The Meaning of European Upper Paleolithic Rock Art


Cristian Violatti
published on 10 February 2015
Available in other languages: Chinese, Dutch, French, Spanish

Rock art (also known as parietal art) is an umbrella term which refers to several types of creations including finger markings left on soft surfaces, bas-relief sculptures, engraved figures and symbols, and paintings onto a rock surface. Cave paintings, above all forms of prehistoric art, have received more attention from the academic research community.

Paleolithic Cave Painting in Altamira Cave
Paleolithic Cave Painting in Altamira Cave
Dario Lorenzetti (CC BY-NC-SA)

Rock art has been recorded in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia, and Europe. The earliest examples of European rock art are dated to about 36,000 years ago, but it was not until around 18,000 years ago that European rock art actually flourished. This was the time following the end of the Last Glacial Maximum (22,000-19,000 years ago) when climatic conditions were beginning to improve after reaching their most critical point of the Ice Age. Upper Paleolithic rock art disappeared suddenly during the Paleolithic-Mesolithic transition period, around 12,000 years ago, when the Ice Age environmental conditions were fading.

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It has been suggested that there is a correlation between demographic and social patterns and the flourishing of rock art: In Europe, the rock art located in the Franco-Cantabrian region (from southeastern France to the Cantabrian Mountains in northern Spain) has been studied in great detail. During the late Upper Paleolithic, this area was an ideal setting for prolific populations of several herbivorous species and, consequently, a high level of human population could be supported, which is reflected in the abundance of the archaeological material found in the region. However, in recent years the geographic region in which Upper Paleolithic rock art is known has increased significantly.

After over a century of discussion about the 'meaning' of rock art, no complete scholarship consensus exists, and several explanations have been proposed to account for the proliferation of this prehistoric art. What follows is a brief summary of some of the explanations that have been put forward to account for the meaning of European Upper Paleolithic rock art.

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Art for Art's Sake

This is possibly the simplest of all theories about Upper Paleolithic rock art. This view holds that there is no real meaning behind this type of art, that it is nothing but the product of an idle activity with no deep motivation behind it, a "mindless decoration" in the words of Paul Bahn. As simple and innocent as this view may sound, it has some important implications. Some late 19th- and early 20th-century scholars saw people in the Upper Paleolithic communities as brute savages incapable of being driven by deep psychological motivations, and they even rejected the idea that rock art could have any connection with religion/spiritual concerns or any other subtle motivation. This approach is not accepted today, but it was an influential one in the early years of archaeology.

Cave Painting in the Altamira Cave
Cave Painting in the Altamira Cave
Rameessos (Public Domain)

Boundary Markers

Some scholars have claimed that rock art was produced as boundary markers by different communities during the time when climatic conditions increased the competition for territory between Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherer communities. Cave art, according to this view, is seen as a sign of the ethnic or territorial divisions within the different Upper Paleolithic human groups coexisting in a given area. Cave art was used as a marker by hunting-gathering communities in order to indicate to other groups their 'right' to exploit a specific area and avoid potential conflicts. Michael Jochim and Clive Gamble have made very similar arguments: they proposed the idea that the Franco-Cantabrian region was a glacial refugium with such a high population density during the Upper Paleolithic that art was used as a social-cultural device to promote social cohesion in the face of the otherwise inevitable social conflict.

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This argument is in line with demographic and social patterns during the Upper Paleolithic. More population density meant more competition and territorial awareness. However, this model has some flaws. Hatfield and Pittman note that this approach is not consistent with the stylistic unity displayed by some rock art traditions. David Whitley has observed that this argument is not only filled with a dose of 'western bias.' but it also contradicts the fact that no ethnographic study provides support for this claim. It could also be said that if Upper Paleolithic groups increased their awareness of territoriality, it is reasonable to expect some sort of indication of this in the archaeological record, such as an increase of signs of injuries inflicted with sharp or blunt weapons in human remains, or other signs of trauma that could be linked to inter-group conflicts. Although in this case it is possible that if the art actually helped to avoid conflict, no such signs would be detected.

Structuralist Hyphothesis

By analyzing the distribution of the images in different caves, André Leroi-Gourhan suggested that the distribution of the cave paintings is not random: he claimed there is a structure or pattern in its distribution, sometimes referred to as a 'blueprint'. Most horses and bison figures were, according to Leroi-Gourhan's studies, located in central sections of the caves and were also the most abundant animals, about 60% of the total. Leroi-Gourhan added that bisons represented female and horse male identity. He argued that some unchanging concepts relating to male and female identity were the basis of rock art. In the words of Paul Mellars:

Paleolithic art might be seen as reflecting some fundamental "binary opposition" in Upper Paleolithic society, structured (perhaps predictably) around the oppositions between male and female components of society (Mellars, in Cunliffe 2001: 72).

In addition to studying the figurative art, Leroi-Gourhan also paid attention to the abstract motifs and tried to explain them within the context of the structuralist thought that was dominant during his time in linguistics, literary criticism, cultural studies, and anthropology, especially in France. Structuralist thought claims that human cultures are systems that can be analyzed in terms of the structural relations among their elements. Cultural systems contain universal patterns that are products of the invariant structure of the human mind: proof of this can be detected in the patterns displayed in mythology, art, religion, ritual, and other cultural traditions.

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Cave Paintings in the Chauvet Cave
Cave Paintings in the Chauvet Cave
Thomas T. (CC BY-NC-SA)

Initially, this explanation was very popular and widely accepted by scholars. However, when André Leroi-Gourhan attempted to fit the evidence into his standard layout scheme, a correlation could not be proven. It also became evident, as more rock art was discovered, that each site had a unique layout and it was not possible to apply a general scheme that would fit all of them.

