Ice Age Cave Art


I. In the Beginning There Was the Image 

The first undeniable evidence we have for the human faculty of imagining is the wonder- inspiring cave paintings and associated etchings from the Upper Paleolithic of late Ice Age Europe. These date to a period of ca. 10,000 to 25,000 years ago, and are concentrated in southwestern Europe. This cave art is dominated by graphic representations of large mammals, a polysemic bestiary that includes bison, horse, auroch, woolly mammoth, reindeer, giant stag, woolly rhinoceros, ibex, bear, and lion. What usually strikes the modern viewer is the naturalness of the figures (including modeling of body mass and portrayal of fur) along with the apparent reality of the postures (including ungulate threat displays, and felines hunting). Therianthropes (part animal, part human) are also depicted, but they are relatively rare. Patterns of dots and lines, as well as 'symbolic' signs are not uncommon at some sites. The modern interpretations of this corpus of imagery are diverse and unsettled, perhaps reflecting more than anything the problems of interpreting cognitive systems born of extinct ecologies now thousands of years in the past (Conkey 1996).

The primary context of this ancient imagery is the remote underground cave passage or gallery. The experience of spelunking will help you appreciate some of the points that need to be made in this regard. In particular, the profound silence of the underground, imparting a timeless quality to the underworld, and the cognitive twilight of re-emergence.  Our comments below are more specifically based on personal experiences visiting four of the important sites in the limestone caves of southwestern France in 2009 and 2015. Those sites were as follows.

1) Pech-Merle (spectacular cave galleries and drip-stone formations with a rich bestiary in paintings), referred to as the Sistine Chapel of Prehistory by the late Abbe Breuil. The cave art here was discovered in 1922, and includes an extension near the entrance, subsequently referred to Le Combel, that was discovered in 1949 (Leroi-Gourhan 1967?:321; Lawson 2012:373-375). The main portion of the site was opened to the public in 1924. The bestiary includes figures of woolly mammoths (predominant), bison, horses, aurochs, deer, ibex, a megaloceros ('giant elk' or stag), a lion, and a bear. The images also include a fish (pike family), negative human-hand stencils, anthropomorphic figures, meandering lines, and numerous simple 'signs'. The most well-known painted figures include a remarkable pair of spotted horses. They are an example of the recognition of the significance of this imagery which now characterize our views. See Figures PM-2 to Pm-4. Also go on a virtual visit of the Pech-Merle Cave at --, and see 'Leopard Appaloosas' for yourself on Google Images.

                                    Figures PM. Pech-Merle Karst Complex

Figure PM-1: Entrance to adjoining cave, Le Combel: ceiling with painted large red spots (Leroi-Gourhan 1967?, p.159).


Figure PM-2: Main Chamber Pech-Merle: a panel of leopard-spotted horses ca. 11 feet in length with negative hand stencils, as seen at a distance in the cave (French post card by Castelet).  Abbe Breuil (1952: 269) notes each horse is 1.6 meters in length, that the figures represent two pregnant mares, and that "the one on the right has used a chance shape of the rock for its head, which, though alike in form, is bigger and outlined by a thin red line" (that line is not visible at a distance). In fact the horse on the right has two heads, one within the other. The disproportionately-small stylized-head of the horse on the right is drawn within the end of the rock-face which resembles the natural shape of a horse's head, as noted by Breuil: see Figure PM-3.


Figure PM-3: Simplified drawing of the panel of leopard-spotted horses (gift shop postcard envelope). Note the horse on the right has two heads, the one within the other. Compare with Figure PM-2.  [Le Combel also includes figures with disproportionately small heads (e.g. see G13.3 in Lawson 2012)].  


Figure PM-4: History of leopard-spotted horses, from Ludwig et al. 2015.



2)  Combarelles (a low narrow zigzag corridor over 200 meters in length) is a cave with hundreds of finely engraved images (many overlapping) representing a diverse bestiary of large mammals, predominantly horses, but also a few dozen bison and woolly mammoths, along with a few reindeer, ibexes, bears, aurochs, lions, and one woolly rhino, plus a number of sketchy anthropomorphic figures (see Figure C-1, a schematic plan of the cave and its bestiary). This cave art was discovered in 1901 and the cave referred to as one of the Six Giants of paleolithic art by the late Abbe Breuil (1952). The etchings are not easy to see in direct light, but at an angle they begin to visually emerge. Originally, thousands of years ago, when they were fresh, they would have been like white-line drawings etched through the patina of the cave walls.

