Earliest figurative art: Aurignacian cave paintings (Sulawesi, Chauvet and more)

Museums as Therapy
8 min readAug 27, 2021


Cave paintings of Asia and Europe feature not only the oldest known figurative art, but also masterpieces of the whole art of the Paleolithic. Below, we review cave paintings of the Aurignacian archeological period (the period when figurative art first appeared) and, where appropriate, discuss our emotions evoked by these artworks.

Earliest cave paintings in the world, Sulawesi

What do we see in the picture below (img. 1.1)? A wall with reddish drawings: a large animal, probably a pig, shown in profile and two negative hand prints. It seems that the animal is drawn by somebody not very proficient but not a beginner either. The drawing is more schematic rather than realistic: it shows all the main parts of the animal, but the proportions are distorted and the filling of the contour does not convey spatial depth.

1.1. A painting of a pig from Leang Tedongnge cave, Sulawesi, ca. 45,000 BP, 136 x 54 cm (ScienceNews).

What do we feel when we look at this drawing? Of course, this is a matter of personal taste, but we feel a bit of contempt (a combination of boredom and annoyance). It is like saying to ourselves: “Why am I looking at this drawing? There are better drawings out there.”

But what is this drawing really? It is the oldest known figurative art in the world. It was discovered at Leang Tedongnge cave in Sulawesi together with a few other paintings of Sulawesi warty pigs (img. 1.2) and it is estimated to be at least 45,500 years old. The drawing is also relatively large: 136 x 54 cm. Its outstanding antiquity, size, appearance as a part of a painted cave panel may evoke emotions way different from contempt.

1.2. The painted panel from Leang Tedongnge with three pigs (Brumm et al. 2021).

Cave paintings of a similar style have also been found in other caves in Sulawesi and Borneo. A painted panel at the cave of Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4, Sulawesi, is interpreted as the oldest known hunting scene (imgs. 1.3–1.4). Here, therianthropes (partly humans, partly animals, labeled “Ther” in img. 1.4) hunt wild pigs and dwarf buffaloes (labeled “Anoa” in img. 1.4). The panel is 4.5 m wide and its minimum age is estimated to be between 43,900 and 35,100 years old.

1.3. An anoa hunted by therianthropes, a painting from Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4, Sulawesi, ca. 40,900 BP (Nature News).
1.4. The painted panel with a hunting scene from Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4, 43,900-35,100 BP, length 4.5 m (based on Aubert et al. 2019).

Earliest cave paintings in Europe, El Castillo, Spain

2.1. A painted panel from El Castillo cave, Spain. O-83 is 40,800 years old, O-82 is 37,300 years old (Pike et al. 2012).

The earliest figurative art in Europe was found in the Spanish cave of El Castillo. It is a red ochre hand stencil, which is at least 37,300 years old (img. 2.1, label O-82). The adjacent red circle (img. 2.1, label O-83) is at least 40,800 years old (see img. 2.2 for a timeline). Yellow bisons on this panel were added at a later period.

Hand stencils are very common in cave paintings. We have already seen two of them on a panel with Sulawesi warty pigs. To make such a stencil, red ochre was blown onto a hand through a hollow bone. The meaning and purpose of these stencils is unknown.

2.2. The timeline of a number of cave paintings in Spain (Pike et al. 2012).

Grotte Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc

The paintings of the Chauvet Cave are a true masterpiece not only of the earliest art, but of the entire art of the Paleolithic (imgs. 3.1–3.2). The Chauvet Cave contains more than 420 representations of animals, graphic motifs and symbols, many of which are dated to at least 36,000 BP. The cave was inhabited by humans between 37,000 and 33,500 BP and between 31,000 and 28,000 BP when it was closed by a landslide and remained untouched until its discovery 27 years ago, in 1994.

3.1. The Feline Fresco, Chauvet Cave (Google Arts & Culture).
3.2. The Horses Fresco, Chauvet Cave (Google Arts & Culture).

Two things about the Chauvet Cave fascinate us at Museums as Therapy the most. First, prehistory is not something lost in time. It is right near us (mostly beneath us, to be precise). Many such caves were discovered recently and many are still to be discovered. We are fascinated by the idea that such treasures are still there waiting for us to admire them.

