What is Stone Age cave art all about?

We’ve been round many schools and seen your children’s fine artwork inspired by the Palaeolithic painted caves of southern France and northern Spain, and there are always interesting ideas about what the cave art was all about. Was it telling stories? Was it recording hunting scenes? Was it a way to bring good luck to an upcoming hunt? Let’s explore some of the features of the painted caves to see what they can reveal.

Marks in El Castillo cave in Cantabria, northern Spain. http://cuevas.culturadecantabria.com/el-castillo-2/ 

Some of the oldest cave paintings are at El Castillo cave in Cantabria in northern Spain and Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche region of southern France, dating to about 40,000 years ago. In El Castillo there are paintings of a mammoth, goats, deer, horses, aurochs (wild European cattle not extinct) as well as many hand-prints and some abstract symbols that may refer to the cycle of the moon. At Chauvet there are bears, an owl, woolly rhino and cave lions painted in the cave, as well as a panel of handprints at the entrance. Handprints in these painted caves have recently been analysed. Men and women have a marked difference between their hand shape: men generally have longer index fingers than ring fingers, women’s are usually about the same length. By analysing the handprints it was found that over half of them were made by women, and there are also a few children’s handprints known, and ‘flutings’ made by children’s fingers in wet clay walls. It was the entire population who were involved in making art in these caves.

By Unknown – Screenshot from the film “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41964466

The type of animals depicted on the walls changes over time. Some of the paintings in Chauvet Cave date to about 39,000 years ago, while Lascaux cave in the Dordogne region of southern France dates to around 17,000 years ago. More time passed between Chauvet and Lascaux, than from Lascaux to now! And the climate had also changed. Some animals were not so common and others more common. Woolly rhinos and cave lions don’t appear at Lascaux, but aurochs, megaloceros (giant deer), bison, and horses do. What is interesting is that the main source of hunted food for the people who painted Lascaux (and, incidentally, lived elsewhere – the caves that were painted were generally not lived in) was reindeer, and they are not depicted in the cave at all. Similarly, many predators were painted at Chauvet, like cave lions, hyenas and bears, species that wouldn’t have been hunted for food. So the cave paintings were probably not painted to bring luck to the hunt, or record past hunts.

The Venus of Willendorf from Austria. By MatthiasKabel – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1526553

In fact, if they were hunting scenes, you would expect to find hunters depicted but humans are very rarely painted at all. If you have found images of hunters supposedly from Lascaux or other European painted caves, you’re probably looking at images of hunters from southern African rock paintings which are later in date in the main. When humans are depicted in European Palaeolithic cave art, they are shown in one of two ways, both of which are paralleled in the portable art from these times – little figurines carved out of mammoth ivory, antler, bone or stone. One way is the so-called ‘Venus’ figure. A stalagtite in Chauvet Cave has a vulva and legs painted on it, and from many other European sites, especially in Austria and the Czech Republic, there are little carved figurines showing naked women in various stages of pregnancy or post-pregnancy. Old theories assumed men had made them as erotic images but it seems more likely that women were making them for themselves to mark this important life event.



Man/bird hybrid being killed by a dying bison in Lascaux Cave. By Peter80, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2416632

Another way humans get depicted is generally a human/animal hybrid. This is usually a man, such as the Man-Bison from Chauvet Cave (interestingly, painted next to the Venus), the Lion-Man from Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in the Baden-Württemberg region of southern Germany, and the man-bird from the deepest past of Lascaux cave. Sometimes shape-shifting can be attributed to female figures, such as the Femme au Renne from the Laugerie-Basse cave in the Dordogne region of France, which shows a pregnant woman/deer under the legs of a reindeer. There seems to have been a taboo on depicting people in cave art, unless they were shape-shifting into some other animal or a woman. What does this tell us? It’s difficult to say but it would prod us towards thinking that the paintings potentially have a spiritual dimension.

Auroch roundel found in the Mas d’Azil cave, southern France
Musée d’Archéologie nationale et Domaine national de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Paris

There’s one last feature of Palaeolithic art that is quite special. There are discs showing images on both sides, perforated in the middle of the disc. The images are similar but usually different in a small way, such as a deer with legs down on one side and bent up on the other, or an auroch calf on one side and an auroch cow on the other. These are very early thaumatropes, better known as a popular Victorian optical illusion. You thread a string through the middle and spin them to see a moving image. Amazingly, moving images were made on cave walls too. There are paintings in Chauvet and other caves with multiple animals seemingly superimposed on each other, but in fact these are different positions of the same animal, with tails wagging, or heads raising, and as the flickering light from the fat lamps that people used fell on them, they would appear to move. Here is a video showing some of these incredible paintings in action.

