Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Mystery of Ice Age Art

The Mystery of Ice Age Art
By Paul G. Bahn

In late December 1994 three French spelunkers (cave explorers) squeezed themselves into a crevice in a cliff in the Ardéche Valley in southeastern France. Inside, they discovered a huge, well-preserved cave with about 300 ancient wall paintings and engravings (figures cut into the stone). The images included lions, bison, bears, mammoths, rhinoceroses, and horses, as well as renderings of human hands and different types of symbols and designs. The find greatly excited archaeologists and other scholars, as the paintings proved to be the oldest examples of cave art ever discovered.

Archaeologists and anthropologists have been studying this type of art for more than a century. It is known as Paleolithic art, because it dates from the end of the Paleolithic period of the Stone Age, from about 40,000 to 10,000 years ago. It is also sometimes referred to as Ice Age art, because most of it was created before the last Ice Age ended about 10,000 to 13,000 years ago. The recent discovery, dubbed the Chauvet cave after one of the explorers who found it, is one of the biggest in a growing list of Ice Age art finds.

History of Ice Age Art

The existence of Ice Age art was first established and accepted through the discovery of small decorated objects—beads, figurines, small carvings, or engravings on pieces of stone, bone, antler, or ivory—in a number of caves and rock-shelters in southwestern France in the early 1860s. Archaeologists refer to these objects as portable art because they can be transported.

Edouard Lartet, a French scholar, and Henry Christy, a London industrialist, were the main early figures in the field of portable Paleolithic art. Working together, their finds included a bear's head engraved on an antler, discovered in Massat in the French Pyrenees, and a mammoth engraved on a fragment of mammoth ivory, from the Dordogne region of France. The objects were clearly ancient, since they were found with early tools of stone and bone, and with the bones of Ice Age animals.

Wall paintings were slower to achieve recognition as Paleolithic art. A major site for cave drawings was found in Spain at the cave of Altamira by a local landowner in 1879, but experts were slow to recognize the art as authentic. After a number of other discoveries, including one at La Mouthe in Dordogne in 1895, experts legitimized the cave drawings as Paleolithic art. With more and more people looking for such sites, discoveries became more common and still continue in Europe—even today, an average of one such cave per year is found in France and Spain.

Cave Art Locales

Important finds are not limited to these two countries, however. Portable art objects are found from North Africa to Siberia, with large concentrations throughout Europe. Tens of thousands of artifacts are known. Some sites yield few or no objects, while others contain hundreds or even thousands of items of portable art.

The distribution of cave art is equally patchy, although it is most abundant in areas which are also rich in decorated objects, such as the Périgord region in southwestern France, the French Pyrenees, and northern Spain. Cave art has been found from Portugal and the very south of Spain to the north of France. A few sites have been found in southwestern Germany, and there are concentrations in Sicily and other areas of Italy. A handful of caves are also known in the former Yugoslavia, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Russia.

The current total for Europe is about 300 cave painting sites. Some contain only one or a few figures on the walls, while others like Lascaux in southwestern France or Les Trois Frères in the French Pyrenees have many hundreds.

In the past few decades rock art of similar age has also been discovered in many other parts of the world. In southern Africa, the Apollo 11 cave was excavated in Namibia in 1969, with animal paintings on small slabs dating to about 27,500 years ago. Beginning in the 1980s, rock shelters were investigated in various parts of Argentina and Brazil that contained paintings dating back at least 11,000 years.

One of the most notable finds came in 1993 in Australia where, at the Carpenter's Gap rock-shelter in the remote Kimberley region, what seemed to be a fallen fragment of painted wall was found. Charcoal found in the same layer as the fragment has been dated to more than 39,000 years ago, which would suggest the painting is at least that old. Dates obtained from a rock varnish covering some other Australian engravings suggest that the drawings may date back more than 40,000 years, making them the oldest known examples of rock art in the world. Further study is needed to confirm these dates.

However, for all the years of study and further discoveries, many questions remain about this most ancient type of art. Who were the artists? How did they produce the art? And perhaps most importantly, why? What purpose did the art serve a people whose lives were short, arduous struggles to survive? Experts hope that discoveries such as the Chauvet cave will help answer these questions in the future.

Treasures of the Chauvet Cave

The 1994 discovery by Jean-Marie Chauvet, a warden with the Regional Archaeological Service in the Ardèche region of France, and two companions was groundbreaking for a number of reasons. First, the cave appeared completely intact, since its original entrance was blocked sometime during the Ice Age. This meant that the cave floor was just as the Paleolithic artists left it, making it possible to study any footprints, tools, bones, and pigments that remained on the floor.

