I. Ice Age Art: Basic Issues
The present study presents an interpretation of Upper Palaeolithic cave art that is based on two hypothetical assumptions: in the first place, that many of the ideas and beliefs with which we are familiar actually originated in that distant era, or even long before; in the second place, that artistic expression is a perennial aspect of human existence, fundamentally the same now as in the remote prehistory. As a corollary of the first thesis, we may scrutinize historical sources (religious texts, myths, rituals, folklore) for authentic fragments of ancient concepts, beyond what has been the practice in past studies of cave art. In consequence of the second thesis, Palaeolithic art may be accessible to formal analysis, even though the works look alien or disorganized to the modern observer. The study of Palaeolithic art challenges us to judiciously balance possible evidence of permanence and continuity against apparent indications of diversity and change.
This chapter considers examples of Palaeolithic art that find ready parallels in religious/philosophical concepts as well as artistic conventions of historical periods, and which seem to justify further investigation (2016/ 2018).
Palaeolithic cave art (2014/ 2018)
Ice Age art is the body of images and signs from the Upper Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) found across Europe and northern Asia. It dates as far back as 35-40,000 years (with some recent dates suggesting up to 70,000 years) and ends as late as about 12,000 years ago. The climate of that age was generally much colder than now, though interspersed with periods of more temperate weather, and the recognizable motifs of the art works are mostly animals that broadly reflect the variations in temperature and geography, from mammoths of the cold steppes to red deer of forested valleys. The art forms of the era vary from sparse signs or single animal figures on small bone or stone artifacts to large caves with accumulations of hundreds of images.
The present project is focused on the decorated caves. These are mainly found in western Europe, with a strong concentration in southern France and northern Spain, where there are several hundred decorated caves; minor regions are found in Italy, eastern Europe and Russia. The caves range from “village churches” with just a handful of signs or figures to “cathedrals” with up to a thousand painted and engraved images. Such collections of images promise rich opportunities for the interpreter, who is looking for patterns of repetition that may expose the artists’ intentions. Our focus on the caves does not imply that they reflect another mind-set than the mobile art; we have no reason to doubt that a horse engraved on a bone carried the same connotations as one painted on a cave wall; in fact, a few decorated objects may have as many different images on a small bone or pebble as are found in some of the minor caves. Decorated objects are therefore not excluded from the study, but the decorated caves dominate, because they are ideal time capsules that preserve large accumulations of images within the authentic settings of the cave spaces–which themselves are potentially significant frameworks.
An accomplished art form
Upper Palaeolithic cave art is not “primitive.” Though the narrative techniques of that era differ from those of modern arts, the works are not inarticulate nor incapable of showing narrative scenes and rendering intricate thoughts. The discovery of the cave of Chauvet in the 1990s disproved the theory that Upper Palaeolithic cave art started on a simplistic and tentative level. Though Chauvet is among the older decorated caves (about 35,000 years old), it is already far advanced in its application of perspective, complex compositions, dramatic use of cave spaces, figures in motion, and combinations of signs and figures. For a display of technical sophistication at Chauvet, consider the figure of a rhinoceros that is represented as a negative image: engraved in white lines against a wall that was first prepared with black paint; an advanced concept, that is executed with complete confidence (Clottes 2001, 136).
From the earliest caves to the latest ones, we find a number of recurring practices that define the decorated Palaeolithic caves as a distinct art form. Shared features include the use of the cave spaces themselves, in particular the attention given to cavities (niches, fissures) and to the innermost parts of the caves. The chosen motifs also points to standard practices, such as the preference for certain animal species, notably the horse. Many caves have dozens of horses, a few have hundreds; few caves are entirely without them. Of course, this does not reflect culinary practices; the reindeer, not the horse, was the stable source of meat.
