Prehistoric Artists Essay

Prehistoric art is one of the interesting essay subject matters out there due to the history and stories behind how our forefathers discovered art. Prehistoric art covers the time period before human literacy when art was the only form of communication and was also used as a medium of worship. And here is a brief introduction to Prehistoric art and the era that birthed it.

Prehistoric art refers to the first art forms created by humans, Homo erectus, before and after the Stone Age approximately 500,000 years ago. Archeological findings show that these art forms evolved over time from the first scratches on cave walls using animal bones to more advanced paintings and drawings using blow pipes and feathers. The art works of the Prehistoric are also divided into three sections according to the era they were created in order to study and better understand the motives that drove prehistoric artist to create art. These sections are the lower, middle and upper Paleolithic era and they occurred 40,000 to 500,000 years ago. Now, that the subject matter of prehistoric art has been introduced, this article will not attempt to go into the details of prehistoric art but will provide students with cool topics on this subject matter. So in that vein, here are 20 easy case study topics covering prehistoric art.

  1. Deducing the Lifestyle of Prehistoric Humans through the Study Prehistoric Art.
  2. Understanding Prehistoric Art and the Meaning behind its Art Forms
  3. Making a Case for Religion and its Influence on Prehistoric Art
  4. Craft, Style and Creative Patterns used by Prehistoric Artist.
  5. Exploring the Painting Tools and Materials used in the Prehistoric Era
  6. A Study of Artworks from the Lower Paleolithic Age
  7. A study of Artworks from the Middle and Upper Paleolithic Era
  8. The Object and Subject Matters that Influenced Prehistoric Art
  9. The Origin and History of Prehistoric Art
  10. Analyzing the Venus Figurines from the Prehistoric Age
  11. Fertility and its Role in Prehistoric Art Forms
  12. The Sculpting Techniques and Materials used in Creating Prehistoric Art
  13. Prehistoric Artists and Their Fascination with Animals
  14. Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Humankind
  15. The Cave Art Painting of the Lascaux Cave
  16. Reproduction and Sexuality in Prehistoric Art
  17. The Affectivity of Prehistoric Art through the Ages
  18. Cave Art: Discovering Prehistoric Humans through Pictures
  19. Exploring the Treasure Troves of Prehistoric Art Caves across Europe
  20. Early Human Artists in the Paleolithic Era

These are some easy case study topics on prehistoric art that will help you kick start your essay or presentation on the topic of prehistoric art. The research required to develop content on the above listed topics is quite mild for research materials covering them can easily be found online or at your local/school library. Lastly, to aid your progress while drafting contents on any of the topics on the list we’ve also prepared a list of 10 selected facts for you as well as a complete guide on this topic and genre. Below is a sample case study written to provide some direction on how you should proceed.

Sample Case Study: Deducing the Lifestyle of Prehistoric Humans through the Study of Prehistoric Art

In most cases, art serves as a pictorial representation of the culture, religious beliefs and lifestyles of people in a community and prehistoric art is no different. Like contemporary artist, the artists from prehistoric times were influenced by their environment and how they perceived the world to be which they ended up depicting in the art works of their time. This means that it is possible to deduce how prehistoric man lived and made ends meet by studying the art forms their lives inspired. So here is an attempt to recreate prehistoric lifestyles using art works as the case studies or basis for deductions.

The earliest drawings by cave men, as seen in the Franco-Calabrian caves, depicted animals and the hunt 90% of the time. These drawings consisted of bison, reindeers, mammoths etc. with arrows or spears sticking out of them. Other images consisted of humans drawn in stick like form hounding these animals in what looks like a hunt. Here, one can deduce that prehistoric men were more carnivorous than omnivorous for their diet consisted primarily of meat and other fact that substantiates these deduction is the lack of permanent residence as well as little or no farming skills exhibited by prehistoric societies. Health-wise, a diet solely dependent on meat with not enough vegetables and fruits to supplement it means that prehistoric humans would have suffered from scurvy, mumps and other diseases related to Vitamin C deficiencies.

The paintings and drawings discovered in Indonesia’s Leang cave depicted rituals and ceremonies which were quite religious in nature. Although there is no proof that they believed in a supreme being, the gatherers and hunters who sought success in the fields in order to make it through the months believed in gods and goddesses of abundance, fertility and hunting.

The entire catalogue of the Venus Figurines show cased women in various stages of pregnancy which included large mammary glands, and extended stomach and hips section resembling a woman in an advanced stage of pregnancy. Studies have shown that these figurines were not sexual in nature but were created as goddesses or fertility talismans to aid childbirth. Here it is easy to deduce that prehistoric humans understood the importance of gathering enough food to stave off hunger as well as the need to procreate in order to populate the earth.