Second, although the cave's images included the animals found most frequently in European cave art (horses, bison, wild ox, deer), they were dominated by tremendous figures of rhinoceroses and big cats (such as lions). Images of these animals are known in other caves, but are extremely rare and tend to occur in hidden or remote areas rather than in central panels. Previously only about 30 images of rhinoceroses were known from other cave art finds. The Chauvet cave suddenly provided at least 60 more such images, many of them with a thick black stripe around their waist never seen before.

Third, the cave's figures displayed great skill, a mastery of several painting techniques, and a whole range of ways of showing perspective. Specialists therefore assumed, through comparison with art in other caves, that the paintings and engravings here belonged to some of the later stages of the last Ice Age, from more than 20,000 to perhaps 12,000 years ago. However, when charcoal from three figures—two “fighting” rhinos and a bison—underwent radiocarbon analysis, it produced dates of 30,000 to 20,000 years ago, far older than expected and the earliest direct date for any paintings in the world.

Ancient Artists

The people who produced these paintings and other works were Stone Age hunter-gatherers, some of the earliest of modern humans. Living before the spread of modern agriculture, these humans were forced to move around in search of food. Caves were a natural source of shelter from the elements, and it is believed that the early people incorporated certain caves into their seasonal visits to different parts of Europe. However, very little is known about the social structures or culture of these peoples, sometimes referred to as Cro-Magnon. Experts view the cave art as perhaps the only way to learn more about these ancestors of present-day Europeans.

How Ice Age Art Was Made

Paleolithic art was produced in many different ways. The so-called portable art was made out of natural objects—fossils, teeth, shells, or bones—as well as materials such as stone, clay, or ivory. These materials were either used as a surface for paintings or engravings, or worked to make jewelry, figures, and other items. Cave art comprises an astonishing variety and mastery of techniques. The simplest method of marking cave walls was by running fingers over them, leaving traces in the soft layer of clay. This technique, perhaps the most ancient of all, probably spans the whole period and may have been inspired by the abundance of clawmarks of cave-bears and other animals on the walls.

Engraving, as in portable art, is by far the most common technique on cave walls, with incisions ranging from the fine and barely visible to broad deep lines. Scratching and scraping were also used at times, where the wall was too rough for fine incisions, or to create a difference in color between the light scraped area and the darker surroundings. The tools used for engraving varied from crude picks to sharp flakes of a type of rock called chert. Statues carved into clay and limestone walls are limited to a few regional examples.

The simplest way for Ice Age artists to paint walls was with their fingers, and this was certainly done in some caves. But normally paint was applied with some kind of tool, although none of the tools have survived. Experiments suggest that animal-hair brushes or crushed twigs would have been the best tools to use. In some cases, the paint was sprayed, either directly from the mouth or through a tube. This method was used to produce dots and hand stencils—a way of leaving a handprint by placing the palm against the rock and blowing paint onto it and all around it.

The vast majority of cave figures drawn with pigment are simple outlines. A number have some infill—some of the animals in the Chauvet cave, for instance, display a very sophisticated use of shading. The two-color and multicolor figures of the end of the Ice Age, such as the bison on the ceiling at the Altamira cave, are rare in comparison with engravings and outlines.

Three Categories of Cave Subjects

Ice Age drawings are normally grouped into three categories, although there is some overlap and uncertainty in defining them: animals, humans, and nonfigurative or abstract (including “signs”). Fully-developed scenes are hard to identify in Ice Age art, since it is often impossible to prove that figures are associated, rather than simply next to each other. For example, contrary to common belief, there are absolutely no clear hunting scenes. Only very few definite scenes of any kind have been found.

Ice Age art is neither a simple catalogue of the animals in the artists' world, nor a random collection of artistic observations of nature. It has meaning and structure, with different species dominating in different periods and regions. The vast majority of animal figures are adults drawn in profile. Most of them are easily recognizable, although many are incomplete or ambiguous, and a few are quite simply imaginary, such as the two-horned “unicorn” found at Lascaux. Most of these figures seem motionless—in fact, many may well be wounded, dying, or dead. Animated drawings are rare, most of them appearing toward the end of the Ice Age, although the very early Chauvet cave also has some, such as the “fighting” rhinos.

One central fact of animal drawings is the overwhelming dominance of horse and bison among Ice Age depictions, although other species, such as the mammoth or deer, may dominate at particular sites. Carnivores such as cats or bears are rare in most sites, with the exception of Chauvet, where they are very prominent. Fish and birds are far more common in portable art than in wall art. Insects and recognizable plants are limited to a very few examples in portable art.

