Were Cavemen Painting For Their Gods?

February 23, 2005
UK Telegraph

The meaning of Ice Age art has been endlessly debated, but evidence is increasing that some was religiously motivated, says Paul Bahn

At least 70,000 years ago, our ancestors began to adorn their bodies with beads, pendants and perhaps tattoos; by 35,000 years ago, they had begun to paint and engrave animals, people and abstract motifs on cave walls, like those in Lascaux, France, and Altamira in Spain. They sculpted voluptuous figurines in ivory or stone, such as the Venus of Willendorf.

Photo: Underestimating art: 35,000 years ago, our ancestors began painting representations of animals

Ever since Ice Age art began to be discovered a century ago, people have wondered what it meant. How could we understand what these early artists were trying to express? Many theories have been put forward – "art for art's sake", totemism, hunting magic and so on.

But all fell by the wayside as evidence accumulated that these theories were at best incomplete and usually untenable.

Much nonsense has been published about "shamans", hallucinations and the like, but these fantasies tell us a great deal about the theorists and nothing about the Ice Age artists. Indeed, it denies them any kind of creativity, and relegates artistic production to the recording of images seen in "altered states of consciousness".

I believe that recent efforts have uncovered compelling evidence that motivation for some Ice Age art – though by no means all – was religious. There is hard evidence which gives us a glimpse of what they were striving to accomplish.

One of the most important and useful factors inherent in the study of rock or cave art is that its location has not changed – it is still where the artist chose to put it and the viewer is occupying the same space that the artist occupied. This can give us a great deal of information that is far more solid and dependable than speculations about meaning.

For example, the decorated gallery of Fronsac in the Dordogne is only 35cm wide, while the "antelopes" of Pech Merle – fantastic, imaginary creatures – are drawn in a tiny chamber into which only one or two people can squeeze.

One must always bear in mind the role played in any culture by features of the landscape or of a site which were associated with particular myths or legends or events, traditional or tribal territories, sacred or holy areas or taboos.

Similarly, in any culture there may be "good" places and "bad" places; and even inside caves there were probably places where such intangible factors played an important role in the decoration of the walls.

I experienced this in the Eighties, when I accompanied the American writer John Pfeiffer to the French cave of Font de Gaume (Dordogne) one evening, with small candles for light. Both of us independently discovered that we had both felt at ease and happy inside the profusely decorated "bison sanctuary" at the end of the main corridor. But we both felt distinctly ill at ease in a different, undecorated part of the cave, and were glad to leave.

What was remarkable was that the curator of the cave had had the same feelings in those same parts of the cave.

The natural architecture of caves played a role in the way in which they were decorated. In many it seems obvious that the artists studied the layout of chambers, passages and major concretions – indeed, in some cases they may have placed markers at significant spots.

Another factor which may have played a significant role in the choice of location is acoustics. Today, we tend to enter these caves speaking in hushed tones, but this may be wrong – the original artists or users of the caves may well have been singing, chanting or praying loudly while the images were being made or used.

We will never know, but studies of acoustics in some Ice Age-decorated caves have detected a correlation between the locations of decoration and those places where men's voices can best be heard. Often, the areas with the best decoration have the best acoustics, while undecorated areas are totally flat in terms of sound quality.

In view of the obvious intelligence of the artists, it is extremely likely that, just as they took full advantage of the morphology of the cave and of particular rock shapes, so they would also have used any acoustic peculiarities.

Anyone who has heard stalactites being played inside a deep, dark cave – they produce a soft marimba-like sound – will know how amazing the experience can be.

One of the characteristics of Ice Age cave art is the exploitation of undulations in walls: this has been apparent since the discovery in 1879 of the Altamira bison drawn on protruding ceiling bosses. To gain a better idea of how these shapes would have appeared to Ice Age visitors, it is necessary to replicate the sources of light they would have used.

The same applies to studies of the visibility, or lack of it, of different figures, and this is the aspect which, I believe, can take us the farthest into the minds and motivations of the artists.

Much cave art appears to us to be "public", or at least on open display (although we have no idea which members of a group were allowed to see it, nor whether large numbers of people ever gathered in big cave chambers or around open-air figures). In certain cases, Ice Age people deliberately made it easier for the imagery to be seen by breaking stalagmites and stalactites.

More intriguing are the numerous cases where the imagery was purposely hidden, up high chimneys, under low overhangs or in niches. Such imagery was not made to be seen by other Ice Age people, but was intended to be seen by – or was offered to – something else, perhaps a deity, spirit or ancestor. In other words, some cave art (but not necessarily all of it) was clearly religious in some way and produced out of strongly held motivations.

The ultimate example of this phenomenon has been found in the cave of Pergouset, in the Lot region of France, where the engraved art begins only after a long crawl, at full stretch, down a narrow, low, wet and unpleasant passage.

One of the engraved figures, a horse head, was made at arm's length inside a fissure into which the artist could not possibly have inserted his or her head: even the artist never saw this figure; it was not meant to be seen by human eyes.

Inaccessibility seems to be the crucial factor in most of the "private" art. Indeed, the overcoming of obstacles, the discomforts and dangers, seemed to have been more important than the actual images.

From what we know of the Maya of Central America, one of the few other ancient cultures which habitually decorated deep caves, it seems the art was not made to last; its survival was irrelevant. The placing of figures in the most inaccessible location possible was linked to remoteness from the normal everyday world – and it is this remoteness which made the images as sacred as possible.

This could certainly be true at Le Tuc d'Audoubert in the French Pyrenees, where the famous clay bison were made, at the far end of the cave, after a tortuous and arduous journey of 900m – the farthest point that could be reached. The images were left there in the darkness, and almost certainly nobody returned to see them until their discovery in the early 20th century.

Paul Bahn, independent archaeologist, will be speaking on Art and Religion in the Ice Age at Art and Mind's forthcoming festival: Religion, Art and the Brain, March 10-13 at the Theatre Royal, Winchester Tickets: £8 or £10 per session or £30 day ticket. Theatre Royal Box Office: tel: 01962 840440 Further information: www.artandmind.org

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