VIII. The Ancestors

[Forthcoming 2024/25]

SUMMARY (2016)

Ice Age art shows a much larger number of human motifs than is generally acknowledged. The representation of anthropomorph figures, bodies or faces, is small relative to the totality of animal imagery, but the human presence is greatly augmented by numerous partial images, mainly hand prints, and female or male sex organs. It is true, however, that few human figures resemble portraits, and that most are deliberately distorted. They, obviously, do not show the actual, living populations, but more likely the nebulous host of dead predecessors, the ancestors.

This reading of the human theme finds support in the ubiquitous hand prints, in so far as many of these are known to predate the bulk of decoration in the Upper Palaeolithic caves. Because contemporaries of the later artists had no historical record that could show the actual age of these hand signs, the artists responsible for the main decorations must have perceived the earlier hands as marks left by their own ancestors, the presumed first owners of the sanctuaries. Possession by past generations lends authenticity to any claim of territorial ownership; by printing their own hands next to their ancestors’ hands the artists stated a claim.

This understanding of the decorated caves and their status as tribal depositories of blessings for a region, its earth and its life, is re-enforced by a number of sacred mountains, both in France and Spain, that contain two or more decorated caves, revealing them to be, indeed, holy sites. Like some major caves that were revisited by artists for centuries, even millennia, these sites perpetually sanctified the surrounding regions and established the local tribe(s) as belonging to, perhaps owning, a defined part of the world.

Traditional lore from around the world presents the dead in a variety of forms, from ghostly shadows or animalistic beings to near-humans, yet always with something “different” about them, such as large round, often empty, eyes, lack of mouths, oddly shaped bodies. However strange, they nevertheless differ from the class of true, non-human monsters that also is represented in cave art. At the other extreme, certain human figures stand out by the nobility of their features, or by their prominent location within in the caves, to the effect that it is hard to distinguish these particular characters from idealized heroes, perhaps ancestors of some mythical “dream-time,” possibly even true deities

Typically, the less problematic humans of cave art fall into a few distinct categories. A number of caves have groups of humanoids that tend to occupy transitional locations in the inner sections of caves, controlling access to the holy of holies beyond, as if they rule the release of new life including the replenishment of the herbivores that were crucial for nourishment. In this respect, they reflect a role of the deceased as helpful to the living, presumably in exchange for proper worship. In keeping with this view, imprints of hands on animal figures (horses and bison, notably) demonstrate the participation of ancestors in the renewal of the world at large, even on a cosmic level (including the renewal of the sun). Possibly, the images of huts or tents in some caves pertain to villages of the dead, in the same sense that, in later heraldry, “house” means “family line.”

Another large group of anthropomorphs focuses on sexuality. The full-bodied female figures in cave art hark back to the familiar figurines typically discovered away from caves, works that emphasize the vulvas and highlight rich buttocks and breasts, often with rudimentary heads and never with real facial features. Most of these statuettes were, in short, evocations of reproduction, and as they occasionally are excavated in domestic settings, even near a hearth, they were likely tied to the ancestry of individual families. In a late phase of the Upper Palaeolithic, similar images, still with reduced or absent heads and feet, were engraved in great numbers on flat, portable stones and, not infrequently drawn or painted on the walls of caves. As for the figures on portable objects, these were tied to individual owners or local settlements, while their counterparts in the cave sanctuaries supported the continuity of generations for larger populations; in either case the female images promoted pregnancy and delivery.

In a cave setting it may be difficult to determine whether a given female image represents a mythical “great grandmother” or a Mother Earth-like deity. The same problem adheres to natural features that were perceived as female sculptures in the raw. However, where the artists have placed a number of genital triangles in a row, or where a cave contains multiples of vaginal niches, or phallic stalagmites and stalactites, a cult of the ancestors is probably intended. We may further assume that the well-documented sacrificial acts in the caves, including the deposition of flint tools, bone points, or shells in niches and fissures of walls, largely addressed the ancestors, possibly in their capacity of intermediaries between humans and higher powers. This kind of ritual included the insertion of bones into the earth, a gesture that surely engaged the dead in the netherworld.

A quite special role as intermediary between the world of human ancestors and the animal kingdom was held by the bear, the most man-like beast in the world of Palaeolithic cave art. The bear’s habit of standing on two legs (occasionally illustrated by the artists) was only the most obvious sign of its similarity to humans, and the artists, in particular, had a more profound reason for drawing that analogy. A great number of the caves feature areas of walls, covered with clay or soft calcium, that are marked by, often innumerable, scratches made by the claws of hibernating bears. Repeatedly, cave artists placed their own finger tracings or hand prints right next to the marks left by the bears, thus recognizing the similarity between the human hand and the bears’ paw, and acknowledging the role of the bear as the first cave artist.