On The Interpretation of Paleolithic Art

I have been reading the Cave Painters (Gregory Curtis) and quite enjoying it.  Whether it is simply the subject matter that enthralls me so or his particular capacity as an author, I do not know (though I know with certainty the former is true).  I do have many serious disagreements with the conclusions drawn by Curtis, but they are often provided with respect to their conjectural nature and the possibility (many times probability) that they are incorrect, so I don’t hold it against him too much.

But I am struck by the seemingly gaping holes in the interpretive theories offered regarding paleolithic cave art.  Much is known about the absurdities of reason employed in French anthropology in the 1960s and beyond, and it seems owing largely to the crazed fervor with which postmodernism was gobbled up by French academics.  Often times, in the process of escaping one insane theory, valid(-ish) critiques are cast among them from which strange conclusions are subsequently drawn.

Getting Past the Postmodernism

Consider this, for example:  Max Raphael somehow revolutionized the field of anthropology as follows:

“I conceived the hypothesis that where there is a spatial proximity among several animals, there was an intended meaning that we must discover.”

Following in this limited, but rooted firmly in obvious fact, hypothesis, Laming-Emperaire gestured at the obvious as well, and was cited by Leroi-Gourhan:

“The groupings of animal figures of different species is certainly one of the most characteristic features of Paleolithic art – a feature which was entirely overlooked until Mme. Laming-Emperaire published her work.”

So, yes, this was the type of revolutionary insight needed to kick off interpretive studies in Paleolithic cave art.  Obviously, or so it seems to me, art which is composed of many parts typically bears significance in the relations between those parts.  Also, the subject matter was probably chosen intentionally.  Do you need to be told these things?

Interpreting Paleolithic art is, of course, more limited than perhaps any other interpretive exercise in visual arts.  But here’s an important fact: interpretation is founded on the rational judgment of an adequately educated mind.  Significance is not something which cannot be conveyed between cultures of human beings because all human beings understand significance.

And that’s part of why it pains me to read Curtis’ assertions such as:

“[with homo sapiens]…there must have been at least some occasional contact, and it produced the Neanderthals’ most poignant legacy.  Neanderthal remains in France, especially at a site named Arcy-sur-Cure in Burgundy, include these first desperate efforts to transform themselves.”

And that’s after Curtis starts off pointing out how ridiculously incorrect initial portrayals of Neanderthals as hunched, troglodytic lackwits were!  I don’t know how he can fall into the same trap as those who came before him while simultaneously critiquing their lack of understanding.

Now, certain friends of mine are well-acquainted with my adoration of Neanderthals (along with basically all the hominids…paranthropos boisei comes to mind, in fact), but I won’t simply tackle him on those grounds alone.  Does it not occur that Neanderthals lived much longer ago than homo sapiens, rendering much of their artefacts likely out of our reach, but also, having perished alongside homo sapiens, why would we expect to find much of their stuff lying around?

I intend to do more research on such fronts.  It seems archaeologists chronically overestimate the representative value of the items they find.  Even in the face of seemingly obvious conclusions, they sometimes remain steadfast in opposition due to the lack of physical evidence.  On these accounts, it seems still believed that these peoples, those who crafted delicate ivory sculptures tens of thousands of years ago, were not much for thinkin’ outside of the caves.

Because such art has yet to be discovered and attributed to Neanderthal man, he is denied his humanity.  Torrents of ink have been spilled discussing just what limitations he had in comparison to our mighty brains.  Sure, ours are about 100cc on average smaller than those of our Neanderthal friends, but those guys didn’t paint on rock walls…that we found.  So there.

I highly suspect that Neanderthal man’s artefacts were disproportionately made scarce to our studies due to a variety of phenomena.  Primarily, the materials with which they crafted their works were less durable than the caves, and exposed to the elements.  And we have seen what treasures lie in store for us in the caves, even beautiful unfired clay sculptures, preserved for us only miraculously by the caves’ structure.  Other mounds of clay are found within the same cave housing the bison sculptures of which I am thinking, and these may be stores of clay, or they may be degraded sculptures which failed to survive even within the protection of the cave.