Statistical analyses of the inventory in a great number of caves have shown that the artists were highly selective with respect to the animal species they wanted to depict, and even more exclusive in choosing which to combine in panels or friezes (Sauvet and Wlodarczyk 1995, and 2000-2001). This confirms the–admittedly, not universally shared–impression, that Ice Age art, in spite of stylistic changes and temporal/regional specialties, reflects an essentially unified intellectual culture, a world view with a stable, essentially religious foundation. There is a certain logic to this conclusion, given the place of Ice Age art within the larger context of Homo sapiens‘ roughly 150,000 year long progression. As plotted on a time line (Fig. 1a), the era of Ice Age art falls quite late in the overall development, much closer in time to the historical cultures of the last 5,000 years than to the elusive childhood of mankind. This suggests–although it can not be proved–that most of the concepts and beliefs held by the Ice Age artists would have originated long before their own era, and that they were perpetuating an already mature intellectual culture. It would be preposterous to assume that people, equipped with active brains like ours, would spend 100,000 years thinking about nothing of consequence for later ages. This argument is the more valid if, as recent (2018) dates indicate, Neanderthals were the first artists in the European caves.
Understanding Ice Age art
Considering the many layers of cultural transformations that separate us from the world of the Upper Palaeolithic, it is not surprising that much in this art strikes us as strange and incomprehensible. Some scholars have even jumped to the conclusion that the imagery of the Ice Age is not “art,” and others remain skeptical about the possibility of interpreting it, even if it is art (for the stand “against interpretation” see Ucko and Rosenfeld, 1967; Bahn and Vertut, 1997). We have, however, no compelling reason to believe that this body of thousands of images should forever remain impenetrable. We are not looking at this art as strangers without a clue; we are, after all, not aliens from another planet, but the actual descendants of the artists.
Again, the position of Ice Age art on a time line (Fig. 1b), now zooming in on the approximately 40,000 years since Homo sapiens‘ arrival in Western Europe (ignoring for the present the apparent Neanderthal contribution), reveals how unlikely is the assumption that the 25,000 year long era of the cave artists contributed little or nothing to the ideas and beliefs of the last 5,000 years. We must avoid the logical fallacy of assuming, that ideas originate around the time when they first appear in written texts.
Until recently, the disruptive “Neolithic Revolution” (the effect of food production, cities, specialized crafts) was believed to have caused an unbridgeable gap in mankind’s cultural development, but this dogma has lost its former status, as mounting evidence rather suggests a gradual transition from Palaeolithic hunting/gathering to Neolithic herding/farming. For all we know, current populations in Europe are the heirs of the material and intellectual achievements of the Ice Age. Therefore, if something in the old images seems vaguely familiar, that impression may, indeed, be well founded.
Extant readings of Ice Age art
During the last century and a half, scholars have responded to the evidence of Ice Age art in stages: at first, total ignorance of the phenomenon; then, denial of its authenticity; then, acceptance mixed with denigration (classification as primitive magic preferred to that of true religion); eventually, recognition of the cultural validity of this art–albeit, in certain, limited respects only. Notable achievements in scholarly work of the last half century fall into the areas of conceptual thinking, mythology, and time-keeping.
In the post-World War II decades, the structuralist school explored abstract principles of organization in the cave decorations. André Leroi-Gourhan, notably, explained the remarkably frequent associations of horses and bison in terms of a general binary system that grouped all images in either of two categories, the horse group being male, the bison group female (Leroi-Gourhan 1967). Though this approach was generally rejected as overly simplistic, it remained influential. For example, Leslie G. Freeman later followed a similar line of thinking and recognized a comprehensive binary scheme in the decoration of Altamira (Freeman and Echegaray 2001).
Comparative mythology has made a significant contribution to the field by demonstrating the connection between deep cave spaces and the womb of a deity of the “Mother Earth” type. Louis-René Nougier (1975) argued conclusively, that the paintings in Rouffignac are concentrated at two points where shaft-like corridors lead downward–first to a second level gallery; then further down to the third tier, the latter being the level where subterranean waters still flow. Claude Barrière (1990) and Michel Lorblanchet (2001) have explored comparable spatial schemes in other caves where the location of distinctly female images (vulvas, etc.) confirms the concept of the womb of the earth.
Shamanism in Ice Age art is a contested topic, partly because the theory presupposes elusive trance experiences and journeys by spirits. However, the “shamanistic cosmos” (Lewis-Williams 2002) is a world model that seems pertinent to subterranean sanctuaries, in so far as it divides the world into horizontal tiers stacked one above the other, such as the nether-world, the earth, and the upper-world. These realms are believed to be inter-connected, which seems relevant in so far as the decorated caves are situated between the upper world of the sky and the lower world of subterranean waters.
