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The art of the Upper Paleolithic is the oldest undisputed prehistoric art, and the oldest known art in human history. Taken as evidence of behavioral modernity, art in the Upper Paleolithic originates in the Aurignacian archaeological culture some 40,000 years ago. Notable reflections of the "Upper Paleolithic Revolution" are the emergence of cave painting, sculpture such as the Venus figurines, and the development of musical instruments such as flutes.



The oldest undisputed works of prehistoric art were found in the Schwäbische Alb, Baden-Württemberg, Germany. The oldest, a so-called Venus figurine known as the Venus of Hohle Fels, dates to some 40,000 years ago.[1] Further depictional art is from the Upper Palaeolithic period (broadly 40,000 to 10,000 years ago) and includes both cave painting (such as the famous paintings at Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira, Cosquer, and Pech Merle), portable art (such as animal carvings and Venus figurines like the Venus of Willendorf), and open air art (such as the monumental Côa Valley and Mazouco in Portugal, Domingo García and Siega Verde, both in Spain, Fornols-Haut in France).

Venus of Willendorf
Drawing of bracelets from Mousterian period (Mizyn site)

Later findings from the Mizyn archeological site in the Ukraine dated from Mousterian epoch are mammoth ivory bracelets with carved meander ornaments.[2]


A cave at Turobong in South Korea containing human remains has been found to contain carved deer bones and depictions of deer that may be as much as 40,000 years old.[3] Petroglyphs of deer or reindeer found at Sokchang-ri may also date to the Upper Paleolithic. Pot sherds in a style reminiscent of early Japanese work have been found at Kosan-ri on Jeju island, which, due to lower sea levels at the time, would have been accessible from Japan.[4]


The Bradshaws are a unique form of rock art found in Western Australia. They are predominantly human figures drawn in fine detail with accurate anatomical proportioning. They have been dated at over 17,000 years old.


The earliest undisputed African rock art dates back about 10,000 years. The first naturalistic paintings of humans found in Africa date back about 8,000 years apparently originating in the Nile River valley, spread as far west as Mali about 10,000 years ago. The oldest African petroglyphs are dated to approximately the Mesolithic and late Upper Paleolithic boundary, about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Zimbabwe's oldest art finds date to at least 10,000 years (dated to sediment layers containing painted rock fragments).[5]

Noted sites containing early art include Tassili n'Ajjer in southern Algeria, Tadrart Acacus in Libya (A Unesco World Heritage site), and the Tibesti Mountains in northern Chad.[6] Rock carvings at the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa have been dated to this age.[7]

Contentious dates as far back as 29,000 years have been obtained at a site in Tanzania. A site at the Apollo 11 Cave complex in Namibia has been dated to 27,000 years. This site contains figures of animals painted on stone plaquettes that were carried to the site; the dating is of the sedimentary layers the plaquettes were found in, so the age of the artifacts themselves is somewhat uncertain.[5]

Most of East African rock art is found on a plateau between the Zambezi River and the Great Rift Valley. Running from southern Kenya and Uganda in the north, through Tanzania to Zambia and Malawi in the south, the rock art in this area is mostly paintings, although some engravings are found. It may never be known how early painting took place in this area, as the environment may well have destroyed the evidence.[8] Most of the painting is of figures of animals and people, with some geometric shapes. Red paintings in Tanzania have been extensively studied, by the Leakeys (Mary and Louis) among others.[9] White paintings in Zambia appear to date from about 2,000 years ago, with the arrival of Bantu speakers in the area, an observation confirmed by oral history of modern tribes in the area.[10]


Peru, including an area of the central Andes stretching from Ecuador to northern Chile, has a rich cultural history, with evidence of human habitation dating to roughly 10,000 BCE.[11] Prior to the emergence of ceramics in this region around 1850 BCE, cave paintings and beads have been found. These finds include rock paintings that may controversially date as far back as 9,500 BCE in the Toquepala Caves.[12] Burial sites in Peru like one at Telarmachay as old as 8600-7200 BCE contained evidence of ritual burial, with red ocher and bead necklaces.[13]

See also


  1. ^ Maugh II, Thomas H. (May 14, 2009). "Venus figurine sheds light on origins of art by early humans". Los Angeles Times.,0,181830.story. Retrieved 2009-05-14.  
  2. ^ Salmony A. Some Paleolithic Ivory-Carvings from Mazine. JSTOR, Vol. 12, No. 1/2. 1949. pp. 104-118. [1].
  3. ^ Portal, p. 25
  4. ^ Portal, p. 26
  5. ^ a b Coulson, pp. 76–77
  6. ^ Coulson, pp. 150–155
  7. ^ Thackeray.
  8. ^ Coulson, p. 132
  9. ^ Coulson, p. 134
  10. ^ Coulson, p. 140
  11. ^ Lavallée, p. 88
  12. ^ Lavallée, p. 94
  13. ^ Lavallée, p. 115


  • Chase, Philip G (2005). The Emergence of Culture: The Evolution of a Uniquely Human Way of Life. Birkhäuser. ISBN 9780387305127.  
  • Coulson, David; Campbell, Alec (2001). African Rock Art. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ISBN 0-8109-4363-8.  
  • Lavallée, Danièle; Bahn, Paul G [translator] (1995). The First South Americans. University of Utah Press. ISBN 0-87480-665-8.  
  • Portal, Jane (2000). Korea: Art and Archaeology. Thames & Hudson.  
  • Thackeray, Anne I., et al (1981-10-02). "Dated Rock Engravings from Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa". Science 214 (4516): pp. 64–67. doi:10.1126/science.214.4516.64.  



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