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The emergence of Visual Culture:

dating and psychology of Palaeolithic art

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


The timing and behavioural context of the emergence and nature of the earliest visual culture is a central research concern of Palaeolithic archaeology. When did it emerge, and was it restricted exclusively to Homo sapiens groups or did other hominins such as the Neanderthals develop their own visual culture? If so, how did it vary? How did it develop over time, and what aspects of it can we ascribe to the way that the human brain has evolved? Over the last few years, Professor Paul Pettitt has been applying newly-available techniques which are radically changing our understanding of the origins of art and its early development. His collaborative research addresses several concerns of Durham’s Material and Visual Culture Research and Impact Group, and has been funded by the National Environmental Research Council (dating), the Leverhulme Trust (understanding hand stencils) and The British Academy (digital recording of Palaeolithic cave art). Fieldwork has been undertaken in France and Spain, and laboratory experimental work in the UK. The research has been undertaken collaboratively, with Professor Alistair Pike (Southampton University), Professor Joao Zilhão (Barcelona University), Dr Dirk Hoffmann (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig), Dr Marcos Garcia-Diez (Universidad Complutense), Dr Pedro Cantalejo (Ardales Cave, Malaga), Dr Hippolito Collado (Universidad de Estremadura, Badajoz), Professor Michel Lorblanchet (Toulouse University), and Professor Gerd-Christian Weninger (The Neanderthal Museum, Mettmann) on dating; with Dr Roberto Ontañon (Director, Decorated Caves of Cantabria) and Dr Pablo Arias (Santander University) on hand stencils; and Professor Bob Kentridge (Department of Psychology, Durham) on visual psychology. Our application of Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to cave art employed Marta Diaz-Guadarmino as a PDRA, and we benefitted from the presence of Blanca Ochoa-Fraile for two years as a Pays Basque research fellow.

Uranium-Thorium dating has been around half a century, although as methodological improvements in the last few years now mean we need miniscule samples, we can now apply it to dating calcite flowstones that overlie (and produce minimum ages for) cave art, which has otherwise been difficult to date. Our results, published in Science and elsewhere, demonstrated that non-figurative art in Spain was produced before 65,000 years ago, and hence were the work of the Neanderthals. It seems that a long phase of art of the body, including hand stencils, finger dots and blown discs, preceded the origins of figurative art – perhaps exclusive to Homo sapiens around 37,000 years ago.

We’ve established that hand stencils were among this earliest phase of visual culture. Their research has been dominated by questions as to whether they were the hands of females or males, and why fingers of stencils in a few caves appear to have been missing fingers. We looked at their physical context, and were able to demonstrate that far from being simple ‘graffiti’ they were carefully placed in connection with topographic features such as concavities and cracks, showing that their creation was much more complicated and had meaning far beyond a simple visual ‘calling card’.

With Professor Bob Kentridge of Durham’s Department of Psychology, Professor Pettitt has been developing scientifically testable approaches to the psychological foundations of visual culture. With Durham students we’ve been developing experimental methods in the laboratory; we’ve undertaken visual studies of extant animals common to Palaeolithic art (Przewalski’s horse, bison, reindeer) and have deployed visual psychological methods for facial recognition to the question of how natural shapes stimulated the creation of figurative art. We are currently developing the use of VR simulation, eye-tracking and body-tracking, as means to investigate non-figurative and figurative cave art in Spain and portable art in Germany, the latter in collaboration with Professor Sabine Gaudzinksi-Windheuser and Dr Olaf Jöris of the MONREPOS Archaeological Research Centre and Museum for Human Behavioral Evolution (RGZM), and Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.

PhD students

  • Takashi Sakamoto. Approaching Upper Palaeolithic cave art as installation art
  • Lisa-Elen Meyering. Prey perception landscapes and the psychology of Upper Palaeolithic open air art of the Côa Valley, Portugal
  • Barbara Oosterwijk. The embodiment of non-figurative art; examples from the Upper Palaeolithic cave art of France and Spain
  • Isobel Wisher. The visual psychology of Upper Palaeolithic figurative cave art. Virtual reality and testing pereidolia
  • Kirsty Jones. Late Upper Palaeolithic engravings of Gönnersford, Germany, and their psychological and ecological underpinning
  • Sam Hirst. Eye- and body-tracking and Mid Upper Palaeolithic venus figurines. Understanding the psychology of human depictions.