In the 1970s, anthropologist Alexander Marshack initiated the reading of Palaeolithic art as “time-factored,” that is, replete with seasonal indicators in pictures of animals and plants (1991). This approach remains central to the discipline. Marshack also read numerous artifacts with notational marks as observational–probably lunar–calendars, and though this view is not generally accepted, Marshack’s recognition, that Upper Palaeolithic people paid close attention to the skies, finds an echo in recent theories of archaeoastronomy in cave art.
Several scholars have noticed that a large aurochs bull in the Rotunda of Lascaux bears close resemblance to the historical constellation Taurus. Michael Rappenglück’s dissertation (1999) is focused on another figure in Lascaux: the human character in the Shaft, which is associated with the celestial North Pole. Chantal Jègues-Wolkiewietz (2000, and 2011) brought the topic a step further when she realized that the rays of the setting sun at summer solstice–and only at this time of the year–would have entered the Rotunda of Lascaux. Moreover, the cave’s first figure, right at the entrance, is the head of a horse with a surrounding aura of yellow ocher (Aujoulat 2004, 67). The coincidence of an actual solar manifestation, a possible solar image, and a zodiacal constellation (a station on the sun’s path), all in the first chamber of the cave, seems significant. Other decorated caves show comparable features, with the sun pointing out images at key moments of the solar year, features that establish astronomy as a common component of the caves’ decorative schemes.
The above approaches, each valuable in its own way, share a significant problem because they, by and large, fail to explain why any given image shows a certain animal species rather than any other species. This is a serious problem if–as the present project presumes–the animal figures were used as metaphors in a visual language. If this is correct, then each species was associated with a particular set of ideas, and consequently, motifs were not interchangeable. The above-suggested solar connotation of a horse at Lascaux (where horses, furthermore, dominate the decoration) is therefore a promising hypothesis, the more so as the horse is a pronounced presence in Ice Age art at large.
Art history and Ice Age art
The present project departs from earlier interpretive approaches in its acceptance of Ice Age art as a genuine form of visual communication, a platform for narrative contents that may be thoughtful, even speculative. That this view differs markedly from common approaches is explained by the fact that the exploration of Ice Age art always was the near-exclusive domain of archaeologists and anthropologists, scholars who typically take a limited interest in the specific, imaginative and expressive, characteristics of artistic invention, and who tend to classify the arts as extensions of material culture and social norms. As an art historian, the present author approaches Palaeolithic art with the expectation that it is a visual language, one that may be analyzed using standard art historical methodologies (cf. Chapter II) with convincing results.
Formal analysis is, however, only a first step toward an interpretation, as the visual ideas identified in the process, provide only a general outline of a narrative, while the particular contents must come from cross-cultural comparisons; that is, from parallel visual ideas within later, better known cultures. Of course, similarity of appearance between two images from different cultures does not guarantee identity of meaning; however, we would be rash to dismiss the possibility that an earlier image is the prototype for a similar, later image, because the possibility remains that the latter retains traces of the meaning invested in the former. If, for example, we hypothesize that the horse represents the sun, we may compare the above-mentioned Lascaux horse–the one adorned by a yellow aura–with proto-historical images of horses that carry solar symbols; motifs that are familiar from petroglyphs (in the Alps and along Scandinavian fjords) and from cult objects like the Trundholm horse pulling a wagon with a gold-covered bronze disk. We may also consider another Lascaux horse, one positioned vertically with its front legs pointing upwards (Aujoulat 2004, 131), a figure we may compare with images of the Roman sun god (sol invictus) and his span of rearing horses. If we hope to understand Ice Age art, we can not dismiss visual traditions across the ages.
Narrative traditions, both oral and written, may also echo Palaeolithic concepts and provide keys to cave art. Three potentially relevant sources stand out: oral traditions of archaic, pre-literate cultures (in northern Asia and North America, notably); folk lore of pre-industrial, farming societies in Europe; and, the religious/philosophical texts of early literate civilizations. Again, taking for an example the assumed relationship of the horse and the sun in Ice Age art, we might find circumstantial evidence in the Rig Veda, which explicitly describes the important Indian horse sacrifice (the ashvamedha) in terms of solar symbolism: the sacrificed horse is the sun, or the horse is the solar year; the horse’s head is the sunrise, or its forequarters represent the spring. Such specifics may well apply to Ice Age images of horses.
