Aaron Larrimore

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 around them.

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 more evidence.

Works Consulted:

Turner, Frederick W., In The Land of Temple Caves. New York : Counterpoint, 2004.

White, Randall, Prehistoric Art. New York : Harry N. Abrams, 2003.


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