There must’ve been huge numbers of artefacts lost to the ages.  I don’t believe for a second that Neanderthal man, and even all the way back through homo ergaster and beyond, so thoroughly lacked the faculties crucial to humanity as is seemingly taken for granted so often in Curtis’ work:

“And as painting is both an art and a skill that must be learned, and as there was a single acceptable style to which the painters had to conform, the skills of painting must have been taught.  This is a startling idea, since, with painting being taught, it is very likely that to preserve the culture other skills were taught as well.”

See that roundabout way the anthropological mind must make its route to the conclusion that ancient hominids taught one another things?  It is just incredible to me that people would not start with the assumption that such things were going on far beyond the scope of the artefacts we are seeing.  Chimpanzees are known to teach one another skills and develop taught cultural patterns, for the love of God.  I would bet a large amount of money that hominids have been far, far more humanlike intellectually than many scholars seem to believe, for they were developed beyond the great apes in this manner, and it takes not much more development to reach us in these fundamental ways.

He says again:

“the early homo sapiens seem peculiarly distant from us.  These early humans, who were anatomically identical to us, did not act like us.  They were like characters in a science fiction novel whose souls have been leached away by some alien power, leaving them mere automatons.”

Seriously!?  I am just shocked that this is stated as though it is so matter-of-fact obvious.  I have seen similar assertions all over the place, of course, but this is purportedly a survey of modern theory, and I expected this sort of stuff to be at least vociferously questioned, not just blindly accepted.  Would such a survey not at the very least keep at its forefront the plain observation that, of all the vices from which French archaeology has suffered, a chronic underestimation of our ancestors is not one of its greatest?

Aside from being more robust, the humans of which Curtis speaks above were anatomically identical to us.  Yet, rather than assume their works simply did not survive to reach us (yet), Curtis (along with others) assumes that they were soulless automatons.  This, apparently, seems the most likely of the hypotheses to some people.

I need to do more research on the preservation of artefacts.  I have read and I expect that we probably overestimate the likelihood of their preservation, especially if left amidst other nomadic populations across thousands of years, but I need more data.  More to come on that front.  I will bet I know where it’s headed.

Anyway, Curtis caps this all off by revealing what seems to me to be the true root of this problem: the attempt at fulfilling postmodernist gobbledy-gook:

“Richard G. Klein of Stanford University believes that the change was the result of a neurological cahnge in the brains of Homo sapiens that occurred about 47,000 years ago.  Specifically, he believes that the sudden neural alteration created the ability to speak a complicated language.  Without language, symbolic thinking would have been impossible.  With language, people did begin to think symbolically and all our art and culture, our music and myths and tales, and all our religions are the result.”

Oh.  My.  God.  THAT IS SUCH A HORRIBLE THEORY.  I can’t even emphasize enough how horrible that theory is.  It’s that damn Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  Everywhere I turn around, this stupid theory crops up.  Somehow, academics in France became so fixated on language that they started to assert that it controls thought, and not the other way around.  They make nonsensical arguments just like the one above.  Klein’s indefensible thesis is being summarized as this:

“Without language, symbolic thinking would have been impossible.  With language, people did begin to think symbolically”

How, HOW does that make ANY SENSE AT ALL?  If language is made of symbols, how can a being which cannot “think symbolically” (to whatever extent that even makes any sense at all) use or develop it at all!?  Furthermore, why is language being held aloft as though it were the only possible facilitator of acts of interpretation and communication through symbols when that is so plainly not the case?

We know human beings think in a manner conducive to the implementation and interpretation of symbols outside of a “complex spoken language.”  Body language alone satisfies as evidence for this conclusion, and it is shared by animals of all kinds.  Animals share in the capacity for this comprehension and use of symbols, be it in tracking other animals or understanding other animals’ behavior.  Aggressive behavior is symbolic.  It is a threat.  This is understood.

Leroi-Gourhan made an attempt at drawing the right relationships here, but he overstated it in a critical way:

“I found myself in the end confronted with a system of unexpected complexity – the skeleton of a religious thought, as impervious to my understanding, moreover, as a comparative study of the iconography of sixty cathedrals would be to an archaeologist from Mars.”

