Neanderthals drew on the cave walls where they lived. Cro-Magnon continued the practice. Some of the most striking prehistoric art works are cave paintings found in western Europe as early as 37,000 ya. Even earlier figurative paintings – at least 39,900 years old – have been found in a limestone cave on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. They include hand stencils like those found in Europe.
Drawings and engravings in caves and on rocks dated 14,000–10,000 years old have been found in China, Japan, Australia, South Africa, and South America.
Cave paintings were made with manganese, naturally occurring in various black minerals, and red ochre, found in clay imbued with hydrated iron oxide.
European cave paintings most often depict animals in action, primarily in profile. Some even show action lines that indicate motion: prehistoric animation.
Made entirely from memory, the images show meticulous observation of the subject matter.
One striking aspect of these animal figures is that they are full of life. The animals depicted are almost never in postures of pain or suffering. The intimation is admiration; not illustration of meat on the hoof, even as most drawn European cave animals were herbivores: aurochs, bison, deer, horses, ibex, mammoths, et cetera.
Depictions are of individual animals, somewhat randomly placed, not scenes from Nature. Seldom is interaction among animals shown.
Plants, birds, and human forms are infrequently depicted in Upper Paleolithic art. When they do appear, the imagery is schematic rather than naturalistic.
Some of the most impressive cave paintings merge the natural form of the cave wall with the depiction. In this case, cave surfaces were not treated as blank canvases. Artists chose subject matter and technique to match the substratum. Such thoughtful incorporation appears in 10–15% of the many thousands of cave images found.
Geometric forms are sometimes found alongside, or accompanying, representational figures. These symbols remain inscrutable.