The longevity of visual ideas
In dynastic Egypt, many deities appear as human beings with animal attributes (a falcon’s head, a cow’s horns) and we may surmise that this practice goes back to a much older age, when the representations were all animal. The sky goddess Nut occurs in both a human shape and in the form of a cow (and in one text, as a sow who eats her piglets, the stars, every morning). The similarity between a painting of a black cow in Lascaux (Fig. 2) and a painting of Nut as a cow in the tomb of Setis I (Fig. 3) suggests that Nut as a celestial cow may have ancient roots reaching back to the age of the cave art. In Lascaux (Fig. 2) the large black cow (an aurochs, the original wild cattle) stands out by its enormity and by the rather square shape of its huge body. The cow is painted over a file of smaller horses, partly obscuring them, so that the horses–following their movement, from right to left–disappear into the body of the cow on the side of the forequarters, continue (almost invisible) underneath the black paint, and reappear at the hindquarters. This configuration of cow and horses becomes less enigmatic when compared with the Egyptian representation of Nut, as a dark cow, that is, the night sky, as indicated by the stars on her body (Fig. 3). The painting illustrates the myth of Nut who swallows the old sun at night (her head is in the west), and gives birth to the new sun in the morning (her rear is in the east). The sun god was believed to sail through the sky, and correspondingly the painting shows the aging sun god in his boat placed at her forequarters, while the young sun god in his boat is placed at her hindquarters.
The horses in the Lascaux scene (Fig. 2) appear to follow the same path as the sun god in the Egyptian painting, passing through the body of the large cow. We may consider the cross-cultural comparison a valid argument, not just for the Lascaux cow as representative of the sky, but also for the horse-as-the- sun thesis. Until a few years ago, many scholars would have automatically dismissed as far-fetched the apparent parallel between an image of the European Ice Age and one of dynastic Egypt, but this objection has become obsolete since rock art at the Upper Egyptian site of Qurta recently was dated to the Pleistocene (Ice Age), being at least 15,000 years old (Huyge et al. 2011). The evidence of a shared background for our two images is the more compelling, as the predominant motif of the Qurta petroglyphs is the aurochs, and even more so, as these figures are engraved in a style that is quite close to the aurochs of Lascaux.
A very different motif that we may trace even farther back in time consists of a monster with multiple heads. If we compare the three-headed lion in the cave of Chauvet (Fig. 4) with the three-headed dog in a Greek vase painting (Fig. 5), we can hardly ignore the similarities, for both creatures have only one body, which is defined by the tail and the hind legs, and onto this body multiple heads are affixed by clever, optical illusions. At Chauvet (Fig. 4) the line of the animal’s back may serve either of the two upper heads, while two more back-lines end inconclusively in the middle of the body; moreover, the front legs are ambiguous, as the one to the right belongs to the topmost head, while the one to the left serves both the top head and the middle head. Neither of these legs match the line of the stomach, which belongs to the whole body. This is not a poor attempt to show perspective (as suggested by Clottes & Azéma 2005, 82), but a deliberate, artistic sleight of hand, used to create a mythical being, that we recognize as the distant ancestor of the Greek image.
The Greek monster is Cerberus, the guardian of the netherworld. It is canine, not feline (the people of Chauvet did not have dogs), but its mythical role of keeping the dead from escaping is, nevertheless, paralleled by the topographical situation in Chauvet (Fig. 6): the lion-monster is placed right above the entrance to a small chamber, the “Sacristy,” the innermost and deepest space in the cave; almost certainly, the monster is guarding this narrow opening. As if to confirm this view, a horse is shown in the act of emerging from within, with only its forequarters visible outside the passage (Fig. 6). Placed directly under the snarling heads of the monster, this horse is apparently trying to escape from a netherworld in the depths of the cave. If we, once again, assume that the horse is an image of the sun, the scene may represent ideas about the travels of the sun to a land of the dead. We are reminded that Lascaux also shows a horse surrounded by monstrous lions, and that this scene, here too, is located at the end of the cave and suggests a realm of the dead (cf. Chapters VII, VIII). We are also reminded that the black cow of Lascaux , like Nut in Egypt, may be associated with both the dark sky and the netherworld; after all, the sun is absorbed by both, and eventually re-born from both.
