Lesson Plans: Grades K-2

Cave Art: Discovering Prehistoric Humans through Pictures

Created September 24, 2010


The Lesson


Cave Art

Auroch (prehistoric cattle) painting, Lascaux cave, France.

Credit: Courtesy of The French Ministry of Culture

In this lesson, students travel to the past to explore how people in earlier times used art as a way to record stories and communicate ideas. By studying paintings from the Cave of Lascaux and other caves in France, students discover that pictures are more than pretty colors and representations of things we recognize: they are also a way of communicating beliefs and ideas. In many cases, this is what gives us clues today about what happened long ago, especially when there are no written records left behind.

This lesson gives students the opportunity to understand and appreciate the power of art to tell stories, communicate ideas, and promote understanding of the world around us. In this lesson, students learn about images created by people in pre-history and the stories those pictures tell -- both for the people who created them and for us today as we try to understand what life was like many, many years ago.

Guiding Questions

How do people express ideas through art? What can we learn about people who lived long ago by looking at a picture? Why do people use images to tell stories and to communicate? What did people use to record important events in their lives or history long ago? How has art been used throughout history to tell stories or to show us what people in other times and places considered important?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to do the following:

  • Verbally demonstrate an understanding of how paintings and drawings help convey significant ideas and events and how people today understand the past from putting together stories and history from these images.
  • Explain how pictures function as symbols, recognizing the way in which the relationship between pictures and words allows images to convey meaning.
  • understand how to "read" a picture and put together a series of images in a way similar to that of putting together words to form a story and gain knowledge about the past.

Preparation Instructions

This lesson requires you to access web pages through EDSITEment-reviewed websites. You may share these pages with your students at individual computer stations, assign small groups to share several computers, display computer-projected images to the whole class, or print out the pages and distribute copies to students.

The following EDSITEment-reviewed websites, which are all featured in this lesson, contain not only specific information about the featured caves in France, but a range of helpful background information about prehistoric humans and their art:

For background information on a variety of archaeological topics, you might want to visit the EDSITEment-reviewed resource ArchNet. You can type a topic in the Search field on the home page or browse the Museum links, which contain color-coded identifiers for Old World Archaeology.

Also, the following print resources can provide background information as well as detailed descriptions of the prehistoric art of the caves:

The Cave of Lascaux: The Final Photographs by Mario Ruspoli. Harry N. Abrams, 1987.

Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave: The Oldest Known Paintings in the World by Jean-Marie Chauvet.
Eliette Brunel Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, & Paul G. Bahn. Harry N. Abrams, 1996.

The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves by Jean Clottes, David Lewis-Williams. Harry N. Abrams, 1998.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Introduction to the Era of Cave Painting

Begin by asking students to think about where they have seen pictures that communicate specific information to people, such as directions. Guide the discussion to include international symbols frequently seen, such as: no smoking, handicapped, man, woman, no parking, airport, etc. Ask students to think about why these pictures work well (e.g., people who can't read the language can still understand what is being communicated). You can also invite students to think about how they might tell someone who isn't here about something important, if the student can't write and the person they want to communicate with doesn't have a telephone or email. What if the student was moving to another area, and wanted to leave behind information about his or her house and neighborhood for a family moving into the house who didn't speak English? How can you give information or tell a story without using words? What story might a picture tell? After students have the opportunity to talk about how to communicate when written and spoken language are unavailable, discuss how every picture tells us something, and that some pictures' meanings are more obvious than others.

Ask students what they know about or have heard about cave people: What do they know about the life of these people? When and where did they live? What animals lived when the cave people lived? What did cave people use animals for? What tools did they have? Why do we call them cave people?

How are their lives similar to and different from our lives today? Where do we get our information about the cave people? You can create and show students a timeline of the Paleolithic era, during which the Lascaux cave paintings were made, by using the information on Timelines of History, 1 Million BCE-3300 BCE, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library. Select the dates relevant to the cave paintings and the people who created them, for example:

