III. The Earth


Ice Age artists called upon the largest and most massive animals they knew, namely the bison and the pachyderms, to visually represent the solid matter of the earth, its soil and its rocks, the very elements that frame and support all life. The bison’s large hump, often exaggerated by the artists, made it an image of the surface of the earth with its hills and valleys, just as the huge mammoth provided the living model for the mountains; the brute rhinoceros stood for the roughest, most forbidding mountain ridges and peaks. These motifs were often brought together by superimposed figures, whereby the compositions could approach some early form of “landscape painting.” Generally, the bison as an image of the earth embodied the friendlier, soft and life-sustaining forces of the soil; the pachyderms as emblematic of the rocky mountains rather stood for everything hard and confining in nature.

Representative of the most basic elements of existence, these motifs projected ideas about the earliest beginnings of the world, which, as in later myths of creation, involved the notion of an original abyss that was dark, shapeless, and oceanic. This concept was readily framed by the nature of many decorated caves with their subterranean pools and streams, and their deposits of clay or sandy soil as well as crude calcite formations. The artists and their contemporaries took these rough elements to demonstrate the perennial presence of the powers of original creation. Thus, the potential of primordial creation was still approachable in the lower depths. The possibility of returning–periodically–to this font of (re)creative powers is shown, notably, by figures of bison in vertical (upward- or downward-directed) positions, images of the replenishment, respectively the depletion, of the earth’s vital energies.

The concept of returning to the primeval matrix of creation also finds expression in the belief that the cave itself is the womb of the earth, leading the artists to designate distinct parts of a cave as its uterus, its birth-canal, and its vagina. As such, the earth was the ultimate source of all fertility, including human sexuality; all sexualized images of humans (including both primary and secondary sex organs) relate to the earth. At the heart of all this is an elementary feeling of the earth as a living, maternal body that sustains human life, a belief not unlike what we know from native tribes of North America, some of whom, indeed, associated the bison (or, buffalo) with the earth. This wider context accounts for the veneration of the cave sanctuaries, as they were crucial sources of the periodic (seasonal) renewal of vital powers that sustained life in surrounding regions. A special class of ideograms–specific to regions, even to individual caves–articulated this role of the cave sanctuaries as the centers of tribal lands.

Part One: Living Landscapes

Ideas about the earth loom large in comparative religious studies. With its soil and mountains, its underground layers, and its surface- or subterranean waters, the earth pervades mythologies of North American Indians (“Mother Earth”), determines ancient Chinese cosmology (emblematic of “yin”), and is the foundation of Hesiod’s Cosmogony (as the first-created element). Everywhere, the material basis for our lives was understood as fundamental to creation at large. When we further consider the underground settings of the decorated caves that are the sources for our study, we may well expect some key motifs of Ice Age cave art to be focused on the earth.

Landscape painting: bison, mammoths, rhinos

In numerous caves of south-central France we find juxtapositions of bison and mammoths— and, less frequently, of bison and rhinoceroses—in configurations that ignore the natural behavior of these species, as if the artists, persistently but artificially, wanted to unite the most heavy and massive characters among the entire cast of Ice Age art. Albeit, this observation leaves out the aurochs, the large predecessor of our domesticated oxen, which rivalled the bison in size and weight, but the artists assigned distinct roles to the two species of oxen—bison and aurochs—and, in particular, different relationships with the pachyderms (the relationship between earth-bound bison and sky-bound aurochs is discussed in Chapter IV). In Palaeolithic cave art, the connection between the bison and the pachyderms is striking and consistent.

We may find a key to the implied meaning of this tie in the composition of two elaborate friezes in Font-de-Gaume (Fig. 1 a, b), in which bison and mammoths co-exist, with the figures overlapping so closely that the perpetually rising and falling outline created by the many humped backs and domed heads resemble the contour of a landscape composed of hills, buttes, and cliffs, even mountains. As the two friezes face each other on either side of the narrow gallery, they actually envelope the visitor like the sides of a valley. In spite of cleaning and restauration, the full effect is apparently not quite as striking to-day as at the time of the early-twentieth-century discovery, but the original copies (by Henri Breuil) apparently retain the intended effect.

Our landscape hypothesis is promising because of its inherent logic: the heaviest and most bulky animal species fittingly represent the most solid and stable elements of the tangible world—the earth with its hills and mountains. We may even venture one step further and hypothesize a visual vocabulary that distinguishes between the “horizontal” bison and the “vertical” mammoth, with the former’s pronounced hump representing the earth’s mounds and rolling hills, and the latter’s soaring back-line, huge hump, and domed skull standing for the mountains and steep cliffs. Surely, the pachyderm’s towering height and huge weight made it the obvious choice for the part. We may add that not just the humps but also the low-set, ground-hugging carriage of the bison’s head helped make the symbiosis of this species and the land self-evident (see discussion of cosmology and body-parts in Chapter IV).

We find this distinction clearly stated in the monumental “Black Wall” of Pech-Merle (Fig. 2), where half a dozen mammoths surround two contiguous bison figures (at the center) much like mountains frame lower lands. The mammoths here are, indeed, portrayed as enormously heavy (notably the middle one at floor level, Fig. 2, bottom) and also as angular and towering to a peak (notably the one at the top, Fig. 2, and Fig. 3 a); they appear capable of both anchoring the world at their roots and reaching the sky at their tops. By contrast, the two bison are partly overlaid on each other and greatly stretched lengthwise (Fig. 2, center), so that they jointly form a horizontal expanse of smoothly rounded humps, rather like soft hills. In sum, the vast panel amounts to a quite convincing scene of rugged mountains that enclose gentle valleys. Adjacent to the display on the “Black Wall,” we find several smaller panels that succinctly repeat the same configuration of an angular, “vertical” mammoth with a pliable, “horizontal” bison (Fig. 3 b, c, d).

We recognize the scheme of the above sceneries, for example, in Croze-à-Gontran (Fig. 4), Huchard (Fig. 5), Grande Grotte d’Arcy (Fig. 6), Bernifal (Fig. 7 a), Combarelles (Fig. 7 b), Roucadour (Fig. 8), and Rouffignac (Fig. 9 a, b, c), that is, caves from a wide spread in space and time. Even where bison figures appear in isolation, we may recognize the horizontal spectacle of rolling hills, as in the two bison of Mayrière Supérieure (Fig. 44), which by their exaggerated, hyper-swelling humps fully match the ones at Pech-Merle (Fig. 2).

Among the just-mentioned scenic views of Rouffignac (Fig. 9 a-c) we also encounter the second pachyderm of cave art, the rhinoceros, represented merely by way of its huge horns, which are super-imposed on a mammoth (Fig. 9 c); evidently, the rhino here joins the mammoth as part of the mountain scenery. More specifically, the spectacle of the rhino’s large, frontal horn rising ominously above the mammoth’s dome brings to mind the most rugged and hostile aspects of mountains such as forbidding heights and frozen peaks. This visual effect is augmented by the appearance of the mammoth in question, which is a particularly old, bony individual (nick-named “the Patriarch”) whose huge angular silhouette speaks to the imponderable age and immutable aspect of mountains. The graphic effect of the rhino’s horn, rising like the rigid top of a mountain, is already evoked in the much older cave of Chauvet, where we find identical configurations of mammoths and rhinos used to the same effect (Fig. 10 a, b). No doubt, the rhinoceros is a consistently negative, cold and violent character in the visual language of cave art.

Returning to Font-de-Gaume, we find a rhino’s horn superimposed on the figure of a bison in the rear section of the cave (Fig. 11, left), again projecting a threatening mode. It is one of the cave’s two rhinos, which are both located in the innermost part of the cave, and its rude appearance differs sharply from the glorious files of bison and mammoths—but no rhinos—in the front of the cave (the latter are at a and b on the plan of the cave, Fig. 27; the rhinos are at g). We, thus, recognize two contrasting sides of the relationship between the realms of rocks and soil: one harsh and unforgiving, the other moderate and negotiable. We may assume that the artists located the rhinos in the farthest end of the cave because Magdalenian artists favored a narrative that reduced the sinister impact of this character. Lascaux, in the same vein, holds only one rhinoceros (in fact, the cave’s only pachyderm), and it too, is a stove-away, sequestered in the deep, hard-to-reach “Shaft” (Fig. 12), just as this rhino, too, is associated with a bison, namely the famous, fatally wounded bison that is shown with its intestines spilling from a wound (Fig. 12, right). In terms of our landscape thesis, the two scenes of Font-de-Gaume and Lascaux, both, present the hard world of rocks as aggressively challenging the soft world of soil. A comparable relationship—the mountain/rhino bearing down on the valley/bison—may be seen in two similar juxtapositions of rhino and bison in Chauvet (Fig. 13) and in Combarelles II (Fig. 14 a, b). In each case, the bison is shown in a frontal view, which is a quite particular perspective that portrays the animal as stymied (unable to move, neither right nor left, like virtually all other figures), and in both scenes the presence of the rhinoceros is the visible explanation for this paralysis.

As mentioned, Font-de-Gaume makes a clear distinction between the mammoths, which are all in the front part of the main corridor, and the two rhinos that are relegated to the terminal fissure (a-d, versus g in Fig. 27), a separation that is the more significant as the narrow end-section also features the deadly ambience of the cave’s one, major figure of a lion—the perennial image of death (cf. Chapter VIII). It is certainly meaningful that this tie between rhinoceroses and lions recurs in other caves as well (Combarelles I, Rouffignac, Cussac, the Grande Grotte of Arcy, Bernoux, Baume-Latrone, Aldène ). In an especially grim display of that association, a famous panel in Chauvet unites rhinos and lions, both in great numbers. We may safely conclude that the rhino represents the fearsome, potentially deadly aspects of mountains.

In terms of cultural geography, Mountains interrelate with land in ways that might be both beneficial (sheltering valleys, defining territories, opening passes) and disruptive (casting shadows, restricting movement); the relationship between mammoths and bison in cave art is correspondingly varied. Thus, we find panels in which a dominance of bison over mammoths elevates the benefits of the land and downplays the impact of mountains; examples occur in Chauvet (Fig. 15), Font-de-Gaume (Fig. 16), or Gargas (Fig. 121 a, b). Conversely, we find scenes that are exclusively dedicated to descriptions of the mountains, as in Jovelle (Fig. 17), where their line-up has been compared to the ranges of hills seen from the cave’s opening (Jègues-Wolkiewiez 2011, 107). A similar arrangement of mammoths—augmented by the horns of a rhino—is seen in Bernoux (Fig. 18 a). The cave of Cavaille presents a comparable gathering of mammoths in distinct tiers (Fig. 19). Some of these arrangements were, possibly, technical means of for showing herds of pachyderms in perspective view, but even so, that assumption agrees with our reading, as the depth of field suggests ranges-behind-ranges of mountains.

The use of nested, near-parallel contours of mammoths is a specific application of the above practice, a device we recognize in Grande Grotte d’Arcy (Fig. 20) and Chauvet (Fig. 21 a, b, c), as well as on decorated artifacts from Bouil-Bleu and Roche Courbon (Fig. 55 a, b). In a similar group, engraved on a stone from Laugerie-Haute, the larger, more angular mammoth and the smaller, more rounded one may reflect a family scene, without contradicting a reading as higher, distant mountains behind lower, closer ones (Fig. 20 c)—the contrast between rough heights and friendly foothills remains.

River valleys: real and represented

The artists’ fascination with mountains should not surprise us, as it closely reflects living conditions in southern Europe during most of the Upper Paleolithic, when people survived the harsh winters in protected valleys, where enclosing mountains and foot-hills created tolerable micro-climates for humans and migrant animals. Pursuing this realization, we may well recognize the signs for water that often accompany the earth- and mountain-related figures as specifically indicating the rivers of those valleys. Thus, a sinuous line in a panel at Gargas (Fig. 22 a) suggests water at the feet of a mammoth/mountain, to the effect that the mammoth-bison configuration may be seen as a fertile river valley bordered by rocky cliffs. Gargas is, correspondingly, situated in the foothills of the Pyrenees, in a promontory above the Neste d’Aure River, opening to a wide view of the Neste Valley. We may add that a reading of the serpentine line as signifying water agrees with the fact that a small, natural hole in the same area of the rock-wall actually lets out an occasional flow of water, which over time has deposited a noticeable bank of calcite flow at the foot of the wall (see Fig. 122 a, b; located at “C” on the plan, Fig. 120 a).

A number of mammoth figures in Rouffignac are quite demonstratively associated with signs that spell “water.” These include configurations that, like the just-mentioned scene in Gargas, suggest a river valley in the mountains (Fig. 22 b; Fig. 23 a). Other panels rather suggest streams running down mountain-sides as if from melting ice caps (Fig. 23 b, c). Also in Rouffignac, in the low roof of a major gallery (located at no. 9 on the plan, Fig. 25), several mammoths are stationed along the sinuous lines that trace the course of the gallery, and again, we recognize the scenery of a river valley shaped by promontories and cliffs (Fig. 24). Furthermore, as the just-mentioned mammoths (mostly) face outward, we may even see them as channeling or guiding the course of the waters. Evidently, this extensive panel demonstrates the forces at work in a landscape of mountains and hills that plainly determine the flow of streams. We are given the impression that the mammoths/mountains actively marshal the earth’s waters, perhaps as they withhold them in winter and dramatically release them with the breaking up of river ice in spring (a theme to be pursued in Chapter VII).

More directly, the decoration of the large cave of Rouffignac is physically related to the waters in the deeper levels of the mountain, as numerous panels are situated where openings in the floor connect to lower, still-active parts of the karstic cave system. This is, for example, the case with a frieze comprising a handful of mammoths and one bison, which is set immediately above a noticeable, siphon-like pit (the “Grande Fosse,” at no. 12 in Fig. 25). An impressive line-up of eleven mammoths is painted in close response to another descending fissure (at no. 6 in Fig. 25). Indeed, images of mammoths are engraved or painted around openings to pits, even to the ends of some of the smallest, innermost galleries.

Above all, Rouffignac’s most striking demonstration of the mammoth-mountain-water complex implicates the “Great Ceiling” of Rouffignac (at no. 10, Fig. 25) as follows: a steep shaft, directly under this magnificent ceiling, takes the visitor to a lower-level, decorated gallery (at no. 11), and from here, via an opening in the floor, to the cave’s only practicable passage to the third and lowest level—where a stream actually is flowing. On the second (middle) level, at the entrance to this final passage we find several painted mammoths (cf. Fig. 116), and as we move back up to the main level, the “Great Ceiling,” right above, mammoths (and rhinos) are strongly present (cf. Fig. 85 a, b). Finally, as we move outward, we join the path of the above-mentioned mammoths as they follow the long, fluid lines—rivers, we may assume—along the main gallery. In short, the tie between mammoths and waters is solid throughout the “Cave of a Hundred Mammoths.”

Over the centuries, a number of visitors have lost their way and died inside Rouffignac, and a map of the cave (Fig. 25) explains why: the plan of the cave resembles a giant tree-trunk that divides into ever smaller branches and ephemeral twigs, the latter becoming ever more numerous as they reach farther into the mountain. Read from the inside-out, however, the vast cave assumes a singular clarity, as the many twigs join the smaller branches and gain increasing momentum, until these branches, in turn, come together at the point where the tree’s two major forks unite (between nos. 5 and 6, Fig. 25). From there the main stem runs –with minor diversions—to the opening of the cave.

By this filigree of dividing branches, developing into an ever-finer network, Ruffignac constitutes, in effect, a fitting model for the entire river system of south-central France, which is a fractal composite of minor, local water-ways that, eventually, accumulate into the network of major rivers (cf. Fig. 26). The living-spaces of Upper Palaeolithic France was thoroughly determined by this filigree of water courses that originated in the Massif Central in the east and the Pyrenees in the south; it was nourished by countless small, contributing streams, forming rivers and, eventually, becoming two major forks as the Vézère joined the Dordogne and the Lot joined the Garonne, and finally, uniting into one stem on approaching the Atlantic coast. The artists of Rouffignac may not have had a modern map-maker’s awareness of the whole picture, but they certainly recognized the basic pattern as it manifested itself around the important confluence of the Beune and the Vézère, the location of the major cave-center of Les Eyzies. Rouffignac is located in a rocky hill between two rivers (Labinche and the Manaurie) that soon unite and, subsequently, join the Vézère at Les Eyzies. Rouffignac, thus, assumes an obvious place within a wider network, and the analogy of its inner structure and outer framework must have been obvious to the artists, who explored every nook of the karstic system. It was left for them to arrange the many mammoths (close to two hundred) throughout the cave so as to bring out the profound correspondence between cave structure and river system. The visual program convincingly casts the mammoths as the representatives of the very mountains and cliffs that ultimately define the courses of rivers and the contours of the land.

In Font-de-Gaume, as well, the artists designed the decoration to catch a certain resemblance between the cave’s internal topography and the surrounding landscape, allowing the interior relationship between the cave and its imagery to echo the exterior relationship between the valley of the Beune River and the mountains and cliffs that frame it. This intent is evident in the setting of the above-mentioned landscape-like friezes (Fig. 1 a, b). On a plan of the cave we find the two impressive files of bison and mammoths displayed on the two facing walls in the foremost stretch of the cave (Fig. 27 a, b), where they occupy the roughly molded banks along the base of the walls (in the cross-section of the gallery, Fig. 28 a, brackets indicate the positions of the two panels). This design turns the gallery into a virtual landscape that surrounds the visitor: the earth/mountain figures (bison and mammoths) adopt the irregular bases of the two walls, accentuating its physical affinity with the earth, while the smooth walls that soar above (reaching beyond visibility) assume a sky-like character. In principle, this framework recalls the profile of the Beune valley, notably in the stretch around Font-de-Gaume (cf. the map, Fig. 28 c), where the river is flanked by tall cliffs and hills. Some of these rock-walls are truly impressive (cf. Fig. 239 c) reaching about three hundred feet above the floor of the valley; more to the point, a cross-section of the valley in the vicinity of Font-de-Gaume (Fig. 28 b) shows a framework that—though relatively wide, compared to the narrow cave—is broadly comparable to the profile of the decorated gallery (Fig. 28 a). The artists may, furthermore, have adopted a narrowly local focus with a strong emphasis on the “Crossing,” where the side-gallery enters the main gallery (at d in Fig. 27) much like the Font-de-Gaume valley joins the Beune valley at the site of the cave (cf. Fig. 28 c); the “Crossing” is a focal point in the decorative scheme (with the largest figures of bison and reindeer as well as the most dynamic horses). In any case, the composition reflected—intentionally, no doubt—key features of the land around the site, and the artists’ use of animals as the representatives of mounds and mountains was not just symbolic but reality-bound, as well.

The analogy of cave galleries and river valleys is, in fact, intrinsic to any karstic cave system, as all the decorated caves preserve ample evidence of the waters that once carved their galleries out of limestone massifs. Rouffignac and Font-de-Gaume are but two (albeit, quite elaborate) examples that demonstrate Upper Palaeolithic artists’ recognition of the shared principle at work in the carved-out galleries and the gouged valleys. This affinity is particularly clear in caves that openly embrace still-active, subterranean streams (Tuc d’Audoubert, Montespan, Erberua, Pindal, for example). We must, however, see the waters inside and outside of caves as generally and inherently connected. This relationship is, not the least, brought out by many representations of fishes in caves that feature active streams, lakes, or water-related pits, as for example in Combarelles, Pergouset, Grande Grotte d’Arcy, Altxerri, Pindal, or Nerja (cf. Fig. 105 b, c; Fig. 106 a-c). We may think of these situations as articulations of a direct and profound bond between the caves and the riverine valleys around them.

A mile upstream from Font-de-Gaume, the Combarelles (the major of two adjacent caves, also called Combarelles I) is still framed by the above-described profile of alternating cliffs and hills (cf. Fig. 28 c). Combarelles is a very long, narrow, tube-like gallery that, again, may be perceived as a replica of the valley itself, an analogy that is reinforced by the presence of steadily alternating figures of bison and mammoths, scattered along both sides of the corridor, often facing each other (Fig, 29). As in the above-mentioned example (Fig. 7 b, c) the entire decorated, inner part of the cave features repeated configurations of large and small bison/hills and strong or weak mammoths/cliffs (with the largest mounds/bison toward the front, and the largest cliffs/mammoths toward the back). The comparison between the course of a river and the path of the cave is the more apt, as the corridor (rarely more than a meter wide) zigzags its way for several hundred meters through the mountain (Fig. 29). The trajectory—including some sharp “S” turns—echoes the characteristic, winding patterns of most rivers in the region (cf. the insert in Fig. 26). Further enforcing the analogy between this corridor and a river, a number of fish or fish-like designs are distributed throughout; these are typically engraved low on the walls, at floor-level (Fig. 29; cf. the insert, a-i).

A few miles further upstream (on a tributary to the Beune), Bernifal also features numerous bison and mammoths, and in particular, at one narrow passage, a composition that, again, is reminiscent of the bordering cliffs and hills of the valley. At this crucial point, access to the inner (descending) cave leads through a stricture that forces visitors to bend over and ease their way between facing walls, coming face-to-face with a file of mammoths rising above a smaller bison (Fig. 7 a).

Further south, in the Quercy region, the great site of Pech-Merle features the large tableau of the “Black Wall” (Fig. 2), which shows mountain-like mammoths entirely surrounding earth-like bison. This panoramic display aptly reflects the external spectacle of the immense, stony massif that contains the cave itself, and which dominates the confluence of rivers (first of the Sagne and the Célé, then of the Célé and the Lot), connecting sharply profiled valleys in which paths (and modern roads) cling dramatically to the mountainsides.

The just-mentioned sites are located in limestone formations that are furrowed by rivers coming from the higher granite plateau in the east (the Massif Central); on the other (east) side of the Massif, they have their counter-parts, notably, in caves along the Ardèche, where this river, before reaching the Rhône valley, has carved a spectacular canyon that is narrow and deep (about a hundred meters, at places). In several caves along the Ardèche, figures of mammoths and bison reflect the drama of this natural framework, at the same time that they exploit the internal topography of the sites. In Chabot, which is situated in a rigid cliff, about five meters above the river, a quite exceptional frieze of mammoths cover the left wall directly inside the entrance (Fig. 30 a). Tightly overlapping each other, these engraved figures are individually indistinct, while they collectively give the impression of a solid wall of pachyderms. The right side of the cave has more mammoths (Fig. 30 b), and still more are to be found inside the shallow cave, even in the ceiling. Thus, a common principle structures the interior space, which is framed by mammoths and the exterior space, which is enclosed by wall-like cliffs.

The above findings agree with our thesis of Palaolithic art as a visual language, a formal use of images in which distinct animal species are emblematic of specific concepts; in the above examples, these are elements of nature and ideas about their significance. Our examples show that this system was current for tens of thousands of years, which points to something more profound than an intellectual game, rather suggesting that the Palaeolithic artists were engaged in an intellectual pursuit of religious and philosophical character. Beyond that, cave-decorations reciprocate surrounding landscapes in a way that suggests the use of art as a ritual means of reviving nature, praising its powers, even claiming possession of the land around the cave sanctuaries (a theme to be discussed in Part Four, below). At the heart of these ties between cave art and actual landscapes is waters and water-related imagery.

Mammoths, caves, and waters

At the head of the Ardèche canyon, about fifteen miles upstream from Chabot, Chauvet offers a striking demonstration of the relationship between the cave’s natural surroundings and its interior decoration. At this point—at the head of the canyon—the Ardèche flows through a natural bridge (Pont d’Arc) that is a salient feature of the canyon and still counts among the spectacular geological phenomena in Europe (Fig. 31). The entrance of Chauvet overlooks this monumental signpost in the landscape, and among the cave’s numerous mammoths one notable figure was obviously shaped so as to mirror the actual Pont d’Arc (Fig. 32): this painted mammoth plainly echoes its natural model, not just by similarity of outlines (including the concave belly-line), but also by the strained posture of the figure, as it spans a large niche in the rock-wall, imitating the way the arch bridges the river.

A second—less obvious—allusion to the Pont d’Arc may be seen in a neighboring mammoth figure (Fig. 33), which is located at a narrow corridor that leads from the main hall of the lower cave to the small end-chamber (the “Sacristy”; cf. Fig. 34). Passage through this corridor is controlled, jointly, by a mammoth and a rhinoceros (Fig. 33), their obtrusive horns forming a veritable gate, which allows (or refuses) passage—like the actual Pont d’Arc allows—and long ago, in fact refused—the river to pass. The pachyderms have the apparent power of rocky masses to hold back, or release, the flow of waters.

The two, just-mentioned mammoths share the wide sweeping arches of their under-bellies, most pronounced in the curved, horseshoe belly of the first one (Fig. 32). This feature is common in mammoths from other sites as well, and as an artistic convention it may be a corollary of the mammoths’ role as mountains: just as the animals’ upper parts (skulls and shoulders) signify the tops of mountains, so their lower parts encompass the realm of caves; specifically, the open arch under their bellies readily alludes to the gaping mouth of some caves. It seems significant that even in Spain, which has very few images of mammoths, we find this convention, notably in Arco “B.” This cave stands out by a natural arch—resembling flying buttresses—positioned right at the cave’s entrance (Garcia et al. 2011, 102-103, 112-113), and the shape of the Arco “B” mammoth (Fig. 35) apparently imitates this arch, reminiscent of Chauvet’s Pont d’Arc imitation.

We encounter similarly concave bellies of mammoths in Jovelle (Fig. 17) and Cavaille (Fig. 19), in ensembles that are located close to the entrances of their respective caves, so that we may suspect an intentional tie between the mammoths in question and the actual cave openings. In Roucadour (Fig. 36) a handful of mammoths, all showing the characteristic horseshoe-arc, frame the entrance to the cave’s narrow, but heavily decorated gallery. The association between a mammoth and the opening to/from a cave—or to/from a section within a cave—is also evident in Ebbou, where the cave’s only mammoth is placed right at the narrow entrance to the main chamber (Chabredier 1975), or in Mayenne-Science, where a mammoth is engraved above a low entrance (to be passed bent-over) that leads to the first decorated chamber (Fig. 37). An emphatic statement of this theme is found in Domme (or, “Grotte du Mammout”) which features two mammoths close to the entrance of the cave, one on each wall, both turned toward the outside; their role as “gate keepers” of the cave is enforced by the unusual technique of the two figure, as they are carved in deep relief (Petrognani and Robert 2020). In the Spanish cave of Pindal, a mammoth is painted at the terminal fissure, out of which flows the stream that runs through the cave’s single gallery (cf. Fig. 106 c), a setting that accentuates the tie between mammoths, caves, and waters.

In the above situations, the mammoth plays an ambiguous role, which matches the dual aspects of the rocky element in nature. Mountains may impede the flow of waters, but they may also channel streams; inside caves, rocks may close passages, or they may form paths. This duplicity was, evidently, perceived as the given condition of life: the world of stone could be prohibitive but also yielding, closing passes or opening them; mammoths-as-mountains partook of this ambiguity. A more positive side of the landscape metaphor adheres to the bison, which is rather the image of fertile grounds and hills, although the bison, too, could stand for the recalcitrant aspect of nature; the latter is particularly true in regions where mammoths were scarce or absent, and bison were left to represent the full scope of landscape imagery. Even so, the bison remained antithetic to the overtly destructive nature assigned to the rhinos. The deliberate contrast between a generously rounded mammoth and a starkly angular rhino in the Great Ceiling of Rouffignac (Fig. 52 e) epitomizes the profound difference between the soft earth and the hard mountains. Even in Spain, the exceptional rhino engraved on a stone from the Cantabrian site of Las Caldas (Fig. 38) assumes an antithetic role relative to the crossing figure of a bison.

The backs of bison and the signs for “earth” and “mountain”

While the mammoth is a rare motif in Spanish cave art, its association with the rock-solid aspects of the earth remains. Thus, the mentioned panel at the end of Pindal retains the distinction between mammoth and bison, the hard verticality of cliffs versus the soft horizontality of soil (cf. Fig. 106 c). The woolly mammoths and rhinoceroses were, primarily, at home on the frozen steppes in northern Europe, and toward the end of the Ice Age they became increasingly rare in cave art of southern France. They appear only exceptionally in the flourishing, Magdalenian caves of the Pyrenees, and in all of Spanish cave art we find but half-a-dozen clear pictures of mammoths and hardly any certain rhinos.

In areas and/or periods without a significant presence of pachyderms, the bison, as the prime image of the earth, would assume the functions of both soft hills and hard mountains in the artists’ visual vocabulary. Thus, we recognize efforts to cast bison figures as a solid, towering formation in the Pyrenean cave of Labastide (Fig. 39), in which three figures form a tight triangle that visually re-enforces the bulging back of a larger one, the triangular form adding a sharper, angular note. A similar triangle of bison is seen in Trois-Frères (Fig. 40) where a group of three figures distinguishes itself within the—heavily bison-dominated—“Sanctuary” due to the very particular rendition of their hooves, each of which is articulated by two parallel strokes; again, this triangle serves to harden the back of a larger bison below. These compositions may well remind us of triangulated mammoth-groups in Combarelles (Fig. 7 c) or Rouffignac (Fig. 9 c; Fig. 116, to the right). More broadly, the piling-up of bison images in some panels of the Trois-Frères “Sanctuary,” in Montespan (Fig. 132 b), or in Niaux (panel “A” in Fig. 135) projects a sense of massiveness that is comparable to the tiered compositions of mammoths as seen in Jovelle (Fig. 17) or Cavaille (Fig. 19 a). In caves with no (or only a few) mammoths, bison readily takes over the pachyderms’ parts as the massively imposing characters of the imagery. In this perspective, accumulations of bison encircling a central figure (in our examples, a horse), as seen in Santimamiñe (Fig. 42), Trois-Frères (Fig. 43), or Marsoulas (Fig. 66 d), find their matches in similar scenes—but with mammoths (and an occasional rhino)—in scenes from Chauvet (Fig. 41 a), Kapova (Fig. 41 b), or Pech-Merle (Fig. 2, although our rendition omits the central horse here).

As the chief emblem of the earth, the bison may encompass the entirety of the element, including the watery depths, the levels of subterranean caves, the soil of the earth’s surface, and the level of the atmosphere from the sheltered valleys to the cloud-scraping mountaintops. By the logic of this visual language, the backs of bison and, notably, their humps represent the upper crust of the earth with its mounds and hills, rivers and lakes. Correspondingly, the caves present us with numerous images of bison with exuberant humps, such as those of Pech-Merle (Fig. 2) or Mayrière Supérieure (Fig. 44). In fact, the bison’s back is an important theme in its own right, and we find a wide range of transitions, going from stylized bison figures with greatly emphasized backs to pure, quasi-abstract signs, as seen in Portel (Fig. 45 a, b, c), or in the twin caves of Réseau Clastres and Niaux (Fig. 46 a, b, c). The Basque cave of Ekain is rich in such “earth” signs, providing varied steps from fully shaped bison images, via several grades of reduction, to nothing more than an arch (Fig, 47 a-g).

Following another path from figure to sign, the cave artists would inflate the humps of bison figures, even grotesquely so, to the point where the figures themselves verge on abstractions. In Calévie (Fig. 48 a, b), the smaller image, though identified by the larger one, is already about to become non-figurative. The Castillo cave contains about a dozen examples of the definitive end-result, which is a rounded, mound-like oval that spells “the earth” (Fig. 49 a, b, c, d); most of these are in low part of the cave. Castillo also provides a quite explicit demonstration of the origins of this “earth” signs: as explained by Henri Breuil (Alcalde del Río et al. 1911) one curious figure in the cave—part low relief, part painting—is a realistic rendition of nothing-but-the-hump of a bison (Fig. 49 b); this reading is confirmed by Castillo’s complete figures of bison painted in the same advanced, multi-colored technique (for example, Fig. 49 e). In its definitive form, the mound-shaped “earth” sign is widely distributed in French and Spanish caves (Fig. 50 c, d, e).

In Bernifal (Fig. 50 a, b), Combarelles (Fig. 50 c), and Mayenne-Sciences (Fig. 51 a, b, c), the “earth” sign occurs in caves that are dominated by the earth-characters, mammoths and bison. In the latter cave, we may even recognize a large, natural “earth” sign in the rounded contour of the actual wall-face that carries the great panel, the main scene of the cave (Fig. 51 a); apparently, this feature was the inspiration for the neatly balanced composition. A recognizable variant of the above earth signs occurs in Gargas (Fig. 52 b), a cave that also features bison with excessively rounded humps (Fig. 52 a), as well as numerous examples of the bison-back motif (Fig. 52 c; Fig. 122 c, d, e). Two bison engraved on a stone from Isturitz (Fig. 52 d) are ingeniously designed to dovetail into the one, joint line of the backs. In this arrangement, the heads are subsidiary (one raised, one lowered, perhaps to signify opposite seasons), so that the shared back-line takes on the appearance of an “earth” sign.

Similar to the rounded “earth” sign, we find a common sign for “mountain,” that is more vertical and pointed, tending toward a triangular shape (Fig. 53 a-e). These signs maintain a noticeable relationship to the characteristic appearance of the mammoths, to the extent that some signs may be inherently present in particularly exaggerated images of pachyderms that convey the rigid angularity of mountains, as seen in some mammoths of Pech-Merle (Fig. 3 a, c) or a rhino at Rouffignac (Fig. 52 e). We find some of the more geometrical signs for mountains among the mentioned series of abstracted signs in the low section of the Castillo cave (Fig. 53 a, b). The neighboring cave of Pasiega has a panel of two triangles (Fig. 53 c), one of which resembles the conical Mt. Castillo itself. Triangular “mountain” signs are ubiquitous, and we may add a spread of examples: from Lloseta (Asturias), which contains a red, angular sign that resembles a mountain (Fig. 53 d); from Casares (Guadalajara), where two adjacent signs may show the pass overlooked by the cave (no. 6 in Fig. 148); from Trois-Frères (eastern Pyrenees), which has an old, painted triangle (Fig. 53 e); from the Dordogne, where we encounter the engraved triangles of La Mouthe and Sainte Eulalie (Fig. 79 a, d), and Lascaux (no. 4 in Fig. 243 b) to the Rhone region, where Oulen features red-painted triangular signs flanking a niche with two red mammoths, one of which has an acutely angular skull that may suggest a mountain top (Fig. 53 f). In the same cave, another panel contains more triangular signs, some of which have their apex pointed upward and may signify mountains (Fig. 53 g, h), while others are turned downward and rather suggest vulvas (cf. Part Two, below).

Referring to aspects of the earth other than hills and mountains, Upper Palaeolithic artists also used square and rectangular emblems for the earth (in Gabillou, Lascaux, Cosquer, Chimeneas, for example), but all four-cornered signs imply exterior notions about the sky (notably, the sun and the cardinal directions; cf. Chapter IV); they are used formally, somewhat like mandalas, to identify tribal identities (see Part IV, below). Likewise, the roughly triangular, hut- or tent-shaped signs (tectiforms) have an earth-component—namely, the base or floor—while their roofs invariably relate to the sky (cf. Part Four, below).

The abstract signs for “earth” and “mountain” were used as comments on the figurative art works, and as such, they could be seen as incipient glyphs, although they, apparently, functioned more like simplified elements of visual narratives than as written characters. In the case of half-a-dozen rounded “earth” signs (plus one “mountain” sign) that are liberally distributed among a few painted figures in one low and narrow gallery of Castillo, the multiple applications of these signs point to a ritual invocation of the earth’s powers and to the urge to repeatedly confirm a basic tenet of the artists’ beliefs and thoughts.

The artists were always alert to nature-given shapes that carried in them the signs for “earth” or “mountain.” Thus, the bison on a stone from Montespan was obviously inspired by the regular, rounded shape of the artifact itself (Fig. 54), which echoes quite similarly shaped bison on the walls of that same cave (cf. Fig. 132 b). The mammoths on objects from Bouil-Bleu and Roche Courbon (Fig. 55 a, b) likewise responded to the pointed, triangular or ragged, tips of the stones themselves. In decorating a pebble from Baume Bonne the artist merely engraved a mammoth’s trunk, leaving the rest to the volume of the stone (Fig. 55 c). It may be that this mammoth is drinking, as a horizontal line seems to indicate the surface of water; the fishes on the reverse, however, point to a deeper connection between mammoths and the life of rivers, as mentioned above.

“…and the earth will bless you”–invocation of the earth

The attention to the bulging shapes of bison and mammoths is not to be perceived as a mere play with forms for the sake of visual effects. In the first place, these animals’ humps carried a significant message. The prominent humps of bison and pachyderms were deposits of nutritional reserves, on which the animals depended for survival during long winters. Thus, the full, swelling humps of the fall season—visible evidence of beneficial winter storage—would contrast with the sunken, hollowed appearance at the end of the winter, and to the extent that these animals were significant game (the bison, notably) the sight of their fully rounded shape was a promise of continued subsistence and, for the human hunters, a sign of life. Other species (reindeer and mountain goats) typically supplied the stable foods for Upper Palaeolithic populations, but even so, the bison and the pachyderms in cave decorations assumed roles as emblems of the well-being of the land in general and of the life it sustained.

We should not understand the scenes analyzed above as disengaged, purely descriptive renditions of landscapes; rather, they are gestures of support and hymnal praise for the forces that sustain life, and the use of non-figurative signs for “earth” and “mountains” only enhance the aspect of ritual invocation. The profound relationship between reality and imagery may be seen in the symbiosis of nature-given forms and man-made figures in a good many images of bison and mammoths. Perhaps the most spectacular illustration is the Altamira ceiling, in which a herd of twenty-some exquisite bison figures is tightly packed around the famous curled-up specimens—a handful of curiously crouching images, each made to fit a protruding boss in the ceiling (Fig. 56 a, b). Located near the sheltered opening (thus close to the surface above) these rocky outcrops-turned-bison (or bison in the process of being formed) give a unique twist to the reciprocal nature of reality and representation. Evidently, such creations are categorically beyond the routine work of all rock-artists, who must accommodate omni-present convex or concave surfaces and deal with inescapable fissures and edges of rock-walls—common challenges in all cave art. Though Altamira is unique by the scope of its vision, we find parallel creations in other caves. Thus, the artists of Font-de-Gaume persistently used the cave’s protruding, horizontal rock-ledges in shaping the bison and mammoths that form the cave’s famous files (Fig. 1 a, b; Fig. 101); these formations were recognized before the individual figures were executed as seen most clearly in the largest of the cave’s bison (Fig. 236 b). The ensemble of bison in Font-de-Gaume’s “Cabinet of Small Bison” (Fig. 57) is just as tightly packed as that of the Altamira ceiling; squeezed in between obtrusive rock formations, it seems to materialize from the alcove itself. As is well known, figures that use protruding formations to shape the bulging backs of bison are rather common in the caves, and striking examples may be found in Tuc d’Audoubert (Fig. 58 a, b), Portel (Fig. 58 c), Ekain (Fig. 58 d), Oulen (Fig. 59 d), or Magdeleine (Fig. 165 a, b). Pech-Merle offers several figures of bison and mammoths that seem painted in response to protruding rocks or speleothems (Fig. 141 a-d), and the large block in Fieux (Fig. 144 a, b) certainly contained the mammoth, which the artists’ additions merely brought out.

Occasionally, a connection between bison figures and the actual land outside the cave is demonstrated, most directly, by way of large blocks of stone that are decorated with bison, and which are positioned within the reach of daylight, either in shallow rock shelters or in the front end of caves. In the foyer of Venta de la Perra—preceding the entrance to the actual cave—we find a bench-like rock ledge into which two bison are carved (Fig. 59 a-c). Likewise, a rocky bank in the large foyer of Oulen has an engraved bison (Fig. 59 d). Hornos de la Peña presents a similar situation in its outer shelter (overlooking the valley of the Besaya) with a boulder that carries an engraved bison (Fig. 60). The blocks with bison at the rock shelter of Jean-Blancs (Fig. 62 a, b), though not huge boulders, are too large to have been carried around; they belong to the shelter. A similar block at the Roc de Sers shelter (Fig. 63 a) was part of a major, open-air frieze composed of individual blocks. In the front end of Lumentxa, still in full daylight, two bison occupy the top part of a large boulder (Fig. 61) that is, itself, roughly shaped as a resting bison; the artists acknowledged this feature, as they painted the bisons’ humps, confirming the bulginess of the top. Less articulate, much rougher, images of reclining bison are found in the large cave of Tito Bustillo, in the form of good-sized blocks, one of which is in the entrance chamber, the other one in the final recess (Fig. 64 a, b; located at nos. 1 and 14 in Fig. 158 a); in these two cases, the artists added touches of red ocher, but otherwise made minimal additions to the boulders, relying almost entirely on their suggestive forms.

The latter batch of examples indicates a mutual relationship between the earth and the bison that goes beyond mere analogy and suggests identity on a deeper level of symbolism. If it is presently difficult to fully comprehend this degree of inter-connection between an elementary part of nature and a few, particular animal species, the cause may be the extinction of those very species—first the mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros, eventually the bison—which left the Eurasian continent bereft of any persistent, traditional narratives or rituals relative to those animals. Fortunately, it appears that aspects of Upper Palaeolithic bison lore were perpetuated by Eurasian migrants, who—even before the end of the Ice Age—settled in North America and carried along a significant portion of their bison/earth mythology. In fact, some ritual practices concerning the buffalo (or bison, the differences are negligible) resonate fully with images from Ice Age Europe.

Significantly, we find strong echoes of the relationship between the earth and the buffalo in myths and ceremonies observed and described by ethnologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One example is the Cheyenne origin-stories of ancestral heroes who, in a mythical past, brought the buffalos to their starving tribe. In this narrative, one ancestor (“Erect Horns”) even led herds of buffalos out from the depths of a mountain cave, and the divine voice that gave him instructions sounds strangely relevant to our European cave art: “Take this horned cap [a buffalo headdress] to wear when you perform the ceremony that I have given you, and you will control the buffalo and all other animals. Put the cap on as you go from here and the earth will bless you.” (Dorsey 1905, 48). From across the Great Plains we have ample evidence of ritual performers wearing a buffalo headdress (a persistent motif in petroglyphs, indeed), and the similarity with European images of men wearing bison masks is undeniable; elsewhere, we have compared the buffalo-dancers of the Mandans of Missouri with certain human figures in the Ice Age caves (cf. Fig. 249 a). Moreover, we find substantial evidence of a definite association between the buffalo and the earth, as implied by the Cheyenne myth. Thus, the buffalo plays a focal role in the “Sundance” (or, “New Life”) ceremony of the Cheyenne and other Plains Indians. The declared goal of this festival is to “renew” the earth, and the central symbol maintained during this process is the skull of a buffalo ceremonially positioned between four sods of soil (Dorsey 1905, 57). The Lakotas constructed an altar (for the “Four Winds”) in which a buffalo skull was placed on a small mound of soil and flanked by four feather-decorated staffs (Fig. 249 b). The affinity with the bison-related “earth” signs of the European caves is all but self-evident.

