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…

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