Research project

Defining cultural boundaries in the European Upper PALAEOlithic: Archaeology and Rock arT in EASTern Europe(PALAEOARTEAST)

Project overview

The emergence of Palaeolithic art and symbolism is considered a major milestone in human evolution. This is related to the fact that graphic activity has been usually considered as one of the first expressions of symbolic and cognitive thought in human history.

Traditionally, the development of Palaeolithic art and symbolism has been considered a Western European phenomenon. Although there are some isolated decorated caves from the period 40,000-13,000 cal BP in the UK, Romania, Russia, South Africa, Indonesia and Australia, the irregular distribution of the Upper Palaeolithic rock art (including big gaps between these isolated discoveries) led to an almost exclusive research focus on South-Western Europe.

One of those “gaps” is in Central and South-Eastern Europe. This project examines the question of the origins and the geographical distribution of Palaeolithic cave art through an archaeological analysis and broader contextualization of two key decorated Western Balkan Palaeolithic sites in particular. It addresses two research questions: 1) What is the chronological and geographical framework of Palaeolithic rock art? and 2) How do we characterize the main traits of Palaeolithic art and symbolism in Eastern and Central Europe, and in relation to the better-known cave art from SW Europe?

The PALAEOARTEAST project aims to analyse and contextualise the paintings and the engravings documented in the two key sites, through an excavation, a series of radiometric datings (AMS-C14 and U/Th), a pigment and a geo-archaeological analysis of their immediate archaeological context.

This will provide accurate data for the first time about the chronology and the archaeological characteristics of the two first Palaeolithic rock art sites discovered in the Balkans. This will allow the PALAEOARTEAST project evaluate Upper Palaeolithic symbolic systems using additional (new) sites in areas where cave art was unknown until recently.

This increased geographic range of cave art allows us to be more confident in analysing the origins of Upper Palaeolithic symbolic systems and their spatial distributions (including potential cultural boundaries and diffusion).

Data from these newly-identified cave art sites will be compared to those from the intensively studied cave art from South-Western Europe, as well as to the common portable art found in Central and Eastern Europe, in order to place these graphic evidence in the context of Upper Palaeolithic symbolic culture.


Lead researcher

Professor William Davies

Professor of Palaeoanthropology

Research interests

  • Modelling mobility/dispersal, interaction and creativity/innovation in late Neanderthals and in early Homo sapiens.
  • Relating Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer ecologies to climatic frameworks.
  • Assessing inequalities in resource acquisition and development of skills in the Palaeolithic.
Connect with William

Collaborating research institutes, centres and groups

Research outputs