The Earliest Images

Ice Age 'Art' in Europe

By: Randall White

Originally Published in 1992

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The term “Ice Age art” usually evokes images of painted caves. However, by the time the first cave was painted around 20,000 years ago, there already exist¬ed in Europe a tradition of engraved and sculpted objects extending back 20,000 years before that. Indeed, from the world’s first known visual representations to the painting of Lascaux Cave is a period longer than the one that separates Lascaux from Picasso. The discussion that follows considers the full sweep of material representation from about 40,000 years ago to the end of the Ice Age about 11,000 years ago. It tracks the origins and evolution of these repre sensations from the Mousterian through the Magdalenian and pre¬sents new evidence and interpreta¬tions for the spatial patterning, motivations, and evolutionary signifi¬cance of Ice Age images.

The Mousterian Culture

Visual representations first ap­peared in Europe about 40,000 years ago as part of a revolutionary trans­formation known as the Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition. This transformation coincided with the replacement of archaic humans (Neanderthals) by modern ones (modern Homo sapiens) and the re­placement of the corresponding Mousterian culture by the Aurigna­cian. While Neanderthals of the late Mousterian collected oddities (such as fossils and minerals: Fig. 2) from their surroundings and brought them back to their living sites, only a handful of purposely fabricated rep­resentational or “symbolic” objects have been proposed for this entire period_ Virtually all of these either come from older excavations where there is a strong possibility that de­posits of different ages have been mixed, or are the result of natural processes rather than human activity (Chase and Dibble 1987). An exam­ple of the latter is a series of cave bear teeth thought by some archae­ologists to have been purposely al­tered in order to be suspended as pendants. The `alteration,’ a channel around the circumference of each tooth, has now been shown to be a natural product of the chewing and digestive processes of living bears. In reality, the oldest certain personal ornaments are pierced animal teeth from the sites of Bacho Kiro (Bulgar­ia) and Mladec (Moravia) dated to around 40,000 years ago.

The near absence of symbolic ob­jects in the Mousterian has been taken by many anthropologists as evi­dence that language as we might rec­ognize it was probably absent in this period (White 1985). This remains a contentious issue in Paleolithic stud­ies (see Chase’s article on language, this issue).

Neanderthals were replaced by modern Homo sapiens in Europe in the period between 45,000 and 30,000 years ago (see Minugh-Purvis article, this issue). During most of the time that the two physical types coexisted, each seems to have main­tained its own ways of making tools and adapting to its environment.

Near the end of this period, howev­er, the culture of the Neanderthals began to change, taking on some of the aspects (e.g., body ornaments, bone tools) previously restricted to modern Homo sapiens. Many archae­ologists are beginning to view this change as the result of the accultura­tion of local archaic populations in the face of the newcomers.

The Aurignacian Culture

By about 40,000-35,000 years ago, the culture of modern Homo sapiens included such features as body orna­mentation (see box on Personal Or­naments and Figs. 6-8) and graphic representation. In early Aurignacian sites we see the first unmistakable representations of human and ani­mal figures. We also see a variety of as yet uninterpreted markings or signs that are repeated from site to site. Aurignacians produced a sur­prising diversity of images. There are fragments of bird bone with carefully spaced incisions. There are engrav­ings and sculptures in the form of 26,000-year-old sites of PrePredmosti and Dolni Véstonice in Czechoslova­kia, numerous figurines of fired loess, many in the form of humans and animals, are the earliest evi­dence for ceramic technology (Fig. 4). It has even been suggested that these kiln-fired figurines were pur­posely broken by thermal shock in some form of ritual (Vandiver et al. 1989).