  • 250-100,000 BCE The period of the Lower Paleolithic
  • 100k-35,000 BCE This is the Middle Paleolithic
  • 35k-25,000 BCE In Australia, Aboriginal rock paintings were made as far back as this time
  • 35k-10,000 BCE The Upper Paleolithic Period. There was considerable variation in the types of tools that were used and according to prehistorian J.D. Clark, a new self-awareness or concern for matters that had no relation to fulfilling biological needs. This is shown by the burial of the dead together with food and weapons. 
  • 33,000-9,000 BCE Europe's Upper Paleolithic age
  • c. 30,400 BCE Radiocarbon date for the Cave paintings at Chauvet, France. The first period of cave art is called Aurignacian.
  • 28,000 BCE Homo sapiens (modern). Skull of adult male found by French workmen (L. Lartet) at Cro-Magnon, France in 1868.
  • 28,000 BCE The Cussac cave in France was found in 2000 to contain drawings from this time. Bones of 5 people from the Neolithic era were also found.
  • 15,000 BCE The cave art of Paleolithic man of Lascaux, France dates to this time. It contains some 600 paintings, 1,500 engravings, and innumerable mysterious dots and geometric figures. 
  • 10,000 BCE The Paleolithic period comes to a close.
  • 10,000-3500 BCE The Neolithic or New Stone Age.
  • 9,600 BCE Radiocarbon date for the cave paintings at Le Portal, France. The last period of cave art is called Magdalenian. 
Activity 2. Explore the Cave of Lascaux

Invite students to explore the cave paintings at the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Cave of Lascaux.

In the lesson, your students will take a virtual tour of the Cave of Lascaux, the site of some of the earliest known art recorded by humans. Discovered in 1940 by four teenagers on an excursion into the French hillside, the cave is a series of spaces which displays vast amounts of imagery painted by Paleolithic (Stone Age) humans. There are more than 600 animals depicted in Lascaux; of these the horse is the most predominant, followed by bison, ibex, aurochs (an extinct type of ox), stags, mammoths, reindeer, bears, felines, rhinoceros, and a few birds and fish. These animals represent the types of fauna that was known to Paleolithic humans. In addition to the animal figures there are signs depicted (which are associated with the animals), and one lone human figure, drawn with animal characteristics (the man's head resembles a bird's). These images give us a glimpse into the minds and lives of early humans of prehistory.

The area in southwestern France where the Cave of Lascaux is located and the slopes of the Pyrenees Mountains are known for their many Paleolithic caves. These rock shelters and natural limestone caverns provide an ideal environment for preserving the prehistoric art. Of the more than 130 caves in the area, the Cave of Lascaux is the most famous -- but all the caves stand testament to the fact that that early humans had complete mastery of the artistic elements we know today: engraving, sculpture, painting, and drawing.

Today, the caves are not open to the public; they were closed in 1963 after it was determined that carbon dioxide from visitors' breath was causing the artwork to deteriorate. But the marvelous art of the caves can still be enjoyed in The Cave at Lascaux website.

Explain that entering the website captures the experience of the French students who were a few years older than your students are now when they discovered the cave in 1940. With this website from the French Ministry of Culture, your students can feel the same thrill of discovery the four French teenagers felt. Point out that the cave and its paintings had existed for 17,000 years, and that it was remarkable to find them in such excellent condition.

As a class or using individual computers, students can take the virtual tour of the cave and identify animals they discover. Record their findings and other images they note or observations regarding cave painting. For more background on the Caves of Lascaux, access the pull-out menu on the left side of the main page.

Using the section "A visit to the caves" from the pull-out menu as a guide, prompt a discussion by asking the class what they see in the various pictures. After they respond, point out that these paintings show bison, deer, and other animals that the cave people were familiar with in their everyday lives. Tell them that these images give us a peek into what life was like for people thousands of years ago. Have students think about why the cave people made these paintings. Consider the following questions:

  • What were the cave artists trying to say?
  • Why do you think that there were so many animals and not as many people in the paintings?
  • What can the paintings tell us about other aspects of the life of cave dwellers or Paleolithic people?
  • How did they make these pictures if there were no stores to buy paint and brushes or tools for carving?
  • What colors are prominent in the paintings, and what natural sources might provide these pigments if they didn't have crayons or markers?

Record answers and then guide students in checking the website under the section "Parietal art" and explain to students what the text says.

Ask students about other challenges cave people might have encountered in painting on cave walls and ceilings. Record their answers and add elements they may leave out: pitch-black darkness, irregular surface of the rocky walls, steepness and height, adherence of the pigment to the surface, etc. You might remind students of what happens when they draw with chalk on the sidewalk. Elicit speculation about how the Paleolithic people overcame some of these challenges. If there were no electricity, flashlights, or matches, what did they use for lighting? What would the objects for lighting look like? Instruct them to look at the lamps and other tools on the site.

