Rock art: what is it and what are its characteristics?

Perhaps it is man’s first form of artistic manifestation

What is rock art?

Rock art (from the Latin ars rupes “art on rock”) represents a wide-ranging artistic manifestation that can appear inside caves, grottos, and on other rock surfaces.

It is considered the oldest form of human artistic expression. Originating in the context of prehistory, the first ones were produced around 40,000 B.C. Carbon 14 dating indicates that men at that time already possessed the cognitive ability to represent symbols.

Features of Rock Art

Types and techniques

Prehistoric artistic manifestations can be divided into two types due to the difference in production techniques:

Cave paintings – Made from the application of pigments on rock, extracted from clays, vegetables, minerals and charred bones. They were added to elements that could give the pigment the ability to set, such as animal blood, beeswax and fats.

Rock carvings – Made from incisions in the rocks so that the images were engraved on the surface.

Rock Painting

Initially, the representations were characterized by fine lines and strokes. Later, the images became more elaborate, with better color balances and lighting techniques.


Human and animal forms appear with some frequency in rock art. In addition, fantastic figures, objects, and everyday scenes are also found.

The representations can vary according to the geographical location where they are found, as well as their meanings, opening up a great deal of room to interpret the symbols.

For example, when it comes to the registration of hands, feet, and figures, we can either indicate an “affirmation of presence” at the site or a testimony of an event, a narrative, a myth.

negative hands

It is important to remember that we cannot limit rock art to a simple representation of daily life.

Some hypotheses indicate that certain images may indicate a magical / religious ritual, as well as the presence of these images in places of little habitation and difficult access may lead to believe in a special meaning for prehistoric men to perform this artistic manifestation.

1) Rock art is found on every continent except Antarctica.

2) The cave paintings of Altamira (Spain), were the first to be officially presented to the world, about 150 years ago.

3) Rough numerical evaluations estimate that there are 350 to 400 thousand archeological sites with rock art all over the world. Africa is the most expressive continent, with something around 100 thousand sites.

4) It was from this that the first form of writing, the so-called pictographic, originated in the Neolithic period.

Rock Art and the Growing Human Vocabulary

According to a study by researchers at MIT and USP, this art is often connected to the acoustic properties of the cave chambers in which it is found.

According to the research, men were able to detect the way sound reverberated in these chambers and expressed their art on surfaces that generated echoes. Thus, acoustic signals were transformed into symbolic representations.

For example, hoofed animals are usually represented in environments whose acoustic reverberations resemble the beating of hooves.

Not coincidentally, there are walls in caves that would be perfectly suitable for painting, but which have been ignored due to the acoustic properties of the environment in which they are located. Broadly speaking, early humans painted not only what they saw, but what they heard.

As a conclusion, from the correlation between site and painting, the researchers suggest that “the mechanisms that seem to drive these cave representations are a parallel that allowed us to develop human language, through speech and signs.”


From the discoveries, analysis of the images, and interpretative debates about their meanings, we can better understand how our ancestors were. Their records show us their habits, cultures, and allow us to observe human evolution.

Art is always linked to human reality; its manifestations, therefore, reflect the historical particularities of each moment in time. By understanding the origins of our arts, we can have a better understanding of who we are and our trajectory.

Serra da Capivara National Park (PiauĂ­) – The largest archaeological site in the Americas and a UNESCO World Heritage Site