Meredith Bruns (WVMPB@TTACS.TTU.EDU)
Mon, 6 Feb 1995 14:22:41 -0600

This was forwarded by a friend-thought folks would be interested.

---------- Forwarded message ----------

Powerful paintings in a long-hidden cave offer
glimpses into the minds of our
early ancestors


Not since the Dead Sea Scrolls has anything found in
a cave caused so much
excitement. The paintings and engravings, more than
300 of them, amount to a
sort of Ice Age Noah's ark -- images of bison,
mammoths and woolly
rhinoceroses, of a panther, an owl, even a hyena.
Done on the rock walls with
plain earth pigments -- red, black, ocher -- they are
of singular vitality
and power, and despite their inscrutability to modern
eyes, they will greatly
enrich our picture of Cro-Magnon life and culture.

When the French government last month announced that
a local official,
Jean-Marie Chauvet, had discovered the stunning
Paleolithic cave near
Avignon, experts swiftly hailed the 20,000-year-old
paintings as a trove
rivaling -- and perhaps surpassing -- those of
Lascaux and Altamira. ''This
is a virgin site -- it's completely intact. It's
great art,'' exulted Jean
Clottes, an adviser to the French Culture Ministry
and a leading authority on
prehistoric art. It has also reopened some of the
oldest and least settled of
questions: When, how and above all why did Homo
sapiens start making art?

In the span of human prehistory, the Cro-Magnon
people who drew the profusion
of animals on the bulging limestone walls of the
Chauvet cave were fairly
late arrivals. Human technology -- the making of
tools from stone -- had
already been in existence for nearly 2 million years.
There are traces of
symbolism and ritual in burial sites of Neanderthals,
an earlier species,
dating back to 100,000 B.P. (before the present). Not
only did the placement
of the bodies seem meaningful, but so did the
surrounding pebbles and bones
with fragmentary patterns scratched on them. These,
says Clottes, ''do
indicate that the Neanderthals had some creative

Though the dates are vastly generalized, most
prehistorians seem to agree
that art -- communication by visual images -- came
into existence somewhere
around 40,000 B.P. That was about the time when
Cro-Magnons, Homo sapiens,
reached Ice Age Europe, having migrated from the
Middle East. Some experts
think the Cro-Magnons brought a weapon that made
Neanderthals an evolutionary
has-been: a more advanced brain, equipped with a
large frontal lobe ''wired''
for associative thinking. For art, at its root, is
association -- the power
to make one thing stand for and symbolize another, to
create the agreements
by which some marks on a surface denote, say, an
animal, not just to the
markmaker but to others.

Among the oldest types of art is personal decoration
-- ornaments such as
beads, bracelets, pendants and necklaces. The body
was certainly one of the
first surfaces for symbolic expression. What did such
symbols communicate?
Presumably the wearer's difference from others, as a
member of a distinct
group, tribe or totemic family: that he was a
bison-man, say, and not a

The Cro-Magnons were not the inarticulate Alley Oops
of popular myth. They
were nomadic hunter-gatherers with a fairly developed
technology. They wore
animal-skin clothing and moccasins tailored with bone
needles, and made
beautiful (and highly efficient) laurel-leaf-shaped
flint blades. Living in
small groups, they constructed tents from skins, and
huts from branches and
(in what is now Eastern Europe) mammoth bones.

Most striking was their yearning to make art in
permanent places -- the walls
of caves. This expansion from the body to the inert
surface was in itself a
startling act of lateral thinking, an outward
projection of huge cultural
consequence, and Homo sapiens did not produce it
quickly. As much time
elapsed between the first recognizable art and the
cave paintings of Lascaux
and Altamira, about 15 to 20 millenniums, as
separates Lascaux (or Chauvet)
from the first TV broadcasts. But now it was possible
to see an objective
image in shared space, one that was not the property
of particular bodies and
had a life of its own; and from this point the whole
history of human visual
communication unfolds.

We are apt to suppose that Cro-Magnon cave art was
rare and exceptional. But
wrongly; as New York University anthropologist
Randall White points out, more
than 200 late-Stone Age caves bearing wall paintings,
engravings, bas-relief
decorations and sculptures have been found in
southwestern Europe alone.
Since the discovery of Lascaux in 1940, French
archaeologists have been
finding an average of a cave a year -- and, says
professor Denis Vialou of
Paris' Institute of Human Paleontology, ''there are
certainly many, many more
to be discovered, and while many might not prove as
spectacular as Lascaux or
Chauvet, I'd bet that some will be just as

No doubt many will never be found. The recently
discovered painted cave at
Cosquer in the south of France, for instance, can be
reached only by scuba
divers. Its entrance now lies below the surface of
the Mediterranean; in the
Upper Paleolithic period, from 70,000 B.P. to 10,000
B.P., so much of
Europe's water was locked up in glaciers that the sea
level was some 300 ft.
lower than it is today.

Why the profuseness of Cro-Magnon art? Why did these
people, of whom so
little is known, need images so intensely? Why the
preponderance of animals
over human images? Archaeologists are not much closer
to answering such
questions than they were a half-century ago, when
Lascaux was discovered.