What does all this add up to, then? The fact that children were involved in painting the caves and clearly present in many caves suggests that the paintings may have been used as teaching aids, but that everyone also observed the world outside the cave very closely too. One theory is that the caves may have been seen as the birthplace of life, and so these are paintings of animals coming out of the cave. The way they move supports this theory.

The fact that many of the human figures seem to shape-shift into animals also suggests that shamanic rituals may have taken place either in the caves or elsewhere with people dressed in animal skins and pretending to be animals, moving like them, making noises like them in ceremonies, or for telling stories. But animals were not the only thing depicted in Palaeolithic art, bearing children was clearly important, while making other abstract marks and putting your handprint on a cave was also done. Can you think of reasons why?

What did people eat in Stone Age to Iron Age Britain?

There’s a great divide between what people ate in earlier prehistory and in later prehistory, and it all comes down to when did farming start. One of the places farming was independently invented was in the Near East in around 10,000 BC. It slowly spread outwards and got to Britain by 4000 BC. This early farming culture is called the Neolithic (New Stone Age).

Early humans

Earlier species of human inhabited Britain at both cold and warm periods in the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) from about 850,000 years ago to around 40,000 years ago. Species may have included Homo antecessor, Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo neanderthalensis. From the earliest times they may have had control of fire, as the earliest hearth was found in Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa dating to about 1 million years ago, although the earliest hearth in Britain was found at Beeches Pit in Suffolk and dates to about 400,000 years ago.

Tusk of the extinct straight-tusked elephant from Swanscombe around 400,000 years ago.

Homo heidelbergensis hunted or scavenged horse and rhinoceros around 500,000 years ago at Boxgrove in West Sussex during a warm period between glaciations. Homo neanderthalensis may have hunted elephants a mere 100,000 years later at Swanscombe in Kent. The now extinct straight-tusked elephant had lived in a very warm interglacial when Britain was probably cut off from the continent temporarily. Elephant bones were surrounded by flint tools that had been made on site, used to butcher it and then abandoned afterwards (Wenban-Smith 2013).


Some of the cave paintings at Lascaux from the Hall of Bulls (aurochs) but also showing deer and horses

Before this all over the world people had got their food by hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering wild food. The hunter-gatherer diet was quite rich. In the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age, which finished around 10,000 BC) certain animals were hunted that had adapted to the cold temperatures of the Ice Age and died out when the climate warmed. In the painted caves of Lascaux, which date to about 15,000 BC, you see horses, bison, aurochs (another species of wild cow – now extinct), giant and red deer but never reindeer, which were actually one of the main animals the people who lived nearby relied on. There are no mammoths represented here either, although they do appear at the nearby Rouffignac cave, but are not usually in the diet of the painters of this date in this area of France.

The cave art of Creswell Crags, on the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border near Worksop, representing a deer and an ibex (a type of goat) then may not be representative of what was hunted for food in Britain at this time around 12,000 BC. A fragment of rib bone from an unidentified animal with a scratched image of a horse’s head on it has led to the suggestion that a few intrepid hunters were up there hunting wild horses on the tundra.

Human bones from Kendrick’s Cave near Llandudno from the Upper Palaeolithic that were tested with stable isotope analysis

The bones of humans found in Kendrick’s Cave near Llandudno in Wales were tested using stable isotope analysis. This measures the ratios of isotopes of certain elements in bone collagen from ancient bone and can give indications about what kind of food is being eaten (marine or terrestrial, animal or plant) and can also indicate where a person had grown up and traveled to. The ratios of stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen from the human bone at Kendrick’s Cave suggested that they got about a third of their food intake from marine mammals, and the team who undertook the work suggested this was probably seal meat (Richards et al 2005, 393), even though the animal bones left in the cave were all from terrestrial mammals.

People living on the coast do seem to have continued to heavily use marine resources. Many shell middens survive on the coast of Scotland but the coastline of England has changed so much since the end of the Ice Age that many of these are probably now beneath the sea. In Scotland such middens have yielded shells of many crustaceans and molluscs, as well as fish and marine mammal bones, e.g. Sand at Applecross, Wester Ross which dates to about 6500 BC (Hardy & Wickham-Jones 2009).