                                                Figure C-1: Combarelles

Figure C-1: Schematic plan of the main cave with conventionalized representations of the compositions (Leroi-Gourhan 1967?: his Figure 147, p.349, modified by omitting the Abbe Brueil's numbering system). 


       Desdemaines-Hugon (2010: 53) was stimulated by the fifty or so anthropomorphic figures at Combarelles (compared to the one or two usually seen in a cave), to comment that during the 25,000 years of Paleolithic figurative art "there is not one full picture of a human, realistic from head to toe, with a facial expression and detailed clothing". This is in marked contrast to many of the thousands of animals represented over this time period in paleolithic art as a whole. Even rather realistic human faces seen elsewhere in France, etched on stone tablets, seem caricatured.


                                                   Figure C-2: Combarelles

Figure C-2: Abbe Brueil's (1952: his Figure 66, p.103) rendering of a tangled group of horses and a mammoth: length of the figuration is 1.3 meters. Note, what would be the ear of the head of the horse in the middle is 'curiously' the horn of a bovine. 



3) Font-de-Gaume (a narrow gallery some 130 meters in length with two side galleries) is one of the foremost polychrome sites. It is in the same valley as Combarelles, but in a valley floor vale, not up in the cliffs.  Its bestiary includes engraved polychrome paintings and multiple-superimposed engravings of bison (predominating), horses, woolly mammoths, aurochs, reindeer, ibex, a couple woolly rhinos and a bear, along with several groups of 'signs' and a few negative human-hand stencils.  Discovered after Les Combarelles, in 1901, also referred to as one of the Six Giants of paleolithic cave art by Abbe Breuil, its figures were subsequently recorded by Breuil and published in 1910 under the patronage of the Prince of Monaco (Breuil 1952: 75). Its most famous image is that of the "licking reindeer" ('a male on the left licking a kneeling female on the right'). Figure FDG is the well-known rendering of this scene by Breuil: the original cave painting is now badly deteriorated.


Figure FDG. Font De Gaume. Scene of two reindeer facing each other: a male on the left, a female on the right. Rendering by Abbe Breuil. The length of the scene is ca. 2.5 meters (Breuil 1952). From (accessed 15 February 2018), Figure attributed there to Desdemaines-Hugon (2010, her Plate 3, photo by Philippe Jugie). 

Breuil (1952:81) describes the scene as the male "snuffing the head" of the female. He notes that the two figures are "only clearly seen in certain lighting" (that would have been candle light when he did his studies).  He also notes that "The dominant colours, red and brown, are enhanced by fine engraving".  Desdemaines-Hugon (2010:19) reports from her personal observations that the "finely engraved head" of the reindeer on the left "shows that its mouth is open and it is licking the forehead of the other". She sees another detail, "the protruding tongue is in fact on a small natural bump on the wall". She notes that "the sensibility emanating from the two reindeer…never fails to move the viewer deeply", and that the aesthetics are a testimony to the artist's intelligence, adaptability, talent, and sense of beauty. 

Only a few of the visitors to Font-de-Gaume are fortunate enough to see all this, even among those with an attentive, discerning, eye. The moisture conditions and the lighting must be just right. On a visit together in 2009, FSW but not CRP saw this scene clearly. In her words:

      "Not everyone in the handful of people allowed on each tour can make out the gesture in the dark         shadows of the tunnel, but in the right angle of flickering light, I glimpsed an infinite tender protection          embodied in the male’s tongue gently extending towards the kneeling female’s forehead before him. She looked pregnant --- perhaps in labor, or mortally wounded --- and exhausted. It is a surpassingly intimate moment. Being so close brought me to tears. And the awareness of the connection between me and that prehistoric pair of ungulates included the human artist who captured their intimacy with such genius, so many years ago. Had she or he observed the pair in the wild and reproduced the scene there, deep within the rock walls of a sunny hillside? This shared view, our shared experience of the world across tens of thousands of years blew the cap off my sense of self as voyeur, tourist, student of art, scholar of rock paintings. There in the dark I was stripped to a core self." [FSW]