A notable manifestation of American Indians’ lore of the buffalo is the phenomenon of buffalo-stones, or “sleeping buffalos,” that are found in great numbers (deposited by glaciers) on the prairies between the Rocky Mountains and the Missouri River. These stones posit an inherent relationship between not just boulders and buffalos but also between buffalos and the land, as they typically resemble the back and upper body of a buffalo seen lying down on—or half submerged into—the ground. They range from full buffalo size to small, portable stones. A remarkable specimen at Poison Creek, Wyoming, is a limestone outcrop that rises to 15 meters; for clarification, this rock carries a large-scale figure of a human with a buffalo-headdress (Loendorf and White, 2021, 49-50). Two examples from Montana are shown here: one (Fig. 65 a) a full-size boulder with two cupules that suggest nostrils and a number of carved images along its body, including vulvas and human figures (Sturm and Keyser 2020); the other (Fig. 65 b), a rather plain stone with eyes, nostrils and horns indicated and “ribs” engraved along its body. Particularly for the larger and heavier among such “sleeping buffalos,” the physical bondage to a site (often a hill, according to Bender 2013), as well as their bulk, and weight assures their close association with—even roots in—the earth; but form, not size, mattered most, and even small-scale buffalo effigies were venerated (Bender 2013).

European Ice Age art, albeit, does not offer extant parallels to the North American “sleeping buffalo” boulders of the open landscape (if such existed in the regions of the cave art, they would be hard to identify now), but the above-mentioned bison-blocks in shelters and caves speak of a closely related concept; in these cases, we can hardly tell whether the artists who created such works were looking for a stone to suit a bison figure, or whether they felt compelled to portray a bison in order to match a stone with natural “humps.” The boulder in Lumentxa (Fig. 61) is taller than the average person and may qualify as a genuine “bison stone,” or, “sleeping bison.” A voluminous rock-projection in Niaux (Fig. 156) was possibly perceived as emblematic of the earth, the more so as it displayed a nature-given image of a bison’s back (Fig. 156, center). In the middle of the “Chamber of Bison Sculptures” in Tuc d’Audoubert, a large boulder shows the characteristic, slanted profile of a reclining (“sleeping”) bison, and indeed, a bison’s head is engraved on one side; significantly, the two modelled bison lean against the other side (Fig. 138 a, b).

It stands to reason that the Ice Age artists also recognized the inherent earth-symbolism of large blocks with a natural resemblance to mammoths, and confirmation of this hypothesis may be seen in the huge block (2.5 meters tall, 4 meters long) that dominates the decorated chamber in Fieux; on several occasions, it was acknowledged as a naturally given mammoth (Fig. 215 b). The stalagmite formation in Trois-Frères’ “Chapel of Lions” (Fig. 216 a) was the focus of a lot of attention (depositions, ritual gestures, paintings and engravings), and we may safely assume that its semblance to a mammoth was noticed, the more so as it closely resembles an engraved mammoth in the cave’s “Sanctuary” (Fig. 216 b). Chauvet has a comparable formation of a basic mammoth-shape, to which the artists added a matching area of red disks as well as a black trunk (Fig. 216 c). Similar blocks were acknowledged as mammoth images in Pech-Merle (Fig. 141 b, c) and Grotte Cheval d’Arcy (Fig. 142 a, b).

The earth and vegetation

The vegetal kingdom is among the most visible manifestations of the earth’s powers, and the Ice Age hunters’ obsession with animals did not exclude attention to plant life. On a practical level, the hunters could not ignore the foraging habits of game, and on a deeper level, they obviously realized that vitally important game would perish without perpetually renewed vegetation, and a great many images reflect their thoughts about the powers that sustained vegetal growth. Though the artists did not indulge in images of specific, identifiable plants, their many generalized references to vegetation add to our understanding of the earth-related imagery.

The cave of Marsoulas features an unusual number of vegetal designs, mainly in the form of red, plant-like images that are juxtaposed with, or superimposed on, bison figures. A few of these designs are located toward the end of the cave (Fig. 233 c, d), but they climax in the main, central panel (Fig. 233 e, f) and in the front (Fig. 233 f, g). One of these red signs (Fig. 66 c; painted in a niche below the main panel) is an ordinary plant form with a vertical stem, but this is exceptional; typically the Marsoulas signs rather recall root-systems of grasses, spreading underground, and as such they are fittingly associated with the bison’s bellies, that is, associated with the deeper growth-layers of the soil, rather than with the backs of bison and the upper crust of the earth (Fig. 66 a, d). We find a possible parallel to these creeping and sprouting signs in an engraving in the Apse of Lascaux (Fig. 67 a) that, again, looks more like a substantial root than any of the modest above-ground plants of the frigid Lascaux environment. Recognizable plants—albeit, somewhat schematic—are depicted in neighboring panels of the Lascaux “Apse” (Fig. 67 b, c, d).

With few exceptions, renditions of vegetation in Upper Palaeolithic art may rightly be called vegetation symbols rather than descriptions of specific plants. Primarily, they project the concept of survival, renewal and growth as a general principle that is manifest in the cycles of plant life, and which ultimately pertains to all life. This implication of vegetation imagery is well illustrated by a common design that simply consists of a vertical stack of chevrons (Fig. 67 b, e; Fig. 77 a; Fig. 247 a) and which may represent leaves or seeds along a stem, but which may equally well be seen as an abstract symbol that projects the dynamics of any upward-seeking, expansive life-force.

As figures of bison dominate Marsoulas, the cave is largely devoted to the theme of the earth, and it seems meaningful that vegetation is at the fore; we might, however, find it puzzling that a good number of images concern roots and seeds, aspects of plant life that take place below the earth’s surface. Thus, we may understand the many red dots, arranged in rows or fields, to signify seeds in the ground, the more so as they repeatedly are juxtaposed with bison figures (Fig. 66 d, e, f; Fig. 233 d). Of course, plain dots—the simplest of all shapes—may carry any number of feasible meanings (and our proposed reading may not exhaust all implications), but the context of the Marsoulas specimens speaks strongly for seeds in the bosom of the earth, because some of these lines of dots cover the lower bodies of bison, or are juxtaposed with bison at the level of their bellies, while others are painted below the bison figures, at the bottom of panels and very close to the floor. Famously, the body of one bison is entirely covered with several hundred red dots/seeds (Fig. 66 d, center), creating a composition that reassures the viewer of the earth’s near-unlimited potential for growth. We may recognize a similar intent in Aitxurra, where a bison is marked all over by about two dozen arrow-points (Fig. 68). The meaning seems clear, if we remember that every seed in the ground, ultimately, has been inserted (sown) through a hole in the earth’s body; this realization readily translates into projectile points piercing the bison’s body, making the image a plead for fecundity and growth, not for the over-killing of bison. Tuc d’Audobert (Fig. 74 c) and Lascaux (Fig. 247 b) provide other examples of this analogy between the seed entering the ground and the piercing of the bison’s body. In the last-mentioned ensemble, a horse, which carries a conspicuous plant sign, is approaching a square “earth” sign (Fig. 247 a) which is covered with specks of paint that might indicate seeds in the ground.

In the lower part of Marsoulas’ main panel (Fig. 66 d, bottom right, and Fig. 77 f), a rectangular field of dots—its shape suggesting the earth—has a lower fringe of vertical strokes, which we may read as roots growing out of the seeds. Conversely, another rectangular earth-sign (Fig. 66d, and Fig. 77 d) has vertical strokes emerging from the upper border in a graphically clear illustration of sprouts rising from the soil or stems emerging from the ground. One panel with bison and plant design presents us with vertical shoots that recall both views: sprouts rising up; roots reaching down (Fig. 66 a, d).

Marsoulas also features a particular sign that we may relate to the notion of the pierced earth, as it is superimposed on the bodies of bison and consists of a vertical line ending in a short, horizontal stroke (Fig. 66 d, e). We may read this as a weapon inflicting a wound in the side of the earth/bison, by analogy with the above examples from Aitxurra, Tuc, and Lascaux. Gabillou gives us numerous comparable images of bison struck by “pseudo-arrows” that may be vegetation signs as much as projectiles (Fig. 71 a, b). All of this elaborate symbolism (including the ambiguity of the vertical lines as either weapons or stems of plants) reflects the artists’ determination to show the earth as the sole source of growth. Of course, we also find more naturalistic illustrations of vegetation, even though that is the exception. A more direct, naturalistic illustration of seeds may be seen on an engraved bone from la Vache (Fig. 69 a), which Alexander Marshack interpreted as three cones or similar seed-pods juxtaposed with a bison (1972/1991, 174). The scene includes a number of leafless shrubs, while the reverse of the bone carries flowering plants (Fig. 69 b). Quite logically, Marshack argues for an intentional, pointed contrast between fall and spring. A decorated bone from Gourdan (Fig. 251 a) clearly states a relationship between a stag and buds of a plant.

The seasonal changes in the appearance of the earth are captured in a number of images that refer to the changing of fur evinced by the bison in spring; the altered appearance of the main earth-character readily reflects the different look of the land. A perfect example is the composition of two strictly symmetrical bison in Lascaux (Fig. 70 a), which differ only by their contrary directions and by the large red area along the back of the left-hand bison, whereas the right-hand bison is all black. The former, molding into its reddish-brown spring coat, represents the earth in spring, while the latter is still in its winter coat. In spite of the relatively few bison figures in Lascaux—a sanctuary that is dedicated to the sky and the sun (cf. Chapters IV and V)—the cave has many and richly varied displays of vegetation symbolism. One major example is a tree- or bush-like design that is painted on the end-wall of the “Axial Gallery” (Fig. 70 b, left), close to the single bison of this gallery, the one located inside the mouth of the Tunnel (Fig. 70 b, right); thus, the emergence of vegetation from the bosom of the earth is well articulated. We also notice the line of red dots at the foot of the plant design, which may well indicate seeds in the ground, like the red dots with a plant in Marsoulas (Fig. 66 c).

In Gabillou, two configurations of plants and bison recall elements of the above-mentioned North American Indian buffalo lore. One is a plant image, drawn next to a bison (Fig. 71 a), which may represent a pussy willow branch with the characteristic flowers (catkins) set along a leaf-less stem. The other example shows an irregular bunch of lines—resembling reeds—drawn across the back of another bison (Fig. 71 b). The latter arrangement may echo the bundles of willow twigs on the backs of the buffalo-bull dancers among the Mandan Indians (Fig. 249 a), the more so as Gabillou also features an unmistakable rendition of a bison-bull dancer (Fig. 204 b). The willow bundles of the Mandans represented early spring, when the willow was the first tree to flower; this may also have been the context of the two Gabillou images; for sure, they invoke spring and the renewal of the earth (in Fig. 71 b, one line drawn across the apparent reeds may well indicate a bundling). Related ceremonies, involving bison and vegetation, seem to be the topic of two scenes engraved on artifacts from Les Eyzies and Raymonden (Fig. 211 a, b).

The above observations notwithstanding, the majority of references to vegetation in cave art are not conveyed by plant forms but by representations of deer’s antlers, an artistic practice that, obviously, reflects the analogous patterns of seasonal growth in plants and in antlers. The annual cycle of decay and re-growth of foliage parallels the cycles of shedding and re-growth of antlers; the branching of antlers is a factor, as well, and according to a near-universal metaphor, antlers are trees growing from the heads of deer. A curious play on this duplicity of meaning is found in Niaux, in a niche behind the panorama of bison in the Rotunda (Fig. 72 a): usually perceived as a hole in the shape of a deer’s head, to which two painted antlers were added, it is actually just a hole from which two—only vaguely antler-like—branches emerge; the ambiguity is, no doubt, intentional. A curious combination of realism and metaphor is at work in the mentioned design in the Lascaux “Apse” (Fig. 67 a), as the root-like design reaches toward the bottom of the wall, while the robust antlers of a stag rise above; the result is a figure that, visually, connects roots and stem into a common display of growth.

Analogous compositions involve bison or mammoths as images of the earth with deer (often just their antlers) as emblems of growth. In the “Apse” of Lascaux, where the stag is a major motif, exuberant antlers are everywhere, including above the two large bison on the right-hand wall (Fig. 73 a). In Gabillou we find the same scheme, only with a vigorous reindeer instead of a red deer (Fig. 73 b). Portel embellishes this configuration with antlers in yellowish ocher that rise above a black bison (Fig. 74 a), and in the tiny “Camarin” of that cave the figure of a bison and an isolated head of antlers are noticeably close (Fig. 74 b).

In Marsoulas, the superimposition of two reindeer (a minor motif in this cave) on a bison is certainly significant (Fig. 66 a, b), the more so as they are crossed by a red vegetation sign. Likewise referring to vegetation, a line of red dots crosses the antlers of a deer in the great frieze of the “Nave” of Lascaux (Fig. 72 c), alluding to the seeds from which the “tree” on the stag’s head comes forth, just as a line of dots may indicate the seeds from which the plants of the “Axial Gallery” grow (Fig. 70 b). In Tuc d’Audoubert, a large reindeer is positioned directly above a sketchy bison (Fig. 74 c), and the latter is marked with a dozen engraved strokes that, as mentioned above, may relate to vegetation implanted in—respectively, germinating from—the earth. The scene in Tuc includes a number of “new moon” (P-shaped) signs, one of which is conspicuously placed right across the antlers, contributing a note of “growth” and associating the growth of vegetation with the waxing of the moon (cf. the discussion of luni-solar calendars in Chapter XI). In Spain, the antlers-above-bison theme occurs (twice) in Altxerri (Fig. 75 a, b), in Llonin (Fig. 75 c), and (twice) in Candamo (Fig. 76 a, b).

Beyond the simple realization that vegetal growth stems from the earth, the above images imply that plant life is a gift of the earth, a sub-text that rises to the surface in certain compositions, in which antlers or other vegetation symbols are juxtaposed with abstract signs for “the earth.” Lascaux has numerous configurations of plant images and square “earth” signs, the former ranging from ordinary plant signs (Fig. 77 a) to heads of stags (Fig. 77 b, c; Fig. 230 a-f, i-j), and some examples show full integration of the two elements (Fig. 231 a). The main panel of Marsoulas includes several signs that seem to combine earth-symbols and plant-symbols, and some of these recall the Lascaux type (Fig. 77 d, e f). Curiously, one sign from the Marsoulas wall (Fig. 77 f) has much in common with a sign in Altamira that, for its part, is remarkably similar to a proto-historic Hittite glyph signifying “the earth” (cf. Fig. 225 g). In Pasiega, the antlers of a stag appear to break through yet another, Cantabrian style, “earth” sign, in turn emerging like plants from the ground (no. 3 in Fig. 118).

The relationship between the mammoths/mountains and vegetation is not essentially different from the bison/earth/vegetation theme, but the emphasis may be less on sustained growth and more on the suppression of growth (in winter) followed by its vehement break-through (in spring). In Combarelles we encounter a scene that involves several small bison and large reindeer antlers in a typical earth/growth configuration (Fig. 78 a), while the facing wall of the narrow gallery shows the more dynamic scene of a reindeer jumping ahead to break away from a mammoth (Fig. 78 b); here we may see a reference to the spring migration of reindeer, but also a metaphor for struggling vegetation emerging from the frozen ground, and perhaps, a vision of the greening of the sides of hills and mountains. In the same spirit, another panel in Combarelles (Fig. 78 c) shows the rare motif of a plant-like sign confined within the contour of a mammoth. In La Mouthe (Fig. 79 a) the large rein appears to jump over the smaller mammoth in a triumphant move, and in Font-de-Gaume (Fig. 79 b) two large reindeer dwarf a line of tiny mammoths in a death- and winter-defying scene. Cougnac shows the megaceros’ giant antlers elevated above a softly rounded, earth-like mammoth (Fig. 79 c). Already in Chauvet we find the renewal of vegetation alluded to by the progression from the lower-level panorama of lions and rhinos, where we find but a single, fragile reindeer amid a herd of massive rhinoceroses (Fig. 80 a), to the upper level, which has numerous deer, including a large reindeer with magnificent antlers rising above the figure of a bison (Fig. 80 b); thus, we follow a development that, at its start, shows vegetation narrowly surviving a frigid, harsh environment, to eventually thrive in friendly soil. Triangular signs may stand for the mountains in comparable scenes, as seen in La Mouthe (Fig. 79 a) or Sainte-Eulalie (Fig. 79 d). We may add that seeds, represented as fields of dots, can be associated with mammoths, as a way of contemplating on the survival of vegetation, even in the frozen ground. The mammoths at the foot of the “Black Wall” of Pech-Merle are superimposed on a number of red dots (Fig. 2). Placed below the bison of the panel (themselves enclosed by mammoths), these dots may stand for the seeds overwintering in the depths of the earth. This may also be implied by the field of red dots covering a mammoth figure in Chauvet (Fig. 216 c).

Upper Palaeollithic decorated artifacts include many decorated staffs that, virtually always, are carved from antlers, and thus, inherently concerned with the theme of growth, including vegetal growth. A significant number of these staffs are perforated at one end (the base of the branch), so that the perforation may readily suggest, not just any cavity, but one an opening to the earth; consequently, the shaft then adopts the part of a vegetal stem growing out of the earth. A specimen from l’Hortet (Fig. 81 a) makes this allusion explicit by surrounding the hole at the base with a design that—while basically a lozenge-form—is contoured to strongly suggests a hill, which encloses a cave—the perforation. Further exposing the implicit theme of growth, a stag (Fig. 81 a, insert) is seen jumping upwards, away from the area of this cave, recalling vegetation that emerges from the earth. The head of a bison (Fig. 81 a, top) further implicates the earth. Many staffs pursue this duality of perforation and shaft, as seen in examples from Gourdan (Fig. 81 b), Isturitz (Fig. 81 c), or Goyet (Fig. 201 d).

The inhabitants of caves, valleys, and mountain sides

In the world of the Ice Age hunters, changing appearances of the landscapes during the year were, inevitably, correlated with the movements of animals, not the least with the far-ranging, seasonal migrations of reindeer (to be discussed in Chapter VII). Other seasonal patterns were equally noticeable in the local environments, and these contributed visual motifs that enrich the repertory of themes describing the earth in terms of landscape. We shall here review the characteristic seasonal appearances of ibexes and bears as reflected in images of the earth.

The habitual moves of the mountain goats were tied to specific locations, because these species, rather than migrating south in winter, abandoned the upper ranges of mountains, seeking shelter in the valleys, not to return to the heights until spring. In Pair-non-Pair an ibex is perched on top of a mammoth/mountain in a highly pointed configuration that we may see as appropriate for a spring/summer episode (Fig. 82). The extensive, painted frieze in Cougnac features the ibex as part of a development ranging from the innermost group of figures (dominated by mammoths) to the foremost one (dominated by deer). This shift implies the ibexes, as they move from a position below one mammoth in the back (Fig. 83 a) to a place above another mammoth in the front (Fig. 83 b). On descending into the “Sanctuary” of Trois-Frères, the visitor encounters, on the right hand, a large ibex hovering above a small mammoth (Fig. 84 b), which suggests spring/summer, when ibexes reclaim the mountains. Further down and back into the “Sanctuary,” the main panel includes an ibex among numerous bison and below a rhinoceros (Fig. 84 b), suggesting the harsh impact of winter and the ibexes’ retreat to the valleys. The ibex in the great panel of Ekain stands below a bison but partly above an “earth” sign, again indicating descent to/ascent from the lower hills in a seasonal pattern of survival (Fig. 84 c).

The affinity of ibexes and mountains is emphatically exposed in the “Great Ceiling” of Rouffignac, which has a very strong showing of mountain goats; the more remarkable as this is the only location in the vast cave where ibexes are represented. Their close connection with the mammoths is evident (Fig. 85 a, b), and the focus is clearly on the end of winter and early spring, with references to sexually aroused males (Fig. 85 a, right), as well as the presence of a female ibex with her young (Fig. 85 a, center), episodes relating to spring and to the move from the valleys to the mountainsides. In Fieux, the engraved ibex on the mammoth-shaped block testifies to the natural tie between the two species (Fig. 144 a, b).

The strident poses of many ibex figures may well reflect their natural ease atop hills and high in the mountains, thus relating, indirectly, to the transitory pattern of their seasonal moves. La Mouthe (Fig. 86 a) shows an ibex perched on a bison as if on the top of a hill, reminiscent of the mentioned scenes of Trois-Frère (Fig. 84 b) and Pair-non-Pair (Fig. 82). In Altxerri, toward the back of the narrow side-gallery, two images placed across from each other illustrate contrasting episodes of the same story: on the left wall (Fig. 87 a), the ibex is immobilized (looking back) and posed below a bison, as if confined to a low valley, and the adjacent image of a snow-fox further tells of the cold season (Fig. 75 a, to the right); on the right wall (Fig. 87 b), the ibex is jumping upwards in the species’ characteristic rock-to-rock move up a mountain side. A drawing from Laugerie-Basse (Fig. 86 b) combines the two just-mentioned situations, as the artist makes clever use of the supporting stone’s horizontal and vertical dimensions.

Like ibexes, bears reflect the changing conditions of the earth by the fluctuating rhythm of their presence or absence, as they emerge from—or retire to—months of hibernation, often making their dens (large, nest-like cavities) in the soil of caves. Though the particular species of cave bears were largely extinct in the age of the decorated caves, their innumerable remains—bones, nests, claw-marks—played a great role in the artists’ imagination, and older cave sanctuaries, notably, took notice of their behavior. Thus, the Grande Grotte at Arcy distinguishes between the fat fall bear and the emaciated spring bear, the latter emerging from hibernation after surviving on the body’s own resources (Fig. 88 a). Significantly, the well-fed fall bear and the haggard spring bear are arranged on either side of a large mammoth that here embodies the two sides of the earth—one harsh and cold, the other protecting and nourishing.

The theme of the hibernating bears reappears in Trois-Frères, in the inner nooks of the “Sanctuary,” where an emaciated bear accompanied by a cub (Fig. 89 a, top) points to the spring, because female cave bears gave birth before emerging from hibernation. Some odd features of the two large bears in this panel (as copied by Breuil) suggest that they might represents masked performers in a seasonal ritual, the more so as one is walking on two legs; the bear in an adjacent panel (Fig. 89 b) has been related to a well-documented Eurasian bear-killing ritual (cf. Chapter VIII). The main panel of Cussac is, like the Trois-Frères “Sanctuary,” dominated by the giant figure of a bison (Fig. 90 a), and in Cussac, too, we find we find several smaller bears on the periphery of this dominant earth figure. These include one with the protruding shoulder-blades of a starved individual (Fig. 90 a, lower right); its appearance goes along with its position beneath a mammoth in a long-haired winter coat to tell of the hardship of hibernation. At the other end of the large panel, two bears face each other in a study of contrasts: a well-rounded bear versus an emaciated bear (Fig. 90 b). The Cussac panel records the big changes to the earth from fall to spring.

Located on facing walls just inside the entrance, the first significant images in Bernifal are two very large figures of a bison and a bear, both partly shaped by natural reliefs (Fig. 91 a, b). Situated so close to the exit, the bear might suggest the moment of emerging from hibernation, and the bison, too, signals the transformation of the earth in spring, as its size dwarfs the accompanying mammoth; also, the red color of this small mammoth may allude to the end of winter’s frost. Likewise characteristic of the front section of the cave, Chauvet’s red bears are, certainly, messengers of spring (cf. discussion in Chapter X). In fact, some of these bears are shown in the act of emerging from an alcove (Fig. 92 d). This group is located near the cave’s entrance, close to a couple of red mammoths (Fig. 143 a) that, here too, add to the impression of a change of seasons. What is more, this situation is the end of a development that we may trace back to a short side-gallery near the middle of the cave, inside which we find several red bears (Fig. 92 b, c); significantly, the red figure of a mammoth—rising on a slant—is painted on the hanging rock that marks the entrance to this gallery (Fig. 92 a); we are reminded of the role of mammoths in controlling access to/exit from the depths of mountains. In Ekain, two bears, a mother and cub, are about to emerge from an alcove (Fig. 84 d), ready to enter the main gallery. In this position, they look across to the main panel of the cave, significantly the one in which we find the above-mentioned ibex, which also is on the verge of advancing from the embrace of the lowly hills of the earth (Fig. 84 c). The two episodes are closely related: as the bear emerges from hibernation, the earth is warming, and the ibex returns to the hills.

The relationship—even inter-dependence—of bears and earth shows most emphatically in the importance of the animals’ claw-marks on the walls of the caves. Countless, and frequently spectacular, they were noticed by the artists, who frequently incorporated the marks left by these “first cave artists” in their own works, often by placing images of mammoths and bison on wall-faces where the bears’ markings were conspicuous (with few exceptions, the clawing preceded the art works). Ample examples of artists’ imitations—and the figure of a bear—are found in the main panel of Cussac in association with actual claw-marks of cave bears (Fig. 90 a, bottom right). Numerous parallels are found in the Grande Grotte (Fig. 88 b), or Rouffignac (Fig. 93 a, b).

In Chauvet, where the mentioned red bears are in the outer cave, we find a number of engraved mammoths superimposed on bears’ scratch-marks in the inner cave (Fig. 94 b, d, e). Here, one episode may further clarify the implied meaning of this imagery, as it shows a large bear that dominates a smaller mammoth (Fig. 94 a), which is to say that the activity of bears in the cave-depths was perceived as an active force in overcoming the resistance to change—from winter to spring—represented by the stone-world of the mammoth/mountain. A comparable configuration (with a bison instead of a mammoth) occurs in Trois-Frères (Fig. 89 b), as a bear’s claws directly touch the belly of a bison, to the effect that the clawing of the cave walls is equated with the scratching of the earth’s belly. The same applies to a similar composition on an engraved stone from Lourdes (Fig. 95). These scenes, certainly, do not show bears “hunting” bison and mammoths, but they do acknowledge the bears’ clawing action in the depths of the caves as a dynamic agent of change, one that left billions of permanent traces in the caves.

A curious illustration of the relationship between bear and earth occurs in Pasiega, at a location where the natural borders around a smooth section of wall assumes a triangular shape (a constellation of calcite runs and fissures) that recalls the cone-shaped Mount Castillo itself (Fig. 96). Painted within this framework, we find two prints of bear’s paws, which we, consequently, may see as situated in the innermost part of the mountain, as testimony to the importance of hibernating bears for the sanctuary itself. Although in a quite different formulation, the Lhortet staff (Fig. 81 a) combines the same elements, namely, a cave-like design (framing the perforation) and two bear’s paws. The juxtaposition of these paws and two—apparently mating—salmon suggests, on a factual level, that the early spring run of salmon benefits the starving bear, as it emerges from hibernation. On a deeper level, we may understand both events—salmon run and exit from hibernation—as essential aspects of the change of the earth; cause and effect are all but inseparable: the changing earth brings out the bear and the salmon—or, the appearance of the bear and the salmon changes the earth. When Aristotle wrote “one swallow does not make a summer,” he was giving a rationalistic bend to an age-old idiom; for the Palaeolithic artists, the swallow—or, the goose or crane (cf. Fig. 133 a-d; Fig. 134)—certainly did bring the spring or the summer. North American Natives of the North Pacific reverentially celebrated the “first salmon” sighted–leading the spring migration–as bringer of the change of season. What may be a poetic metaphor to the modern mind may have been quite real to archaic peoples.

Animated landscapes

The animals—bison, mammoth, rhino—that embody the earth are visual metaphors, and each retains its distinct meaning when combined with other symbolic figures–deer, goats, bears, etc.—that evoke seasonal events. While maintaining their symbolic roles, the earth- characters are, however, still animals that assume lives of their own with displays of mobility, energy, sexuality, and seasonal adaptability.

Among the oldest cave decorations, the mammoths painted on the main wall of Baume-Latrone are unrivalled in terms of dynamic movements, and drastic postures (Fig. 97). The vehement motion of the two uppermost mammoths—their bodies pushing outward (toward the left), their trunks flung out wildly, one body elongated, one head ballooning—makes for a dramatic contrast with the stiff, motion-less pose of the mammoth at the very bottom of the panel. Significantly, the latter accompanies the figure of a rhinoceros that yields a fearsome horn (Fig. 97, bottom right; its “butterfly ears” are in the style of the Chauvet rhinos), a juxtaposition that associates the immobility of the angular mammoth with the hostile and unyielding aspect of mountains (as in Rouffignac, Fig. 9 c, for example). By contrast, the mobility of the mammoths in the panel’s upper tier (Fig. 97, top) demonstrates the end of paralysis (winter and frost), with the imposition of change (spring and thaw). In Cussac, the agitated motion of the large bison (Fig. 90 a) effectively overcomes the stasis represented by several small mammoths below, one of which is all covered with thick hair in an obvious reference to its woolly winter coat; conversely, the animation of the bison declares the release of new energies in spring. These idiomatic contrasts of restrain and release are pervasive in cave art, and we may not be surprised to find identical expressions as far away as the Russian Kapova cave, located in the Urals, several thousand kilometers east of the European cave sanctuaries. In a major panel of Kapova (Fig. 41 b) the contrast between petrified and dynamic earth-characters is rendered with techniques that recall the great panel of Baume-Latrone (Fig. 97), including the telling contrast between the square mammoths associated with the rhino (Fig. 41 a, center right) and one counter-posed, stretched-out and agitated mammoth (Fig. 41 a, center left). The inertia of the massive representatives of the earth in their winter mode, and conversely, the drama as this resistance gives way to violent motion in spring, constitute a fundamental theme of Ice Age art.

In Chauvet, mammoths and bison alike change from their static poses in the lower gallery to a state of animation in the upper level. Thus, we pass from the restrictive mammoth that blocks the entrance to the lower level “Sacristy” (Fig. 33), to the exuberantly agitated ones in the hall above (Fig. 98), and from the stymied bison at the end of the lower gallery (Fig. 13), to the volatile one on the upper level, the energies of which is evinced by its eight pounding legs (Fig. 99). Images of bison in Gabillou display a similar shift from the immobilized, frozen specimen in the tiny cell at the end of the cave (Fig. 100 a), to several dynamic ones further out (Fig. 100 b; cf. nos. 3 and 11 in Fig. 166).

The just-mentioned animation of the bison in Gabillou coincides with a veritable stampede of reindeer (Fig. 232 d, e; cf. nos. 10, 12, and 13 in Fig. 166), which confirms our assumption that a general development toward spring—encompassing all of nature—is correlated with the animation of the earth-characters. The migration of reindeer was, indeed, one of the earliest signs of spring. A comparable case is made by the bears that accompany the huge, agitated bison in the main panel of Cussac (Fig. 90 a, b). Another frequent means to illustrate a change of seasons is the confrontation of figures moving in opposite directions—into the cave, versus out of the cave. In Font-de-Gaume, two lines of bison collide (Fig. 101): one file moving toward the end of the cave, that is, the terminal fissure with its two rhinoceroses; the other file aiming for the entrance with its files of bison and mammoths that generally aim outward (On the plan of the cave, Fig. 27, the two opposed files are at e, the rhinos are at g, and the outer files are at a and b). Like in Gabillou, the out-bound movement is preceded by an exodus of reindeer (cf. Capitan et al. 1911; Chapter VII, below).

Rouffignac is replete with scenes of mammoths-confronting-mammoths. About a dozen times, we find them arranged symmetrically, coming from opposite directions and meeting head-on, so that two mammoths—individually, or as the leaders of files—come face to face (Fig. 102 a- d; Fig. 103 a). Although these compositions might relate to territorial disputes, the confrontations typically look rather peaceful, and we may more broadly perceive them as symbolic representations of changes in the landscape, that is, as seasonal changes made manifest in the ebb and flow of the earth’s life-forces; persistently, one party moves toward the inner cave, with implications of netherworld, death, and winter, while the other party moves toward the outer world, life, and summer.

In the Rotunda of Niaux, the extensive “Black Frieze” (Fig. 135) includes numerous static bison, whose stiff legs seem to resist any forward motion (cf. panel “A” in Fig. 135); some of these figures may even suggest the rigor mortis of dead animals (Clottes 1995, 138). As we move ahead in the frieze –left to right (following the cue of the figures of horses, albeit mostly eliminated from our illustration)—we find the individual panels divided, with figures of bison oriented both left and right; only towards the end (panels “D,” “E” “F” in Fig. 135) does the right-oriented progression prevail. Coincidentally, only towards the end does the one stag of the hall appear (in panel “D”), announcing the renewal of the earth and its vegetation. The latter figure concludes a process that originated in the above-mentioned plant-/antler-like sign (Fig. 72 a) as it emerges from a hole in the back of a niche (Fig. 135 e).

Again, looking to the North American buffalo lore, the many bison of the “Black Frieze” (at least three dozen) may well remind us of the vast herd of buffalos kept in a mountain cave according to the above-cited myth of the Cheyenne tribe, the very same buffalos that, when eventually released, became the basis for the promised blessing of the land. Indeed, the wealth of bison in the Niaux panorama may be seen as stored in a subterranean corral—hence their immobility—awaiting the moment, when they will be released to the outer world and, eventually, assure the richness of the earth. Notably, the tight stacking of bison in the first panel of the frieze (“A” in Fig. 135) may suggest a kind of storage. This reading seems to apply equally well to the tight accumulation of bison figures in the alcove-like “Cabinet of Small Bison” towards the rear of Font-de-Gaume (at f in Fig. 27), where the close packing of bison (Fig. 57) makes the figures fit together as snugly as pieces of a jig-saw puzzle. Again, this recalls the mythical cave that was a store-house of buffalos according to the North American legend. We may perceive the compressed mass of bison in the “Cabinet” as the reserve that allowed people to overcome the hardship of winter (consider the rhinos in the terminal fissure, at g in Fig. 27) or perhaps, as a promise of replenishment of food after the end of winter. In any case, we may perceive the accumulation of the “Cabinet” as the supply for the outward-pushing file of bison in the main gallery (at e in Fig. 27)—which, in turn, sustains the landscape-like, outer-world-related friezes in the front (a and b in Fig. 27).

A close parallel to the Font-de-Gaume “Cabinet,” the famous ceiling in Altamira compresses its two dozen bison equally tight, fitting them together dovetails-wise (Fig. 56 a). In Altamira, a handful of bison are even kept in compacted form, embedded in the ceiling’s characteristic boulders (Fig. 56 b). This large reserve of life-like, painted bison, though located very close to the cave’s original entrance, was never intended to be admired as the decorated ceiling of a room (the artists had to kneel or lie on their backs to paint the excruciatingly low ceiling); it was, however, a treasure trove of life-like bison, fully ready for release to the world beyond—perhaps, we may speculate, in a ritual re-enactment of a foundational myth like the legend of “Erect Horns.”

In addition to scenes that display mobility and vast numbers of bison or mammoths, the cave artists affirmed the vitality of the earth-characters with scenes that displayed them as nuclear families with their young ones, thus, praising the ever-new powers of regeneration in the lifecycles of the earth. Such a scene occurs in the Rouffignac frieze called “the Five” (Fig. 103 a), in which the two figures on the left, a female and a male, are joined by a small, tusk-less mammoth that we may see as their young. A short distance removed, another group consists of two parents and their young (Fig. 103 b). Close by, we find even the grim rhinoceros as the protagonist of such a life-affirming scene (Fig. 103 c), the female guiding her young, the male leading from behind. We notice that these three panels (at nos. 8, 5, and 4 in Fig. 25) are found at the precise location where the two wide branches of the cave come together into the main stem, that is, where many struggling trickles, gradually joined together into major streams, eventually combine to release the full flow—be it of rivers, vital energies, or rejuvenated earth-characters—toward the outer world.

In Chauvet, the artists likewise took recourse to family-scenes of the large earth-representatives in order to illustrate the soft and warm side of landscape imagery. A large mammoth—the above-mentioned one that is arched across a niche (cf. Fig. 32)—is followed by a baby (Fig. 104 a, b), which is the more remarkable as this scene is situated in the midst of the famous panorama with prides of lions and herds of rhinos; the clumsy but charming little mammoth defies the presence of frightening, deadly, and paralyzed characters all around. Chauvet also features a glimpse of rhinoceros family life, in which we recognize the three-some of male, female, and young (Fig. 104 c). As in Rouffignac, this group is located at a point where we advance from the generally oppressive inner-half of the cave to the friendlier outer-half; this progression is reflected both in the presence of the baby rhino and in the red color of the ensemble (a departure from the predominantly black panels farther back).

The great wall of Baume-Latrone includes a comparable group consisting of a mammoth couple with their young, a family scene that occupies the middle register of the panel (Fig. 97). The baby (without tusks) is here placed between the rounded figure of a female, on the right, and a muscular, edgy male, on the left. A simplified variant of the theme occurs in Pair-non-Pair, where the single, tusk-less mammoth appears to be a very young animal (Fig. 82). In this case, the ibex that is perched on top of the baby mammoth—as if climbing to the top of a mountain—also connects the scene to the coming of spring and the renewal of the earth.

In Combarelles, two panels on either side of the narrow gallery appear to, jointly, describe a landscape shifting from winter into spring and about to become livable. In this case, the bison is part of the story, represented by a bison cow with her calf (Fig. 105 a) placed vis-à-vis a mammoth in motion and a dynamic reindeer (Fig. 105 b). The latter display suggests the emergence of new vegetation and the start of migration, and to this evidence of spring, we may add the crude fishes right below the mammoth as well as the more detailed fish next to the bison-with-young panel (Fig. 105 c); everything indicates the turn from rigid and forbidding winter to fluid and energized spring. We may add that, in agreement with these events, the bison with her young is moving away from (leaving behind) a panel of two lions and a rhinoceros (nos. 103-107 in Barrière 1997)—certainly a departure from winter and death.

In all of this we recognize descriptions of the earthly environment in flux—literally so, as the fishes in the Combarelles sequence signify the return of life to rivers that swell from waters of the spring thaw. This theme is further discussed elsewhere (in Chapter VII), but we may take note of the significant tie between flowing waters and mountains as articulated by prominent images of fishes in association with mammoths or bison—found in the Grande Grotte d’Arcy (Fig. 106 a), Altxerri (Fig. 106 b), Pindal (Fig. 106 c), and Trois-Frères (Fig. 134)—or, as streaming water ruled by mammoths, as seen in Gargas (Fig. 122 b), Rouffignac (Fig. 103 b), or Pech-Merle (Fig. 170 a, bottom left). The theme also occurs on the decorated stone from Baume-Bonne (Fig. 55 c). The L’Hortet staff (Fig. 81 a) manages to combine references to most of the above themes—caves, the earth, vegetation (the jumping stag), waters, bears emerging from hibernation—including large images of fishes (two mating salmon).

A certain preoccupation with signs of spring, notwithstanding, the artists’ images of bison and mammoths remained cognizant of the challenge to survival posed by the fall/winter season. In the above-mentioned drawing from La Vache (Fig. 69 a) the visible excitement and bellowing of the bison indicates sexual arousal and, thus, the fall season; correspondingly the cones and twigs of pine trees on this artifact are a good match for the time of year when vegetation goes to seeds and only hardy plants remain green. Two battling bison in the back of Marsoulas (Fig. 107) certainly belong to the fall, when the bulls fight over females, and to this season, as well, we may attribute the cave’s conspicuous images of seeds in the ground, represented by red dots lined up across the bodies of bison or placed in horizontal rows along the bottom of walls (Fig. 66 c, d, e, f).

The perpetually shifting focus in seasonal imagery is well illustrated at Combarelles II. On the one hand, the main gallery of this cave has scenes with static bison figures that are shown to be impacted by the prominent figures of a rhinoceros and several mammoths (Fig. 14 a, b); these episodes recall the harsh conditions of winter. On the other hand, an ascending niche (or “chimney”) just above the rhino/bison group features the spectacle of a bison cow in heat pursued by a bull (Fig. 108), obviously an event of the fall and an example of the animal kingdom equivalent of plants dispensing their seeds.

As the scenes of the main gallery of Combarelles II shows, displays of the earth subdued by winter were not taboo for the artists, even as they clearly preferred to emphasize the brighter side of the seasonal cycle. Thus, the extremely large representation of a rhinocero’s horns, superimposed on the mammoths—and a single bison—in one frieze of Rouffignac (Fig. 102 d) conveys the powers of winter’s hardship by its scale of size, yet, it remains unlike anything else in the vast sanctuary, where the ebbs and flows of life is more broadly pursued. Another, quite morbid, formulation of the ravages of winter is found in the “Shaft” of Lascaux (Fig. 12), where the presence of the rhinoceros (the only one in the richly decorated cave) adds an explicatory not to the grim display of a bison that is being utterly destroyed. Here the extreme animation (rage) of the earth’s typically gentle representative conveys a rare image of the terror of destruction—certainly, the opposite of renewal. (The demise of creation as a theme of cave art is discussed in Chapter IX).

Mass and energy—restraint and release

The cave artists’ descriptions of the changing earth reflect a pattern of thinking that was focused on the cycle of the year with its perpetual oscillations between extreme conditions. Underlying this preoccupation was a view of the world as subject to the inter-play of two opposite principles that adopted a vast array of forms and qualities: hostile versus friendly, oppressive versus permissive, hard versus soft, barren versus fertile, cold versus warm, etc. As discussed elsewhere (in Chapter X), this conceptual system amounted to a binary philosophy that was quite similar to the yin/yang dualism familiar from proto-historical China, the perception of two complementary principles—opposite-yet-entwined—locked in an ever-shifting act of balance, cycling between the two forces with alternating prevalence of one over the other and vice-versa. We shall here use the terms mass (“yin”-like) and energy (“yang”-like) to label the two categorical principles.