While the horse, the aurochs, and the lion survived and continued to be represented in imagery and narratives of post-Ice Age Eurasia, other species disappeared, leaving no visual or textual materials for comparison with the old cave art. Most significant, the bison–the most frequent motif after the horse–became virtually extinct and played no role, neither in later art forms nor in traditional religious lore (an exception, the “bison-men” in Mesopotamian cylinder seals are not yet identified by extant texts and, so, not helpful). However, the human populations who migrated to North America retained their connection with the bison until historical times, to the effect that Native American traditions are prime references for interpreting images of bison in European caves.
We may, for example, turn to Native American lore in order to comprehend the particular representation of the bison in the form of a male human dancer wearing a bison outfit. A painting in the early cave of Chauvet (Fig. 7a) shows a man disguised in a bison’s robe (with the head attached), his bent knees characterizing him as a dancer. This is an early version of a frequently-used motif in the caves, one we encounter, for example, in the much later images of Trois-Frères (Fig. 7b). Fortunately, the bison-masked dancer is also known in America. In fact, the actual ritual dance was described and depicted by George Catlin, the pioneering artist and explorer, who in the nineteenth century observed the “Bull Dance” as performed by the Mandans of Missouri (Fig. 8). Participating in a ceremony of early spring, the Mandan dancers wore bundles of willow twigs on their backs, and this association of bison and the renewal of the earth and its vegetation may, indeed, be highly relevant to bison imagery in Ice Age caves as well. This is not to say that the Mandan ritual was inspired by Chauvet; quite possibly, the movement out of Africa and into Eurasia divided into a western and an eastern branch even before the earliest cave art in Europe.
Caves as the frameworks of beliefs, rituals and emotions
For decades, positivist scholars in the field have given full attention to mundane subjects in Palaeolithic art, while ignoring spiritual issues, and their tendency to highlight the profane and down-play the sacred has significantly curtailed interpretive readings of works. An intentionally trivial and reductive description of a given image (“this is a horse,” or, “the horse is wounded”) discards the element of imagination, whereas a hypothetical reading (“the horse is the sun,” or, “the sun is dying”) may capture some of the artist’s inspiration and the emotions invested in the image.
Likewise, a purely objective description of the physical space of a decorated cave assumes that the artists responded to the site in a neutral mode, without profound engagement. On the elementary level of geological realities, the caves induce instinctual responses that may rank from fear and horror to awe and reverence, reactions that may be largely the same for modern visitors as they were for the Palaeolithic artists. Each cave is different, and each provides clues that are essential for an interpretation of the specific ideas and emotions embedded in the decoration.
Pergouset is an example of a cave that is little more than an oppressive tunnel through which the visitor must creep, often reduced to crawling in wet soil, or squeezing through claustrophobia-inducing narrow passages; nowhere is it possible to stand up straight (Lorblanchet 2001). Many figures were executed from strenuous positions; yet, the cave is a genuine sanctuary, decorated throughout its length with scores of engravings. True to its forbidding overall character, Pergouset has one chamber in which the walls are crowded with grotesquely deformed animals and wildly imaginary, demonic creatures. This extraordinary display of monstrosity confirms our assumption that Palaeolithic visitors–like modern ones–experienced Pergouset as an odd and disturbing place.
Lascaux exemplifies a different class of sanctuaries, a physical and emotional contrast to Pergouset. At Lascaux, the natural form of the cave and the spirit of the decoration unite to project a bright and joyful celebration of creation. The cave itself is fairly dry (as opposed to many otherworldly cave realms of stalagmites and stalactites). The vaulted ceilings of Lascaux are smooth and shiny, so much so as to recall the dome of the sky (Christensen 1996). The main galleries are decorated with paintings on an enormous scale, while miniature engravings–the exclusive medium in Pergouset–are relegated to peripheral sections. The giant white aurochs bulls in the Rotunda of Lascaux project energy and fertility, and the painted friezes of horses–the main motif of the cave–are vivacious and colorful, and thus, suitable for images of the sun’s course through the year, as hypothesized above. In a sense, Pergouset and Lascaux are like night and day, and the artists’ decorative schemes reflect this difference.
