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Secrets of the Cave Paintings

In 1879 a Spanish landowner named Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola was searching for prehistoric artifacts on the floor of a cave on his family property in northern Spain when his young daughter interrupted, calling out “Look, Papa, oxen” as she looked up at the cave’s ceiling and “saw vivid yet delicate paintings of bison, almost fully life-sized, that appear to be tumbling across the sky.” Her discovery swiftly brought ancient cave paintings to widespread public attention, and set off a complex history of dispute about their origin and meaning. Since then, thousands of similar paintings have been discovered in more than two hundred caves scattered through southwestern France and northeastern Spain on either side of the Pyrenees. Argument still rages about them and the contrasting viewpoints of the two books under review carry the controversy forward.

A century of study widened the initial focus on the Altamira cave, where Sautuola’s daughter made her discovery, but all the additional images and reliable radiocarbon dating of bits of charcoal used to make black paint for many of the drawings have not diminished disagreement about the nature and purpose of the sometimes masterful, sometimes enigmatic, yet often hasty, or even clumsy, cave art of Europe.

In 1879 expert opinion was unanimous in rejecting Sautuola’s timid suggestion that the ceiling paintings in his family’s cave were made by the same prehistoric hunters whose stone and bone artifacts he had been collecting from the cave floor. He was accused of forgery and not until 1902, when discovery of similar paintings in several French caves supported Sautuola’s claim, did experts agree that they were authentic relics of Paleolithic times.

About 15 percent of the animals portrayed in the caves were wounded. That made it obvious to the first experts that the paintings were a kind of sympathetic magic, intended to improve hunters’ success in the field. This idea became widely accepted through the books and drawings of Abbé Henri Breuil (1877–1961), “the Pope of Prehistory.” But radiocarbon dating compelled Breuil’s successors to repudiate his efforts to establish chronological sequence through stylistic analysis, and some of them objected to the way he had taken individual animal figures out of context, arguing that an overall design in each cave was what gave meaning to the entire assemblage. But the notion that the paintings were magical and religious symbols, and/or clan totems, persisted; many assumed that the caves, like Christian churches, were places where organized religious ceremonies were deliberately enhanced by skilled artists who engraved and painted amazingly accurate animal images on the caves’ limestone walls and ceilings.

R. Dale Guthrie flatly rejects that assumption, for which, he declares, “there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever.” Instead, he writes,

I shall primarily be examining Paleolithic images for clues quite aside from their aesthetic significance, digging into the underlying human context behind the art making.

He is not an art historian, having retired a decade ago as professor of zoology at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, where he has lived for forty years. He specialized in Pleistocene paleozoology and found the portraits of ancient animals on cave walls in France and Spain an important source, confirming his own observations of animal behavior and supplementing skeletal remains. He also tells us, “I once was an adolescent cave explorer, growing up on the northern edge of the Ozark Plateau, a hilly limestone country remarkably similar to the Périgord,” where French cave art is thickest. And as an adult in Alaska he hunted moose year after year. His entire life, in short, and especially his “forty years of experience with wildlife in the far north” underlie his book and lead him to reject the older interpretation of cave art as magical and religious.

Guthrie is also an artist and drew the book’s abundant illustrations himself. He explains: “I have spent much time over the years looking at original Paleolithic images, and many of my illustrations are drawn from these observations, but most were sketched from photos, my own and those of others. Occasionally, I have redrawn published illustrations.” These appear in brown sketches with appropriate captions and commentary on nearly every page of his book. This embellishment is supplemented by scores of mini-essays exploring byways that somehow caught his fancy, each printed in white against a brown background at the top of the page. A typical brief essay is headed “No Such Thing as Cavemen” and argues that Paleolithic people lived mainly in open-air camps. Finally, each chapter is broken into short sections, and many (but not all) are also framed by verses or prose poems at start and finish, distilling the chapter’s core message.

Guthrie’s book therefore is a work of art in itself—a very personal product of a lifelong effort to understand how Paleolithic animals and humans interacted, and how the climatic and ecological environment shaped their lives. Its many byways and separate parts make reading Guthrie’s book more strenuous than usual; but the effort is rewarding since he has clear and distinct ideas of what the life of the cave artists was really like on the fringes of what he calls “the Mammoth Steppe,” which extended in Paleolithic times all the way from Europe’s Atlantic coast across Eurasia and the Bering Strait into Alaska and the Canadian Yukon.