Even in prehistoric times, man had to find ways in which to keep themselves entertained and the bone flute items found in the Hohle Fel caves showed that they created music and may have told stories around community fires. The bone flute which was made from vulture bones and spotted 5 holes meant that prehistoric man was quite adept at creating multiple musical tunes to entertain or celebrate events.

In conclusion, these deductions showed that prehistoric man did all they could to survive the harsh environment of era gone by. They exhibited above average intelligence in hunting as well as high level creativity in terms of entertainment and creating the art works we pore over today.

Dobres, M. (1992). “Re-considering Venus figurines: A feminist-inspired re-analysis
Owen, R. & Porr, M. (1999). “Questioning stereotypical notions of prehistoric tool functions: Ethno-analogy, experimentation, and functional analysis.
Tringham, R. (1993). Review of: The civilization of the goddess.
Wikipedia: Prehistoric Art.
Francis, G. (2007). Religious Awareness in Art Forms from Prehistory to Today 3-5
John, W. (2011). In African Caves Signs of an Ancient Paint Factory.
The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 97, No. 1 (1967), 95-97.

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Tags: case study ideas, case study topics

First things first ….

The lesson on Prehistory often comes at the very beginning of the semester, so offers the opportunity to introduce the activity of close looking as well as an historical overview of the very earliest art practices.

There’s a body of literature by educators on the practice of close looking and inviting personal responses from the students (Portland-based museum educator Mike Murawski has a great post on these topics here). You might use the Woman of Willendorf as the key image from which your lecture and discussion will stem for this class on Prehistory. You could use this class activityat the beginning of your class to get your students to look closely at the Woman of Willendorf in pairs (ie. to practice the art historical skill of formal analysis) before then opening up the discussion to the whole class and figuring out her context together. Easy first question to open with after the activity – “what did you see? what were the first things you noticed?”

Images and Readings ….

PPT Images

Background reading might include your survey textbook, this thematic essay from the Met Museum’s Timeline of Art History, and Smarthistory’s Prehistory section. There are at-home readings for students in the AHTR online syllabus.

There are some great video resources for this lecture, but perhaps nothing more melancholically beautiful than Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams which is excellent for showing in-class clips of the Chauvet Caves in all their glory. The first few minutes of PBS Nova’s The Secrets of Stonehenge are great for showing Stonehenge in 3D, and the contemporary archeologists working there. Mike Parker Pearson is one of the leading authorities on the site and he leads the discussion here.

Content suggestions ….

The term Prehistory refers to all of human history that precedes the invention of writing systems, ca. 3100 BCE, and the keeping of written records, and it is an immensely long period of time, some ten million years according to current theories. For the purposes of an art history survey, we split our study of Prehistory into two camps: Paleolithic and Neolithic (old vs. new, nomadic vs. settled, “lithic” form the Greek for stone as these peoples worked with stone tools). This is often a good time to discussion the differences between culture and civilization, the growth of which will become apparent as the survey progresses – and can be problematized in terms of how your survey narrates the “development” of civilizations.

The timeline covered in this area of the survey is vast – c. 32,000 BCE (Chauvet Caves) to c. 7,000 (Neolithic settlements) – but the question that unites this vast chronology is simple and compelling: what can we find out about objects from so long ago, and how do they connect to our contemporary experiences today?

In an hour and fifteen minutes, this question can be investigated through many ancient objects, including

  • Woman of Willendorf 22,000 BCE.
  • Lion Human, 32,000 BCE
  • Spotted Horses and Human Hands, Peche-Merle, Dordogne, France 25,000 BCE
  • Hall of Bulls, Lascaux Cave, Dordogne, France c. 15,000 BCE
  • Chauvet Cave, Ardeche Gorge, France 32,000-30,000 BCE
  • Çatal Hüyük, Turkey 7400-6200 BCE
  • Stonehenge c. 3000-1500 BCE

An object like the Woman of Willendorf can tell us about how the female form was viewed culturally as this isn’t an exact replication of what we know Homo Sapien women looked like at this time. And although she’s been canonized in the art history survey, she’s really not that unique – many similar figures have been found from this era. Her body has been changed to accentuate certain characteristics. Why? Most of the figures from the “upper Paleolithic period” are women. Women bear children, and she seems well-nourished – this may have ensured the continuation of the community. She’s also a portable object. This makes sense as prehistoric communities were nomadic and needed to be able to carry their possessions with them.

The Lion Human (found in the German Alps in 1939) shares certain similarities with French cave wall paintings, which also show hybrid creatures. The French paintings, however, are several thousand years younger than the German sculpture. This sculpture was found with flutes near it, suggesting it was part of a musical ritual or tradition. (Contemporary artists Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla’s ‘Raptor’s Rapture’, a work shown at Documenta 2012 in Kassel, Germany, includes a musician specializing in prehistoric instruments playing a flute just like this.) It’s the oldest known zoomorphic sculpyute in the world, but as there are no written records left to us, the meaning and purpose of this art can only be guessed at.  At the end of the Paleolithic era, there were perhaps over five million inhabitants of the earth.

