Ancient man created images that continue to fascinate viewers and researchers alike. Images of animals, birds, and people have been found on every continent except Antarctica. They are a glimpse into the lives and surroundings of our ancestors. Part of the allure is the mystery of not knowing exactly what the ancient artists were trying to convey. Since art is inherently subjective, much of the assessment of the worth is left up to “the eye of the beholder,” as the saying goes.
Samples tested by radiocarbon dating from rock paintings found around the world indicate that the earliest examples date to approximately 30,000 BCE. Much of the oldest artwork discovered so far is located in central Europe, where more than 300 sites have been identified. Sites such as the Chauvet, Cosquer, and Lascaux caves in France and La Pasiega and Altamira in Spain contain literally thousands of examples of multi-colored animals and birds in a variety of styles. The images range from very small to immense, such as the painting of a bull aurochs, an ancient cattle breed, in the Cave of the Bulls at Lascaux. This single image is more than 17 feet wide.
The Chauvet cave in France holds the oldest images and they are all in charcoal. Later paintings added red color from clay ochre containing iron. Additional colors appear in some areas, but the predominant tones are red and black. These hues represent the use of materials that were easily available to the painters.
The figures represented in rock paintings range from horses and cattle through mammoths, bison, and predators such as lions, bears, and wolves. Very few human figures appear in European cave rock paintings, but other locations such as the Cave of the Swimmers in southern Egypt, popularized by the film “The English Patient,” are full of representations of the human figure.
Many of the sites of prehistoric rock paintings were not found until the latter part of the twentieth century. As with many historic sites, discovery has led to both positive and negative consequences. On the positive side, scientists have been able to examine incredible examples of the creativity and craftsmanship of early peoples and compare the findings from different places on earth. On the negative side, sites opened to the public have suffered from the impact of tourism and the degradation of the art from exposure to people and the elements.
In September 2010, the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations held a conference in the heart of the rock painting region of Europe. This federation has grown from a handful of founding members to a worldwide membership of 49 organizations that span the globe. The federation continues to work toward shared understanding and study of the rich history of artwork left us by long vanished peoples. To view some beautiful samples of prehistoric rock paintings, visit any of the following sites: Lascaux, The Cave of Chauvet Pont D’arc, or Cueva Altamira.