Mothers of Time

The First Discoveries

The broad outlines of Western European history are the result of extensive work carried out in the latter half of the nineteenth century by eminent geologists and prehistorians such as Lubbock, Christy, Lartet and de Mortillet. Although, judging by today's standards, we see their tools and methodology as somewhat unsophisticated; nevertheless, we recognize their great accomplishment.

These pioneers were responsible for sketching out the concept of the Palaeolithic, or Old Stone Age, and for placing these remote, glacial epochs in chronological and cultural perspective.

Hunters, Gatherers and Artists

In particular, evidence from the Upper Palaeolithic period indicated that artistic skill and symbolic representation were highly developed among the hunter-gatherers of the time. Further discoveries led to the concept of what we call the prehistory of Western art, which, to the best of our knowledge, dates back some 35,000 years.

We now also know that these artistic representations of the European Upper Palaeolithic period were created by biologically modern populations. Homo sapiens sapiens were clearly different from their predecessors, Homo sapiens neandertalensis (the Neanderthals), of the Mousterian or Middle Palaeolithic period, whose cultural remains were cruder and far less legible.

Controversy and Dispute

Establishing these first outlines of European prehistory was far from easy. Excavations were often the subject of controversy or petty dispute, and were carried out in a manner we would call anarchic. In some cases, they turned into a selective search for what were deemed - subjectively - to be the "finest" pieces. Little consideration was given to keeping collections intact. Consequently, many were dispersed. Others were destroyed as a result of war. Such was the case with the material accumulated over a half century from the Balzi Rossi.

Chronology of the End of the Ice Ages

The concept of the Palaeolithic, or Old Stone Age, was formulated in the last century to account for the history of human occupation of the Old World. The Palaeolithic age is divided into three main periods -- the most recent being the Upper Palaeolithic, which dates back to between 35,000 and 10,000 years ago. This period was characterized by a series of upheavals that affected both the natural environment and all cultures throughout Europe.

First among these transitions - around 40,000 years ago - was the appearance in Europe of biologically modern populations. Homo sapiens sapiens were capable of creating new technologies, and soon took the place of their Neanderthal predecessors. This biological and cultural changeover occurred against a background of dramatic climate change: a maximum low temperature was reached during the last ice age, between approximately 22,000 and 18,000 years ago. This cooling period had a marked effect on the societies of the time: in order to survive over the course of the millennia, human beings had to adapt. Communication systems were among the things they invented, and the Gravettian Venus figures were one of the most ancient and striking examples of communication tools developed.

Europe at the End of the Ice Ages

During the first half of the Upper Palaeolithic period, between 28,000 and 22,000 years ago, the northern hemisphere began to feel the effects of a climatic cooling, which eventually led to the peak of the last great ice age, about 20,000 years ago. Much of Northern Europe was then slowly invaded by enormous ice sheets moving down from northern Scandinavia. Further south, glaciers of varying sizes also formed in a few massifs, chiefly the Alps. As the ice accumulated, sea levels subsided, exposing vast coastal areas; in certain areas these took the form of isthmuses that, for a time, connected islands to the continent.

The changing face of Europe was thus continuously subjected to major environmental upheavals, which affected both animal and plant life. It was during this long period of change - or, according to some experts, partly because of it - that the cultural phenomenon known as the Gravettian period emerged across the continent. Within this cultural context - one that we still do not fully understand - the first great statuaries of the Western world, and perhaps Eurasia, were developed.

(map based on Stringer and Gamble, 1993)