Horses from Chauvet cave

Paleolithic Beginnings

By Sally Mallam
Contributing Writer

During the Paleolithic era, from about 35,000 years ago and over the next 25,000 years, toward the end of the last major Ice Age, Cro-Magnon’s artistic expression reached a critical mass as seen in cave paintings all over Europe, Asia, Siberia, Australia and Africa – throughout the old world.

The earliest known example of deliberate patterns made by ancient humans predates Paleolithic cave art by several hundred thousand years. Identified in 2014 by an international team of scientists, the zig-zag patterned shell was carbon-dated to as far back as 430,000–540,000 years ago, which discounts the possibility that it was made by either Neanderthals or modern humans.

The shell was actually found in 1891 on the Indonesian island of Java by the Dutch  paleontologist Eugene Dubois who discovered “Java Man,” now known as Homo erectus. It took 123 years, great advances in technology, and perhaps a change of expectation and attitude about our place in the world, before we were able to entertain the idea that abstract thought and the expression of it might possibly have existed in our pre-human ancestors – and to recognize that these shell markings were deliberately made.

Such deliberate markings were until then thought to be indicative exclusively of modern cognition and behavior, originating with Homo sapiens in Africa. This find was at least four times older than what was previously the oldest known etched artefact – geometric carvings in a sample of ochre found in South Africa’s Blombos Cave. This meant the shell engravings would have to have been made by our pre-Neanderthal ancestor, Homo erectus, and pushed the origin of the ability to deliberately engrave back by at least 300,000 years.

Shell engraving by Homo erectus compared with early Homo sapiens engraving

Shell engraving by Homo erectus from 430,000–540,000 years ago and etched ochre by Homo sapiens from 70,000–75,000 years ago.

In this same period these early ancestors first recognized symbolic representation: the Acheulian figurine Tan-Tan (500,000–300,000 years old), to date the oldest known hominid representation, and the Berekhat Ram female figurine from Israel, (250,000–280,000 years old), both appear to have been created by nature, but then manually modified in places. They were the first steps to creating three-dimensional portable art that would become prevalent during the Paleolithic period.

These more recent findings in no way undercut the exponential growth of the art we know as Paleolithic. But they serve to remind us that the evolution of our journey to become modern human, capable of abstract symbolic thought, was a long one – it may well have taken more than 500,000 years! By about 30,000–40,000 years ago the capacity for abstract thought and symbolic representation finally became a stable and universal capacity of the human mind and one of the universal traits that we share with all other humans. It enabled us to communicate in an unprecedented way, and build the world we know today. We were the same human beings then as we are now.

Prior to this time human artistic and creative abilities existed but were far less widespread. Portable representations of the human figure have been dated as far back as 502,000 BCE from Africa and 302,000 BCE from present-day Israel. But from about 35,000 years ago, and over the next fifteen thousand years, throughout the last Ice Age, Cro-Magnon’s artistic expression reached a critical mass and spread not only all over Europe, Asia and Siberia but also appeared in Australia and Africa – throughout the old world.

tools from the Reindeer Age

About 45,000 years ago Cro-Magnon developed blades and spear-throwers with a considerably greater range, velocity and penetration than earlier examples so far found. Hunters could now kill large animals from a longer, much safer, distance. With these new inventions, population densities rose in some areas, with much more contact between neighbors. Hunting technologies were quite possibly shared between groups, and so methods and tools evolved rapidly as human migrations followed reindeer and bison.

Over this period our ancestors invented burins to help make tools from antlers, such as bone spears and harpoons that were often beautifully engraved and carved. They crafted small bone needles from which to fashion vital, multilayered clothing for insulation and to survive the extreme temperature fluctuations. Ornamentation symbols of kinships, status and collective identity have been found from this period.

Venus figurines dating from this same period have been found over an expanse of territory from the west of Europe into Russia. This suggests that people were linked across these vast distances, communicating and developing social relationships that would be advantageous at a time when food resources were limited or depleted in specific areas.

Creativity in Response to Crisis

As we see throughout our human journey, creative insight and actions flower in response to problems.

