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Charcoal drawings from the Chauvet Cave in France, fabulous examples of artwork created by the Aurignacians. (Claude Valette / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Aurignacians: The First Artistic Culture?

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Since the evolution of Homo sapiens approximately 1.8 million years ago, humans have advanced in many aspects of life, especially art. According to historians, the earliest record of humans engaging in the creation of art is from nearly 40,000 years ago in Europe and Southeast Asia. Referred to as the Aurignacians, these humans were the first group of Homo sapiens to migrate out of Africa. Now, they are known as the earliest European culture of modern-day humans.

After migrating out of Africa and establishing themselves throughout Europe, the Aurignacians went through three stages: Early Aurignacians, Aurignacian Proper, and Late Aurignacian. The earliest discoveries of their figurative art , also referred to as the art of the Upper Paleolithic, is estimated to be from the Early Aurignacian period. This art is known as the oldest recorded example of prehistoric art and provides a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts of some of the earliest European humans in history.

The Aurignacians made items including ivory jewelry, such as this Aurignacian necklace made of teeth of bear, horse, elk, beaver, discovered in Mladec, the Czech Republic. (Wolfgang Sauber / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Aurignacians made items including ivory jewelry, such as this Aurignacian necklace made of teeth of bear, horse, elk, beaver, discovered in Mladec, the Czech Republic. (Wolfgang Sauber / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Animal Carvings and Fertility Figures of the Aurignacians

As previously mentioned, the Aurignacians are believed to have migrated from Eastern Africa into Europe during the Paleolithic period. This would have been the first instance of anatomically modern humans having left Africa to settle in other regions of the globe. They are part of an extended group of early European humans called Cro-Magnons, which existed approximately between 48,000 to 10,000 years ago. Scientific studies estimate that this population of Cro-Magnons could have been anywhere between 1,700 to 29,000 people.

Aurignacians are recognized for their development and use of early tools. The findings of hundreds of different tools and handmade products suggest an entire tool industry in which Aurignacians would have developed new tools to work and may have even traded or shared tools with one another. Many of these unique tools were found to be made of antler or bone to create needles, points, and blades. Aurignacians also used stone to create tools such as blades, knives, and points. Flake tools were a common type of stone tool, which came from a slice or “flake” of stone and would be sharpened to create different types of scrapers.

It is believed that in addition to using these tools for survival, Aurignacians also used them to create early artwork such as carvings and drawings. One example of this is the Aurignacian’s development of the Burin, a tool made of a slice of stone that was used to carve wood, bone, and antlers. Ivory carvings from approximately 33,000 BC were discovered by archaeologists in the site in the 1900s and early 2000s. These ivory carvings came in many shapes, namely mammoths, horses, and a lion in addition to other unidentifiable animal-shaped fragments. These carvings provided archaeologists with proof that Aurignacians were capable of creating fine art with themes and patterns rather than arbitrary strokes and cuts.

Many tools were discovered in the Cave of Aurignac, including this double-edged scraper. (Muséum de Toulouse / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Many tools were discovered in the Cave of Aurignac, including this double-edged scraper. (Muséum de Toulouse / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Beyond these ivory animal carvings, carvings of animals on small pebbles have been found in the same region. Discovered artifacts reveal that Aurignacians also engaged in traditional sculpting. Figures sculpted out of natural clay have been found and identified by archaeologists throughout the last several years, with the common theme amongst many of these figures being animals and pregnant women.

These clay statuettes of pregnant bodies are often called Venus figures , and are believed to have been some sort of fertility figure. The figures emphasize areas of the body that represent fertility including the hips, abdomen, and breasts. It is unclear whether these statuettes were worshipped or simply made for good luck , but analysis of the statuettes reveal intricate details in the engraving and shading of the figures. It is clear that significant time and effort was spent on these statuettes to make them just right. 