Second, it is hard to believe that these well-executed and well-preserved artworks of the Chauvet Cave were made at least 36,000 years ago. Look at the bison and horses (img. 3.3) and all those realistic details of their faces; look at the horse and owl (img. 3.4) drawn with a few precise movements of fingers; look at the bear (img. 3.5) represented in a simplifying yet precise manner; look at the dotted animal (a bison or rhinoceros, img. 3.6) made using a completely different technique — positive hand imprints with ochre.

3.3. Bisons and horses, charcoal drawings with shading (Google Arts & Culture).
3.4. A horse and an owl, imprinting on a soft wall using fingers and tools to remove clay (Google Arts & Culture).

Here are a few quotes that resonate well with our feelings about the art of the Chauvet Cave (from the Chauvet Cave official website).

”The technique is extraordinary. Like all great techniques, like Michelangelo or Picasso, it is at once very simple and very refined.” — Miquel Barceló, an artist, decorated the dome in the conference room at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

“… I find myself looking at the incredible. Such precise lines, such realistic expression… The artists who presided there were geniuses… I know I’m looking at universal art. This thing that the true painter, the true artist can always do and will always do. We see people capable of it in all periods. But finding them back then, already!… And then… what a fabulous story!… Images that have survived the millennia to reach us intact… Even better! Instant… Because, I’m telling you again, you could easily believe that the artists have just put down their brush…” — Roger Lombardot, an author and director living in Ardèche.

3.5. A bear, red ochre drawing (Google Arts & Culture).
3.6. A dotted animal, imprints of hands dipped in red ochre (Google Arts & Culture).

“The painter has used the hollow in the rock wall to emphasise the shape of the animal, using the empty space to give an impression of relief. This is a very sophisticated representative technique. It gives the impression of movement. In the paintings of the Chauvet cave, there is a repetition of signs, which gives an idea of progress, as if the figure is moving, like in the futurist works of the early 20th century. It’s unbelievable finding this whole repertoire of languages and expressions, so close to our own culture, in a 35,000-year-old representation. I find it extraordinary, really touching.

The other thing that really touches me is the freshness: you feel as if these things have been done a few days or a few hours ago. Time really is suspended, with no landmarks. We are in an abstraction of time, which is a really unique thing. It really is a hugely important monument. It probably gives us the same sense of wonder as we might get looking at the Sistine Chapel or Giotto’s Chapel in Padua. These places have a certain magic created by a little touch of colour.” — Giuseppe Penone, an artist, a member of the Arte povera movement.

Coliboaia Cave and Baume-Latrone Cave

We finish our overview with cave paintings from the Coliboaia Cave in Romania and the Baume-Latrone Cave in France, both of which are said to be contemporaries of the Chauvet Cave. The paintings of Coliboaia depict a bison, horses, rhinoceros and other animals (img. 4.1). These paintings have stylistic similarities to those of the Chauvet Cave and are dated to around 36,500–35,000 BP, although some researchers contest these dates.

4.1. A bison, two horses, and a rhinoceros, Coliboaia Cave, 36,500–35,000 BP (Clottes et al. 2012).

The paintings of the Baume-Latrone Cave contain representations of mammoths and a lion (img. 4.2) and are said to be even older than Coliboaia and Cauvet, namely, 38,500–36,500 years old.

“The animal profiles are limited to the essential… The artists drew with clay, the coated hand was used as a paintbrush and left three or four parallel marks on the wall, depending on the number of fingers in contact with the rock. This technique using several fingers is atypical, unique in Paleolithic art and renders the images very expressive, or even expressionist. The drawing technique with clay is specific to Baume Latrone, but can be related to the multi-fingered lines visible in the Salle Hillaire in Chauvet Cave. At Baume Latrone the image was drawn by adding matter (clay), whereas at Chauvet, matter was removed (soft cave wall). In both cases, this results in very similar drawings.” (Azéma 2015)

4.2. A painted panel with a lion and mammoths and a diagram of a mammoth, Baume-Latrone Cave, 38,500–36,500 BP (Azéma 2015).




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