Although unsuccessful, the approach of André Leroi-Gourhan was influential. He also has another important merit: at the time, structuralist thought was dominant in many academic disciplines: by attempting a structuralist explanation of rock art, Leroi-Gourhan was seeking to show that Upper Paleolithic people were not ignorant savages but were people with cognitive capacity, just like people today.

Hunting Magic

Another suggestion is that Upper Paleolithic rock art is a manifestation of sympathetic magic, designed as an aid for hunting, in the words of Paul Mellars, to "secure control over particular species of animals which were crucially important human food supply". Some supporting evidence of this view includes the fact that sometimes the animals were apparently depicted with inflicted wounds, coupled with ethnographic analogy based on supposed similarities between Upper Paleolithic art and Australian Aboriginal rock art. Magic rituals may not have a direct material outcome, but this type of practice surely boosts the confidence and has a direct psychological benefit (a form of placebo effect), increasing the success of hunting activities. In this context, Upper Paleolithic rock art is seen as a tool to magically benefit the groups' subsistence, encouraging the success of the hunters.

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The ethnographic data indicating that magic plays a significant role in tribal life does not only come from Australian Aboriginal groups. Other examples are found among the native Kiriwina people who live in Papua New Guinea, where the levels of superstition and magic ceremonies rise with the levels of uncertainty: when it comes to canoe building, for example, we read that magic

is used only in the case of the larger sea-going canoes. The small canoes, used on the calm lagoon or near the shore, where there is no danger, are quite ignored by the magician (Malinowski 1948: 166, emphasis added).

This emphasizes the idea that magic can be a psychological response to conditions where uncertainty grows, which is what we would expect in the case of hunters affected by increasing population pressure.


In this explanation, Upper Paleolithic art is the result of drug-inducing trance-like states of the artists. This is based on ethnographic data linked to San rock art in Southern Africa, which has some common elements with European Upper Paleolithic art.

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San rock art
San rock art
Lukas Kaffer (CC BY-SA)

Lewis-Williams has argued that some of the abstract symbols are actually depictions of hallucinations and dreams. The San religious specialists, or Shamans, perform their religious functions under a drug-induced state: going into trance allows them to enter into the 'spirit realm', and it is during this states that shamans claim to see 'threads of lights' which are used to enter and exit the spirit realm. When the human brain enters into certain altered states, bright lines are part of the visual hallucinations experienced by the individuals: this pattern is not linked to the cultural background but rather a default response of the brain. Long, thin red lines interacting with other images are present in San rock paintings and are considered to be the 'threads of light' reported by the shamans, while the spirit realm is believed to be behind the rock walls: some of the lines and other images appear to enter or exit from cracks or steps in the rock walls, and the paintings are 'veils' between this world and the spirit world.

This is another solid argument. Nonetheless, there is no basis to generalize the idea of shamanism as the cause of European rock art as a whole. Shamanic practices could be, at best, considered a specific variation of the religious and magical traditions. Shamans do not create magic and religion; instead, it is the propensity for believing in magic and religion present in virtually every society that is the origin of shamans. Ultimately, this argument rests on magic and religious practices, not far from the argument that sees art as a form of hunting magic.


Since almost all cultural developments have multiple causes, it seems reasonable to suppose that the development of the Upper Paleolithic has a multi-causal explanation rather than a single cause. None of the arguments presented above can account fully for the development of Upper Paleolithic rock art in Europe.

Anthropological studies worldwide commonly emphasize the religious/spiritual origin of rock art. This is not the only origin detected through ethnographic studies; there are examples of secular use, but it is apparently the most frequent. However, it could also be the case that art in the European Upper Paleolithic had a different meaning from the communities that ethnographers have been able to study. Archaeology has been able to detect caves that may have been connected to rituals and magic at least in some Upper Paleolithic communities of Europe. Human burials were found in the Cussac cave associated with Paleolithic art: according to some authors, this stresses the religious/spiritual character of the rock art found in some caves.

Cave Painting in Lascaux
Cave Painting in Lascaux
Prof saxx (CC BY-NC-SA)

If the assumption that at least some European rock was created for religious reasons can be accepted, then it is safe to suppose that rock art is just the most archaeologically visible evidence of prehistoric ritual and belief, and unless rock art was the only and exclusive material expression of the religious life of prehistoric communities, we can assume that there is an entire range of religious material that has not survived. Some of the Upper Paleolithic portable art could also be connected to religious aspects and be part of the 'material package' of prehistoric ritual.

Our knowledge about the meaning of Upper Paleolithic rock and portable art should not be considered either correct or incorrect, only fragmentary. The element of uncertainty, which involves the rejection of any form of dogmatic or simplistic explanation, is likely to always be present in this field of study. This should lead to flexible models complementing each other and the willingness to accept that, as more evidence is revealed, arguments will have to be adjusted.

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About the Author

Cristian Violatti
Cristian is a public speaker and independent author with a strong passion for the human past. Inspired by the rich lessons of history, Cristian's goal is to stimulate ideas and to spark the intellectual curiosity of his audience.


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APA Style

Violatti, C. (2015, February 10). The Meaning of European Upper Paleolithic Rock Art. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Chicago Style

Violatti, Cristian. "The Meaning of European Upper Paleolithic Rock Art." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified February 10, 2015.

MLA Style

Violatti, Cristian. "The Meaning of European Upper Paleolithic Rock Art." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 10 Feb 2015. Web. 17 Jun 2024.