Ask Alexander Marshack to retrace the history of painting and he will lead you step by step backwards into time. He will take you, as he speaks, past the frescoes of the Renaissance and the statues of the Greeks, past the pyramids of Egypt and the figurines of Ur. Soon he will arrive at the caves of Ice Age Europe. But he will not stop there.

With his microscopes and cameras, Marshack has learned to read the 10,000-year-old calendars of paleolithic man. He has proved that antique murals of extinct elk and musk ox were drawn and redrawn often. He is in Washington for the opening of the show of Ice Age Art that he helped arrange. It is now on exhibition at the National Geographic Society, 17th and M streets NW. That irritated bison, licking at an insect bite, was carved of reindeer antler 12,000 years ago. That slant-eyed wide-hipped "Venus of Dolni Vestonice" was made of fired clay 29,000 years ago. That splendid little horse carved of mammoth ivory is from Vogleherd, in Germany, and may be even older.

Most viewers will regard these figurines and amulets, necklaces and beads, as wondrously ancient. To Marshack they look new.

Ask him for beginnings, for vastly older paintings and vastly older symbols, and he will lead you backwards, beyond the emergence, circa 35,000 B.C., of Homo sapiens sapiens, or truly modern man, and past the arrival of his cousins, the Neandertals, circa 70,000 B.C.--and still Marshack ventures on. He speaks brusquely but precisely. He does not play with theory. He will only cite hard fact.

"All right," he says at last. "Start with paint, colored paint. Man has been using pigments for hundreds of thousands of years. Pieces of red, brown and yellow ochre have been found by H. de Lumley at a Homo erectus site at Terra Amata, France. That site is 300,000 years old. Even stronger evidence was found by J. Fridrich in 1976 at another Homo erectus site at Becov, Czechoslovakia. I've published what he found."

What Fridrich discovered was a factory of sorts: 250,000 years ago an artisan had worked there grinding his red paint. Fridrich found the red ochre lump he used, and the quartzite rubbing stone he used to grind it into powder. "On the floor of the shelter, at the side where the piece of ochre was found, there was a wide area of ochre powder. Seating himself on a rock against the wall of the shelter to study the ochre," wrote Marshack, "Fridrich found that his feet accidentally fitted the only two areas without powder. Homo erectus had sat on this stone . . . while he made his red powder."

Prehistoric man not only ground red paint. There is evidence from the Dordogne that he made his powder into liquid paint, placed his paint in vessels, and used it to add dots of color to engraved stones and bones. The oldest engraved bones come from the same period. Marshack cites two, one from Bilzingsleben in Germany, one from Pech de L'Aze in France, both circa 300,000 B.C., and both with a "series of clearly intentional engraved 'decorative' or symbolic marks."

Marshack is not sure what those parallels and arcs and pointed zig-zags mean. Nor does he wish to speculate why Homo erectus chose to grind red paint. "It would be hazardous," he writes, "to state that the ochre represented blood, life or status." But Marshack knows such markings were produced on purpose. They appear on Neandertal artifacts and on later Ice Age art. Clearly they suggest some kind of symbol system. "If Homo erectus was doing something which had no practical value, he was doing something purely human," says Marshack. "His brain was smaller than ours. He might have been preparing a burial or a ritual. We don't know. But we do know this is not the way a chimp behaves."

Ask Marshack about Ice Age art, and his information's ready. Ask him for his own age, and his face goes blank. He pauses and he calculates. At last the answer comes: "64," he says. He is tall, white-haired, and blunt. He does not have easy charm. Though now a research associate at Harvard's Peabody Museum, he is a largely self-taught scientist. He was a photographer and writer working on a book about the space age, when, in 1962, he first began to ponder the prehistoric origins of scientific thought. The June 1963 Scientific American published a photograph of a scratched but undeciphered Ice Age bone. That photo changed his life.

"Let me ask you this," he asked The New Yorker's Calvin Tompkins. "If you found that photo in a scientific journal, showing an 8,000 year-old-bone with marking on it that nobody could explain, and you had a hunch, and said, 'Hey, you know, that might be a calendar,' and you tried it out, and it was a calendar, what would you do? I got excited as hell."

Prehistoric artifacts excite Marshack still. One of his favorites, a 10,000-year-old plaque, is pictured in his show. It is a thin oval of ivory, carefully cut from a mammoth's compound molar. "It is not a tool," says Marshack. "But it is absolutely exquisite. It is beautifully shaped, and sensuous to the touch. We can tell from its wear, from its highly polished edges, that it was used for a long period of time. Examination shows that at one point in its use--and perhaps more than once--it had been ochred red. The man who made it planned to make a non-utilitarian object. You hold it and you know that it was made by someone who was thinking about something other than sex or food."

The Ice Age artifacts on view (most are seen in photographs, in casts or reproductions) appear vastly more modern. What makes this art so eerie is that, to modern eyes, the earliest Ice Age art, say, the carvings found in Vogleherd, seem no less sophisticated than those made 20,000 years later. One suspects, one knows, that the people who produced these things had minds as sharp as ours. They also had knives, burins, brushes, oil-based paint, water-based paint, artificial light, even tubes for spraying powdered paint. Their animals are sometimes naturalistic, frequently abstracted. And they could draw like bandits. There appears to be no significant technical advance between the pictures painted at Altamira and Lascaux, and, say, Picasso's "Guernica."

Ice Age murals, when first found in Spain in 1879, were dismissed as modern fakes. Later it was argued they were merely "hunting magic." But Marshack has demonstrated that their imagery is vastly complex. A bone engraved with mating snakes, paired seals and spring plants, and a spawning male salmon (you can tell that he is spawning from his mouth-hook or "kype") is a kind of visual essay on the ecology of spring. To describe such an object as "hunting magic" is like calling an Andy Warhol soup can "shopping magic." The objects in the Ice Age show are surely works of art.

A mystery surrounds them. Though the ochre and the zig-zags of 200,000 years before are found on Ice Age objects, no representational pictures which predate modern man have yet been discovered. Neandertal used paint. He had fire, he had shrines. In Iraq, at Shanidar, he buried his dead with seven kinds of flowers, most of them medicinal. But if he made pictures, they have not yet been found.

Marshack suspects that earlier man might have made his pictures on wood or hide or other non-permanent materials. "If it looks as if Cro-Magnon man made a sudden leap to art, that's the record's fault.

"Consider the Australian aborigine," he says. "He doesn't work with stone or bone. He sleeps naked on the ground. His tool kit is as simple as can be. Yet he out-does most agricultural cultures in the complexity of his symbolic life. If we gauge him by his artifacts, we misjudge him. Nothing that he makes, his body art, his dances, his feather art, his music, nothing, zero, ends up in the ground. If Neandertal man had had a culture as complex as the aborigine's there is no way we could know."

Marshack is convinced that what we now call art evolved extremely slowly. He is certain symbol systems of vast antiquity and complexity lie behind the Ice Age art included in his show. "The evolution that made humans human did not happen in the tool kit or the skeleton. It happened in the mind. The trouble is that it is hard to find physical evidence for thought."

Marshack will lecture at the National Museum of American History at 8 p.m. on June 23. His touring exhibition, which opened in New York, will close here Oct. 31. PHOTOS(1,2,3&4)Top, Alexander Marxhack at the Grographic exhibit,by Larry Morris;above,Ice Age bison carving and,right,leaping horse;pg.c4,The Venus of Vestonice