The Dawn of Prehistoric Rock Art ©1998 by James Q. Jacobs

The most ancient evidence of the production of art predates the generally accepted earliest dates for the appearance of modern humans. Cup marks and a meandering line were etched into a sandstone cave in India two or three hundred thousand years ago. Line markings on bone, teeth, ivory and bone of equal antiquity are known from the campsites of archaic humans. Sculpture, in the form of modified natural forms, has been dated to 250-300,000 years ago in the Near East. (Bednarik, 1998.) An early archaeologically discernible behavior that seems to lack practical purpose is the use of hematite or ochre, the red mineral pigment. This activity dates to several hundred thousand years ago in southern Africa. Although no rock paintings of such great antiquity are known, ochre is later evidenced as a rock art pigment.

Australian rock art may be as old as human occupation of that continent, up to 60,000 years old and perhaps far older. Hundreds of Australian sites may predate the cave art of Europe (Bednarik). In Tanzania rock art sites date back about 50,000 years (Karoma). Painted and engraved images of animals on stone slabs have been excavated and dated to 28,000 years ago in Namibia (Feder and Park). The oldest known example of rock art in Europe is an arrangement of eighteen cup marks on a rock slab over a child’s burial in a French cave. Radiocarbon dates for European paintings range back to more than 32,000 years (Gould). By this time art traditions are known to have existed in southern Africa, the Levant, eastern Europe, India and Australia (Bednarik). A California rock art site has been dated to about 20,000 years ago, based on analysis of mineral varnish covering a pictograph (Bower 96a).

Some 200 caves in southwestern France and northern Spain (the French-Cantabrian area) contain cave paintings from the Upper Paleolithic period (Fritz). These are radiocarbon dated from 32,410 at Chauvet to 11,600 at Le Portel (Gould). By 30,000 years ago rock art included hand stencils, complex finger markings and two-dimensional paintings. Also by 30,000 years ago perspective, shading, outlining of animal forms and the depiction of movement are all evidenced. And the pigments demonstrate considerable effort and complexity of formulation.

Physicists Michel Menu and Philippe Walter studied the residues of red and black paint in engraved bone objects along with charcoal remains from the cave of La Vache. They used scanning electron microscopy, X-ray diffraction, and proton-induced X-ray emission to examine the physical and chemical properties of the pigments. Radio carbon dating established that the paintings are between 12,000 and 13,000 years old. The red pigment was hematite and the black was manganese dioxide. More interestingly the extender was a mixture of biotite and feldspar (Lewin). Biotite and feldspar do not occur together. The specific recipe of combined ingredients used by the painters was also found in neighboring caves in the same valley.. Additionally, quartz grinding stones with pigment residue were found in the caves. There was also evidence of technique. A charcoal layer under the black manganese indicated a preliminary sketch was undertaken.

The simple black and red paints found in Grotto Chauvet are almost complex mixtures of minerals. At Lascaux the black pigment is 15 percent manganese dioxide, the colorant, with 25 percent ground quartz and 40 percent calcium phosphate. The calcium phosphate was produced by heating bone to 400 degrees Celsius and then grinding it (Fritz).

Here follows some descriptive information for two of the most significant and oldest caves. As a result of these quite recent discoveries and the absolute dating of the paintings therein our concepts of the evolution, threshold of earliest occurrence, and the quality of paleolithic art have undergone significant transformations.