Depictions of people can be divided into definite humans, “humanoids,” and “composites.” Definite humans are scarce in wall art—portable art accounts for over 75 percent of Ice Age human depictions. Genitalia are rarely depicted, so that one usually has to rely on breasts or beards to differentiate the sexes, and most drawings of humans are left neutral. Clothing is rarely clear, and details such as eyebrows, nostrils, navels, and nipples are extremely uncommon. Few figures have hands or fingers drawn in any detail.

“Humanoids” comprise all those figures interpreted, but not positively identified, as being human, such as grotesque heads, “masks,” and “phantoms” that could be either animal or human. “Composites” are figures that have clear and detailed elements of both. In the past all such figures were automatically and unjustifiably called “sorcerers” and were assumed to be “shamans” or medicine men in masks or animal costumes. But they could just as easily be imaginary creatures, such as humans with animal heads. In any case, such composites, the most famous being the “sorcerer” of Les Trois Frères, are fairly rare, occurring in only about 15 sites.

The nonfigurative markings of Ice Age art have often seemed uninteresting or impossible to explain or define. Today, researchers believe that these marks may have been of equal, if not greater, importance to Paleolithic people than the recognizable figures. Nonfigurative marks are two or three times more common than figurative, and in some areas far more common. The category covers a tremendously wide range of motifs, from a single dot or line to complex shapes.

In the past, some shapes were assumed to be pictographic (representing objects) on the basis of what they looked like, such as huts, clubs, or birds. However, it is impossible to know whether these are real objects or abstract designs or both.

The simpler markings are more abundant and widespread, since they could be invented in many places and periods. The more complex forms, however, show great variability and are more restricted in space and time. Some researchers believe they can be seen as “ethnic markers,” perhaps delineating social groups of some kind. The marks were not set down at random, but follow some set of rules, like the animal figures. What those rules might be is the thorniest problem in Ice Age art.

The Search for Meaning

The first and simplest theory put forward to explain the existence of Paleolithic art was that it had no meaning: It was just casual doodling, graffito, play activity—mindless decoration by hunters with time on their hands. This “art for art's sake” view arose from the first discoveries of portable art, but once cave art began to be found it rapidly became clear that something more was involved.

There are patterns in the paintings that require explanation, patterns that are repeated at different sites and in different periods, suggesting that certain common beliefs or systems of thought influenced individual artists. The art's inaccessibility in caves, the limited range of species depicted, crowded and empty panels, mysterious signs, and many figures that are purposely incomplete or ambiguous all combine to suggest that there is complex meaning behind both the subject matter and the location of Ice Age figures.

At the beginning of this century, a new kind of theory took over. Experts began to argue that the art was utilitarian, that it had a definite function. These theories were based largely on newly published accounts of Australian Aborigines, which inspired researchers to compare these “primitive” users of stone tools with those of Europe at the end of the Ice Age. The Aborigines were said to perform ceremonies in order to multiply the numbers of animals, and for this purpose they painted likenesses of these species on rocks. The researchers postulated that the same purpose lay behind the art of both cultures.

Art as Magic

“Sympathetic magic,” including hunting magic, operates on the same basis as pins in a wax doll: The depictions of animals are produced in order to control or influence the real animals in some way. Ritual and magic were seen in almost every aspect of Ice Age art—breakage of objects, images “killed” ritually with images of spears, or images even physically attacked.

This type of thinking led to many errors on the part of some archaeologists, as the theory was stretched and adapted to fit the evidence, or facts were carefully selected to fit the theory. Overall, there are very few Ice Age animals with spears drawn on or near them, and many caves have no images of this type at all. The “spear” images (or whatever they are) also occur on some human and humanoid figures. Moreover, the animal bones found in many decorated caves usually are not the same as those species depicted on the walls. It is clear that the artists were not, by and large, drawing what they had killed or wanted to kill.

Another aspect of some hunting societies that might be reflected in the cave art is shamanism. A shaman is an individual who acts as a link between this world and the spirit world, a task usually performed by means of dances and symbolic trances. Ice Age images might therefore be “spirit animals,” rather than copies of the real thing. This explanation is currently popular with some experts, but in fact it rests on the basic assumption that Ice Age people had shamanic religions. Even if true, how shamanism might tie in with the production or content of the art remains pure speculation.

An additional popular and durable explanation of much Ice Age art is that it involves “fertility magic.” The artists depicted animals in the hope that they would reproduce and flourish to provide food—a different kind of sympathetic magic. Once again, examples were selected which seemed to fit the idea, and researchers often saw what they wanted to find, such as animals mating and an emphasis on human sexuality as well.

