Physical Anthropology

Prehistoric Art

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Many prehistorians have queried whether the limits of man's self-expression had been reached by the magnificent cultures that flourished at the end of the ice age. One such culture was that of the people inhabiting the region that is now France and Spain sometime between 40,000-10,000 BCE. Bursting upon the scene in an explosion of creative energy, these people produced a profusion of spectacular paintings on the walls of some 200 caves that dotted their landscape. We cannot help but wonder about these artists who, following a dig that unearthed skeletons near France's Cave La Magdeleine, became known as the Magdalenians.

One theory is that a certain cave in France was a center for artistic education; in fact, Cave Limeuil yielded up bones and stones that were layered with engravings of animals thought to be miniatures of those painted on cave walls. Another theory is that all the art was executed by an artistic genius using assistants to erect scaffolds, mix pigments and keep lamps burning. Many other theories have been postulated, but all that is really known is that the craft was passed down through many generations.

Much has been learned about the Magdalenians as a people. Studies of their cave art, sculptures and decorated bones, pebbles and rocks by anthropologists, archaeologists, and other scholars, have revealed an art that developed from simplistic early forms to detailed, accurate figures over several chronological periods. Up to 32,000 BCE, the artists drew simple outlines of small animals; from 32,000 to 30,000 BCE, they drew larger animals and filled in the animals' bodies with red or black paint; and from 30,000 to 10,000 BCE, they drew massive animals, washed over the animals' bodies with earthy tones of brown or black, and detailed the animals' anatomy with thick shading.

Natural earth pigments yielded the artists five colors: red, yellow, brown, black and white. A clay ocher containing iron oxide was available in shades of clear red, yellow and brown. Judging from the broad spectrum of red hues enlivening late cave paintings, these original artists must have known that when yellow ocher is heated beyond 250 degrees Celsius, it passes through different shades of red as it oxidizes into haematite. For the color black, either manganese dioxide or charcoal was used. Here it should be noted that iron oxide and manganese dioxide were in plentiful supply within a narrow radius of some caves in central France.

After the artists had ground the natural earth pigments to a fine powder, their next task was to produce a paint with a binding agent sufficient for the color to adhere to humid cave walls. Animal fat, urine, blood, vegetable juice and other moisteners were all tried. Tests have shown, however, that paint adheres best to cave walls when pigments are mixed with cave water rich in calcium carbonate, and since the colors have endured for 20,000 years or more, we should be justified in assuming that cave water was the moistener the artists finally chose.

Thus, with seashells filled with paint, and with hollowed-out stone candles filled with animal fat and dry moss, ancient artists confronted the task of applying the paint to the cave walls. At first they used their fingers, but soon switched to pigment-lump crayons for outlining, animal hair and vegetable fibre brushes for stroking and vegetable fibre pads for washing finishes on large surfaces. Outlines of hands were spray-painted on walls by either blowing paint from their mouths, or through bent reeds.

Horses and bison are the animals most frequently represented in cave art. Reindeer meat constituted the Magdalenians' basic diet, so the notion arose that certain species of animals were deified. Aurochs, deer, ibex, mammoth, bear, big cat, hypo, musk ox, ass, saiga, chamois, wolf, fox, hare, otter, hyena, as well as fish, reptiles, birds, insects and plants are all represented. There are also images of signs, symbols, notions, anthropomorphs, sorcerers, magicians or dancers, and feminine figures-sometimes in abstracted form.

In ice age art, the animals are spirit animals. The famous Lascaux shaft scene has been interpreted as either a fight between two shaman-one in the form of an animal, or a fight between a shaman and an evil spirit. Ongones, which are spirits in the form of zoomorphs, anthromorphs and polymorphs, are represented by the figures on the cave walls. By calling upon these creatures, the artists hoped to invoke assistance.

A master-of-animals concept was widely held among hunting people. Here, the shaman artists would mediate between the spirit world and the real world through self-induced or plant-induced hallucinatory experience. The shaman artists' power resided in the act of painting the animals-an act that connected the artists to the master-of-animals' deity. The artists depicted the life forces entering and leaving the animals by drawing lines at the animals' mouths and nostrils.

Also widely held was a hunting magic concept that involved gaining influence and control over real animals by manipulating animal images. If an artist painted fat, healthy animals on cave walls, it was thought to produce fat, healthy animals on the surrounding hunting range; if an artist painted injured or killed animals on a cave wall, it was thought to produce injured or killed animals on the surrounding hunting range. The painting of animals pierced by arrows is attributed to the hunting magic concept.

Rituals, magic signs and symbols were empowering devices. Through such devices, the artists sought to appease the revengeful spirits of killed animals and to assist their rebirth by calling on their spirits, and they sought to affect the outcome of hunting events by bewitching game animals. The primitive symbol signified the prayer or magic to be performed and, more often than not, these symbols were fertility or sex symbols. The fertility symbols were mainly female, although this had nothing whatever to do with human sex instincts; rather, such symbols were used to invoke the power of magic to perpetuate the animal species. Hands on cave walls symbolized a request for protection from evil. Left hands-the universal concept of the maternal aspect of life- appear more often than right hands-the universal concepts of the paternal aspect of life. The sun, universally conceived as the wakener and preserver of life, is the likely origin of the red circles painted on cave walls. As in the gestalt of the circle, the sun and fertility are fused into one. Then, as now, caves and water were associated with the boundaries between the outside world and the underworld; water took on the aspects of a "River Styx": powerful, dangerous and connected with the underworld. Significantly, painted caves were frequently located close to water and, where possible, beside hot mineral springs. In Spain's Monte Castillo, four such caves overlook hot springs that bubble up from a geological fault.

The painted caves were sanctuaries, and the painting of the cave walls were planned with great attention to the organization and placement of the figures; thus, the art not only reflects the self-expression of the artist, but also a tribal or collective phenomenon wherein the space was used according to an established tradition. One school of thought views painted caves as maps that delineate important information about the local hunting territory. The spacious sections of a cave, with their paintings of horses and bison, are thought to represent grazing grounds; the dark, narrow and inaccessible corners of a cave, with their paintings of big cats and other feline, are thought to represent lairs. Another school of thought holds that the animal art arrangements represent animal corrals, while the caves represent animal drives. The paintings and markings, with rows of dots and rectangles to represent the drive-lines, show the animals heading into the corral and being forced down narrow passages to the fall at the end. In fact, it is believed that Cave Lascaux's round Hall of Bulls was conceived of as a pound, and that the cave itself was a memory devise for storing information on how to conduct an animal-drive.

Magdalenian cave art reveals an industrious, ingenious, sagacious, courageous and even humorous people who, in a land overwhelmingly populated by animals, survived through four ice ages. These simple people, motivated by an impulse we still do not understand, succeeded in laying the foundations for art, science and religion. When you consider that the Magdalenians' etchings on stones and bones are so fine that they must be magnified before being photographed, you must conclude that their faculty of sight, compared to ours, was greatly enhanced. In fact, the complexity of their art work indicates that all their senses were enhanced. And perhaps this is reason enough to conclude that the Magdalenians did reach the limits of man's self-expression in their art.

"The Creative Explosion", John R. Pfeiffer; "The Roots of Civilization", Alexander Marshack.;

"The Eternal Present". S. Giedion; "Images of the Ice Age". Bahn & Wertut.

More about this author: Mildred Larson

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