In accordance with this all-pervasive dualism, we may comprehend the relationship between, on the one hand, the earth with its hills and mountains (mass), and on the other hand, the rivers (energy) as follows: in winter, as mass (the yin-like principle) prevails, the mountains are harsh and unyielding, the earth is barren; their static mode imposes itself on everything, and hence, the rivers (fluid and yang-like) are clogged up with ice, streams are frozen, and springs cease to flow. Conversely, in spring/summer, as the restrictive principle of mass weakens, the mountains and the earth evince an increase in the expansive qualities of energy, and the rivers, their momentum restored, rush along, teaming with life (manifest in the richness of fish). What we see in Palaeolithic cave art is, in fact, remarkably close to what we find in early Taoist literature, as the latter explicitly draws this same distinction between retained waters and released waters: stagnate waters (as in marshes) are yin; channeled and flowing waters are yang (Hart 1984).

Rouffignac, with its multitudes of mammoths and its quasi-riverine system of galleries, illustrates this dualism with great persistence; notably so, in, the most densely decorated segment, in which the decoration carries theme of retention and release of waters across three levels of galleries. As previously explained, the development starts at the one point in the middle-level corridor from whence the still-active waters of the bottom level can be reached (no. 11 in Fig. 25); surrounding the descent to this still active stream, we find a panel of a dozen figures, mostly bison and mammoths, and in particular, the unique figure of a bison that is painted, head down, on a pendant overhanging the opening in the floor, pointed directly toward this final passage (Fig. 116). The vertical descent of this bison tells of a situation in which the earth is turned toward the depths and the category of mass prevails. The shift of balance comes, however, as we return to the upper (main) level of the cave via the near-vertical shaft connecting the two levels (at no. 10, Fig. 25). Here, on the ceiling, directly above our heads we have the largest accumulation of images in the cave, with more than sixty figures pouring out from the mouth of the shaft and spreading across the low ceiling; the release of energies is, indeed, palpable. As mentioned, the reality of a shift of seasons at this point is spelled out by the interplay of ibexes and mammoths (cf. Fig. 85 a, b), notably by the sexual activity of the male goats, which falls toward the end of winter.

Pursuing the development into spring/summer, the earth-related characters carry the momentum of the Great Ceiling forward along the upper gallery, where the release of energy in the guise of streaming water is visualized by long, serpentine lines running along the ceiling of the main gallery (starting back at the Great Ceiling); these project the semblance of flowing water being channeled toward the outer world through an artery that is the gallery itself (no. 9 in Fig. 25). A number of the mammoths here are marked with wavy designs on their bodies or have sinuous lines draped, festoon-like, around them (Fig. 23 b, c), visibly demonstrating how the energy of the flowing waters gains enough force (through the melting of ice) to change the appearance of the resilient mass of the earth/mountains. The out-bound orientation of the pachyderms and their engagement with the sweeping meanders in this section suggests that they are not just channeling the flow, but actively directing it along, or at least, clearing its passage (cf. Fig. 24). In factual terms, the rocky cliffs, ranges, promontories, and intermittent hills determine the course of the waters through the landscape, and the mountains are, indeed, feeding the rivers of the valleys in spring. In mythical terms, however, we may perceive the mammoths/mountains as yielding to the rush of energies and releasing the waters.

The fluctuating, seasonal rhythm that rules the relationship of mountains and waters is also felt in Rouffignac’s characteristic displays of mammoths-confronting-mammoths, a theme that aptly illustrates the alternating dominance of centripetal mass pulling inward and centrifugal energy pushing outward. The artists repeatedly positioned such conflicted groups directly above gaping holes in the floor, shafts that (though impassable for visitors) certainly converse with subterranean waters; these situations account for the cave’s most impressive accumulations of mammoths (notably at nos. 6 and 12, Fig. 25). Both the bodies of waters in the depths of the earth (the source of springs from the sides of hills and mountains) and the water bound-up in ice caps at the peaks of mountains were subject to the oscillations between dominant mass and dominant energy.

These dynamics of restrain versus release are, of course, not unique to Rouffignac. Already in the ancient cave of Baume-Latrone (Fig. 97), a square, “frozen” mammoth and a brutish rhinoceros constitute the bottom group of the great panel, jointly representing the epitome of unyielding mass; by contrast, the animated mammoths in the upper register demonstrate an explosive outburst of energy. Significantly, this great panel, in the final chamber of the cave, overhangs the terminal descent to the waters of the lower, active level of the cave. In the equally old cave of Chauvet, scores of rhinos in the back of the nether galleries impersonate a tremendous restraining force (cf. Fig. 10 a; Fig. 13; Fig. 33; Fig. 80 a; Fig. 104 a), whereas the ones in the outer cave assume a decidedly friendlier ambience (Fig. 104 c). We may recall that the view from the cave-mouth showed an old, loop of the Ardèche that preceded the  break-through of a natural gate-way and the creation of a direct course of the river.

From the above we may deduce that Upper Palaeolithic peoples had a basic understanding of the relationship between geology and geography. They realized that waters carved out the karstic caves just as they cut out the courses of rivers and shaped the valleys; they also observed that the solid masses of hills and mountains pre-determined the framework of springs, streams, and rivers, thus establishing the map for the earth’s watercourses. Of course, they lacked the chronology needed to cast this knowledge in scientific terms; instead, they referred the origins of the earth and the conditions of its formation to a mythological era of creation. We shall explore evidence of a belief in the concept—familiar from the mythologies of later cultures—that a primordial watery chaos preceded the creation of the earth.


The representation of landscapes by way of living species of animals—pachyderms and bison—implies a concept of nature at large as a living entity. Although used metaphorically, these characters are still animate subjects, and as such, they manifest their vitality through agitated motion, seasonal changes, and sexual cycles. In order to understand the artists’ ideas about the ultimate source of these energies we must, however, turn to their religious/philosophical theory about the origins of the world; concepts that differ from our ideas of natural causes. Indeed, we find evidence of these thoughts in a group of strange motifs that are at odds with the laws of nature.

Vertical bison and mammoths: the netherworld connection

A clue to the ultimate origins of the earth and its life may be seen in the many figures of bison (and occasionally mammoths) that are placed in vertical or strongly inclined positions. This motif indicates that the earth—which these animals represent—is connected with a cosmic region well below the upper tiers of the earth and the mountains, a substratum to the accessible and familiar world. These bizarre, vertical or tilted, images do not illustrate techniques of the hunting (driving bison and mammoths over cliffs or into pits), and they display no signs of extreme motion, tumbling, falling, or death. If we think of these animals as emblems of the earth in a primarily physical sense (as mounds, soil, rocks, mountain-peaks), we may comprehend the vertical figures in terms of the creation—respectively, destruction—of the earth, its emergence from, or disappearance into, a chasm. Alternatively, we may adopt a more abstract approach and read the figures in a less concrete mode, as emblematic of the powers of the earth. We may, then, understand the strange, up- or down-turned images as the artists’ means of illustrating the renewal—or, decline—of the earth’s energies. We shall find that the two views are entwined in the art works, and that the artists (intentionally) avoided drawing distinctions.

Vertical earth-characters are present in the oldest caves, as demonstrated by mammoths from Chauvet (Fig. 92 a, and Fig. 94 c), the Grande Grotte d’Arcy (Fig. 6), and Roucadour (Fig. 8, left), and in relatively old ones, as illustrated by a bison in Rouffignac (Fig. 116, center) or a mammoth in Pech-Merle (Fig. 2, to the left). Vertical bison became increasingly popular in later caves of the Pyrenees and northern Spain. Sometimes a panel with vertical figures will include both  upward- and downward-pointed ones, as seen in the Basque caves of Santimamiñe (Fig. 109 a-d) and Altxerri (nos. 2 and 4 in Fig. 110), two caves that contain a good number of vertical or strongly slanted bison. In the Pyrenees, Fontanet features several vertical bison in the main ensemble, including some turned in opposite directions (Fig. 111 a) as well as a panel toward the back of the cave, where two bison are turned in opposite directions (Fig. 111 b). Trois-Frères, likewise, has up- and down-turned bison in the frieze of the innermost gallery (Fig. 111 d, e) as well as on the main wall of the “Sanctuary” (Fig. 112 a, b, c) and in the chimney-like corridor beyond that (Fig. 112 d – i). The neighboring cave of Tuc d’Audoubert shows vertical figures, both rising and descending, positioned at several locations (Fig. 113 a-e; Fig. 114). These situations make it clear that contact with the depths of the earth involves both descent and ascent, episodes of turning to the elusive lower realms and of returning toward the known world, even as the positive message of return and renewal remains the most popular artistic choice.

It is obviously important that several of the mentioned sites either end in dramatically descending sections and/or contain pit-like openings in the floors, to the effect that the verticality of the figures physically links them to the deepest parts of the earth, whether they are turned up or down, returning or departing. The lay-out of Altxerri illustrates this traffic well: the vertical bison start multiplying in the area where the main gallery of the cave begins to slope downwards (from no. 3 to no. 4 in. Fig. 110 a, b), and the last examples were even painted from a risky perch above the big gap (at no. 5, Fig. 110), at the ultimate point reachable. Most of these figures are turned downwards, a few are directed upwards. The decorative scheme proclaims the importance of the dramatic down-turn and, eventually, the near-vertical drop of the main gallery.

We recognize this basic scheme in many other caves. In Fontanet, the above-mentioned panel of two bison, one aimed up the other down (Fig. 111 b) is located towards the end of the decorated part of the cave, preceding a dangerous pit and a descent towards water-filled layers. In Santimamiñe (Fig. 109 a-d) the entire decoration is concentrated in a small chamber that overhangs the inner, descending part of the cave. Trois- Frères’ “Sanctuary” with its many vertical bison (Fig. 112 a-c) is the lowest part of the cave, about twelve meters below the level of the upper galleries, and many vertical figures (Fig. 112 d, e, f, h, i) are in a chimney-like corridor that climbs up steeply from the lowest point, adjacent to a pit (“P” on the plan in Bégouën and Breuil 1958/1999, fig. 34) that apparently connects with the invisible stretch of the Volp river beneath the cave. Trois- Frères’ twin-cave, Tuc d’Audoubert, is even more closely tied to the Volp, which actually provides the only access to this cave. Here, several locations with figures of vertical bison open directly on to the river, including the outer chamber (“Salle Nuptiale”) where the only panel is engraved on a projection of the wall that carries one bison turned upward and the head of another turned downward (Fig. 113 a); furthermore, the “Chamber of the Red Horse” contains three such images (Fig 113 b, c, d), and the “First Balcony” has a panel of darkly painted bison that includes two vertical specimens (Fig. 113 e). The subterranean river is certainly the subtext for all these images.

Connections to waters—standing or active, visible or invisible—also occur at unexpected locations, as in Portel, where a vertical bison is painted above a natural basin that, intermittently, may collect water of condensation (Fig. 115 a; located at no. 7 in Fig. 159). More often, the vertical figures are at locations that allow, at least, a sensation of physical contact with lower levels of caves and with subterranean waters. Grotte Moulin (Fig. 115 e) is instructive, because the entire decoration consists of just four bison, of which two are situated immediately above a drain in the floor, through which a trickle of water disappears toward lower levels—and one of this pair of bison is in a vertical position (Fig. 115 d). Without a doubt, the drain, though tiny, determined the position of the panel and it seems likely that this situation stimulated the artists’ interest in the cave itself.

Points of contact with watery depths were of the highest interest, as emphatically demonstrated in Rouffignac with the cave’s three inter-connected levels of galleries. As described above, the rock-pendant of the second level—the location for the vertical bison (Fig. 116)—is set right above the vertical shaft that provides the cave’s only practicable path to the third level. The “Great Ceiling” at the head of this journey only confirms the argument of L.-R. Nougier (1975): the connection to the netherworld with its mysterious flow of water was the focal point—the site of the “birth”—of the sanctuary. Essentially the same scheme prevails in La Garma (Fig. 117 a) where descending passages, again, connect several levels of galleries, with the lower—decorated—one leading to the lowest, still active level. Significantly, this last point of contact is the one that is marked by a vertical bison (Fig. 117 b). In Armintxe the main panel with its two vertical bison (Fig. 117 c) is perched above a channel of waters that, eventually, dips into water-logged arteries. A more expansive development involves Lloseta and its inter-connected sister-cave, Tito Butillo. A vertical bison, head down, is the last image of Lloseta, where it is left overhanging the steep descent into Tito (no. 19 in Fig. 158 b). This event is, furthermore, only one step in a progression toward the depths, because the path from there, through Tito Bustillo, leads to the great wall of the latter cave—located in close proximity (within hearing range) of a subterranean river (at nos. 2-5 in Fig. 158 a).

Generally, the cave artists were keenly aware of pits and drastically descending passages that might lend a sense of acuity to the presence of the watery depths, but the perception of contact with the elusive nether regions of the earth was also felt—if less intensely so—in more shallow, superficial recesses, such as niches, cracks, or fissures that, still, achieve the likeness of a penetration into the massive, stony body of a mountain. Such places of symbolic (rather than real) contact with the depths are often marked off, even though the artistic display may be less acute than in places of actual contacts with the depths. Apparently, the artists perceived the difference between actual and symbolic intrusion toward the lower realms to be a matter of degree, not categorical. This is illustrated well in Bédeilhac., as separate spots within, the giant cave offers openings through which visitors may approach the innermost regions of the mountain, or at least, get a feeling of being close to the depths. One situation occurs at the very end of the cave (at no. 1 in Fig. 214) where a low, slanting ceiling almost meets the floor, leaving only a horizontal crack that is too narrow to enter, but which the artists, nevertheless, decorated as far inside as they could reach (cf. Fig. 140 a); a vertical bison drawn above this crevice (no. 3 in Fig. 214) shows that this area was felt as close to the depths, even as the artists were unable to actually advance further toward the inner mountain. Closer to the front-end of Bédeilhac, a side-gallery is decorated in the outer part, right up to the point where it suddenly dips down markedly, narrows in, and eventually become impenetrable; again, a vertical bison is painted right above the abrupt drop (at no. 8 in Fig. 214). Thus, two separate locations within the same cave each provides contact with—and yet not actual access to—the depths. We may add that a pool of permanent water (“le Bénitier,” the “Holy Water”) was acknowledged by the artists who placed a large field of red dots on the facing wall (at no. 9, Fig. 214); a connection with waters of the depths was certainly implied.

In Altxerri, the above-described, descending section of the main gallery, with its numerous vertical bison, leads to the chasm at the end, which was the obvious focus of the artists’ attention (nos. 3-5, Fig. 110 a, b); from here a perilous climb gives access to a lower level (with two bison figures; no. 6 in Fig. 110 a) and, via a long corridor, to a still-active stream (no. 7, Fig. 110 b). In addition, Altxerri has a significant side-gallery with half-a-dozen vertical or slanted bison (at no. 2, Fig. 110). A pit near the entrance of this appendix (at no. 1 in Fig. 110) provides a, possibly significant, tie to the lower levels; the decoration of the side-gallery is, however, concentrated at the far end (at no. 2, Fig. 110), which suggests that the artists were as much inspired by the symbolic incursion into the mountain provided by the practicable gallery as on the actual presence of the deep-but-impassable pit. A similar choice was made in Tuc d’Audoubert, which—beside the above-mentioned locations along the subterranean river—also has a narrow side-gallery with the appearance of a cleavage of the mountain, a fissure-like corridor that features an amazing gathering of vertical bison at its far end (Fig. 114). Returning to Grotte Moulin (Fig. 115 c-e), we find one of its two pairs of bison (Fig. 115 c) to be studiously arranged on either side of a narrow fissure in the wall. This artistic choice suggests that the symbolic (impassable) opening into the body of the mountain was as significant as the hole that actually drains the small stream traversing the cave—the site of the other couple (Fig. 115 d). In any case, the latter pair is the one with the vertical bison, and this distinction seems to indicate that the artists, still, favored real ties to the lower levels over symbolic ones.

We may often find it hard or quite irrelevant to categorically distinguish between the very end of a cave and pits, fissures, or niches at other points; the powers of the depths may be felt at distinct locations. Thus, Pasiega has vertical bison in two sections that offer quite different settings: the one in gallery “C” (Fig. 115 b) is painted above a, dangerously deep, impassable pit; the one in “A” (no. 2, Fig. 118) is part of a larger panel that extends into (or, comes out of) the increasingly tight fissure at the end of the gallery (at no. 1 in Fig. 118). In Fontanet, two vertical bison (Fig. 111 b) signal the beginning of the end-section of the cave and the descent towards waters below, yet, these two engraved figures are less poignant than the vertical bison in the alcove (Fig. 111 a), embraced by the elaborately painted, centrally located, main panel.

We may fairly speculate that a given cave, in its entirety, was perceived as a path—or multiple paths—by which to penetrate the depths of the earth/mountain. This trajectory might start already at the entrance of a cave, as stated in Venta-la-Perra, where a vertical bison is located in the outer rock-shelter, right next to the narrow and low entrance to the cave proper (Fig. 59 a, c). Even a decorated artifact that was merely stuck into the floor of a gallery might participate in this engagement with the powers of the depths, as demonstrated in Labastide, where a stone-slab with the drawing of a bison was deliberately inserted into the floor in an upright position, so that the bison actually was seen to rise out of the ground (Fig. 119 a). This verticality is the more meaningful as Labastide features a number of yawning pits throughout its length; in fact, one pit—a good thirty meters deep—opens up behind the slab with the vertical figure. An instructive episode occurs in the midst of the great frieze of the Niaux Rotunda, where a vertical bison (Fig. 72 a) is painted next to a natural hole in the back of a niche (at e in Fig. 135) as if emerging from this cavity. Significantly, this is the same hole from which the above-mentioned antlers-and-or-branches emerge as well. The two, parallel events suggest that the vertical ascent of the bison is tied to a general renewal of the earth and its growth.

The sources of renewal in the depths

The vertical earth-characters typically mark significant points of contact with—or, closeness of—those watery depths that extend beyond the limits of the empirical world, and as the last-mentioned example (from Niaux) indicates, the explanation for the odd insistence on a direct connection with the water-filled netherworld may be that the artists believed the deepest reaches of the earth to be the ultimate source-spring of the earth’s revival. In support of this reading, we notice that the above situations with vertical bison or mammoths make numerous references to the theme of the earth’s renewal.

A review of the evidence in Rouffignac will clarify the artists’ ideas about the transfer of these numinous powers of the depths. We must start at the bottom, with the vertical bison that is pitched toward the still-active stream (Fig. 116). This figure is flanked by a symmetrical line-up of mammoths and bison, which implies that the foundation of the earth already is in place; we are, thus, not seeing the original creation of the world, but rather its re-creation. Correspondingly, on returning to the upper cave, we find the landscape of the “Great Ceiling”—a turbulent mixture of rhinos, mammoths, and bison—to be interspersed with representations of ibexes and, significantly, images that stress the fertility of the ibex (several aroused males, a female with a kid), that is, images that refer to late winter/early spring (Fig. 85 a, b). Thus sexual regeneration and seasonal renewal are involved. Moving outward, we witness the empowerment of the rivers, liberated from ice and swelling from melting snow, as illustrated by the ribbon-like tracings that course along the upper gallery (Fig. 23 a-c; Fig. 24). Continuing outward we leave behind scenes in which mammoths and rhinos greatly over-power bison (Fig. 9 b, c), as well as panels with massive confrontations of mammoths (the “Eleven,” Fig. 102 c); instead, we find softer, spring-time scenes of pachyderms with their young (Fig. 103 a-c), and we arrive, eventually (at no. 1 in Fig. 25), to a description of the fully transformed earth, with bison and mammoths equally present in a balanced composition (Fig. 9 a). We may conclude that the impetus for this entire development comes from the vertical bison on the lower level.

A similar pattern is evident in other caves discussed above. Thus, the assembly of vertical bison at the very end of the side-gallery of Altxerri (at no. 2, Fig. 110 a) is closely connected with various spring-related images: large fishes (Fig. 106 b; Fig. 125 c) that indicate revived streams; an invigorated ibex shown jumping upwards (Fig. 87 b); a reindeer in a telling counter-pose to the winter-related figure of an arctic fox (Fig. 75 a), a meaningful, symmetrical upward-/downward-slant that suggests the start of migration and the emergence of vegetation. On the brink of the abyss that ends Altxerri’s main gallery, we encounter still another configuration of vertical bison and tree-like antlers (Fig. 75 b). Comparable narratives of renewed vegetation abound in the context of vertical earth-figures. As mentioned, a side-gallery in Tuc d’Audoubert features a handful of vertical bison (Fig. 114) as well as a large reindeer’s head, pointedly placed above the back of one (horizontal) bison (Fig. 74 c). Portel, which has the vertical bison above a pool-like cavity (Fig. 115 a), presents two distinct formulations of the antlers-above-a-bison’s-back motif (Fig. 74 a, b). In Pasiega, the vertical bison at the end of the main gallery (no. 2 in Fig. 118) is juxtaposed with a stag (no. 3), the antlers of which rise above an “earth” sign to announce the revival of vegetation in spring. Santimamiñe’s main panel, with its up- and down-turned bison figures, is painted on the side of a stalagmite cascade that stretches along the foot of the main panel (Fig. 109), and from the tight corner, out of which came the flow of water that once formed the cascade, appears the odd trio of a bear, a stag, and an ibex (Graziosi 1960, Pl. 236-238; Leroi-Gourhan 1967, 459). Thus, the setting of the main panel unites the themes of released waters, the end of hibernation, the spring movements of deer and mountain goats, and the vertical bison—descending and returning.

As for the mammoths, the vision of strictly vertical pachyderms was, perhaps, too challenging for the artists’ imagination, but strongly tilted mammoths sufficed to give the impression of rising or descending figures. (Two extraordinary, vertical rhinos in Chauvet refer quite specifically to astronomy, as discussed in Chapter XI). In Chauvet, the up-ward climbing, baby mammoth (Fig. 104 a) may well relate to the spring-thaw swelling of the Ardèche River, given the subtle connection between the adult mammoth above and the Pont d’Arc (cf. Figs. 31 and 32) For sure, the rising—albeit, not strictly vertical—stance of one mammoth in the outer cave is associated with the spring-time emergence of bears from hibernation (cf. Fig. 92 a, b), and the upward-slant of another (Fig. 94 c) is associated with bears’ claw marks and even with the spectacle of a large bear out-balancing another mammoth (Fig. 94 a)—the end of hibernation is clearly the reference in these scenes. In Baume-Latrone, the animated mammoth at the top left corner of the great panel (Fig. 97, top left) appears to surge upwards in a strongly tilted pose. At several spots in this cave, subterranean waters are noticeable, and immediately following the hall with the main panel, the gallery dips down toward its water-clogged end; in fact, the great panel is drawn on a projection of the wall that overhangs the descent to the lower level. The above-mentioned family of mammoths with their young (Fig. 97, the middle register) relates the dynamic ensemble to the renewal of the earth. In Oulen, a decorated niche in the low and steadily descending, inner gallery contains a slanted mammoth (Fig. 53 f) and the surrounding panels feature triangular signs of both the “vulva” type (apex turned down) and the “mountain” type (apex turned up); the former speak of the connection between mountain-depths and fertility.

The earth and the watery abyss

The human mind inherently wonders what existed before the known world and what preceded the beginnings of time, but the depth and age of the earth and its mountains remained imponderables that Upper Palaeolithic cultures could only approach with a mix of common-sense observations and religious/philosophical speculations. Though the existence of a primordial realm below the earth was beyond empirical verification, a strong sensation of its reality was evidently felt inside certain caves and, in particular, at points of deep penetration. The motif of the vertical bison (or mammoth) points to Palaeolithic speculations about an inexorable, watery substratum at the lowest level of—or even below—the earth, and to ideas about the vertical characters as performing a transitory journey between those imagined depths and the world of the living. The accompanying imagery suggests that these figures, when aimed downwards, are images of depletion, revisiting the nether realm to secure the renewal of energies for the earth’s revival; when turned upwards, they are vehicles returning to the upper world imbued with energies to sustain the earth’s life. This narrative aptly served a concept of the earth as subject to cycles of exhaustion and regeneration.

This vision of a fond of (re)generative energies that reside in the elusive depths, has much in common with the near-universal belief in a primordial ocean, a dark and unfathomable abyss, which preceded everything and was the locus of the creation of the known, structured world. In Hesiod’s Theogony, Chaos (Greek for a chasm) is the original, pre-existing and age-less element, and coming out of Chaos, the earth (Gaea) is the first created element, the one that initiates the actual appearance of the world. Hesiod’s cosmic model casts Chaos as a void that gives birth to abstract entities (darkness, for example), whereas the earth—which is both the physical element and a personalized goddess—in turn gives birth to the sky, the mountains, and the sea. Our exposition (Part One) suggests a relationship between earth and mountains that deviates from Hesiod, but the appearance of the earth out of Chaos resonates with the vertical earth characters and their ties to the depths of caves.

The basic assumption of a primeval realm of turbulent waters applies readily to the world of karstic caves, which were created through the powerful action of water and which, significantly, retain ample geological evidence of those origins. Many caves contain waters that may be inaccessible, even as they remain still-active, permanently present in lower levels of the systems. Some major sanctuaries continue to share their galleries with subterranean rivers (Tuc d’Audoubert, Erberua, Montespan, Mas d’Azil, Labouiche, Pindal), or they have galleries that dip down into live, subterranean streams at some point, which is often at the very end (Combarelles, Marsoulas, Fontanet, Garma, Altxerri, Pergouset, Ker à Massat, Labastide, Baume-Latrone). Other decorated caves contain permanent lakes or pits that reach a watery substratum (Tibiran, Pileta, Chufin, even the now-flooded Cosquer). A great number of significant caves have pools of persistently refreshed water (Niaux, Combe-Nègre, Gargas, Altamira, Bédeilhac). Frequently, caves also have intermittent, seasonal infiltration of water that creates speleothems, building fantastic landscapes of calcite concretions. Cave sanctuaries were the ideal settings for the purpose of expounding a cosmogony that was based on the priority of a watery chasm.

Meanders and incipient shapes

The artists relied heavily on cave topography in order to present their ideas about the persistence of a primordial chaos, but they also designed particular visual motifs to articulate the concept, even as they faced the challenge of giving visual form to something—the realm of chaos—that is unknown and essentially shapeless. As a result, we find panels that strike an uneasy balance between totally aimless scribbles and faint hints at evolving shapes. The artists’ main solution to the task of depicting a dark and fluid realm without spatial/temporal order was to create fields of arbitrary, swirling lines—often referred to as “macaroni”—typically traced with two-to-four fingers (occasionally with a multi-pronged tool) on soft wall-faces such as a coverage of clay or decomposing calcite. Randomly executed, these bundles of lines befit representations of a primordial chaos, and in the simplest approach, such panels of meandering and crisscrossing flutings required no particularly artistic skills, because they remain fundamentally non-representational, devoid of any discernable patterns. Many different persons (even small children) contributed, and the communal effort speaks for a general understanding of the ritual gesture as a symbolic means of relinquishing powers present in the cave sanctuary. This may be true even when a utilitarian purpose was a factor, as was the case with flutings that resulted from the collection (for example, in Chauvet, Baume-Latrone, or Cosquer) of specific wall coatings, such as the “Mondmilch” that may have medicinal benefits (Clottes and Courtin 1996, 229-230). Whether they served practical needs, liturgical purposes, or artistic expression, the apparently meaningless meanders visually reflected their origins in the chaotic swirls of a primordial abyss, just as they symbolically revealed the presence of recreational powers in the caves.

Among the largest known fields of meanders, the low ceiling in the “Red Roof Chamber” of Rouffignac (located at no. 14 in Fig. 25) covers about 150 square meters) and is made of parallel finger-tracings (mostly by three fingers) in a coverage of red clay. Many similar—but smaller—panels are found throughout the huge cave, but we also find panels in which the undulating finger-tracings are decidedly more organized. The latter are, significantly, associated with the cave’s many mammoths, and in these cases, the undulating flutings assume rather distinct shapes that, rather, suggest river-like courses of water (cf. Fig. 23 a–d). As they deviate from the aimlessly swirling appearance of the flutings in the “Red Roof Chamber,” these stream-like serpentines, while still belonging within the same conceptual framework, mark a progressive state in the process of creation. They begin immediately after the “Great Ceiling” (no. 10 in Fig. 25) and unfold along a significant stretch of the main gallery (no. 9, Fig. 25), as a handful of mammoths (turned toward the outside world) set the course and guide the flow of these waters that, supposedly, carry the seeds of revival for life on earth. Ultimately, the impetus for this release of energies stems from the waters of the abyss—more specifically, from the contact which is established via the shaft below the “Great Ceiling” (no. 11, Fig. 25) and duly acknowledged by the vertical bison at that level (cf. Fig. 116).In this perspective, Rouffignac’s myriad mammoths assume their full significance as images of the mountains. Among the first things ever created, the seemingly ageless mountains define the profile of the earth, providing its first measure of order and structure. We know this concept from the ethnic lore of many regions and ages. In North America, we find the South-Eastern tribes’ belief in mountains that fix the four corners of the earth. In the Near East, the Psalms of the Old Testament proclaim that, as the mountains appeared, the primeval waters “went down the valleys to the place You had fixed for them” (Psalms 104:8). An East-European myth credits the primeval emergence of the mountains with preventing the waters from running off the—initially flat—earth (Eliade 1972, 84). Giant serpents that shape the valleys and river-beds of landscapes haunt the mythologies of cultures around the world. We detect a comparable way of thinking about origins, when we contemplate certain mammoths at Rouffignac, which carry large serpentines across their bodies or guide the courses of traced streamers (Fig. 23 a-c; Fig. 24; Fig. 22 b).

Their amorphous character notwithstanding, macaroni-like meanders can be informative about the earliest stages in the creation of the earth, because the artists managed to tweak them, so as to reflect the first, convulsive beginnings of an orderly world. In some compositions the artists moved beyond mere fields of meaningless flutings and allowed sketchy, fleeting outlines of figures to emerge from the otherwise featureless web of lines, even showing recognizable animal species still engulfed by clusters of swirling lines; these are works that quite literally demonstrate the concept of chaos as the matrix of creation. We find a range of such intermediate stages of creation depicted in Gargas, which rivals Rouffignac in its ample display of “macaroni” (Fig. 130, for example, shows some of the ribbons on one wall of a small chamber). It may well be that Gargas’ extremely deep pit, the “Dungeons“ (“G” on the plan, Fig. 120 a) inspired the cave’s elaborate descriptions of the abyss. In any case, the meanders are concentrated in and around the small chamber in the back of the cave called the “Camarin” (“A” in Fig. 120 a). In this chamber, which is devoted to vivid descriptions of primordial creation, about a hundred figures are shown inextricably entangled in the bands of meandering traces that cover both of the walls and even run across the ceiling from one arched wall to the other. The turbulent display leaves the impression that most figures are struggling to escape the embrace of the twisted and looped ribbons (cf. Fig. 120 b; Fig. 121 a, b). It is, however, possible to apprehend this situation in two somewhat divergent manners: in one view, the figures might be straining to escape the retaining tentacles of the erratic swirls; in another view, the characters might, rather, be seen as carried along by currents that move them ahead, delivering them to the post-creational world. Either way, we are contemplating a dynamic phase of creation and witnessing the tumultuous emergence of the earth and all of its life—bison, mammoths, horses, aurochs, goats, and deer—newly created (or, re-created) out of the primordial chasm.

While it appears that the artists of Gargas wanted to capture the struggle by which all of creation strives to escape the gravitational pull of chaos, we also notice that the bison and mammoths, the earth-figures, assume a distinct place within this spectacle: they are demonstratively placed on the lower part of the two main walls—even at floor level—and are repeatedly positioned vertically or noticeably tilted (Fig. 121 a, b; Fig. 121 c) a pattern that in the context of the “Camarin” indicates an early moment in the appearance of the newly created earth out of the original abyss. Alternatively, we may be watching a re-enactment of that first emergence—renewal equals re-creation. One telling detail of this narrative is the small, vertical mammoth (Fig. 121 c, top right) which, indeed, looks like a rock that divides the waters, splitting the meandering groves around it. Meanwhile, a near-by bison is just rising out of the floor/depths (Fig. 121 c, bottom), while some horses struggle to escape the maelstrom. Another clue to the progression of events is found in the symmetrical arrangement of two groups, each comprising a mammoth and a vertical bison (Fig. 121 a, b), as they jointly frame the entrance to the diminutive “Apse” in the very back of the “Camarin” (“B” in Fig. 120 a). The configuration recalls the previously discussed role of mammoths as “guardians” of passages within caves (cf. Fig. 34, Fig. 36, Fig. 37)

); in Gargas, this arrangement seems to address the release of generative forces associated with primordial creation. In fact, the tiny, domed “Apse” may be the epi-center of the chaotic creation described in the “Camarin,” as befits its extreme location in the very back, at the end of the entire display. In spite of the cramped space within, the “Apse” contains several images that relate to creation, including a low-set, acutely rising bison (Fig. 121 d)—a figure that may well represent the beginning of the entire process of the earth’s creation. Moreover, two signs, engraved in juxtaposition with the bison appear to endorse this reading (cf. Fig. 121 d): one, a plain square at ground-level, which is directly tied to the bison; the other, an umbrella-like design linked to the associated figure of a rising horse. Given that the horse is the celestial/solar character par excellence (as argued in Chapter V), we can hardly fail to combine the two, and see the square as an earth symbol and the arch-on-a-pole as a sky symbol. The two signs have been seen as late additions to the initial scene, but square earth-signs are common in the caves and the sky-symbol has a counter-part in the inner-most section of Lascaux (Leroi-Gourhan and Allain 1979, 337) as well as in Rouffignac (sign no. 40 in Barrière 1982). We may also recall that Gargas features other cosmic ideograms, including “earth” signs of the previously discussed, mound-shaped type (Fig. 52 b). With this reading in mind, we may further see the just-mentioned configuration of bison and mammoths, located right at the opening to the “Apse,” as boldly stating that, henceforth, access to the matrix of creation and the powers it holds must be via the element of the earth, notably, via its deepest part; more precisely, these powers must be derived from the Apse as the inner-most part of the cave.

Right outside the “Camarin,” in the vestibule (“C” in Fig. 120 a), we still find episodes that pertain to a newly created earth, such as a bison positioned above—but partly submerged in—scratched meanders (Fig. 122 c), an image of the earth being, as yet, unstable. In this part of the cave, a tiny hole in the rock-wall lets out an intermittent jet of water that, over time, has created a large flow-cone (Fig. 122 a), which keeps the theme of subterranean waters acutely present. Butting up against this stalagmitic cone we find the aptly-named “Black Stone” (at “D” in Fig. 120 a), which shows vertical mammoths and bison emerging from floor level (Fig. 122 b, bottom), whereas the wall above presents us with a recognizable, stable version of the earth as a mammoth guiding the flow of waters that, here, appear as a horizontal, serpentine river design (Fig. 122 b, upper half). Superimposed bison figures—a small one below, a large one above—take us a step further toward the balanced structure of our familiar world (Fig. 122 b, upper half). Moving a bit farther out from the “Camarin” and into the main hall, we are still in the inner, very moist, part of Gargas, with numerous pools of condensation and, overhanging these, the “Crevices” (at “F,” Fig. 120 a), which are rows of pendants that carry still more surfaces of “macaroni” along with mere outlines of bison (Fig. 122 d, e), whose sketched backs barely protrude above the wavy flutings. Thus, we are still witnessing the emergence of dry land as it appears out of receding waters, the emerging humps of the bison—like mounds of soil that appear with the retreat of the flood—assuming the shape of typical “earth” signs.

The artistic implementation of chaos, as observed in Gargas, recurs in other caves. The inner section of Oxocelhaya, for example, has a panel of intricate meanders that is engraved near the figure of a vertical bison (Fig. 124 a, b), and here too, we find the scene of a bison-in-the-making, about to emerge from enveloping meanders (Fig. 124 c). The notion of a water-filled abyss comes readily to mind in Oxocelhaya, as the decorated cave of Erberua is situated on a level below, at the bottom of the small mountain they share; significantly, the lower cave unfolds along the course of a rough, subterranean river. These topographical layers may, again, recall Gargas, as the latter cave shares a rocky hill with the lower-positioned, decorated cave of Tibiran, which, in turn, ends dramatically in a deep pit. A descending, but obstructed, gallery (“E” in Fig. 120 a) appears to connect Gargas to Tibiran. Armintxe, with its central panel of bison encircled by large meanders (Fig. 117 c), offers another demonstration of the coexistence of such scenes and actual, watery chaos: the main panel—discovered after a difficult and dangerous exploration—overhangs a drastically inclined floor and a deeply dug channel, which drains the moist cave and, eventually, dips down into a water-logged substratum.

In the above examples, ribbon-like meanders are the artists’ means of describing the chaos of primeval waters, or more correctly—as true chaos eludes any feasible description—an early, still-unsettled stage of creation; that is, a time when the notion of fixed, directional streams of water first appears as distinct from oceanic turbulence. This occurrence was an initial step toward the creation of the earth, the first projection of a model for an organized world. To the above cases, we may add a number of panels in other caves that feature ensembles of meandering scrolls with interspersed, still-emerging figures. In the inner sector of Trois-Frères, for example, we find several panels of this unsettled kind, in which we may detect figurative elements recalling horns or body-parts of bison as well as other incipient motifs (Fig. 123 a, b). Altamira has a similar panel, in which a horned head (possibly a bison) appears out of the fray of meanders (Breuil and Obermaier 1935, 67).

A definitive review of meanders is hardly feasible at the present time (they are reported somewhat sporadically and inconsistently in published descriptions of caves), but a brief survey shows that the flutings may cover entire chambers, as in the “Chamber of the Red Ceiling” in Rouffignac, or small and localized areas, as in some panels in Hornos de la Peña. Often a panel of meanders stands in direct relationship to topographical features in caves, as in Tuc d’Audoubert, where a panel of “macaroni” is drawn next to a deep pit that descends toward the river below (Bégouën et al. 2009, 247). Also in Tuc, a small chamber off the “Gallerie Nuptiale” was covered with meanders, before being decorated with the scheme of an intricate calendar (cf. Addendum to Chapter XI); we may take this to signify that time (represented by the luni/solar calendar) comes into existence with the first creation. Curiously, the caves in the Castillo Mountain contain few if any random flutings, except for the least decorated among them, la Flecha (Smith 2002, 167). Many caves contain regions that are so chaotic of nature that artistic intimations might seem superfluous. At some sites, chaos remains a looming presence, manifest in a capricious roughness of the subterranean realm that speaks of tumultuous origins. Among many striking examples, the cave of Nerja stands out by its succession of vast spaces crowded with an unearthly mass of huge boulders, pillars, cascades, columns, lakes, etc. (one area is tellingly named the “Cataclysmic Hall”). Here, decoration exists only in isolated pockets, as the artists were utterly incapable of subjecting the whole space to their narrative program, and were mostly resigned to painting tiny numerical marks on large stalactites and stalagmites. In Bédeilhac, the innermost hall is a chaotic world of labyrinthine paths among giant stalagmites (one, fallen column is named for the legendary giant “Roland”), and the artists mainly responded to this dwarfing setting with a decoration that is limited to the very back of this section. In Chauvet, the first large space (the “Brunel Hall”) presents a chaotic setting that subdues the fledgling art works, forcing the artists to illustrate their theme of early spring recovery in sporadic fits, such as red bears emerging from an alcove at one point, or panels with scores of large red disks at another point (cf. Chapters VII and X). Many important caves have huge sections that were too unruly for the artists’ purposes and were left without decoration, as in Pech-Merle, or Monedas, both with vast halls where no art is to be found. In karstic caves one rarely has to look long for reminders of a primordial chaos, and artistic programs often take the character of a struggle to impose a concept of order on a disorderly setting.

Vertical fishes and serpentines

At the entrance to the terminal corridor of Oxocelhaya, close to the above-mentioned panel of finger flutings and near the vertical bison (cf. Fig. 124 a, b), a simplified image of a fish is drawn in a strictly vertical position (Fig. 124 d), and just as the vertical bison recalls the (re)created earth, the vertical fish relates to the earth’s life-sustaining waters and their derivation from the primordial, watery abyss. Though there is no direct access from Oxocelhaya to the twin-cave of Erberua below, the artists who decorated the end-section of Oxocelhaya were evidently cognizant of the active river of the lower gallery and of the chaotic sceneries along its subterranean course (cf. Fig. 223 a), and they created these vertical figures with that in mind. Located near the center of the hill, they establish a conceptual tie between the nether-most cave (Erberua) and the upper-most cave (Isturitz).

The motif of vertical, up- or down-turned, fishes is fairly common in Upper Palaeolithic art, and in some cases the motif combines with that of vertical bison. In Alxerri, the above-mentioned group of a vertical bison and two large fishes (Fig. 106 b) finds an echo in a facing panel with two—likewise up- and down-turned—vertical fishes (Fig. 125 c); both groups are in the back of the above-mentioned side-gallery, along with a handful of vertical bison figures (at no. 2, Fig. 110). The very last images in Ekain are a vertical bison and an equally vertical fish (Fig. 125 g, h). Two scenes engraved on bones, from La Vache and L’hortet respectively (Fig. 125 e and f), provide close, similar juxtapositions of vertical fishes and (apparently horizontal) bison. As these compositions relate to the revival of the earth’s powers, the participation of the fishes appears to represent the vital energies of the world’s waters, as these rise from—and separate from—the chaotic waters in the depths.

Other caves display vertical fishes as a theme in its own right. Thus, Nerja has two tiny, moist enclosures in the lower, labyrinthine part of the cave, which contain, in the first chamber, a number of vertical fishes on stalagmitic columns that form a ring around the space (Fig. 125 a), and in the second chamber, six painted seals that all point either straight up or down (Fig. 125 b). A complex scene in Casares mixes a group of human characters with half-a-dozen vertical fishes that mostly are turned upward, with a couple turned downward (Fig. 125 d). These ensembles may well reflect an imagined contact—a point of transition—between waters of the depths and waters of the upper world. In Chufin, a vertical fish readily relates to the water-filled pit at the end of the short cave (no.6 in Fig. 157).

Although snakes are not a significant motif of Palaeolithic cave art, the artists certainly knew about snakes, eels and other wriggling creatures, and we may read the frequent undulating or zigzagging signs in the caves as implicit references to the locomotion of these creatures— the obvious association with flowing water notwithstanding. Many such signs are oriented vertically—like the just-mentioned fishes—and like that motif, the vertical serpentines may refer to a connection with waters of the primordial ocean, the more so as panels of “macaroni” often include serpentine lines that occasionally stand out, or even separate themselves from the web of flutings (some specimens in the “Red Roof Chamber” of Rouffignac have been seen as actual snakes). The presence of these signs in cave art may rest on ontological reasoning: creatures that wriggle along the ground constitute a low level in the hierarchy of biological formation and, thus, to the earliest phase of the earth’s development and the most basic life impulses. As such, their role in the visual vocabulary of the caves is to transfer the vital forces in the watery substratum to the surface waters of the earth, which are the essential fluids of life. Though crucial, this role is limited in time and restricted to the earliest episodes in the narrative of creation/re-creation.