Replica of a bone flute made by the Aurignacians and discovered at Geissenklösterle, a German cave on the Swabian region. (José-Manuel Benito Álvarez / CC BY-SA 2.5)

Replica of a bone flute made by the Aurignacians and discovered at Geissenklösterle, a German cave on the Swabian region. (José-Manuel Benito Álvarez / CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Other handmade items found in the region include jewelry artifacts such as ivory pendants and beads. Fully preserved ivory bracelets have also been found that were carved using these tools. A significant aspect of Aurignacian art is their desire to make art transportable, in the form of jewelry or figurines. Though they also engaged in permanent cave art, it is clear transportable art pieces were an important part of their culture.

Aurignacians took their love of transportable tools and art and combined them to create one of the earliest ever instruments in history. Several bone flutes have been found throughout Europe and have been determined to have been created by early Aurignacians. The oldest bone flute discovered was estimated to be approximately 35,000 years old when it was found in Germany in 2008. Researchers found that it was carved from the bone of a vulture’s wing and had five holes drilled into it to produce different sounds.

The Cave of Aurignac in France. (Totor-22 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Cave of Aurignac in France. (Totor-22 / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Cave of Aurignac: Artifacts Aplenty

One of the most famous Aurignacian sites discovered in Europe was found in the commune of Aurignac in Southwest France. The Cave of Aurignac has been excavated several times since the late 1800s, and was declared a national Historic Monument by France in 1921. Inside the cave, archaeologists have found further evidence of Aurignacian tool making and art creation.

The first discovery of Aurignacian tools in this cave occurred in 1852, when Jean Baptist Bonnemaison, a local, explored the cave out of curiosity. Bonnemaison discovered several ancient tools in addition to over a dozen human skeletons inside the cave, which were relocated to a local cemetery for proper burial. Since then, these original tools have been lost, but record of their discovery led future archaeologists to check the cave out for themselves.

Between 1860 and 1863, Edouard Lartet, an early French paleontologist, excavated the cave and discovered dozens of tools made from antler and flint. He also discovered several fragments of human bones and ceramic figures in addition to the fossilized remains of various animal species including the Cave bear, Cave hyena, horses, reindeer, mammoths, and woolly rhinos .

By the time his work was finished, he and his team discovered the fossilized remains of over 30 species, most of which can now be observed in the Musee de l’Homme in Paris. Other findings including tools such as scrapers and blades are now preserved in the Musee de L’Aurignacien in Aurignac.

A carving of a running horse, created by the Aurignacians, from Hayonim Cave, Levant. Source: Gary Todd / CC0

A carving of a running horse, created by the Aurignacians, from Hayonim Cave, Levant. Source: Gary Todd / CC0

Aurignacian Cave Art: Possible Spiritual Rituals?

Though not as common as sculptures and carvings, Aurignacian paintings and drawings have been found. Chauvet cave in France is the greatest example of these illustrations. Charcoal samples of the paintings within the cave reveal they are at least 36,000 years old, with others being only 31,000 years old.

Many of these cave paintings are symbolic in nature and reveal to historians the origins of human creativity. One example is a painting of the outline of a hand, in which the artist held their hand to the rock and painted with red pigment around it. Others showed hand art in which early pigments were applied to the hand before being stamped on the wall.

Beyond using their body parts to create art, many Aurignacian artists painted animals including lions and rhinos, rare themes for early cave art. Animals are a common subject within Aurignacian art, revealing patterned themes in their creativity.

Archaeologists Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams observed the Chauvet cave in 1994 and later released a book of their interpretations of the art in 1996. Clottes and Lewis-Williams discuss the purpose of the art, which they believe was a form of spirituality. Because the drawings in the cave were so deep, they theorized that the paintings were made as part of a religious ritual. The focus on painted hands throughout the cave could have been attempts to summon spirits or gods out of the rock, or perhaps a way to communicate with them. However, these theories are widely debated amongst archaeologists, with many either fully denying or fully embracing them.

