The stone age can be divided into two key phases, The Paleolithic era, which refers to the “old” stone age and the Neolithic era, which refers to the “new” stone age. The first phase of human existence was the Paleolithic era, or the “Old” Stone age, which spanned from 2,500,00-10,000 BC. During the Paleolithic era, humans lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers whereas the Neolithic age saw humans adopting a more settled, agricultural life. From the very beginning of this period, humans made stone tools. There is a lot of debate about whether these tools can be considered “artworks”, for they were not made with artistic intent. What we can refer to them as, however, are artifacts. And it is here that the history of art begins, with the evolution of humans. It is these tools that set humanity apart from other species and creatures just living their lives and surviving in a hard and rather deadly world.
Based on current evidence, humanity did not begin making things that resembled artworks until the Upper Paleolithic, which began around 50 000 BC and ended in roughly 10 000 BC. These works are often considered the world’s earliest form of art, with the very oldest being found in Africa, Australia, and Europe. Paleolithic art was not created simply for aesthetic experience, however. It is believed, through anthropological study, that the sculptures and paintings were probably believed to have supernatural effects. Female figurines, for example, may have been created in the hopes of improving a tribes fertility while animals may have been painted on cave walls to bless hunting trips. Painting and sculpture, in general, are the world’s oldest art forms, both dating back to the Stone Age. Surviving paintings are found on natural rock surfaces while stone age sculpture is represented mainly by small carvings in stone, bone, ivory, and clay. With the later invention of architecture and pottery, painting and sculpture also expanded to fit with these new media, with paints being laid down onto the pots and ceramics and sculptures being made as part of the building.
Common themes in rock paintings typically included abstract patterns, stick figures, and hand-prints, which were created either by pressing a paint-coated hand against the rock or by blowing paint over the hand. Detailed human and animal figures were fairly uncommon and most of the figures and images were highly simplified and stylized. Stone age paintings were generally quite flat for this reason and were usually shown from one of three viewpoints. They were drawn either from the front, the side or a composite of the two, depending on how the artist needed to represent the figure. For example, a human figure could have a torso that was viewed from the front but the heads and limbs were in profile or viewed from the side. These simple views allowed for immediately recognizable shapes. The outline of the human leg, for instance, is much easier to recognize from the side than from the front. These qualities were not limited to the stone age but actually define most of the world’s traditional art. Throughout history, most cultures have placed very little emphasis on realism and aim more for representation. It wasn’t until the Classical Greek era really that an interest in the realism of the subject was valued.
One of the other important things to note was the mediums used in this era. Humanity was coming from a place where all natural tools and mediums were either gathered from nature or tempered from the earth itself. In the case of rock paintings, paint made from naturally found materials were used. The two primary ingredients in the paints used were pigments and binders. The pigment was the coloured powder that gave the paint its life and the binder was a liquid that held it all together. This will actually remain true for pretty much the rest of art history, as the process of making paint has not changed much, even though we have found more effective and synthetic ways of doing it. For the stone age painters, pigment took the form of mineral powders, like iron oxide for red paint, and the binders were made from the oils or fats from plants and animals. The paint was usually applied by rubbing the paint onto the surface, either with fingers or brushes made from animal-hair or by blowing the pigment through hollow stems or bones. There is fair speculation that social and/or religious ceremonies may have been conducted among these works and in some cases, there is surface damage that indicates the paintings were attacked, possibly in the belief that harming the image would wound a real-life animal.
At the end of the day, it is here that the course of art history began. And what would arise out of these rock paintings would be centuries of humanity expressing its needs, wants and desires on whatever surface will allow. Many of these paintings and sculptures do still exist today and we are blessed that many millennia later, we are still able to look upon the makings of our ancestors. To see where our story as a species began to unfold, not just from a survival standpoint, but a cultural one.