This is demonstrative of the horrifically cramped patterns of thought exhibited in French archaeology; he thinks of the human beings he is studying as though they may as well be aliens.  He seems to realize he cannot determine purely from within a limited set of observations about sets of symbols and their relations to one another anything about the authors, and yet he overlooks the obvious fact that gives him the information necessary to proceed in spite of this obstacle:

He’s a human, too.

Archaeological Hermeneutics

We have limited artefacts from which to infer the character of our ancestors, but we have in these bodies our heritage.  Curtis seems to acknowledge this connection but once in his work, otherwise casting about the sorts of theories above as though they are the fruits of his thought.

“An Ice Age couple with the man wearing a coat and tie and the woman a contemporary dress would be indistinguishable from their fellow passengers on a New York subway or Paris Metro, and, given enough time to become accustomed to the modern world, the couple would get along as well as anyone else.”

It’s just so strangely juxtaposed, the certainty with which he believes in the aptitude and character of human beings living 40,000 years ago, with his seemingly-simultaneously held belief that just before that, they were soulless automatons.

But at least he seems like he’s with me, despite the incessant and strangely sure promotion of dubious theories, and he thinks that the men who painted those caves we have found were of the same fundamental intellectual character as we.  I argue that we simply start from there and take the most important facts of their lives relevant to the artwork and see what happens.  In interpreting the art on these walls, we should aim our principal efforts at gaining the following understandings:

  1. The environment and conditions in which lived human beings of the time during which the art was produced
  2. The character and habits of the artists
  3. The character and relations of the artists’ subject matter to the artists’ lives.

And from these simple premises, I propose we have our best shot at putting forth educated guesses at the significance of the artistry before us.  It is a simple, modest proposal that seems so firmly rooted in the obvious that it can hardly be too wrong-headed.  When trying to understand any art, this is the general process which is followed.  With the literary works of ancient cultures, such as, say, the Bible, one first ventures to gain the understanding put forth above.  It provides a framework and context within which the work can be understood.  It is a rational choice of context, as well, for the animals depicted in Lascaux, Chauvet, Les Tres Freres, and others, are drawn from the environment we must seek to understand.  As are all human beings, our ancestors were deeply influenced by the environment and conditions of their lives, and their animal neighbors seem to have taken center stage in their wonderful, magnificent works of art.

Can we ever with certainty resolve this mystery?  It is unlikely.  But, we can educate ourselves regarding our ancestors and their lives.  We can recognize our relationship to them as likely intellectual and spiritual equals, and in knowing them thusly we shall come to know their creation as closely as can be made possible to us.  These are as letters penned between friends who must learn about one another’s conditions and character to deepen the understanding conveyed thereby.

Though we don’t have the sheer volume of evidence one is often fortunate enough to possess of one’s friends, we have some surprisingly important information which should shape our understanding of what we are seeing, and it seems to have gone often unconsidered, if you ask me.

Major theories about the significance of this art seem to have been generally in reasonable territory in assuming that these works have religious import.  It’s not infeasible that this is incorrect, but I would score it as highly likely.  The presence of fantastic half-man, half-animals is common in religious traditions the world over, and the sense of awe and profundity imbued in the art speaks to those sentiments that underlie all religious expression and experience.  That said, of course, the character of this religious belief is the object of our interpretive efforts.

The offerings in Curtis’ work (again, seemingly representative) tread the usual tropes:

  1. something about sex,
  2. something about tribal identity and the history of the tribes (each having distinct tribal animal iconography, even!),
  3. something about hunting magic,
  4. something about shamanism.

And Curtis’s book comes to a pinnacle in reporting the work of Clottes and Lewis-Williams:  The Shamans of Prehistory.  In it, the two argue that shamanistic trances are the source and purpose of the imagery.

