is both elaborate and stylized, with much shading and infilling. After this stage, although its inventory is much reduced, miniature art develops a freer and more lifelike style, with occasional narrative scenes, unrealistic combinations, and some essays in perspective. Many of the richest miniature-art sites are in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, for example La Vache, Mas-d’Azil, Lorthet, and Labastide, while Isturitz is farther west in the Pays Basque. Two sites farther north, Laugerie Basse and Bruniquel, are closely allied to the Pyrenean group, and there are two rich sites in northern Spain, El Valle and El Pendo near Santander.
Miniature art is found only in daylit habitation sites, mural art, however, although sometimes also found there, was mainly used to create sanctuaries in deep caves. Some of these painted or engraved panels are in extinct subterranean rivers that are difficult to reach and in positions that are awkward to see. At no time were such caves inhabited and they were probably little frequented. Nevertheless, many of the most beautiful decorated caves, such as Lascaux (Dordogne, France), and Niaux (Ariege, France), belong to this group.