Horse heads on a cave wall

The first cave paintings discovered were at Altamira (northern Spain). Paleolithic artists made use of the cave’s protuberances so that images would seem to come out of the wall. Was there a reason for this?

The most intense artistic activity happened just as the Ice Age reached its most severe (approximately 40,000–15,000 years ago), then about 10,000 years ago, it virtually disappeared as the Ice Age finally ended. This leads some anthropologists to think that our early ancestors made art to help them survive the Ice Age world. If this is true, how did it do this?

For early humans living in Europe 35,000 years ago, the climate must have presented extreme hardship and been quite terrifying. Within a few years their climate transformed from one very much like our own to one more like Siberia, with brutally cold winters that eventually lasted through spring and summer. Freezing temperatures prevailed with very little respite. For years, endless snow and ice simply accumulated and deepened, covering Europe with glaciers, forcing many humans to flee, die out, and, thankfully for us, some to adapt.

About 20,000 BCE the landscape was glacier-dominated. A mile-high polar ice cap enshrouded Scandinavia and most of northern Europe. Elsewhere harsh conditions favored grassland that provided fodder for large grazing mammals such as mammoth, bison, aurochs, horses, reindeer and elk.

Cave Paintings: Cosmic Maintenance and The First Recorded Stories

Within a 25,000-year period of the Ice Age – more than twelve times the age of Christianity – extraordinary cave art covered most of Europe, from Andalusia in Spain to the Ural Mountains of central Russia. Today we know of approximately three hundred sites, but scholars suggest there must have been thousands. Hopefully some have still to be discovered.

Within the 25,000-year period of the Ice Age– more than twelve times the age of Christianity – this extraordinary cave art covered most of Europe.

These cave paintings, engravings and carvings are the very first record we have of our ability to create two-dimensional representations of three dimensional figures. They may well be our first recorded stories. They reveal realistic portraits of the magnificent animals our early ancestors lived alongside, perhaps preyed on, and in some cases most certainly were the prey of.

Some were created possibly to show how animals were tracked, or to describe herd movements that not only aided hunting, but might also have predicted climate change. Others may have been created for reasons of “Cosmic Maintenance” functioning chiefly as part of a ritual whereby human beings connect and collaborate with the spirit world to assist in keeping the world and their survival in good working order.

In Chauvet Cave (southern France) dangerous animals such as cave bears, rhinoceroses, lions and even a spotted leopard are depicted. Scholars feel that these may well have been selected for their symbolic power. Cave images have been found, such as in the Lascaux Caves in southwestern France, that appear to have pockmarks made by pointed spears, possibly thrown in a ritual to “wound” the animal and so ensure future hunting success.

These artists were precise observers of the animals around them. They could define an animal’s rump, back, and body with a single line. Just a few more lines, and antlers and muscles stand out. They made use of cave cracks and protuberances. Flickering torchlight, would render the illusion of movement and three-dimensionality.

“The art functioned to extend human memory, to hold concepts which are difficult for minds to grasp, and to instigate creative thinking about the solution of environmental and social problems.”

These images were found in deep caves that were not used for habitation or burial. Human skeletons have been found in the large rock shelters at cave entrances, but none in the caverns below. It seems much more likely that, over thousands of years, these hidden spaces were used only for ritual practices. Hand prints, both male and female, and some quite small suggest sacred areas where men and women and even children participated in rituals of initiation. Some caves appear to have been chosen for their echo quality. Bone flutes have been found on cave floors indicating that ceremonies involving music took place.

As Steven Mithen writes in Thoughtful Foragers: A Study of Prehistoric Decision Making, “This art was part of modern human ecological adaptation to their environment. The art functioned to extend human memory, to hold concepts which are difficult for minds to grasp, and to instigate creative thinking about the solution of environmental and social problems.

Some scholars suggest that elements in cave paintings found around the world can be interpreted as a regular system of symbols which may have been the origins of written language.

It seems very likely that at this point in history we first began to conceive of a tiered cosmos – a world below our world and one above – and to formulate rituals to encounter forces above and below the physical world that influence our life and that might in turn be influenced by us, an idea that has been with us ever since.