Red deer bones and antler at the Mesolithic site of Star Carr in North Yorkshire

By this time we are definitely in what archaeologists call the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) after the ice retreated but before farming was introduced. At Star Carr in North Yorkshire, which dates to about 9000 BC, the vast majority of the food being consumed seems to have been red deer, although bones of other animals like aurochs (wild cows) and wild pigs also appears. The people at Star Carr went to the sea, as we can see from the collection of amber picked up on the beach, and if they ate seafood they didn’t carry it inland. There are scant remains of pike, though, which suggests they did fish in the now vanished Lake Flixton (Robson et al 2016).

Plant remains have also turned up, although they don’t survive very well, of course. They only survive when they are charred, which might have happened if overcooked by accident. Charred plant remains found on Mesolithic sites in Scotland (and elsewhere in Britain) have included crab apple and pear pips, haw berry stones, hazelnut shells and the roots of Lesser Celandine, which would be a little like very small potatoes (Bishop et al 2013).


When farming was adopted from around 4000 BC, everything changed. Stable isotope analysis comparing human bones from the Mesolithic and the Neolithic show a marked change between eating a diet rich in fish to one with little freshwater or marine component at all (although this has been questioned: Milner et al 2003). Signs of malnutrition are often found on early farmer’s bones, caused by a diet of mostly dairy and bread.

Neolithic charred bread found at Yarnton and dating to about 3600 BC.

The earliest preserved bread, charred in a fire, was found at Yarnton in Oxfordshire and dated to about 3600 BC. Wheat and barley grains have also been found charred, of a similar date and some even earlier in many places in the British Isles.

Dairying may have occurred from quite early on in the farming culture of Britain. The remains of lipids, and particularly fats from milk, have been found adhering to the inside of pots in Neolithic sites like Windmill Hill in Wiltshire and Runnymede Bridge in Surrey (Copley et al 2005).

Painted cave art of a woman gathering honey from Cueva de la Araña in Spain, Neolithic or earlier

People in the Neolithic may have had a slightly more interesting diet, though, and there are also remains of beeswax found in pots from Runnymede Bridge and in many pots from farming communities around Europe and Africa (Roffet-Salque et al 2015). This may suggest that bees were being kept in semi-domestication and that honey would be available for farmers. There is a famous piece of rock art from Spain, the Cueva de la Araña (Spider Cave) which seems to show a woman collected honey from a hive on a cliff while bees fly around her. It is not closely dated, and may be Neolithic or much earlier.

Gundestrup Cauldron dating to around 1BC from Denmark (but possibly originally made in northern France)

Large scale feasting sometimes occurs in the Neolithic and in later farming eras. At Durrington Walls near Stonehenge both cattle and pigs were slaughtered at winter-time, presumably for large midwinter feasts. Feasting also seems to be a part of life in the Bronze Age and Iron Age periods, from the discovery of large cauldrons and flesh hooks, such as one decorated with corvids and water birds from Dunaverney in Ireland and dating to about 1000 BC, and the silver Gundestrup Cauldron (probably for some kind of alcoholic drink) from Denmark.

Talking of alcohol, a pottery vessel from North Mains, Perthshire in Scotland had a black greasy substance in it which was sampled. It was found to contain cereal pollen and meadow-sweet pollen, which was used in flavouring alcoholic drinks in more recent times, and the archaeologists suggested the pot originally contained ale (rather than beer which is flavoured with hops and is usually said to be medieval in date, though there is some evidence of hops being used in Roman ale (in Andrews et al 2011, 224-5)). The ale at North Mains dated to about 1500 BC (Barclay 1983). It’s likely that ale goes back a long way.

A pot containing nettle stew carbonised in a house fire in the late Bronze Age Must Farm

A more varied diet comes back in the Bronze and Iron Ages after the introduction of a wider range of crops such as oats, rye, beans, vetch, cabbage and other foods. A pottery bowl with carbonised food and wooden spoon still in it was recently found in excavations at Must Farm near Peterborough, dating to about 1000 BC. The food was analysed and found to be some kind of nettle stew.


