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The Stones Cry Out:
Cave Art & the Origin of the Human Spirit, Part 2

Chauvet Rhino3,250 words

Part 2 of 7

2. Theories of Stone Age Cave Art

One of the first attempts to explain the origin of Upper Paleolithic cave art was formulated by the French paleontologist Édouard Lartet (1801–1871), along with Henry Christy (1810–1865), a British banker who financed Lartet’s work. They theorized that an abundance of game endowed our Stone Age ancestors with a good deal of leisure time, which allowed them to occupy themselves with creating artworks and decorations of various kinds. Édouard Piette (1827–1906), a French archaeologist, concurred with Lartet and Christy, but added that Stone Age men were moved by an aesthetic sense, and a drive to create images of beauty – purely for its own sake, without any practical aim in mind.

Now, my own position has something in common with Piette’s, as will become clear. I also reject the idea that the cave art had some utilitarian purpose. David Lewis-Williams, in his brief survey of the different theories, is dismissive of Piette’s views, even going so far as to express skepticism about the very existence of an “aesthetic sensibility.” Regrettably, this is a common feature of scientific attempts to explain such unscientific matters as art.

Many modern people simply cannot conceive of an activity or a human drive that does not have some kind of “practical” purpose. They are suspicious of something called “aesthetic sensibility,” usually because they don’t have any. And they find the drive to create art for art’s sake incomprehensible, because they have never felt it. Amongst Lewis-Williams’s reasons for doubting Piette’s theory is that most of the cave art is found in “inaccessible, dark, underground places.” He continues, “The seemingly obvious fact that art is made to be looked at is contradicted by deep Upper Paleolithic cave art.”[1] One wonders if Lewis-Williams has ever even met an artist. For the truth is that, fundamentally, artists create for themselves alone.

Sadly, most of the other theories about cave art are very disappointing. Even the exotic ones – the ones that claim the art has something to do with sympathetic magic or shamanism – are still insisting that it must have served some utilitarian purpose. These theories all basically fail to come to terms with the artistry of the paintings: with the obvious fact that these are works of individual creative genius, striving for aesthetic perfection.

A case in point is the celebrated theories of Saloman Reinach. A Franco-Jewish archaeologist, Reinach (1858–1932) was also a prominent public figure: he was vice president of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, and one of the co-founders of the Jewish Colonization Association, which was established to help resettle Jews emigrating from Russia. His contribution to the study of European cave art was extremely significant, for it was Reinach who first insisted that the people and art of the Upper Paleolithic must be understood on analogy with those of recent hunter-gatherer societies. Based on what he had heard about the art of Australian aborigines, Reinach theorized that the art of the European caves had something to do with sympathetic magic: its purpose was to cause animals to multiply, making them easier to pick off.

There are multiple problems with Reinach’s position. First, and most fundamentally, he is assuming something that is assumed by many theories that try to explain puzzling aspects of human behavior: the existence of a universal human nature. Or, at least in this case, a universal hunter-gatherer nature. Many authors blithely take this for granted: Lewis-Williams, for example, writes that “the people who made North American (and southern African) rock art and those who made Upper Paleolithic art had the same nervous systems.”[2] For him this is enough to justify all manner of comparisons.

Example of North American rock art

Example of North American rock art

But I would respond that we can know, virtually a priori, that they could not have had exactly the same nervous systems (if this is understood as meaning that they were mentally, cognitively the same). The reason is simple: European society evolved, and evolved spectacularly. The primitive hunter-gatherers that existed well into the modern era – those of Africa, America, and Australia – did not. For all appearances, they were still stuck in the Stone Age and behaving as their ancestors had hundreds of thousands of years before – while we were firing rockets to the moon. Obviously, there must have been something very different about Upper Paleolithic Europeans. They “had something” that allowed them to go far, while certain other peoples hardly developed at all.

I am not endorsing a “progressivist” position here, nor even a “pro-technology” one. If you don’t like the example of “firing rockets to the moon,” substitute “writing The Phenomenology of Spirit,” or “writing Der Ring des Nibelungen.”  But we knew already that there was something very different about Upper Paleolithic Europeans: they developed representational art tens of thousands of years before anyone else did. These facts must be kept squarely in mind when we encounter anyone trying to understand prehistoric Europeans by analogy with recent primitive peoples from other parts of the world.