Negative hand print discovered within the Chauvet Cave. (Claude Valette / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Negative hand print discovered within the Chauvet Cave. (Claude Valette / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Clottes and Lewis-Williams also commented on the significant number of animal paintings in the cave versus human paintings. With so few humans in existence at this time, it makes sense that animals were simply more common and a source of fascination for early humans. Clottes also analyzed paintings of rhinos, bears, and bison in a more recent study, in which he claimed that the paintings had similar finger strokes. This could be indicative of the same artist or perhaps a common pattern of painting adopted by many Aurignacians at the time.

Jean-Michel Geneste, Clottes’ successor, has analyzed these animal paintings further and has made note of the differences between how each animal species is painted. In particular, he notes that lions are painted more anthropomorphically than other species, which suggests that early Aurignacians saw lions as an animal of greater hierarchy than other creatures. They may have also seen lions as a symbol of power compared to other creatures.

As more excavations occur throughout Europe, it’s possible that more Aurignacian art could be found. If that’s the case, further information about the culture of these early European humans could be unearthed. It could also give us a clearer picture about the history of art and how art styles have spread and evolved over time. As dating methods improve, historians worldwide hope to discover and designate more intricate, fascinating art pieces as belonging to the Aurignacians.

Top image: Charcoal drawings from the Chauvet Cave in France, fabulous examples of artwork created by the Aurignacians. (Claude Valette / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

By Lex Leigh

References

Conard, N. J. May 2009. “A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany” in Nature, Vol. 459, Issue 7244, pp. 248-252. Available at: https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2009Natur.459..248C/abstract

French Ministry of Culture and Communication. No date. “The Aurignacians” in Musée D’archéologie Nationale . Available at: https://archeologie.culture.fr/chauvet/en/aurignacians

Hammer, J. 1 April 2015. “Finally, the Beauty of France’s Chauvet Cave Makes its Grand Public Debut” in Smithsonian Magazine . Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/france-chauvet-cave-makes-grand-debut-180954582/  

Haws, J. A., Benedetti, M. M., Talamo, S., & Zinsious, B. K. 28 September 2020. “The early Aurignacian dispersal of modern humans into westernmost Eurasia” in PNAS. Available at: https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2016062117

Koehl, D. No date. “Cro-Magnon Man (Anatomically Modern or Early Modern Humans)” in Elephant News . Available at: https://www.elephant.se/cro-magnon.php

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The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. No date. “Aurignacian culture” in Encyclopædia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Aurignacian-culture

Vanhaeren, M., & d’Errico, F. 16 March 2005. “Grave goods from the Saint-Germain-la-Rivière Burial: Evidence for social inequality in the Upper Palaeolithic” in Journal of Anthropological Archaeology . Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278416505000103

Visual Arts Cork. No date. “Aurignacian art (c.40,000-25,000 BCE)” in Encyclopedia of Art Education . Available at: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/aurignacian-art.htm#aurignacian

Zorich, Z. (2017, May). Aurignacian School of Art. Archaeology Magazine. Retrieved May 16, 2022, from https://www.archaeology.org/issues/257-1705/from-the-trenches/5449-trenches-france-aurignacian-engraving 

Comments

Invisihole's picture

I was wondering that too. I did find this https://www.earth.columbia.edu/articles/view/2839 which talks about homo erectus, using stone tools in Africa that long ago. Perhaps that's what the author meant?

With all due respect, please explain where you came to the conclusion that Homo Sapiens existed 1.8 million years ago. According to our DNA, Homosapiens “evolved” approximately 225K years ago.

Invisihole's picture

While I believe the jump from hand art to spiritual ritual is a ginormous leap, it is lovely to read about the various forms of art the ancients practiced. Reading of the flute was intriguing. Also I can't help but wonder if there's a layer of story telling thicker than simple art. A way to teach hunting, tracking, or which animals can be interacted with. Quite frankly we will never know their true purpose but it is wonderful to see humans acting like humans. Regardless of the era.

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