by Denyse O'Leary
A fascinating article by Judith Thurman, “First Impressions: What does the world’s oldest art say about us?” (June 23, 2008) in The New Yorker explores the attempts we make to understand the artworks left by humans drawing on the walls of caves thousands of years ago.
She reflects on the Chauvet paintings found in south central France. These oldest known paintings predate the Lascaux and Altamira friezes by fifteen to eighteen thousand years. The history of interpretation of older artworks has suffered from too-ready assumptions about “primitive” people, in particular that, as mud slowly morphed into mind, art would gradually become more sophisticated. For example,
He had also made the Darwinian assumption that the most ancient art was the most primitive, and [i]n that respect, Chauvet was a bombshell. It is Aurignacian, and its earliest paintings are at least thirty-two thousand years old, yet they are just as sophisticated as much later compositions. What emerged with that revelation was an image of Paleolithic artists transmitting their techniques from generation to generation for twenty-five millennia with almost no innovation or revolt. A profound conservatism in art, Curtis notes, is one of the hallmarks of a “classical civilization.” For the conventions of cave painting to have endured four times as long as recorded history, the culture it served, he concludes, must have been “deeply satisfying”—and stable to a degree it is hard for modern humans to imagine.
Also, curiously in the light of the notion of the “violent brute” cave man,
No human conflict is recorded in cave art, although at three separate sites there are four ambiguous drawings of a creature with a man’s limbs and torso, pierced with spearlike lines. More pertinent, perhaps, is a famous vignette in the shaft at Lascaux. It depicts a rather comical stick figure with an avian beak or mask, a puny physique, and a long skinny penis. He and his erect member seem to have rigor mortis. He is flat on his back at the feet of an exquisitely realistic wounded bison, whose intestines are spilling out. The bison’s glance is turned away, but it might have an ironic smile. Could the subject be hubris? Whatever it represents, some mythic contest—and the struggle of prehistorians to interpret their subject is such a contest—has ended in a draw.
Her descriptions are beautiful,
A great frieze covers the back left wall: a pride of lions with Pointillist whiskers seems to be hunting a herd of bison, which appear to have stampeded a troop of rhinos, one of which looks as if it had fallen into, or is climbing out of, a cavity in the rock. As at many sites, the scratches made by a standing bear have been overlaid with a palimpsest of signs or drawings, and one has to wonder if cave art didn’t begin with a recognition that bear claws were an expressive tool for engraving a record—poignant and indelible—of a stressed creature’s passage through the dark.
and I will spoil no more of them for you. A fierce controversy rages over how exactly to interpret the art and its purpose – or whether one should attempt to interpret it at all. One archaeologist defended his interpretation as follows:
Clottes was hurt and outraged by the rancor of the attacks that greeted “The Shamans of Prehistory” (“psychedelic ravings,” one critic wrote), and the authors defended themselves in a subsequent edition. “You can advance a scientific hypothesis without claiming certainty,” Clottes told me one evening. “Everyone agrees that the paintings are, in some way, religious. I’m not a believer myself, and I’m certainly not a mystic. But Homo sapiens is Homo spiritualis. The ability to make tools defines us less than the need to create belief systems that influence nature. And shamanism is the most prevalent belief system of hunter-gatherers.”
Influence nature, yes, but we also need to understand and interpret nature. Probably the most important thing that the cave paintings tell us about ourselves is that the mind seems to have emerged rather suddenly, not by a long series of increments, a point that Mario Beauregard and I discuss in The Spiritual Brain.