Recommended further reading:
Do not miss this fascinating lecture on the dawn of astronomy in Paleolithic times:
The Cro-Magnons form the earliest known European examples of Homo sapiens, from ca. 40,000 years ago, chromosomally descending from populations of the Middle East. Cro-Magnons lived from about 40,000 to 10,000 years ago in the Upper Paleolithic period of the Pleistocene epoch. For all intents and purposes these people were anatomically modern, only differing from their modern day descendants in Europe by their slightly more robust physiology and brains larger capacity than that of modern humans. When they arrived in Europe about 40,000 years ago, they brought with them sculpture, engraving, painting, body ornamentation, music and the painstaking decoration of utilitarian objects.
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.
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.
Geoglyphs are drawings on the ground, or a large motif, (generally greater than 4 metres) or 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 the former Soviet Union 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.