Second example of North American rock art

Second example of North American rock art

Furthermore, while contemporary hunter gatherers do not exhibit anything like the dramatic historical evolution we see in Europe (indeed, it can be argued that they don’t have “history” at all) it is probably false to assume that they haven’t changed somewhat overtime. It is possible that their societies, as we find them today, may be different, in some significant ways, from how they lived in Paleolithic times. (These changes could be due, for example, to environmental circumstances – and, especially, contact with other, more developed cultures.)

A further difficulty has to do with the obvious differences between, on the one hand, Upper Paleolithic cave art, and, on the other, the rock art of recent hunter gatherers in Africa, Australia, and North America. With some exceptions, the non-European rock art is comparatively much cruder. There is usually little discernible attempt to portray the subjects (usually various animal species) either realistically or with artful stylization. And there is little “artistic individualism” present (i.e., we don’t detect different artists in the art). Instead, the images usually have the quality of glyphs or pictographs: within a particular cultural milieu, one antelope or buffalo image looks pretty much like another. This probably means that the non-European rock art is intended to tell stories. (And, indeed, contemporary hunter gatherers can often explain to scientists exactly what the stories are.) The tale is the point – not the artist’s skill in creating an image of this beast or that.

Example of South African rock art

Example of South African rock art

By contrast, the different panels of European cave art do not, by and large, seem to be telling stories. Though we can’t be sure of this, of course, the European cave art seems to be primarily an attempt, not to tell stories, but to create images for their own sake – and through those images to convey the essence of the animals depicted. (This is a point about which I will have much more to say later on.) The above observations about the quality of non-European rock art would, of course, be dismissed by many as “Eurocentric.” I submit, however, that they are also true. (And I happily plead guilty to the charge of Eurocentrism.)

Tasmanian tiger, example of Australian aboriginal rock art

Tasmanian tiger, example of Australian aboriginal rock art

In any case, despite the above problems (and those to be mentioned in a moment) the “sympathetic magic” theory of cave art proved to be very popular. Henri Breuil (1877–1961), usually referred to as Abbé Breuil, was one of the major figures in twentieth-century explorations and studies of the European caves. He gave the “sympathetic magic” theory a twist that differed from Reinach’s position. Breuil theorized that the magic was intended not to cause the animals to multiply, but to kill them. In other words: paint a picture of a bison being speared, and this will then happen in reality (presumably if the artist has sufficient joojoo). The only trouble with this, however, is that only about 15% of Upper Paleolithic bison images show the animals stuck or wounded (this fact is pointed out by Lewis-Williams). And the situation is similar with other beasts. Actually, very few of the animals are depicted as killed or wounded.

A further problem has to do with hunter psychology. In these societies, we can be certain that hunting was an exclusively male activity. As such, it was surely invested with a great deal of “macho” significance. Hunters would have taken a lot of pride in their ability to track and kill, and would have exhibited a competitive spirit. Isn’t it likely that they would have balked at the idea that they needed magic to help them kill? Wouldn’t they in all probability have seen this as a form of “cheating,” and as dishonorable? (Assuming they possessed the rudiments of the hunter-warrior psychology that does, indeed, seem to be universal.)

Regardless of whether this is true or not (and, of course, we can never really know) there simply is not enough evidence to support the “sympathetic magic” theory. And yet almost everyone in the last hundred years who has written on European cave art “knows” that it had something to do with magic (and they find this “obvious”). A case in point is Joseph Campbell, whose otherwise perceptive discussion of Upper Paleolithic cave art in Primitive Mythology is replete with assertions such as this one: “Obviously the aim was not art, as we understand it, but magic.”[3] Even Georges Bataille, in his several essays on cave art, assumes the sympathetic magic theory as if it were proven fact.[4]

The more sophisticated version of the “magic” theory holds that the cave art had something to do with “shamanism.” But before I come to that I must briefly mention what has to be the nadir of the cave art theories. Max Raphael (1889–1952) was the pen name of a German-Jewish Marxist art historian, and, predictably, what he saw in the Upper Paleolithic cave art was “class struggle.” (As Abraham Maslow once said, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”) Raphael theorized that the animals depicted in the art represented different social groups. So, scenes in which different species seem to be antagonistic to each other are allegories of the conflict between different groups (or classes) in society.