Cave art is often hidden deep in cave formations, suggesting that it was intended for a privileged subset of people; this theory is similar to that of burial sites such as at Stonehenge where remains of men of a certain age are found. It suggests a society built on hierarchies, one that was structured and ordered. One of the first questions to think about is how did prehistoric humans work and paint in deep cave formations that would have been pitch-black. They did so by using animal fat lamps (see, for example, the Lamp with Ibex Design). What materials are they using? Natural pigment derived from stone and plant, charcoal, and applied using their hands or rough brushes. Some archaeologists believe that pigment may have been mixed in the mouth and then spat onto the walls (see the archaeological reenactment of painting techniques slide). What is the purpose of the handprints on the walls? It’s unclear – are they signatures? Hand signals used while stalking prey? Used to signify the presence of humans in this animal world? Great examples of cave art include the Lascaux Cave, Dordogne, France c. 15,000 BCE, Le Tuc d’Audoubert, France c. 13,000 BCE, and the Chauvet Cave, Ardeche Gorge, France 32,000-30,000 BCE. Prehistoric cave and rock art was also produced in Australia, Malta (an island between Italy and N. Africa), and Algeria, among other sites.

There may be no one single “function” for these works – they changed over generations, over many thousands of years so while some of their functions may have been passed down orally, these changed and mutated too over time. We can’t even be sure if the works are about the act of painting, or the finished images. Even within one generation, or a short period of a few generations, the cave paintings would mean different things to different people depending on their age, experience, perhaps their gender. We can only make educated guesses about what they were used for. However, the difficulty and time required to make the works meant they weren’t just for aesthetic pleasure alone. They could have been used for clan rites, as an initiation for younger (male) clan members. They may have believed to have had magical powers (ie. showing a successful hunt could prefigure that happening in real life), the precursor to modern systems of belief and religion. However, as Herzog’s documentary points out, this theory has since been somewhat dismissed as further archaeological evidence suggests that the animals portrayed are not the ones that were hunted.

The Neolithic or Agricultural Revolution followed the Paleolithic Era, and it began in the Ancient Near East [= West Asia] about 10,000 BCE. Not long afterwards, Neolithic settlements appeared in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Western Hemisphere.  During the next 3,500 years, men and women all over the world radically transformed their relationship to nature, from a dependent one to more independent one.  This is a slow change – it doesn’t happen overnight by any means. Human beings learned to manipulate nature, they invented agriculture, which allowed production of a food surplus, they manufactured new types of tools, and they domesticated animals, like dogs, sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, and so on.

Once a food surplus was produced, human beings began to live in fixed village settlements likeÇatal Hüyük, in Turkey(7400-6200 BCE). Humans begin to develop more lasting ties to specific sites and places. Innovations of the Neolithic era included a division and specialization of labor, the emergence of an artisan class, such as weavers or potters, the development of trade, the invention of private property, and the development of basic political and social institutions.

Neolithic people also created impressive megalithic [massive-stone] constructions, such as Stonehenge. Stone was used because of its durability (think of the words or phrases like written in stone). Stonehenge uses post-and-lintel construction techniques, and the technology used to lift, transport, and maneuver the massive stones is still the subject of much discussion by archeologists today.

Next came the Urban Revolution (Mesopotamia and Egypt, from about 3,500BC.  This “urban revolution” forms the symbolic boundary between “pre-history” and “history” as the first writing emerges from the Fertile Crescent, today Iraq. For many, this is the moment that mankind invented “civilization.”

At the end of the class ….

At the end of class, for a low-stakes get-them-looking-and-responding homework assignment, you could ask students to pick a 4-minute story from the Met’s Connections website where Met staff – from curators to technicians to educators to admin staff to interns – talk about their favorite works in the museum.  You might also use their 82nd and Fifth series where the focus is one artwork and one curator. Introduce the websites in-class at the end of the lesson. Next lesson, the students should come prepared with “talking notes” (ie. one very short paragraph they can refer to if called upon in class to share, and can be handed in to you at the end of the lesson). Ask them to think about what personal connections the narrator of their chosen video makes with the objects they talk about. What is the theme that connects their objects? Why did you choose this video? What new things did you learn? 

Alternatively, another low-stakes writing assignment might ask students to read or listen to any of the entries on the BBC/British Museum collaboration A History of the World in 100 Objects related to Prehistory. These include the Olduvai Stone Chopping Tool and the Hand Axe, both close to 2 million years old. Your “reading response” take-home hand out might look a little like this.

Finally, this class might be the time and place to introduce a collective timeline project (if you’ve chosen to include it in your syllabus). Check out this post on using Tiki Toki to have students collaborate on a timeline over the course of the semester, and produce presentations related to survey objects.


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