A – celery seed, B – coriander seed, C – dill seed, D – olive stone. Found at the late Iron Age settlement at Silchester in Berkshire.

With Roman contact in the late first century BC, some of the elite of southern England took to importing wine and other exotic foodstuffs. At Silchester, a late Iron Age settlement in Berkshire, imported food included coriander seeds and olives. Some ended up in their graves to take them to the next world, or at least show off to mourners. What a waste!



Andrews, P, Biddulph, E, Hardy, A & Brown, H 2011. Settling the Ebbsfleet Valley. Oxford & Salisbury, Oxford Wessex Archaeology.

Barclay, G, 1983. Sites of the third millennium be to the first millennium ad at North Mains, Strathallan, Perthshire. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 123, pp 122-281.

Bishop, R. R, Church, M, J, & Rowley-Conwy, P 2013.  Seeds, fruits and nuts in the Scottish Mesolithic. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 143, pp 9-71.

Copley et al, 2005. Dairying in antiquity. III. Evidence from absorbed lipid residues dating to the British Neolithic. Journal of Archaeological Science Volume 32, Issue 4, pp 523-546. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2004.08.006

Hardy, K & Wickham-Jones, C 2009. Mesolithic and later sites around the Inner Sound, Scotland’s: the work of the Scotlands First Settlers project 1998-2004. Scottish Archaeological Internet Report 31. http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/sair/contents.cfm?vol=31

Milner, N et al, 2003. Something fishy in the Neolithic? A re-evaluation of stable isotope analysis of Mesolithic and Neolithic coastal populations. Antiquity 78, Issue 299, pp 9-22. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003598X00092887

Richards et al, 2005. Isotope evidence for the intensive use of marine foods by Late Upper Palaeolithic humans. Journal of Human Evolution 49, pp 390-4.

Robson, H. K., Little, A., Jones, A. K. G., Blockley, S., Candy, I., Matthews, I., Palmer, A., Schreve, D., Tong, E., Pomstra, D., Fletcher, L., Hausmann, N., Taylor, B., Conneller, C. and Milner, N, 2016. Scales of analysis: evidence of fish and fish processing at Star Carr. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2016.02.009.

Wenban-Smith, F 2013. The Ebbsfleet Elephant. Oxford Archaeology Monograph Vol 20.

Stone Age to Iron Age Cantabria, northern Spain, and it’s links to Britain

Spain has its fair share of beautiful heritage, and our director Kim Biddulph and her family found quite a few links between Britain’s and northern Spain’s Stone Age to Iron Age period on a recent visit to the area.

"12 Vista general del techo de polícromos" by Museo de Altamira y D. Rodríguez. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“12 Vista general del techo de polícromos” by Museo de Altamira y D. Rodríguez. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A highlight of the trip was a visit to Altamira cave, or, at least, it’s replica. The ceiling painted with bison and horses is recreated in a purpose built museum next to the actual cave. Many of the bison were painted on natural lumps in the ceiling that made them look 3D. We didn’t have time to visit the other painted caves of the region, but will go back to visit again. The cave art of this area and southern France is spectacular, but Britain has some cave art of its own. Around eighty carvings have been found in caves at Creswell Crags in Nottinghamshire and more at Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, and it’s likely more examples will be found.

One single piece of animal bone incised with an image of a horse was also found at Creswell Crags, one of only a couple of pieces of portable art found in Britain. In Santander Museum of Prehistory and Archaeology of Cantabria (MUPAC), we were blown away by the number and sheer beauty of the images carved on bone, antler and tusk.

We think there must have been communication between Britain and Cantabria in the Stone Age. The reason we’re suggesting a link is that in a museum in Bilbao we saw microliths (small flint flakes) that had come from a Neolithic dolmen, Hirumugarrieta 2, dated to around 2800-3000 BC (thanks to Joseba Rios-Garaizar of Arkeobasque for the link). Microliths (tiny precision made flakes that were used to make composite projectiles or other tools) were a type of flint technology used in the British Mesolithic from around 9000 BC up to 4000 BC (thanks to Spencer Carter for the date check), after which they went out of use, but they were certainly still being made and used in the Cantabrian/Basque Neolithic. Travel between the two could have been by foot in the earlier period but the seas were inexorably rising and then a tsunami in c.6100 BC caused by a landslide in the North Sea finally cut Britain off from the continent (see video below), so the two areas developed their own separate ways. Microlithic technology was invented independently in many different areas, though, (for example in south Asia around 35,000 years ago) so the link between Britain and Cantabria may be illusory.


