Perhaps one of the most exquisite works of art in the world today is that created by a man or woman about 13,000 years ago. Skilfully carved from the tip of a mammoth tusk, it depicts two reindeer swimming one behind the other and is naturalistic, detailed, and charmingly tender. It was found at Montastruc, France, in 1867 and is No. 4 on the list of artefacts British Museum director Neil MacGregor picked for his programme A History of the World in 100 Objects. It is also just one of the many fabulous examples of prehistoric art to go on display in the museum’s latest exhibition.

About 40,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, modern humans began to venture out of Africa and head for Europe. Whether it was contact with the indigenous Neanderthals already established there, or the challenge of coping with a colder, harsher climate, the result was an unprecedented outpouring of artistic endeavour that resulted in some of our earliest known figurative, portrait, and ceramic art. These early works demonstrate a surprising level of sophistication, beauty, and technical ability, which many would envy today.

Clearly, these prehistoric people were achieving what often we perceive to be a totally modern concept: the ability to interpret abstract images, and to communicate ideas, knowledge, and experience through the medium of art. And their voices continue to echo down through the millennia, inspiring artists of the modern era: the exhibition includes pieces by Matisse and Henry Moore that bear a striking resemblance to the gorgeous female figurines created more than 20,000 years ago – the voluptuous ‘Venus’ from Dolní Věstonice, near Brno in the Czech Republic, is an impressive 29,000 or so years old, and the oldest ceramic figurine yet found.

The exhibition includes prehistoric cave art from Altamira in Spain (see CWA 55 for the latest dating research), and from Chauvet and Lascaux in France: an installation will give visitors the surreal experience of seeing images of these paintings as if deep within the caves themselves, lit by fat lamps and burning torches.


This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 57. Click here to subscribe