At this point, we can say that our ancestors, not only physically but psychologically, became modern human beings. Our need to solve problems, seeking always to innovate and improve on previous solutions, together with our quest to understand the world and our place it in – our current human journey – began then.

Origin of Two Dimensional Art: Re-connecting with the Spirit World

In their book, Art and Human Development, Constance Milbrath and Cynthia Lightfoot cite anthropologist Abbé Henri Breuil’s report that “Salmon Reinach, the writer who first propagated the notion of sympathetic hunting magic, found that a Turkish officer whom he met was incapable of recognizing a drawing of a horse ‘because he could not move round it’. Being a Muslim, the officer was entirely unfamiliar with depictive art.”

So two dimensional representational art is not an innate human ability. The cave artists were reproducing the visions they saw while in a trance state.

The South African archeologist and scholar David Lewis-Williams spent years studying and explaining the method and meaning of the art of the hunter-gatherer San peoples of South Africa. His work with the San included accumulating ethnological data, neurophysiological research and an in-depth study of the rock art of South Africa.

In 1995, he began a collaboration with the eminent prehistorian Jean Clottes. Together they studied 12 French caves with examples of Paleolithic parietal (or rock) art dating from the earliest Gravettian (26,000–20,000 BCE) period to the ancient, Middle and Upper Magdalenian (12000–9000 BCE).

Both he and Clottes were familiar with many of the known religious traditions and art of other early peoples, for example in Siberia, the Americas and Australia.

San rock painting, South Africa

San rock painting Cederberg, South Africa.

They suggest that, like the images of the San and other shamanic artists, many of these Paleolithic images were created as part of a ritual that took place in the caves in which our early ancestors re-created and re-worked their out-of-body visions. The very act of painting or engraving the images evoked these same animal spirits, or transformed shaman-spirit-animals, calling them from the underworld through the cave walls into their presence. In this way their supernatural power and the experience of it became palpable and accessible to those present.

Says Lewis-Williams, “People didn’t one day invent making pictures. What happened was that people were familiar with the images that their brains were producing which were being projected onto cave walls and ceilings. And they wanted to nail down and make permanent those images, those visions that they saw.”

Some images seem to have been created by spitting the ochre and charcoal onto the wall. The prehistoric art specialist Michel Lorblanchet who has reproduced elements in this way, feels that this spit-painting, common among aboriginals, may have had a symbolic significance. “Human breath, the most profound expression of a human being, literally breathes life onto a cave wall. The painter projected his being onto the rock.” Moreover, the being of the shaman artist was the animal spirit. He or she was one with the image evoked.

The Shamans of Prehistory

Cave entrance with rock art.

“The underground origins of some of these images is suggested by the way in which they enter and leave cracks and other inequalities in the rock surface.” Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams, The Shamans of Prehistory.

Clottes and Lewis-Williams’ investigations of the caves lead them to conclude that not only their art but the layout of the caves themselves were employed to induce, control and exploit altered states of consciousness. In this way members of the community were initiated and became the world’s first ritual practitioners, priests or shamans.

3D bison cave art

Dated 15,000 – 10,000 BCE the two clay bison of the Tuc d’Audoubert, Arège (France) are 25 and 24 inches long respectively.

As archeologist Paul G. Bahn reports in The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, “… some of the art in deep caves appears to be ‘public’, being easily visible in large, readily accessible chambers. However, a great deal of it is undeniably ‘private’, in small niches, or chambers only accessible through a long journey or after negotiating difficult physical obstacles necessitating climbs, crawls or tight squeezes.

There are cases – as with the famous Ice Age clay bison of France’s Tuc d’Audoubert – where the very act of making the journey and of producing the images seems to have been what mattered; the artist(s) never returned to visit their work.

Not only their art but the layout of the caves themselves were employed to induce, control and exploit altered states of consciousness.

To increase their chances of safety and survival, these people needed desperately to make sense of everything around them. Life and death were not hidden away, packaged and sanitized as they are in the societies of most of us, but experienced by individuals every day. It seems very likely that during this early period the spirit world and its power was more – or, at least, as – present and essential as the world of everyday life.

