Introduction to Prehistoric Art

Prehistoric art is usually assigned to the pre-literate era of the Stone Age. This covers the period of about 1,750,000B.C. to about 5,000B.C. In this period, there is evidence of carvings, painting, pottery, spinning and weaving. Once the last Ice Age closed about 10,000 years ago, a proliferation of prehistoric art emerged. Rock art provides the greatest body of evidence for man’s prehistoric art activities.

The oldest evidence of prehistoric abstract art was only made public in 2002. It was a piece of engraved, geometric patterns, on two pieces of ochre, from Blombos Cave near Cape Town. It is dated as 77,000 years old.

North west Australia has some extraordinary evidence. In the 1980’s, the Bungle Bungles attracted public interest. Here was a huge outdoor gallery of art dating back to the last Ice Age. And at Vansittart Bay is a mysterious range of paintings known either as Gwion Gwion art or the Bradshaw paintings. Joseph Bradshaw first recorded the style in 1891. Since then, literally thousands of these paintings have been found in the Kimberleys. Aboriginal legend says birds created the art. They pecked the rock till their beaks bled and then painted with a tail feather dipped in the blood. The bird was known as a gwion. This art is strange to say the least. It represents the oldest known depiction of human form, (some appearing to be dancing), possibly dated as 50,000 years old. Stranger still, some experts question whether this art belongs to Australia’s Aboriginals.

Till these finds emerged, the Lascaux cave paintings in France were regarded as the earliest known paintings. But they were dated about 30,000B.C. They were created with red and yellow ochre and charcoal mixed with animal fat. The drawings were mainly outlines of animals in a hunt. The number of these drawings, deep in the cave, suggested this was a sacred place and perhaps rituals pre-hunt were performed there. About 200 caves in southern France and northern Spain have cave paintings.

Beyond paintings, there are some prehistoric sculptures. Three small ivory figurines were discovered in a German cave. One appears to be a bird, another is horselike and the third is part human with a feline head. They date about 30,000B.C.

The most famous sculpture, however, is the “Venus of Willendorf”, dated about 20,000B.C. It was discovered in 1908 and was the first fertility image found. Since then a number of Venus figures have been discovered. Interestingly, some found from Stone Age Siberia and held in the Hermitage Collection in St Petersburg are clothed figurines.

A range of prehistoric pottery has been found. It is mostly made using the “coil method”. This involves a building up of rings of clay to create the desired shape.

Prehistoric spinning and weaving skills can only be presumed from the evidence of tools of the trade, as textiles and cloth are perishable goods. In India, Stone Age terracotta spindles have been found and it is claimed that the ancient Harappan civilization invented the needle, with the eye at the pointed end. Again, theory presumes that hemp and flax may have been the preferred materials for cloth because the thread was faster to spin than cotton. However, silk could have been also developed. Fibre samples from French caves convince the experts that textile production appeared about 15,000 years ago.

Prehistoric art is the key to lifestyles and cultures of the most ancient worlds. Often, the art is the only trace or key to their existence.