4) Rouffignac (two visits) is a large karst system originally formed by underground rivers. It begins at the modern entrance as a motorway-sized tunnel leading, after several hundred meters, to areas of relatively concentrated images comprised of intermittent engravings and black drawings that go from being on the walls to being on the ceiling as the cave roof lowers, including a 'Great Ceiling' of images viewed very close up. Most of the images in the cave are of woolly mammoths, over 150 of them. Desdemaines-Hugon (2010: 100-101) notes that this represents nearly one-half of all the mammoth figures known from the European Paleolithic art caves. At Rouffignac some of the mammoths, including a panel of ten (Plassard and Plassard 1995:15&23), are arranged in groups facing each other (Ibid. p.23; Leroi-Gourhan 1967?:354-355, his Figures 536&537, p.444; Lawson 2012: his figure 7.2, p.237).   The Rouffignac bestiary also includes a couple dozen or so bison, and about a dozen each horses, ibexes and woolly rhinos, plus numerous meandering-line 'designs'. The animal figures were created with three techniques. Where the chalky surface of the cave walls was soft, lines were created in the surface with fingers. Where the surface was harder, lines were engraved with stone tools. On the hardest walls, the technique was that of drawing with black manganese. As at Combarelles, partial covering of some of the figures by calcite helped to authenticate their antiquity. Contaminated by graffiti and seen through the editorial lens of local Christian suspicions and superstitions, it was not until the 1950s that this cave art was accepted for what it is, late Paleolithic in origin (Leroi-Gourhan 1967?:353; Desdemaines-Hugon 2010:98-99; Bahn 2016:120,122).

Figure R-1 illustrates a rather elaborately finger-engraved woolly mammoth. Figure R-2 illustrates one of the woolly rhinos drawn with black manganese.  The drawings of woolly rhinos at Rouffignac are notable for the depictive power of their expressive simplicity in deftly executed single lines. Figure R-2 is the second individual in a frieze of three rhinos in a line one behind the other. The left rhino in the series is depicted in Desdemaines-Hugon (2010: her Figure 11). The entire frieze is depicted in Leroi-Gourhan 1967?: his Figure 535, p.444) and Bahn (2016: his Figure 6.8, p.122). Each rhino in this frieze is a distinct individual. The one seen in Figure R-2 is an older individual, judging by the length of the horns, and Plassard and Plassard (1995:10) inform us that "The reverse slope of the upper horn is characteristic of an old animal."

                                                Figures R. Rouffignac 

Figure R-1: Left side of a frieze of five engraved woolly mammoths. This view of two adults and one young animal (bottom right) is ca.1.7 meters in length. The cave-wall surface was soft here and the figures engraved with the fingers. Image stitched together from Plassard and Plassard (1995:8-9).



Figure R-2: Central woolly rhino in a frieze of three rhinos in a line one behind the other. This individual figure is 110 cm in length. Modern graffito has been removed with Photoshop. Image from Plassard and Plassard (1995:10).



Figure R-3: Great Ceiling. A color coded sketch (based on a drawing by Claude Barriere)  showing the diversity of the intermingled mammoths, bison, ibex, horses and rhinos drawn in black manganese on the 'Great Ceiling' at Rouffignac (from Plassard and Plassard 1995:19).

This ceiling 'Great Ceiling' at Rouffignac is ca. 850 meters in from the cave entrance. Originally the cave ceiling at this point was only ca. 80cm (2' 8")  above the cave floor, so the artists must have executed the figures lying upon their backs, and they were never able to see the entire approximately 8-by-7 meter area of figures in one view. The over fifty animals drawn here in black manganese are a seeming intermingling of mammoths, bison, ibex, horses and rhinos. The modern sketch of the drawings seen in Figure R-3 color codes the different species to help us appreciate the diversity. It is notable that the drawings on the ceiling do not include abstract designs or 'signs'. Leroi-Gourhan (1967?) states that "The absence of signs is most unusual" (p.534), a surprising aspect of this 'monumental composition' (p.355).  Plassard and Plassard (1995:20, 24-25, 27, 29), Leroi-Gourhan (1967? :444, his figures 539-541, 544)  and Desdemaines-Hugon (2010: her figures 12 & 13) provide photos of a few of the Paleolithic drawings.