Activity 3. How Did the Flintstones Really Live?

To give your students a broader understanding of cave paintings and Paleolithic humans, students can explore other caves in France and compare their findings from several caves. They can then describe what is common to all the cave art they saw, and note some of the unique aspects of art in different caves.

The Cosquer Cave

This website describes the Cosquer Cave located at Cape Morgiou, near Marseilles on the Mediterranean Sea. The unique feature of this cave is that it contains several dozen works painted and engraved between 27,000 and 19,000 years ago. It is decorated with a variety of land animals, but also with seals and auks, fifty-five hand stencils, and numerous digital markings, dozens of geometric symbols, as well as the extraordinary representation of a "slain man." Like the Cave at Lascaux, the Cosquer Cave is closed to the general public in order to keep it protected, but a virtual tour of the cave is available at the above website.

For a general overview, you can check out the following features:

The Cosquer Cave tells us a bit more about human activities during the Paleolithic period. Students should be delighted to see stencils and positive and negative impressions of human hands similar to ones they have made as art projects for parents. Point out that some fingers are shortened or missing. Ask students what they think the significance of this evidence is. [Scholars speculate that it could indicate deliberate (ritual) or accidental mutilation or perhaps a form of coded communication, similar to sign language for hunting rituals or instructions, according to information on the website.]
The Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc
This cave website has general background information on the evidence for Aurignacian peoples found in Germany, Austria, France, Spain, and Slovakia. Click on "Time and Space," "Archaeological Context," and, for climate and environmental conditions, clickon "Geographic Context." According to the information found on the website, this archaeological site is a particularly important find for the Upper Paleolithic period because the cave was found in the Ardรจche region of France, not the area generally associated with a proliferation of cave art sites. Not only are there animals here rarely depicted in cave art(for example, lions) but also the dynamic and sophisticated quality of their representation is extraordinary.

Student Activity LaunchPad K-2 

Teachers: The questions tailored for Lascaux in Parts 1 through 3 can be applied to the other caves mentioned in Part 4. Customize the LaunchPad by adding links to cave images that you've discovered in the cave websites above. You can also assign groups to explore each cave and report on their findings. 

[Note: For Part 1 of the LaunchPad, you may want to direct students to several specific areas of the cave to explore to make it easier for them to find the Chinese Horse, the Back-to-Back Bison, the human figure with the bird-like head, etc.]

You may want to use questions like these to get students involved and start the discussion:

  1. Where do you think you are?
  2. What do you see?
    (Add Links for animals)
  3. What kinds of animals can you see?
  4. What colors do you see?
  5. Who do you think made these pictures?
  6. Why?
  7. What do these pictures tell us about who created them?

Extending The Lesson

  • Invite students to create pictures, paintings, collages, etc. that show something about life in the Paleolithic period using the kinds of images and techniques used by the cave artists. When everyone is finished making their pictures, put the images together in a book or exhibit for other students, now and in the future, to look at. The teacher can guide students in arranging the book or exhibit and labeling objects so that the project reflects what the class has learned.
  • As a reading extension, you might also want to obtain a copy of the following picture book, about a little girl who becomes a cave artist: First Painter by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Rocco Baviera (DK Publishing, 2000).
  • For a related type of prehistoric art originating from different time periods and parts of the world, introduce your class to Rock Art. Depending on your location within the U.S., you can relate the cave paintings to the more recent rock painting in your school's geographic region. The EDSITEment-reviewed resource ArchNet includes a section on Rock Art that contains links to several on the topic of prehistoric art around the world, including: Contemporary Approaches to World Rock Art, EuRA (European Rock Art), and the Ancient World Web. For general introductions to the archaeology of rock and cave painting, see "What is Rock Art?" from Arizona State University, Deer Valley Rock Art Center.

The Basics

Time Required

3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Anthropology
  • History and Social Studies
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Archaeology
  • History and Social Studies > Place > Europe
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Ancient World (3500 BCE-500 CE)
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • History and Social Studies > World
  • History and Social Studies > Place
  • Art and Culture
  • Critical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Logical reasoning
  • Visual art analysis


Student Resources