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READ: Art of the Paleolithic

History isn’t all wars and trade routes. Humans have made art from the beginning of our existence, and history depends on the creativity of our Paleolithic ancestors.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

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Second read: key ideas and understanding content

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By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. According to the author, what are the limitations to understanding how and when humans first developed the ability to create art?
  2. What is the “Paleolithic Cognitive Revolution?”
  3. Why do you think archaeologists divide the Paleolithic into periods like the Upper and Middle Paleolithic?
  4. Why does the author state we should consider pushing back the timeline of the cognitive revolution to include the Middle Paleolithic era?
  5. Why is it so difficult for historians to put an exact date on when the cognitive revolution began, and decide whether it should apply to other human species?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to this question:
  1. In what ways did the creation and spread of artwork in the Paleolithic period impact human communities?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Art of the Paleolithic

Painting of an early human creating art on the walls of a cave or dwelling. There are images of handprints and images of animals on the wall.
By Bridgette Byrd O’Connor
History isn’t all wars and trade routes. Humans have made art from the beginning of our existence, and history depends on the creativity of our Paleolithic ancestors.


There is no doubt that humans are an artistic species. We make music, television shows, and movies, plus we paint, draw, and sculpt. All of these things are art. Humans are able to think in the abstract. We imagine and create things that do not exist, such as unicorns, monsters, and superheroes. We also build upon the achievements of earlier periods to make art that is grounded in history but is also new.
Art brings us together into shared communities and networks that have developed as a result of our creativity. As humans have produced different works of art, we've exchanged them for other goods. That's how artwork travels from one community to another. As a result, people learn about new techniques, improve upon them, and make new works of art. All of these artistic abilities and creations help to make human culture.
But when did humans first develop the cognitive (intellectual) abilities to create art? Were Homo sapiens the only species to develop these abilities? Or did earlier species, or even other animal species, have them as well? Are language skills and collective learning needed to create art?
These questions are not that easy to answer. This is mainly because we have no written records from these periods, and few artifacts have survived. Despite these limitations, archaeologists and anthropologists have offered several theories to answer these questions.

