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Stoneage England
Ancient art

Prehistoric European Artifacts


Anthropologists conjecture, not without dispute, that the first man appeared in Africa and migrated North into Europe and East into the Middle East and from there to India and China and over a land bridge into Alaska and the Americas. This happened quite early, maybe 500 centuries before Christ. No one knows how many migrations took place or in what order they occurred.

But some of the oldest artifacts come from Europe, starting 250 centuries before Christ, and some are clearly art. Prehistoric European artifacts share little with the prehistoric traditions found in Mid-Eastern artifacts.

Art is generally thought of as a human artifact made for pleasure, not for use. This is a rough definition because religious art is usually made for some kind of use, but nevertheless it is usually categorized as art. Some tools are made so beautifully that they qualify as an art object, but yet they were obviously made to be used.

Many artifacts have survived from prehistoric Europe. Some are clearly art. For example: the carving of a mammoth ivory tusk into the form of a horse; which has been dated at 280 centuries BC. Or the Willendorf "Venus" (found in prehistoric site in Austria in 1908)

Prehistory Europe: Venus of Willendorf
which is a stone carving dated around 250 centuries BC. These are accomplished works of art for such an early period and with the crude tools assumed to be available.




Climate and Cultural Development in Europe


The global temperature has cycled in a 10 degrees C. range for the last 4,000 centuries. The cause of the temperature change is not completely understood, nor why the variations occur in each cycle.
Prehistory Europe: [diagram] Five Recent Periods of Global Warming

It is difficult to conceive of time cycles in this large range. But if you look on the chart above you can see a little mark next to the 20c AD line. That is year 1 AD; so the 20 centuries since Christ are that little segment.

This next chart may give a better perspective. It covers only the most recent ice age and the period following it. Note on this scale man has been around since 3,000c BC, so only the last warming period is a relatively recent occurrence. And the modern cultural period is a speck compared with the time man has been on the earth.

On the other side of the coin, few humans existed for those 300,000 years; it was not until agriculture provided enough food resources that the human population began to explode.

Prehistory Europe: [diagram] Average Temperature and Recent Cultural Events

This pattern of temperature fluctuation does not give the whole story. It does not describe local temperature variations that may have occurred during the period. In fact climate variation according to the latest evidence is highly variable; for example around 120c BC there was a dramatic 7 C. warming within 50 years. Also in 1,200c BC, in the middle of a long warm period, the climate cooled 10 C. for several centuries. More detailed evidence may show even wilder variations on a year-to-year basis. It appears that we are living in an unusual period of relatively long-term temperature stability

Note that the Willendorf "Venus" is dated about the onset of the last ice advance. Clay objects, antler carvings, and cave drawings also come from that period. Essentially nothing of artistic significance comes from before this era.

The dates in the above chart for the historical era, bronze and iron ages are based on when something happened somewhere in the world. This is a bit misleading most of these innovations occurred in the Middle East first, and it was tens of centuries later before these technologies had spread to Europe. The emphasis on climate is also a little misleading, for the humans in the Mideast were far less affected by the cold periods than their northern brothers.

It is clear looking at the data that global warming was happening with or without the presence of man. It is also clear that if the climate is about to change the recent warming trends are just a continuation of a historical pattern; and the real worry is the onset of another period of intense cold.

It is also clear that all the chest beating about removing CO2 from the atmosphere, while important, will probably not change things significatly. In general it is a good idea not to polute the environment and everyone ought to embrace and act on it, that is a moral judgement, but in terms of global warming it will probably not have much of an effect.


Paleolithic Cave Art

European Paleolithic man used caves during the periods of global cooling, at least for ceremonial events; evidence for this comes from many areas which contain cave encampments in which the remains of burnt wood can be carbon dated to the last global cooling period. But there is not enough evidence of long-term occupation to believe that caves are where man spent the cold spells.



Prehistory Europe: [map] Some Important Stoneage Sites


No art has been traced to a cool period beyond the most recent one which indicates that the human settlement of Europe occurred 150c to 200c BC.

Some of the most famous Paleolithic cave art locations are Lascaux, discovered in 1940; Altamira, discovered in 1879 and explored in the 1950s; Chauvet discovered in 1994, and the underwater cave Cosquer, discovered in 1991 near Marseilles. New European caves with Paleolithic art are probably still yet to be found.

The Lascaux cave is the most well explored network of caves and Paleolithic art ever discovered. A duplicate of it has been made for the Tourist trade and to protect the original. Janson's "History of Art" contains a map of the cave, an artist's version made compatible with the web is presented here.

Prehistoric Europe: [map] Lascaux Cave


 annon: [cave painting] ceiling, painted gallery, Lascaux
Painted Gallery


 annon: [cave painting] shaft of the dead man, lascaux
Shaft of the Dead Man

 annon: [cave painting] detail dead-man, shaft of the dead man, lascaux
[detail - dead man]

 annon: [cave painting] detail bull, shaft of the dead man, lascaux
[detail - Bull]


The painted caves do not seem to be dwelling places over long periods of time. The paintings are usually done in fairly inaccessible and uncomfortable places. This leads one to believe that they were symbolic, probably part of some ritual ceremony. A guess is they were part of the coming of age ritual, one of the secrets that you were granted when a youth became a hunter in his own right. It was probably a men-only ritual.

Probably the best Paleolithic art so far discovered is the most recently discovered: Chauvet. There is an excellent book produced by the discoverer with wonderful pictures. To find out about Chauvet visit the French ministry of Culture website (click here).



Cave Drawings from Chauvet

 annon: [cave painting] animals from chauvet

 annon: [cave painting] horses from chauvet

 annon: [cave painting] hyene from chauvet

 annon: [cave painting] lion from chauvet

There are still legal wrangles over the value of the land at Chauvet and the legality of the discovery. If you are interested in the gossip a bit of web surfing should find it. However the sophistication and quality of the drawing at Chauvet is still amazing, despite any modern bickering about ownership.

One must never forget that the intelligence of man has not changed, as far as we know, from those early days. This is after all very late in the evolution of man. So much so these people are really indistinguishable from us. So people had just as much going on in their head as we do, they just didn't have the technology or resources we do. So one should not think of these early brothers as less, except perhaps a bit poorer in technology.


Stone Circles and Stone Monuments

Neolithic stone circles and land markings occur throughout the UK and Europe. They are of a much later date. They occur well after the historical era about 20c to 10c BC, and well after early-man in England had settled down and begun to grow food rather than be nomadic hunters. Stonehenge here is classified as prehistoric art of the United Kingdom; however it should be realized that the pyramids in Egypt predate it, 25c, and they are from "historical" times. However Stonehenge is probably the most impressive Neolithic stone monument in Europe, and as far as we know, the people who built it did not have a written language. Select the image below to learn more about Stonehenge.

Prehistory UK: Stonehenge Picture/Photo




Stoneage England
Ancient art

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