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1.4: Rock Art

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    The art of cave painting has had a noteworthy impact on the evolution of artistic techniques and materials. Despite the advancements in modern-day art supplies that have ushered in a new level of efficiency, the fundamental components of paint remain unchanged, consisting of a binder and powdered or ground minerals. The early cave artists used charcoal from the fire to sketch out their desired image onto the cave wall. After creating the basic outline, they would fill it with natural pigments, often made from crushed minerals. In certain instances, the artists would even carve into the rock surface to create more permanent lines and then apply pigments to produce more intricate details. The meticulous and skilled work of these early artists has continued to inspire and influence art throughout the course of history.

    The earliest art forms were crafted in ancient times using dark charcoal residue from burnt wood. These rudimentary sketches primarily consisted of simple lines and symbols and were created by individuals who had access to an abundant supply of charcoal owing to their reliance on wood as their main fuel source for both heating and cooking. As these artists honed their skills, they began to incorporate natural elements found on the ground or in rocks to add depth and color to their depictions of various animals that adorned the walls of caves.

    The colors utilized in the caves are categorized as earth tone colors as the artists made their paint from natural materials found in the earth. The earliest art forms were crafted using dark charcoal residue from burnt wood. These rudimentary sketches primarily consisted of simple lines and symbols and were created by individuals who had access to an abundant supply of charcoal owing to their reliance on wood as their main fuel source for both heating and cooking. As these artists honed their skills, they began to incorporate natural elements found on the ground or in rocks to add depth and color to their depictions of various animals that adorned the walls of caves.

    Color has been used by humans since prehistoric times and is still prevalent today. It is believed that early indigenous people did not have knowledge of the color wheel, so they mixed colors they had to create secondary colors. Different hues are created by mixing black, white, or grey with base colors. All colors have three properties: hue, value, and intensity. These properties are altered when artists add black or white to primary colors. Mixing white into red ochre lightens its value or tint while mixing black darkens its value or shade. Mixing a color with grey changes its tone. Adding some black-to-red ochre gives the color more depth and can make cave paintings look more realistic in the soft glow of a fire.

    Certain varieties of rocks possess a texture akin to clay and are imbued with mineral-based oxides that imbue them with a multitude of colors. For example, rocks that contain iron oxide may produce a reddish-brown hue. These rocks can be molded into "paint" sticks, like pastel crayons, or crushed into a fine powder and blended with a binding agent. The hues of the "paint" are determined by the availability of raw materials, and artists of yesteryear utilized rocks that contained minerals such as kaolin, manganese, or iron oxide to produce primary hues such as black, brown, white, yellow, and various shades of red. Thus, the use of these mineral-based oxides in the creation of art has been a prevalent practice throughout history, resulting in some of the world's most vibrant and enduring hues in the realm of art.

    Throughout the world, diverse pigments and colors were utilized in different regions due to the varying composition of rocks and soil. In Australia, the palette consisted of yellow ochre, red ochre, and charcoal. In Africa, pigments included red, and orange made from ochres, whites from zinc oxides, black from charcoal, browns from hematite, and a unique blue color from iron. Kaolin was commonly used for white in China, while France utilized a variety of blacks made from manganese oxides. Many of the rocks and minerals employed in these paintings were sourced from the local environment, though some were transported from faraway places, indicating the existence of trails. The native cave dwellers also stockpiled minerals for future paintings.

    The different colors of “paint” would depend on the raw materials they had on hand. Some of the most common colors are:

    A yellow mountain outcrop
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Red Ochre (Public Domain)
    A white mountain outcrop
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Yellow Ochre (Toby HudsonCC BY-SA 3.0)
    A limestone mountain outcrop
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Lime White Rock (PonorCC BY-SA 4.0)
    A mountain brown rock outcrop
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Umber (Aliosha BielenbergCC BY 2.0)
    A mountain black rock outcrop
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Black Carbon (CC BY 2.0)

    Cave dwellers ground the rocks or clay by hand to create paint. Many caves have hollows in the rock floor with stains that indicate places people used to make a fine powder from the minerals. To bind the powder into the paint, the artist had several choices of natural binders; animal fat, blood, bone marrow, spit, or water, making a paste and forming it into sticks to apply the paint directly to the walls. Over time they must have experimented with different types of natural resources to create a paint that would spread, adhere to the wall, and fortunately endure for thousands of years.

