Upper Paleolithic Art (short essay)
The later part of the ice age, the period referred to as
the Upper Paleolithic era, witnessed a major shift in how
human beings related to themselves and to the world around
them. From tool making to visual representations of what they
encountered in every day life, human beings of the period
left a history of their world that scholars now trace as the
beginning of the "modern" human.
The world of art most concerns us here, in this paper. Though
examples of human ingenuity and creativity during the time
have been found everywhere on the globe, the drawings and
paintings in southern France and northern Spain have been
exhaustively studied. This is due for two reasons. The first
is the remarkable condition that the artifacts and paintings
have been kept in within the region and the second is the
sheer size of the number of sites.
Early human beings began experimenting with drawing and
painting within caves, the most famous of which is in Lascaux,
in France. The art of the period features two dominant themes:
human beings and animals. The paintings and drawings were
primarily done in red and yellow colors. Representations of
animals and humans were also carved into caves, as well as
sculpted. One famous sculpture is the Venus of Willendorf.
Besides full body figures – which stretch from crude to highly
artistic – Paleolithic paintings from the era also include
the silhouettes of hands.
It is clear from viewing the pictures in caves, the sculptures
and the decoration on ordinary, functional tools like spears
and knives that the humans of the late ice age were concerned
with the world around them and were inclined to express their
creativity through depictions of them. The use of the male
and female form as well as animal life in art shows two strains.
One strain shows, an appreciation of "humanity,"
and the other strain shows an appreciation of the environment
The attention to detail in many of the works of art found
in the caves is what distinguishes the drawings, paintings,
sculptures and tools from other artifacts of the period. There
is some debate about the meaning or significance of the works
to the people that created them. The works in the caves are
the only records of their society alongside archeological
evidence. Some scholars have theorized that the Venus sculptures
and celebrations of the female form represent fertility and
the extensive paintings of horses and bison represent a call
to the gods for a plentiful bounty of food. It is impossible,
however, to discern the true meaning of the works without
Turner, Frederick W., In The Land of Temple Caves.
New York : Counterpoint, 2004.
White, Randall, Prehistoric Art. New York : Harry
N. Abrams, 2003.