Prehistoric Art

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Prehistoric Art


the art of prehistoric social structures. Prehistoric art arose in the Upper Paleolithic, in roughly the 30th millennium B.C. It was at this time that modern man first appeared. In art, man consolidated the results of his work experience, deepened and broadened his conceptions of reality, enriched his intellectual life, and rose further above nature. Thus, the appearance of art marked a major step forward in the cognitive experience of man and helped strengthen social ties and organize primitive society. Art arose to meet the practical needs of everyday life. For example, dance developed from hunting and military exercises and from movements that graphically portrayed the life of animals and the work processes of the primitive social group. The rhythms of work processes and the fact that instrumental or vocal accompaniment aided the organization of collective labor greatly contributed to the rise of music.

Representational art appeared in the Aurignacian period, that is, the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic. The most important examples of Paleolithic art are the cave paintings discovered in Spain (Altamira), southern France (Lascaux, Montespan), and the USSR (Kapova Cave). Most often represented were large animals of the hunt (bison, horses, deer, mammoths, beasts of prey). The depictions are full of life and motion. Representations of man and creatures combining human and animal features are found less frequently, as are impressions of hands and stylized symbols. Such symbols have been partly deciphered as representations of dwellings and hunting traps. Cave paintings were executed in black, red, brown, and yellow mineral pigments.

Less often produced were bas-reliefs, in which the natural bulges in the stone often corresponded with the shape of an animal. The Upper Paleolithic was also marked by three-dimensional sculptural representations of human figures and animals. These included the clay statuettes of women known as the Aurignac-Solutrean Venuses, which were connected with the cult of the mother goddess. The first examples of decorative carving, such as bone and stone engravings, appeared at this time.

A characteristic feature of Paleolithic art is its naïve realism. The strikingly lifelike representations of animals were the result of the distinctive work practices and world view of Paleolithic man. The accuracy and sharpness of observation were conditioned by the everyday work experience of hunters whose life and well-being depended on their knowledge of animals and their ability to track them. For all its lifelike expressiveness, Paleolithic art was completely primitive and childlike. It displayed no understanding of generalization, breadth, or perspective, or of composition in our sense of the word. To a large extent, its basis was a reflection of nature in the lively, personified images of mythology, the attribution of soul to natural phenomena, and the personification of natural phenomena. Most of the art of the Paleolithic was associated with a primitive fertility cult and with hunting rituals.

The beginnings of architecture may be attributed to the Upper Paleolithic. Dwellings apparently were low, domed structures, one-third of which was underground. Some had long, tunnellike entrances. Sometimes the bones of large animals were used as construction materials. In the USSR, many examples of Upper Paleolithic art have been discovered in the Ukraine (Mezin site), in Byelorussia, on the Don River (Kostenki-Borshevo sites), in Georgia, and in Siberia (Buret’ and Mal’ta).

The transition from hunting to land cultivation and stock raising gave rise to new tendencies in art. Images conveying more complex and abstract concepts appeared. A decorative direction, which had arisen in the Paleolithic, developed further, resulting in the embellishment of everyday objects, dwellings, and clothing. The Neolithic, Aeneolithic, and, to some extent, the Bronze Age tribes of Egypt, India, the Near East, Asia Minor, Middle Asia, and China were characterized by an art that in many ways was associated with agricultural mythology. In the Danube-Dnieper region and in China, painted pottery had intricate curvilinear, mainly spiral, ornamentation. Linear, geometric patterns, often combined with depictions of animals and stylized human figures, embellished the pottery of Middle Asia, Iran, India, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Egypt. Many agricultural tribes produced lifelike, expressive sculpture. The Neolithic and Aeneolithic settlements were communal. The adobe dwellings of Middle Asia and Mesopotamia had many rooms, and the dwellings of the Tripol’e culture had frames made of branches and floors of beaten clay. It was in the Neolithic that the first megaliths and pile dwellings appeared.

Among tribes that remained fishing and hunting societies (the forest hunters and fishermen of Northern Europe and Asia, from Norway and Karelia in the west to Kolyma in the east), the motifs and realistic forms of art inherited from the Paleolithic continued to be used. These peoples produced petroglyphs and animal figurines made of clay, wood, and horn (for example, the finds from the Gorbunovo peat bog and the Olenii Island burial ground). Petroglyphs from the Neolithic Period and the late Bronze Age have been found in Middle Asia (Zaraut-Sai) and the Caucasus (Kobustan).

In the steppes of eastern Europe and Asia, stock-raising tribes developed the animal style during the late Bronze Age and the early Iron Age. Cultural ties with Greece and with China and other countries of the Orient led to the appearance of new subjects, motifs, and mediums among the tribes of southern Eurasia. The later stages of prehistoric art were connected with the growth of productive capabilities, the division of labor during the decline of the primitive social structure, and the formation of a class society.

A rich and varied art, linked with the forms of prehistoric art, continues to flourish among peoples who to a large degree have preserved primitive social relations (the aborigines of Australia, Oceania, and South America; some peoples of Africa).


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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