The Paleolithic cognitive revolution

From about the 1950s to today, archaeologists and anthropologists believed that these cognitive abilities developed with the evolution of Homo sapiens. Ours was the only human species to survive. Others whose brains did not develop the same way, such as Neanderthals, became extinct. Many believe our survival was made possible by those same cognitive abilities that could create words and art. That's why some of the products of this cognitive revolution include the development of language, collective learning, and the creation of symbolic art. All of these elements were present in Homo sapiens. This is what allowed them to draw cave paintings and make sculptures that clearly expressed some symbolic thinking.
Bone flute with notches and three holes for creating different pitches.
Flute made of vulture bone from Germany, c. 35,000 years ago. By José-Manuel Benito Álvarez, CC BY-SA 2.5.
The Upper Paleolithic Cognitive Revolution: Cave paintings and Venus figurines
Cave paintings are the most recognized Paleolithic art found in Europe, mainly in Spain and France. They date to the Upper Paleolithic period from about 45,000 years ago. (The Upper Paleolithic period includes the period of time from about 50,000 years ago to about 10,000 years ago.) This is what sticks in our minds as fitting the definition of art: paintings of humans and animals that might represent some religious or spiritual meaning, like the ones shown in the images below. Another form of art that fits into this definition are the three-dimensional figurines known as Venus figures. One example is the very well-known Venus of Willendorf. These figurines might have had some spiritual meaning, such as fertility or goddess symbols. Some scholars think they were representations of spirit animals.
Image of an early cave painting featuring animals: the animals resemble bulls, deer with large antlers, and horses.
Cave paintings at Lascaux, France. By Prof saxx, public domain.
These works of art may represent a cognitive revolution on the part of Homo sapiens who lived in the European regions now called Spain and France. It was once thought that these cultural abilities were the result of a sudden cognitive shift that distinguished our species from all others. New research suggests, however, that these cognitive abilities were a gradual development.
Somewhat-abstract sculpture of a woman’s body.
Venus of Hohle Fels, c. 35,000 years ago, terracotta. By Ramessos, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Faceless sculpture of a woman’s body, made of stone.
Venus of Willendorf, c. 30,000 BCE, lime- stone. By Oke, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Compared to others, this sculpture is a more lifelike portrayal of a woman’s body. The woman is faceless.
Venus of Dolní Věstonice, c. 29,000-25,000 BCE, ceramic. By Petr Novák, CC BY-SA 2.5.
This is similar to the debate surrounding the emergence of language networks and collective learning. Some scholars argue that this was a rapid revolution that occurred about 50,000 years ago—about 150,000 to 200,000 years after the evolution of Homo sapiens. Others believe that the transition to language and collective learning appeared more gradually. More than one human species may have had artistic talents, these researchers say. If that theory were correct, it would mean we acquired cognitive abilities way back when human tools improved. That's at least 80,000 years ago and possibly even earlier.
Simply drawn cave painting of a group of lions.
Middle Paleolithic Art: Tools, weapons, and beads
Speaking of earlier, let's go back to the Middle Paleolithic period, between 300,000 and 50,000 years ago. Creative humans back then used the red clay called ochre for decorative body painting. They made tools and weapons such as bows and arrows. Tools are not usually considered to be forms of art. Yet they do require cognitive abilities to craft and brainpower to improve upon designs.
Other early Paleolithic art was composed of geometric patterns, represented in the image below from Blombos Cave in South Africa. This period also saw the creation of beads made from shells, painted and strung into necklaces and other decorations. These types of art were created at least 75,000 years ago, about 30,000 years before the cave paintings. Therefore, it would seem that we must push back the time period for this cognitive revolution to include artistic humans living in the Middle Paleolithic. It was not just for the cave painters that existed during the Upper Paleolithic period.
Image of a rock with markings carved into it.
Rock art from Blombos Cave, South Africa, c. 73,000 years ago. By originalrockart, CC BY-SA 4.0.
What about human species that developed tools long before this period, even before the evolution of Homo sapiens about 250,000 to 300,000 years ago? Would their accomplishments require us to extend the cognitive revolution back even further? Or what about early humans who made musical instruments or performed dances as part of rituals? These are certainly forms of artistic expression that would require symbolic thought and perhaps early language abilities.
Photo of shells punctuated with holes.
Perforated (pierced) shell beads from Blombos Cave, South Africa. By Chenshilwood, CC BY 2.5.
Or how about other human species such as Neanderthals who had a complex social structure and buried their dead? In fact, recent finds in Spain show that Neanderthals created cave paintings and made beads out of shells from about 120,000 to 64,000 years ago. This was long before the arrival of Homo sapiens in this region. Therefore, could the cognitive revolution actually include other human species?
Photo of rocks sharpened to points.
Flaked points from Blombos Cave, South Africa, c. 71,000 BCE. By Vincent Mourre, CC BY-SA 3.0.
There are also forms of human culture and evidence that these humans had some cognitive abilities. Some of these art forms might not be as advanced as those of the Upper Paleolithic. Still, they represent symbolic thinking.


So, should our definition of what we consider to be art change to include these earliest forms of human creation? There is certainly much evidence to suggest that technological innovations like tool-making should be considered a form of art. It takes much skill and creativity to shape tools and weapons. Those that were then hafted (attached) to longer sticks to use as spears, or were attached to arrows and shot from bows, were especially complex at the time.
As humans shared these skills through the process of collective learning, tools gradually improved and new innovations were discovered. This, in turn, might indicate that cognitive abilities began long before the creation of cave paintings. That means the roots of humans' cognitive thinking could extend much further back than 40,000 or 50,000 years ago.
Cave painting looks to depict a person sitting on top of a structure. On lower levels of the structure are animals. Next to the photo of the cave wall is a drawn image intended to make the drawing more clearly visible, as the cave image is difficult to make out.
Neanderthal cave paintings dated to c. 64,000 years ago found recently in La Pasiega, Spain. Image courtesy of C.D. Standish, A.W.G. Pike, and D.L. Hoffman/Breuil, et al.
Author bio
Bridgette Byrd O’Connor holds a DPhil in history from the University of Oxford and has taught Big History, World History, and AP U.S. Government and Politics for the past ten years at the high school level. In addition, she has been a freelance writer and editor for the Big History Project and the Crash Course World History and U.S. History curriculums.

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