What do you think of when the topic of prehistoric art comes up? There is a good chance that you will immediately notice the drawings of buffaloes and horses painted on the walls of the Lascaux caves or the incredible lion fresco in the Chauvet cave. The parietal art of these two world-famous caves, logically, captured the imagination of the French. But prehistoric art doesn’t stop at these famous caves.
A wonderful exhibition Art and prehistory The newly launched exhibition at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris offers visitors the opportunity to discover masterpieces of prehistoric art from China to Africa via South America and Indonesia. A brief overview of the great works of prehistoric rock art beyond our borders.
Drawings from Zuoijang Huashan, China
“If I had to pick an important place, it’s obviously Huashan. It’s a huge limestone cornice several hundred meters high, where red-painted images are arranged tens of meters high.” Patrick Peillet, curator of prehistory and science of the exhibition, says Art and prehistory. If not the oldest (paintings date back to 500 BC), this archaeological site in southern China is one of the most monumental in the world. It is between 40 and 90 meters high, more than 170 meters wide, and more than 1,900 motifs depicting human, mostly armed warriors or dancing figures have been identified. However, the Huashan Cliffs contain depictions of boats, weapons, quadrupeds, and geometric symbols whose meaning is still unclear. Prehistoric artists probably had to build scaffolding to reach the top of this ledge.
“All this gives this natural building a remarkable aesthetic and symbolic dimension,” Patrick Peillet continues. “These paintings were made to be seen from afar. It dominates the valley with a river flowing at the bottom. And they were created to be perceived and appreciated from afar. It is very different from what we know in Europe, especially in rock. On the contrary, it is an art hidden from view. We are lavish there, the master.”
Since 2016, “Zuoijang Huashan Rock Art Cultural Landscape” has been listed as a World Heritage Site.
Cidade de Pedra, Brazil
In western Brazil, along the Rio Vermelho, a tributary of the Rio Paraguay, natural shelters have formed in the rock itself, where traces of rock paintings can still be found. “Cidade de Pedra is a universe of sandstone cliffs and completely remarkable stone towns. Patrick Peillet assures. In the curves and natural streets of these cities of central Brazil, shelters at the foot of these rocky mountains are covered with engravings, colorful paintings, etc. For prehistory, it is not a desire to display art, to exhibit representations, unlike the Zuoijang Huashan site, “but they should perhaps be dedicated to the special groups that walk along these great avenues, these great natural boulevards between the rocks.”
In more than half of the prehistoric shelters, archaeologists saw a unique symbol, a geometric pattern of seven parallel, brown, horizontal bars. But the closest to the river is a few long shelters decorated with signs and fanciful images dating back several millennia that still elude our understanding.
Joa Valley, Portugal
Until the mid-1990s in Europe, Paleolithic art was known only inside caves or rock shelters. However, as early as 1981, petroglyphs were identified in northern Portugal, in the upper part of the Coa Valley. When the construction of the dam was considered in 1991, an impact study identified several archaeological sites, and after a long social debate, the construction of the dam was abandoned. Since then, “great site” Patrick Peillet says. “There are thousands and thousands of beautiful carvings, pickets, intertwined on both sides of the banks of the Joa.
With some 500 rock panels covered with several thousand engravings and spread over an area of more than 20 kilometers, this is not so much an archaeological site as a region of Paleolithic art. “This is rock art expressed in the open air, open to life, communication, circulation places. Patrick encourages Peillet. “This is an art that has penetrated the habitat and accompanied the daily life of these communities since the Gravettian period, therefore at least 27,000 years, even more and until recent times. Because there is a continuity of occupation and use of this media. it is tens of thousands of years Covers”.
Matobo Mountains, Zimbabwe
In the semi-arid savannah of western Zimbabwe, in the Matobo massif, archaeologists have discovered more than 3,000 shelters and painted rocks from before the beginning of our era. Still poorly documented, this archaeological site is undoubtedly home to paintings that are over 10,000 years old. On the walls of shelters and open caves, it is possible to observe depictions of animals (mainly giraffes, antelopes and elephants) as well as people (especially hunters’ drawings and camping scenes) in various styles, techniques and colors. “Despite the realism of the themes and forms, this iconography is not a depiction of the life or environment of these societies.” writes the prehistoric Camille Bourdier Art and prehistory (Publications of the Natural History Museum). “The choice of motifs and compositions suggests a symbolic dimension that was perhaps multifaceted in nature: pertaining to myths or ritual practices..”
Since 2017, the Pomongwe and Bambata shelters in the Motobo massif have become the object of deep archaeological research.
It is impossible to compile a complete inventory of archaeological sites in the world. “There are many others in the Tassili massif, North Africa, South Africa, Namibia or Botswana, and of course Australia.”Patrick Peillet notes. “Every time you come to a continent outside of Europe, you find that the rocks are full of exceptional images, as old as Lascaux, or even as old as Chauvet in Sulawesi, Indonesia!” On this island in the Indonesian archipelago, archaeologists have indeed discovered the oldest known visual art, a 45,500-year-old painting of a boar. Only in the Maros-Pangkep region, located in the southwest of Sulawesi Island, there are 346 prehistoric ornate sites. There are many archaeological sites around the world, and more than we think.
At the exhibition Art and prehistory, at the Musée de l’Homme, so you can see a rotating virtual globe displaying more than 120 points of light, selected by the exhibition’s curators for their interest. But by their own admission, the latter had to make sharp choices. “We clearly have to consider chronology, global time depth, because we are on a time scale that varies from 45,000 years to our modern times.”details the exhibition’s curator of prehistory and science, Eric Robert. “In the Sulawesi region of Indonesia, the potential is incredible: discoveries follow each other year after year. In the forest of Fontainebleau, closer to us, archaeologists are working on an unknown petroglyph. A little to the east. From Fontainebleau to Rambouillet, we have discovered a 2000-year-old shelter. If we project ourselves on a planetary scale , what remains to be discovered is phenomenal!” Insurance, along with many sites, to imagine some great discoveries to come.