Painted in red: In search of alternative explanations for European Palaeolithic cave art


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Publication Date

October 2018


Traditionally, studies of Palaeolithic cave art have largely ignored or directly overlooked the red marks of anthropogenic origin that do not belong to figurative categories, in spite of their importance in quantitative terms in this type of art. This paper highlights their importance for better understanding the significance of the cave remains commonly classified as “rock or cave art.” To this end, we analysed these marks directly in a number of caves (Etxeberri -Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France-, Lumentxa -Bizkaia, Spain-, Morrón -Jaén, Spain- and Nerja -Málaga, Spain-). This allowed us to differentiate between intentional and other incidental or involuntary red marks. Furthermore, depending on the intrinsic and extrinsic characteristics of these marks, as well as information provided by archaeological and ethnographic findings, we related them to the body painting of their authors. Therefore, an identifiable part of the red marks so common in Palaeolithic cave art (and which could therefore not be considered as art sensu stricto) seems to be produced involuntarily. This could be related with the customs of the Palaeolithic groups attested by the archaeological record, as the frequentation of the innermost areas in the caves or as the decoration their bodies with ochre-based paint.


Cave Art, Red Marks, Body Painting, Upper Palaeolithic, Symbolic, Ethnology

Document Type



Quaternary International, Vol. 491 (2018-10-20).