The evolution of cave art

Modern humans migrated into Europe around 40,000 years ago. Almost immediately they began decorating cave walls and continued to do so for the next 30,000 years (PIke et al., 2012). Over the course of this period the artwork appears to have undergone an incredible evolution.

The earliest images consist of simple scratches in the rock or blobs of pigment daubed over the wall. There are some drawings of animals, but they’re generally incomplete outlines. People began to improve, and the animals became increasing common, increasingly coloured and more and more accurate (although they still seem to have had trouble with the feet). This trend of increasing accuracy and colouration continued into later periods, but more importantly they began to draw further back in the cave; often in areas of permanent darkness (Gonzalez and Behrman, 2007).

The final caves are truly a sight to behold. Beautiful, colourful images stretching back along the entire length of a cave; through twisting passages that would never have seen the sun.

The evolution of cave art, from engravings to animals to colourful animals in the dark recesses of caves

The evolution of cave art, from engravings to animals to colourful animals in the dark recesses of caves

Then came the discovery of Chauvet. This French cave was discovered in the ’90s, and seemed to match the final stage of cave art perfectly, with accurate images spread throughout the length of the cave. However, when these paintings were radiocarbon dated the results suggested that Chauvet was in fact around 36,000 years old. This would make them some of the oldest drawings in Europe, even though they seemed to fit right on the end of the evolutionary scale (Valladas et al., 2001).

One of the panels in Chauvet cave, showing the unique way the artists “layered” animals on top of each other

However, dating cave art is a tricky thing. Only a handful of images are suitable for dating, and even then prehistoric people may have used old materials to draw them, making them seem older than they actually are.

A piece of cave art which appears to have multiple dates, showing how tricky it can be to date

A piece of cave art which appears to have multiple dates, showing how tricky it can be to figure out how hold it is

Cosquer cave, for example, contains sticks of charcoal ranging from 15 – 27,000 years old. Someone may have started off drawing with a younger stick, run out and used one they found on the floor that was much older. This can also result in images that appear to have different lines drawn at different dates, thousands of years apart. Either prehistoric people were very persistent, or there’s something fishy going on (Bednarik, 1996).

As a result of these issues the dates of Chauvet were doubted by most for many years. The matter was finally resolved when it was found that the cave was sealed by a rockslide around 21,000 years ago, several thousand years before the art in Chauvet supposadly “evolved.” Dating rockslides is a lot easier than dating cave art, so this seemed to be the end of the matter (Sadier et al., 2012). Chauvet was definitely older than it should be, given the traditional model of cave art evolution. The first Europeans were as good at drawing as those at the end of the stone age.

That said, many cave sites continue to match the predictions of the traditional model of cave art evolution. A study published last year examined the dates of 50 pieces of Spanish artwork, and showed that were all the correct age (Pike et al., 2012). When the results of all dated cave sites are looked at together roughly half are consistent with the model (Gonzalez and Behrman, 2007). This is a higher rate than chance, but is it enough to justify claims about how cave art evolved over time?

Some of the artwork dated in the recent Spanish study

Some of the artwork dated in the recent Spanish study

To some the existence of just one counterexample is enough to refute the model of cave art evolution. After all, a single example of a human living alongside a dinosaur would prove fundamentally challenging to biological evolution, why not the same for art evolution? And we don’t just have the one example, there are many caves that aren’t the age they should be.

Whilst there may be some grain of truth to the idea, it would seem that the notion cave art gradually increased in complexity is wrong. The first Europeans had the same capabilities as those who came later and could draw just as well. On reflection this discovery doesn’t seem too surprising. After all, those who arrived in Europe were the same biologically and intellectually as later artists, including us.

It seems silly to suggest it took us 20,000 years to figure out how to draw feet on animals.


Bednarik, R. 1996. Only time will tell: A review of the methodology of direct rock art dating. Archaeometry, 38(1):1-13

González, J. J. A., & Behrmann, R. D. B. (2007). C< sup> 14</sup> et style: La chronologie de l’art pariétal à l’heure actuelle. L’Anthropologie111(4), 435-466.

Pike, A. W., Hoffmann, D. L., García-Diez, M., Pettitt, P. B., Alcolea, J., De Balbin, R., … & Zilhão, J. (2012). U-series dating of Paleolithic art in 11 caves in Spain. Science336(6087), 1409-1413.

