When rock art occurs in caves it is called ‘cave art’. Although found in several regions, the most famous traditions of cave art are those of the Upper Palaeolithic period in southwestern Europe. Occurring primarily in northern Spain and across France, this has become one of the world’s best-known forms of rock art. Officially, it was discovered by Don Marcelino Santiago Tomtis Sanz de Sautuola
(1831-88) in Altamira, Spain, in 1879. LeiopoId Chiron had already in 1878 found engravings deep in the French cave Chabot, and in 1890 more at another site, Figuier. In 1883, Francois Daleau excavated engravings on a wall in Pair-non-Pair that had been covered by Pleistocene sediment. However, all archaeologists precipitously rejected de Sautuola’s discovery, and his treatment by the discipline deterred others from publicizing new finds. In 1895, a bison engraving was discovered in the French cave La Mouthe. Emile Riviere, who had seen the Altamira paintings, then found more rock art in La Mouthe, and 4 years later a Palaeolithic lamp. Thus the evidence in favor of Palaeolithic cave art mounted, but full acceptance by the archaeological establishment did not occur until the end of the nineteenth century.
At that time, a young Catholic priest had begun to develop a great fascination for the subject of cave art. Abbe; Henri Breuil was to dominate the field for the next six decades, contributing greatly to our knowledge of the Palaeolithic rock art traditions. Many more sites were discovered during his reign, including Lascaux in 1940. Brevil was succeeded in the 1960s and 1970s by Andre Leroi-Gourhan, after whose death Jean Clottes became the key scholar of Palaeolithic cave art. Throughout the twentieth century, a stylistic sequence for the art was refined and honed by successive scholars. Its basis was the plethora of stylistic genres perceived by the leading researchers, often constructs of a tenuous nature. According to these models, cave art developed from the most simple to the most complex and ornate styles, from about 35 000 to 10 000 years ago. This fundamental tenet, and with it the stylistic chronology of cave art, fell with the 1994 discovery of Chauvet Cave, and the dating by Clottes in 1995 of some of its ultra-sophisticated rock art to about 32 000 radiocarbon years. This demonstrated the inexpedience of simplistic evolutionary schemes in the interpretation of Pleistocene art traditions (Figure 1).
Palaeolithic cave art has been reported from over 400 sites, but the art’s attribution to the Pleistocene has remained intangible at many sites. For instance, there is currently no validated claim for Palaeolithic rock art in Central or Eastern Europe, despite many such postulates having appeared. Similarly, various claims made about the occurrence of Palaeolithic rock art at open schist sites in the Iberian Peninsula remain unsubstantiated by dating evidence (see Dating Methods, Overview).
Cave art has also been found in 45 caves across Southern Australia, much of which seems to be of the Pleistocene as well. It lacks figurative depictions, as does all early Australian rock art. Another region noted for its cave art includes parts of Central
Figure 1 The Upper Palaeolithic ‘spotted horses’ in the cave Pech Merle, France. Photograph by R. G. Bednarik.
America and the Caribbean islands. Specific clusters of sites occur in Cuba, Hispaniola, and in the general area of Belize, Guatemala, and Yucatiin Peninsula. The cave art of the last-mentioned region is attributed to the Maya and some 22 sites are currently known. A remarkable series of cave art sites has also been located in the Kentucky-Alabama region of North America, popularly known as ‘mud glyph caves’. More isolated occurrences of cave art occur in many other regions.