    Finely ground powdered pigment is mixed with a binder to create pastels. While the indigenous people were the original creators of pastels through experimentation, the modern version of this medium was invented in the 17th century and produced by machines, ensuring a consistent product. Nevertheless, indigenous artists often made use of the mixed color or formed into sticks to draw directly on walls, much like we would today with pastel crayons. Although chalk and pastels may appear similar at first glance, their production processes differ significantly. Pastels are created by pulverizing rocks into a fine powder, while chalk is found in its natural state. Limestone that was once submerged beneath the sea around 100 million years ago is the source of chalk. It is presently mined from the earth and compressed into cylindrical shapes for common classroom use. It's fascinating to learn that ancient cave paintings were often made using naturally occurring chunks of chalk.

    The prehistoric artists who adorned the walls of caves with their vivid depictions of life were resourceful and imaginative. Scholars have determined that they employed a variety of methods to apply the paint, including finger dabbing, the use of animal hide pads or moss clumps, and the creation of more refined brushes fashioned from twigs, animal hair, or fur. Additionally, they ingeniously crafted spray tools from hollow bones, which they would blow the paint through, much like a straw, or even directly from their mouths. These techniques were instrumental in producing the iconic stencil handprints that remain visible in numerous caves to this day.

    The texture of caves and rocks can differ significantly, ranging from rough and bumpy to smooth and slightly uneven. The key aspect of cave texture is its ability to hold charcoal or pigment, which enables the creation of rough designs etched into the rock. These designs are tactile and lend cave art a distinctive appearance that sets it apart from other art forms. Drawing may have been a means for indigenous people to comprehend their surroundings and converse with one another. Cave drawings vary in complexity, with some being simple and others being intricate and refined.

    Pachmarhi Hills (India)

    Nestled in the heart of India lies the mesmerizing Pachmarhi Hills, home to breathtaking rock shelters made of weathered sandstone. These magnificent structures were first discovered in 1862, and ever since, they have been a source of wonder and fascination for many. The rugged terrain surrounding the shelters is a testament to nature's raw, untamed beauty, boasting lush greenery, a vast array of flora, and flowing rivers that add to the challenging adventure of reaching the caves. As you delve deeper into the cavernous interiors of the rock shelters, you'll be greeted with a plethora of cave art that dates back centuries. The fascinating artwork depicts typical images of animals and hunters, along with people dancing and playing instruments, offering a glimpse into the rich cultural heritage of the people who once inhabited these caves. The paintings' intricate details and vibrant colors are a testament to the skill and creativity of the ancient artisans who created them, leaving visitors in awe of their talent.

    The central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh is home to a remarkable concentration of rock art in the Pachmarhi region and neighboring Mahadeo Hills. These painted shelters, situated at great heights, are a testament to the rich cultural heritage and artistic traditions of the region's ancient inhabitants. The rock art found in Pachmarhi Hills is characterized by a wide range of subjects, including animals, humans, abstract motifs, and geometric designs. Some of the shelters are adorned with a vast number of painted figures, often with superimposed images, while others have only a few. The use of red and white pigments is prevalent, providing a striking contrast against the rocky surfaces. Some paintings also feature yellow hues, adding to the visual richness of the artwork. 

    Despite the beauty and historical significance of these paintings, many of them are in a state of gradual decay. The harsh environmental conditions in the region, including sunlight, rain, wind, and human interference, have taken a toll on the rock art's preservation. Some of the paintings have faded or partially erased, leaving them incomplete. The colors of others have merged with the rock, rendering them indistinguishable from the surrounding surface. Some shelters have a thin, whitish layer covering the paintings, further obscuring the artwork's beauty. In summary, the preservation of these ancient paintings varies significantly, depending on the shelter's location, exposure to the elements, and human activity, which is the most destructive factor.

    The art in the Pachmarhi Hills is dated to 30,000 BCE, and the type of images found on the walls indicate a more advanced culture than some of the art in older caves. There are images of vegetation, bison, elephants, fish, birds, and humans in the act of hunting. The first artists used pigments were common hematite, iron oxide, and kaolin, often mixed together to form secondary colors. 