In a rare display of good sense, most academics did not take Raphael’s theory very seriously. But Lewis-Williams thinks this unfair. His own theory, in fact, combines elements of Raphael’s Marxist approach with the shamanism hypothesis. Like Raphael (and others), Lewis-Williams insists that art is “social.” At one point he even claims that some of the cave paintings “must” have been created communally, by several people working together, simply because some of them are so big.[5] (One wonders if he has heard of the Sistine Chapel.) Lewis-Williams just seems to entirely dismiss the idea that there are such people as creators: individuals who break new ground, often in defiance of “social” considerations. (Which often forces them to hide what they do – in caves, for example.) This sort of anti-individualist bias is a common feature of scholarship today in fields such as anthropology, sociology, and history, and in the main it can be traced to the influence of Marxism.

In brief, Lewis-Williams theorizes that the cave paintings are records of images seen by individuals who had experienced shamanic visions. (Predictably, however, he treats the phenomenon of shamanic “altered states of consciousness” in a reductive fashion, more or less as a curious species of brain fart.) Stone Age shamans painted the visions ages they had seen in order to cement their social status as an elite, capable of special access to an alternate reality inaccessible to ordinary mortals. (Because, remember, art is irreducibly “social.”) As Lewis-Williams helpfully informs us, “Mystics are people who exploit the autistic end of the spectrum of consciousness not only for their personal gratification but also to set themselves apart from others.”[6]

One hardly knows what to do with such flat-souled vulgarity. Probably best to simply dismiss it – and offer an alternate theory. But before I elaborate my own views, let’s look again at the shamanism hypothesis – without Lewis-Williams’s Marxist twist. This is not original with him (it was suggested by, among others, Abbé Breuil), and it deserves further consideration. The major problem with this theory is that it does not rest upon any evidence internal to the paintings themselves. Its proponents certainly think that it does, however. For instance, Campbell describes one stick figure human in the Lascaux cave (with the head of a bird) as “rapt in a shamanistic trance.”[7] But no one would interpret the image that way unless they were already committed to the position that the art has something to do with shamanism. In fact, the shamanism hypothesis – as advanced by most of its advocates – usually rests entirely upon insisting that if something is true of contemporary (or more recent) non-European hunter-gatherers, it must be true of our Upper Paleolithic ancestors.

Nevertheless, despite this theory’s questionable pedigree, in fact I am inclined to think that something “shamanic” was probably going on here, or at the very least that the cave art had sacred significance of some kind. As Hegel taught us, there is a deep tie between art and religion – and this is particularly true the further one goes back in time. Also, the cave art is difficult to access: in some caves it takes a journey of several hours to reach the art (and in the Upper Paleolithic the journey was often made by crawling through narrow, cramped tunnels). Many authors have inferred that this meant the art had to have been invested with special significance; i.e., it was sacred, not profane art. And since we know that our ancestors did not actually live in these caves, most infer that the art was not mere decoration. I think that these inferences are entirely sound.

As to the art having been involved in practices that were specifically “shamanic,” if I were to make a case for this I would base it – at least in part – on evidence internal to Europe, rather than on comparisons to recent non-Europeans. Mircea Eliade, for one, did believe that there was a European tradition of shamanism. (However, he cautions us that even if we find an element of shamanism here and there in the European tradition we are not entitled to infer that shamanism in its full and true sense was being practiced.)

More than one author (including Eliade) has speculated that the story of Ódhinn hanging himself on the “wind-swept tree” for nights all nine is an account of a shamanic experience. Ódhinn also practiced seidhr, a form of magic which some have thought involved visionary, shamanic experiences. (Eliade is suspicious of this claim, however.) Ódhinn, of course, rode an eight-legged steed called Sleipnir. And interestingly Eliade tells us that “the eight-hoofed horse is the shamanic horse par excellence; it is found among the Siberians, as well as elsewhere (e.g., Muria [in India]), always in connection with the shaman’s ecstatic experience.”[8]

Eliade also discusses the evidence for shamanism among the archaic Greeks. However, the best author to go to for such an account is actually Peter Kingsley, who has written several books interpreting pre-Socratic philosophy as having its origins in mysticism and shamanic experience. Briefly, Kingsley argues that Parmenides (and some other philosophers) may have participated in an initiatory shamanic tradition.[9] The evidence Kingley presents for this claim (drawn from textual exegesis, history, and archaeology) is surprisingly convincing. For our purposes, what it suggests is that there is a genuine tradition of shamanism in ancient Europe.

