The Paleolithic (literally: "Old Stone Age") period covered between two and one-half to three million years, dependent upon which scientist has done the calculations. For the purposes of Art History, though, when we refer to Paleolithic Art, we're talking about the Late Upper Paleolithic period. This began roughly around 40,000 years ago and lasted through the Pleistocene ice age, the end of which is commonly thought to have occurred near 8,000 B.C. (give or take a few centuries). This period was marked by the rise of Homo sapiens and their ever-developing ability to create tools and weapons.
What was going on in the world?
There was a lot more ice, for one thing, and the ocean shoreline was different from that with which we're familiar. Lower water levels and, in some cases, land bridges (which have long since disappeared) allowed humans to migrate into the Americas and Australia. The ice also made for a cooler climate, world-wide, and prevented migration to the far north. Humans at this time were strictly hunter-gatherers, meaning they were constantly on the move in search of food.
What kinds of art were created during this time?
There were really only two kinds. Art was either portable or stationary, and both of these art forms were limited in scope.
Portable art during the Upper Paleolithic period was necessarily small (in order to be portable) and mainly consisted of either figurines or decorated objects. These things were carved (from stone, bone or antler) or modeled with clay. We refer to most of the portable art from this time as figurative, meaning it actually depicted something recognizable, whether animal or human in form. The figurines are often referred to by the collective name of "Venus," as they are unmistakably females of child-bearing build.
Stationary art was just that: it didn't move. The best examples exist in (now famous) cave paintings in western Europe, created during the Paleolithic period. Paints were manufactured from combinations of minerals, ochres, burnt bone meal and charcoal mixed into mediums of water, blood, animal fats and tree saps. We've guessed (and it's only a guess) that these paintings served some form of ritualistic or magical purpose, as they are located far from the mouths of caves where everyday life took place. Cave paintings contain far more non-figurative art, meaning many elements are symbolic rather than realistic. The clear exception, here, is in the depiction of animals, which are vividly realistic (humans, on the other hand, are either completely absent or stick figures).
What are the key characteristics of Paleolithic art?
It seems a bit flippant to try to characterize the art from a period that encompasses most of human history (however helpful one is attempting to be). Paleolithic art is intricately bound to anthropological and archaeological studies that professionals have devoted entire lives toward researching and compiling. The truly curious should head in those directions. That said, to make some sweeping generalizations, Paleolithic art:
- Concerned itself with either food (hunting scenes, animal carvings) or fertility (Venus figurines). Its predominant theme was animals.
- Is considered to be an attempt, by Stone Age peoples, to gain some sort of control over their environment, whether by magic or ritual.
- Represents a giant leap in human cognition: abstract thinking.