Expansion of the Scientific Imagination into the Decorated Caves of the Late Stone Age

 Historically, this story begins with Altamira Cave in the Cantabrian Mountains of Spain. It was the first of the Paleolithic painted caves to be discovered. Breuil (1952:51) re-tells the story of an amateur archaeologist, Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, excavating in the entrance of the cave in 1879 when his five year old daughter Maria, playing nearby in the cave, saw part of the spectacular frieze of the Altamira Bison, the painted ceiling that became the world's most famous Paleolithic work of art (see Figures A-1 and A-2 below). Some of Maria's recollections are recounted in Kuhn (1955:52-57) [and partly re-conveyed in Lawson (2012:51) and Bahn (2016:13)]. In 1880 Sanz de Sautuola published an account of this ancient stone-age cave art in a booklet describing his studies of the cave, his excavations, the paleolithic artifacts, and the possible relation between the Altamira painted figures and the prehistoric engravings on bone previously discovered in France.  Lawson (2012), and especially Bahn (2016), give an account of how it was received with disbelief by most of the leading French prehistorians, and how later discoveries, beginning in 1894, and the representational work of the young trainee-priest Henri Prosper Edouard Breuil, beginning in 1900, would help to overturn doubts about the authenticity of Paleolithic cave art.  

            As Leroi-Gourhan (1967?:26) emphasizes, French experts that had by 1865 or 1870 accepted the authenticity of stone-age incised bone depicting extinct animals refused to accept the authenticity of the painted bison that Maria Sanz de Sautuola first saw on the ceiling of Altamira. New discoveries would change that. Breuil (1952:51) records that it was only after the discovery of La Mouthe (1895-1896), and especially Combarelles and Font-de-Gaume in 1901, that reluctant French prehistorians came to accept the cave art (and that of Altamira, the First Giant) for what it was. He briefly summarizes this part of the story (1952: 15-17, 52). Criticisms of the new discoveries were strong, but at the 1902 Congress of the Association Francaise pour l'Advancement des Sciences held in Montauban, an excursion to the newly discovered caves was organized. "The innumerable engravings at Combarelles, the many paintings at Font-de-Gaume, both covered by ancient concretions, gained the assent of those who sought the truth." Amongst those was Emile Cartailhac, who immediately published that year in L' Anthropologie (Vol.13, pp. 348-354) what Breuil describes as a brave recantation, the third part of the title of which was "Mea Culpa" d'un sceptique: he declared he had been mistaken about Altamira. Lawson (2012:53-56, 105) provides some of the background for this, and Bahn (2016:20) points out that "It is clear that Cartailhac changed his mind at the last minute only when the evidence became overwhelming". Cartailhac then invited Breuil to come with him to make a scientific study of the paintings at Altamira, which they did later in 1902.

In Breuil's words: "What, 20 years earlier, had seemed unthinkable to most people, now became evident: Upper Palaeolithic Man possessed an evolved Art, he was capable not only of sculpturing and engraving small objects of bone or ivory, but of decorating the walls and roofs of caverns with big painted and engraved frescoes."  [Breuil 1952: 51.]

Over one hundred years later, this imagery from ca. thirteen to fifteen thousand years ago still informs our imagination.

            The Painted Ceiling at Altamira covers a space ca. 18 meters long and 9 meters wide, the figures drawn with charcoal and shades of iron oxides and red ocher. A high quality black and white photograph of the main portion of the ceiling can be found in Leroi-Gourhan (1967?, p.460 his Figure 670, photo by Jean Vertut). A color photomontage of the entire ceiling can be seen in Bahn (2016, p.14 his Figure 1.10, photo by Saura Ramos). The color photographs of Saura Ramos (1999) are brilliant and a large series of these can be seen by the reader in that publication.

                                                Figures A. Altamira

Figure A-1: Altamira Bison. View of what Maria Sanz de Sautuola was the first to see in 1879. The painted ceiling of the cave chamber nearest to the entrance. Image from Lawson (2012: his Plate I, photo by Pedro A. Saura Ramos).



Figure A-2: Altamira Bison, close-up.  One of the bison painted on boss-like projections or bulges on the cave ceiling. Image stitched from Saura Ramos (1999:108-109, his photo). In his photo caption, Saura Ramos notes that the Paleolithic painter adapted the figure to the protuberance without sacrificing the animal's proportions. Was the animal rolling in the dust, or mud, as seen in African wild buffalo?