But how far back does it go? Could it have originated in the Upper Paleolithic, during the time of the cave paintings? If so, it would have appeared more than 30,000 years before the birth of Parmenides. It is certainly possible that European shamanism could be that old, but who can say? The best thing that can be said for such speculations is that they are probably more reliable than inferences drawn from comparisons between Upper Paleolithic Europeans and recent, non-European hunter-gatherers.

I will have reason to return, very briefly, to the issue of shamanism much later. In the next section, however, we must turn to more fundamental considerations. Lewis-Williams and others claim that the art of Stone Age man became possible due to the development of “fully modern language,” because both require “symbolic thinking.” But this leaves us with the mystery of how the capacity for symbolic thinking came about in the first place. And simply guessing that a “genetic mutation” or “brain restructuring” took place is about as helpful as saying “a miracle occurred.” My own theory, which I will begin to develop in the following section, argues for a deep tie between art, religion, language, and symbolic thought. All four appear roughly at the same time, in Upper Paleolithic Europe, because all are made possible by something else that the theorists discussed above have failed to consider.

 

Notes

[1] Lewis-Williams, 43.

[2] Lewis-Williams, 173.

[3] Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (New York: Viking Penguin, 1970), 305.

[4] Bataille’s essays have been translated and published as The Cradle of Humanity: Prehistoric Art and Culture, trans. Michelle Kendall and Stuart Kendall (New York: Zone Books, 2005).

[5] Lewis-Williams, 249.

[6] Lewis-Williams, 190.

[7] Campbell, 301.

[8] Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964), 380. Of course, this again involves making comparisons between European and non-European traditions. This can be valid, but as I have argued it is an approach that rests on questionable assumptions about human differences (or the lack of them), and most scholars and readers are insufficiently attuned to these problems.

[9] Parmenides’s famous poem, which survives in fragmentary form, is a depiction (so Kingsley claims) of an ancient spiritual trial called “incubation.” This involved lying down in a dark, isolated place, in complete silence and stillness (hesychia). There is a tradition which flourished in Parmenides’s time, which conveyed the “geography” of what one would find in the spiritual world via the practice of incubation. Surviving Greek texts describing incubation state that when one undergoes the experience everything begins spinning and one hears a shrill, piping sound (a sound mentioned in Parmenides’s poem). This was known as the “sound of silence”: the sound behind the entirety of creation. Kingsley also tells us of the lesser-known philosopher-poet Epimenides (seventh or sixth century B.C.E.). According to legend, he slept for years in a cave and experienced visions of the underworld and of the “abode of Justice and Truth.” “Taken by Apollo” was the Greek expression for those who went on such “vision quests.” In the 1960s a first century C.E. bust of Parmenides was unearthed at Castellammare della Bruca in southern Italy, which bore the inscription “Parmenides, son of Pyres, Ouliadês, Natural Philosopher.” This clearly associates Parmenides with the cult of Apollo Oulios, or Apollo the Healer (Ouliades means “son of Apollo Oulios”). Apollo was known as the “god of lairs,” and of people who lie down in lairs. In other words, of those who undergo “incubation” in order to achieve the status of the iatromantis (“healer-prophet”), a term used to describe Epimenides. See Peter Kingsley, Reality (Inverness, Cal.: Golden Sufi Press, 2004).

 

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One Comment

  1. Jim
    Posted January 4, 2014 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for another fascinating entry in a remarkable series. I tend to agree with the cautious agnosticism displayed in this entry about “concluding” that the cave art reflects shamanic practices or early attempts to effect sympathetic magic. Maybe; perhaps; we just don’t really know.

    I would, however, wish to question the psychology of the following assertion:

    “Hunters would have taken a lot of pride in their ability to track and kill, and would have exhibited a competitive spirit. Isn’t it likely that they would have balked at the idea that they needed magic to help them kill?”

    If we look at modern nation states (in particular, think of WWI) we see an eagerness to invoke God’s protection and help in battle; many prayers were offered, all around, for victory in the field. This did not appear to be at marked variance to the male fighting ethos that was seen in the field. Another example are the common prayers for victory offered up by football teams.

    I’m looking forward to part 3.

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