The Art of the Stone Age: Paleolithic
The Paleolithic era is characterized by the emergence of basic stone tools and stone art in the
archaeological record. For the first time, humans began to create durable products of self-expression that served no function for survival. The diagnostic art of this period appears in two main forms: small sculptures and large paintings and engravings on cave walls. There are also various examples of carved bone and ivory flutes in the Paleolithic era, indicating another art form utilized by prehistoric humans.
Paleolithic small sculptures are made of clay, bone, ivory, or stone and consist of simple figurines depicting animals and humans. In particular, Venus figurines are the most indicative of this era. They are highly stylized depictions of women with exaggerated female parts representing fertility and sexuality. They typically date to the Gravettian period (26,000–21,000 years ago), but the earliest known Venus figurine (Venus of Hohle Fels) dates to at least 35,000 years ago, and the most recent (Venus of Monruz) dates to roughly 11,000 years ago. They are most common in the Mediterranean region, but there are examples from as far as Siberia. Archaeologists can only speculate on their meaning, but their ubiquitous nature indicates a universal human attraction to art and possibly religion.
The second main form of Paleolithic art consists of monumental cave paintings and engravings. This type of rock art is typically found in European cave shelters, dating to 40,000–14,000 years ago, when the earth was largely covered in glacial ice. The images are predominately depictions of animals, human hand prints, and geometric patterns. The most common animals in cave art are the more intimidating ones, like cave lions, woolly rhinoceroses, and mammoths. These paintings could be creative recordings of nature, factual recordings of events, or part of some spiritual ritual, but scholars generally agree there is a symbolic and/or religious function to cave art.
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