Visual Evidence: The First Art Objects in the World

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Visual Evidence: The First Art Objects in the World
This activity corresponds to the “Visual Evidence: The First Art Objects in the World” feature in your textbook. The questions below are designed to help you learn more about the topic. Once you have answered the Comprehension questions, submit your answers and move on to the subsequent questions included in the Analysis and Outside Sources sections. Each section is designed to build upon the one before it, taking you progressively deeper into the subject you are studying. After you have answered all of the questions, you will have the option of emailing your responses to your instructor.

As your text suggests, human creativity may be as old as humanity itself. As early as 75,000 B.C.E., humans created objects that were not only functional but also beautiful, suggesting a well-developed aesthetic sense. About 35,000 years later, one of the great ages of human creativity commenced with the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic Period (40,000–10,000 B.C.E.). During that period, cave art flourished in Europe, reaching its height during the so-called Magdalenian period of 18,000 to 10,000 B.C.E. One of the most spectacular examples of Magdalenian art is the paintings in the Altamira Cave in Spain. Go to and read a more detailed introduction to the Altamira cave paintings and then use the links provided to examine examples of the paintings. After you finish, answer the questions below.

The Altamira Cave Paintings

  • Image 1: (click to see larger photo)

  • Image 2:

  • Image 3: (small photos, but comprehensive)


1. When were the Altamira paintings created?

2. On what do the paintings focus? What is the most likely explanation for this focus?
3. In addition to the paintings, what signs of human habitation have scientists found in the caves?

1. As the Web introduction to the Altamira paintings notes, the painters used the natural contours of the rock to give the animals a three-dimensional appearance. In other words, these early artists were acutely aware of the possibilities of their medium. Can you detect a similar awareness in the Blombos Cave objects about which you read in Chapter 1 of your textbook?

2. The Web introduction notes that the cave "pictures are of the animals only and contain no landscape or horizontal base." How would you explain this lack of landscape background and horizontal base?
3. The Movement of Ideas feature in Chapter 1 of your textbook summarizes a number of interpretations of the female figurines discovered in several European sites. One of the interpretations is religious: that is, Paleolithic Europeans used at least some of them as objects of fertility worship. Could you develop a religious interpretation of the Altamira paintings: that is, might they have been used in some sort of worship? If so, what kind? If not, what evidence would need to develop a religious interpretation?
4. As you know, agriculture began to emerge around 12,500 B.C.E., 2,500 years before the end of the Paleolithic Period. In other words, the era of cave art overlapped with the emergence of agriculture. Do you think that agricultural peoples would create art such as that in the Altamira Cave? Why or why not?
Outside Sources

1. Visit the Cave of Lascaux at to see other notable examples of Paleolithic cave art. When you arrive at the site, click on "Discover" and then on "Virtual Visit": examine all sections of the cave, but pay special attention to the Great Hall of the Bulls and The Shaft of the Dead Man. How do the Lascaux images resemble and differ from those of the Altamira Cave? Do you think that the Lascaux images were created for the same purposes as those at Altamira? Why or why not?

2. Go to and take a look at a sample of prehistoric art of the Pyrenees. Compare the objects with those found in Blombos Cave. Compare two sets of objects. Do the Pyrenean objects display evidence of creativity comparable to that of the Blombos objects?
3. offers further examples of and commentary on the religious significance of Paleolithic art. Click on the images of enlarged views. If these were indeed ritual objects, how do you think they functioned? In other words, how, in the mind of a prehistoric hunter, might these images have worked to ensure good hunting and/or animal fertility?

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