Pech MerleOur study begins with the prehistoric era meaning a time before any written history roughly around c.40,000 .B.C. How is it possible that we can discuss the meaning of art from such a distant and foreign period without written documents? This is a good question. Obviously in this first unit we are on somewhat shaky or theoretical ground. Yet by careful analysis of the images and I mean thousands of images which are known from the time using research methods developed by a combined effort of anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, and art historians, certain theories regarding the meaning of the art have been presented and are a valid way of studying the art. Frequently Paleontologists will rely on studies of modern tribal societies where contemporary interviews were recorded explaining the art or more recent accounts are available of the peoples and their art. In other words, it has been noted that there is a strong relationship between how modern tribal peoples create and use art and how prehistoric tribal peoples do. Both cultures seem to have connected their art to shamanism, animism, and to a variety of different types of rituals. This is the reason we will be studying them in the same unit. Paleolithic man shows an extraordinary flourish for art around c. 40-30,000 B.C. Where this came from is something of a mystery but we can assume he had developed his 'eye' for art images long before the first cave art appeared. We see this early style best of all at Chauvet the most recently found cave site in France (1994).

Jump into the Chauvet cave web site, as well as the Lascaux, and see the marvels of this era.

(NOTE: To get back to this site after you have viewed the following links, you must minimize or close their window completely. The ARTII site stays open underneath for cross referencing.)

Chauvet Button Lascaux Button
Experience Chauvet Cave Experience Lascaux Cave

Many modern and contemporary artists in recent decades have merged these earlier art forms with their own. For references to this concept see another page on our website.  

If you wish to tackle the question of Paleolithic image making and its psychological and social implications consult this fascinating, yet very specialized research by Dr. J. A. Cheyne. into the field of Paleo-Psychology

Generally the term prehistoric is divided into three or four approximate (note the small c for circa, meaning approximate) dating categories, such as:

Paleolithic - c. 40,000 - 8,000 BC
Mesolithic - c. 8,000 - 6,000  BC
Neolithic - In the Near or Middle East - c. 8,000 - 7,000 BC
Neolithic - In Northern Europe - c. 4,000 - 1500 BC

Mesolithic Art:

Mesolithic Battle Scene-Cave in Eastern Spain Mesolithic, or the middle stone age, is a time of transition, moving away from the severity of small tribes challenged in their survival by the glacial climate; into a society with greater interdependency due to the temperate climate. In the scene to the right, which is a reproduction from one of the many rock shelter caves in Eastern Spain, identified by most experts as a battle scene (although it could also be a hunting one), note many changes in style as well as meaning:

Question: (These questions may be answered on the Etudes Discussion Board for online students, on the Webboard for in-class students.)

Describe some of the changes in style that you see in comparing the images from the Mesolithic scene above to  those you looked at from Paleolithic.

Most of what has survived from the Mesolithic era are small statuette size works and cave paintings located in shallow shelter caves in Spain or Algeria.  Due to the shallow nature of the caves and the exposure to changes in temperature and climate, these sites are frequently in a severe state of deterioration, and we are forced to look at reproductions.   We will not emphasize this area, yet these works are fascinating to use as comparisons to Paleolithic, noting the strong differences in style and function.



It is this last stage of prehistoric, the Neolithic, or new stone age, we will observe the greatest degree of change, due to two main factors: the emergence of agriculture, starting in the areas of the Middle East, modern Jordan, Iran and Iraq, and sections of S.W. Turkey; and more specialization of labor due to increased population. The changes are so great that it has been called the "Neolithic Revolution". A term historians equate with modern concepts like the "Industrial Revolution" or the "Computer Revolution".  There are two Neolithic cities we will study in the Near East, Jericho and a city in Turkey (or ancient Anatolia) called Catal Huyuk.

Question: What changes do you think would be associated with the emergence of agriculture to warrant this concept of a "Neolithic Revolution"? 
(NOTE: To get back to this site after you have viewed the following links, you must minimize or close their window completely. The ARTII site stays open underneath for cross referencing.)
View some good photos of the works as part of the Neolithic Rev. in Europe
View an ongoing excavation of a Neolithic site in Turkey. (Click on Anatolia.)
Excavations at the Neolithic site of Catal Huyuk, Turkey.
(Updated August, 2007)
 Last Published 7/14/16