    Bhimbetka (India)

    Located in India, the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters are a testament to the rich history of human civilization. These caves provide a glimpse into the past, with evidence of early human inhabitation dating back to over 30,000 BCE. The rock shelters are home to some of the oldest cave art in the world, showcasing the creativity and artistic abilities of these ancient people. The cave art is divided into five main periods, spanning thousands of years. The earliest paintings (1.4.6) are linear representations of animals, including tigers, bison, and rhinoceros. These paintings merge into small, stylized depictions of animals in hunting scenes, often featuring people playing musical instruments. As time progressed, the paintings began to showcase the various trades and exchanges of goods that took place within the community. These trade scenes are depicted with great detail, highlighting the importance of commerce in the early human society. The final period of the cave art showcases geometric scenes, indicating a possible shift in the artistic style and cultural practices of the people who inhabited the area. Overall, the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters provide a fascinating glimpse into the past, offering a unique opportunity to study the history of human civilization.

    A rock outcrop with red painted figures and animals
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Bhimbetka Rock Art (Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 3.0)

    The Bhimbetka Rock Shelters are an extraordinary archaeological site located in India, celebrated for their fascinating history. These rock shelters are home to some of the world's earliest cave art, dating back more than 30,000 BCE. It is believed that humans lived in these shelters over thirty millennia ago, providing us a window into the lives of our ancient predecessors. The rock shelters showcase five main periods of art, indicating that they were utilized for thousands of years. The Bhimbetka Rock Shelters exhibit early paintings that feature animals like tigers, bison, and rhinoceros in a linear style. These paintings are believed to be some of the oldest forms of art worldwide and offer us a glimpse into the origins of human creativity. As time passed, the paintings became more intricate, showcasing stylized animals in hunting scenarios, in addition to people, musical instruments, and various hunting tools.

    The rock shelters of Bhimbetka contain paintings that depict trade exchanges between tribes, indicating that these caves were not solely a place for artistic expression but also served as a hub for trade and commerce. As for the final period of art, the paintings depict geometric scenes believed to represent religious and spiritual beliefs symbolically. The Bhimbetka Rock Shelters are a vital archaeological site that offers a window into the early stages of human civilization, providing valuable insights into the lives of our ancient ancestors and showcasing their exceptional artistic abilities. The paintings found within these rock shelters reveal a creative society actively engaged in trade and commerce, making it a significant location for historians, scholars, and anyone interested in the history of human civilization.

    Adorning the walls are stunning depictions of India's rich cultural heritage, showcasing traditional dances and attire. This art has been preserved for millennia, with early renderings of animals leading to depictions of people and musical instruments before culminating in intricate geometric scenes. The walls and ceilings are adorned with vibrant and captivating paintings, spanning over 30,000 years of daily life. The use of a dark orange paint, made from hematite, iron oxide, and kaolin, combined with animal fat, adds an extra layer of magnificence to this already breathtaking artwork.

    7 Wonders of India: Bhimbetka

    Located near Bhopal, the caves include scenes from everyday life, depicting household scenes, hunting, dancing, animal fighting, elephant riders, honey collections, body tattooing, and music. The 838 caves are spread on a total area of 1,850 hectares. The Bhimbetka shelters exhibit the earliest traces of human life in India. The oldest rock paintings in the cave date back more than 12,000 years. It is the biggest repository of pre-historic art in India, depicting the life and times of early man.


    Damaidi (China)

    The nomadic hunter-gatherer transition to a sedentary farming society began in China as early as 7000 BCE. They harvested and stored millet, rice, and pigs, settling on the mouth of the Yangzi River. They collected clay from the yellow silt of the river floodplain and created vessels to hold food and grain. The golden-brown clay was molded into geometric shapes with schematics of animals on the sides. 

    Located in a quaint village in central China, the Damaidi Cave is home to an impressive collection of over 3,170 petroglyphs adorning its walls. These petroglyphs (1.4.7), dating back to a staggering 8,000 BCE, boast more than 8,000 individual figures of art, depicting various scenes such as hunting, fighting, and herding animals, as well as celestial bodies like the sun and moon. Interestingly, some of these ancient carvings resemble modern-day Chinese characters, which, if true, could push back the origins of writing to a much earlier date.

    The Damaidi Cave features hunting scenes, much like other caves, but it also showcases a unique cultural fascination with the night sky. This cave can be found on a bend of the Yellow River, where nomadic people lived and used the surrounding caves and rock formations to document their daily lives. They etched images into the rock and filled them with pigment to illustrate their living conditions. These carvings could possibly be the earliest form of written language, which would greatly impact our understanding of the origins of writing.

