Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic Art

Department of Art and Art History
Fall Semester 1998
HART 205. Introduction to the History of Art

Lecture 2 (September 2, 1998). Paleolithic,Mesolithic and Neolithic Art


1. form and subject of earliest human representations
2. what conclusions function and meaning can be drawn from evidence

Stone Age–lithic (stone), paleo (upper), meso (middle), and neo (new)
Upper Paleolithic Period (35,000-10,000 B.C.)
Mesolithic Period in Europe (7,000-4,000 B.C.)
Neolithic Period in Europe (4,000-1,500 B.C.)
Neolithic Period in Near East (6,000-3,500 B.C.


The beginning of control of human environment. Human activity includes stone toolmaking, specialization of stone tools to include bone harpoon, fish trap, heavy adzes and axes, use of bow and arrow, spear, chisel, primarily a hunting-fishing-fowling culture, domestication of dog.

A. Paleolithic Cave Paintings
Importance of Chauvet cave in revising knowledge about paleolithic art. Challenge to ideas set out earlier by Henri Breuil (1952) and A. Leroi-Gourhan (1968)

1. revision of dates
2. emphasis on different subject matter, not only animals hunted for food (bison, deer), but animals known for power, strength (rhinos, lions), etc.
3. the bear altar
4. frontal view of bison
5. no style development from greater abstraction to greater naturalism

Subjects: primarily animals (rhinos, felines, bison, horses, bear, ibex, reindeer, auroch, mammoths, owl; signs (tectiforms), dots, marks; human representation is rare–negative and positive hand prints, half animal/half human figures at Les Trois Frères and Chauvet

Techniques: Red and Black pigments sprayed or brushed on, incised lines, figures outlined or modeled with pigment; perspective (twisted or composite) and frontal views; palimpsest (overlapping and reuse of wall surface); no ground line or landscape, narrative?.

Use of natural formation of rock to suggest shape of animal.

Meanings: Not decorative; remote locations of paintings (not in inhabited areas); bear altar at Chauvet cave; geometric forms or arrows appear with animals–sympathetic magic; fertility–pregnant female animals and genitals of male animals emphasized; seasonal–ritual and renewal of migrations. Inconclusive!

Examples: Paleolithic Cave Paintings
1. Chauvet Cave (Ardèche region of France), discovered 1994, as early as 31,000 B.C.
2. Lascaux (Dordogne region of France), cave ptgs., 15,000-10,000 B.C.
Hall of Bulls, Axial Corridor, Chinese Horse, Well Scene
3. Altamira Cave (Spain), c. 14,000-12,000 B.C.) Bison
4. Pech-Merle Caves (Lot, France), 14,000-12,000 B.C. Spotted horses and negative hand imprints

B. Paleolithic Sculpture
1. Two bison, clay relief in cave at La Tuc d’Audoubert, Ariège France, c. 12,000 B.C.
2. Bison with turned head, incised bone, from La Madeleine, Dordogne, France, 12,000 B.C.
Female Figures:
3. Venus of Willendorf, c. 28,000-23,000 B.C. steatophygia
4. Woman holding Bison horn, from Laussel, c. 23,000- 20,000 B.C.

Marching Warriors, rock painting at Cingle de la Mola, Castellón, Spain, c. 7000-4000 B.C.

Neolithic Revolution, Neolithic Triad. 1. demographic stress; 2. proper environment; 3. technology
Domestication of sheep and goats, agriculture (grain), ground stone tools, pottery, weaving, first architecture. Change from hunter/gatherers to food production. Urban revolution.

A. Western Europe Neolithic Period
Megalith means great stone. Megalithic sites include Carnac (Brittany, France), Avebury (Wiltshire, England), Grand Menhir (Brisé, England). Variety of forms of stone monuments (menhir, dolmens, stone circles).
Stonehenge (Wiltshire, England), c. 2000 B.C.
Stonehenge I (c. 2800-2200 B.C.: the original henge (ditch- and-bank), causeway, heel stone, entrance stones, Aubrey holes, station stones.)
Stonehenge II (c. 2100-2000 B.C.; the bluestones as an example of “arrays” found elsewhere)
Stonehenge III (c. 2000-1900 B.C.; addition of sarsen stones. Note: post-and-lintel construction, lintels with mortice and tenon joints, horseshoe of trilithons)
Stonehenge IV (c. 1800-1100 B.C.; rearrangement of bluestones)
The meaning of Stonehenge. Entasis and visual refinements, Mediterranean influence? astronomical computer? ceremonial center? trade center for axes?

B. Ancient Near East Neolithic Period
Levant (coastal region of Syria, Palestine, Israel)
Anatolia (Turkey)
Jericho, c. 8,000-6,000 B.C (excavations by Kathleen Kenyon, 1954), Human Skull from Jericho, c. 7000-6000 B.C.
Çatal Hüyük (Anatolia Turkey). 6000-5900 B.C.
(excavations by James Mellaart, 1964 and current excavations by team based at Cambridge University.
reconstruction of section of level VI, reconstruction of shrine, level VI,                    obsidian, Seated Goddess, Deer Hunt
Landscape with volcanic eruption, Hasan Dag