We explain what rock art is, where it was found and the techniques that were used. In addition, its characteristics and importance.

What is rock art?

Rock art or more specifically rock painting, rock sculpture or rock engraving, is a set of prehistoric drawings that have been found in various caves or ancient stones. It reflects the imagination and concerns of primitive humanity.

They are some of the first cultural manifestations of our species . The oldest ones discovered date from the last planetary ice age, around 40,000 years ago. The rock art works are related to the petroglyphs, sculptures and engravings of their time.

Unlike other forms of prehistoric art, the paintings have remained in fairly good condition despite the passage of time . This is partly due to the materials used and partly to the protection provided by the natural support in which they are found, protected from erosion and wear.

History of rock art

History of rock art

There are no exact data on when the rock art began to occur.

Most of the time, the calculations on its temporal origin are made through measurements of the carbon-14 isotope or other residual elements in time.

However, in the caves, grottos and places where the paintings have been found, materials from different times coexist .

Furthermore, contamination of samples often leads to erroneous measurements. In any case, it is estimated that most of them were made between the Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods .

Where has rock art been found?

Rock art has been found on every continent except Antarctica . The main cave painting finds were in the highly populated regions of the Neolithic era, especially between France and Spain , in the Cantabria region.

Another important case is the one found in 2014 in Sulawesi, Indonesia , which is estimated to date back more than 40,000 years. On the other hand, Blombos caves in South Africa are considered the oldest of all (around 73,000 years old).

Other minor deposits are in:

  • South Africa. Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg.
  • Namibia. Twyfelfontein.
  • Argentina . Jujuy, the Sierras de Córdoba and San Luis.
  • Peru . The famous Nazca Lines.
  • Malaysia. Gua Tambun in Perak.

Types of rock art

Types of rock art

There are several types of rock art, distinguishing from the technique used to do it:

  • Cave painting. By spreading substances along the surface of the rock with the fingers or with some tool, drawings are drawn and scenes are represented, generally of hunting, or impressions of human hands painting around and between the fingers.
  • Rock engraving (petroglyphs). Using rocks and pigments, geometric patterns or ancestral shapes were engraved on the surface of a softer rock, using a technique similar to that of tattoos to generate bas-reliefs.
  • Rock sculpture. They generally consist of reliefs and carvings made in the stone by primitive chiselling with other harder tools, until they take pieces out of it and achieve certain shapes.

Cave drawings

The cave paintings are more or less homogeneous in terms of their subject matter. Those from the Paleolithic usually exhibit drawings of animals  and lines . In the Neolithic age, human figures, negative human handprints and other representations of the environment began to appear, such as leaves, etc.

Most of the animals depicted in them are mammoths, bison, horses , wild pigs, deer and reindeer , usually in full hunt, or wounded with arrows or spears. Usually one or two colors dominate, in shades that go between black, red, yellow and brown.

Techniques used

Techniques used

The cave paintings were all made with similar materials , despite being thousands of kilometers from each other. Pigments from charcoal, feces, blood, and other bodily fluids were generally used .

Among the minerals used were hematite, manganese oxide or mixtures such as clay . As a binder for these substances, some type of animal fat or oil was used.

These pigments (of organic or mineral origin) were smeared on the stone with the fingers or instruments such as bird feathers or pieces of wood were used . In some cases it was scraped with a stone or tool to generate realistic and three-dimensional effects.

In the cases of sculpture and engraving, on the other hand, stones of a more resistant material were used to sculpt the softer ones . Patterns or figures were printed on its surface or to sculpt it into three-dimensional shapes.



