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Rocks and Caves


The Neolithic or New Stone Age is an archaeological period, the final division of the Stone Age in Europe, Asia and Africa. It saw the Neolithic Revolution, a wide-ranging set of developments that appear to have arisen independently in several parts of the world. This included the introduction of farming, domestication of animals, and change from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one of settlement. 

The Neolithic began about 12,000 years ago when farming appeared in the Near East, and later in other parts of the world. It lasted in the Near East until the transitional period of the Copper Age from about 6,500 years ago (4500 BC), marked by the development of metallurgy, leading up to the Bronze Age and Iron Age.

In other places, the Neolithic followed the Middle Stone Age, continuing for a very long time, such as in Ancient Egypt where it lasted until the Protodynastic period, circa 3150 BC. In China, it lasted until circa 2000 BC with the rise of the pre-Shang Erlitou culture, and in Scandinavia, the Neolithic lasted until about 2000 BC.

Shown in the images below is Aşıklı Höyük, in Central Anatolia, which is especially renowned for being the location in which the first known brain surgery in the world was performed on a young woman 10 thousand 500 years ago.


The Paleolithic Era

However, in order to see some of the most remarkable feats of visual communication ever created by humanity we need to step back in time to the paleolithic era and meet the "early modern humans", also known as the Cro-Magnons.

The Paleolithic era, also called the Old Stone Age, is a period in human prehistory that is distinguished by the original development of stone tools, representing almost the entire period of human prehistoric technology. It extends from the earliest known use of stone tools circa 3.3 million years ago, to the end of the Pleistocene, circa 11,650 BC.

The Paleolithic era saw the rise of:

  • Fire use

  • The Wheel

  • Tools for hunting, stitching and grinding

  • Rafts to travel over water

  • Domestication of animals (dogs were among the first to be domesticated due to their usage in hunting)

  • Calendars

  • Art work (for religious ceremonies and rituals)

  • Music

  • Religion

Cro-Magnon is the name that has been used to describe the first early modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) who lived during the European Upper Paleolithic era. Cro-Magnons were anatomically similar to modern humans, straight limbed and tall compared to the contemporaries, the Neanderthals, also more robustly built and powerful than they were. Their foreheads were fairly straight rather than sloping like those of the Neanderthals, and they only had slight brow ridges. Their faces were short and wide, with prominent chins. Their brain capacity was about 1,600 cc (98 cu in), larger than the average for modern humans.

Mammoth Bone House
Cro-Magnon Flint Spearheads
Cro-Magnon Flint Spearheads
Cro Magnon Venus or Kybele
Cro Magnon Lion Man
Cro-Magnon Stone Carving

The earliest known Cro-Magnon remains are between 35,000 and 45,000 years old, based on radiometric dating. Scientists now use the term "European early modern humans" instead of "Cro-Magnons.

Cro-Magnons had powerful bodies, which were usually heavy and solid with strong muscles. Unlike Neanderthals, which had slanted foreheads, the Cro-Magnons had straight foreheads, like modern humans. Their faces were short and wide with a large chin. Their brains were slightly larger than the average human's is today.

Surviving Cro-Magnon artifacts include huts, cave paintings, carvings and antler-tipped spears. The remains of tools suggest that they knew how to make woven clothing. They had huts, constructed of rocks, clay, bones, branches, and animal hide/fur. These early humans used manganese and iron oxides to paint pictures and may have created the first calendar around 15,000 years ago. The flint tools found in association with the remains at Cro-Magnon have associations with the Aurignacian culture that Lartet had identified a few years before he found the skeletons. The Cro-Magnons must have come into contact with the Neanderthals, and are often credited with causing the latter's extinction, although morphologically modern humans seem to have coexisted with Neanderthals for some 60,000 years in the Levant and for more than 1000 years in France.

They pierced bones, shells and teeth to make body ornaments. The figurines, cave-paintings, ornaments and the mysterious Venus figurines are a hallmark of Cro-Magnon culture, contrasting with the utilitarian culture of the Neanderthals. Like most early humans, the Cro-Magnons were primarily big-game hunters, killing mammoth, cave bears, horses, and reindeer. They hunted with spears, javelins, and spear-throwers since archery had not yet been invented. They would have been nomadic or semi-nomadic, following the annual migration of their prey, and would also have eaten plant materials.


Cave Paintings

Cave or rock paintings are images painted on cave or rock walls and ceilings, usually dating to prehistoric times. Rock paintings are made since the Upper Paleolithic, 40,000 years ago. It is widely believed that the paintings are the work of respected elders or shamans.

The most common themes in cave paintings are large wild animals, such as bison, horses, aurochs, and deer, and tracings of human hands as well as abstract patterns, called Macaroni by Breuil. Drawings of humans are rare and are usually schematic rather than the more naturalistic animal subjects. Cave art may have begun in the Aurignacian period (Hohle Fels, Germany), but reached its apogee in the late Magdalenian (Lascaux, France).