Figure A-3: Cartailhac's 1902 re-publication of the main part of the drawing of the Altamira painted ceiling originally appearing in a 1880 booklet by Sanz de Sautuola on the cave and his pioneering archaeological work there. Lawson (2012:53) notes that this 1880 booklet contains the first illustrated account of Paleolithic cave art, and that the copying-sketch was done by the French painter Paul Ratier. [cf. Lawson 2012, Figure 3.2, p.5, with Cartailhac's Figure 1.]


            The most well-known depiction of the Painted Ceiling is still that of the late Abbe Breuil (see Figures A-4 and A-5 below). In 1902 Breuil worked eight hours a day for a month, lying on his back sketching the figures by candle light. His measures of the originals were used to make final copies. In 1932 he returned to Altamira when there was electric lighting, redrawing a few figures and retouching his earlier copies (Bahn 2016:67). Figure A-4 is Breuil's master sketch of the main part of the Painted Ceiling (Breuil 1952: his Figure 21, p.66). It omits most of the abstract signs that can be seen in photographs. Figure A-5 is the final rendition (Breuil 1952: his Figure 3, pp.54-55). Breuil's works were not exact facsimiles, but works of art in themselves, in his own words "in keeping with the spirit of the original" (Lawson 2012:65; also see Bahn 2016:67-69).


Figure A-4: Breuil's (1952:66, his Figure 21) master sketch of the main portion of the Altamira Painted Ceiling. Length of the painted area depicted here is ca. 14 meters.


Figure A-5: Altamira Painted Ceiling. Composition by Gaston Ferre after the pastel drawings of Abbe Breuil. Stitched from Breuil (1952:54-55, his Figure 3).


In the caves you are in another world. Here you experience more than the illusions of reality that the technology of industrial civilization provides (e.g., Thompson 2017). Your whole self --- body and soul, together --- is moving through an unearthly world. In addition to sensing that ambient unworldliness you dramatically encounter the representations of a megafauna once known to the Ice Age hunter and foragers of late Pleistocene Eurasia. Sometimes, as at Altamira, the images are part of the contours of the rock surfaces. With your heightened sense of awareness moving into the total darkness ahead, the images are suddenly visible in the artificial torchlight. You can imagine the possibilities of an even more dramatic experience for the prehistoric visitor using the flickering light of a natural-oil lamp or torch.



Bahn, P.G. 2016. Images of the Ice Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Breuil, H. 1952. Four Hundred Centuries of Cave Art. Translated by Mary E. Boyle. Realized by Fernand Windels.  Montignac, Dordogne: Centre d'Etudes et de Documentation Préhistoriques.

Conkey, M.W. 1996. A History of the Interpretation of European 'Palaeolithic Art': Magic, Mythogram, and Metaphors for Modernity. In Handbook of Human Symbolic Evolution, A. Lock and C.R. Peters, eds.; pp.288-349. Oxford: Clarendon Press. New York: Oxford University Press. [Reprinted 1999 as a Paperback Edition by Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.]

Desdemaines-Hugon, C. 2010. Stepping-Stones: A Journey Through the Ice Age Caves of the Dordogne. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kuhn, H. On the Track of Prehistoric Man. Translated from the German by Alan Houghton Brodrick. New York: Random House.

Lawson, A.J. 2012. Painted Caves: Palaeolithic Rock Art in Western Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Leroi-Gourhan, A. 1967? Treasures of Prehistoric Art. Translated by Norbert Guterman. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Ludwig, A., et al. 2015. Twenty-five thousand years of fluctuating selection on leopard complex spotting and congenital night blindness in horses. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B; Biological Sciences Vol. 370, Issue 1660.

Pettitt, P. and Bahn, P. 2015. An alternative chronology for the art of Chauvet cave. Antiquity 89:542-553.

Plassard, M-O. and Plassard, J. 1995. Visiting Rouffignac Cave. Translated by Angela Moyon. Bordeaux: Editions Sud Quest.

Saura Ramos, P. A. 1999. Photographing Altamira. In The Cave of Altamira, A. Beltran, General Editor, pp. 89-160 ff. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Thompson, O. 2017. The illusion of reality: The shocking power of virtual reality was all the buzz once before --- about 150 years ago. Smithsonian October Issue: 18, 20-22, 84, 86.

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