Pileta is focused on this early phase of creation, and the cave shows vertical serpents in many scenes that reflect the dramatic topography. Numerous vertical serpentines are drawn (in red) at a location aptly named the “Serpent Chamber” (at no. 3, Fig. 176 a, b) which is reached via a drastically descending path that (just beyond the chamber) ends in a narrow platform, overhanging a chasm that reaches the level of subterranean waters. The writhing lines in and around the “Serpent Chamber” often recalls shapeless meanders (Fig. 126 a), but occasionally gains directionality, becoming vertical serpentines (Fig. 126 b). In Pileta’s tiny, heavily decorated “Sanctuary,” a segment of the main panel (Fig. 126 c) shows—twice repeated—a configuration that recaptures phases of a transitional development: meandering lines constitute the bottom level; horizontal undulations make up the middle part; vertical serpentines rise to the top. This composition adequately reflects the situation of the “Sanctuary” itself (no. 5 in Fig. 176 a, b): on one side, overlooking the inner cave with its lake and terminal pit; on the other side, perched above the outer cave with its descent toward the “Serpent Chamber.” In a somewhat comparable setting, the artists of Altxerri demonstrated some daring in painting a panel (including some vertical bison) on the very edge of the chasm that ends the main part of the cave (at no. 5, Fig. 110), and it seems significant that they included a vertical serpentine, rising right out of the chasm (Fig. 127 a).

Typically, the motif occurs in less dramatic settings. In the rear of Hornos de la Peña, a serpent-like figure occupies the top of a larger panel (Fig. 127 b); it is aiming straight downward, in the direction of a natural cavity that we may consider a portal to the inner mountain. Likewise in the rear, close to the final chamber, Maltravieso has a highly visible, vertical serpentine (Fig. 127 c) that marks the opening of a narrow side-gallery. In the steadily descending cave of Auria, a panel at the end contains a vertical, sinuous figure composed of red dots (Fig. 127 d). In the back of the shallow cave of El Niño, a long, vertical “snake” (Fig. 127 e) marks off the entrance of a terminal final cubicle that is created by fallen blocks. In Ker à Massat, on the way to the end of that cave, just before the laborious descent toward the terminal pit, some drawings on a clay-covered wall include a vertical serpentine (no. 4 in Fig. 161).

While the just-mentioned caves (except for Pileta) use this motif sparingly, the late caves of Ojo Guareña feature vertical serpentines abundantly, just as they contain large areas of “macaroni-like” meanders. In Kaite, particularly, we find both plain panels of finger flutings combined with scratched lines (Fig. 128 a) and more complex, layered compositions similar to the mentioned panels in Gargas and Pileta. Thus, the Kaite artists repeatedly interlaced animal figures (mainly deer) with meandering lines, adding vertical, undulating or zigzagging, lines (Fig. 128 b, c). In Palomera’s large painted frieze we find vertical serpentines and zigzags accompanying human figures and triangular signs (Fig. 128 d). In southern Spain (close to Pileta and Nerja), Ardales shows numerous scenes of animals that emerge from chaotic scrawls and, apparently, aim upwards guided by vertically rising serpentines (Fig. 129 a, b).

Lozenges and/or fishes

In the above caves, we find a sequence of episodes beginning with swirling, non-directional designs that precede even a very early phase in the story of creation; these are, followed by the directional, rising designs that signal the beginning of creation. The flowing waters appear out of the oceanic waters of primeval chaos, to become the life-sustaining rivers of the newly created earth. The artists’ ideas about this transformation may not have been very precise, and we may not be able to follow their speculations in all details, but certain images appear to be attempts to visualize the primordial process, or at least, to render imaginary illustrations of the periodic (seasonal) repetitions of the original event. A perforated staff from Madeleine (Fig. 252 a) is covered with rows of sinuous forms, all of which vaguely suggest fishes and serpents. None, however, are definitely figurative, and the cross-hatched surfaces of the fish-like shapes add to the feeling of something in the making (like weaving, or knotting) rather than something fully formed. All these designs are aligned in a continuous, streaming pattern that we may read in the direction of the actual tine of antlers, as they grew from the rot (at the perforation) toward the tip. This composition relates to nothing in the real world, but we may well see it as a vision of the phase of creation, during which the flow of waters first occurred in the bowels of chaos. Another decorated bone from Madeleine (Fig. 252 b) presents a less complex arrangement of the same visual elements, and again, semi-abstract fishes and a sinuous serpentine combine into a river-like composition.

The inter-relations between abstract lozenges and images of fishes constitute a noticeable theme in Palaeolithic art, both in the caves and on artifacts. The amazing ease with which these works shift between abstraction and figuration provides a clue to the role of fishes in the obscure area between a world of chaos and a world of form. As a geometric form, the lozenge is, itself, transitional; it has neither the rigid corners of a rectangle nor the fixed center of a circle; rather, it retains a measure of fluidity, suitable for illustrating a transition from shapeless to shapely. Of course, lozenge shapes readily suggest the stream-lined shapes of fishes, and the artists make it clear that the abstract form always precedes the figuration. Thus, we find figures of fishes that directly respond to natural lozenge-shapes, as in Altxerri (Fig. 125 c) or in Monedas (Fig. 251 c). On perforated staffs, the lozenge that frequently frame the drilled hole obviously precedes any fish-like designs on the shaft of the artifacts, as in examples from Rochereil (Fig. 253 a) or Madeleine (Fig. 81 b). Occasionally, we can follow a step-wise transition, as demonstrated by a staff from Goyet (Fig. 201 d) on which a lozenge embraces the void of the perforation, followed by a chain of almond-like shapes, and in turn, a fish (identified by its head). The mere suggestion of a head-part and a tail-part in a lozenge-shape may also evoke a fish-like appearance, as in the two lozenges on a Lhortet staff (Fig. 250 a), where a slight a-symmetry adds to this impression. That effect is taken a step further on a bone from Mas d’Azil (Fig. 250 b) and in a design from Le Chaffaud (Fig. 253 c). The latter recalls the elongated shape at the center of a square design in Tito Bustillo (Fig. 228), or a similar configuration in Monedas (Fig. 251 d). The more common means of transforming a lozenge into a fish is, however, the addition—sometimes a mere suggestion—of tail-fins. We see this in Cosquer (no. 1, Fig. 151, and Fig. 250 d, e), Chufin (no. 6 in Fig. 157), Nerja (Fig. 193 a), Pileta (Fig. 192 a, c), Oxocelhaya (Fig. 124 d), and Chimeneas (Fig. 226 f), as well as on staffs from Gourdan (Fig. 250 c), or Isturitz (Fig. 81 c).

The mentioned staff from Madeleine (Fig. 252 a) contains areas of netting that indicates a process of creation, specifically, a phase in which the earth gains scope and substance. We find comparable compositions in Pileta (Fig. 192 a, c). The act of tying knots to create a fabric of inter-locked lozenges is also alluded to in the great wall of Tito (Fig. 228, center), and in Altamira (Fig. 225 b, c, and Fig. 169 i), as well as in a panel in Monedas (Fig. 251 f). The last-mentioned design, when seen in the context of other, related panels in Monedas (Fig. 251 d, e), indicates that the pattern of inter-locked lozenges may be seen as a precursor to the, more firmly established, four-cornered earth as represented by rectangular designs. This is also the impression we gain from the two rectangles in Tito (Fig. 228), the more so as the lower one—the one with a bottom line of lozenges—is closest to the crucial opening to the subterranean waters (Fig. 228, bottom), whereas the top rectangle contains a fish-shaped, more life-like version. One composite sign in Monedas (Fig. 251 e) positions the vertical lozenge so that the bottom horizontal of the rectangle bisects the lozenge along one axis; if we see the rectangle as an image of the earth, the bottom half of the lozenge falls below the earth, while he upper half belongs to the created earth. A similar statement of this upper-/nether-world dualism is seen in Cosquer (Fig. 250 d, e). Here the bisected lozenges have fish-tails, to the effect that the tail-part belongs to the waters below, while the head-part belongs to the waters of the created world above. As argued below (in Part Four) this orientation fits the location of the cave, because Cosquer is located near the mouth of the Rhone and the border of the Mediterranean Sea—the move from ocean to river matches the transition from subterranean waters to earthly streams.

The implied duality of nether- and upper-world is, ultimately, a manifestation of the all-pervasive philosophy of complementary dualism that governed the thinking of Upper Palaeolithic artists. In this binary system, the flowing waters represent the principle that we term energy against the earth as representation of mass. As discussed above, the balance between the two sides had to be re-set with the change of seasons—as demonstrated by the very large fishes in Grande Grotte, or in Altxerri (cf. Fig. 106 a, b)—and in the age of the first creation, the massive earth had to be infused by the life of rivers. In the above illustrations, the energies carried by the lozenge/fish images may be shown by multiples of figures (Fig. 252 a b, d; Fig. 253 a), or by the indication of movement (Fig. 252 b; Fig. 253 f). One staff from Lhortet (Fig. 250 a) renders the movement of the salmon with exceptional skill, capturing the powerful leaps that take the migrating fishes over falls and other obstacles; two lozenges preside over the scene as, so to speak, the prototypes of the fishes and source of their energies.

Numerical symbolism offers an alternative means of signaling the influx of energy carried by the lozenge/fish images. As exposed elsewhere (Chapter X), even numbers stand for the principle of mass (female, earth, winter, etc.), while odd numbers denote the principle of energy (male, sky, summer, etc.); in this system, the numerical “3” is the crucial expression of the latter category. It is, thus, significant that lozenges and fishes frequently are marked with three dots or strokes, a common practice in caves (no. 5 in Fig. 161; Fig. 106 c) as well as on artifacts (cf. Fig. 253 a-g). Evidently, this ritual gesture was meant to assure the influx of riverine energies into the restive matter of the earth, and surely, this gives expression to the ideal co-existence of the two principles from the very beginning of the life of the earth. A statement of this particular concern is found in the powerful sign of “2 x 3” (“2” and “3” fitted together in a balanced configuration) which marks a fish in Portel (no. 5 in Fig. 159). The “2 x 3” sign of the consummate creation, also appears on a short staff from Madeleine (Fig. 253 b, left). More applications of the “2 x 3” symbol are discussed below (in Part Four). The topic of dualism as expressed in sexual terms—seen in the last-mentioned example, as well as in a number of the above renditions of lozenges and fishes— is exposed below (in Part Three).

The Earth-Diver

Perhaps the most universally-shared story about the creation of the earth is the “earth diver” myth. This narrative theme includes, essentially, an animal that dives to the bottom of the all-but-bottomless chasm in order to bring up the one, tiny bit of pre-existing substance needed for the creation of the earth. The diver is usually a kind of waterfowl, sometimes an otter or the like; the crucial material needed for the act of creation is, typically, just a grain of sand or a pinch of clayish soil.

This mythologem comes to mind as we notice two images of water fowl, apparently a goose and a duck (Fig. 130 a, b, c), situated in the midst of the extensive vision of chaos in the “Camarin” of Gargas (Fig. 130 a; our figure omits various other characters entwined in the swirling meanders). Wading birds rarely take center stage in cave art, but as potential “earth divers” they seem relevant in the “Camarin,” which evokes primal events in the creation of the earth, notably in the form of vertically rising bison and mammoth figures (cf. Fig. 121 a, b). As the characters helping to bring up earth-material from the abyss, the two diving birds fit into the narrative of the “Camarin” and the related scenes in and around its vestibule (Fig. 122 b–e). Ardales, too, has a couple of aquatic birds: one a flamingo, the other a harder-to-define species (Fig. 131 a, b). These are engraved near the above-mentioned scenes of vertical serpentines (Fig. 129 a, b) and also close to a block (Fig. 131 c) that has been smoothed and marked with lines—including a vertical serpentine—so as to look like an earthy hill (and incidentally, like a “sleeping buffalo” stone). This gathering of visual elements, all related to the creation of the earth, is the more striking as it occupies an area of Ardales that leads the visitor upwards, out of the low, truly chaotic, center of the cave. The presence of two aquatic birds depicted close together in both Gargas and Ardales may conceivably reflect familiar versions of the story, in which repeated attempts have to be made in order to bring up the necessary speck of material for the creation of the earth.

At other sites, as well, wading or diving birds are closely associated with images that pertain to the creation of the earth. Thus, in the end-section of Oxocelhaya, the figure of an aquatic bird, possibly a heron (Fig. 124 e) joins the mentioned images of meanders, a vertical bison, and a vertical fish (Fig. 124 a–d), which amount to a condensed account of the beginnings of the earth. Something similar occurs in Montespan, in a decorated sector that coincides with the bed of the river that traverses the cave. The particular location lies down-river from a region (not decorated) hat is suitably named the “Hall of Chaos.” In the decorated stretch we find, on the left bank, a diving bird (Fig. 132 a), and on the right bank, a group of four bison arranged in two tiers (Fig. 132 b). The figure of the bird makes use of some natural lines (fissures and reliefs) in the rock-wall to give the impression of water, from which the bird emerges after a plunge—possibly carrying a caught fish (this detail is unclear). On the same side of the river-bed as the bird, we also find a peculiarly square bison (Fig. 132 a) as well as one with an exaggeratedly rounded back (Fig. 132 c), both recalling “earth” signs. The four bison on the opposite wall seem to conclude the creation narrative: they are stacked to suggest the build-up of the earth; they are animated, revealing new energies; and they are sexually charged (each tier showing a bull pursuing a cow). The ensemble appears to review the main phases in the creation of the earth.

The strange representation of aquatic birds far inside caves is hard to explain in terms of any natural phenomena but is meaningful in light of the perceived association with primeval waters. To the above examples we may add the goose at the far end of Labastide (Fig. 133 a), which also relates to extreme topographical features of the site, namely, yawning pits at several locations, and a chaotic setting in the terminal section. Again, the bird belongs within a decoration that includes the vertical bison motif (Fig. 119 a) as well as the bison-back theme (Fig. 39). With the Montespan bird (Fig. 132 a) in mind, we may see the horizontal line across the Labastide goose’s neck (Fig. 133 a) as indicating the re-emergence from a dive, which may fit the assumed myth of origins. The duck-like bird in Pestillac (Fig. 133 b) has much in common with the just-mentioned Labastide goose, as it is drawn in the wet clay floor at the very end of the cave. Escabasse, too, has a duck at the far end (Fig. 133 c). The gooselike bird in Cussac (Fig. 133 d) is the last figure in the narrow gallery to the right of the entrance-chamber. Significantly, this gallery also contains the large rhinoceros of Cussac, which characterizes this part of the cave as more rough, closer to primordial conditions, than the gallery to the left, which is the one that leads to the huge, energetic bison that dwarfs the small mammoths (cf. Fig. 90 a)—evidently, a more advanced stage of creation. An unfamiliar actor in the earth-diving drama, the great auk was undoubtedly an excellent diver. This penguin-like bird is represented in Cosquer (Fig. 133 e) and in El Pendo (Fig. 133 f), and in both cases, the auks are is in low and cramped settings: in Pendo, a narrow, twisting corridor in the inner, deepest part of the cave; in Cosquer, the low and rough passage between the cave’s two deep pits; both situations suitable for a narrative of creation out of a primordial chasm.

Images of aquatic birds in the caves may not be exclusively related to the earth-diver theme, as they typically assume seasonal connotations as well; the more so as these birds mostly were migratory. This applies to the mentioned flamingo in Ardales, a species that might seem out of place in a Pleistocene context, but which obviously was migratory even then, and therefore associated with spring. This may also apply to the figure of a crane that is part of the engraved frieze at the very end of Trois-Frères (Fig. 134). As previously mentioned, this frieze contains several vertical bison (Fig. 111 c – e), images that pertain to the decline and renewal of the earth. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of a fish and a bison (Fig. 134, top) recalls the above-mentioned episodes joining bison and fish/water images (cf. Fig. 106 b, c; Fig. 125 e, f, g-h). The crane of Trois-Frères evokes spring and the renewal of the earth, but it also carries an echo of the first creation. We must acknowledge that it is hard—perhaps impossible—to distinguish the (repeated) seasonal renewals of the earth from the one, original creation. The latter remains, persistently, the subtext of the former, and the return—real or symbolic—to the primeval source of creation is implied in any episode of regeneration.

The raw substance of the earth

The Earth-diver narrative seeks to answer a perennial and imponderable question: how can something come out of nothing? This mythologem proposes that there was, indeed, something from which the act of creation could depart, even if that pre-existing substance was almost infinitely small, like one grain of sand. To describe the subsequent development, beyond that humble beginning, the cave artists referred to the raw materials present in the caves themselves: on the one hand, the soft clay deposits readily perceived as the base substance of the pliable earth; on the other hand, the calcite formations as the harder matter associated with the formation of mountains. Wherever the bison/mammoth dichotomy prevailed, the clay pertained to the former and the calcite to the latter; in art traditions without mammoths, the bison was associated with both elements. As we move beyond the initial moment of creation and the priority of the mysterious and elusive waters of the depths, and as we progress in time and space, we find the cave sanctuaries amply full of physical matter that, though still crude and chaotic, may suggest familiar forms about to come out of the original confusion. Among the principal manifestations of this phase is clay—pure clay or sandy silt—that covers floors, walls (even ceilings), leaves mud-filled pools, builds banks along corridors, and even forms entire mounds in some spaces.

A prime example of the latter is seen in Niaux, where the bulk of the cave’s decoration is found in the large Rotunda that is filled to a considerable height with an enormous dune of sandy clay. This deposit amounts to a veritable hill, which the visitor must ascend in order to see the impressive frieze of black bison (cf. Fig. 135 a). This clay mound is certainly fundamental, not just to the Rotunda and its decoration, but to the artistic program of the cave at large, given that about forty of the approximately fifty bison in Niaux are gathered at this location. The affinity between this setting and its decoration suggests that the artists perceived the colossal amount of clay and silt to retain the powers of an early, formative stage in the creation of the earth—hence the profusion of bison figures that are present even as drawings in the clay at the foot of the wall (Fig. 135 b, c). Also drawn on the clay floor are several fishes (Fig. 135, d) that, in this context, may recall the theme of waters released from the abyss to create the rivers on the surface of the new earth.

A clue to the progression of events in the Niaux Rotunda may be found in the above-mentioned branches that rise—along with a vertical bison figure—from a niche in the rock-face (Fig. 135 e; in the back of the alcove of panel “B); this event situates us at a significant moment when vegetation emerges as a step toward the completion of the creation (or, re-creation) of the earth. The full ensemble of the Rotunda may, in fact, be read as a development, from the massive, static display in panel “A,” to the directional movement in panels “D” to “F” (Fig. 135 a). Specifically, the gradually shifting role of horses (albeit, only hinted at in our Fig. 135) reflects this development, from the near absence of the horse in the first panel (“A”) to its dominant presence at the end of the panorama, in “D” and “E” (cf. Clottes 1995, fig. 120; the shifting balance of bison and horse is discussed in our Chapter V). The Rotunda, with its soaring ceiling (about twenty-five meters tall) and the enormous clay dune that fills its base, constitutes, in itself, a cosmic diagram, in which the panorama of the black bison claims its given place.

The cave of Niaux, at large, appears to be a monument to the creation of the earth from the clay deposits left by primeval waters. Moving beyond the Rotunda and its “Black Frieze,” the main gallery contains another demonstration of this focus in the form of the well-known bison that is drawn in the clay floor (Fig. 136). This figure, too, refers to the sky/earth relationship with its three, neatly aligned holes made by water dripping from the ceiling; again, demonstrating the sky/ceiling versus floor/earth relationship (the “3” as the prime number of the sky is discussed in Chapters IV and X). Further on, Niaux ends in some permanent lakes. The terminal lake—never passed by the artists—severed the cave from its natural extension, the Résau Clastres. This twin-cave was, however, accessed from the other side of the mountain, and it was decorated much like Niaux, stressing the connection between figures of bison and significant clay deposits, which here takes the form of massive banks of sandy clay (some with prehistoric footprints of children, who may have enjoyed the soft dunes). In the main gallery of Réseau Clastres, these accumulations line the walls, and several bison are painted immediately above them (Fig. 137). Responding to the dunes directly below, one bison is reduced to the outline of the back—the essential image of the surface of the earth. The configuration of the crude cave-filling and the artistic figuration addresses a distinct phase in the creation story.

The famous clay sculptures of two bison in Tuc d’Audoubert (Fig. 138 a) are found at the far end of an approximately 500 m. long gallery, a twisting corridor that begins with a strenuous climb, followed by a crawl past half-a-dozen engraved monsters. These demons mark the entrance into another, more archaic world, where a panel of twisting meanders alludes to the closeness of a primordial world; indeed, a pit in the floor appears to communicate with the subterranean river, and at the very end, immediately after the chamber of the bison sculptures, the corridor is closed by a basin of permanent water (g-i on the map of Tuc in Chapter XI, Addendum, Fig. 24). This deep penetration into the mountain and towards an opening to lower-level waters prepared for a creation scene and set the stage for the unique sculptures; but what truly dictated the choice of the remote setting was, almost certainly, a clay-filled room located off the side of the main gallery, just before the end-chamber. The smooth, horizontal clay floor of this room was a source for material used in modelling the two bison icons. Long before the artists’ time, this apse-like space—actually, a large pit of unknown depth—was filled with liquid clay of a very fine-grained consistency; eventually, the filling hardened, to form a perfectly even, horizontal surface that, still, remained receptive to marks and drawings. On this large, pristine surface (about 8m. x 5m.), the artists drew a figure and various signs, including a vegetation symbol, and some long, serpentine lines (Fig. 139 c, d, e), but in a remarkable show of reverence for the unblemished clay floor, the same artist took great care to leave no foot-prints, even going to the effort of walking on their heels—hence the name of the location, the “Chamber of Heel-prints.” We may surmise that they were determined to avoid desecrating a venerable relic of the earliest times, considered the site of the earth’s beginnings. In addition to their desire to avid profanation of an undisturbed font of creative potential, they may also have struggled with a logical riddle: how could mundane evidence of human presence (that is, footprints) precede the actual creation of the earth?

As the artists brought clay from the “Chamber of Heel-prints” to the somewhat higher level of the “Bison Chamber” (cf. Fig. 139 a), the symbolism of this gesture made them participants in the phase of creation, during which matter from the watery abyss is brought to the surface and subsequently transformed into the present earth, as represented by the upright bison sculptures. The two clay bison are set up vertically, leaning against a rock in the center of the chamber, thus suggesting another step beyond the initial raising of the earth out of the primordial waters, namely, a time when the earth had already assumed the familiar structure of rocks (the boulder) and soil (the clay bison). Moreover, we may fairly speculate that the shape of the central rock (seen from the angle of our rendition, Fig. 138 a) predisposed it for a role in this narrative: its overall form recalls the reclining “buffalo boulders” of North American lore that we reviewed above. This reading finds support in the fact that the reverse of this block (opposite the two clay bison) is engraved with the head of a bison that makes use of an existing relief (Fig. 138 b). It remains to be mentioned that the two sculptures, almost certainly, portray a bull (the larger, bulkier one) following a cow in a pre-mating pose that suggests the rut (the cow’s raised tail, though broken, indicates a female in heat). Thus, the two bison sculptures also represent the life of the earth in its full, accomplished sense.

In Bédeilhac, the creative medium of clay comes to the fore at two locations. One area is the inner-most hall, where the floor is a several meter-deep cake of clay, which is split into sections by crevasses carved by intermittent rushes of drainage water. In the very back of this hall, we find the bison (Fig. 140 a) that is engraved in the clay floor at a difficult-to-reach point where floor and ceiling almost join, effectively preventing access to the region beyond (at no. 1 in Fig. 214); thus, we are witnessing the emergence of the bison/earth from the unreachable depths—and, evidently, clay is the matrix of its creation. Another area devoted to an intense description of this primeval event is a small, recessed chamber (at no. 5, Fig. 214), where a bison is deeply carved into a clay bank and built up to a relief with the application of additional clay (Fig. 140 b); this situation recalls the setting of the two bison sculptures of Tuc d’Audoubert. Other Pyrenean caves show a comparable attention to clay deposits, and in particular, caves with rivers flowing through, as seen in the above-discussed scenes along riverbanks in Montespan (cf. Fig. 132 a, b, c), or in Labastide, which in its terminal stretch features a goose (an “earth diver”) and a bison drawn in clay (Simonet et al. 2007, 63).

Abundant clay was, of course, not exclusive to the Pyrenean river-caves; clay was readily available in most caves, and it was used by artists in all areas of French-Cantabrian cave art. In the Rhône region, for example, we find Baume-Latrone, in which the reddish clay of the floor was, itself, the medium of the main paintings (cf. Fig. 97) and apparently, equally charged with meaning as the red ocher that is used abundantly in other caves. In the Quercy region, the artists of Pergouset had to crawl the length of the cave to reach the piles of clay deposited in the last section by occasional overflowing from watery depths. Back here, we find the large—part natural, part sculpted—fish (at no. 5, Fig. 160), which introduces the agency of the rivers vis-à-vis the raw matter of the emerging earth. Likewise, Pestillac has floors that are covered with clay from seasonal flooding, with a notable accumulation at the end of the gallery, where we find the above-mentioned “earth diver” (Fig. 133 b). In Dordogne, the case of Rouffignac is instructive, as visitors had to shuffle for a considerable distance through a thick layer of gooey silt that covers the floor of the main gallery. Far inside the cave, the large panel of the “Grande Fosse” (at no. 12 in Fig. 25) is painted directly above a pronounced bank of clay, which even continues down into the pit (the “Fosse”) that opens up at the (left) end of the frieze just below the bison figure (cf. Fig. 9 b). In Fronsac, the file of bison leaving one gallery walk along the top of a clay bank (no. 5 in Fig. 146 a). The “Shaft” of Lascaux is a deep fissure closed by a huge accumulation of clay (Aujoulat 2004), and in this place–the “crypt” of the “Apse”–the notorious configuration of a wounded bison and a grim rhinoceros tells of the destruction of the earth and, thus, of its return to the primordial substance of creation (Fig. 12)—although, only in the second place do the artists hint at the re-creation (a topic discussed in Chapter IX).

As clay was considered the crucial medium in the formation of the soft, fertile earth, so calcite, in the form of cascades, flows, draperies, and columns, was perceived as the residual matter from which the rock-hard mountains were formed; like the clay the calcite concretions were deposited by water. Often these hardened formations assume shapes and proportions that may suggest miniature mountains, and as the living embodiments of mountains, the mammoths tend to be associated with such suggestive structures of petrified minerals. Occasionally, the artists needed to add little more than an eye or a few lines to bring out a nature-given figure. Thus, one image in Pech-Merle shows almost no touch-ups, and yet its similarity to certain painted figures is striking (Fig. 141 a, b). Another of the cave’s mammoths is composed mainly of calcite draperies plus a few black lines (Fig. 141 c). In the niche of the “bison/mammoth-women,” a few paint-strokes (indicating hind leg and belly) complete the outline of the back and the trunk hat is provided by a calcite runner (Fig. 141 d, e). The Grotte du Cheval, at the Arcy, contains several cases of mostly nature-formed mammoths (Fig. 142 a, b, c). Significantly, two such figures belong to a frieze of mammoths and bison (the latter reduced to the outline of the back; Baffier and Girard 1998, 38); the creation and formation of the earth is, certainly, a key topic of this ensemble.

Chauvet presents us with instructive examples of mammoth figures that are integral elements of a stalagmitic cascade, whereby the rows of thin speleothems apparently reminded the artists of a mammoth’s wooly tresses; a few painted lines made the figures manifest (Fig. 143 a). Elsewhere in Chauvet, the panel of the agitated mammoths (Fig. 98) responds to a feature of the supporting rock, as the protruding half-columns at the bottom of the wall, no doubt, reminded the artists of the large, round hoofs of pachyderms. This feature has a counterpart in the back of the Castillo cave, where (as noticed by Henri Breuil in Alcalde del Río 1911, 125) the base of a stalagmitic column takes the shape of a mammoth’s foot (Fig. 143 b). In response, the artists decorated this pillar with lines of red dots that may be seen to outline the back, head, and trunk of a highly schematic mammoth figure. Again, in the inner section of Castillo, we find a cascade—like the one in Chauvet (Fig. 143 a)—which, again, suggests stacked mammoth figures and which is marked with a number of red dots (Fig. 143 d). These designs, along with the cave’s single, red mammoth (Fig. 143 c), are placed toward the end of the large cave, where calcite formations become increasingly prominent, even before the cave dips into the final, moist section that, in turn, is rich in fantastic speleothems that convey an air of primordial creation. In Gargas, a significant flow-cone is a pronounced feature of the Vestibule of the “Camarin” (at “C” in Fig. 120 a; cf. Fig. 122 a) and two mammoths in adjacent panels appear to be responses to this calcite formation (Fig. 122 b). Font-de-Gaume, likewise, has an outlet of intermittent water that has deposited a calcite cone; this is located in the back, where the crowded alcove of the “Small Bison” meets the terminal fissure (between f and g, Fig. 27). The two rhinos at the end threaten—like the just-mentioned rhino at Lascaux—to destroy the earth/bison (cf. Fig. 11), but the calcite flow gives evidence to the powers of recreation that are manifest in the “Chamber of Small Bison” (Fig. 57).

Though the evidence remains inconclusive, we may see a number of mammoth-like stones as “sleeping mountains,” by analogy with the “sleeping bison” stones discussed above (with reference to North American lore). The artists certainly recognized the central boulder in Fieux as a mammoth disguised as a block of stone, an incipient mammoth, and they decorated it accordingly (Fig. 144 a, b). In Pech-Merle, the central pile-up of large blocks includes one that is decorated with a well-fitting mammoth (Fig. 144 c)—a match for the neighboring block with an equally fitting bison (Fig. 144 d). Their location at the base of a huge mass of rocks and speleothems in the main hall points to their joint role as foundation for the edifice of the earth. The above-mentioned mammoths in Grotte Cheval d’Arcy (Fig. 142 a, b), which adopt distinct rock formations, may likewise qualify as petrified mammoths, or “mammoth boulders.”

The clear distinction between clay and calcite, earth and mountains, is less obvious in artistic regions where the mammoth was not part of the visual vocabulary, leaving the bison, alone, to be associated with both the pliable soil and the solid rocks, cascades and flows of calcite. Santimamiñe demonstrates this well: not only is the main panel with its eight bison (including three vertical ones) located immediately above a great flow of calcite (Fig. 109 a), but this flow terminates in a stalagmitic cone that carries a group of bison including two more vertical figures (Fig. 109 d); both the petrified cascade and the cone-shape speak to the formation of mountains. In the artists’ imagination, the caves remained rich in those raw materials from which the earth and the mountains were once made, and from which—according to a fundamental creed of Upper Palaeolithic world view—they may be perpetually re-made. In one perspective, the creation of the earth was a unique, one-time event; in another perspective, it was perceived as an ongoing process, one that perpetually referred to the original model as a template for the seasonal regeneration of the earth—what Mircea Eliade famously named “the eternal return.” Belief in this persistent potential gave the cave sanctuaries their high status in the eyes of the artists and their patrons.


From the above discussion, we deduce that Upper Palaeolithic cosmology designated the depths of caves and their substratum of waters as extensions of a primeval abyss, to the effect that the innermost parts of caves, as well as gaping pits and descending tunnels, retained contact with this ageless, mythical world of chaos. As the ultimate source-spring of life, this realm, which once brought forth the earth itself, remained for the Upper Palaeolithics an inexhaustible source for the renewal of the earth’s powers. No doubt, the periodic revival of life was a major concern for these peoples, as implied by their practice of representing the earth in the likeness of animals (bison, mammoths, rhinos), that is, as living creatures whose very existence unfolds through incessant cycles of life-and-death; as the large herbivores were replenished, so the earth itself was revived. The above-mentioned scenes of molting animals, pre-mating couples, or groups with young testify to a deep concern with seasonal regeneration. In essence, each reoccurrence of the sexual cycle was perceived as a duplication of the original creation—sexuality, itself, was understood as a prime manifestation of the powers that once created the world.

A wide range of motifs in cave art speak to a concept of sexual regeneration that was modeled on the creation of the earth and, like the earth, maintained through seasonal renewals. At the center of the investigation is, all the while, the belief in active, primordial forces, present in the depths of the earth. We shall first investigate the analogy of the cave space—the womb of the earth—and the female body; subsequently, we shall review motifs that pertain to male sexuality and the union of the sexes as a manifestation of the dualistic principle, present at the root of creation. We shall here restrict our investigation to displays of human sexuality, although sexuality in animals, of course, is an omnipresent theme (cf. Chapter VII).

Origins of sexuality: creation and procreation

In Oxocelhaya, toward the end of the cave, we find a genital triangle engraved amid the swirling meanders that fill up one panel (Fig. 124 a, bottom right); this association of a female sex symbol and the theme of primordial creation allows us to deduce that the origins of female sexuality must be understood as coincident with the beginnings of the earth itself. This reading is the more convincing as the terminal section of Oxocelhaya also presents a wide spectrum of elements that explicitly relate to the creation of the earth (Fig. 124 a-e): the clay-covered wall with the meanders; the bison/earth figure still enwrapped in meandering lines; the bird that evokes the “Earth Diver” narrative; and at the very end, the vertical bison and vertical fish. Sexuality is, here, presented among the earliest manifestations of the earth. Although the vertical bison motif may signify a repeat of the act of creation rather than the original event, that repetition remained a valid replica of the original creation. Significantly, we witness the beginnings of—or, a return to—the inexhaustible receptacle of energies, including sexuality. We find a brief, concise version of the meanders/vulva configuration in Gouy (no. 2 in Fig. 150), again in association with a vertical fish/lozenge (no. 1) and numerous female symbols (nos. 2-6).

In Gargas, a vulva is engraved in the Vestibule, right above the entrance to the “Camarin” (cf. Fig. 120 a), which implies that, here too, the female sex is associated with a proliferation of motifs that illustrate the creation of the earth, including the meanders of primordial chaos, vertical bison and mammoths, “earth divers” (Fig. 121 a,b; Fig. 121 c, d; and, Fig. 130). A similar situation occurs in the very back of Bédeilhac, where a triangular vulva is engraved on the floor of a niche, adjacent to the previously mentioned bison that is shown emerging from a floor-level niche, as well as a vertical bison that is painted with its head downward (nos. 1, 2, 3 in Fig. 214). In another part of Bédeilhac, we meet the theme again in the small chamber, in which a clay-bank displays a vulva and a bison; both are partly engraved, partly molded in relief, evoking the earth’s creation from clay and the simultaneous appearance of female fecundity (Fig. 140 b).

As discussed above, Montespan traces the course of a subterranean river and holds several images that pertain to the creation of the earth (cf. Fig. 132 a- c), and the clay-coverage on banks and walls frame this narrative. A side-gallery contains a vulva that is modelled in clay and affixed to the rock-wall as a manifest exposition of the primordial origins of sexual regeneration (Fig. 145 a, b), the more convincingly so, as this gallery also features remnants of several clay sculptures (including a famous bear), numerous engraved bison, and a terminal pit that connects to the abysmal depths.

Frequently, a position at the end of galleries or near shafts and tunnels speak of female symbols in contact with primordial depositories of sexual energies, a connection that becomes evident wherever the end of a major gallery narrows down to a slit that may evoke a female sex organ. This is, for example, the case in Les Églises, where the end-chamber gets progressively lower and narrower. The dominant image of a bison identifies an earth-related space, and an engraved vulva at the in the back calls attention to the similarity of the vaginal slit and the narrow tunnel that finishes the gallery (Fig. 145 c).

In Fronsac, G. Bosinsky (2011, 264) recognized the natural appearance of the terminal fissure of one corridor as quite convincingly vagina-like (no. 1 in Fig. 146 a). This reading finds support in a number of associated images that also are clear sexual symbols, including an engraved vagina and a schematic rendition of a woman’s body—a “woman without a head,” to use Bosinsky’s term (nos. 2 and 4, Fig. 146 a). A second gallery in Fronsac contains half-a-dozen female symbols and ends in a small chamber with another “woman without a head” (no. 7 in Fig. 146 b). Asserting the theme of the earth’s revival and the tie between earth, cave, and female sexuality, the former gallery contains a file of bison on top of a clay bank (no. 5 in Fig. 146 a), while the latter gallery has a bison (not shown on our plan) accompanying the female image at the end. The concurrence of these themes is ubiquitous in cave art, although formulations vary with the circumstances of cave topography. We shall review a number of different articulations of the female sex/cave nexus.

Covalanas is a fairly straight gallery until the end, where it narrows down and divides up into several branches, the farthest of which ends in a tube-like extension that may be seen as a natural vagina; indeed, traces of red paint at its opening show that the artists shared this view (no. 1 in Fig. 147). Also in the inner cave, a vulva is drawn in red to mark the opening of a narrow side-gallery that runs parallel to the main cave (no. 2 in Fig. 147). In Casares, the female designs are mostly located in the inner, narrow gallery (nos. 1-3 and 5- 7 in Fig. 148) with a concentration in the small chambers toward the back. In Font Bargeix we find a line-up of no less than ten vulvas engraved at the very end of the cave (no. 1 in Fig. 149). Likewise, some of the many vulvas in Gouy are close to the narrowing end-segment of that cave (no. 2 in Fig. 150), and an engraved almond-shape at the very end suggests a stylized vagina (no. 1). Such almond- or lozenge-shaped signs—apparently suggesting slits, cut into the rock-face—also occur near the deep, terminal pit of Cosquer (no. 1 in Fig. 151) and elsewhere in that cave (no. 4).These signs may be ambiguous (fish-like, as discussed above), but they are associated with an unmistakable vulva in the form of a natural relief outlined in black paint, which is located directly above the terminal pit (no. 2 in Fig. 151).

In the Axial Gallery of Lascaux, at the low point where this gallery narrows down to become the terminal Tunnel, two long, vertical fractures widen out in spots to become almond-shaped cracks that assume the semblance of vaginal openings (Fig. 152 a, b)—much like a couple of lozenge-shaped fissures in Casares (no. 3, Fig. 148). Although the Lascaux specimens are not directly glossed by the artists, they were noticed and were intentionally framed by the branches of a painted vegetation design (Fig. 152 a, to the left). In Oulen, numerous images, including vulvar triangles, cluster around a small niche, inside which two mammoths face a deep, vagina-like fissure (Fig. 53 f). This composition is located far inside the cave, in a low, descending gallery, which—sustained by the near-vertical pose of one mammoth—indicates the presence of powers of the depths.

In the large, old cave of Chauvet we, again, find the female symbols—a handful of triangular vulvas—delegated to the lower part of the cave, that is, the ”Descending Gallery” and the “Lower Hall” (nos. 2, 3, 4 in Fig. 153). In addition, the painting of a woman (her lower body only) with a pronounced vulva (no. 1, Fig. 153) overlooks the tight corridor to the innermost chamber (the “Sacristy”) assigning sexual implications to this narrow, terminal passage. Similar connections between the end of a gallery and female figures/vulvas occur, for example, in Pergouset (no. 3 in Fig. 160), Gabillou (no. 1 in Fig. 166), St. Cirque (Fig. 179 e), and Planchard (no. 1 in Fig. 180).

To all appearances, the artists’ primary motivation in the above situations was to acknowledge the extraordinary powers encountered at locations, where the primordial act of creation was felt as a lingering presence. Such spots were, however, not restricted to the endpoints of a cave; the primordial powers were also encountered at points where local features of topography displayed an affinity—only, on a smaller scale—with the physiognomy of the caves at large. This category includes cracks, fissures, niches, narrow tubes, and cupules. Such features are, strictly speaking, innumerable, but the artists selectively focused on sample cavities that occupied noticeable spots within caves and displayed contours fit for symbols of female sexuality.

The panel at the very end of Travers de Janoy clearly responds to a topographical feature, namely the gallery’s abrupt transformation into a narrow fissure that instantly becomes the terminal, descending tunnel (Fig. 154 a, b), and though this pronounced fissure does not strike us as particularly vagina-like, the artists acknowledged it as such and marked its contours with lines of red dots. A similar practice was used in Chufín, where natural cavities (including a rather convincing vulva imitation) are marked with red and surrounded by rows of red dots (nos. 1, 2 in Fig. 157). Occasionally, rock-wall vulvas are quite “naturalistic,” as in certain, carefully painted specimens in Lloseta (no. 16 in Fig. 158 b ) and its twin cave, Tito Bustillo (no. 8 in Fig. 158 a). In other cases, the given cavities or fissures tough they carry no obvious similarity to live forms, are yet transformed by the application of paint, as in Grande Grotte d’Arcy (Fig. 154 c). Other examples are little more than small holes or depressions that the artists enhanced with paint, as in Niaux (Fig. 156, to the left), or incorporated into a vulvar design, as in Gouy (nos. 4, 5 and 6 in Fig. 150) and Margot (Fig. 155 a). In any case, we rarely need to look far to find topographical features and artistic references that connect these female symbols with the primordial formation of the earth. In Niaux, the large rock with the just-mentioned cavity also carries a painted bison in a vertical position (Fig. 156, center). The fact that this bison’s back was predetermined by the curious outline of a depression in the rock face was probably the initial reason for the artists’ interest in the feminine aspect of the small, neighboring hole; in any case, the juxtaposition relates both vagina and bison to the theme of creation recapitulated (and designates the block itself as an emblem of the earth).

Chufín is a relatively short cave that ends in a deep pit, and the spectacular fields of red dots around the mentioned, vagina-like cavities (Fig. 157) appear to reflect powers associated with this terminal pit. In Margot, cave topography may explain the sexual significance ascribed to minor holes or cracks (cf. Fig. 155 a), because these are located in a segment described as “labyrinthine,” which the artist, likely, perceived as associated with the powers of a primordial chaos. The same holds true of a cluster of vulvas engraved in the small chamber of Micolón (Fig. 155 d), which is accessed through a veritable labyrinth of intersecting corridors.