This stuff isn’t obviously dead wrong, but I can’t help but notice it is the result of beginning from the premises I outlined in the previous section.  Like those premises, these theories seem full of holes.  In fact, theory #3 seems so obviously wrong when weighed against relevant archaeological evidence that it is surprising it was and is held so staunchly.  Of principal relevance, only reindeer bones are found as evidence of food among the painters, while none of the animals depicted are known to have been hunted and eaten by the painters.  Nonetheless, its lead proponent, Breuil,

“clung to the theory that the paintings in Lascaux and all other caves were part of rituals of hunting magic.  He was aware that the Paleolithic people ate mainly reindeer, while there are no reindeer on the walls of Lascaux.”

He could so scarcely conceive of any alternative theory, that he explained this profoundly contradictory evidence thusly:

“No doubt because this game, which passed in the autumn in great herds coming from the north, spent the winter in Auitaine and left in the spring, following for thousands and thousands of years (as in Canada) the same trails, in spite of the ambushing hunters who killed them in hundreds; this game, in the eyes of the Paleolithic men, needed no hunting magic to slay.  The Reindeer were very stupid, not very agile, easily secured as they passed; so no magic was necessary for their capture, no more than for the capture of Salmon or other fish in the rivers, very seldom shown in the wall drawings.”

And though Curtis objects to this explanation, he does so insubstantially when compared to the magnitude of nonsense present within it.  For, as Curtis fails to point out, if the people did not eat the animals they portrayed, explaining the absence of portrayals of those animals they did eat is insufficient to keep the hunting magic theory alive.  That the people did not eat the animals they portrayed seems to assure that these portrayals were not intended to aid in hunting them.

From A Common Humanity

That the food sources (including fish) of the people in the animal kingdom were not depicted in these caves full of robust, towering herbivores with which the humans coexisted largely peacefully (they’re not hunting them, and they’re keeping a distance with respect for their power, I’m sure) does not surprise me in the least.  In fact, it coheres with the near-total absence of violence.  In fact, it coheres further with the one depiction of hominid death in Lascaux – the Shaft Scene in which a fallen man (who seems to have a birdlike head, but the drawing is very minimalist) lies alongside the body of a disemboweled Bison whose hindquarters seem pierced by a spear, with another spear-like object cast away from the two bodies.  A minimalist bird is depicted seemingly perched on a pole, or perhaps, as has been suggested, it is a top-down view of the entire scene and the beard on the pole is lying on its side.

Anyway, this guy is of course thought possibly to be a shaman.  My alternative speculation follows:

If we know that human beings seldom ate the animals they depicted here, and the dead bison accompanies a dead man, this expressed to me a particular association between the (bird-?)man and the bison.  Somehow, they have died together, and a peculiar and unique representation of a bird is there to see it.

Throughout the caves, awe-inspiring imagery of aurochs, horses, bison, mammoth, ibex, and other great and powerful herbivores seemingly untouched by man are depicted.  Though there is often a jumble of them in giant, tumbling herds, with some acting in unique ways (such as the rhinoceros in combat), there is no obvious predatory violence.  There are a few animals which seem to be depicted as bleeding profusely from no apparent cause, and there is the Shaft scene, but aside from that, it is a peaceful admixture of hundreds and hundreds of herbivores and those less numerous predators and other aggressors looking on.  It has been hypothesized that some red dots represent violent strikes or wounds on some of the animals, but it is far from obvious.

But now we know some obvious things; the giant herbivores with whom mankind may have more-or-less peacefully coexisted, albeit at a distance, are those which are portrayed most gloriously on the caves.  Cave lions appear watching them, alongside cave bears on occasion, but in far less number, and never, as far as I’ve seen, aggressively beyond possible depictions of chase.

So striking to me was this set of facts that I thought upon the diet of cave lions and cave bears, mankind’s two most aggressively dangerous adversaries of the day, and I recalled and confirmed that cave lions (particularly of the time when these depictions were created) seem to have eaten mostly reindeer, and cave bears were perhaps omnivorous, but more likely scavengers than active predators.  They certainly didn’t attempt to take down bison or aurochs, horses or ibex, rhinos or mammoths, it wouldn’t seem.

