24 July 2021

The Guardian: “‘Humans were not centre stage’: how ancient cave art puts us in our place”

Of course, cave art also inspired the question raised by all truly arresting art: “What does it mean?” Who was its intended audience, and what were they supposed to derive from it? The boy discoverers of Lascaux took their questions to one of their schoolmasters, who roped in Henri Breuil, a priest familiar enough with all things prehistoric to be known as “the pope of prehistory”. Unsurprisingly, he offered a “magico-religious” interpretation, with the prefix “magico” serving as a slur to distinguish Paleolithic beliefs, whatever they may have been, from the reigning monotheism of the modern world. More practically, he proposed that the painted animals were meant to magically attract the actual animals they represented, the better for humans to hunt and eat them.

Unfortunately for this theory, it turns out that the animals on cave walls were not the kinds that the artists usually dined on. The creators of the Lascaux art, for example, ate reindeer, not the much more formidable herbivores pictured in the cave, which would have been difficult for humans armed with flint-tipped spears to bring down without being trampled. Today, many scholars answer the question of meaning with what amounts to a shrug: “We may never know.”

Barbara Ehrenreich

Fascinating mystery, and one for which we, contemporary humans, will most likely never find the true answer, as the people drawing these paintings are long gone and have not left behind written accounts of their motives. Nevertheless, the “magico-religious” interpretation seems the likeliest to me. Throughout history, spiritual and religious beliefs have constantly accompanied human culture and society, and there is no reason to think this was not the case before large-scale communities coalesced into the first recorded civilizations. These prehistoric people may have revered large beasts as something akin to deities or nature spirits and painted themselves as puny and insignificant alongside their power and magnificence. Just as we are now visiting cathedrals adorned with stories from our religions, these ancestors may have gathered in painted caves as places of worship, to reenact their myths and pass them along to a new generation.

Lions, rhino and buffalos drawn in charcoal in the Chauvet cave in south-east France
Lions, rhino and buffalos drawn in charcoal more than 30,000 years ago in the Chauvet cave in south-east France. Photograph: AFP

In contrast with the content of the article, I found the tone of the author vaguely sneering, condescending, as if she found it difficult to convince herself that this could in fact be a valid explanation. An odd angle, as scientific reason has not become a dominant theme in modern society until very recently – and considering the current pushback against medical and climate science, I would say it still has a lot to go before being fully adopted. At the same time, the author scolds at how self-destructive we have become, forgetting that megafauna became extinct partially because of over-hunting by humans. I always find nostalgia for earlier times and criticism at our current society odd and misplaced: people seem to so easily forget how harsh life was a mere century ago. I would hate to imagine the living conditions 20 millennia ago, let alone return to them.

Post a Comment