Apparently, the artists felt the decorated caves to be imbued with sexual powers that, primarily, extended outward from the inner sections, but which were felt throughout the cave spaces. In some cases this impression is entirely overwhelming, as in Mäanderhöhle, where Bosinski (2011, 207-215) finds a wealth of natural shapes that suggest vulvas, bellies, hips, breasts, phalluses, testicles—all in grotesque abundance with minimal need for creative intervention from the artists. This case is, however, extreme, and cave sanctuaries generally rely on the decorations to articulate the pervasiveness of sexuality. In Pestillac, the omnipresence of female fertility is demonstrated by stylized figures of women, which are present throughout the cave, almost from the opening of the main gallery to the innermost branches (nos. 1-6, Fig. 183). To a large extent, this also applies to Combarelles (nos. 1-11, Fig. 174), Tito Bustillo (nos. 2-5, 8, 11, Fig. 158 a), Pergouset (nos. 1, 2, 3 in Fig. 160), Commarque (nos. 1-8 in Fig. 164), Gouy (nos. 1-6, Fig. 150), Font Bergeix (nos. 1 and 3, Fig. 149), the extant part of Cosquer (nos. 1-4, Fig. 151), the lower part of Chauvet (nos. 1-4, Fig. 153), Bédeilhac (nos. 2, 4, 6, and 8, Fig. 214).

To the above manifestations of cavities-within-caves that show an affinity with female reproductive organs, we may add the characteristic use of many minor, semi-independent chambers, or apse-like alcoves, even peripheral side-galleries. As a relevant feature of many decorative schemes such secluded spaces are treated by the artists as particularly important, sexually charged enclaves, not just in consequence of some vagina-like entrance, but mainly in observation of a womb-like space behind the opening. The painted “vulva” in Tito Bustillo, mentioned above (no. 8 in Fig. 158 a) is an actual (extremely narrow) passage into a decorated chamber, which, correspondingly, was treated as womb-like, even to the point of walling off a space in the very back of this chamber (Balbín Behrmann et al. 2003, 99). Often such womb-like spaces are found toward the back of a gallery, as in Tito Bustillo, where a niche with several painted female symbols mark the end of the very long main gallery (no. 11 in Fig. 158 a), or in the decorated gallery of Fronsac that ends in a small chamber with a stylized figure of a woman (no. 7 in Fig. 146 b). Similar efforts to expose the nature of natural “wombs” are seen in numerous caves, including the following: Gabillou, where the end-chamber—set off as a separate space—holds the image of a prostrate woman with her vagina indicated (no. 1 in Fig. 166); Deux Ouvertures, where a nook called “the Bell” (“la Cloche“) has female images both inside and outside the entrance (nos. 1 and 2, Fig. 162); Planchard, whch has female symbols, both in the terminal niche and in the central recess (nos. 1 and 2, Fig. 180); Alkerdi, where engraved bison occupy two tube-like recesses that both open into the main chamber through narrow, vagina-like slits (nos. 1 and 2 in Fig. 217); Fontanet, where a large niche (the artistic center of the cave) is crowded with painted bison, including some that are vertical and one that carries the engraved image of a woman with open legs, her vulva exposed (Fig. 196 b); Oulen, where the mentioned niche of the inner cave holds two mammoths flanking a natural vulva (Fig. 53f).

With its web of meandering lines, Gargas’ “Camarin” describes the creation of the earth, to the effect that the vulva above the entrance (between “A” and “C” in Fig. 120 a) aptly connects the primordial event with sexual gestation and, by the same token, identifies the “Camarin” behind as a womb. One branch of Portel (the bison-dominated “Breuil Gallery”) features another “Camarin,” a tiny, profusely decorated space (no. 6, Fig. 159), and here too, the image of a vagina—a small, vertical fissure, intentionally framed by scratched lines—is set next to the entrance (no. 5, Fig. 159), confirming the womb-like character of the alcove itself. A condensed exposition of the themes is seen in Labastide, where a short, narrow corridor—the location of the vertical bison rising out of the ground (Fig. 119 a)—ends in a deep pit. The entrance to this secluded space is a severely constricted passage that may recall a vaginal opening, and which the artists marked with red ocher (Fig. 119 b). In this segment of the cave, both the entrance/”vagina” and the pit/”womb” relate to the re-birth of the earth via the vertical bison.

The womb of the earth

The above examples indicate that certain cave-segments are specifically prone to be sexually charged; we may see such a segment, where the reproductive powers are strongly concentrated, as the uterus of the cave’s feminine body. Readings of entire decorated caves in biological terms, as actual representations of women’s bodies, have, indeed, been proposed by Michel Lorblanchet (for Pergouset) and Claude Barrière (for Ker à Massat).

Pergouset is a long, tube-like corridor with many narrow passages and obstacles; it is mostly too low for standing, necessitates much crawling, and is periodically inundated by the waters of the lower stream, which is encountered at the very end. The decorated part consists of four tiny chambers separated by “cat-holes” (Fig. 160). Significantly, we find a vulva (no. 3 in Fig. 160) in the descending end-section, even though this part is subject to the intrusion of the subterranean waters, its floors and walls covered in clay, silt, and stalactites. The two vulvas in the outer cave are placed at the narrow passages between the first two chambers (no. 1) and between the next two chambers (no. 2). Laid out thus, the gallery may be understood as a continuous birth-canal, a reading that is helped by discreet differences in the imagery. As noticed by Lorblanchet, a natural curvature in the supporting wall makes the middle vulva appear as part of a figure with a swelling belly, even with a suggested belly button (no. 2; our renditions show the design both frontally and in profile). We may, then, follow Lorblanchet and trace a progression from the farthest decorated section, where the generative forces are strongest and impregnation occurs (vulva no. 3), over the pregnant womb in the third chamber (vulva no. 2), to the delivery into the foremost chamber (vulva no. 1). The precise location of the outermost vulva, above the narrow “cat-hole” between two chambers, closely associates female sign and cave topography; further facilitating the idea of a delivery, the outer vulva (no. 1) is shown with an enlarged vaginal opening that may indicate birthing. In sum we may understand the entire cave of Pergouset as a female body.

Ker à Massat has only two decorated chambers (sections I and III, Fig. 161 a), but much as in Pergouset, the first one is entered through a narrow “cat-hole” and the passage into the second one is a tight tube that barely allows a person to crawl through (section II, Fig. 161 a, b). Like in Pergouset, the last segment of Ker offers a feeling of tumultuous, watery origins, with a rough descent leading past a deep pit and ending in a subterranean stream (Fig. 161 b). In the clay deposit that covers the walls we find a vertical serpentine and an lozenge-shaped fish (nos. 4 and 5, Fig. 161), both conceptually associated with openings to netherworld waters. The way the tube (“laminoir” in French) closes tightly around a recumbent cave explorer suggested to Barrière the sensation of passing through a virtual birth-canal, connecting the uterus of the back-room to the outer chamber—an impression that is the more convincing, as a vulva is engraved on a projecting rock, in full view of the person moving toward the narrow exit (no. 1 in Fig. 161). Reading the cave from the inside toward the outside, this is a meaningful analogy of a birth from the womb of the earth, by passage through its birth canal/vagina, to emergence from its vulva.

With variations, we recognize this scheme in a number of other caves, for example in Casares, where we can trace the progression from impregnation to birth through a line of minor chambers. Beginning at the terminal descent (at no. 1, Fig. 148) we find a tube-like design (red), which is the last image in the cave, and which we may read as a schematic rendition of the uterus, and close by, a small, natural cavity that is characterized as a vagina by engraved strokes (suggesting pubic hair), and which is being approached by the extraordinarily large penis of a male character; this scene, evidently, signifies fertilization (no. 2). Several natural fissures in the next chamber recall more vaginas (no. 3). While the just-mentioned symbols relate to natural features and, thus, are close manifestations of the earth itself, the subsequent image of an apparently pregnant woman (no. 5) is a purely artistic creation, and though we ignore her identity (human or divine, named or generic?), her role as a fertility symbol is clear. The complex scene that follows shows another act of impregnation (no. 6, to the left). Finally, the outermost figure of a woman (no. 7) appears to be giving birth, with a tiny figure emerging from her womb; this is, then, the logical, last stage in the progression

The panel next to the Casares birth-scene contains numerous images of fishes, including some vertical specimens, aimed both up- and down-wards (no. 8), and in the context of birthing (as distinct from impregnation) the likely association may be to the fluids of the womb, the waters in which the fetus is afloat and which break at birth. This conflation of subterranean waters and amniotic fluids also seems feasible in the above readings of Pergouset and Ker à Massat: Pergouset combines a vulva and a fish at the threshold of the terminal descent (nos. 3 and 5 in Fig. 160); Ker has a fish-shape in the inner chamber, just preceding the descent (no. 5, Fig. 161 a). We find close parallels to these cases in Cosquer, where fish-designs and a vulva are close to the deep pit at the end (nos. 1 and 2 in Fig. 151), as well as in Chufín, where fish-like lozenges and several vulvas line the descent to the terminal well (nos. 1, 2, and 6 in Fig. 157). These examples do not negate the above-mentioned parallel between seminal fluids and primordial waters (to be pursued below), but within the wide spread of themes that originate in the myth of creation, the birth of the earth out of the watery chasm is the pertinent analogy for the delivery of a baby from the amniotic fluids of the womb.

The cave as a female organism

We have identified two categories of cave topography that were perceived as physical matches to distinct parts of the female body: on one hand, vagina-like passages and fissures; on the other hand, womb-like alcoves and niches. Though the two physiological entities are parts of the same organism, the artists kept sight of their dual functions. Occasionally, we find a neat separation of the two, as in El Linar, where the decoration is gathered in two, extremely narrow end-galleries that each presents one of the two themes. One takes the form of a large vagina (no. 1 in Fig. 163 a) with a, roughly almond-shaped, passage that was treated to some slight smoothening and outlined with short strokes, so as to emphasize the analogy with a vaginal opening—large enough for a visitor to enter/exit. The other theme is in the parallel gallery, which holds the engraved outline of a woman’s body with her belly and pelvic areas emphasized (no. 2, Fig. 163 a). The stone-vagina represents penetration and birthing; the “woman without a head” figure stands for gestation in the womb.

Typically, the artists mixed the two themes, and the result might seem haphazard, as in Fronsac, where both vulva and womb are represented in each of the decorated galleries (nos. 1, 2, and 4 in Fig. 146 a; nos. 6 and 7 in Fig. 146 b), or in Combarelles, where vulvar images and stylized female bodies alternate (Fig. 174). On closer inspection we find, however, that the artists took care to represent both themes—like cause and effect—within a given section of a cave. Utterly plain displays of this doubleness are found at the end of St. Cirque (nos. 1 and 2, Fig. 179 e), or in Planchard (nos. 1 and 2 in Fig. 180). A configuration in the nether gallery of Chauvet comprises the lower body of a woman—focused on the pelvic area—and an isolated vulva (nos. 1 and 2 in Fig. 153). Joining the two motifs even closer, the mentioned ensemble in Fronsac (no. 6 in Fig. 146 b)—like a similar panel in Margot (Fig. 155 b, c)—pulls the two symbols together, distinguishing them only by size. In a variation on that formulation, the terminal chamber of Tito Bustillo aligns a number of vulva-designs, but frames one by the outline of a woman’s lower body (no. 11 in Fig. 158 a), which creates an awkward figure that, however, retains the distinction between external and internal sex organs. This design finds a parallel in Combarelles (Fig. 175 b).

The above configurations might carry a deeper level of meaning (perhaps a feasible “mother Earth” identity, as discussed below), but the overt symbolism remains simple: the female womb is associated with the watery abyss of creation, and the vulva is the passage between that occult realm and the outer world. A strict demonstration of this distinction is found in Deux Ouvertures, where a woman with emphasis on the lower body is engraved inside the designated, womb-like chamber, while a triangular vulva is placed directly outside the entrance (nos. 2 and 1 in Fig. 162).

Commarque presents an expanded version of this arrangement (cf. Fig. 164). In the inner chamber two women of the lower-body type are engraved in the middle of the inner chamber (nos. 6, 7), designating this area as a womb, while a triangular vulva is fittingly engraved at the tight and low passage that leads to the outer cave (no. 5). The entrance-chamber of Commarque has a side-gallery that leads off to the left and inside this segment is another female silhouette that, again, is centered on the lower-body (no. 8), and which, again, designate this section as womb-like. By contrast, four vulva designs mark the path into/out of the cave: two are closely associated with pronounced fissures in the wall (nos. 3 and 4), but the two outer ones (nos. 1 and 2) demonstratively take possession of the passage to/from the gallery of access; these two are the interface with the outer world.

This formulation, by which the visitor passes between two symbols of genital openings, qualifies as a particular artistic convention, one that we recognize, for example, in Chauvet, where the visitor descending into (or, returning from) the lower cave passes between facing images of vaginas, painted on either side of the corridor (nos. 3 and 4, Fig. 153). As mentioned, Gouy also features two facing vulvas in the front end of the cave (nos. 5 and 6 in Fig. 150).

This convention is used with unusual artistic verve in the decoration of Magdeleine, where two reclining women in bas-relief (nos. 1 and 2 in Fig. 165 a) are placed on either side of the corridor that leads from the open shelter to the inner cave. Their genital triangles are clearly exposed, to the effect that entering or leaving the cave means passing through a definitely sexualized opening (cf. Fig. 165 b). From the small, womb-like inner-cave, a descending path (no. 4, Fig. 165 a) leads to a lower-level gallery and to subterranean waters. The analogy with vulva and womb is perfectly stated.

To the above, we may add that a number of cave sanctuaries feature entrances that, seen from the outside, may recall the basic likeness of a vagina. Parpalló (Fig. 163 b) is a pronounced example, as the large opening here is tall, narrow, and vertical. It stands to reason that this appearance (along with the orientation to the winter solstice sun, as discussed in Chapter V) contributed to the extraordinary prestige of this site, which is famous for its impressive production of small-scale art works. In Venta-de-la-Perra, the vestibule narrows down to the slit that is the entrance of the cave; its resemblance to a vaginal opening is not obvious, but the location of a vertical bison here may support such a reading (Fig. 59 a, c).

Gynecology as a theme of cave art

In the tiny, low-set chamber at the very end of Gabillou, the supine woman in a characteristic, “gynecological” position is the only figure on the right-hand wall, and because her open legs are towards the outer cave, we can freely read the entire, single-gallery cave as a direct extension of her reproductive system (no. 1, Fig. 166). Corroborating this perception, a series of (semi-)human characters in agitated, erotic postures conduct, so to speak, the sexual charge throughout the gallery (nos. 4, 5, and 6 in Fig. 166).

Certain recurring motifs show that Palaeolithic artists’ interest in sexuality went well beyond the urgency of fertility and the excitement of mating and intercourse, to encompass speculations about the physiology of fertility and, particularly, of the female reproductive system. Given that we sometimes can point out sections of caves that match the uterus as the innermost part of the birth canal or the womb, we may expect to also find images that we can safely relate to gestation and birth. The mentioned, uterus-like sign in the last panel of Casares (no. 1 in Fig. 148) finds its counterparts in several U-shaped signs located in deep sections of Pileta (nos. 1, 3, 4 in Fig. 176 b).

Placentas, with or without umbilical cords, are distinct topics in cave art, and a particularly informative source for this motif is the cave of Roucadour. Like the mentioned vagina-like passage in El Linar (Fig. 163 a), the opening of the main gallery of Roucadour is a huge stone-vagina that, to be sure, is also flanked by drawn and painted vulvas (Fig. 167 a, b). In fact, the entire gallery is nothing but a large fissure, even as it contains virtually all of the cave’s abundant decoration (including numerous mammoths and bison). This ensemble provides us with forty-some engraved variants of the same design, namely a rounded, usually indented shape, which in a number of cases resemble a placenta quite convincingly. Compared with scientifically correct representations of placentas (Fig. 168, a-c), some of the more explicit specimens (Fig. 168, e-i) are fairly close fits in several respects: the rounded—but not rigidly circular—form; the indentation at one point of the circumference; the enwrapping membranes and sacs that envelope the fetus (five to six layers in a couple of engravings). A positive identification of these signs is complicated by the fact that the umbilical cord is indicated in only a few instances (e, f, i); the artists’ emphasis was, however, neither on the fetus nor delivery, but on the matrix of the womb. With its two vulvas in front, its clay-clogged narrowing in the back, and its red-tinted wall-faces, the fissure of Roucadour was a model setting for the womb of the earth.

The placenta is an old motif in Upper Palaeolithic art. A clear display of one, including the umbilical cord, is carved into an Aurignacian era block from Abri Castanet (Fig. 168 d, showing two views), an image that has often been seen as a “vulva” in the likeness of many other carvings from the same (early) date and region; nevertheless, the umbilical cord is here shown in slightly raised relief, leaving little doubt that this represents a placenta (as argued by Don Hitchcock, 2019). In the caves, we find alternative formulations from different periods and regions. Thus, two red signs in Tito Bustillo appear to show placentas with umbilical cords attached (Fig 169 b), and a near-identical version is found in the main frieze of Pindal (Fig. 169 e). In Ker à Massat’s end-section (at no. 2 in Fig. 161) we find, drawn in the clay, a polished, broadly circular form with a vertical stroke emanating from the center (Fig. 169 g), a sign that convincingly resembles a placenta with its umbilical cord; as such, it agrees with the function of the inner cave section as the “uterus” of the cave system, as discussed above. Also significantly located, a similar sign in Altamira is found at the very end of the long corridor (“the Horse’s Tail”) that constitutes the innermost part of the cave (Fig. 169 h). This is, indeed, a close counterpart to the sign at Ker, and in both instances we have radiating lines within the circular form that recall the spreading veins of a placenta. This is a feature we also find in a specimen in Roucadour (Fig. 168 e).

An indented oval, unmistakably similar to several of the Roucadour signs, is engraved in Pech-Merle (Fig. 170 a, b), where it is combined with a tree-like design (a stem and two branches) that, again, may refer to the tree-like pattern of a stem and numerous veins/branches in placentas (cf. Fig. 168 a-c), a feature that in some historical cultures is acknowledged as the “Tree of Life.” The Pech-Merle sign is inserted into a line of three women (Fig. 170 a) and associated with a tubular design that we may see as the representation of a birth-canal (Fig. 170 a, c).

It seems relevant to the above readings that the placenta-like signs tend to be associated with vulvas or other signs that refer to pregnancy. Thus, the above-proposed Pindal placenta is juxtaposed with a painted sign that suggests the feminine genital triangle (Fig. 169 e, f), and the two comparable signs in Tito Bustillo are found in the vicinity of the mentioned panel of female signs (nos. 10 and 11 in Fig. 158 a). Given this proximity of the Tito signs, a supposed vulva that, oddly, occupies the entire lower part of the abdomen of a woman’s body (Fig. 169 a, center) may represent more than a vulva, feasibly encompassing the vagina and the uterus. So, perhaps do the neighboring signs (Fig. 169 a, left and right) that, otherwise, may be seen as a puzzling show of vulvas inside vulvas. These signs possibly result from an effort to combine views of exterior and interior genitalia. Similar stylization—to the point of near- abstraction—also characterizes some odd vulva-like designs in the main panel of Tito (nos. 4 and 5 in Fig. 158 a; see Fig. 169 c, d). The circle inscribed inside one of these (Fig. 169 c) may illustrate the widening of the vaginal orifice during child birth, whereas the striation of the second Tito sign (Fig. 169 d) lacks an apparent anatomical basis (but resembles striated or cross-hatched vulvas in Gouy, for example; cf. Bosinski 2011, 181). The signs of Tito’s main panel include a stylized female body (no. 2, Fig. 158 a). All are associated with the mentioned opening to the subterranean river.

Among the stylized figures of women in Combarelles, we find one whose entire lower body is shaped as a triangle, resembling a vulvar design, and again, we may see this as an attempt to combine the external and internal genitals in one image (no. 2 in Fig. 175 c). Another female outline (Fig. 175 b) is quite similar to the above-mentioned image in Tito Bustillo (Fig. 169 a) and evinces the same ambiguity. Likewise, the large vulva in Cavaille (Fig. 19 b) may be read in more ways than one.

Of course, the cave artists could make anatomically correct representations of the external, genital triangle (that is, the externally visible part, or the vulva) as demonstrated by certain sculptural figures of women in, for example, Laussel (Fig. 171 a) or Angles-sur-Anglin (Fig. 171 d), even though the latter may slightly exaggerate the size of the vulvas. The imagery at Angles also shows isolated vulvas in realistic form (Fig. 171 e), whereas the realism of the Laussel figure co-exists with extreme stylization in other images of apparent vulvas engraved at the site (Fig. 171 b). Examples of supposed vulvas rendered as circles are also found, for example, on Aurignacian-age, engraved blocks from Blanchard (Fig. 172 a, b) and—in a very different context—in a painted panel in the Castillo Cave (Fig. 172 c, d). That they refer to vaginas is clear enough, but the level of abstraction suggests a broader statement about impregnation, pregnancy, and birth.

Yet another type of vulva-like signs reinforce this impression, as they combine the lower portion of the vulva, including the vaginal slit, with an upper portion that appears more voluminous than any realistic rendition of the mons pubis. Examples of this are found on very old, engraved blocks at La Ferrassie (Fig. 173 b), where they, again, co-exist with more realistic versions (cf. Fig. 173 a); this is also the case at Abri Cellier (Fig. 173 c, d). A much later example from the German site of Gönnersdorf includes a penis approaching the vaginal orifice (Fig. 173 e), but this seemingly realistic detail only emphasizes the odd proportions of the supposed vulva, leaving the impression that the upper, tapering part may indicate the uterus, and that the entire female reproductive system might be intended.

As the innermost locus of sexual gestation, the uterus presented a challenge to the cave artists, who did not benefit from records of clinical dissections (although they were familiar with the sight of a fetus in the uterus of large game animals), but a semi-abstract rendition of the human uterus in the form of a tube-like enclosure was within their field of competence. Based on the topographical situation, we may speculate that the mentioned, “U”-shaped sign in the last panel of Casares –immediately before the descending, terminal tunnel—may well represent a uterus (no. 1 in Fig. 148); given the location, this may quite likely signify the womb of the cave itself. The decorated ceiling of Pech-Merle also features a “U”-sign, which is juxtaposed with a placenta-like sign, as well as several women with large breasts (Fig. 170 a – c); the inclusion of several mammoths and a bison relates this homage to female fertility to the regenerative powers of the earth.

The sculpted woman at Laussel (Fig. 171 a) carries a bison’s horn that is marked by thirteen notches and this number, combined with the gesture of the woman’s hand on the belly—calling attention to her womb—point to the connections between the lunar month, the menstrual cycle and, possibly, an awareness of the most fertile days of the cycle at ovulation. Also at Laussel, a second, less famous sculptured woman (Fig. 171 c) holds a U-shaped object that does not look like a horn, but perhaps—given its similarity with the rounded signs of the site (cf. Fig. 177 b)—may be seen as a uterus.

In Pileta, a number of red, circular or “U”-shaped signs (Fig. 177 a-h) are noticeable in some particularly low and cramped locations, including one section that is virtually perched on the edge of a deep chasm (nos. 2–4, Fig. 176 a, b). Some of these signs are, furthermore, associated with groups of meanders and vertical serpentines, and a connection with the waters in the depths of the earth is obviously essential to their meaning. Those signs that take the form of an open “U” (Fig. 177 f-h) may well imitate the shape of the human uterus (cf. Fig. 177 l, left; the embryo in the uterus). Their precarious location emphasizes the nexus of watery depths and uterine fluids, be it in the womb of a woman or the womb of the earth. The signs that are closed like an “O” (Fig. 177 c, d) may be placentas. One of these is extended by a straight line that could be the umbilical cord; another has four extensions, and we might speculate that this refers to the omphalos—the navel of the earth—as the center of creation (a concept expounded below, in Part Four).

The paired strokes that accompany this body of signs—the common symbol for the numerical “two”—may imply the concept of “opened” or “impregnated” (cf. discussion in Chapters VII and X). A similar group of signs, located in a parallel, descending side-gallery (no. 1 in Fig. 176 a, b), also contains images that suggest a uterus and a placenta (Fig. 177 a, b). They accompany images of fishes as well as meanders and vertical serpentines (Fig. 176 b) that, again, stress the inter-connection of the womb and the waters of the primordial abyss.

In the just-mentioned, steeply descending section of Pileta (nos. 2-4, Fig. 176 b) we even find a motif that may represent an embryo in the uterus. Rendered as variations on a rounded, curled-up shape, this motif seems to trace steps in the development of the fetus, up to the visible distinction of a head and a body (Fig. 177 i, j); the umbilical cord appears, as well (Fig. 177 j, to the right). An engraved slab from Parpalló (Fig. 177 k) may help identify this motif, which shows obvious similarities with photographic renditions of the fetus in utero (cf. Fig. 177 l). Fortunately, we have other, more explicit, images that demonstrate the Palaeolithic artists’ interest in embryos and newly-born children. A decorated artifact from Trois-Frères (Fig. 177 m) undoubtedly renders a human embryo. A rare illustration of a birth in progress is found on an engraved slate from Gönnersdorf (Fig. 173 f), an artifact that is familiar from discussions by G. Bosinski, A. Marshack, and F. d’Errico. Here one woman is seen helping another woman in the process of giving birth (to the left); the new-born (the round-eyed bundle to the right) still has the umbilical cord by which the child remains attached to the mother. However, the fetal-looking baby is also directly connected with a sign (Fig. 173 f, at the bottom, partly broken off) that seems identical to some placenta/uterus designs discussed above, including one that also comes from Gönnersdorf (Fig. 173 e).

In Font Bergeix, the image of a fetus or new-born (no. 2 in Fig. 149) is associated with stylized women and numerous triangular vulvas. In St. Cirque, a human figure, known as “the Sorcerer,” looks less like a man with an oddly shaped penis than a new-born child with a remnant of the umbilical cord (Fig. 179 d). At the end of this short cave we find a genital triangle and a schematic woman of the lower-body type (Fig. 179 e). A comparable case is found in Altxerri, where the apparent penis of a male figure (Fig. 179 a) is anatomically out of place, and here too, may better be sees as an umbilical cord; the figure’s position, then, suggests that the cord is connected with the earth and its womb. As in St. Cirque, this character—in the side-gallery of Altxerri—is associated with a “woman without a head” (Fig. 179 b).

A convincing rendition of a fetus in association with several vulvar triangles is seen in Guy Martin (Fig. 178 a). Here the line from the navel of the fetus to one large vulva is most likely the umbilical cord. It is worth noting that the cave of Guy Martin is located directly above the habitation site of La Marche, which has provided a wealth of unusually realistic, decorated artifacts, among which we find a fine representation of a fetus superimposed on the body of a mature woman (Fig. 178 b). A parallel to the fetus/vulva configuration in Guy Martin—though less detailed—occurs in Combarelles (no. 3, Fig. 175 c; to the right).

The elusive “Mother Earth”

The womb-like aspects of some parts of caves, as well as the parallels between stages of pregnancy/delivery and distinct sections of caves, all suggest that the artists held ideas about a Mother Earth-like being, a mythical character of anthropomorphic appearance but with divine powers; we may speculate that the artists saw their cave sanctuaries as representing the womb of such a deity. We may, indeed, find possible evidence for that belief in certain caves with rough, sculptural representations of female beings. These sculptural creations barely go beyond the brute, found shapes that first suggested them, and they remain, essentially, anchored in the given, physical features of the caves; often, the unity of female figure and cave seems evident. Such an iconic figure may be the sculptural representation of a local goddess of the cave, or even of a Mother Earth-type divinity.

One example of a feasible Mother Earth figure is found in Pergouset (no. 2 in Fig. 160). According to Michel Lorblanchet, the artists merely added the vulvar triangle to a convex roundness that already hinted at a pregnant belly with a protruding navel. As discussed above, this figure plays a part in the narrative of fertilization/pregnancy/delivery that the artists imposed on the lay-out of the cave itself. G. Bosinski points out that a comparable, female sculpture at the end of Planchard (no. 1 in Fig. 180) has been only lightly formed by the artists, who left the body mostly in its given shape, adding some color-touches, and engraving a genital triangle next to the sculpture. In the Grande Grotte of Arcy-sur-Cure, a stalagmite column, far inside the cave, readily assumes the appearance of a female being, and very few traces—mainly touches of red ocher—reveal the artists’ work (Fig. 181 a). A similar case in Oxocelhaya is even less forthcoming about the artists’ input, which merely consists of engraved lines (some suggesting a vulva) on a stalagmitic column of vaguely human stature (Fig. 181 b). Bédeilhac presents us with an unassuming stalagmite that, however, seems to display two legs, and which has been painted red across the area that would match the lower stomach of a feminine figure (no. 6 in Fig. 214). The Mäanderhöhle contains a stalagmite that resembles a feminine figure, and which is all natural, except for a few engraved lines on the woman’s thighs (Fig. 181 c). Some distinctly breast-like formations—complete with “nipples”—are found near the female figure (Fig. 181 d), and these, too, could be considered body-parts of an assumed divinity of the cave.

Breast-like pendants were noticed by the artists in other caves as well; for example, in Cosquer, where a specimen was marked with black paint (Fig. 181 e). In Pech-Merle, the tiny, innermost chamber of the end-section (“Le Combel”) features pending formations that resemble full breasts with characteristic “nipples.” These are, again, picked out with black paint (no. 4 in Fig. 182 a). In this chamber—accessed through an extremely narrow opening between stalagmites—red dots accompany more breast-like formations and frame a nearly impassable “cat-hole” that leads to the diminutive, terminal space—all of which generates the feeling of an inner, uterine recess of the maternal cave space. Correspondingly, the natural breasts may illustrate the nourishing potential of the motherly earth itself.

Within Pech-Merle, but at the opposite end of the decorated cave, we find well-crafted images of the female body in all its glory. Significantly, these are drawn in the ceiling at its highest point, almost eight meters from the floor (no. 1 in Fig. 182 a, b). They, too, are related to the earthly mystery of regeneration, as indicated by a placenta, a uterus, and some serpentine water-signs, as well as mammoths and a bison (cf. Fig. 170 a-c); yet, in this lofty display, these women are associated with the highest stratum of the earth’s domain, which—wee may assume—reaches to the tops of the mountains. If we see these women as personifications of a Mother Earth, then we must agree with Lorblanchet that the sphere of her procreative powers comprises all of the earth, even to the sphere of the cloud-scraping mountain peaks. If so, then the ceiling panel is, certainly, an exaltation of her presence.

The identity of this great deity remains, however, hypothetical without a record of her name and physical evidence of her cult. One challenge to the identification is the multiplicity of images, as seen in the just-mentioned three-some of women in the Pech-Merle ceiling; this line of figures is not readily explained as multiple renditions of a singular goddess of the earth. Cussac presents the same picture: a handful of figures of women are spread out in the cave (a couple of these are in the “Great Panel,” Fig. 90 a), and one panel (“Panneau de l’Empreinte”) shows three vulvar triangles in line. The females in these caves could, conceivably, be priestesses or acolytes in the cult of the one goddess, but verification of that theory would require knowledge of particular (local or regional) names of a divinity, as the generic label of a “Great Goddess” jumbles together many diverse attributes.

Typically, the cave artists left the identity issue open. In Tito Bustillo, for example, the panel of vulvar images, located at the far end of the cave, includes the contours of a woman’s body (at no. 11, Fig. 158 a), but nothing makes her stand out as a great goddess. In fact, the most striking female representation of the cave is at the other end of the cave, where it takes he impersonal form of a vagina-like fissure at the foot of the great wall (see the insert, Fig. 158 a); this, entirely natural slit is of great consequence, because it communicates with the river below, and the entire, great panorama extends out from here (a large field of red ocher covers the wall directly above). A Mother Earth-like goddess might conceivably manifest herself in this opening, whereas the female symbols painted in the adjacent areas of the wall (nos. 2 – 5 in Fig. 158 a) could be symbols of her cult, or references to her followers; this assumption, however, leaves her identity open. The only certain conclusion to be drawn is that these, and other female signs in Tito, are generalized emblems of the regenerative powers invested in the earthy cave-sanctuary.

In Fronsac, the natural vagina at the end of one gallery (Fig. 146 a) may signal the presence of a goddess of the cave and/or of the earth, but in this cave we also find the more complicated panel in which multiple feminine figures accompany one large vulva (no. 6 in Fig. 146 b), a composition that might suit a frustrating number of feasible readings, including: one great goddess with a number of followers; a symbol of fertility with ritually repeated images of a great deity; a group of semi-divine beings (perhaps ancestral “grand-mothers”); or, practitioners of a fertility-related ritual. Like Fronsac, the cave of Margot contains a variety of sexual symbols that include (in a tunnel-like setting) a large engraving of a genital triangle on which half-a-dozen stylized figures of women are superimposed (Fig. 155 b, c); again, we may speculate that the larger symbol represents a governing principle—perhaps the symbol of a fertility goddess—to which the smaller figures seem to be beholden. The same may apply to the juxtaposition of female bodies and a large vulvar triangle in Combarelles (no. 2 in Fig. 175 c); here, too, the vulva is a noticeable presence among a wide array of feminine symbols (nos. 1-11 in Fig. 174). In abbriviated form, the same applies to a panel in Ardales that juxtaposes a large vulva and a “woman without a head” (Fig. 186 g), as well as to the very similar panel at the end of St. Cirque (Fig. 179 e). In Roucadour, where the heavily decorated gallery, itself, has the features of a huge vagina (possibly, that of an “Earth Mother”), the scores of placenta symbols that crowd the walls (in fact, many more than shown in our Fig. 167 b) rather suggest a concern with successful parturition as it applies to women in general (or, again, to feasible, tribal “grand-mothers”).

The above situations are, then, ambiguous, both with respect to the subjects’ identities (deity, semi-divine characters, mythical ancestors, priestesses, or acolytes) and regarding their particular purposes (universal regeneration, tribal fertility, or ordinary concerns of pregnancy/delivery). The one realization supported by all of the above observations remains the tie between female sexuality and the earth, as it is facilitated through the cave sanctuaries and, ultimately, rooted in the generative powers released by primordial creation. No matter what the individual identity of female figures and signs may be, they reflect this basic concept through formal characteristics that tie them to the depths of the earth. Thus, images of women persistently emphasize the lower part of the body; a tendency that, in the context of a dualistic world-view (cf. Chapter X), inevitably associates women’s reproductive system with the sphere of the earth.

This trend in the arts is notable already in the early Upper Palaeolithic type of female figurines (the “Venuses” from Willendorf, etc.), which often appear earth-bound by their massive lower bodies. The theme reoccurs in reliefs associated with cave sanctuaries, as in the frieze of Angles-sur-Anglin (Fig. 171 d), and it is evident already in the earliest cave-paintings, as seen in Chauvet (no. 1 in Fig. 153). A close prototype for the more recent (Magdalenian) motif of the “woman without a head” occurs already in the (Solutrean) ensemble of Pech-Merle, in which a relatively complete image of a woman (with head and arms) is aligned with two more earthy, less complete ones (Fig. 170 a). Moreover, the artists of Pech-Merle went a step further toward abstraction with the odd women in the alcove below the just-mentioned group (at no. 2 in Fig. 182; see Fig. 184 a); in fact, the earth-hugging form of these imaginative characters is so extreme that they resemble the type of rounded, hill-like signs, we may read as signs for “the earth” (cf. Fig. 49, Fig. 50, and Fig. 51). Variously labeled “bison-women” or “mammoth-women,” these characters—in their low niche, enclosing the main water-drain of Pech-Merle (cf. Fig. 184 b)—visibly belong to the earth and partake of its (re)generative powers.

Several other sites provide a range of female images, from objective figures of women to some that approach “earth” signs. As the key site for the late Magdalenian infatuation with “women without heads,” Gönnersdorf presents us with gradated samples of figures, including some with arms and hands (even with details of clothing), some with breasts but no arms, some with reduced upper bodies and rudimentary legs, and ultimately, some that are virtually reduced to the lower body—the envelope of the womb (Fig. 185 a-d). A similar series may be compiled from figures in Combarelles (Fig. 175 a-c). Among the many headless women engraved on large blocks at Rocher-Lalinde, a few retain breasts or arms, but most are torsos with large hips (Fig. 185 e). Fronsac has more than a dozen figures of the stripped-down type, some of which recall “earth” signs (nos. 4, 6, 7 in Fig. 146 a, b). In Carriot, we have a specimen that is distinctly feminine, along with another one that seems meaningful only as a dual earth/woman sign (Fig. 185 f, g). The same duplicity is evident with the engraved figures from Hohlenstein (Fig. 185 h) and in samples from the cave of Commarque (Fig. 185 i, j). Significantly, the more abstract among these formulations (Fig. 185 e, g, h, i) bring us very close to certain extreme (but still identifiable) “earth” signs in Gargas (Fig. 52 b) and Castillo (Fig. 220 a).

Another conventional earth/woman-formulation transforms the pelvic area into a basically triangular shape with the rest of the body reduced to a straight line. At the sites of Andernach and Gönnersdorf this type exists both in sculptural form and as drawings (Fig. 186 a-c). In Combarelles we recognize this design in a group of three, stepwise simplified women (no. 2, Fig. 175 c), and here a vertical, dividing line suggests a basic vulvar triangle (cf. Fig. 186 d). This figure, in turn, provides a key to an all-but-abstract sign in Monedas (Fig. 186 e).

Manifestations of male sexuality

The concave parts of the caves—the female fissures, niches, and other recesses—find their natural opposites in many protruding formations that apparently were perceived as the caves’ inherent manifestations of the male sex. Like their female counterparts, these nature-given shapes were associated with the formative powers of primeval creation. Whether erect (from the floor) or pending (from the ceiling), whether calcite- or rock-based, their raw forms retained a reflection of the process of original creation. Though most such male symbols are left in their natural forms—recalling male organs in a broad, general way—we also find examples that were marked with paint or engraved lines to show the artists’ recognition of their intrinsic meaning; quite often, dots (mostly red) were used to trace the verticality of the male formations. Unlike the designated female cavities, which have long been recognized by cave explorers (even as new, previously unrecognized examples keep appearing in recent publications), the natural male emblems have been largely bypassed in the literature on decorated caves. Often explorers simply ignored their presence, but cultural preconceptions are also to blame for the neglect of the topic.

As a point in case, Christine Desdemaines-Hugon—but apparently nobody else—has noticed a glossy stalagmite that precedes the first, narrow passage in Bernifal, and which by its location and smoothness may recall the polished phalluses (lingas) of Indian sanctuaries (2010, 179). The inclusive presence of the Lingam and the Joni is a self-evident fact of much religious art of the Orient, whereas Western researchers remain skeptical about the relevance of the theme in European cave sanctuaries. Mounting evidence tend, however, to cause a change in attitudes. For example, a team of explorers in Cosquer could not fail to recognize a number of distinctly male-looking stalagmites, the more so as some are located in the vicinity of a large engraved phallus (no. 5 in Fig. 151). These phallic formations (no. 8 in Fig. 151; left side of the plan) are mostly in the rough, chaotic passage that connects the cave’s two deep pits (nos. 2 and 7); as with the cave’s female signs, we recognize an association with the watery depths of the earth.

An example of the growing attention to natural, phallic forms may be seen in the recent monologue on Trois-Frères (Bégouën et al. 2014), which publishes a large phallus that is nature-given but outlined by drawn lines; it is closely juxtaposed with a vagina-like cavity that is marked with a distinct red dot (Fig. 187). These large images (nearly one meter tall) are located in plain sight of any visitor descending into the famous “Sanctuary,” yet, they were ignored for a century. A number of bison are engraved around this dual, male-and-female figure (including a vertical bison), connecting the sexual theme with the element of the earth and, again, with the earth’s origins in a primeval chasm. In the same vein, René Gailli (2006, 111) wonders why, after more than a century of exploration, no publications had mentioned the red-painted phallic formation in Bédeilhac (no. 7 in Fig. 214).

Fairly recently, Gerhard Bosinski’s inclusive examination of the sexual connotations of various cave features represents a significant step toward an appreciation of the tie between caves and sexual regeneration. Thus, Bosinski (2011, 198-200) identifies some large speleothems and rock-columns as male symbols and their positions as intimations of a sexual union with female cave spaces. One case is Planchard, which contains several feminine images (nos. 1 and 2 in Fig. 180) and has several deep pits in its floor. It also features several speleothems, both outside and inside the tiny entrance hole (nos. 3 and 4, Fig. 180); some of these formations assume the appearance of phalluses, and Bosinski points out one in the rock-shelter, so close to the cave’s small entrance-hole that they jointly suggest a sexual act (2011, 189). In the exterior shelter at Chasserou, Bosinski observes another configuration of a narrow entrance and a huge rock-phallus (Fig. 188 b), another intimation of the sexual act. This spectacle obviously concerns the cave at large, including its figure of a woman in relief (Fig. 188 a).

Some illustrations of male sexuality based on natural features are familiar from extant literature. These include a suggestive rock-pendant in Niaux, which is highlighted by a red-painted, vertical vegetation sign (Fig. 72 b). Another notorious case concerns two male characters in Portel (Fig. 189 a, b); one has a good-sized stalagmite for a penis, while the other has his lower body and sex formed by stalactites. Likewise, three sketchy men in Cougnac have lower bodies composed of stalactites (Fig. 190 a), and in this case, the penis of the first figure (to the left) is marked with red. A section of the latter cave is, furthermore, crowded with speleothems, among which are numerous pendants with painted marks (Fig. 190 b), formations that certainly imply male sexuality.

In accordance with the fundamental dualism of the artists’ world-view, such naturally occurring representations of male sex organs exist in a state of balance with the female nature of the surrounding cave space. A demonstration of this complementary principle is seen in the lower hall of Chauvet, where the obtrusive, pending rock carries paintings of both the lower body of a woman, whose vulva is exposed, and a man, who wears a bison-bull mask (no. 1 in Fig. 153; Fig. 204 a). The scene is, indeed, sexually charged, with the agitated bison/man sniffing the woman’s genitals; this encounter and the physical setting jointly articulate the artists’ perception of the pendant as a phallic object that is inserted into the female cavity of the hall. In the Axial Gallery of Lascaux, a pending, semi-detached rock (decorated with the figure of a horse) is juxtaposed with several (natural) vulva-like cavities (Fig. 152). The situation is comparable to the one in Chauvet, as the pendant of Lascaux overhangs the entrance to the terminal tunnel, generating the spectacle of a male form penetrating a female space. The presence of the bison inside the tunnel (Fig. 70 b) identifies this space as the womb of the earth.