Overall, however, few animals are sexually identified, and genitalia are almost always shown discreetly. As for mating scenes, in the whole of Ice Age art there are only a couple of possible examples, and they are extremely doubtful. Similarly, where humans are concerned, few figures have their genitalia marked, and the one or two claimed depictions of copulation are very sketchy. It is clear that the greater part of Ice Age art is not about either hunting or sex, at least in an explicit sense.

The next major theoretical advance, however, introduced the notion of a symbolic sexual element. In the 1950s two French scholars, Annette Laming-Emperaire and André Leroi-Gourhan, concluded that the caves had been decorated systematically rather than at random. They based their interpretation on all the figures in a cave rather than on a selected few. Wall art was treated as a carefully laid-out composition within each cave, and the animals were not portraits but symbols.

It was a major advance, but unfortunately there are many exceptions to these theories. The very central and prominent cats and rhinos in the Chauvet cave, discovered after Leroi-Gourhan died, have further shown just how wrong he and Laming-Emperaire were. Moreover, their scheme worked on a presence/absence basis, not on abundance, so a single horse figure was seen as the equivalent of a mass of bison, or vice versa. Other variations such as color, size, orientation, technique, and completeness were also ignored. Recent detailed studies, both of individual caves and of regional groups, stress that each site is unique and has its own “symbolic construction” adapted to its own shape and size.

Leroi-Gourhan's other key approach was his discovery of repeated “associations” in the art, and his claim that there was a basic “dualism.” Laming-Emperaire believed the horse to be equivalent to the female and the bison to the male; for Leroi-Gourhan, it was the other way around. The numerically dominant horses and bison, concentrated in the central panels, were thought to represent a basic duality that was assumed to be sexual. This idea was then extended to the signs, which were considered male (phallic) and female (vulvar). More recent studies have confirmed the fundamental role and opposition of horses and bison.

The work of these two scholars completely changed the way in which Ice Age art is studied. The images could no longer be seen as simple representations with an obvious and direct meaning, but as being full of conceptual ideas.

The most recent attempts to puzzle out the meaning of Ice Age art have gone off in many directions. One researcher is investigating the shape of the wall surface beneath each figure, trying to understand why in some caves a high proportion of horses, deer, and hand stencils are on concave surfaces while an equally high percentage of bison and cattle are on convex areas. Another expert is seeking detailed and firm methods by which to recognize the work of individual artists, artists who just as easily could have been women as men. Other researchers are investigating the acoustics in different parts of the cave. Some caves show a clear correspondence between the richest panels and the best acoustics, suggesting that sound played an important part—perhaps for ceremonies that accompanied the production of the art.

A Vast Artistic Output

No single explanation can account for the whole of Ice Age art. In time span, it comprises at least two-thirds of known art history, covering at least 25,000 years and probably far more. It has been found all over the world and ranges from beads to statuettes, from simple figures on rocks to complex signs hidden in the inaccessible corners of deep caves. Almost every basic artistic technique is represented, with everything from realism to abstraction. Not all of it is necessarily mysterious or religious, although some cave art is almost certainly linked to ritual and ceremony.

The astounding cave paintings that Ice Age artists left behind provide a window into early human history, but experts are also rethinking their overall importance. Since 1981 it has become apparent that Ice Age people also produced rock art outside in the open air. This art has naturally been almost totally lost to time, surviving only in exceptional circumstances. Six sites with Ice Age animal engravings have been found so far in Spain, Portugal, and the French Pyrenees. These open-air engravings probably represent “normal” Ice Age art, while the art in caves was probably produced sporadically and rarely, and should no longer be seen as characteristic of the period. Nevertheless, there is a great deal still to be learned from these remarkable works about how primitive humans thought and lived.

The next few years should prove to be exciting times for the study of Ice Age art. High-tech advances in radiocarbon dating, such as the use of accelerator mass spectrometry technology, means that it is now possible to obtain precise dates from very tiny pigment samples, the size of a pinhead. New and different discoveries will continue to be made, such as the Chauvet site and the location in the early 1990s of the Cosquer cave in France, which can only be reached through an underwater tunnel. Unfortunately, few of these incredible caves can be visited by the public, either because of the physical difficulty of access or the risk of damage or pollution. Accurate facsimiles of the caves have been created both physically (Lascaux) and on media such as the World Wide Web, so that eventually everyone will be able to enjoy this remarkable but infinitely fragile heritage.

About the author: Paul G. Bahn is an archaeologist specializing in prehistoric art and the author of Journey Through the Ice Age (1997) and The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art (1997).

Source: Encarta Yearbook, July 1997.

Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia


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