Neanderthals started it

Palaeolithic art spans several tens of thousand years. We tend to think of images of horses, but actually the earliest phase was non-figurative. It was marks of the body -hands being placed against walls, fingers being covered in pigment - and that probably was originated not by our own species but by Neanderthals at least 64,000 years ago.

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Paul Pettitt answers listener questions on what cave art can reveal about the palaeolithic era


A painting in the cave of Altamira, Spain

Art wasn’t made by Homo Sapiens all the time

The figurative art we think of when we think of cave art appeared somewhere after 40,000 years ago, perhaps as late as 37,000 years ago, by which time Homo sapiens had been in Europe for a few thousand years and Neanderthals had become extinct. So we shouldn't necessarily think that it was always created by Homo sapiens as we dispersed out of Africa. There was probably lots of periods in-between in which it wasn't created for whatever reason.

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It’s dominated by hunted herbivores

When we do have what we tend to think of in terms of cave art, it is overwhelmingly dominated by images of those animals that were so important to hunt - those gregarious herbivores on the steppe grasslands of Europe.

It changes a lot over time

We can see lots and lots of experiments with stylistic change. The ways you depict horses or the ways you depict bison develops a lot. This really shows that over some 25,000 years of figurative cave art, there was considerable change in the way people thought it should be done.

We need to get over own biases

We think of it as art in a modern Western sense. We have to dismiss all of these modern Western notions. It was one part of a series of activities, the exploration of dangerous caves being one of them. There was probably also dance, singing, etc. Art is just the tangible part that survived of what one assumes was a ritual behaviour, perhaps with a religious underpinning, and that's about creation of those animals that were so important to think about and to hunt.


Paul Pettit is professor of Palaeolithic Archaeology at Durham University and he specialises in Palaeolithic art. He is author of Homo Sapiens Rediscovered: How science is revolutionising our origin story (Thames and Hudson), which traces the origins of our own species, Homo sapiens, and our behaviour in the Ice Age