In another sense, the two caves are ultimately two manifestations, however different, of the same intellectual culture. Lascaux, too, has images that show the detractive aspects of the world, even if the artists who decorated the majestic cave chose to keep negative associations at bay. Thus, the cave has only one rhinoceros among a thousand figures, and this brute is banished to the bottom of the deep, well-like Shaft; likewise, a gathering of monstrous lions, is located in a tiny, remote chamber beyond a narrow “cat hole.” The cave’s only imaginary creature (a masked dancer with straight horns) is dwarfed within the frieze of giant white bulls. Pergouset, for its part, also has positive images, notably in one chamber that features vulvas and a woman’s body. Even this gloomy cave has only one image of a lion which, here too, is relegated to a recess near the end of the cave. The horse is significant at both sites, only more overwhelmingly so at Lascaux. Both caves show images of horses in vertical positions (images of the rising and setting sun, we may speculate). In both caves the chamber closest to the entrance features aurochs and deer with large antlers that carry positive connotations of sexuality and growth.
The above comparison illustrates the complex blend of inspiration and calculation by which the artists, on the one hand, responded emotionally to the given features of the site, on the other hand, constructed a decorative scheme from widely shared ideas and techniques. To understand the artists’ creative process, we must distinguish between the run-of-the-mill adaptations to irregularities in the supporting medium–trivial procedures that affect every image in rock art–and the emotional response to unusual and suggestive features of a cave. An example of artists’ awe and excitement in the face of a powerful, nature-given feature of a cave is found in Tuc d’Audoubert, near the well-known group of two bison modeled in clay. These figures are located in a chamber at the very end of a long, tortuous corridor, and the clay for the two sculptures was extracted from a tiny, low extension on one side of the chamber. The floor of this small space has numerous imprints of the artists’ feet–but only of their heels (Bégouën et al. 2009, 278-291). The clay surface, as discovered by the artists, was the sedimentary floor of a dried-up lake, perfectly smooth and intact, and to the artists–we may surmise–a virgin testimony to the emergence of the earth out of primeval waters (cf. Chapter III). To obtain the clay for their bison figures from this primordial source without desecrating the site with footprints, the artists walked laboriously on their heels, not unlike a modern devotee entering a sanctuary without shoes in respect of the purity of the place.
Two different paintings, about 10,000 years apart, one in Lascaux (Fig. 2) another in Chauvet (Fig. 6), both appear to illustrate episodes in the story of the sun, projected through images of horses. It stands to reason that this level of correlation, across widely separate regions and ages, is feasible only in the case of works that illustrate broadly significant issues–and the sun was undoubtedly a major, perpetual subject in the frigid world of the cave art. In our pursuit of other themes that were relevant to peoples in separate regions and over long stretches of time, we are most likely to succeed if we concentrate on issues of broad, general significance to people everywhere and at all times. We therefore find ourselves dealing with themes that, by and large, are among the key subjects in the discipline of comparative religious studies. The following is a list of these topics with references to the chapters that deal specifically with each.
- The origins of the world and its elements: the waters and the earth (Chapter III); the sky (Chapter IV); the sun (Chapter V); fire (Chapter VI).
- The laws that govern the ordered world, notably the cycle of the seasons (Chapter VII).
- The origins and sustenance of life: sexuality, the ancestors, rituals (Chapter VIII).
- Death, decay, and the end of times (Chapter IX).
- Philosophy: the binary system (Chapter X).
- Time reckoning: calendars; the proto-zodiac (Chapter XI).
The author’s first intention (in 2014), to post a chapter or two per year, has not worked out so far (2018). Presently, Chapters I, II, and X, are complete, but Part Two of Chapter X (on sign language) turned out more comprehensive than anticipated. Chapter XI is nearly complete, but the Addendum to that chapter (on the solar-lunar calendar) was an addition to the original plan. As it may take five-to-ten years to cover the remaining issues, summaries have been posted in order to indicate the topics and scope of each chapter