MA by research

  • Hector Wheeler. The visual psychology of animal depictions

Two archaeologists taking measurements in a cave

Image above: Taking measurements on a Palaeolithic hand stencil in La Garma Cave (Cantabria), with Pablo Arias. Photo Rebecca Harrison and courtesy Gobierno de Cantabria

Samples being collected from a cave wall for dating

Image above: Taking samples of calcite flowstone overlying a hand stencil for Uranium-Thorium dating. Maltravieso Cave (Caçeres), Spain. Photo courtesy Hippolito Collado

Published Results

Journal Article

  • Ochoa, Blanca, García-Diez, Marcos, Maíllo-Fernández, José-Manuel, Arrizabalaga, Álvaro & Pettitt, Paul (2019). Gravettian Figurative Art in the Western Pyrenees: Stratigraphy, Cultural Context, and Chronology. European Journal of Archaeology 22(2): 168-184.
  • Hoffmann, D. L., Standish, C. D., García-Diez, M., Pettitt, P. B., Milton, J. A., Zilhão, J., Alcolea-González, J. J., Cantalejo-Duarte, P., Collado, H., de Balbín, R., Lorblanchet, M., Ramos-Muñoz, J., Weniger, G.-Ch. & Pike, A. W. G. (2018). U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art. Science 359(6378): 912-915.
  • Hoffmann, D., Standish, C., Pike, A., Garcia-Diez, M., Pettitt, P., Angelucci, D., Villaverde, V., Zapata, J., Milton, J., Alcolea-Gonzalez, J., Cantalejo-Duarte, P., Collado, H., de Balbin, R., Lorblanchet, M., Ramos-Munoz, J., Weniger, G.-C. & Zilhao, J. (2018). Dates for Neanderthal art and symbolic behaviour are reliable. Nature Ecology and Evolution 2: 1044-1045.
  • Hodgson, D. & Pettitt, P. B. (2018). The Origins of Iconic Depictions: A Falsifiable Model Derived from the Visual Science of Palaeolithic Cave Art and World Rock Art. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 28(4): 591-612.
  • Pike, A., Hoffmann, D. Pettitt, P., García-Diez, M. & Zilhão, J. (2017). Dating Palaeolithic cave art: why U-Th is the way to go. Quaternary International 432(B): 41-49.
  • Hoffmann, D., Pike, A., García-Diez, M., Pettitt, P. & Zilhão, J. (2016). Methods for U-series Dating of CaCO3 Crusts Associated with Palaeolithic Cave Art and Application to Iberian Sites. Quaternary Geochronology 36: 104-109.
  • Pettitt, Paul & Bahn, Paul (2015). An alternative chronology for the art of Chauvet cave. Antiquity 89(345): 542-553.
  • García-Diez, M. Garrido, D., Hoffmann, D. L., Pettitt, P., Pike, A. & Zilhão, J. (2015). The chronology of hand stencils in European Palaeolithic rock art: implications of new U-series results from El Castillo Cave (Cantabria, Spain). Journal of Anthropological Sciences 95: 1-18.
  • Pettitt, P. & Bahn, P. (2014). Against Chauvet-nism: a critique of recent attempts to validate an early chronology for the art of Chauvet Cave. Anthropologie 118: 163-82.
  • Pettitt, P., Maximiano Castillejo, A., Arias, P., Ontañon Peredo, R. & Harrison, R. (2014). New views on old hands: the context of stencils in El Castillo and La Garma Caves (Cantabria, Spain). Antiquity 88(339): 47-63.
  • Pike, A. W. G., Hoffman, D. L., García-Diez, M., Pettitt, P. B., Alcolea, J., De Balbín, R. González-Sainz, C., de las Heras, C., Lasheras, J. A., Montez, R. & Zilhão, J. (2012). Uranium-series dating of Upper Palaeolithic art in Spanish caves. U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain. Science 336(6087): 1409-1413.

Chapter in book

  • Pettitt, P. B. (2016). Darkness visible. Shadows, art and the ritual experience of caves in Upper Palaeolithic Europe. In The Archaeology of Darkness. Dowd, M. & Hensey, R. Oxbow Books. 11-23.
  • Pettitt, P. B., García-Diez, M., Hoffmann, D., Maximiano Castillejo, A., Ontañon-Peredo, R., Pike, A. & Zilhão, J. (2015). Are hand stencils in European cave art older than we think? An evaluation of the existing data and their potential implications. In Prehistoric Art as Prehistoric Culture. Studies in Honour of Professor Rodrigo de Balbín-Behrmann. Bueno-Ramírez, P. & Bahn, P. Oxford: Archaeopress. 31-43.
  • Pike, A. W. G. Hoffmann, D. L., García-Diez, M., Pettitt, P. B., Alcolea, J., de Balbín, R., González-Sainz, C., de las Heras, C., Lasheras, J. A., Montes, R. & Zilhão, J. (2013). En los origenes del arte rupestre Paleolitico: dataciones por la serie del Uranio en la cuevas de Altamira, El Castillo y Tito Bustillo. In Pensando el Gravetiense: Nuevos datos para la Región Cantábrica en su Contexto Peninsular y Pirenaico. Monografías del Museo Nacional y Centro de Investigación de Altamira. 461-75.


From the Department of Archaeology

  • Professor Paul Pettitt