    A rock outcrop with white painted figures and animals
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Damaidi rock art at Helan Mountain in Ningxia, China (Rita Willaert, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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    Cave art in the tropics

    In this Nature Video, we explore a cave in Indonesia that’s home to some of the oldest paintings in the world. The hand stencils and paintings of animals were created between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago – making them at least as old as similar artwork in Europe.


    Huashan (China)

     The limestone cliffs (1.4.8) are adorned with extensive paintings dating back to between 14,000 BCE and 200 CE. Most of the paintings were created between the 5th century BCE and the 2nd century CE, and were used by the local people to record their lives. These paintings span an area of 170 meters across and 40 meters high above the water level. It is still a mystery how the artists reached the cliffs located at a height of 30 to 90 meters above the water level. The artists used a mixture of red ochre, animal glue, and blood to create the red color used for painting, which was applied directly to the rock. Historians have discovered 1900 specific images in over 100 groupings scattered across seventy sites. The figures are quite large, varying in size from 60 to 150 centimeters. Along with humans and animals, there are also images of drums, knives, swords, bells, and ships. These images are believed to represent different kinds of worship, including the sun or river god, wars, and totems. The paintings are located in remote areas and are largely protected from modern civilization and environmental destruction. However, the cliff rocks are beginning to deteriorate due to water and erosion.

    A rock outcrop with red painted figures and animals
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Huashan Rock Outcrop Art (RolfmuellerCC BY-SA 3.0)
    Zuojiang Huashan Rock Art Cultural Landscape

    Located on the west bank of the Mingjiang River in the border regions of southwest China, the Zuojiang Huashan Rock Art Cultural Landscape boasts paintings created from around 5th Century BC to the 2nd Century CE.


    Maros-Pangkep Karst (Indonesia)

    The Maros-Pangkep Karst region is home to some of the most significant and ancient cave art in the world. The Sulawesi warty pig image (1.4.10), one of the earliest cave paintings found in the area, is estimated to be at least 43,900 years old, based on Uranium-series dating. This region, located on Sulawesi Island in Indonesia, has been inhabited by humans for thousands of years, making it a site of great historical and cultural importance. Most of the cave art discovered in this region consists of handprints (1.4.9) and depictions of various animals. These artworks offer a unique glimpse into the lives and beliefs of our ancestors, providing valuable insights into their way of life, their interactions with the environment, and their artistic expression. Overall, the Maros-Pangkep Karst region is a true treasure trove of ancient art and a testament to the rich cultural heritage of Indonesia. 

    Scholars who have studied the ancient paintings have observed that the animals portrayed in those artworks were typically rendered in just one color, either a rich red or a deep purple mulberry hue. The artist responsible for creating these paintings utilized a brush or their fingertips to apply the paint, filling in the outlines of the animals with intricate patterns of dots, lines, or dashes. Although the paintings did not showcase any intricate anatomical details, they did include distinctive features such as spiky crests on the animals' heads, horns, and facial warts that were frequently observed in pigs. Some of the paintings showed individual animals, while others depicted entire scenes, providing an insight into the world of ancient people. To further illustrate the appearance of these images (1.4.11), historians have gone to great lengths to recreate a portion of one scene, which offers a glimpse into the artistry and skill of the creators of these remarkable paintings.

    A cave with painted white hands
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Hand prints in Pettakere Cave (Sabjan BadioCC BY-SA 3.0)
    A cave painting of a purple pig
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Pig-deer painting (Sabjan BadioCC BY-SA 4.0)
    A line drawing of animalsFigure \(\PageIndex{11}\): Redrawing of hunting scene from caves in Maros-Pangkep karst (Stephans historyCC BY-SA 4.0)
    Oldest Cave Art Found in Sulawesi

    A team of Griffith University archaeologists has shared in the discovery of what may be the world’s oldest known cave painting, dating back to at least 45,500 years ago. Uncovered in South Sulawesi during field research conducted with Indonesia’s leading archaeological research centre, Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional (ARKENAS), the cave painting consists of a figurative depiction of a Sulawesi warty pig, a wild boar that is endemic to this Indonesian island.



    [1] Lambert, T. A Brief History of Russia 

    This page titled 1.4: Rock Art is shared under a All Rights Reserved (used with permission) license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Deborah Gustlin & Zoe Gustlin (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .