Create and share a new lesson based on this one.

About TED-Ed Selects

TED-Ed Selects are exceptional, user-created lessons that are carefully selected by volunteer teachers and TED-Ed staff.

Meet The Creators


Additional Resources for you to Explore
There are about 400 art sites in Europe from the Ice Age time period known as the Upper Paleolithic (dating to between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago). Chauvet is unusual due to the quality of the art as well as its age (30,000 to 35,000 BP) BP = before present – this far back we don’t usually use BC or AD.Check out the information below, and then answer the questions in the Think section.1. Currently the oldest known art in Europe comes from a site called El Castillo in Spain - more information about this study can be found here. The age of these images was determined using uranium-series dating which measures the time it takes for uranium to decay into other elements like thorium and protactinium. Because this happens at an even rate, the length of time since the uranium was deposited on the cave wall can be estimated. Here's an overview of how we date the art.2. At this point in time, we only have evidence of people like us (Homo sapiens) creating rock art. This assumption is based on human remains and artifacts being found in association with the art at some sites (ex. pigment matching the paint on the walls being found in an archaeological layer also containing human tools). The question of whether Neanderthals were also decorating caves and rock shelters is one that is still being hotly debated in the field of paleoanthropology because some of the oldest art was made during the time period when humans and Neanderthals were both living in Europe (between about 30,000 and 45,000 BP). This debate has only heated up since the discovery a few years ago of red pigment on and in marine shells that may have been worn as jewelry at two Neanderthal sites in Spain. They had big brains and there is no reason they weren't capable of doing it, but we just don't have any convincing proof...yet. For more about Neanderthal jewelry and pigment use, check out this article.3. The humans who lived during the Ice Age in Europe were like us in every sense of the word and appear to have been part of a rich culture which produced many beautiful artifacts. They were adept at making all sorts of decorative items such as tooth, stone, ivory, antler or bone necklaces, ivory beads that were sewn onto clothing, bone and ivory flutes to play, carved figurines and statuettes of humans and animals, as well as portable pieces of art including carved antlers, embellished tools and decorated stone plaques. The following websites contain more information about different aspects of the material culture of the Upper Paleolithic. Flutes; ancient figurines; personal adornment, beads and figurines from the rich burial site of Sungir in Russia where ivory carvings, jewelry and 1000's of ivory beads were discovered.4. While the Upper Paleolithic rock art from Europe is some of the best-known, there are in fact sites of equivalent age (older than 10,000 BP) in several other regions of the world including Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas. Just click on the rock art sites you'd like to learn more about: Africa; Australia; Brazil; Borneo.
5. Oddly enough, no depictions of elements of the landscape have ever been positively identified in the rock art from Upper Paleolithic Europe, and while different theories have been proposed, there is no consensus as to why these were omitted. The majority of the images are of animals (mostly game animals like horse, bison, mammoth and deer), a smaller number of human figures and a surprisingly large number of abstract, geometric shapes (see the link for the Bradshaw Foundation website below to learn more about the themes of the art).Links for further study: The Bradshaw Foundation: this website is dedicated to rock art from all over the world and includes many stunning photographs of the art as well as articles about different aspects of it (it also features an interactive map that charts the journey of the first humans who left Africa).
An overview of the Upper Paleolithic rock art in Europe
Becoming human: this essay by a well-known scholar in our field provides an excellent review of the people, the time period and the whole range of their artistic capabilities.
Despite being studied for 100+ years there are many questions still to be answered about who these ancient artists were and why they made the art...
Contributor small
Lesson Creator
Victoria British Columbia, Canada