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Prehistoric Art in Western Europe. Much of our knowledge about the lives of early human beings comes from their art. Before they could write they were using crude tools, to paint and scratch pictures of animals on walls of caves and rock shelters. Hunting Rituals.

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prehistoric art in western europe

Prehistoric Art in Western Europe

Much of our knowledge about the lives of early human beings comes from their art. Before they could write they were using crude tools, to paint and scratch pictures of animals on walls of caves and rock shelters.

hunting rituals
Hunting Rituals
  • During prehistoric times, cave painting was limited almost entirely to the depiction of animals, due to their dependence on animals for food. The paintings certainly played a part in magic rituals performed before a hunt, hoping to place a spell over the prey. The hunters probably believed that by drawing a lifelike picture of an animal, they were capturing some of that animal’s strength and spirit.
  • A special place farther back in the cave was set aside for these magic rituals, this is where the paintings were done. Here they were protected from the wind and rain, and for this reason many paintings have survived to the present day.

The age of cave paintings and artifacts produced thousands of years ago can be determined by by several means.

  • Date the artifact according to the age of the surrounding earth layers. When objects are found in caves where prehistoric paintings are located, scholars are able to determine the approximate date the paintings were produced.
  • Radiocarbon dating of once-living objects found near the artifact. All living organisms maintain a known amount of radioactive carbon 14. After an organism’s death, the carbon 14 loses its radioactivity at a known rate. By measuring how much radioactivity is left in charcoal or carbonized bones, it is possible to determine their age.
discovery of cave paintings
Discovery of Cave Paintings
  • The discoveries of both the cave of Lascaux and Altamira were accidental.. In Lascaus, two boys were playing in a field with their dog. The dog fell down a hole and was trapped in a cave. While searching for another entry, the boys discovered a larger hole and crawled down. Upon lighting a match they discovered the paintings of animals on the cavern surface.
  • Some 70 years earlier in Altamira, a hunter’s dog fell into a hole, the blocked entrance of an unknown cave. Several years later, Marcelino de Sautuola, an amateur archaeologist, excavated inside the cavern finding numerous flint and stone prehistoric tools. When his 5 year old daughter who could stand upright, looked up she discovered painted images of bison, boar, wild horses, and deer.
  • It was not uncommon for the early artists to paint on cave ceilings when they ran out of room on the walls.
the cave paintings of altamira discovered in 1879
The Cave Paintings of AltamiraDiscovered in 1879

One noteworthy example of prehistoric art is a painting of a bison from the ceiling in Altamira. Notice the animal is not placed in a setting. These earliest known works of art were made during an age that began some 30,000 years ago.

the cave paintings of lascaux discovered in 1941 horse 15 000 10 000 bc
The Cave Paintings of LascauxDiscovered in 1941Horse (15,000-10,000 BC)

Caves in southern France and northern Spain have numerous paintings so well preserved that many scholars first thought they had been created at a much later date.

It is unlikely they are the very first works of art ever created…they are far too sophisticated.

skills of the prehistoric artists
Skills of the Prehistoric Artists
  • Most of the animals were painted in shades of red, brown, and black.
  • Though their tools were crude, prehistoric artists were able to demonstrate a knowledge and an affection for the animals they hunted, capturing the power of a bison, the fleetness of a horse and the gentleness of a deer.
prehistoric builders
Prehistoric Builders
  • During the Paleolithic Period, abstract symbols were carved into stone by prehistoric peoples. Spirals and concentric arcs appear etched in standing stones, as well as on flat rock surfaces.
  • Rock carvings have been discovered throughout England, Spain, France, Germany, Malta and the Canary Islands.
  • Megaliths – large monuments created out or huge rock slabs-lie scattered across Europe, India, Asia, and even the Americas.
  • Located in England, this unusual circular arrangement of huge, rough hewn stones were erected as early as 4000 BC.
  • Stonehenge consists of a large ring of stones with three progressively smaller rings within. The outermost ring is nearly 100 feet in diameter.
  • The tallest of the upright stones is about 17 feet and weighs over 50 tons
  • Scholars today think it served as some kind of astronomical observatory enabling prehistoric people to make predictions about the seasons.