An important feature of some Gravettian sites is the negative human handprint, produced by blowing liquified pigment around a hand set flat against a rock surface. (For more on painting techniques, see box on Lorblanchet.) These are especially numerous at the southern French cave of Gargas and at the newly discovered underwater site of Grotte Cosquer near Marseilles, where many of the handprints ap­pear to have missing digits, leading some specialists to conclude that Upper Paleolithic people may have practiced ritual mutilation of the hands, or that they may have suf­fered digit loss due to disease or frostbite. However, in his analysis of the 159 painted handprints at Gar-gas, Leroi-Gourhan (1986) suggests that fingers only appeared to be missing, having been purposely held back against the palm of the hand. He supported this argument by demonstrating that there was a de­scending frequency in handprints from the most easily formed configu­ration (the entire hand) to the least easily formed configurations (e.g., the palm with only the third finger showing).

By far the most distinctive repre­sentations of the Gravettian are the female statuettes (Fig.10, 11). Al­though they are found throughout Europe, they show regional differ­ences in style. They were sculpted from a variety of materials, including ivory, limestone, steatite, and calcite. Certain examples from Czechoslova­kia were even modeled in clay and kiln-fired. The figurines range in style from anatomically robust, such as the magnificent “Venus” of Lespugue, to more moderately pro­portioned, such as the ivory stat­uettes of Brassempouy. Most appear to be pregnant. Facial features are seldom represented, and lower legs most often end in points. Henri Del­porte (1979) has suggested that these pointed legs may have allowed the figurines to be stood upright in the ground. Breasts are most often large and pendulous, and buttocks are generally pronounced. In some cases the pubic triangle is indicated. Two-dimensional examples of female forms, engraved or sculpted on large limestone blocks, are also known.

At the Russian site of Sungir. thousands of personal ornaments and a number of ivory carvings in geometric and animal forms (Figs. 1,3) were produced near the end of the Aurignacian, about 28,000 years ago (White 1992b). One these pointed legs may have allowed the figurines to be stood upright in the ground. Breasts are most often large and pendulous, and buttocks are generally pronounced. In some cases the pubic triangle is indicated. Two-dimensional examples of female forms, engraved or sculpted on large limestone blocks, are also known.

The past few decades have seen an enormous increase in the sample of female statuettes, especially in the former USSR. For example, Soviet archaeologist Maria Gvozdover has spent more than forty years excavat­ing the 26,000-year-old Russian site of Avdeevo (1987). This extraordi­nary site has yielded nearly as many of the so-called Venus figurines as all of the sites of this age in Western Eu­rope combined. Gvozdover careful analysis concludes that most of these statuettes, carefully sculpted from the tusks of 10,000-pound woolly mammoths, depict women in the ter­minal stages of pregnancy and fre­quently in birthing postures.

sexual organs, most often female, al­though this interpretation is contro­versial. There are limestone blocks with simple, often fragmentary ani­mal forms and, in some instances, traces of paint. There are hone and ivory plaques with series of dots. Sur­prisingly, however, some of the earli­est surviving representational objects are tiny three-dimensional animal and human sculptures in mammoth ivory (Fig. 9). These are most nu­merous in Germany, hut at least one example is known from France.

Perhaps the most unexpected ob­ject that has survived from the early Aurignacian is a multi-holed wind in­strument., frequently described as a Flute, From the cave of lsturitz in southwestern France. This flute is contemporary with some of the earli­est material representations and in­ dicates quite clearly that sound was part of the symbolic environment that people had created for them­selves.

At the Russian site of Sungir. thousands of personal ornaments and a number of ivory carvings in geometric and animal forms (Figs. 1,3) were produced near the end of the Aurignacian, about 28,000 years ago (White 1992b). One of the more striking characteristics of the ivory representations of Sungir is the use of color to complement the sculpted images.

Personal Ornaments and Social Identity

No known human societies are totally egalitarian. Even the least hierarchical societies known to anthropol­ogists are subdivided along lines of age, gender, and per­sonal achievement. Within limits, all modern human societies evaluate a person’s social position by such vehi­cles as jewelry, clothing, and displays of wealth. The per­formance of ceremonies and the offering of goods at the time of a person’s death are also important means of ex­pressing the internal divisions of a society. This use of ob­jects to construct and communicate social identities is evident from the very beginning of the Upper Paleolithic in Europe. Nowhere is it better exemplified than in the rich record of body ornaments recovered by Louis ❑idon and Marcel Castanet from the French site of Abri Blan­chard.

In 1909, Castanet, a farmer and informed amateur ar­chaeologist, found an ivory bead on the surface of the ground beneath the Ahri Blanchard. a rock overhang in the Vézère Valley adjacent to his farm. With this find, he piqued the interest of ❑idon, a distinguished amateur ar­chaeologist and hotelier of some considerable means. For the next two years, Castanet and Didon excavated this site, bringing to light some of the world’s earliest known engraved images and personal ornaments. These pre­cious objects came from two different stratigraphic levels of the Aurignacian culture, the lowermost level dating to about 34,000-32,000 years ago, the uppermost to no more than about 30,000-28,000 years ago.

Castanet was passionate about prehistory. To him, even the seemingly most insignificant artifacts were pre­cious, so he decided, far ahead of his time, that it would be a good idea to pass all of Abri Blanchard’s sediments through a fine sieve. By doing so, he recovered more than 200 ivory and stone beads (Fig. 6), many of them as small as the sequins on a formal gown. There were also decorated pendants, animal teeth with drilled holes, and pierced seashells. This was incontrovertible evidence of bodily adornment from the very beginning of the Upper Paleolithic. But it took several decades for archaeologists to begin to believe that body ornaments such as these were anything more than mere trinkets. In the meantime, the artifacts from Abri Blanchard languished in dusty mu­seum drawers.

In the 1980s, with increased interest in social archae­ology, it became clear that ornamental objects were cru­cial to communicating, even constructing, human social identities. Imagine our own or any other contemporary society without material objects that signal status, role, gender, and wealth. As if to underline the social value of personal ornaments, recent analysis of the beads from Abri Blanchard indicates that each of them required more than an hour to produce (White 1989). Equally impor­tant, many of the ornaments are made from raw materials (shell, exotic stone) whose natural points of occurrence ie hundreds of kilometers from Abri Blanchard. We must imagine that these were objects endowed with great value, objects that were obtained either by long treks or by trade with other groups. In all probability, the enerigy and time that went into Early Upper Paleolithic body or­naments from Abri Blanchard and dozens of other sites from France to Australia reflect the emergence of, or in­creased emphasis upon, the marking of internal social distinctions as a feature of the organization of human so­ciety.

The Solutreun Culture of Western Europe

From 22,000 to 18,000 years ago in Western Europe, a new and dra­matic representational form, large-scale bas-reliefs, came to dominate (Fig. 12). The most spectacular ex­ample occurs at the site of Roc de Sers in southwest France where a se­ries of massive sculpted limestone blocks line the back wall of a rock shelter. More such blocks were found on the slope in front of the shelter. The blocks are decorated with horses, bison, reindeer, ibex, and at least one human figure. All are executed in deep relief, which exceeds 6 inches in some places.

These magnificent works seem to have decorated the very place where people slept, cooked, and ate. They were an integral part of day-to-day existence.

By 20,000 years ago, in some areas of Europe, the practice of deep cave painting of animals seems to have become significant. The cave of Tete du Lion, the oldest dated painted cave, was found during road con­struction in the Ardeche region of France in 1963. Along with a dot and some traces of red paint, there were a group of animals painted in red: a deer, an aurochs, and the heads of two ibex associated with a series of yellow dots. Careful excavations at the base of the paintings by Jean

Combier yielded four smears of red pigment and a number of fragments of charcoal, apparently from a torch used by the painters to light their way. The charcoal gave a radiocar­bon date of 20,650±800 1W (see box on Dating). No stone tools or animal hones were found, indicating clearly that Solutrean people did not live in the cave but merely visited it, per­haps only once.

Cite This Article

White, Randall. "The Earliest Images." Expedition Magazine 34, no. 3 (November, 1992): -. Accessed May 28, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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