Rock Art – Concept, history and characteristics

We explain what rock art is and its main characteristics. Also, what is the history of these ancient drawings.

Rock art
The rock art dates back more or less 40,000 years.

What is rock art?

Rock art or cave painting is called prehistoric sketches or drawings that have been discovered in stones or caves, and that reflect the imaginary of primitive humanity.

It is one of the oldest known cultural manifestations in our history as a species, since some date to around 40,000 years ago, that is to say, of the last planetary ice age.

These illustrations are closely related to the petroglyphs, sculptures and engravings of that time, but unlike many of them have been kept in very good condition despite the centuries thanks to the protection provided by the natural support where they are, safe from erosion and wear.

Cave paintings have been found on virtually every continent (except Antarctica), but the best known are those of Spain and France, from the transition period between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic, such as those found in the Altamira Caves, in Cantabria.

The importance of these findings is due to how much they reveal about the mentality of the primitive human being, inclined as much as we are towards the artistic representation of his daily life, although it is assumed that these drawings also had a certain magical-religious importance, and that did to ask for success in the hunt.

Characteristics of rock art

Rock art
Cave paintings usually show wild animals and lines.

Thematically, cave paintings are more or less homogeneous: those from the Paleolithic generally show wild animals and lines, while in the Neolithic they appear human figures, handprints and other representations of the environment.

Most of the animals depicted are mammoths, bison, horses, deer, and reindeer, often wounded with arrows or hunting spears.

It is also striking that these drawings were made with very similar materials, despite being thousands of kilometers from each other: charcoal pigments, feces, and other body fluids, hematite, clay and manganese oxide, probably mixed with fat or some oil as a binder.

In general, one or two colors prevail: black, red, yellow and brown. They were smeared on the stone directly with the fingers, although the animal figures were often scraped with a stone or tool to generate effects of realism and three-dimensionality.

History of rock art

Much is unknown about rock art, since it is difficult to find their actual production dates: Most of the time this is done through measurements of carbon-14 and other residual elements over time, but the presence in the caves of materials from different times, as well as the contamination of the samples over time can lead to erroneous results.

The main findings in terms of cave paintings occurred between France and Spain, as it was a highly populated and favorable region at that time, but also in South Africa (Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg), Namibia (Twyfelfontein), Argentina (In the Sierras de Córdoba and in San Luis), Peru (The famous lines and geoglyphs of Nazca), Malaysia (Gua Tambun in Perak), etc.