Four periods of rock art are identified:

  • Paleolithic art. The oldest rock art, dating from between 73,000 and 12,000 years BC. These are prefigurative drawings, sometimes highly detailed and sometimes abstract, of naturalistic figures, usually bison or other hunting creatures.
  • Levantine art. Generally located in the Mediterranean arc of the Iberian Peninsula, it is very dynamic and naturalistic, with figures located in the shallower regions of the caves, generally representing hunting scenes with a bow and arrow. They were traced with bird feathers.
  • Macro-schematic art. Characteristic of the Neolithic period, it presents enormous similarities with certain ceramic styles and it is estimated to have a provenance of around 6,000 years BC. C. It generally represents human figures, idols or praying people, and it is associated with fertility rites.
  • Schematic art. It supposes a simplification of the style, with not a refined technique and a quick stroke, very different from Levantine art. This suggests that it could be signs, some sign of protoscript or ideograms. It appeared at the end of the Neolithic, around 3,000 years BC. C.

Interpretation of rock art

Interpretation of rock art

It is difficult to know what role rock art played in primitive society . It is considered unlikely that they had a decorative function . On the contrary, the studies point to totemic functions, that is, of identification of the tribe and of contact with a guardian animal.

Another probable function is that they were part of rituals to try to win the favor of a deity or to attract good fortune in hunting. Their location in hard-to-reach places strengthens this hypothesis, since it suggests that they were in a sacred or mystical place.

It is estimated that these places were corners in which the tribe contemplated the history of their ancestors or left a trace of their passage on Earth .

Historical importance of rock art

The importance of these findings lies in what they reveal to us about the mentality of the primitive human being . It is striking that he was as inclined as we are to the representation of their customs, their anxieties and their desires.

Similar to what happened many centuries later (and continues to occur), it is highly probable that these representations had some magical-religious charge . They also offer us information about their customs, such as hunting bison, wild pig, etc.

Main locations of rock art

Main locations of rock art

The largest concentrations of rock art in the world are in:

  • In Africa .

    • In caves found in the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa, also called uKhahlamba National Park.
    • At the archaeological site of Twyfelfontein or Ui-aes, in Namibia, where more than 2,000 images over 3,000 years old were found.

  • In Anglo-Saxon America .

    • Within Canyonlands National Park, in the United States, is the Barrier Canyon site, which contains 4,000-year-old pictograms.
    • In Ontario, Canada, there are engravings that were made between 1,400 and 900 BC.

  • In Europe .

    • In the Altamira cave, between France and Spain , perhaps the most famous cave paintings in the world.
    • In the cave of La Pileta, in the province of Malaga, Spain, an archaeological site dating from the Neolithic was discovered in 1905 , with paintings and engravings in the Franco-Cantabrian style.
    • In Chauvet Cave, France, a superbly well-preserved collection of rock art was found, more than 40,000 years old.

  • In Oceania .

    • In the Kakadu National Park there is a huge collection of cave paintings in ocher tones.

Rock art in Latin America

In Latin America there are multiple deposits of rock art. Among the most important are:

  • In Lol-tún (in Mayan: “stone flower”) in the state of Yucatán, Mexico , cave paintings dating from the Pleistocene were found.
  • In the Ichic Tiog cave, in the Sierra Oriental de Ancash, in Peru, are the oldest human remains in the region, including cave paintings. Of the 24 departments of Peru, only two do not present rock art finds.
  • Also in Peru are the famous geoglyphs called the Nazca Lines, in the department of Ica, between the towns of Nazca and Palpa.
  • In Uruguay , a cave town called Chamangá was found to the east of the city of Trinidad, with 43 cave paintings inventoried so far.
  • Cerro Colorado in the province of Córdoba, Argentina, the most important archaeological site in the country.
  • The Cueva de las Manos in Santa Cruz, in the Pinturas river canyon, shows paintings related to deposits in Chile and Brazil .

The above content published at Collaborative Research Group is for informational and educational purposes only and has been developed by referring reliable sources and recommendations from technology experts. We do not have any contact with official entities nor do we intend to replace the information that they emit.


She has pursued her studies in The United States, where she has graduated in Business and Economics and is currently finishing her Master studies in International Economics and Finance. Miss. Amputee is fluent in three languages: English, Spanish and Russian and has elementary knowledge of French and Italian. She love exploring how Collaborative Research Group can become the best tool to achieve the (necessary) educational change. .

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