Our early ancestors were animists, they experienced a vital spirit inherent in all things everywhere: humans, animals, plants, rocks, mountains, rivers, and the weather. Robert Wright points out in The Evolution of God that “… if you asked hunter-gatherers what their religion is, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about. The kinds of beliefs and rituals we label “religious” are so tightly interwoven into their everyday thought and action that they don’t have a word for them. We may label some of their explanations of how the world works “supernatural” and others “naturalistic,” but those are our categories, not theirs.”

Their different circumstances meant that they favored different mental abilities. Areas of the brain that are now taken up with vocabularies of over 20,000 words and our ability to read them were used for different capacities they needed to survive. Language then was in its infancy, but our ancestors may well have been just as comfortable with alternate forms of communication: relying much more on their senses than we do today.

Our ancestors may well have been just as comfortable with alternate forms of communication: relying much more on their senses than we do today.

The ability of all the senses to observe in detail and “read” – facial expressions, the movement of grasses and animals, the night sky; to identify sounds with accuracy – a footstep, a vocal sound, a taste, a smell, and so on – would have essential implications for safety and far-reaching consequences for survival and understanding of themselves and their world.

In the book The Wind is my Mother: Life and Teachings of a Native American Shaman, the contemporary Muskogee Creek Indian shaman, Bear Heart, talks of the early days of his people: “The environment was our starting point in learning as much as we could from what was around us – the seasons, the things that grow, the animals, the birds, and various other life forms. Then we would begin the long process of trying to learn about that which is within ourselves. We didn’t have any textbooks, we didn’t have great psychiatrists who lived years ago and presented theories in this and that. We had to rely on something else, and that was our senses. Rather than through scientific investigation, we sensed those things within and around us.”

The ratio of Paleolithic peoples who experienced altered states of consciousness was considerably higher than at any time in our history – initially the majority of people perhaps had this capacity. Caves and the selected areas deep within them appear to have been chosen specifically to stimulate this trance state in shamanic ritual. It was obviously highly valued, and likely shared and encouraged with all members of the group. In the 1950’s the anthropologist Lorna Marshall in her monograph Nyae Nyae !Kung Beliefs and Rights noted that about half the men in a !Kung or San camp in the Kalahari desert were shamans and about a third of the women. Sharing such an important capacity is made all the more likely when we consider that egalitarianism is key to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and survival. James Suzman’s Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen gives an excellent example of how far people will go to ensure it. He reminds us that meat is highly valued and yet, rather than praise the successful hunter, people went to great lengths to ensure that he didn’t see himself as above everyone else. The meat was very carefully distributed according to a strict etiquette, and in a ritual called “insulting the meat,” anyone consuming it went to great trouble to be rude about it. The insults are designed to “cool his heart and make him gentle.”

Egalitarianism is key to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and survival.

Deep in the caves, in darkness or flickering torchlight, Paleolithic participants in shamanistic rituals would rhythmically move and perhaps chant. They would experience oxygen deprivation (anoxia), conditions that would destabilize them and help to induce a trance state. While in these altered states, they would communicate with the spirit worlds whose transferred power enabled them to solve a variety of problems: changing the weather, foretelling the future, healing the sick, discerning what was edible, the right time to hunt specific animals, and quite possibly predicting and controlling these animals by supernatural means.

What better way to survive than to seek to understand, harmonize and possibly acquire some control over these external forces, whether they be in this or the spirit world? As Karen Armstrong says in her book The Case for God “The desire to cultivate a sense of the transcendent may be the defining human characteristic.” It began the moment we became modern man.

Shaman-like activities have been perpetuated by prophets and spiritual teachers throughout our history. Zoroaster spent seven years meditating in the solitude of a mountain cave. His visionary insights were stimulated by mantras, prayers and an intoxicating drink called Haoma which was thought to grant users “temporary immortality.” Max Weber in his classic book Ancient Judaism noted that many of the Hebrew prophets exhibited shaman-like behavior, “They described visual and auditory hallucinations and abnormal sensations of taste and feeling of diverse sorts. …They felt as if they were floating…or borne through the air, they experienced clairvoyant visions of spatially distant events like, allegedly, Ezekiel in Babylon at the hour of Jerusalem’s fall. …They saw hallucinatory blinding flashes of light and in it the figures of superhuman beings.

Stephen K. Sanderson in his book Religious Evolution and the Axial Age, asserts that “Christ was the most ‘shaman-like’ of all the prophets … Christianity reproduced many elements of the shamanic tradition, and this gave it great appeal. In terms of the similarities between Christ and shamans, consider the following…

  • Shamans often spend periods of time in seclusion undergoing intense ordeals, during which they hone their skills; Jesus spent forty days alone in the wilderness as part of his development.
  • Shamans have special contact with the world of spirits; Jesus was in direct contact with God the Father.
  • Shamans above all heal and cure; Jesus healed the sick and the lame.
  • Shamans enter the world of spirits and often ascend to the sky; Jesus upon resurrection ascended to the sky.
  • Potential shamans often undergo an initiatory ritual death from which they are resurrected; Jesus, of course, was resurrected.
  • Shamans in some regions, such as Australia, undergo initiation in caves; Jesus’s body was put in a tomb and he was resurrected in this tomb.
  • Shamans always have spirit helpers; Jesus had helpers in the form of disciples, Christ helpers in the form of angels, etc.
  • In their curing rituals shamans often look for the sick person’s lost soul in order to restore it to the person; Christ saves your soul from eternal damnation.”

 The Prophet Mohammad used to go regularly to a mountain cave called Hira, three miles north of Mecca. There in isolation he would meditate, contemplate and pray. It was in the year 610 AD, during one of these retreats, that the Angel Gabriel first appeared before him and commanded him to “Recite.”

The Three Stages of Altered Consciousness

Clottes and Lewis-Williams point out that although shamanic cultures are very different from one another, there are remarkable similarities that point to a basic human universal: the way the human nervous system behaves in altered states.

When they looked at how people became shamans, they found that all initiates either experience altered states involuntarily (hallucinations, visions, etc.) or took certain steps to induce them.

A Native American apprentice shaman might go on a vision quest, and, through hunger, pain, intense concentration and isolation from society induce a trance state where his spirit animal helper appears to him and he is filled with its supernatural potency. A South African San man or woman who wishes to become a shaman might dance with an experienced shaman until he or she achieves a trance state.

Prolonged privations, isolation, sacred places, rhythmic repetitive movements, chanting, protracted dancing, hyperventilation, intense concentration and hallucinogens are the elements selected and combined in various ways, depending upon the culture, as the individual seeks to achieve a deep trance state that connects him or her to the spirit world. The spirit encountered in this state bestows a supernatural power on the initiate. It is this power that enables an individual to function as a shaman, to address and solve the problems brought to him or her.

Neurophysiological studies of the trance state have shown that three overlapping stages can be identified:

3 stages of transition

The three stages of altered consciousness: possible examples that might be experienced by a Westerner – Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams The Shamans of Prehistory.

In stage one, people “see” geometric forms, which can be brightly colored, flicker and pulsate, enlarging, contracting and blending one with another.

Second, the geometric forms are illusioned into objects of religious or emotional significance.

The third state, as Clottes and Lewis-Williams describe in The Shamans of Prehistory, “… is reached via a vortex, or tunnel. Subjects feel themselves drawn into the vortex, at the end of which is a bright light. On the sides of the vortex is a lattice derived from the geometric imagery of Stage One. In the compartments of this lattice are the first true hallucinations of people, animals, and so forth.”

These are described as like projected images, floating across animated surfaces, walls and ceilings. The scholars note that what the subject “sees” in this third stage is culturally determined: people see what they expect to see. A shaman might “see” an animal spirit, a Christian mystic, her favorite saint.

In this third stage hunter-gatherer societies believe that a shaman’s spirit leaves his body. Often people feel they can fly and change into birds or animals – become one with their hallucination, so to speak. Quite frequently the subject descends into the underworld.

According to Clottes and Lewis-Williams, “The ubiquity among shamanic groups of beliefs concerning descent into the earth may be explained by the neurologically generated sensations of the vortex that draws people into the third and deepest stage of trance, the state in which they experience hallucinations of animals, monsters, and so forth. The vortex creates sensations of darkness, constriction, and, sometimes, difficulty in breathing. Entry into an actual hole in the ground or a cave replicates and is a physical enactment of this neuropsychological experience. …

But entry into a cave does not only replicate the vortex; it may also induce altered states of consciousness. The social isolation, sensory deprivation, and cold that characterize caves are important factors in the induction of trance. During the Upper Paleolithic, entry into an actual cave may therefore have been seen as virtually the same thing as entry into deep trance via the vortex. The hallucinations induced by entry into and isolation in a cave probably combined with the images already on the walls to create a rich and animated spiritual realm. A complex link between caves and altered states seems undeniable.”

So shamans universally operate within a tiered cosmos. From the everyday world, they can fly to the spirits above and descend to the spirits below. This, too, is reflected in the three-tiered world of the Paleolithic caves, selected because they would help induce the states of consciousness that connected the initiates to the spirit worlds.

Over thousands of years, individuals and groups of people exploited the way each cave was structured, its topography, passages and chambers to reflect this tiered cosmos – the arched roof, the ground-level gathering places of ordinary life and the narrow passageways that lead to the caverns below. Echoes of this same idea have persisted to this day in our own religious architecture.

Cave, cathedral & mosque

Cave interior, St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem.
The idea of a tiered cosmos has persisted in ritual and religious architecture for 35,000 years.

At Lascaux (15,000 BCE) the westward facing entrance has a 12° downward slope that leads to the paintings in a large cavern known as the Hall of the Bulls. At the sunset of the Summer Solstice, the sun’s rays penetrate far into the cave and reach the Hall of the Bulls where they illuminate several already awe-inspiring paintings. This is the first evidence we have of the shaman priesthood harnessing the power of the Sun, a god that in the next Neolithic era would be similarly worshipped in environments created by our ancestors for that purpose.

Bull cave art reproduction

Watch: Prehistoric Animations Emerge from Cave Walls

New Scientist

Paleolithic animated pictures.

Bear cave art

The Chauvet-Pont d’Arc Cave

Musée d’Archéologie nationale

Take a virtual tour of the cave.

watercolor illustration of man and woman

Why do We Tell Stories? Hunter-gatherers Shed Light on the Evolutionary Roots of Fiction

Daniel Smith, The Conversation

Given the ubiquity of storytelling, it may perform an important adaptive role in human societies by broadcasting social norms to coordinate social behavior and promote cooperation.

cave art with human figures

The Dawn of Prehistoric Rock Art

James Q. Jacobs

With recent cave art discoveries and the accurate dating of the rock paintings, our concepts of human evolution have undergone significant transformations.

painted cave wall

Neanderthals – Not Modern Humans – were First Artists on Earth, Experts Claim

Ian Sample, The Guardian

Neanderthals painted on cave walls in Spain 65,000 years ago – tens of thousands of years before modern humans arrived.

Venus of Willendorf video

Venus of Willendorf

What cultural role did this 4.4″ tall statuette of a female figure play in society over 25,000 years ago?


Messages from the Stone Age

Robin McKie, The Guardian

In Chauvet and Lascaux caves 26 specific signs are used repeatedly. These markings are no mere abstract scribbles but appear to be a code that was painted on to rock by the Cro-Magnon people, who lived in Europe 30,000 years ago.

Stone Age Engravings Found on Ostrich Shells

Bruce Bower, Wired

60,000 year old ostrich eggshells engraved with geometric designs demonstrates the existence of a symbolic communication system among Stone Age hunter-gatherers.

Watch: Talking Stone – Rock Art of the Cosos

Paul Goldsmith, ASC and Alan P. Garfinkel

Hidden away in the canyons of a top secret military base on the edge of the Mojave Desert is the largest concentration of rock art in North America. Created over thousands of years by a now vanished culture, it represents the oldest art in California. Talking Stone explores the remote canyons and mysteries surrounding these amazing images.


Neolithic Era
Connecting With the Gods
The Axe Maker’s Gift
Thought and Language

Further Reading

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This