A fond of sexual energies is always ready to manifest itself in the caves, as illustrated in Portel, where two female signs in the form of cavities with red ocher accents (189 c, d) visibly attract the attention of two men whose sex organs are calcite formations (nos. 1-4, Fig. 159); indeed one of the two men respond by gesturing with one hand toward the first of the female niches while pointing to his penis with the other hand (no. 1, Fig. 159). Ultimately, the artists merely projected these narrative elements onto features that already existed in the cave. Another occurrence of inter-related, dual features is seen in Bédeilhac, where attention to the above-mentioned, phallic stalagmite apparently led the artists to lend substance to the neighboring, vaguely female “figure” (nos. 6 and 7 in Fig. 214). Of course, the actual sequence was the opposite; the significant fact is that these two items are relegated to a corner of a giant hall, and they clearly belong together as a unit of opposites created by the cave itself.

Tito Bustillo and its twin cave Lloseta both feature stalactites and stalagmites that the artists recognized as phallic and marked off with paint (nos. 6 and 9, Fig. 158 a; nos. 15, 17, 18, in Fig. 158 b), and some of these are closely associated with female signs that, again, were (in essence) provided by the cave itself (nos. 7 and 8 in Fig. 158 a; nos. 16 and 18 in Fig. 158 b). The dual statements of sexual potential inherent in these natural formations were merely enhanced by the artists, although often quite demonstratively so. Thus, they applied red ocher to the narrow, vagina-like opening of a secluded chamber (no. 8 in Fig. 158 a) which, in its innermost recess contains a couple of human figures—apparently a woman and a man—next to a stalactite that is marked with red dots in recognition of its male role within the female space (Fig. 191 a, b); as previously mentioned, this space was not an abstraction, but explicitly screened of by the erection of a low stone-wall. Another recessed space (at no. 7 in Fig. 158 a) is crowded with stalagmitic columns—evidently male—and contains a cavity—obviously female—that is marked by a red hand-print (Fig. 191 c). Moving up into the higher-level gallery of Lloseta, we find a stalactite and a stalagmite (nos. 15 and 17 in Fig. 158 b), both marked red, that provide the male counter-parts to an evocative fissure in the rock-wall; framed by rounded shapes and helped by intense, red coloration, this formation achieves the semblance of a reclining woman with legs spread apart (no. 16 in Fig. 158 b). Yet, perhaps the most effective statement of sexual contrasts, is the scene at the end of Lloseta (no. 18 in Fig. 158 b) preceding the drop into Tito (at no. 19). Here a tall, pointed stalagmite assumes a dominant presence in the middle of the quickly narrowing gallery, to the effect that the formation and the space jointly suggest a coital act (Fig. 191 e); indeed, both the column and the surrounding walls are heavily stained with red paint The steep passage between the two galleries was, obviously felt as a momentous transition (a move towards the depths) , and just below the above scene, in the long gallery of Tito (at no. 6 in Fig. 158 a), we find another noticeable stalagmite of phallic appearance, again marked with red paint (Fig. 191 d).

In addition to the suggestive application of painted or engraved marks, the artists often accompanied the raw, sexual features of caves with more explicit images and signs. The artists of Chufín exemplified this by engraving an ithyphallic man next to a stalagmitic phallus, which they also acknowledged with some accompanying lines (nos. 3 and 4 in Fig. 157). Jointly, the two designs complement the oval hole/vulva in a field of red dots (no. 2 in Fig. 157) and another vulva in the form of a rounded cavity filled with red dots (nos. 1 and 2, Fig. 157). These images expose the sexual potential of the short gallery that quickly slopes toward the terminal, water-filled pit. A vertical fish and a bison (nos. 5 and 6 ) positively relate the ensemble to the creation of the earth from a primordial ocean.

In Pileta, a profusion of signs that relate to female sexuality (Fig. 177 a-j) share the space with several, obviously male characters; these are engraved and painted on stalagmite columns or calcite flows that, in themselves, are inherently male formations (Fig. 192 a- c). One of these male figures is, furthermore, juxtaposed with triangular vulvas (Fig. 192 a), just as a number of engraved fishes are sexually charged (Fig. 192 a, c). In any case, these fishes—combined with the proximity of subterranean waters in the low cave sections (the three characters are at nos. 3, 6, and 7 in Fig. 176)—articulate the presence of primordial powers.

Nerja presents us with similar male figures, notably one that is situated on a stalagmitic column (Fig. 193 a); his character, too, is juxtaposed with triangular vulvas and stylized fishes, the latter reminiscent of the cave’s assertive representation of vertical fishes (Fig. 125 a, b). As previously mentioned, Nerja preserves abundant evidence of a tumultuous episode of creation, and it is to this original event that we may assign the great number of stalactites that are marked with dots and lines. Their male character is, occasionally, spelled out openly by the decoration (cf. Fig. 193 b) or by their natural shape (Fig. 193 c).

As mentioned above, the affinity of standing rocks and the male sex is rarely acknowledged in descriptions of decorated caves. This is also true of a well-documented, decorated formation in Pech-Merle (Fig. 184 b, c). In this case, the artists emphasized the vertical face of a large boulder by a rising line of red dots, topped by a red hand-print. Significantly, this upright stone contrasts with the ground-hugging niche of the bison/mammoth-women, which is entirely horizontal (Fig. 184 b, to the left); the binary contrast of convex and concave, further adds to this artful demonstration of sexual duality.

The earth as source of sexual regeneration

The one constant in the above exhibits of female and/or male sexuality is references to the earth as the ultimate source of life; notably, the periodic renewal of life, including human sexual regeneration. The large body of works that illustrate this basic concept may be divided into two main groups. In the first one, the artists’ default choice was to articulate the connection with the earth and its subterranean waters through the use of figures of bison or mammoths; we have seen this in some of the above situations (for example, Trois-Frères, Fig. 187; Chauvet, Fig. 204 a). Chufin, Fig. 157). The second group relied on cave topography to demonstrate the root cause of sexuality and, thus, prevailed where bison or mammoths were not current motifs; these illustrations were often supported by inclusion of fishes and serpentines, as in the just-mentioned ensembles of Pileta or Nerja. We shall review the conventions of the two approaches by way of a few characteristic examples.

We find a concentration on the core elements of the first group in the Romanian cave of Romualdo, which is sparingly decorated, but features just the essential images: ithyphallic men, a vulva, and a vertical bison (Fig. 198 a-c). In extremely condensed form, the scheme occurs on a number of decorated artifacts, such as the two sides of an engraved bone from Isturitz with matching images of bison and women (Fig. 212 a, b), or an engraved stone from La Marche with a woman and a tender (unborn?) child on the recto, a mammoth on the verso (Fig. 178 b, c). Perhaps the most striking configuration is engraved on a stone slab from Enlène (Fig. 197), which emphatically ties an illustration of sexual intercourse to a large bison image that overwhelmingly dominates the composition. Incidenally, this one of the few realistic descriptions of human copulation in Upper Palaeolithic art, which makes the imposing presence of the bison all the more significant—the artists did not perceive the sexual act, in-and-of itself, as the ultimate, self-sufficient cause of pregnancy.

In Casares, a mating couple is closely juxtaposed with the cave’s two mammoths (no. 6 in Fig. 148), and the man is demonstratively turning his head toward the mammoths while performing the act. This gesture, as well as the extraordinary size of his penis seems to link him (conceptually and mythically) to the colossal pachyderms, to the point that the copulation as described suggests a ravaging of the woman’s body rather than a natural act of penetration. This rude scene may evoke a narrative about sexuality as a raw force, still in the making with the unfolding of primordial creation.

In caves where bison and mammoths are either absent or minor motifs, the connection between sexuality and the earth is focused on topographical features. Ker à Massat represents the two sexes by a phallus and a placenta; these are in the back (section III), at the brink of the drastic descent towards the depths, and here the presence of the subterranean waters is also stressed by a fish and a vertical serpentine (nos. 2-5, Fig. 161). Further out in the cave (in section I), bison figures (including a large, but lightly engraved figure) do accompany a vulva, and so, does stress the parallel between the making of the earth and pregnancy/birth (no. 1, Fig. 161). Buxu, likewise, offers a limited presence of the bison, evidently because the caves sex symbols are oriented toward the significant, deep well at the center of the cave, which is the setting for a fissure that is enhanced by red ocher (Fig. 199 a).Other red female signs—likely placentas—mark the entrance to the inner chamber, in which a phallus is engraved (Fig. 199 b, c), a close match for the just-mentioned scheme of Ker.

Ardales (in the same southern Spanish region as Pileta and Nerja) has neither mammoths nor bison, but a chaotic region of the cave vividly recalls tumultuous episodes from the creation of the earth, and this is where we find several schematic figures of women as well as a number of stalactites that are marked by red, designating them as male manifestations (Fig. 186 g–i). In Palomera, which also lacks large earth-animals, the main frieze arcs around a sunken clay-pit that, again, evokes the nether-world realm of creation. The frieze includes the above-mentioned phallus-shaped man and a great number of triangular shapes, some of which suggest female genitals (Fig. 200 a, b).

Drastically descending passages, deep wells, tumultuous spaces, collapsing floors, all reflect the agency of primordial forces. In spite of the kaleidoscopic variety of the above survey of sexual themes, they all refer back to the forces at play during the creation of the earth; even the basic principle of sexual duality was founded during primordial creation. The following tabulation of references to this foundational event merely lists the cases that are discussed in the present chapter; as such, it makes no claim to completeness and serves only to give an impression of the scope of the theme. The survey is provisionally broken down into subsidiary themes, as follows:

1) Female symbols in association with bison: Niaux (Fig. 72 a; Fig. 156); Lhortet (Fig. 81 a); Cussac (Fig. 90 a); Grotte Moulin (Fig. 115 c); Pasiega (Fig. 118; Fig. 208 b); Labastide (Fig. 119 a, b); Gargas (Fig. 120 a, and Fig. 122 b); Oxocelhaya (Fig. 124 a, b, c); Bédeilhac (Fig. 140 b); Lascaux (Fig. 152 and Fig. 70 b); Chauvet (nos. 1, 2, 5 in Fig. 153); Portel (nos. 5 and 6, Fig. 159); Ker (Fig. 161); Magdeleine (Fig. 165); Gabillou (nos, 1-3, Fig. 166); Laussel (Fig. 171 a); Angles-sur-l’Anglin (Fig. 171 d-f); Castillo (Fig. 172 c, d); St.Cirque (Fig. 179 d, e); Pestillac (Fig. 183); Monedas (Fig. 186 e, f); Trois-Frères (Fig. 203 a, b); Isturitz (Fig. 212 a, b); Bédeilhac (nos. 1-4, 8, Fig. 214); Alkerdi (Fig. 217).

2) Female symbols in association with mammoths: Cavaille (Fig. 19 a, b); Oulen (Fig. 53 f); Deux Ouvertures (Fig. 162); Roucadour (Fig. 167 a, b); Pech-Merle (Fig. 170 a, Fig. 184 a); Combarelles (no. 4, Fig. 175 c); Guy-Martin (Fig. 178 a); La Marche (Fig. 178 b, c); Gönnersdorf (Fig. 195 a, b); Teufelsbrücke (Fig. 195 c).

3) Female symbols tied to pits, deep fissures, tight passages: Les Églises (Fig. 145 c); Cosquer (nos. 2, 3, Fig. 151); Travers de Janoy (Fig. 154 a-c); Tito (nos. 2-5, 7, 8 in Fig. 158 a); Pergouset (nos. 1 and 2, Fig. 160); El Linar (Fig. 163); Roucadour (Fig. 36, Fig. 167 b); Altamira (Fig. 169 h); Pileta (nos. 1, 3, 4, 6, Fig. 176); Planchard (Fig. 180); Pech-Merle (no. 4, Fig. 182, Fig. 184 b); Buxu (Fig. 199 a); Palomera (Fig. 200).

4) Configurations of female plus male symbols, jointly, associated with bison and/or mammoths: Fronsac (Fig. 146 a); Casares (no, 6 in Fig. 148); Chufín (Fig. 157); Lloseta (nos. 18 and 19, Fig. 158 b); Ker (Fig. 161); Combarelles (nos. 3 and 4, Fig. 175); Pileta (no. 5, Fig. 176); Altxerri (Fig. 179 a-c), Pech-Merle (Fig. 184 b, c); Trois-Frères (Fig. 187, and Fig. 203 a, b); Fontanet (Fig. 196 a, b); Enlène (Fig. 197); Romualdova (Fig. 198 a-c).

5) Single male symbols accompanying “earth” characters: Altxerri (Fig. 75 a); Bara-Bahau (Fig. 194); Fontanet (Fig. 196 c); Trois-Frères (Fig. 205 a, b); the composite image in Pasiega (Fig. 208 a); Altamira (Fig. 213 c). The panel of men in Cougnac (Fig. 190 a, b) is close to a large deer with a superimposed mammoth (Fig. 79 c). Fishes, as male signs: Combarelles (Fig. 29 a); Ekain (Fig. 125 g, h); Niaux (Fig. 135 d).

6) Male pendants, stalactites, and columnar stalagmites connected with bison or mammoths: Chauvet (Fig. 92 a, and no. 1 in Fig. 153; Fig. 204 a); Cosquer no. 8 in Fig. 151); Tito (nos. 6 and 9, Fig. 158 a); Lloseta (nos. 15, 17, 18 in Fig. 158 b); Castillo (Fig. 143 b; Fig. 220 b).

Sexual arousal and the revival of the earth

In the world of Ice Age art, a symbiotic relationship ties cycles of sexual regeneration (in humans, animals, fishes, birds) to the cyclic revival of vegetation, because both are seen as manifestations of the earth’s inherent powers and, as such, subject to the principle of the “eternal return” to the conditions of the first creation. This relationship finds expression in combinations of sexual symbols with signs pertaining to vegetal growth.

Two configurations of female sex symbols and plant signs, one in Gouy (Fig. 201 a), the other in Cosquer (Fig. 201 b), project the same idea by different means, the former showing an actual plant, the latter using a stag’s head as the vegetation symbol. The Cosquer formulation of antlers rising from a vulva, finds an echo in Niaux, where a vagina-like niche is flanked by two branches that imitate a head of antlers (Fig. 72 a). In Tito Bustillo too, we find the head of a stag as a vegetation symbol—rising from a square ”earth” sign—associated with several female symbols, including a natural vulva-like opening to subterranean waters (cf. Fig. 228), and a couple of triangular vulvas (nos. 4 and 5 in Fig. 128). One of these triangles (no. 5) may, by itself, describe the conjunction of a female sign and a vegetation symbol, as the striated infilling suggests vegetal growth, much like the lines that fill the Gouy vulva (Fig. 201 a). If so, we may read these composite signs as general statements in the likeness of “fertility and growth,” or perhaps, “be fruitful.” The elegantly engraved staff from Lhortet shows a stag rising above the (female) perforation that doubles as cave symbol (Fig. 81 a); in this case, the decoration spells out the inherent message of the staff itself, which—carved from antler—is the solid vegetation symbol that grows out from its perforated base. Whatever the ceremonial function of the perforated staffs, they did impress with a message of renewed growth cast in a tangible formulation.

A configuration of male sex symbol and vegetation sign occurs in Altxerri, where the mentioned phallic character is juxtaposed with a reindeer’s head (Fig. 75 a), and here their shared position—both rising over the back of the earth/bison—contributes a feeling of energy, an impression that the down-turned figure of a snow fox (or, arctic fox) specifies as the end of winter and the turn to spring. In Niaux, in an assertive gesture, a red plant sign is painted directly on a—obviously male—rock pendant (Fig. 72 b). The low end of the “Axial Gallery” of Lascaux features a large vegetation sign that is juxtaposed with sexual symbols in the form of natural fissures (female) and a pending rock (Fig. 152 a, b, and Fig. 70 b), both relating to the bison in the terminal tunnel. Elsewhere in Lascaux, in the “Nave,” a male sign—a schematic rendition of an erection (and of the male number “3”)—is painted directly above the branching antlers of a stag (Fig. 72 c).

Decorated staffs are typically male by shape, and they are often engraved with vegetation signs. The distinctly male staffs from Farincourt (Fig. 201 c) and Goyet (Fig. 201 d), readily assimilate the “wood” of the actual antlers with the stems of the plant designs. In the Goyet specimen, both emerge from a female base marked by a perforation and an engraved lozenge—much like a stag’s antlers emerge from an earth-sign with a central lozenge in Tito (Fig. 228), and stags rise (vertically) above lozenge-designs in Monedas (Fig. 251 b, e), or Altxerri (Fig. 251 g).

A handful of inter-related themes in the arts cast the earth as the agency behind the myriad manifestations of mobility and agitation that accompany the renewal of life in spring: melting waters, flowing rivers, sprouting vegetation, rising of sap in plants and bodily fluids in humans and animals, migration of animals, fishes and birds, emergence from hibernation. We shall pursue the wider context of these images below (in Chapters VI and VII); at this place, we shall focus on a body of virtually inseparable references to flowing waters, vegetation, and sexuality. These are male themes, replete with phallic images, because energy defines the male side of the artists’ conceptual dualism.

Some decorated, phallic staffs make the passing of semen through the shaft of the phallus overtly visible by the use of signs—signs that, however, may equally well relate to the flowing of water in rivers, or the rising of sap in plants. Examples include openly phallic staffs from Mas d’Azil and Bruniquel (Fig. 202 a, b). The latter item articulates the flow of water with a zigzag line and the life of streams with fish-designs; we recognize this theme in a staff from Goyet (Fig. 201 d), and two staffs from Madeleine (Fig. 252 a and d). The Bruniquel staff represents the vegetation theme by the bony “wood” of the staff. Likewise, the Lhortet staff (Fig. 81 a) has representations of salmon along the shaft, as well as a zigzag-line around the staff. The latter simulation of flowing water touches the antlers of the stag, as it emerges from the cave/earth symbol at the base—uniting the themes of motion, water, vegetation, and the depths of the earth.

Comparable designs occur on stone objects of inherently male shape from Laugerie-Haute (Fig. 202 d, e), which show phalluses with lines of dots along their shafts. This is a visual clue that we also encounter in cave art, for example in Fronsac (no. 3 in Fig. 146 a), Nerja (Fig. 193 b), Pech-Merle (Fig. 184 b, c), or Cougnac (Fig. 190 a, b). In Chufín (Fig. 157) the proximity of the male character and the lines of dots surrounding the female signs suggest that semen may be a reference here, as well. A deliberate mixing of metaphors for active fluids is evident in an item from the Italian site of Romanelli, a stone that is, itself, a male signifier (Fig. 202 c). The design on this stone is, in one view, a head of antlers with stem and two tines; in another view, the wavy zigzag-lines that mark it lengthwise rather suggests a river with tributary streams; Thus, implications of vegetation, rivers, and semen may all contribute to a statement of energies and spring. The mentioned panels at Lascaux (Fig. 72 c, and Fig. 152 b) also allow for a variety of readings: seeds in the ground, semen, rising sap in plants, flowing water. Images that display the energies of deer in some constellation with lozenges and fishes constitute a significant theme in caves and on artifacts, as exemplified by scenes in Altxerri (Fig. 251 g), Monedas (Fig. 251 b, c, d), Lhortet (Fig. 250 a), or Tito (Fig. 228). Considering how easily the artists weave in-and-out of the above cluster of related concepts, we can broadly confirm the thesis of James B. Harrod (2004), who finds Upper Palaeolithic art to evince clues to a meaningful cluster of action verbs, notably, “sprout,” “grow,” “branch,” and “flow.” These terms are all relevant to the above illustrations.

Images of fishes, notably, served the artists well in this pursuit of mixed metaphors, partly because of the above-mentioned netherworld/lozenge/fish connection, partly because the basic almond-shape of fishes’ bdies allowed for a division into a female tail-section and a male head-section. Henri Breuil first recognized this artistic practice (Breuil and de Saint Périer 1927), which he found concisely stated on a decorated bone from Madeleine, where a phallic figure is juxtaposed with both fish-tails and a vulvar triangle (Fig 254 a). Many decorated objects provide varied illustrations of this duality (for example, Fig. 201 d; Fig. 202 b; Fig. 254 b, c, d, f). The applications are numerous and varied. Heads of fishes that approach tails allude to mating (Fig. 202 b; Fig. 254 c; Fig. 255 c). Numerous tail-fins aligned (Fig. 254 e; Fig. 252 e; Fig. 202 b) imitate a “growth” sign like those in Lascaux and Cuzoul des Brasconies (Fig. 67 b, e). Fish combined with plant symbols correlate sexuality, vegetal growth, and riverine flow (Fig. 201 d; Fig. 254 d). A short, perforated staff from Madeleine (Fig. 253 b) presents a veritable catalogue of inter-related symbols: a genital triangle next to the perforation; a fish with a lozenge-pattern on the body and a triangular pattern on the tail; a lozenge/fish-shape with the, previously discussed, “2 x 3” numerical symbol of duality in creation. Of course, the staff, itself, represents the principle of growth—of vegetation, of animal life, and of the earth itself—and the symbols combine into a statement of the artists’ faith in a stream of life that originates in the creation of the earth. In some caves this interplay of sexuality and the life of rivers (symbolized by fishes) is a significant theme; for example, in Combarelles (compare the two plans, Fig. 29, and Fig. 174), Cosquer (Fig. 151), Chufin (Fig. 157), or Pileta (Fig. 176 a, b). The decorative program of Casares offers an exceptionally intense demonstration of this vital role of waters and fishes, notably in a familiar panel of fishes and fish-like humans in the foremost part of the cave (no. 8 in Fig. 148, and Fig. 255 c), but also in the combined perforation/vulva/fish-tail that is part of an explicit scene in the back (no. 2 in Fig. 148, and Fig. 255 a). To this we may add that the wildly exaggerated penis of the man in the mating-scene is really a fish (no. 6 in Fig. 148; Fig. 255 b).

The bison-bull dance

Some of the above examples of sexual signs may leave us wondering whether human or animal sexuality was intended, or whether a clear distinction is even relevant. This is, for example, the case in the mentioned panel of large (male and female) signs in the “Sanctuary” of Trois- Frères (Fig. 187). The surrounding bison figures tell us that powers in the earth play an essential part in the scene, but do the large genitals belong to humans, or to bison, or are they generic symbols? While the artists were fascinated with the origins of human sexuality, they were, no doubt, equally concerned with the sexual regeneration of bison; as this species embodied the life of the earth, its sexual regeneration was vitally important. In this perspective we must place several scenes in cave art, which conflate the regeneration of humans and bison through images of men wearing the head-cap and skin of bison while executing a dance of unmistakably sexual nature. This ritual performance evidently conflated the mating of people and beasts in parallel or overlapping episodes.

A famous scene in Trois-Frères, again in the “Sanctuary,” shows a dancer impersonating a bison bull while approaching a bison cow from behind in an apparent pre-mating move (Fig. 203 a); indeed, the cow’s gaping vulva suggests that it is in heat. A battle between two bulls, engraved just below this scene, implicates the bison’s seasonal mating cycle (Fig. 205 b), but the ritual scene (Fig. 203 a) is, of course, not “natural,” as the mating of a man wearing a bison-outfit and a real bison cow is plainly impossible; consequently, it makes sense that the figure of a woman is superimposed on the cow—the more so as this figure is placed next to the animal’s sex organ (cf. Fig. 203 b)—just as we must think of the male dancer as part-man-part-beast, we must also think of the woman as, on some level, at one with the female animal. While we ignore the narrative behind this episode, we can acknowledge the symbolism of these mixed identities that make the anticipated sexual union relevant, indiscriminately, to the bison cow and the woman, acknowledging some belief in the communal sexuality and fertility of bison and humans. Ultimately, both derive from the earth.

We find the conflation of the genitals of a woman and a bison cow overtly stated in a panel in Combarelles II, in a chimney-like recess that is decorated with three bison. One of these lifts its tail to expose its sex—which is unmistakably the vulva of a human female, a typical genital triangle (cf. the insert, Fig. 108). The scene suggests a pre-mating between a bison couple, but with human sexuality, somehow, implicit. The same observation pertains to the oldest known illustration of the bison-bull dance, namely the scene on the pending rock in Chauvet (Fig. 204 a). As pointed out by S. Ubick and F. Thackeray (2015, 26), the artists of Chauvet intentionally allowed for an ambiguous reading of the woman’s lower body—an unsettled image that might project the lower body of a woman, but which in another view might also show a bison cow seen from behind, or possibly both—a bison/woman. This concept may seem less speculative if we recall the persistent configurations of bison and women discussed above, and, specifically, the imaginary bison/mammoth/woman figures of Pech-Merle (Fig. 184 a). Close to the pendant that carries the bison/human couple of Chauvet, we find a painted genital triangle (no. 2 in Fig. 153), which may help us in keeping the human dimension in sight; yet, we also notice a number of engraved and painted bison that lay claim to the far end of the cave’s lower gallery (no. 5, Fig. 153).

In Gabillou, the bison/man is performing what is no doubt the same dance that we recognize in Trois-Frères, and in Gabillou he is placed vis-à-vis a reclining woman with exposed vagina (Fig. 204 a, b). These two figures are isolated in the small end-chamber (nos. 1 and 2 in Fig. 166), but subsequent scenes in the main gallery also attest to the communality of bovine and human sexuality, and in two cases, specifically to bison sexuality: one figure (no. 4, Fig. 166) has the humped back of a bison and is, apparently, female; the other (no. 5) has a bison’s horns and is certainly male. Significantly, no doubt, these bison/humans face the above-mentioned bison with the apparent bundle of twigs on his back (no. 8); we ignore the details, but we recognize elements of the bison-bull ritual performance.

In spite of their different appearances, each of the above, three illustrations of the bison-bull ritual in three separate caves, center on a conflation of human and bison sexuality. We may add that the implied, basic association of female sexuality in humans and bison also finds expression in many scenes, discussed above, that do not specifically refer to a ritual like the “bison-bull-dance,” as for example, in the sculpted frieze of Angles-sur-l’Anglin (Fig. 171 d-f). A particularly emphatic connection between human sex and bison occurs on the mentioned stone slab from Enlène (Fig. 197) with its over-powering figure of a bison bull dominating an illustration of sexual intercourse. In this setting, it seems meaningful that the man is entering the woman from behind, like a bull mounting a cow, as this position emphasizes the associative connection with the sexuality of bison. This mode of intercourse is also suggested in an episode in Combarelles (no. 2 in Fig. 175 c), a cave with a good number of bison and mammoths. Upper Palaeolithic artists were keen observers of similarities and differences between humans and animals.

As mentioned above, Native American tribal lore provides us with myths and rituals that explore a perceived interface between man and buffalo, including ritual dances by men wearing buffalo robes and ceremonial buffalo masks, and while these rites also concerned the availability and successful hunt of buffalos, they more broadly affected the well-being of the earth and all of its life, be it human, animal, or vegetal. The, previously discussed, Mandan buffalo-bull dancers carried bundles of willow branches on their backs, as their performance took place in spring and was timed by the early flowering (the catkins) of willows. Considering the presence of a bison-bull dancer in Gabillou, this aspect of the Mandan ceremony seems particularly relevant to the cave’s configurations of bison and vegetation symbols (cf. Fig. 71 a, b, and Fig. 73 b).

In Trois-Frères, as well, plant revival is implied by the group of figures with which the bison-bull dancer is interacting, particularly by the lively reindeer that jumps ahead of the bison cow (Fig. 203 a); in addition to the vegetation symbolism of the antlers, the spring migration is probably implied by the animal’s energetic motion, and in turn, this seasonal event carries the connotation of replenished feeding grounds, all of which points to the revival of the earth. In a similar episode, the bison-bull dancer in Chauvet’s lower gallery (Fig. 204 a) faces the panel in which a reindeer appears to rise above a zone that is dominated by massive rhinoceroses, and thus, to escape the confining grip of winter (Fig. 80 a). In Chauvet, this first, fragile sign of renewal is a promise of change that, subsequently, is fulfilled in the first panel of the upper gallery, where a reindeer’s magnificent antlers rise above the back of a bison—signaling a friendlier earth and renewed vegetation (Fig. 80 b). Though we ignore the specifics, we recognize that the bison-bull ritual initiated (or at least, contributed to) a change of season.

In our three examples of bison-bull dancers and the figures around them, we find motion, as the overt manifestation of energy, to be as significant as—and virtually inseparable from—sexuality and vegetal growth. In Gabillou, just outside the final chamber with the bison-bull dancer, we have a stampede of reindeer (nos. 7, 10, 12, 13 in Fig. 166) that, again, suggests the spring migration of reindeer cows—and concurrent with this event, the introduction of a newly energized bison, which markedly breaks away from the morbidly stiff stance of the bison in the back (Fig. 100 a, b; nos. 3 and 11 in Fig. 166). This outburst of dynamic figures in Gabillou is fully matched by the amazing bustle of animal activity in Trois-Frère’s “Sanctuary,” where scores of bison and numerous reindeer are, with few exceptions, captured in frenetic motion (Bégouën and Breuil, 1958/1999, Figs. 43-44, 61-62; cf. Fig. 206 a, b)—and where the scene of the bison-bull dance is located in the large panel that displays most of the agitation. In Chauvet, the bison-dancer on the hanging rock is the instigator of a development that unfolds more slowly but with equal certainty: beginning with the appearance of the just-mentioned reindeer in the lower gallery (Fig. 80 a) and the emergence of the baby mammoth from the adjacent niche (Fig. 104 a), followed by the movement of deer (megaceroses) through the ascending gallery, and completed with the dynamic displays of deer, bison and mammoths on the upper level (Fig. 80 b; Fig. 98; Fig. 99).

Ritual dancing: stimulating the earth

The agitated motion stimulated by—perhaps, caused by—the ceremonial performance of the bison-bull ritual may reflect a general belief in dances as means of ritual participation in the advancement of seasonal developments. In this perspective, we may speculate that the zig-zag-like posture caused by the flexed legs and bent hips of these dancers was understood as manifestations of a visual sign meaning (approximately) “motion,” “animation,” or ”agitation.” We find such angular, dynamic human (probably male) figures in Chufín (no. 4 in Fig. 157) and in Fontanet (Fig. 196 a, e), each case involving displays of female sexuality and images of bison.

In its simplification, the Fontanet example (Fig. 196 a) becomes almost identical with a near-abstract sign in the Rotunda of Niaux (Fig. 135 f), and we may see both as reductions of dancing figures, or perhaps, as a signs for the general concept of “motion.” As a determinative for “motion,” the image of a pair of legs—walking, running, or dancing—is a motif in its own right, and as such it is found, for example, engraved amid dynamic animal figures and a group of dancing humans in Levanzo (Graziosi 1960, pl. 297; see discussion in Chapter IV). Placed in a secluded niche in the Rotunda of Niaux, at the center of the wide panorama of “Black Bison,” the “motion” sign appears as a ritual contribution to the wider theme of the great frieze, which is the incremental transition from static bison to movable bison (panels “A” to “D,” Fig. 135).

Activation of the earth’s powers through ritual dance is nowhere demonstrated with greater effect than in Trois-Frères, where the famous antlered character (Fig. 205 a), is shown dancing, elevated high above the mass of bison and other animals in the “Sanctuary” (cf. Fig. 206 a, b). Evidently, his dance assumes cosmic scope (anticipating the creative dance of Shiva), and it is as such that he is the model of inspiration for the teaming life beneath him, including the ritual dance of the above-discussed bison-bull performer. Vegetation, too, is visibly within his sphere of influence, as he wears the gnarled antlers of an extremely old deer. Though he is on a higher level, physically and conceptually, his performance amplifies the impact on the earth exerted by the bison, deer, bears, and goats below. His dance (re)creates the earth.

Though the above evidence is limited, it supports the reasonable assumption that dances were a significant part of Upper Palaeolithic ceremonial life, and that one objective of dancing was to energize the world and activate its vital cycles. The bison-bull dancers of Chauvet and Gabillou are both located far back in the cave, and in both cases, we may see the entire development from winter into spring as catapulted forward/outward by their ritual performance.

We have no evidence of a “mammoth-bull dance” to match the bison-bull dance, with the possible exception of the strange mammoths engraved next to a scene of human intercourse in Casares; here, the frontal mammoth figure might be seen as a masked performer (no. 6 in Fig. 148). This image is, however, unique within the canon of European cave art (and possibly of North-African inspiration). We do, however, find a significant number of stylized figures of women, who are arranged in dance-like patterns and are associated with both bison and mammoths. Shown on portable objects as well as on cave walls, many of these figures must be understood as dancing, a thesis argued extensively by G. Bosinski (2011). In Pech-Merle, an assembly of women, who emulate mammoths (and bison?), are moving in lines and apparently performing a dance (Fig. 184 a). The phallic symbol next to the alcove that holds these figures (Fig. 184 b, c) testifies to the sexual character of the ritual, just as the presence of mammoths and the shape of the women confirm that the ceremonial performance is addressed to the earth. The three women with the mammoths in the ceiling above (Fig. 170 a) may be, likewise, performing a line dance with a mammoth-theme, a ceremony that affects their own fertility (cf. Fig. 170 b, c).

Greatly stylized women are associated with mammoths in a number of Gönnersdorf drawings (for example, Fig. 195 a, b). These figures are often arranged in rows and may well be lines of dancers. An engraved plate from Teufelsbrücke (Fig. 195 c), which shows perhaps the oldest certain rendition of a chain dance, also contains the stylized woman motif and a couple of mammoths. Some alignments of stylized women in Combarelles may well pertain to a comparable, ceremonial dance (no. 2, Fig. 175 c). The quoted images all point to a symbiotic equivalence between the reproductive powers of the female body and the womb of the earth, and to the belief in ritual dancing as capable of activating this relationship by animating the earth characters, even the ones associated with the mountain. We are left with the impression that the creation of the earth, as the normative model for all subsequent acts of regeneration, had to be periodically re-activated through ceremonial performances and symbolic gestures.

The sanctity of the earth

Ritual dancing accounts for only one aspect of the ceremonial relationship between humans and bison. Another motif, one that may relate to a different kind of staged performances, consists of the mask-like face of a character who is half human/half bison. We encounter this character in the “Sanctuary” of Trois-Frères, where he stares out from behind the enormous bison that we may see as the prototype of the myriad smaller bison crowding the wall below (Fig. 206 a). Located in the innermost (right-hand) recess, from whence the cave’s great wall of engravings evolve—or rather, erupts—he assumes a strange, “behind the scene” role in an exuberant spectacle that includes all aspects of earthly life, yet remains dominated by the great number of bison. This situation suggests that the “human bison” assumes a role as master of the bison, a keeper-and-giver of bison. While this remains speculative—based on ethnographic evidence of that kind of role appears to agree with two conspicuous features of the decoration: in the first place, with the abundance of vertical bison in the “Sanctuary” (cf. Fig. 112 a-i), signifying their incessant return to/re-emergence from the primordial fond of renewal; in the second place, with the abundance of weapons and wounds that mark the bison of the “Sanctuary” (these are not included in our illustrations; see Bégouën and Breuil 1958/1999, 40-41, 56-57). As regards these virtually countless marks of killing, we must keep in mind that the affected animals are not shown as collapsing of dead, but to the contrary, typically portrayed in vivid motion; the killing is, thus, presented as one stage in a cycle of death-and-revival—which agrees with the assumed function of the bison-man character as a keeper (perhaps, owner) of bison, suggesting a role of bestowing them (as prey) for the sustenance of the people and of restoring them to life, when properly killed. Such powerful “masters of animals,“ guardians/providers of game, are familiar from comparative studies of archaic religions, known from the Eskimos to the South African Bushmen, and widely recorded among Eurasian peoples (a topic discussed in Chapter IX).

In Rouffignac, where mammoths dominate, we still find the bison-mask of the assumed “master of bison,” depicted as a human head with a bison’s horns, ears, and beard (Fig. 207). Placed among mammoths and bison figures in the outermost panels of the vast cave (nos. 1 and 2 in Fig. 25), this character may be seen as leading the files of revived mammoths and bison towards the world outside the cave, respectively as receiving them on their return to his domain. In Pasiega, the odd figure of a man wearing a bison headdress and, perhaps, a bison robe (his back seems humped) adopts a rigid pose that does not fit a bison-bull dancer but may suit another, half-human/half-bison owner-and- protector of the bison (Fig. 208 a). We may not miss the parallel appearances of this character and the imposing bison bull on the facing wall, the dominant figure of the small chamber (Fig. 208 b), and the fact that both display sexual potency: the bison-man with his large, snake-like phallus, and the bison which stands in a distinctly sexual relationship with several vagina-like cavities (as well as several month/woman signs, not included in Fig. 208 b). Though the role of the “master of bison” differs from that of the bison-bull dancer, both are agents of sexual regeneration; both are manifestations of the vital powers of the bison/earth—and vice versa, both promote the powers of the bison and, ultimately, the life of the earth.

Quite often, the image of a bison in profile may leave the spectator with a curious feeling of a facial resemblance to a human profile; early in the exploration of cave art, Henri Breuil remarked on this effect; but no proof is possible, as the similarity may be natural, and only marginally interesting. Nevertheless, it is hard to believe that the artists ignored the “human” look of some of their bison figures. Among the specimens that have been noted in the literature, we may mention a profile head in the Castillo cave, which is superimposed on one of the quite old, yellow bison figures that, for their part, over-laid a very old accumulation of human hand prints and, in turn, co-exist with lines of red dots (Fig. 209 a, b). The panel, thus, combines references to ritual performances and celebration of the earth (seeds in the ground), to the effect that the true recipient of the praise may be the “master of bison,” who is hidden within the figure of one of the animals of the herd. No doubt, the concept of the human/bison symbiosis was integral to the sanctuary of Castillo, as we may deduce from the familiar bison-man, who is painted and engraved on a stalagmitic column, located near the center of the large cave (Fig. 220 b). The natural outline of this remarkable column carries, in the upper part, the semblance of a bison’s head with a single horn at the very top. No doubt in response to this natural feature, the artists brought out the vertical image of the bison/man.

Altamira’s great ceiling of polychrome bison includes a number of minor, engraved images and among them a “humanized” bison’s head (Fig. 210 a). This character is closely juxtaposed with a, likewise engraved, bellowing stag (Fig. 210 b), a figure that adds a note of sexual arousal combined with a symbolism of vegetal growth, two themes that resonate with the ceiling’s famous display of painted earth-figures. On the great wall of Candamo, the painted head of a man/bison is seated on a regular, engraved bison image (Fig. 210 c, d), reminiscent of the configuration in Castillo (Fig. 209 b). As in Altamira, an engraved stag adds the themes of sexuality and vegetation. We may conclude that it is neither possible to draw a clear line between intentional and incidental examples of such man-like bison figures, nor is it possible to ignore evidence of a belief in a human guardian of the world’s bison.

While the bison-bull dance and the human “master of bison” provide the main illustrations of ceremonial activities devoted to the earth, another group of compositions, however slim, attests to a different class of ritual performances that expressed reverence for the earth and its powers. These scenes show participants in procession, performing rituals centered on figures of bison. A scene from Les Eyzies has a file of people moving toward a bison (Fig. 211 a), and the disproportionate scales—tiny humans, giant bison—add to the impression of an episode in the cult of the earth. The barren bushes that outline the space may indicate a ritual of winter or early spring. A related scene from Raymonden (Fig. 211 b) depicts a ceremony that is focused on a cut-up bison, which may suggest a ritual sacrifice. Again, vegetal growth is a significant theme, as indicated by the large plant-sign connected with the bison’s head. A possible variation on the same theme is found on an object from La Vache (Fig. 211 c), although this version inserts several significant elements between the procession of men and the head of the bison. Of these, however, the bear may signify the end of hibernation, and the fish may be a harbinger of a spring migration, two themes that would suit the assumption of a rite promoting the revival of the earth in spring. The three just-mentioned compositions all seem to posit the bison as a cult object and to place the people in a reverential attitude. The subject appears to be the renewal of the earth in its wider sense, including the life—of plants, fishes, animals, humans—that it supports.

If we compare these scenes with the North American evidence cited above, we may find noticeable similarities with the buffalo-skull altars erected by Prairie tribes at different occasions. The fixed point in these altars was the bison’s skull, while other elements could be four sods of turf (marking the four corners of the earth) or a mound of soil, as well as various staffs or saplings with attached feathers, etc. One variant built by the Lakota tribe (Fig. 249 b) has the skull situated on a small mound of dirt and surrounded by four staffs with attached feathers (only one, to the west, appears in our rendition). This set-up is quite similar to the scene from Raymonden (Fig. 211 b), as both are centered on the bison’s severed head, and both include a formal vegetation symbol. The European image, in any case, shows a formalized gathering—perhaps a circumambulation—around the bison effigy. With its buffalo skull on an earthen mound, the Lakota altar also recalls the decorated staff from l’Hortet (Fig. 81 a), which combines a bison’s head (on the upper half) with the design of a mound or hill (at the bottom). The correspondences with North American world-renewal festivals extend to the staff’s program, at large, as it encompasses the full scope of a comparable narrative, including vegetation, flowing water, end of hibernation, spring migration, awakening or charging of sexuality; all of which has been discussed above.

The performers in the above scenes of ritual processions seem to be all male, but we do find scant evidence that women performed in similar ceremonies. A fragmentary artifact from Isturitz shows, on one side, figures of bison and, on the other side, figures of women; the connection between the two sides is established by the plant symbols engraved on both subjects (Fig. 212 a, b). The two women are to be seen as standing, not lying down, as indicated by the position of their breasts), and hence as proceeding in a line, and the likely goal of their procession is to express reverence of the bison/earth. This is the apparent reason for the position of their arms, which are lifted in a near-universal gesture of veneration. We find this posture, for example, in the human figures that are engraved on, or between, the large, elaborately painted bison in the ceiling of Altamira (Fig. 213 a, b, c). These adorants (numbering half a dozen) certainly celebrate the many glorious bison of the ceiling, while remaining, themselves, inconspicuous in comparison with the objects of their worship—like the worshippers in the above scenes (Fig. 211 a, b, c).