The paintings were drawn with red and yellow ochre, hematite, manganese oxide and charcoal. Sometimes the silhouette of the animal was incised in the rock first. Stone lamps provided some light. Abbé Breuil interpreted the paintings as being hunting magic, meant to increase the number of animals. As there are some clay sculptures that seem to have been the targets of spears, this may partly be true, but does not explain the pictures of beasts of prey such as the lion or the bear.

Recommended further reading:
Do not miss this fascinating lecture on the dawn of astronomy in Paleolithic times:


Humans mainly appear as images of hands, mostly hand stencils made by blowing pigment on a hand held to the wall, as shown here with images from the Cave of Chauvet in France.

Some theories hold that cave paintings may have been a way of communicating with others, while most theories ascribe a religious or ceremonial purpose to them, and that the paintings were made by paleolithic shamans. The shaman would retreat into the darkness of the caves, enter into a trance state, and then paint images of their visions, perhaps with some notion of drawing power out of the cave walls themselves. Thus, the purpose of these drawings would appear to be not communication among humans but communication directed at non-human deities and powers.


Petroglyphs are images incised in rock, usually by prehistoric, especially Neolithic, peoples. They were an important form of pre-writing symbols, used in communication from approximately 10,000 B.C. to modern times, depending on culture and location. Many petroglyphs are thought to represent some kind of not-yet-fully understood symbolic or ritual language.

The oldest petroglyphs are dated to approximately 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Around 7,000 to 9,000 years ago, other writing systems such as pictographs and ideograms began to appear. Petroglyphs were still common though, and tribal societies continued using them much longer, even until contact with Western culture was made in the 20th century. These images probably had deep cultural and religious significance for the societies that created them; in many cases this significance remains for their descendants.

Many petroglyphs are thought to represent some kind of not-yet-fully understood symbolic or ritual language. They may also show trails, symbols communicating time and distances traveled, as well as the local terrain in the form of rivers, landforms and other geographic features; as may also be the case with these ones from North America.

Petroglyphs are found world-wide, and are often associated with prehistoric peoples. There are many theories to explain their purpose, depending on their location, age, and the type of image. Some petroglyphs are thought to be astronomical markers, maps, and other forms of symbolic communication, including a form of "pre-writing."

Some researchers have noticed the resemblance of different styles of petroglyphs across different continents; while it is expected that all people would be inspired by their surroundings, it is harder to explain the common styles. This could be mere coincidence, an indication that certain groups of people migrated widely from some initial common area, or indication of a common origin. Many of the geometric patterns (known as form constants) which recur in petroglyphs and cave paintings have been shown to be "hard-wired" into the human brain; they frequently occur in visual disturbances and hallucinations brought on by drugs, migraine and other stimuli. More controversial explanations this phenomenon are grounded in Jungian psychology and the views of Mircea Eliade. According to these theories it is possible that the similarity of petroglyphs (and other atavistic or archetypal symbols) from different cultures and continents is a result of the genetically inherited structure of the human brain.



These are huge drawings on the ground, or a large motif, (generally greater than 4 metres) or a design produced on the ground, either by arranging clasts (stones, stone fragments, gravel or earth) to create a positive geoglyph or by removing patinated clasts to expose unpatinated ground. Some of the most famous negative geoglyphs are the Nazca Lines in Peru. Other areas with geoglyphs include Western Australia and parts of the Great Basin Desert in SW United States. Hill figures, turf mazes and the stone-lined labyrinths of Scandinavia, Iceland, Lappland and Russia are types of geoglyph. The largest geoglyph is the Marree Man in South Australia.

The Nazca Lines are gigantic geoglyphs located in the Nazca Desert, a high arid plateau that stretches 53 miles between the towns of Nazca and Palpa on the Pampas de Jumana in Peru. They were created by the Nazca culture between 200 BC and 600 AD. There are hundreds of individual figures, ranging in complexity from simple lines to stylized hummingbirds, spiders, monkeys, and lizards. The Nazca lines cannot be recognized as coherent figures except from the air. Since it is presumed the Nazca people could never have seen their work from this vantage point, there has been much speculation on the builders' abilities and motivations. Since their discovery, various theories have been proposed regarding the methods and motivations behind the lines' construction.

The accepted archaeological theory is that the Nazca people made the lines using nothing but simple tools and surveying equipment. Wooden stakes in the ground at the end of some lines (which, coincidently, were used to date the figures) support this theory. Furthermore, Joe Nickell of the University of Kentucky has reproduced one of the figures using the technology available to the Nazca Indians of the time without aerial supervision. With careful planning and simple technologies, a small team of individuals could recreate even the largest figures within a 48 hour period. However, there is not much extant evidence concerning 'why' the figures were built, so the Nazca's motivation remains the lines' most persistent mystery. Most believe that their motivation was religious, making images that only gods could see clearly. The details of their theology, however, remain unsolved.

Contemporary Geoglyphs also exist. Spiral Jetty is an earthwork sculpture constructed in April 1970 by Robert Smithson. Smithson documented the construction of the sculpture in a documentary film also titled Spiral Jetty. Built on the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake near Rozel Point in Utah entirely of mud, salt crystals, and basalt rocks, Spiral Jetty forms a 460 meter by 4.6 meter counterclockwise coil jutting from the shore of the lake.

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