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The Symbolic World

How did the first modern humans make sense of their world? Clearly, our answer to this question will never be complete. Yet images made by prehistoric people provide some clues to the origin of symbolic thought and hint at the presence, deep in antiquity, of language and myth, social roles and religion. One of the very first symbolic objects may be a 75,000-year-old engraved ochre plaque from South Africa.

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© AMNH / Denis Finnin

Horse engraved on a limestone block; c. 25,000 years old; Abri Labattut, France

Although the capacity for creative expression most likely arose in Africa, the early symbolic record there is sparse. The most dramatic known images and ornaments were made by later modern humans living in Ice Age Europe between around 40,000 and 10,000 years ago. Displayed in the exhibits are exquisite examples of the art that has survived from that time.

Engraved Image

The outline of a horse was incised on this piece of limestone some 25,000 years ago at a rock shelter in southwestern France. Wide, deeply carved lines make use of the natural curves of the rock to create the illusion that the figure stands out in relief. Rather than being a literal portrayal of the chunky, ponylike horses of the time, this rendition abstracts the graceful essence of the horse.

Europe's Oldest Art
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© Jean Clottes

Chauvet Cave lions

The ability to paint, carve and engrave visual symbols was likely brought into Europe by Homo sapiens, who spread across the continent beginning around 40,000 years ago. These early Europeans created ornaments and images of remarkable precision and grace. The first phase of art in Europe, which lasted until about 28,000 years ago, was the product of a culture known as the Aurignacian. Tiny ivory statuettes, magnificent cave paintings and the oldest clearly formed animal images we know of were made during this time.

Ice Age Cultures

The Aurignacian culture is named for a cave in Aurignac, France, where prehistoric relics were excavated in 1860. Artifacts similar to those found at this site were later found in other parts of Europe, and archaeologists assume that the people who made them had basic cultural traditions in common. Ice Age art may be attributed to the Aurignacian culture or later cultural phases, depending on its style, radiocarbon age and associations.

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© Jean Clottes

Shaded horses, Chauvet Cave, France; more than 30,000 years old

Art Underground

Spectacular images of animals decorate the walls of Chauvet Cave, in the Ardèche River valley of southern France. These delicately shaded horses appear alongside rhinoceroses, lions, wild cattle and reindeer, in an underground mural that is more than 30,000 years old.

The Human Form

The Gravettian phase of Ice Age culture began around 28,000 years ago and extended from Spain to Siberia. Artists of the time continued to carve beads and pendants. They also made stylized images of people, most often in the form of female figurines. Around 22,000 years ago, archaeologists mark the end of the Gravettian period in some parts of France and Spain. But in regions to the east, similar art forms continued to be made until about 10,000 years ago, in a cultural period known as the Epigravettian.

Feminine Mystique

A series of female statuettes were found at the site of an Ice Age hunting camp in Russia. Who made them, and why? We don't know, but their fate is intriguing: some 25,000 years ago, they were carefully placed in pits and then covered with soil. Many are decorated with patterned marks suggesting clothing or jewelry.

Terra Cotta

Ice Age artists mass-produced animal forms at one hunting camp in what is now the Czech Republic. Molded of clay and then baked in a kiln, they are among the oldest fired ceramic objects ever discovered. Thousands of fragments found at the site suggest figures were ritually heated until they exploded.

Master Carvers

During the Solutrean period, between 22,000 and 18,000 years ago, people began deeply carving large images directly into rock walls. Like earlier artists, they engraved stone and pierced animal teeth and seashells to make ornaments. They also introduced some of Ice Age Europe's most elegant flint tools. Solutrean art has a limited range: it is found only in parts of France, Spain and Belgium. While this cultural trend occurred in the west, people to the east continued to make art much like that of earlier times.

The Exuberance of Nature

Artists mastered a broad array of carving and painting techniques during the Magdalenian period, from 18,000 to 10,000 years ago. In this late phase of Ice Age culture, animals were depicted in a variety of forms, from cave murals to refined figurines and engravings. People of the Magdalenian excelled at carving antler from reindeer, the main food source of the time. They decorated tools such as the spear-thrower, a handheld device for hurling spears with greater momentum, and etched designs into lengths of antler known as batons.

Wild Horses

One of the most common subjects of Ice Age art is the horse, a wild animal that was sometimes hunted for food. Magdalenian artists often portrayed this graceful creature in action and in subtle detail. In one signature art form of the time, the hyoid (throat) bone of a horse was shaped and engraved to show a horse head in profile. Such plaques were often perforated and may have been worn as pendants.

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