The decorated caves merit the designation of “sanctuaries” because they were perceived as the gateways to an inexhaustible font of primordial, creative forces, and thus, as the source-springs for periodic renewals of creation; in this capacity, as repositories of vital blessings, the illuminated caves were important to the populations that occupied their geographic vicinities, and great efforts were lavished on establishing the status of a chosen cave deemed worthy of being sanctified: exploration of the internal topography; formulation of an appropriate artistic program; and, execution of the decoration. We know that the process, for some major sanctuaries, could stretch over centuries, even millennia. A sacred site, with access to the earth’s powers, played a role in the well-being of the surrounding lands and was valued as an integral part of a tribe’s inherited territory. Issues of possession and ancestral priorities shall be discussed elsewhere (Chapter VIII); at this place, the focus is the connection to the powers of the earth.

In agreement with the fundamental dualism of the era, Upper Paleolithic artists tended to comprehend their sanctuaries as either earth- or sky-oriented, although the complementary principle assured a presence of one side even in the face of dominance of its opposite. We shall discuss sky-related sites below (Chapter IV), while we will consider earth-bound sanctuaries here. We readily identify a cave as dedicated to the earth, when it overwhelmingly displays earth symbols, be it mammoths (Grande Grotte d’Arcy, Baume-Latrone, Rouffignac), bison (Altmira, Santimamiñe, Font-de-Gaume), or both (Chauvet, Gargas, Pech-Merle), but we may still recognize many more caves in this category, even though the earth-motifs are less prevalent. Where the earth-characters were not current, we may recognize a sanctuary of the earth by its particularly rough and chaotic topography (Pileta, Pergouset, Erberua, for example). Within each of the sanctuaries of the earth, we may find one or more locations, where the primordial forces of creation were felt to be emphatically present, and it stands to reason that these specific, charged spots defined the veneration given to a sanctuary and, perhaps, its prestige within a wider region.

Bédeilhac offers an impressive example of a major, bison-dominated sanctuary, where the powers of the earth manifest themselves in a number of separate, particularly potent spots, which the art works acknowledge as important; yet, these distinct locations are dwarfed in the context of the enormous cave at large, and their individual contributions to the blessings presented by the sanctuary as a whole are subsumed by the drama of the cave space itself. Bédeilhac is so monumental in its inner parts that the visitor may feel lost in a veritable forest of giant columns, and the cave’s outer parts are so large that a pilot once flew an airplane out of (and back in through) its entrance. The space accumulates and absorbs the powers present in individual sections, augmenting them, and channeling them from the back to the front, where they are delivered to the outside world. An analogy with historical cathedrals seems feasible. We readily recognize the “choir” as the main source of benefits in the innermost section (cf. Fig. 214) with its focus on a “resurrection” theme: bison descending to/returning from a netherworld (nos. 1 and 3); multiplication and growth of the bison/earth (with the bull following a cow, no. 4); and, the general blessing of fertility with the vulvas and vagina (no. 2). Moving outward, we encounter several peripheral “chapels,” with subsidiary manifestations of primordial powers: the super-human sexualized sculptures (nos. 6, 7), and episodes of the creation of the earth and its life (nos. 5, 9). We also find a veritable “crypt” that descends toward the netherworld (no. 8). In this comparison, we may even include the font-like basin (the “Bénitier”) with its ever-present water. Thematically, the decline and revival of the earth prevails in the cave, but the end of the world—reminiscent of a “Last Judgment” representation—is present, too, in the form of some enormous, fallen, stalagmitic columns that bear witness to past, cataclysmic events, and suggest the destruction and recreation of the earth (a topic discussed in Chapter IX). Of course, the analogy with a cathedral has its limits, but many cave sanctuaries share aspects of Bédeilhac’s general plan and relationship with the surrounding landscape. The huge entrance occupies a promontory hill overlooking several valleys with rapid streams, a setting that is reminiscent of some other large-scale sanctuaries (for example, Rouffignac, Pech-Merle, Gargas, or Chauvet). Like those, but following its own scheme, Bédeilhac is, both conceptually and visibly, a temple to the divinity of the earth.

The solid foundation of the earth

Determined to engage the full, structural potential of the caves, the artists went past scenes of chaos and the first stages of creation to display the solidity and reliability of the world following the provisional, fluid phase of creation. For this purpose, they engraved or painted earth-motifs on rock formations that stand out as particularly massive and solid; thus, the artists allowed the monumentality of certain supporting formations to illustrate the full accomplishment of primordial creation.

The imposing stalagmite formation (taller than a person) that dominates the center of the hall of Fieux (Fig. 215 a, b) is, due to its size and position, the centerpiece of the cave, and as such, it served the artists well as a natural symbol of terrestrial solidity. To enhance this effect, their work picked up the rock’s general resemblance with a mammoth, an inherent identity that the artists acknowledged by tracing the outline of a mammoth already embedded in the block, and subsequently, by engraving a second mammoth (Fig. 215 b, left). With their association to everything hard and solid about the earth, these two mammoths add a note of durability; still, the large boulder is, in itself, the prime symbol that lends credibility to the Fieux decoration as a celebration of the fixed earth. To follow up, the artists painted and engraved other figures (ibex, horse; not shown in the present rendition) and carved numerous cupules into the large block, all of which contributes to the impact of this solid formation as it exudes a feeling of permanence. Celebration of creation was, presumably, also the purpose of a nearby lithophone (Fig. 215 a, b), its percussive ring announcing the mineral firmness of the hardened earth. Around the periphery of the chamber, many red hand-prints (not included in our illustration) link past and present generations of the regional tribe (as discussed in Chapter VIII). In sum, the Fieux ensemble is a monument to the earth as foundation, in space and time.

We find a comparable situation in Tuc d’Audoubert, where the rock that supports the two sculpted bison (Fig. 138 a) is the natural center of the cave’s most remote chamber (cf. Fig. 139 a, b). As previously mentioned, this block resembles a reclining bison, and it carries (on the far side) the engraving of a bison’s head (Fig. 138 b), but its essential role within the story of creation becomes manifest only at the moment when the two bison—molded in soft clay—are brought to rest against the crude-but-solid rock, which, thus, becomes an essential part of the earth’s foundation. We may compare this to the engraving of the mammoths on the just-mentioned Fieux block, that is, the artistic gesture that links this large stone to the solidification of the new earth.

In Trois-Frères, the twin cave to Tuc, we may see a counterpart to the just-mentioned boulder in the natural altar that dominates the tiny “Chapel of the Lion” (Fig. 216 a). Like the central rock at Fieux, the structure of the “Chapel” (built by layers of calcite flow) adopts a certain similarity with a mammoth; it resembles, in fact, the cave’s only explicit image of a mammoth (Fig. 216 b; cf. Fig. 84 b). The mammoth-like altar was surely important, as two lions were engraved and painted on it, and a great many bone and flint points were inserted in fissures all around it (Clottes 2009; these features are omitted in our rendition). Again, the inherent association between mammoths and mountains makes this natural altar a guarantor of the permanence and solidity of the earth in a cave, where the wealth of bison (in the “Sanctuary,” notably) are devoted to the life and fertility of the earth, celebrating he culmination of the creative process. Chauvet features a quite similar formation, located in the outer part of the cave, where a protruding segment of the rock-face assumes the generic likeness of a mammoth (Fig. 216 c). The artists stressed this in three ways: by lightly shaping the formation; by covering it in red dots in a pattern that vaguely articulate the inherent mammoth-shape; and, by painting a black outline of the forehead and trunk (to the right) broadly matching the perceived figure. With the large red dots, this image projects the dual sides of the earth: the frame of cold and hard rocks; the cover of warm and fertile soil.

The prevalence of similar configurations in other caves tells us much about the crucial role that the establishment of the earth assumes in cave art at large; in the following, brief list of select cases, some examples involve what we have called “bison-stones” (or, “mammoth-stones”), the blocks or boulders that lend their suggestive shapes to the artists’ earth-designs, and which carry some resemblance to graphic “earth” signs. When these formations assume a sizable scale, they readily become focal points in the illustrated narratives of creation. Good examples include the mentioned rocks in Lumentxa, (Fig. 61), Hornos de la Peña (Fig. 60), Ekain (Fig. 58 d), and Niaux (Fig. 156). The previously-mentioned boulder in Ardales (Fig. 131 c), though not a “bison-stone” (the cave’s inventory does not include bison) does recall an “earth” sign, and with the evidence of ritual treatment of the surface, and the proximity to panels that illustrate creation myths (Fig. 131 a, b; Fig. 129 a, b) this stone has the appearance of a weighty monument to the solid earth.

As we may expect, mammoths often play the key role in panels that concern the solid foundation for the earth. In Gargas, figures of mammoths appear on the very noticeable “Black Stone” (Fig. 122 b), and in this case, the implied symbolism of solidification and permanence is the more obvious, as this stone (at “D” in Fig. 120 a) marks the passage to the inner chamber and its spectacle of creation captured in a fluid phase of turmoil and chaos. On a grand scale, Pech-Merle’s grand hall features the towering (nature-given) pile-up of boulders that allowed the artists to come within reach of the tall ceiling (cf. Fig. 182 a, b); this towering formation was given much attention by the artists, who painted and engraved numerous mammoths and several bison, both around the base of this structure and right above its top. We may well see the impressive pile as a tangible manifestation of the earth and its mountains reaching to the sky (the ceiling), and thus, as a nature-given display of the formation and consolidation that took place in the process of creation. Among the supporting stones, two large, regularly shaped boulders carry paintings of, significantly, a mammoth and a bison (Fig. 144 c, d).

Even in northern Spain, where mammoth images are sparse, we find the one full-fledged specimen of Pindal painted (low on the wall, near the end) in juxtaposition with a free-standing, pointed (broadly triangular) rock that is marked with three red dots (Fig. 106 c, left). The red-painted mammoth joins the tangible earth-symbol to make a foundation for the bison figures that extend from here (Fig. 106 c, right) to the front of the cave.

On a par with the decoration of free-standing boulders, we find projecting calcite formations, massive banks along walls, protruding ledges, rocky outcrops, speleothems, and columnar stalagmites used as structures that in various ways bear witness to the gradual solidification of the new earth. In Bédeilhac, the mentioned bison that is modelled in relief (Fig. 140 b; no. 5 in Fig. 214) is on a clay-covered calcite bank, which suggests a temporary foothold for the earth/bison, a not-yet-rock-solid, foundation. In Trois-Frères, in the very back, a ledge is engraved with bison, as well as other images that relate to myths of creation out of chaos, figures that include vertical bison, the “earth-diver” motif, and fishes (Fig. 134; Fig. 111 c-e). Evidently, the artists perceived this protruding ledge at the innermost reach of the large cave as a valid—if provisional—support for the newly formed earth.

The bison are the main elements of the decoration of Alkerdi, and they are found in two narrow, tunnel-like passages (Fig. 217), of which the longer one ends on a rounded stalagmite formation that carries an engraved, near-vertical bison (no. 3, Fig. 217); the setting is quite similar to the just-mentioned bank that terminates Trois-Frères, and the theme appears to be the same: initial creation gaining firm support. In Alkerdi, the beneficial outcome of this episode of the creation story is evident from the vagina-like opening to the tunnel (no.1, Fig. 217). Deux Ouvertures, likewise, contains a bison figure that is fused with a calcite bank in the very back (no. 5 in Fig. 162); the near-by mammoth figure (no. 4) re-enforces the step toward solidification of the earth. Guy Martin presents a configuration of the same elements, as the panel that features a mammoth, several vulvas, and a new-born infant (Fig. 178 a) occupies a projecting, semi-detached rock ledge (Airvaux 2001, 127). Without speculating about the identity of the new-born, the above discussion (cf. Part Three) allows us to draw a parallel with the birth of the earth, and to see the salient rock formation as the ordained support for the newly created world. In a boldly forthright gesture, the artists of Venta de la Perra embedded a bison in the stone-bank of the rock-shelter that precedes the entrance to the cave proper (Fig. 59 a, b), thus, extending the reach of the first creation from the depths (bison in low relief, in the back) to the surface and transmitting the blessings that originated in the inner cave into the outer world.

In the great ceiling of Altamira, the painted bison that are famously amalgamated with conspicuous, outcropping rocks (Fig. 56 a, b) are on the cusp of emerging fully formed, ready to join the surrounding herd of complete figures and to fulfill the potential of the earth, which is still in the process of gaining shape. Somewhat similar displays of support may be seen in stalagmitic columns that carry images of early episodes from the unfolding of creation. Examples include several decorated columns in Pileta (Fig. 192 a-c) and Nerja (Fig. 193 a). The artists of Castillo, likewise, acknowledged two quite special stalagmitic columns in that cave, one near the middle of the sanctuary, the other near the end. The first one, which carries the vertically posed bison-man, is distinguished by a part-natural bison’s profile at the top (Fig. 220 b), which may suggest that the earth/bison is held aloof by the calcite formation. The other column is notable because it has a virtual elephant’s foot (Fig. 143, b, c); not surprisingly, it is accompanied by the cave’s single, painted mammoth. This column is lined with red dots, vertically and horizontally, which suggest the rough outline of a mammoth’s back and trunk, but may also point to a fixation of horizontal and vertical dimensions of creation. Here, the earth has gained a firm footing, both metaphorically and literally.

The navel of the earth

Like other mammals, humans are born while still connected with the placenta through the umbilical cord; thus, the navel, as the original point of attachment, is the natural, vital center of every being. The Upper Palaeolithic artists and their patrons applied this basic biological fact to the earth, which they—as demonstrated above—conceptualized as a live entity; born from the watery depths of chaos, the earth had a navel, and as the body of the earth grew out from that spot, the navel became the center of the world. With this metaphor, they preceded later, historical models of the world, exemplified by the Greek idea of the Omphalos (Greek for “navel”), the stone that marked the perceived center of the earth. We find this sacred object depicted in mythological scenes, often on vases or coins (for example, Fig. 221 b, c), and a few sculptural specimens are preserved, most famously from the temple of Apollo in Delphi (Fig. 221 a). According to one myth, the omphalos of Delphi was erected to mark the place where Apollo slayed the serpentine monster, Python, and as such, it was inherently a monument to the defeat of chaos. A related concept familiar from ancient Egypt is the hill (in some contexts, the top of a pyramid or an obelisk) that marked the spot, where the very first mound or rock emerged from the original flood—often associated with the perch of the “ben-ben” bird, the first living being.

In Palaeolithic art, any rock or boulder of the type we have termed “bison-stones” or “mammoth-stones” was a potential omphalos, as a manifestation of the first solid appearance of the earth. Thus, the above-mentioned projecting rock in Niaux (Fig. 156) with its (partly natural) female sex symbol and vertical bison, also features a panel of red signs that includes two circles of dots, each with its center marked by a single dot (Fig. 156, to the right); these unusual signs may identify the block as a center, and considering the role of the vertical bison, precisely the center at which the earth appeared at creation.

In order to pinpoint a center of creation within a given cave, we may look for a natural formation that articulates the sanctity of the spot in a strict, quasi-geometric, shape that is formally compatible with the historical omphalos model. In Tuc d’Audoubert’s chamber of bison sculptures (Fig. 139 a, b), the large, supporting rock, discussed above, has the features of an omphalos: it occupies the middle of the room, and it precedes the two bison figures that lean against it, so that it, literally and figuratively, assumes the role of a base for the shaping of the earth. Two more features of this distant section of Tuc confirm this reading. In the first place, the chamber of the sculptures is located at the edge of a clay pit, that is, the seemingly ageless, slowly hardened lake of clay on which the artists lavished much attention (cf. Fig. 139 c, d, e) and from which they apparently took some of the (still pliable) clay for modelling the two bison. Thus, the large “bison-rock,” became the core and base for the new earth that—after emerging from the raw clay—gained support from the solid rock. In the second place, the artists of Tuc also modelled another, more formal emblem of the navel of the earth in the form of a truncated cone of clay (Fig. 218 a), which is situated on the smooth surface of the ancient lake of clay, where it appears as the center-piece of the space. This unusual, raised clay symbol is scored on the outside with vertical lines that spread out at the bottom and radiate across the floor, making it appear as the hub of the, roughly circular, arena of artistic and ritual activity. By its shape, this item, which has been tentatively described as a “crater” (Bégouën et al. 2009), qualifies as a Palaeolithic prototype for the historical, Greek omphalos.

The area of Tuc, around the chamber of the bison sculptures, contains yet another representation of the earth’s navel. This one is located in the final stretch of the passage leading to the chamber and it contributes the only element of decoration at this location. The design consists of a roughly conical rock that is covered with a (natural) film of clay, into which the artists punched about a dozen, clearly intentional holes (Fig. 218 b). While the internal grouping of these dots is elusive (likely carrying numerical implications) the general outline of the design obviously corresponds with the shape of the rock as the top six dots come to a distinct point at the apex (the design is quite similar to the ultimate sign of Lascaux; no 4 in Fig. 243 b). Positioned so as to be seen by visitors leaving the chamber of the bison sculptures, this version of the omphalos would have confirmed the success of the artists’ endeavor—the newly created earth had, by then, taken form and would remain solid.

Santimamiñe provides a different formulation of the omphalos motif, located in the cave’s inner chamber, which also contains a number of vertical bison figures, turned both up- and down-wards (Fig. 109 a, b), scenes that emphatically recall episodes of primordial creation. Situated in the center of this chamber, we find a cone-shaped rock (Fig. 109 d) that has been extensively decorated—both engraved and painted—with a number of bison, including vertical figures. Almost certainly, this stone marks the navel of the earth.

On a larger scale, the same considerations apply to the tall, massive calcite formation in Labastide, the “Black Rock,” which has been called “a miniature mountain within a mountain” (Simonnet et al. 2007, 64, 62). It is a towering emblem to the solidification of the earth in a cave that is cut through by dangerously deep pits throughout its length. To clarify the nature of this natural contribution to the process of creation, the artists chose a surface at the foot of the “Black Rock” for the above-mentioned composition with several bison that form a compact triangle at the back of a larger bison (Fig. 39). A fitting illustration of the solidification of the earth, this group and its location is comparable to the clay-sculptures of Tuc and their placement against a large rock. We can be fairly sure that Labastide’s black “mountain” with its pyramid-like bison ensemble marks the locus of creation, the omphalos.

In Pileta, a stalagmite cone is marked with engravings and painted red at the top (Fig. 219), and more than a male symbolism is implied, as this cone is located at the center of the cave’s tiny “Sanctuary,” where it faces the cave’s main decorated panel (no. 5, Fig. 176 a, b). The cramped “Sanctuary” is entered via a “cat-hole” and is perched dramatically, like a suspended threshold, between the inner cave with its lakes and terminal pit and the outer cave, a division that is essential to the cave’s decorative program (the inner half has all the black figures, the outer half all the red ones). The “Sanctuary” is, in fact, the center of the cave, and the cone in the middle of this space is an obvious omphalos. We are reminded that the main panel of this crucial space includes a condensed recapitulation of the cave’s many fluid signs, combining horizontal and vertical serpentines (no. 5, Fig. 176 b), illustrating the fluid phase of creation that preceded the firmness represented by the conical omphalos. Thus, the “Sanctuary” illustrates the perpetual connection with the place/process of the primordial birth of the earth.

Pech-Merle offers a different, but essentially comparable, situation in the great hall where the tall pile-up of boulders may qualify as an omphalos (cf. Fig. 182 b). In the ceiling, right above its top, a placenta is engraved in superimposition on a large mammoth (Fig. 170 a, b), a configuration that, evidently, refers to the birth of the earth itself—the precise location of that first birth being fixed by the rock-solid figure of the mammoth, shown as rising above meandering serpentines. The composition is largely comparable to the above-mentioned scenes in Guy Martin (Fig. 178 a), or Combarelles (nos. 3, 4 in Fig. 175 c). In each case, the connection between mammoth and delivery applies equally to the birth of the earth from the womb of chaos and to the delivery of a child from the wombs of the women that are (symbolically) included—the center where the earth began is, also, the conceptual locus of all subsequent births.

Images of vertical bison may point to the location of an omphalos, as seen in Santimamiñe (cf. Fig. 109 a – d). In Tuc d’Audoubert such figures are present throughout the large parts of the cave that are close to the Volp River (cf. Fig. 113 and Fig. 114), whereas none are found in the isolated, innermost chamber of the bison sculptures (Fig. 139 a, b and Fig. 218 a, b), which is the location of the omphalos imagery, and which is close to the center of the mountain (cf. Bégouën et al. 2009, 33). In this, we may detect a deliberate distinction between the preeminent, authentic site of primordial creation and spots where a connection to that region might be re-instated for the purpose of reviving the original forces of creation. In any case, the older cave of Rouffignac makes no such distinction, as the cave’s only vertical bison (Fig. 116) occupies the rock pendant that overhangs the descent toward the watery depths. This semi-detached column is certainly the omphalos of the cave; indeed, its importance is obvious from the symmetrical arrangement of figures (mammoths and bison) on either side of the formation. This focus did, however, not keep the artists from dedicating other panels, elsewhere in the cave (at no. 12, Fig. 25), to episodes of primordial creation, an example being the panel in the innermost cave in which a bison and a file of mammoths are perched at the brink of a pit (the “Grande Fosse”; cf. Fig. 9b). Again, we may see an analogy to historical churches, within which we find a number of spots where believers feel the divine presence, although each church also holds one place (usually, the main altar) that is considered the most sacred, the holy of holies.

An unusual panel in the Castillo cave (Fig. 220 a) is dominated by five red signs, which are somewhat similar to certain “earth” signs discussed above (for example, Fig. 52 b; Fig. 185 e, g); they are, however, more vertically elongated, less mound-like than those examples. The Castillo signs, rather, approach the shape of historical omphalos stones, notably extant ones from Delphi (for example, Fig. 221 a). Within the Castillo cave, the panel in question is located in a rather chaotic section in the midst of the cave, close to the stalagmite column with the apparent bison-bull-dancer (Fig. 220 b). This tall, very visible formation has the markings of a natural omphalos, partly due to the horn-like tip that (lightly assisted by the artists) suggests the head of a bison, emblematic of the earth, partly because of the vertical bison—apparently with human hind legs, in the likeness of a bison-bull dancer—that occupies the middle section. Thus, this column appears as a natural monument to the emergence, establishment, and sustenance of the earth; we may reasonably see it as a marker of the earth’s navel. Proximity to this decorated omphalos/stalagmite lends credibility to our reading of the five red signs (Fig. 220 a) as omphalos symbols, and we may go a step further and speculate that the plant image at the center of the panel might be a predecessor for the tree—Apollo’s sacred laurel—that is standard in Greek illustrations of the omphalos (cf. Fig. 221 b); at least, this coincidence brings to the fore the relevant connection between plants and the source-spring of all life on earth—human, animal, and vegetal. We find a comparable vegetal motif next to the clay-made omphalos in Tuc d’Audoubert (cf. Fig. 139 e, and Fig. 218 a). The five images of Castillo are marked by vertical lines, which—we might speculate—indicate that the objects were covered with skins or fabrics, similar to the nets or cloths typically wrapped around the Greek stones (and, incidentally, designed like the cloths covering the buttocks of the Lalinde women, Fig. 185 e).

A curious fact about the Castillo panel (Fig. 220 a) is the five-fold repetition of the supposed omphalos sign, for which we might consider the possible explanation that the small mountain of Castillo contains five distinct, decorated caves, each opening a path to contact with the primordial powers of creation, each one, theoretically, a navel of the earth. As is well known, the mountain of Castillo enshrines an extraordinary share of all cave art in northern Spain, distributed between the individual caves, all of which are accessed from a single path that circles the hill half-way between the valley and the top (cf. Fig. 222 a, b); not all hold abundant decorations (Castillo and Pasiega the most, Flecha the least), but as a collective, they represent continual artistic work over more than ten thousand years. They also share noticeable motifs, such as vertical bison (in Castillo, Pasiega, and Monedas), or rectangular signs that are divided into three sections (Castillo, Chimeneas, Pasiega). Quite likely, the panel of five omphalos-forms reflects the artists’ pride in the Castillo Mountain as a composite mega-site, a sacred space of more than local standing—a true center of the world. Moreover, it is no doubt significant that Mount Castillo, itself, is a conical hill; in fact, it is a perfect cone when seen from the south or east (cf. Fig. 222 a); as such, it was prone to be perceived as an omphalos in itself. References to the mountain’s shape may, indeed, be seen in cone-shaped signs that are painted in both Pasiega and the Castillo cave (Fig. 53 a, b, c; Fig. 49 b, c). Likewise, Gargas presents us with a couple of omphalos-shape engravings (Fig. 52 b) that are quite similar to the Castillo signs, and which fairly resemble the contour of the mountain—a promontory of the foothills of Aventignan, overlooking the Neste Valley—that contains Gargas and its sister cave, Tibiran (see section of the hill in Cartailhac and Breuil 1910; also in The Megalithic Portal, “Grotte de Gargas,” www. Megalithic.co.uk).

The assembly of caves within the Castillo Mountain is unique only by the magnitude of artistic illumination that it contains. On a slightly smaller scale, we find a comparable gathering of decorated caves within the small mountain of Gaztelu in the Basque area of southern France. Gaztelu is another roughly cone-shaped formation (less than four hundred feet tall); it contains three decorated caves, Isturitz, Oxocelhaya, and Erberua, each occupying distinct, horizontal levels with separate entrances (Fig. 223 a). Isturitz, the uppermost cave, was a habitation site throughout the Upper Palaeolithic. Erberua, the lowest cave, is difficult to access and follows a laborious path through the depths of the earth, as it traces the course of a subterranean river (the Arberoue). As previously mentioned, the middle cave features a vertical bison that testifies to a perceived connection—and certainly a transmission of powers—between the three levels. The galleries of the upper cave, Isturitz, are generally low, but this cave does have one tall, spacious hall, and in the center of this hall, it features a monumental stalagmite column that, no doubt, was acknowledged as the centerpiece. Correspondingly, it is decorated with a number of animal figures carved in low relief (Fig. 223 b). We are hardly wrong in seeing this pillar as an omphalos, a monument that glorifies the accomplishments of creation, and praises the perpetual connection with potential powers of re-creation. For sure the deeply engraved images of a reindeer, a fish, and a bear constitute a familiar theme of world-renewal. It seems relevant to the imagery on this column that a perforated staff from Isturiz (Fig. 81 c) shows precisely the configuration of a deer and a fish that is so prominent on the stalagmitic cone, the more so as the engraved bone connects these figures to the perforation and its framing lozenge—symbols of the opening to the source spring of primordial creation. Isturitz was a key site for production of decorated artifacts, and it is hard to believe that the artist who engraved the bison in a monumental position on a stone slab (Fig. 63 b) would fail to recognize the shape of that stone as an echo of the shape of the Gaztelu hill itself. It is also worth mentioning that some exquisitely carved bone staffs from the workshop of Isturitz display abstract designs including centralized circles amid maze-like meanders; these are likely illustrations of the navel of the earth amid the chaos of creation (Graziosi 1960, Pl. 95).

Cave sanctuaries as regional centers

To all appearances, the cave artists felt that their works helped activate and disperse vital, regenerative powers that were concentrated at certain, charged locations inside the sanctuaries, powers that were perceived as crucial, vitally important blessings for the surrounding lands. This relationship between the depths of the earth and the outer world was captured in a group of mandala-like signs that are characterized by having a distinct, central element, be it a sizable middle segment or just an axial, dividing line. This focal element represented the navel of the earth, and we shall argue that the centralization of these prominent signs stated the position of the given caves as connected with the site of primordial creation; in other words, the mandala became a symbol that acknowledged the particular sanctuary in its capacity as the center of the earth. By the logic of a spatial design, the two outer, symmetrical sections of such signs must represent geographical areas that originated at—and expanded from—the center in the course of creation. The geographical area assumed by a given sign may be a limited region, or it may be more ambitious and encompass the earth at large (still with the local sanctuary at its center). In short, the centralized signs reflect the individual tribe’s perception of living at the center of the world.

Though the category of centralized signs was widely used (especially in the later phases of cave art), the articulation of their details varied with geographical/cultural regions. Three basic types prevail: rigidly rectangular signs (like the examples in Chimeneas, Fig. 226 b, c); rounded and arched rectangles (like the examples in Pasiega, Fig. 224 f, g, h); and, signs resembling huts or tents (like the examples in Font-de-Game, Fig. 236 a-c). In all cases, the focus on a marked center is essential, just as the individual cave was the center of its surrounding lands and, ultimately, of the earth at large. Many of these signs are complex ideograms, and some carry extended cosmic implications; invariably, both the dimensions of space and time are involved. At this place, we shall focus on the spatial relationship between the earth and individual sanctuaries. (The origins and ordering of time, which is also reflected in these cosmograms, is discussed in Chapter X. Specific references to the earth/sky duality are treated in Chapter IV).

An unusually complex sequence of signs in the innermost section of Pasiega “A” allows us to follow the gradual formation of centralized signs as a reflection of the stepwise development of the earth in the process of creation. At the end of the cave, the gallery turns into a small chamber that, in turn, tapers to a fissure, a location that we have previously discussed as an opening to the depths of the mountain (cf. Fig. 118). In this extreme position we find about two dozen painted signs that appear to be variants of a basic, site-specific cosmogram; it also seems immediately clear that they trace the steps of a progressive development, which begins as far inside the terminal fissure as the artists could reach (Fig. 224). The first signs approach the characteristic, curved rectangle, outline; their interior spaces are, however, uniformly striped, and significantly, without centers (a, b). Placed on facing walls, they resemble a portal to an early, inaccessible realm without the differentiations of our familiar world; but their framing—even of an undifferentiated infill—is a first step toward creation out of chaos. Moving out from the fissure, we find the first indications of a center in the form of a discreet accent at the top, middle point, a slight mark, not yet a central section (c, d). On the way toward that accomplishment, we find lingering evidence of the chaotic phase of creation in a curiously misshapen sign (e), the first, awkward move toward articulation of a length-wise division of the sign, one that is followed by a second, more accomplished version (f), the latter marked with a pattern that refers to netting as a metaphor for creating. The definitive centralization is only reached further out in the chamber, with a sign (g) in which the center achieves a separate identity, graphically set off from the wings. Significantly, one clear, centralized and symmetrical, sign is painted above the arch of the exit to the main gallery (h), whereby the configuration of sign and natural opening makes the former an integral part of the cave itself, and in particular, shows its center as the passageway between the depths and the outer world. By the same token, this situation establishes the cave as the gateway to the powers of creation.

In Altamira, a comparable composition of signs is found in the narrow corridor (the “Horse’s Tail”) that ends the cave, and a comparison with the Pasiega ensemble reveals both a number of shared features and a degree of individuality. The Altamira panel is associated with a niche-like cleavage of the wall (Fig. 225), and the sequential development of the signs starts partly inside this cavity, like the Pasiega composition started in the final fissure. In Altamira, too, the innermost sign (a) is devoid of a center. Furthermore, it is awkwardly twisted—like one transitional sign in Pasiega (Fig. 224 e)— illustrating the gradual advances of the process. The triad of signs above moves us several steps forward: the central element (Fig. 225 c) is tripartite, and its outer segments are crosshatched (like one specimen in Pasiega) with a reference to the creative crafts of netting or weaving, that is, making a fabric out of nothing, a symbol of creation and growth, namely, the expansion from the center. The two flanking signs (d, e) show triple divisions, too. Like the sickle-shaped element in Pasiega (Fig. 224 g), they project a lunar symbolism of waxing and waning, introducing the notion of regular time (a topic pursued in Chapter XI). The largest sign in the Altamira complex (Fig. 225 f) is the one the visitor sees on leaving the end of the corridor and returning to the exterior cave; correspondingly, this is the final step: its center is clearly stated; it is spreading out widely, suggesting the richness of the completed earth (perhaps intentionally resembling a woven basket). Curiously enough, the rectangular sign below (g) resembles a Hittite hieroglyph signifying “the earth.” As for the other radiant symbols in the panel, we may guess that they indicate the release of powers through the opening in the rock-wall.

The tight grouping of three signs (c–e) reveals that the artists thought of these signs in spatial terms, with the large, middle element (e) expanding up- and down-ward, and the flanking ones (e, d) extending the range toward the left and the right. In this reading, the three signs illustrate the expansion of the earth in the horizontal dimension, from a central area outward in all four directions. We might, conceivably, gain more information from these signs, if we consider the possibility of a three-dimensional model, with some elements to be seen as horizontal, others as vertical.

The mentioned signs in Pasiega and Altamira are unmistakably similar and, yet, distinctly different. Returning to the Castillo Mountain, we find a third set of variants in Chimeneas. In this cave, they occupy a highly visible panel of black signs in the back of the main hall (Fig. 226 a-d). Again, variations in the interior designs range from undivided (d), over tentatively divided (a), to fully divided fields (b, c). The latter two rectangles have strong central segments, from which the flanking parts are either spreading outward as a fan of diagonal lines (b), or are in the process of expanding as suggested by cross-hatching (c). We might read these two signs by analogy with the cross-hatched Altamira sign (Fig. 225 c) as seen from above and as expanding horizontally from the central section. This view is, however, challenged by certain features of these two signs: in the first place, one (b) has lines expanding, fan-like from the bottom center toward the top, outer corners, which suggests an expansion in the vertical dimension, a view that seems to agree with the sign above a tunnel-like passage right below; in the second place, the most advanced sign (c) shows a slight-but-certain, arched rise of the center area, which assumes the likeness of an opening in the likeness of an arched passage, again a feature that responds to the actual opening below. As shown on the plan (Fig. 226), this is one of the two openings to the apsidiole, the narrow corridor that forms an odd—meaningful and amply decorated—appendix to the cave (cf. Fig. 226 g). We may, then, see this sign (e) as a symbol for Chimeneas, itself, and the central opening as the entrance to the inner ambulatory. In these two cases, then, the signs project a view of the earth as seen from the side, vertically (in elevation). The other two rectangles of the panel are apparently to be seen from above (map-like), showing the four-cornered earth. The three lines across a meticulously framed sign (a) pertain to the sky (numerical “3”) and the earth (numerical “4”).

The mentioned panels of Altamira and Chimeneas seem to employ two different approaches to the representation of a shared three-dimensional model of the earth, one that allows equally for horizontal and vertical views. Cosquer has rectangular, centralized signs of the same general type as in Chimeneas, and here we encounter both vertical sections and horizontal plans of the earth structure. The former includes a rectangle with lines fanning out from the bottom center (Fig. 227 h), reminiscent of the fan-like spread in Chimeneas (Fig. 226 b); the latter comprises a group of rectangles with decidedly map-like features.

The Cosquer mandalas are parts of a narrative progression that recounts episodes in the creation of the earth, beginning at the deep pit that ends the cave (Fig. 227, top). Engraved near the pit, on a low ceiling, we find a rectangular sign that is filled, lengthwise, with zigzag lines (Fig. 227 a), suggesting an early phase of creation, when the fledgling earth emerged from a watery abyss. The rigid framing, however, already indicates the appearance of a fixed shape amidst primordial chaos, and we furthermore find an internal separation into a section of wide zigzags and a section of narrow (only half-as-wide) zigzags, a division that we may understand to signal progression from the boundless waters of primordial chaos into oceans and rivers. Given that Cosquer was located only a few kilometers from the coast and just east of the delta of the Rhone, the ocean in question was, no doubt, the Mediterranean and the river was the Rhone. The Mediterranean is, indeed, a fundamental presence in Cosquer, as is evident from a great number of seals depicted in the cave, along with some fishes and a group of penguin-like sea birds (auks). Like other archaic peoples living near an ocean and settled at the mouth of a river, the people of Cosquer probably perceived the world in terms of a profound sea/land duality, and some rectangular signs in the cave may be read as illustrations of this worldview.

Already in the mentioned, water-filled sign (Fig. 227 a) a small arched extension at the middle of one long side indicates a beginning centralization, a feature that, subsequently, marks both the top and bottom center of rectangles (e, f, g, h). The definitive establishment of a pronounced center is demonstrated by two rectangular signs (c, d) in which the mid-section is marked by a lozenge/fish figure, an intentionally ambiguous motif that we have encountered repeatedly above (cf. the neighboring panel, Fig. 227 b). The lozenge/fish designs at the center of the two rectangles imply an opening to the watery abyss, so that the two signs (Fig. 227 c and d) both tell of a fixed center of the earth at a point where there is a connection to the creative powers of the depths. From this focal point, energies radiate toward the peripheries of the new earth, as illustrated in the mentioned sign (h) in which spreading lines emanates from the center. Like Chimeneas, Cosquer presents us with a world model projected by rectangular signs of which some suggest horizontal plans (aerial views) while others suggest vertical sections.

Some among the Cosquer rectangles show features that elude a ready explanation. Thus, we can only speculate that the arches protrude from some rectangles at top and bottom center (f, g) may refer to the waxing and waning moon, similar, perhaps, to the two arched signs on either side of the large rectangle in Altamira (Fig. 225 d and e). If so, they signal that the beginning of time (measured by the moon) coincides with the origins of the earth/space. While this remains speculation, the rectangular signs for the earth, the definition of the earth’s center, and the netherworld connection are all qui t e certain. It is, also, clear that these distinct signs identify the sanctuary and define it as the center of the earth.

Cosquer’s rectangular sign with a central lozenge/fish finds a parallel in the Spanish cave of Tito Bustillo. Here too, the center of a rectangle is marked by an ambiguous design that is both abstract lozenge and figurative fish—that is, both opening to the depths and connection with waters of the abyss (Fig. 228, top). This particular sign is placed at the core of the great panorama of the cave (in the central zone, which is painted red), and the connection with subterranean waters is unmistakable, because the sign is positioned immediately above the narrow shaft (Fig. 228, bottom) that reaches the active (always audible) river on a lower level of the cave. This spot was obviously considered the core of the sanctuary, as shown by the expansive decoration of the wall on both sides. As the focal point of this panoramic mural, the square sign is readily seen as a symbol of the sanctuary itself—with the almond-shaped sign at its center as a fitting symbol for the cave’s connection to the primordial realm of creation.

Among the just-mentioned cave sanctuaries, only Altamira is truly dedicated to the earth (the bison), while the others are rather balanced (in the ratio of bison/earth figures to horse/sky figures), and one (Chimeneas) has no bison figures at all. From this observation we deduce that any sanctuary, whether devoted to the earth or the sky, was acknowledged as a site with persistent ties to the primordial powers of creation in the depths. We find this position clearly stated in Lascaux, which is the pre-eminent example of a sanctuary dedicated to the sky, with its hundreds of painted horses versus only a handful of bison. Lascaux is also a major site for rectangular signs, counting more than forty specimens. Most of these are gathered in the “Apse” and, notably, concentrated around the descent to the notorious “Shaft,” while conversely, the only section of the cave entirely without square signs is the grandiose, domed entrance-hall with its frieze of gigantic, white, sky-oriented aurochs (cf. Chapter IV). This pattern of distributing the square signs at points of contact with the depths confirms our thesis of these signs as evidence of the cave’s connections with primordial creation. The rectangular signs also carry cosmic dimensions that point beyond the creation of the earth (including the rhythms of the day and the year; cf. Chapter X), but their primary purpose was to confirm the ties between the sanctuary and the perennial forces of the first creation.

In striking contrast to the Rotunda of the white bulls in the front of Lascaux, the end-section of the cave is a narrow corridor with a terminal pit, and it seems meaningful that the cave’s innermost panel of rectangular signs (Fig. 229 a, b) marks the beginning of this corridor (in the “Chamber of Lions”). The two large signs located here exemplify the basic formula employed at Lascaux: first, four vertical lines generate three columns; these become identified as the center section and two symmetrical sides; eventually, the complete, developed form adds horizontal lines, which divide the vertical columns into a lower, a middle, and an upper register (see for example, Fig. 231 a-c). The two signs in the cave’s end-section initiate this evolution, as the left column is heavily scratched (perhaps to, ritually, activate the process), while the right-hand side seems to be still grasping for a definitive shape (Fig. 229 a). Furthermore, we notice a beginning division of the central column, a first move toward the creation of a bottom, earth-bound register. We also see how the established depths-of-the-earth connection in the center affects the life of vegetation, as indicated by the engraved plant just below. The second rectangle (Fig. 229 b) is more advanced, as signaled by the two short, parallel strokes at the top of the middle column, which indicate an actual opening for the release of powers to the upper (surface) level of the earth. The double-stroke is a common indicator for the numerical “2,” and it signals an act of cleaving or splitting, or it tells about something that is opening up or is forced open; this frequent sign is equally applicable to wounding, to sexual penetration, or to the opening of a passage in a cave (cf. discussion in Chapters VII and X). In Lascaux, double-marks are typically positioned at the top of the center column of a rectangular sign (cf. Fig. 231 a- c; Fig. 247 a, left), which tells us that the center of the sign marks the place where a connection is made between upper and nether worlds. Returning to the two signs in the back of Lascaux, the more accomplished one shows that the lower-earth sector—the bottom, horizontal level—has become established (Fig. 229 b), and the resulting transfer of vital powers from below is illustrated by the two (red) vegetation signs: the simpler one in the low segment (that is, in the ground) and the almost explosive “growth” sign at the top—coincident with the double-stroke signal for the “opening” of the earth. It seems meaningful that activity in the first sign (a) is on the side that is turned toward the end of the cave (left), while events in the second case is turned out ward (right).

Full exposure of the square sign as the emblem of the cave is seen in the group of three, exquisitely painted, fully divided squares in the “Nave” of Lascaux (Fig. 231 a-c). In this group, the artists employed absolutely all the colors at their disposition, achieving a truly exceptional impression of richness and exuberance—an effect that we, ultimately, must view as a means of characterizing the blessed state of the land around the cave. These signs display the double-mark in the top center parts and, in one case, vegetation symbols that line the central, vertical section, rising from the bottom to the top (Fig. 231 a). Painted in such an extraordinary array of colors, the three signs pronounce Lascaux the center of the earth and the locus of abundant vital powers. (The triple representation refers to the numerical “3” as belonging to the sky; cf. Chapter IV).

The most abundant use of the square signs of Lascaux occurs in the “Apse,” and particularly in the apsidiole-like niche at its very back. This is the spot, where the engraved and painted walls hang directly over the descent to the “Shaft,” the brutal drop of elevation that is negotiated via a narrow opening at floor level. In this tiny alcove—a holy-of-holies in the cave, where powers from below are funneled to the upper cave—the artists amassed rectangular signs (Fig. 230), perhaps in a gesture that would seal the claim of Lascaux as the center of the region. The most spectacular of these signs (Fig. 230 a) carries traces of color, including a black frame that surrounds the central segment and visibly indicates some kind of opening that we may relate to the narrow entrance to the “Shaft” just below. The head of antlers that occupies this gate-way (Fig. 230 b) adds to the impression of a passage between two realms, and this act of passing-through is repeated in other configurations of signs and stags below (Fig. 230 c-f). On the facing side of the apsidiole we find a red sign (Fig. 230 g) that, again, features the twin marks at the top center—almost certainly, this sign stands for the access-hole to the “Shaft,” located directly below. More centralized rectangles, combined with emerging heads of stags, are clustered around this crucial opening (Fig. 230 h-j).