By comparison, Gregory Curtis is a newcomer, having discovered cave art as a tourist in 1986. It entranced him, and as a keen-eyed, energetic journalist, he then set out to read about what he had seen, interviewing experts and looking at the walls of most of the caves that are still open to the public. He makes no pretense of offering interpretations of his own, but reports what he learned in clear and simple prose. Curtis therefore concentrates on the ceaseless disagreements of mostly French art historians who shared the loose consensus that there was a magical and religious meaning and purpose of cave art, the view that Guthrie rejects. A naive reader might even suppose that the two books deal with entirely different subjects, as in fact they do, since Curtis describes masterworks of cave art, while Guthrie concentrates his attention on the far more numerous squiggles and graffiti made by adolescent boys.

Guthrie’s magnum opus resembles, in its complex structure, a river that breaks apart into separate channels only to merge and divide again, moving majestically onward, gathering tributaries. The book closes with a secular confession of faith in life in general, praising the human adventure and, more especially, the Paleolithic way of life that had a formative effect on the history of the human species. His principal concern is with complex linkages connecting animal and human populations under Paleolithic conditions; he sees the surviving artworks as a mirror of a way of life and source of knowledge about it, rather than as objects of study in and of themselves.

Unlike art historians, Guthrie is acutely aware of the difficulty facing “a certain African colonizer, humans” in adjusting to the bitter cold and aridity of the Mammoth Steppe during the last ice age. Bones and stones prove that Homo sapiens arrived on the southern fringes of that steppe about 40,000 years ago. (Neanderthals had preceded them and coexisted with the intruders for several subsequent millennia.) But the earliest known cave paintings only date from about 27,000 years ago. Guthrie suggests this delay was because bears hibernated in the caves and made them unsafe for humans until, for unknown reasons, they became rare after about 30,000 years ago.

Cave paintings continued to be made for the next 15,000 years. In some caves, paintings were made for a while; then the practice ceased, only to resume again thousands of years later. The reasons remain unknown. Earthquakes may have opened and closed cave entrances; and climate changes may have both displaced human occupants and brought them back. But, amazingly, styles and subject matter remain indistinguishable across that entire span of time, and neither Guthrie nor Curtis attempts anything like a chronological approach. Cave art is cave art for both of them, everywhere much the same for as long as the hunters’ way of life persisted. It came to an end only when a warmer climate altered Western Europe’s vegetation, enlarging human food resources so much that storage of seasonal surpluses became feasible. Thereupon, population density increased, making relations within and between larger and larger human groups more important than relations with animals. With that, the Paleolithic hunters’ precarious way of life disappeared; the making of cave art came to an end, and remained unnoticed until 1879.

Weather persistently fluctuated throughout the Paleolithic millennia as glacial ice advanced and retreated, but the conditions on the Mammoth Steppe did not change radically in the region where cave art was made. Cold temperatures, along with scant precipitation, sustained very few plants suitable for human consumption. So however important gathering vegetable food may have been in warmer places, it became trivial on the Mammoth Steppe. Women’s work concentrated instead on tanning animal hides, sewing warm clothing, maintaining campfires, and tending children, while men went off to hunt large-bodied, hairy herbivores that fed on the moss and grasses of the steppe. These animals were much bigger, faster, and stronger than men. Even when using spears and javelins that could inflict mortal wounds at a distance, human hunters found it difficult to approach their prey on open grasslands and were often unsuccessful. Here is how Guthrie describes their daily lives, as he imagines them:

Since dawn, hidden by broken ground, we watched the small herd slowly working our way. Peeking through the lace of grass, we could see their twitch of skin and swipe of tail and hear their soft whinnies…. A mare up front, probably the first wife…moved closer to us…. Held my breath, hugged the ground. Come just a few more steps, please a few more steps. The first wife snorted and all stood at attention, tails lifted, heads up, nostrils flaring at our scent. They were still a futile spear’s length reach away. I felt her alarm inside me as she bolted.

He continues at the end of the chapter:

After the herd of horses bolted, we relaxed, our talk turning to girls. Yet, lying in the noon grass with closed eyes, I was still focused on the mare…. I think I could draw her now, let myself flow out from my eyes into my hand and see her reform on the stone…. Still, they were almost in spear’s reach, their beauty, black-striped trim and sheen of summer coat in the year’s first hot sun…a matchless sight after the long winter.

Daily experience like that is what Guthrie believes lay behind the art of the caves, provoking an acute sensibility to animal shape and appearance that resembled his own lifelong study of Alaskan wildlife. It was, he supposes, a way of life that made accurate depiction of animal forms on rock surfaces easy, almost automatic—something an adolescent boy or mature man would do casually in spare time, using both sharpened stones to carve the outlines and various mineral and vegetable colors to make the animal images accurate. Not specialized artists but quite ordinary males, Guthrie believes, were the cave artists and they decorated the walls for fun, not for any religious or other ulterior purpose.

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