Late Iron Age Cantabrian circular tomb stone

Late Iron Age Cantabrian circular tomb stone

Hillforts also become a thing in the Iron Age, just as in Britain, but one of the distinctive features of Cantabria, and neighbouring Basque country, in the late Iron Age are circular tombstones with distinctive motifs. Burials in general are quite rare in Britain in the Iron Age though there are some local traditions, such as the chariot burials in East Yorkshire.

Looking at the prehistory of another country is really useful to bring out the contrasts and similarities between the two and work out how typical Britain’s prehistoric traditions were. But it also reminds us that there wasn’t really a Britain at all until the seas rose and submerged the land bridge that once tied us to the continent.

When do you start teaching Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age?

There are two meaning to this question. Do you start teaching this topic in September? Are you teaching British history chronologically starting with Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age in Year 3? Do let us know.

The other meaning is, when in prehistory are you going to start? We’ve been working on some updated timelines and we can take you through some possible starting points as well as give you an overview of the prehistoric period.

The non-statutory guidance in the National Curriculum starts with comparing Neolithic (sic) hunter-gatherers with farmers at Skara Brae. If you want to start with this topic, you’ll need the first timeline. It starts in the Mesolithic, which is actually the time of hunter-gatherers rather than the Neolithic as suggested in the NC.

Later Prehistory timeline

Notice that we have used kya, for thousand years ago, and BC for this period. beyond this BC becomes a little redundant. Also note the march of sheep from the Near East to Britain. Climate changes affecting the sea level are key to understanding the Mesolithic. After the Ice Age as the climate warmed, the glaciers melted and sea levels rose. Britain had been attached to the continent by a land bridge across the North Sea (called Doggerland after the Dogger Banks) and the Channel. Around 6200 BC this sea level rise was exacerbated by a marine landslide off the coast of Norway which caused a tsunami that finally flooded Doggerland and caused Britain to be cut off from the continent.

But if you were to start the topic in 12kya, you would miss being able to talk about cave art, which we have heard here at Schools Prehistory that lots of teachers want to do. Cave paintings or engravings and portable art all date to the Upper Palaeolithic, when Homo sapiens first arrived in Europe. Not much is known in Britain, but there is some at Creswell Crags in Derbyshire. If you want to start at this point, you’ll need this timeline.

Timeline starting 40kya


The Upper Palaeolithic is within the last Ice Age and was connected to the continent throughout. Ice sheets covered Scotland and most of northern England and at the last glacial maximum, around 20kya, would have stretched from the Wash to the Severn. Nevertheless, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens did venture this far north at various points and it is thought that people were moving great distances for hunting. If you do start teaching from this point onwards, you also get the great opportunity to talk about Neanderthals, who died out around 24kya but co-existed with Homo sapiens in Europe for about 15,000 years. What a great P4C topic!

But if you do start only at 50kya, you miss out on being able to talk about the oldest human footprints found outside Africa – those of Homo antecessor at Happisburgh in Norfolk. They date all the way back to 800kya – nearly 1 million years. So, if you think East Anglia is as sexy as we do, here’s a timeline that can help.

Timeline starting 800kyaApologies for the slightly messy look. It still needs some work. What you’ll notice when you get back this far, is that there isn’t just one Ice Age, there are several. In between some of the glacial periods, sea levels may have risen high enough to cut Britain off from the continent a few times before receding again as the ice advanced once more. The earliest hearth known in Britain dates to 400kya, though it is thought that humans could control fire much earlier from evidence in Kenya and Ethiopia.

There may be many of you who balk at teaching 800kya of history, and we totally understand. The arrival of farming in Britain may be a good place to start, as it’s only 4000 BC. This technology sees the start of so many massive changes, from permanent settlement to dividing the landscape into territories and fields, and ultimately to massive population growth, pressure on resources, social stratification and violence. It also spurs on technological advancements like using fire to make metal tools and the invention of new ways of travelling, like the wheel. The introduction of farming was accompanied by changes in religious and funerary practices that give rise to huge ceremonial monuments needing massive communal effort to create. It would be a good place to start. Here’s a more detailed timeline for the Neolithic (late Stone Age) to Iron Age.

Neo BA IA timeline