Gabillou is in many ways related to Lascaux and contains several signs of the Lascaux type (Fig. 232 a-c). Within the framework of Gabillou’s single-gallery plan, it is significant that these signs are concentrated just outside the threshold of the final chamber. One of the square signs here is crossed by a wedge-shaped mark at the top center (Fig. 232 b), as if cut through by a cleaving spear-point, which agrees with the above reading of the double-marks at Lascaux as indicating the opening-up of the center—which is both the center of the earth and of the cave.

The co-existence of two versions of the rectangular sign (Fig. 232 b, c) may allow us to see one as a rolled-out view of the earth, with the pillars of the four corners all on a line (c), while the other one (b) shows these four verticals as close together, two-by-two, in what may be a foreshortened view of the sides—left and right—suggesting a three-dimensional, box-like concept. We may read the large sign of Lascaux (Fig. 230 a) in the same manner, as showing foreshortening, including perpendicular lines (notably at the right) that may suggest a dimension of depth.

The symbolic opening of a rectangular earth-sign, as in the just-mentioned Solutrean caves of the Dordogne region, is matched by formulations in the later Pyrenean cave of Marsoulas, where we encounter the same concept in the form of a painted sign that marks the very end of the sanctuary (Fig. 233 a). The location is the more remarkable as the single-gallery cave dips down precipitously toward the end, forcing the visitor to descend a slippery incline to reach the final, engraved panel, which ends, precisely, with this red sign—painted just above the small stream of water that halts further progress. Evidently, we are here at the point from which the powers of the depths are released, the center of the earth, and an opening in the top center of the red sign reflects this process. We recognize the visual device from signs in Lascaux (Fig. 230 g) and Cosquer (Fig. 227 k). The rounded shape notwithstanding, the Marsoulas sign is basically rectangular and layered horizontally like the mentioned symbols in Pasiega or Altamira. Returning to the upper gallery of Marsoulas, we find a variant of this center-design, in the form of a second red rectangle with a central axis (Fig. 233 c), and in this case, the top of the sign is nearly coincident with the back of a bison—that is, with the surface of the earth—so that we may see the sign as nearly identical with the bison/earth, and perceive the opening, top center, as the locus of a transfer of powers between the depths and the world above.

The Great Panel of Marsoulas, located on a spectacular wall in the middle of the cave’s only gallery (cf. Fig. 66 d), presents, among multiple vegetation symbols, two complex, rectangular signs that differ in shape from the Lascaux squares, yet function similarly. One is centralized and is associated with rows of seeds (dots) as well as with imposing plant-signs (Fig. 229 d); the other one (Fig. 233 e) has a rectangular body composed of dots/seeds and is connected with both roots (below) and plants (above); the two signs readily epitomize the sanctuary itself with an emphasis on its function as channel for powers of re-creation and growth. Marsoulas, thus, presents us with three distinct applications of rectangular signs: establishing contact with a primeval realm (at the terminal descent); affecting the earth at large (covering the bison’s body); and identifying the cave as the center of the earth (in the Great Panel).

The Marsoulas repertory of signs apparently echoes both the curved rectangles of Spanish caves and the straight squares of Dordogne. They also show parallels to the body of signs from caves of the Les Eyzies region that is known as tectiforms, or hut-shapes, some of which suggest circular structures, partly dug into the ground (compare Fig. 233 a and Fig. 235 a). In these micro-cosmic structures the floor is the earth, the roof is the sky, and the middle post marks the center of the world. That the center of a tectiform sign coincides with the center of a given cave sanctuary is indicated by the location of some such signs in the very back of caves, close to the source of the powers they project, as is true of the just-mentioned examples in Marsoulas and in Combarelles (Fig. 233 and Fig. 235).

In Rouffignac, hut-designs dominate the farthest end of the cave’s network of galleries (Fig. 234 a-c). Back here, the tectiforms undergo a rapid development, a transformation that mirrors stages in the creation of the earth: one sign (Fig. 234 a) has an ill-defined, rounded outline—more like an “earth” sign than a hut—with the central pole just tentatively marked; another (Fig. 234 b, to the left) has an overly massive central element, with as-yet undeveloped sides; an appearance that, however, is instantly followed by two cogent presentations of the fundamental scheme of a dwelling. Moving outward, the visitor soon comes upon a fully developed specimen (Fig, 234 c). The progression may remind us of the gradual, tentative steps in the development of mandala-like cave-symbols in Pasiega (Fig. 224 a-g), Altamira (Fig. 225 a-f), and perhaps, Lascaux (Fig. 229 a, b).

Rouffignac provides more information about the function of the hut signs, as they are integral to the panel of flowing meanders that runs along the ceiling of one major gallery (Fig. 234 d). The implied theme of waters—or, streams of fluid energy—emanating from the depths (released at the lower-level connection, at no. 11 in Fig. 25) agrees with the unsettled shapes of this group of tectiforms; like the interspersed mammoths (cf. Fig. 24), they are visibly challenged by the effort to impose order on the unruly meanders (Fig. 234 d). Eventually, at the confluence of the two large galleries as they join into the entrance-gallery, we find hut signs in close contact with a bison (Fig. 234 e)—again, a configuration that tells of directing—literally “domesticating”— ageless, turbulent powers for the benefit of the earth. Finally, a centralized sign that towers above the back of a mammoth (Fig. 234 f) speaks of the definitive step of shaping and stabilizing the rocky framework of the earth as we know it.

Combarelles, with its seemingly endless, uniform corridor and hundreds of engravings, has but a few hut-signs, which however, are in meaningful spots. The only extant red sign is a hut- design at the very end (Fig. 235 a); open at the top center, and situated just before the cave dips down toward a subterranean stream, this red sign is a close parallel to the mentioned one in Marsoulas (Fig. 233 a). Further out in Combarelles, at the crawl-space called the “Tunnel”–the only notable obstacle in the long corridor—an engraved tectiform tells of an advance in the process of channeling powers of the depths toward the outer world (Fig. 235 b): the fan-like spread of lines from the center—familiar from Chimeneas (Fig. 226 b) or Cosquer (Fig. 227 h)—evidently illustrates the distribution of netherworld powers, projecting them past the threshold of the “Tunnel.” A second, red sign (Fig. 235 c) is too poorly preserved to be informative, but close by is one more engraved tectiform, and while this one is tiny, its position on the body of a bison (Fig. 235 d) once more shows how the creative powers eventually were brought to enrich the bison/earth as we know it.

The centered earth-signs of Font-de-Gaume evolve quickly at the site of their first occurrence in the remote “Cabinet of Small Bison” (at f in Fig. 27), which is the focus for the emergence of the bison (cf. Fig. 57). A uniformly hatched square appears to be the first distinct design (Fig. 236 a, left), followed by more articulate attempts (bottom right), and some rather shapely versions (top right), including one with a fan-like lines spreading from the center. One bison (top right) has three tectiforms engraved on its body, as the artists sought, either, to infuse the newly-created earth-character with creative energies, or, to draw energies from the source of creation—in a ritual context, creation and re-creation are inseparable.

In the middle of Font-de-Gaume, the crossing (d in Fig. 27) is significant as the spot that gathers forces from the rear of the main gallery and from the side-gallery, significantly, this is also the location of the cave’s largest bison (at c), a partly sculptural figure that carries multiple tectiforms. One includes two rounded shapes that may be hills because they sit on the floor/earth/base-line (Fig. 236 b). Another sign even embraces a small mammoth in an amazingly close approximation of a sign and a figure (cf. Fig. 239 b); we may deduce from these two signs and their superimposition on the large bison that the earth here has achieved its definitive form, encompassing both soft mounds and hard cliffs—which is, indeed, what we, subsequently, see abundantly demonstrated in the friezes of the foremost cave (cf. Fig. 1 a, b). Finally, a third group of hut-shapes mark the narrow entrance to the main sanctuary (the “Rubicon”), and three of these are situated on the outer side of this passage, including one with fan-like rays from the base of the central pole (Capitan and Breuil 1910, 228); the location of this design recalls the above-mentioned fans of lines in Combarelles (Fig. 235 b) and Chimeneas (Fig. 226 b), likewise placed at low passages.

Symbolic identification of cave sanctuaries

The effort to provide caves with their own brand of signs—which are typical of a region, but have individual, site-specific features—is most noticeable in Solutrean and Magdalenian caves, that is, dating from the last 10,000 to 15,000 years of European cave art. In the oldest caves, comparable signs are not absent, only less ambitiously featured. The “ω” sign of Chauvet is certainly centralized and is expanding from a definite center, although it lacks the cartouche-like framing of later examples. Variants of this sign reappear in caves of other regions, for example in Pasiega and Altamira (cf. discussion of Fig. 39 a-c in Chapter X).

In the above discussion, we have traced the progressive stages in the formation of centralized signs as illustrated in Pasiega, Altamira, Chimeneas, Cosquer, Lascaux, Marsoulas, Rouffignac, Combarelles, and Font-de-Gaume. In each case, an early stage in the formation of the earth is defined by an external framing that lacks conclusive, internal divisions; a crucial, subsequent step is the establishment of a distinct center through the vertical organization of the sign; this space, then, becomes the core of further expansion—all of which echoes phases in the creation of the earth. In conclusion, we recognize the following three major themes associated with the centralized signs.

In the first place, the center (a single or double stroke, a cleavage, an axis, or a central section) represents the navel of the earth, the spot from which it grew at creation, and which remains a point of contact with the depths and their rudimentary font of oceanic forces. To illustrate the process of expansion from the center, the artists used diagonal lines that fan out from a mid-point, or parallel lines that spread like wings from a central axis (as in Pasiega, Fig. 224 g). Perhaps the most instructive representations combine a centered sign with an actual passage-way in a physically explicit configuration, as seen in Mitrot, where the main decoration is the wing-like engraving above a passage into the cave (Fig. 237). This recalls a similar, equally instructive arrangement in Pasiega (Fig. 224 h). Weaving or netting offers another set reference for showing the growth of the earth.

In the second place, because the transmission of powers from below was a vital resource for life within a region, centralized signs are often associated with vegetation symbols to indicate the richness of the landscape. This may be rendered by images of plants or (more often) by the symbolism of deer’s antlers. Thus, we find either plant symbols or a stag’s head popping right out of the “sanctuary” sign, like vegetation emerging from the earth. Examples with plants are seen in Marsoulas (Fig. 229 e) and Lascaux (Fig. 229 b, and Fig. 247 a); plants with omphalos representations occur in Castillo (Fig. 220 a) and Tuc (Fig. 218 a, and Fig. 139 e) examples with stags are in Tito (Fig. 228), Pasiega (Fig. 224 g-i), and (repeatedly) in Lascaux (Fig. 230 a-j). In a wider perspective, the panel of signs in Chimeneas (Fig. 226 a-f) is obviously associated with the assembly of stags in the circular tunnel (Fig. 226 g). We find a comparable relationship between a number of agitated reindeer and a group of centered rectangles, all in one small chamber of Gabillou (Fig. 232 a-e). On a monumental scale, the “Nave” of Lascaux features, on one wall, the three colorful signs (Fig. 231 a-c)—one with internal vegetation symbols —and on the facing wall, the painted frieze of five stags’ heads (one of which is in Fig. 72 c); these deer are called ”swimming,” but emerging from the ground is a more fitting description). Of course, vegetation symbolism is but one means among numerous others by which the artists illustrated the release of vital, re-creative energies. Fishes in rivers are often shown as a measure of the benefits that flow from the watery depths. These and other crucial themes will be discussed elsewhere (Chapters VI and VII).

Our third deduction concerns the identification of the given cave sanctuary, itself, by the particular appearance of its centralized signs. This function seems to be implied in compositions that allow such signs to dominate, or entirely cover, the figure of a bison or a mammoth; we may read this as meaning that the given sanctuary exerts an influence on the surrounding lands, or even the earth at large. In Marsoulas a red centralized sign occupies the entire figure of a bison (Fig. 233 c), Font-de-Gaume shows four hut-type signs jointly covering the cave’s largest bison (Fig. 236 b) as well as some of the bison in the “Chamber of small bison” (Fig. 236 a). A tripartite sign hovers over a bison in the back of Pasiega “A” (Fig. 238 a), whereas a centralized rectangle extends above a large bison in Cosquer (Fig. 238 b), and with a comparable effect, Rouffignac has hut-shaped signs that are drawn on the same scale as the bison with which they are juxtaposed (Fig. 234 e). Matching configurations of tectiforms and mammoths are found in Font-de-Gaume (Fig. 239 b) and Rouffignac (Fig. 234 f); comparable associations in Bernifal (Fig. 239 a, left) face an “earth” sign that is transfigured into an omphalos (Fig. 239 a, right).

Of the above examples, the one that most persuasively argues for the identity of centralized signs and sanctuaries is perhaps the mammoth/tectiform combination in Font-de-Gaume (Fig. 239 b) as the composition recalls the characteristic setting of the cave (Fig. 239 c): the cliff matches the mammoth; the mammoth matches the tectiform; and, the tectiform represents the cave. In drawing this parallel, we are pursuing the argument (stated in the beginning of this chapter) that the decoration of Font-de-Gaume mirrors the cave’s location in the valley of the Beune River through the lay-out of the major panels (cf. Fig. 28 a-c). Farther up the Beune (at a tributary) a similar configuration recurs in Bernifal (Fig. 239 a), which also opens up in the bedrock slope high above the river, and again, we may relate the configuration of mammoths and hut signs to the local scenery with the cave as its center-piece. Significantly, the panel of mammoths and tectiforms marks a narrow passage that is located at the top of the steep down-ward slope into the inner cave—the powers retrieved from the depths must, thus, pass through this tight passage. Again, this situation finds a parallel in Font-de-Gaume, namely in the location of a panel of tectiforms at the mentioned narrowing (the “Rubicon”), which all-but-halts passage to and from the main cave—at this spot, these centralized signs proclaim the proprietary role of the sanctuary as a center for release of the earth’s powers.

Implicit in all of these signs for cave sanctuaries is the over-riding philosophical concept of complementary dualism, the polarity of mass and energy. By its very form, the square sign is expressive of the even number “4” and represents the earth as mass, which is to say, expansive but un-focused. By contrast, the division of the rectangle by a central section is expressive of the odd number “3,” which is inherently centralized and therefore generates the change toward structure, adding the energy needed to advance the progress of creation. The dynamics of this dualism are articulated with graphic clarity: when mass prevails (in fall/winter), the “3” is subdued, as illustrated, for example, by the three-leaved symbol beneath one large sign in the “Chamber of Lions” (Fig. 229 a, bottom); when energy rises (in spring/summer), the odd “3” prevails, and the piercing of the earth/mass at the center leads to the intense outburst of new life, as shown in the second Lascaux sign (Fig. 229 b, top). The symbiosis of mass and energy is inherent in the square signs, and thus, in the preeminence of the sanctuary for which they stand.

Significantly, Lascaux gives a featured spot to the numerical sign that we, previously, have called the “2 x 3” symbol, and which we have explained as the unification of the basic numbers for, respectively, mass and energy. This sign is, in fact, the first (that is, innermost) element of decoration in the cave, as it is painted at the end, just before the gallery narrows down to become impassable (no. 2 in Fig. 243 b). The unification of the two principles, the open-structured “2” and the centered “3,” thus, starts the process of creation. We may add that a brief inscription of just the signs “III”(that is, “3”) and “X” (a cross) joins the just-mentioned group at the end of Lascaux (no. 1, Fig. 243 b). Of these, the “3” epitomizes the male energy that intrudes into the female mountain-cave to start creation, while the “X” expressly marks the spot where this event occurs. We find these two signs combined again in the “Chamber of Lions,” next to the mentioned square signs (Fig. 229 c).

As in Lascaux, the last (innermost) panel in Tito Bustillo features the “2” x “3” symbol, and here too, as an obvious allusion to the significance of dualism in the primeval act of creation. The Tito panel (Fig. 231 d) occupies the roughly square surface of a large rock that might have caught the artists’ attention because of a noticeable crack that begins at the top, roughly at the center; in any case, the crack is traced by two parallel bars, making a sign that we may understand to indicate an “open passage” (cf. discussion in Chapter VII), and accompanied by several double-strokes (meaning “opening”). The two sets of three strokes, that is, the “2” x “3” symbol, are found at the top of the stone. The location of this panel at the far end of the cave, right above a deep pit in the floor, only adds to the conclusion that the Tito panel is a monument to the first manifest step toward the creation of the earth and the release of its inherent powers. We may add that both Lascaux and Tito has examples of an elementary form of the divided square sign: a square divided in two halves (Fig. 247 b, and Fig. 231 e). This most elementary formulation of the “2” (halves) and the “3” (verticals) recurs in Gabillou (Fig. 248), in the final chamber of the cave, in associated with the bison-bull ritual. The numerical symbolism in this scene includes a statement of the “2” x “3” motif (as two sets of three verticals), which agrees with our, previous, discussion of the sexual energies released from the innermost chamber of Gabillou (cf. Fig. 166). Among the tectiforms at the Font-de-Gaume “Rubicon,” we find one that is marked with two crosses (Fig. 236 c), and while the “X” signifies the locus of creation, the bands of three parallels used to engrave these crosses generate a variant of the “2 x 3” symbol. A match for this arrangement is seen in Altamira (Fig. 225 d), were the “2 x 3” symbolism, again, reinforces a centralized sign, thus staking the claim that the sanctuary is chartered with a font of primordial powers. Parallel cases are found in the three lines that cross the wings of a sign in Chimeneas (Fig. 226 b), and in the two vegetation symbols—each with three ”barbs”—that delineate the central section of a sign in Lascaux (Fig. 231 a).

Incipient geographical maps

The centralized signs of a given cave articulated the vital role this cave assumed in its surrounding region, and in this respect those signs were emblematic of the cave sanctuary itself; as a symbol of the site‘s focal position within a geographical area, a centralized sign could stand for the sanctuary.

While some of the above images (in Font-de-Gaume, for example) reflect elements of actual landscapes, they hardly aspire to be geographical maps, although some caves may contain panels that show the artists approaching a kind of map-making. An example is the decoration of a major gallery in Rouffignac (Fig. 234 d), in which a combination of extensive serpentine lines (streams) with flanking mammoths (cliffs) and a cluster of tectiforms (a group of cave sanctuaries) jointly suggest broad features of the cave’s location at the southern edge of a massif, in a large promontory that sees the confluence of two rivers; these, in turn, join the major rivers at the important cave center of Les Eyzies. We may see the scenery in the Rouffignac gallery as a generalized rendition of the cliffs, rivers, and sanctuaries of this area, a formalized landscape rather than a cartographic record.

The artists of the cave of Castillo, however, appear to have engaged in the—admittedly selective and approximate—mapping of a recognizable, geograpically defined area, one that we may identify, even if we can pinpoint only a few salient features. While a number of caves contain panels with meandering lines or rows of dots that might suggest maps, they are generally too imprecise to allow testing against actual landscapes; but one unusual panel in Castillo’s “Corner of Tectiforms” appears to mirror characteristic features of Cantabrian geography—notably major rivers, rendered by streamers of dots—and to correlate these with the specific locations of major cave sanctuaries—each represented by a centralized sign (Fig. 240). A closer look at the details of this design is needed in order to determine its validity as a genuine map.

The orientation of this map is not guided by our north-equals-up convention, but by the actual flow of Cantabrian rivers, as they virtually always originate high in the mountains, that is, to the south and aim north, toward the sea; thus, we must see the top of the panel as north. Assuming that the lines of dots signify flowing waters, the closed figure at the top, made up by a great number of dots (Fig. 240 a) is likely a body of waters, and because the streams of dots flow directly out of this body (from its bottom corners, right and left), we may reasonably see this figure as representing the waters that are bound up in the upper mountain ranges where the rivers have their sources, as illustrated on a basic map (Fig. 241). During the last Ice Age, these tall mountains were permanently covered with the snow that fed the torrential streams in spring/summer. The Cantabrian Mountains consist, essentially, of distinct ranges that all run east-west, parallel with the coast, leaving a rather narrow strip of life-sustaining lands (the Cantabrian Shelf), where we find the Palaeolithic cave sanctuaries and their sheltered living-sites.

In consequence of our thesis, each centralized sign on the assumed map would stand for a sanctified site, and surprisingly, they are all different, if only slightly. Only one (Fig. 240 h) differs by being a straight rectangle and not centered; it is worth mention, however, that this sign is virtually identical to an Egyptian hieroglyph for “enclosure,” “palace” or “temple,” which would, still, be a fitting designation for a sanctuary. Approaching the difficult task of identifying individual sites, we may be helped by the reasonably assumption that the largest one (Fig. 240 g) represents the Castillo Mountain itself, partly because this was the artists’ own base, and partly because this relatively small mountain (only about 350 meters tall) holds—and no doubt held in the past—a truly impressive share of all the cave art in northern Spain. From our modern perspective, we may evaluate the artistic achievement of Altamira’s ceiling (called the “Sistine Chapel” of cave art) over the less unified ensembles of Mt. Castillo, but in terms of the number and variety of works, the five caves of that mountain outweigh the inventory of Altamira by far. We may, however, feel fairly secure in, next, speculating that the second-largest sign in the panel (Fig. 240 b) stands for Altamira; in fact, we know of no other site near Castillo of a comparable stature.

From these two propositions, we may deduce that the two large streams in the map are the River Pas, overlooked by the Castillo Mountain, and the Saja River, which passes barely a mile south of Altamira (cf. Fig. 241). In agreement with the map, the Pas actually reaches Castillo coming from a south-easterly direction before continuing toward the north; likewise, the Saja bends toward the east before passing south of Altamira to join the Besaja. The course of the Besaja river (cf. Fig. 241) is largely ignored, but its confluence with the Saja, east of Altamira, may be acknowledged by way of the added rows of dots (widening from four to six), where the two rivers join forces and flow north, that is, to the left of our sign. The Pas and the Saja both originate high in the Cantabrian Mountains (in an area, where modern dams have created a large artificial lake), and they dominate the hydrological system of central Cantabria. In terms of subsistence, these river valleys were key paths for seasonal movements of big game and fishes, migrating south to the foothills above the caves in spring, and north to the more gentle hills below in winter. The central portion of our presumed map is apparently dedicated to the valleys and lowlands that form the heartland of the Cantabrian Shelf (cf. Fig. 242) and to the two dominant religious centers of that region.

The Castillo map is far from being a precise projection of distances and alignments; it ignores specifics of the upper courses of the rivers in the rapidly rising terrain above the sanctuaries, and it locates Altamira too far south relative to Castillo (cf. nos. 1 and 2 in Fig. 241). These failures may partly stem from the irregular surface of the rock wall: the top portion of the panel is mainly painted on the ceiling and is slightly separate from the wall-face due to a protruding ledge; more disturbing, the main wall curves inwards toward the right (see photos in Don Hitchcock 2018). We can be sure that the artists’ aim was not a map for travelling, but a display of the relationship between sanctuaries and their regions, and ultimately, a tribute to the blessings of the earth.

Unfortunately, the attribution of emblems for caves other than Castillo and Altamira must be tentative, though not for the lack of feasible candidates. One problem is the identification of those rivers that are merely indicated by short lines of dots in single or double files. We may take a hint from the horizontal rows to the left (at i and j in Fig. 240), because east-west oriented streams are the exception in Cantabria; their presence suggests that the map extends as far east as to the Carrenza, a tributary of the Asón River, which (like the upper course of the Asón) is oriented partially east-west (cf. Fig. 241). Here, around Ramales de la Victoria, we may focus on the three impressive caves of Cullalvera, Covalanas, and Arco (“A” and “B”) as feasible matches for the group of three signs at the top left of the map (Fig. 240 i, j, k ; nos. 8, 9, 10 in Fig. 241). Though non of these are “super-sites,” they are noteworthy: Covalanas is artistically highly accomplished, and is thematically/stylistically all but indistinguishable from Pasiega “A” in the Castillo Mountain (both sites including plain, curved rectangles, like Fig. 240 d); Cullalvera is a cave of gigantic proportions, with an opening that is close to 30 m tall and with images more than a kilometer inside—a potential “cathedral” among caves; and, Arco “B” is distinguished by the unusual, natural arc that curves over the cave’s porch. Besides, the decoration of Arco “B” includes the most easterly occurrence of a centralized sign in the idiom of Pasiega (Smith 2002, 75).

To the west, three signs appear close to the assumed Altamira emblem, and one of these (Fig. 240 c) may be Las Aguas, in which case the stream indicated by two lines of dots (between b and c, Fig. 240) could be the Arroyo de la Presa, the creek where las Aguas is situated (the cave’s name derives from a karst spring). As a counterpart to Arco “B,” Las Aguas (no. 3 in Fig. 241) marks the westerly extension of centralized “earth” signs in the manner of the Mt. Castillo sanctuaries (Smith 2002, 235). More problematic are the other two signs, of which the bottom one (Fig. 240 e) might be Cudón (no. 5 in Fig. 241), which has signs that belong in the Pasiega family (Smith 2002, 198). Unfortunately, none of the known sites in the area of the remaining sign (Fig. 240 d) seem to merit inclusion in the map.

As for the centralized sign between the Castillo and Altamira emblems (Fig. 240 f) its attachment to the eastern side of the lines of dots suggests a cave on the Besaja (close to the confluence with the Saja), and a likely candidate might be Sovilla (no. 6 in Fig. 241), which is a minor sanctuary, but one that—like Pasiega “A” and Covalanas—embraces the spectacle of a horse surrounded by does (regarding this theme, see Chapter VII). Finally, the site positioned on the east-side of the lower River Pas (h in Fig. 240) seems a close fit for El Pendo (no. 7 in Fig. 241), certainly a major cave, with an elaborate, painted frieze and archaeological deposits that include a huge collection of mobiliary art. The theme of the painted frieze—and of one, carefully engraved staff from the site—is, again, the horse surrounded by does.

The above reading of the Castillo panel allows for the conclusion that it is, indeed, a particular map of Cantabria. In spite of some misalignments and a few speculative attributions, virtually all elements of the composition are feasible matches for identifiable items. Significantly, the geographical area covered corresponds quite closely to the area that Georges Sauvet identifies as a distinct cultural province, recognizable on the eve of the Magdalenian era (Sauvet 2014, figure 5), established early in the Magdalenian (Sauvet’s figure 7). Of course, we ignore if some relevant caves have been lost or remain to be discovered, but the features we do recognize, both the rivers and the decorated caves, are all perennial and significant. The conventions of map-drawing are, certainly, different from the criteria of scientific projections, but they are comprehensible. A modern map might not graphically signal the importance of the Mt. Castillo caves and Altamira relative to all else in the region, but this choice seems meaningful even at a distance of about 15,000 years—within the region, these two sites still overpower everything else we know from that age.

What is more, we recognize certain, strikingly similar artistic conventions in use at these two key locations during the Middle- to Late Magdalenian. For example, the deep alcove in Castillo’s “Corner of Tectiforms” contains (in the ceiling, and still farther inside than our map) a red-painted sign in the shape of a cross (Fig. 243 a), this resonates with a cross-wise configuration in Pasiega (Fig. 224 g) and, more closely still, with the above-mentioned group of signs in Altamira. Significantly, the first element in each panel, in Castillo (Fig. 243 a) as well as in Altamira (Fig. 225 a), is a curved rectangle with length-wise layering but no center; subsequently, centralization occurs (and the earth expands from the center). It is certainly not by accident that the Castillo map attributes a symbol to the cave of Altamira (Fig. 240 b), which is closely similar to signs actually painted in Altamira itself (cf. Fig. 225 c, d, e).

Although the Castillo map might appear as an exceptionally ambitious endeavor for its time, we do have evidence of a few, comparable efforts at cartography. Thus, we find an echo of the Castillo panel in the neighboring cave of Pasiega “C,” where a centralized sign may stand for Pasiega, itself, while the band of dots, again, suggests the Pas River (Fig. 244 a). Here too, we may understand the river to run downwards, from the south toward the north, and we may see the bend of the river around the cave-emblem as possibly reflecting the actual course of the Pas as seen from the vantage point of Pasiega “C“ (cf. Fig. 244 b; the “x” locates the panel): the river curves around Mt. Castillo and continues north, toward the sea.

As mentioned above, the cone-shape of the Castillo mountain was perceived as a sign of its character of an omphalos, fit for a center of earthly powers (cf. Fig. 222 a, b), and it is no doubt significant that the “Corner of Tectiforms,” with the large map, is in a low area that also contains red, conical “mountain” signs (cf. Fig. 53 a, b), just as the smaller map in Pasiega “C” is painted next to apparent images of the Castillo Mountain (Fig. 244 a, left and right). Pasiega “B” contains another reference to the shape of the mountain in combination with a centralized sign (Fig. 96). This red sign, which is framed by the (natural) outline of the cone-shaped Mt. Castillo, is evidently a symbol of the cave itself. It seems meaningful that the “inscription” (the insert in Fig. 96) includes a bracket-like sign that we may read to mean “opening up,” that is, opening up for the powers at the center. This sign also occurs in Buxu, next to a red, vagina-like fissure (Fig. 199 a). We find two variations on this sign in the panel of symbols at Chimeneas (Fig. 226 e, f), where they assume a curious, possibly relevant, likeness to two Egyptian determinatives for “opening” and “closing.” In Chimeneas, this concept must refer to the circumambulatory corridor of the stags (Fig. 226 g). Cosquer, too, combines centralized rectangles with an apparent version of a sign for “opening”: a rectangle with one side missing, hence” open” (Fig. 227 l). In Chimeneas as in Cosquer these signs co-exist with centered mandalas that indicate a process of opening-up and spreading-out (Fig. 226 b; and Fig. 227 h). While the above reading of the Pasiega “inscription” remains but partial, the compilation of signs appear to cast the mountain as the defining symbol of a region, and the cave as the point of contact with primordial forces.

In Altamira, an alcove-like recess is entirely devoted to a composition of painted signs that we, with the above examples in mind, may read as another map (Fig. 245). Instead of individual dots arranged in lines to signal streams, the artists of Altamira used ribbons with chain-like series of tiny, regular strokes as a means of showing fluids, as seen in the above-mentioned staff from Mas d’Azil (Fig. 202 a). Starting in the back of the niche, we find a single, vertical ribbon that, we may speculate, describes waters descending from higher grounds (Fig. 245 a). Along the left wall, moving from the back to the front in an uninterrupted flow, the artists built up an increasingly wide stream composed by the steady addition of individual ribbons, growing from one to two, three, four, and eventually five (Fig. 245 b). This way of describing the increasing swelling of a river with the accumulation of waters from tributaries is technically the same as the one—substituting dots for ribbons—that the Castillo map employs to illustrate the confluence of the Besaya and Saja Rivers near the site of Altamira (Fig. 240). In fact, precisely the same joining of rivers may also be the point of reference for the Altamira scene. By this same token, the four centralized signs painted above the river symbol (Fig. 245 c) might, conceivably, stand for the same four sanctuaries that we find grouped together in the Castillo map (Fig. 240 b, c, d, e). The two caves display an unmistakable affinity between their topographical symbols and mapping strategies.

Returning to the map design in the Castillo cave, we can see it as an advanced demonstration of a general interest in cartography in the central region of Cantabria during a late period of the Magdalenian era. The map, evidently, reflects a measure of pride in regional cultural achievements, as it places the predominant, local sanctuary at the very center of a large region. This approach to map making was, however, neither limited to Cantabria nor a new concept of the Magdalenian age. In Cosquer, located at the Mediterranean coast, close to the Rhone River, artists of the Solutrean era already used rectangular signs to map their region and situate the sanctuary, itself, relative to the large river.

Presently, the use of diving gear is needed to enter the cave of Cosquer, but around 25,000 years ago the entrance was set high in a cliff with a distant view of the coast, just east of the Rhone delta (Fig. 246 a). From early historic examples (Egyptian, and Mesopotamian) we know that large deltas allow the opportunity to observe how new land is created by deposits of soil, and that this phenomenon was seen as a ready metaphor for the creation (or, re-creation) of the earth at large. Two engraved signs in Cosquer may be read as illustrations of just that concept. Each of these signs (Fig. 227 c, d; Fig. 250 d, e) shows a centralized rectangle that is divided vertically by a lozenge, of which the upper half occupies the middle of the field, while the lower half is situated below, so that the dividing line coincides with the lower frame of the rectangle. This demonstration of a; formal division reflects a dualistic distinction between an upper- and a netherworld, or with respect to the actual locale, the duality of river and ocean.

As previously discussed, the lozenges of Cosquer are also fishes—however schematic—as their lower halves clearly end in fish-tails. The inter-play between lozenges and fishes is a common theme in the arts, both in the caves—for example in Tito (Fig. 228), Pileta (Fig. 192), Nerja (Fig. 193), and Oxocelhaya (Fig. 124 d)—and on decorated artifacts—for example, on engraved staffs from Madeleine (Fig. 81 b), and Isturitz (Fig. 81 c). In Cosquer, a group of signs, engraved next to one of our rectangle/lozenge-signs, pursues this duality (Fig. 227 b). There is an obvious sexual dichotomy in this game of heads-versus-tails (as Henri Breuil recognized in his 1927-book on Upper Palaeolithic images of fishes), but beyond that, a still wider polarity of cosmic scope. Given the significant presence of the Mediterranean Sea and the Rhone River in the geographical surroundings of Cosquer, we can hardly fail to relate the dichotomy of the lozenge/fish images to the polarity of the ocean and the river.

Indeed, this thesis seems to be confirmed, when we overlay the two signs in question upon a map of the Rhone delta (Fig. 246 b, c), making the lower side of the rectangles coincide with the edge of the land (adjusted for a lower sea-level). In this position, the upper part of the lozenge is seen to designate the riverine delta, while the lower part (with the fish-tail) reaches into the sea. This reading makes sense, particularly, when we recall the above-argued assumption that lozenge-shapes stand for the locus of access to the source of creation (cf. the above-mentioned perforated staffs with lozenges, Fig. 81 a-c; see further discussion in Chapter VII). A connection with this perennial font of energy is the prerogative of the sanctuary, and thus, a fitting attribution to the emblematic symbol of the cave.

In the first of the two signs, it appears that the upper/foremost half of the lozenge/fish design matches the Rhone delta proper, that is, the nuclear area of growth, where the river divides, creating swamps and muddy banks of land (Fig. 246 b). The second rectangle adds an element of great consequence in the form of the two triangles, left and right, that we may read as signifying mountains—which can only mean the Massif Central in the west and the Alps in the east (Fig. 246 c). This addition implies an expansion of the covered field relative to the first sign, apparently encompassing the entire spreading area of the lower Rhone. As an emblematic mapping, at once descriptive and symbolical, the Cosquer signs capture the unique geography of the lower Rhone basin as well as the status of the cave as a regional sanctuary.

Within the decorative program of Cosquer, the two signs partake of a cogent narrative of creation that starts in the back of the cave, in a low, chaotic section (called the “Crab Walk”) close to the ultimate, deep pit. Here we find the first of the cave’s rectangular signs (Fig. 227 a), one that, as yet, contains no evidence of land, only water-designs, but which we, nevertheless, may understand as representing the first step toward the creation of the earth, partly because the application of the rectangular frame already implies that an element of order has been carved out of totally disorganized chaos, partly because the water-designs within this frame are, further, divided into two separate and distinct types. These are a strip of wide zigzags and a strip of narrow ones, and we may understand the former as pertaining to the large, turbulent waves of an ocean and the second to the lesser ones of a river—evidently, the emerging Rhone River. Thus, this sign tells of a beginning development within the bosom of the primeval ocean, a first move toward the formation of the earth, and significantly, this phase of creation already is associated with the sanctuary, as indicated by the rectangular frame. To this early chapter in the creation story belongs the neighboring panel of lozenges and fishes (Fig. 227 b), which places us at the navel of creation, at the delta, where the earth is going to emerge from the waters. Then follows the rectangle with the upper (land) half and the lower (sea) half, showing the delta as the first land taking form (Fig. 227 c). A very large zigzag drawn close to this sign (Clottes et al. 2005, 153) may well show the Rhone as it comes into its own. Eventually, we move out from the tight and low, inner section to a wider and taller hall, where we find the just-mentioned rectangle with triangular designs (Fig. 227 d), which reminds us of the above-discussed concept of the creation of the mountains for the purpose of stabilizing the earth and fixing the courses of its rivers.

We can only speculate about the precise extent of the region that the tribe of Cosquer considered their homeland, but the correlation between a physical map and the map-like sign (Fig. 246 c) suggests that the wider, roughly triangular basin of the lower Rhone was included, perhaps reaching north till about the Ardèche canyon. To all appearances, Cosquer was the key sanctuary of this area, perhaps superseding older centers along the Gard and the Ardèche , in any case, Cosquer was the sanctuary most closely tied to the navel of the earth as manifest in the delta. We find echoes of this coincidence between geography and myth of creation in the much later Babylonian narrative of creation (the “Enuma elish”), in which the first step out of the chaos of the primordial ocean was the separation of salty waters and fresh waters, sea and rivers. This mythic event was, no doubt, rooted in the location of Babylon at the confluence of the two major rivers (Euphrates and Tigris) that perpetually renewed the land with their fertile sediments. Eventually, the Babylonian god Marduk created earth and sky from the body of the impersonator of the original sea (Tiamat) as he divided her body in two, “like one splits a fish in two,” an act that suggests some remote connection to the symmetrically divided lozenge/fish designs of the Cosquer symbols.

While the two map-like signs of Cosquer have unique features, we find a similar configuration of elements on the main wall of Tito Bustillo, within the red-stained area that surrounds the crucial opening to a subterranean stream (nos. 2-5, Fig. 158 a). Here, a design—equally lozenge and fish-shape—is decisively placed at the center of a square (Fig. 228, top), and we may, here too, see it as marking the navel of the earth, the very point of original creation. Significantly, Tito is, like Cosquer, located where a major river (the Selna) meets the ocean and a ribbon-like sign painted vertically on the wall (Fig. 228), next to the rectangular cave-emblem may well represent the Selna, running—like the river designs in the Castillo map—from the mountains in the south toward the sea in the north. The large, richly decorated sanctuary of Tito (with its twin-cave, Lloseta, cf. Fig. 158 b) celebrates the powers invested at its particular location, and just as Cosquer has its seals and penguins to represent the ocean, Tito has the image of a whale, a large (about two meter long) engraving that dominates a recessed chamber (Polledo González 2011, 101).

In the above situations, rectangles or squares serve as cartouche-like frames conveying the identity of sanctuaries, and as such, as means of representing these sites and even place them on maps. It appears that the application of these signs, furthermore, may function as ritual gestures of promotion or invocation. An example from Cosquer involves the largest of the cave’s bison figures, the one placed farthest back and, thus, the first live image of the newly created earth (Fig. 238 b). The rectangular sign painted above this figure relates so closely to the bison’s back and, hence, to the surface of the earth, that we may understand the act of painting this sign as implicitly staking a claim to the newly created earth. A comparable compositions in the back of Pasiega “A” conveys the same message (Fig. 238 a). In each case, the sign addresses the newly created earth/bison with a show of recognition, even acclamation. In Marsoulas, the entire body of a bison is occupied by a similar sign (Fig. 233 b); again, the panel is toward the back, and the significance seems to be the same as in the two, just-mentioned examples, as the red sign makes a claim to the black figure of the bison, while invoking the newly created earth and its fertile land (notice the vegetation sign above this bison), as if the people of Marsoulas would impress it with their stamp.

Lascaux is represented by its own brand of four-cornered earth signs in the forms of subdivided squares, and among these, two painted examples are closely associated with the image of a bison (Fig. 247). As in the above cases, the composition reflects a desire to partake of the blessings of the earth, notably with signs that encompass the dual significance of a geographic region and the cave-shrine at its center. Similar configurations are found in a number of caves in the Teyjat region, with the difference that tectiforms replace rectangular signs. Examples are seen in Combarelles (Fig. 235 d), Font-de-Gaume (Fig. 236 a, b), and Rouffignac (Fig. 234 e). Comparable compositions with mammoths are but variants of the same concept, as demonstrated in Rouffignac (Fig. 234 f), Font-de-Gaume (Fig. 239 b) and Bernifal (Fig. 239 a).

While the last-mentioned batch of examples lacks obvious characteristics of recognizable maps, they are ultimately parts of decorative programs that inherently imitate actual landscapes or locations, in so far as these caves reproduce the geography of existing rivers and their valleys. Thus, Rouffignac features a map-like design in one gallery (Fig. 24), which as previously discussed, is part of the wider, ambitious scheme to project the lay-out of the cave itself as a model for the network of surrounding rivers. We have seen that Font-de-Gaume, likewise, reflects the actual setting of the cave on the Beune River (cf. Fig. 28 a-c), and we may even see the tight unit of a mammoth and a tectiform in one panel as a deliberate reference to the amazing cliff that enshrines the cave itself (Fig. 239 b, c). Such unity of decoration and physical geography is entirely in the spirit of the scene in Chauvet—far removed in time and space—which casts the Pont d’Arc as a painted mammoth (Figs. 31 and 32).

In light of the elaborate map in the cave of Castillo (Fig. 240), the just-mentioned decorative schemes allow us to glimpse a broad view of the entire area of Upper Palaeolithic cave art as divided into distinct regions, largely following major rivers and their valleys, and defined by an established network of sanctuaries, each providing a center of life-giving powers, each deriving its forces from the perception of a direct connection to the time of primeval creation, each a navel of the earth. We recognize the outlines of a cultural landscape that is, literally, mapped by a number of religious centers, each manifest in a cave sanctuary. Among these holy sites are some huge “cathedrals,” many impressive “temples,” and a great number of quite modest “shrines,” all drawing their sanctity and powers from their ties to the timeless depths. We may glimpse a distinct, pervasive—perhaps hierarchically organized— religion of the earth, a system of ideas and beliefs that, however, co-existed with ideas and beliefs about the sky, all in accordance with a pervasive complementary dualism.