Part of the difficulty lies in the very definition of
art. As anthropologist
Margaret Conkey of the University of California,
Berkeley puts it, ''Many
cultures don't really produce art, or even have any
concept of it. They have
spirits, kinship, group identity. If people from
highland New Guinea looked
at some of the Cro-Magnon cave art, they wouldn't see
anything recognizable''
-- and not just because there are no woolly rhinos in
New Guinea either.
Today we can see almost anything as an aesthetic
configuration and pull it
into the eclectic orbit of late-Western ''art
experience''; museums have
trained us to do that. The paintings of Chauvet
strike us as aesthetically
impressive in their power and economy of line, their
combination of the
sculptural and the graphic -- for the artists used
the natural bulges and
bosses of the rock wall to flesh out the forms of the
animals' rumps and
bellies. But it may be that aesthetic pleasure, in
our sense, was the last
thing the Ice Age painters were after.

These were functional images; they were meant to
produce results. But what
results? To represent something, to capture its image
on a wall in colored
earths and animal fat, is in some sense to capture
and master it; to have
power over it. Lascaux is full of nonthreatening
animals, including wild
cattle, bison and horses, but Chauvet pullulates with
dangerous ones -- cave
bears, a panther and no fewer than 50 woolly rhinos.
Such creatures, to
paraphrase Claude Levi-Strauss, were good to think
with, not good to eat. We
can assume they had a symbolic value, maybe even a
religious value, to those
who drew them, that they supplied a framework of
images in which needs,
values and fears -- in short, a network of social
consciousness -- could be
expressed. But we have no idea what this framework
was, and merely to call it
''animistic'' does not say much.

Some animals have more than four legs, or grotesquely
exaggerated horns; is
that just style, or does it argue a state of ritual
trance or hallucination
in the artists? No answer, though some naturally
occurring manganese oxides,
the base of some of the blacks used in cave
paintings, are known to be toxic
and to act on the central nervous system. And the
main technique of
Cro-Magnon art, according to prehistorian Michel
Lorblanchet, director of
France's National Center of Scientific Research,
involved not brushes but a
kind of oral spray-painting -- blowing pigment
dissolved in saliva on the
wall. Lorblanchet, who has re-created cave paintings
with uncanny accuracy,
suggests that the technique may have had a spiritual
dimension: ''Spitting is
a way of projecting yourself onto the wall, becoming
one with the horse you
are painting. Thus the action melds with the myth.
Perhaps the shamans did
this as a way of passing into the world beyond.''

Different hands (and mouths) were involved in the
production, but whose
hands? Did the whole Cro-Magnon group at Chauvet
paint, or did it have an
elite of artists, to be viewed by nonartists as
something like priests or
professionals? Or does the joining of many hands in a
collaborative work
express a kind of treaty between rival groups? Or
were the paintings added to
over generations, producing the crowded,
palimpsest-like effect suggested by
some of the photos? And so on.

A mere picture of a bison or a woolly rhino tells us
nothing much. Suppose,
France's Clottes suggests, that 20,000 years from
now, after a global
cataclysm in which all books perished and the word
vanished from the face of
the earth, some excavators dig up the shell of a
building. It has pointy
ogival arches and a long axial hall at the end of
which is a painting of a
man nailed to a cross. In the absence of written
evidence, what could this
effigy mean? No more than the bison or rhino on the
rock at Chauvet.
Representation and symbolism have parted company.

Chauvet cave could be viewed as a religious site -- a
paleolithic cathedral.
Some have even suggested that a bear's skull found
perched on a rock was an
''altar.'' Says Henry de Lumley, director of France's
National Museum of
Natural History: ''The fact that the iconography is
relatively consistent,
that it seems to obey certain rules about placement
and even the way animals
are drawn is evidence of something sacred.'' Yet
nobody lived in the cave,
and no one in his right mind could imagine doing so;
the first analyses of
the contents have yielded no signs of human
habitation, beyond the traces of
animal-fat lamps and torches used by temporary
visitors, and some mounds of
pigmented earth left behind by the artists.

Modern artists make art to be seen by a public, the
larger (usually) the
better. The history of public art as we know it,
across the past 1,000 years
and more, is one of increasing access -- beginning
with the church open to
the worshippers and ending with the pack-'em-in ethos
of the modern museum,
with its support-system of orientation courses,
lectures, films, outreach
programs and souvenir shops. Cro-Magnon cave art was
probably meant to be
seen by very few people, under conditions of extreme
difficulty and dread.
The caves may have been places of initiation and
trial, in which
consciousness was tested to an extent that we can
only dimly imagine, so
utterly different is our grasp of the world from that
of the Cro-Magnons.

Try to imagine an art gallery that could be entered
only by crawling on your
belly through a hole in the earth; that ramified into
dark tunnels, a fearful
maze in the earth's bowels in which the gallerygoer
could, at any moment,
disturb one of the bears whose claw marks can still
be seen on the walls;
where the only light came from flickering torches,
and the bones of animals
littered the uneven floor. These are the archaic
conditions that, one may
surmise, produced the array of cave fears implanted
in the human brain --
fears that became absorbed into a later, more
developed culture in such
narratives as that of the mythical Cretan labyrinth
in whose core the
terrible Minotaur waited. Further metabolized, and
more basically
misunderstood, these sacred terrors of the deep earth
undergird the Christian
myth of hell. Which may, in fact, be the strongest
Cro-Magnon element left in
modern life.

Reported by David Bjerklie and Andrea Dorfman/New
York, Bruce Crumley and
Tala Skari/Paris

Copyright 1995 Time Inc. All rights reserved.

Transmitted: 95-02-05 13:23:21 EST