Sadier, B., Delannoy, J. J., Benedetti, L., Bourlès, D. L., Jaillet, S., Geneste, J. M., … & Arnold, M. (2012). Further constraints on the Chauvet cave artwork elaboration. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences109(21), 8002-8006.

Valladas, H., Clottes, J., Geneste, J. M., Garcia, M. A., Arnold, M., Cachier, H., & Tisnérat-Laborde, N. (2001). Palaeolithic paintings: evolution of prehistoric cave art. Nature413(6855), 479-479.

22 thoughts on “The evolution of cave art

    • I’m no geologist, but it seems to me that the crux of the article (that droplets are always influenced by chancing landscapes, and such influence is not recorded in the speliothems) is uncited; making it little better than an assertion. Actually, that would make it just an assertion.

      • Presumably some speleothems have been observed in the process of growing over several decades, and unaffected by these changes of terrain above the caves that Mr Silvestru speaks of.
        His other claim – in the quote used by Cowboy Bob – that “radiometric dating however often disagrees with the observed growth rates of speleothems and their complex formation processes” takes you to a footnote citing … an earlier article by the same Mr Silvestru in ‘Creation’ magazine.

    • And the evidence against radiometric reliability cited in the earlier article is a creationist “study” that radiocarbon dates wood found in 30 million year old lava flows. Given radiocarbon dating isn’t the method used on speliothems, this seems like a bit of a non-sequiter (even assuming the study itself is without fault, which it isn’t).

      When the justification for a contentious claim rests on presuppositions then that’s almost the same as offering no justification at all.

  1. Fascinating ! But why would art have to evolve in any way ? I cannot bring myself to apply Darwinian rules to art. I could possibly envisage that art starts to exists and gets more complicated as intellectual capacities increase but as you mentioned, this does not work for the period of European prehistory considered here. So why do we even talk about art evolution ?

    • The popularity of the idea I think stems from the fact that when it was first concocted people didn’t know we were only dealing with one biological entity. There was a time when European prehistory was thought to represent the entirety of prehistory, with “early” art and man being the first instances of our family (hence why the first depictions of Neanderthals claimed they were very beast like).

      I think the fact that the same people who came up with the idea of art evolution also came up with the idea of technological evolution (which was later vindicated by radiometric dating) probably also helped lend credence to the idea.

      • that idea is from the hierarchic traditions of early “scientific” intellectual schools and their uptight bourgeois cultural classification rules of everything. considering how these scholars from medieval times had considerable problems with perspective and 3dforms in art for several millenia, up to the times of postmodernism, while their paleolithic counterparts drew awesome perspective and forms by (intellectual) intuition.

        • .. and, art is not a linear evolution, it’s a timeless and intuitively random (but very cultural) expression. culture via the imaginative mind is what makes art vary, but that doesnt say a later culture will be more expressive since it depends on what the culture will allow. it’s fascinating how the first “civilized” cultures were so monochrome in trying to identify with a certain style and how that held on into the 20th century, all over the world. obsessed with hanging on to societal esthetic styles.

  2. Pingback: Aplican una nueva metodología para documentar el Arte Rupestre | RDi Press

    • In others words, those 40kbp skellingtons will not be AMH, as they will show features that are not part of AMH. I could rattle on about my stones showing human and elephants :-). Last UK elephants? 115kbp or thereabouts…..

      • A post about cro-magnon would be very popular 🙂 you could explain how we de-evolved out of a superior hominid 🙂
        And why he is more human than us…. Great blog BTW…

    • Although skeletons from this periods aren’t as common as one might like, there are still plenty of them and they can be identified as AMH. Granted they’re not 100% identical to us, but they aren’t different enough to be classified as distinct from us. This extends to Cro-Magnons, who were for all intents and purposes modern humans

      • The cro-magnons and there culture have probably been mostly hidden from us by the authorities. He is the true line, he was often very tall and strong boned, and mostly, it would appear, he looked almost completely human, so why hide that?
        Well some have been found with large elongated skulls, some will try and link this too some head shaping culture, but its bs.
        7ft humans with massive skulls 120kbp, and all we here about is the link between us and apes, something wrong here?

  3. My theory here is that the paintings coincide with the ability to verbally communicate sensibly. They chucked out all the figure stones, and said ‘let’s make a nice painting’. Ancestors had already been creating art for 3 million years prior, so why else did they get so good so quickly, they didn’t, they just had more time, and a new medium.

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