As has been noted, the animals are likely symbolic and these works of art likely heave meaning in the relationships between them, but we cannot ignore the relationships all of those animals had with the artists and their shared world (something which presents a regular difficulty to postmodernists).  In Lascaux and elsewhere, I see great depictions of mankind’s worship of those peaceful creatures who need not kill to live, and who are not killed, themselves.  They seem invincible titans who have perfected some peaceful and insurmountably powerful way by which they live in the world together.  Between these behemoths and the terrifying cave lions and cave bears, man stands.

So one link between humans and these two sets of animals is the way in which they lived: the food which they ate and the conflicts which they endured.  Could it be that humans saw the power of their herbivorous neighbors as divinely granted freedom from the realm of violence which man must inhabit to survive?  The cave lions and cave bears look on, longingly, for that peaceful tranquility, and out of respect for those titans of peace, man eats with the lions.  If so, what’s the solution to this dilemma?

The Apotheosis of Human Beasts

I fully endorse the notion that prehistoric man paid particular attention to psychotropic substances.  I have no doubt in my mind that it was not long before hominids capable of controlling fire and making pipes discovered and used these substances for religious purposes.  I think Clottes and Lewis-Williams were not entirely off-base to suspect this practice, but to force it into their notion of “shamanism,” or to bother defining one at all, is likely unwarranted and unnecessary for a reasonable theory, in my estimation.

Lewis-Williams and Clottes explain the absence of violence from art supposedly surrounding hunting practices by defining the animals portrayed as visionary, rather than real.  They ignore the holes pointed out above in the theory that these depictions are related to hunting magic at all.  I, on the other hand, allow for the visionary source, but put forth that the value of these visions joins the critical human aims of mastery, peace, and happiness with their manifestation in those untouchable gods of the wild.  It is not shamanism which shapes and explains the world, but rather the mind and its world are those forces by which the visions of shamanism are shaped and explained.

This is the ground of interpreting paleolithic art from which we must start.  From the subject, the personhood which we have in common.  We must respect the humanity of our ancestors, learn of their works and days, and infer what we can from the combination of this knowledge and their great artistic expression.  There will be, as I said at the onset, great limitation in terms of certainty, but it just might be possible to make a really, really good guess.

And this guess, unlike that of Lewis-Williams and Clottes, makes the art ever more expansive and fundamental in significance.  Where their idea turns the most revealing expression, the most potentially important representation of the end of all of paleolithic art (in my estimation) into a picture of a shaman, this proposal allows for it a deeper originality.

In La-Troix-Freres, there is found a single character whose representation appears here, there, and elsewhere; a half-bison, half man reels up on his human hind legs, his bison forelegs extended outward from a vertical body as though perhaps jumping or dancing.  He faces with the flow of a herd of bison, one of whom turns back and stares at him.  This is a preparation for what is to come.

Further in, there is what has been called the Sorcerer of Les-Troix-Freres.  Situated on a fifteen foot ceiling, staring down at the visitor, it is an elaborate rack of stag antlers and ears perched atop a strangely humanoid animal face from which extends a massive beard.  It has forearms that appear to include thumb-less hands in the shapes of hooves, the body and tail of a horse, and the rear legs of a human.  It looks over its left shoulder at the visitor, its head turned ninety-degrees from the line of its spine as it seems to be propelling itself in mid-leap from its rear legs, at the visitor.

Here, in this cave, as with some rare depictions elsewhere, we see human beings merged with the mythical herbivores.  One takes a subtle place, but one a commanding, central feature as the only painted figure among the hundreds of engravings beneath him.

Is it here that man reaches apotheosis?  One with the power of the wild, free at last from the constant threat of violence at its hands?

An Extended License

My interpretive license probably ran a bit low a while back, but I carried through to a conclusion that reaches the foundation of my spirit, for this is what I see in my ancestors and all the animal kingdom.  I expect my ancestors saw it too.  I expect that my readers know it as well.  To whatever extent we can be accurate and well-appraised of the facts relevant to the meaning of these glorious works of art, we should be so without fault.  To whatever extent we must modify our own theories as a result, we must do so as required.

But to whatever extent, within those bounds, we can find inspiration in plausible representation of that primordial faith whose foundation we share with our distant relatives, we should do so as well.

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