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

rock artrock art
Rock art represents the first cultural manifestations of our species.

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 caverns or ancient stones. It reflects the imagination and concerns of primitive humanity.

are some of the first cultural manifestations of our species. The oldest 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 his time.

Unlike other forms of prehistoric art, paintings They have been preserved 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, sheltered from erosion and wear.

See also: Archeology

rock art history

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It is estimated that most of the rock art occurred between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic.

There are no exact data on the date when the rock art began to be produced.

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

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

Furthermore, sample contamination often leads to erroneous measurements. In any case, it is estimated that the majority were made between the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods.

Where has the rock art been found?

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

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).

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Other minor deposits are found 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

petroglyphs rock artpetroglyphs rock art
Petroglyphs are patterned etchings on the surface of softer rocks.

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

  • cave painting. Spreading substances along the surface of the rock with the fingers or with some tool, drawings are traced and scenes are represented, usually 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. In general, they consist of reliefs and carvings made in the stone by means of primitive chiseling with other harder tools, until pieces are removed and certain shapes are achieved.

rock drawings

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

Most of the animals drawn on them are mammoths, bison, horses, wild hogs, deer, and reindeer, usually in the middle of the hunt, or wounded with arrows or spears. In general, one or two colors dominate, in shades ranging from black, red, yellow and brown.

Techniques used

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Fingers, feathers or pieces of wood were used to smear the pigments on stone.

cave paintings they 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 hematite, manganese oxide or mixtures such as clay were found. As a binder for these substances, some type of animal fat or oil was used.

These pigments (of organic or mineral origin) they smeared themselves on the stone with their 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 effects of realism and three-dimensionality.

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

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neolithic rock art algerianeolithic rock art algeria
Human figures begin to appear in the Neolithic (Tassili n’Ajjer, Algeria).

Four eras of rock art are identified:

  • paleolithic art. The oldest rock art, dating from between 73,000 and 12,000 years BC. C. These are prefigurative drawings, sometimes with a high level of detail and other times abstract, of naturalistic figures, generally 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 bow and arrow. They were traced with bird feathers.
  • Macroschematic art. Characteristic of the Neolithic period, it presents enormous similarities with certain ceramic styles and its provenance is estimated to be around 6,000 years BC. C. It generally represents human figures, idols or prayers, and is associated with fertility rites.
  • schematic art. It supposes a simplification of the style, with an unrefined technique and a quick stroke, very different from Levantine art. This suggests that they could be signs, some indication of protowriting or ideograms. It appeared at the end of the Neolithic, around 3,000 years BC. c.

Interpretation of rock art

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It is likely that rock art was part of rituals.

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, identification of the tribe and contact with some tutelary animal.

Another likely function is that will be part of rituals to try to get the favor of some deity or to attract good fortune in the hunt. Their location in places that are difficult to access strengthens this hypothesis, since it suggests that they were in a sacred or mystical place.

It is estimated that these places were corners where the tribe contemplated the history of their ancestors or left traces of its 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. He calls attention to the fact that he was as inclined as we are to the representation of his customs, his anguish and his desires.

In a similar way to what happened many centuries later (and continues to happen), it is very likely that these representations had some magical-religious charge. They also offer us information about their customs, such as hunting bison, wild pig, etc.

Main rock art locations

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In the Kakadu National Park there is a large collection of rock paintings.

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

  • In Africa.
    • In the caves found in the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa, also called uKhahlamba national park.
    • In the archaeological site of Twyfelfontein or Ui-aes, in Namibia, where more than 2,000 images of more than 3,000 years old were found.
  • In Anglo-Saxon America.
    • Within the 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 the years 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 Cueva de la Pileta, in the province of Málaga, Spain, an archaeological site dating from the Neolithic was discovered in 1905, with paintings and engravings in the Franco-Cantabrian style.
    • A magnificently well-preserved collection of rock art dating back more than 40,000 years has been found in Chauvet Cave, France.
  • In Oceania.
    • In the Kakadu National Park there is a huge collection of rock paintings in ocher tones.
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Rock art in Latin America

In Latin America there are multiple sites 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 findings.
  • In Peru, too, are the famous geoglyphs called the Nazca Lines, in the department of Ica, between the towns of Nazca and Palpa.
  • In Uruguay, a rock locality called Chamangá was found to the east of the city of Trinidad, with 43 rock paintings inventoried up to now.
  • 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 sites in Chile and Brazil.


  • “Rock painting” on Wikipedia.
  • “Rock art in Indonesia older than that of Altamira” in ABC Ciencia.
  • “Rock Art” at Rupestreweb.info.
  • “Rock art in Argentina” in Have a good trip, tourist newspaper.
  • “Why and for what? The meaning of rock art” (video) by Marcos García-Diez at Fundación Juan March.
  • “Rock sculpture” in Pedra Pintada Quem te Pintou.

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