An excerpt from
The Nature of Paleolithic Art
R. Dale Guthrie
Preface: Reassembling the Bones
The greatest enterprise of the mind has always been and always will be
The term "Paleolithic art" has fuzzy edges, but I use it to refer to art made during the late Pleistocene, from 10,000 to 40,000 years ago. Thousands of pieces of this typically representational art exhibit a striking integrity of style and subject matter. The character of this integrity and the origins of this art, as well as its changes with the end of the Pleistocene, are among humanity’s most fascinating subjects. Let me begin by telling you how I got into all of this.
In 1979 I was invited to a symposium in Sigriswil, Switzerland, that included many scholars working in Paleolithic art. H.-G. Bandi, a Swiss archaeologist, was the organizer of the meeting. Bandi and I had met several years earlier when his work brought him to Alaska. He invited me to the conference as a naturalist, an artist, and paleobiologist familiar with Pleistocene animals represented in Paleolithic art. He had the vision that there was a potential access to Pleistocene natural history in these drawings if we but could bring it into focus. I agreed and enthusiastically accepted Bandi’s invitation. My previous research had focused on northern Pleistocene mammals—the mammoth, horse, and bison species featured in Paleolithic art—and I had already begun working with Paleolithic art in the way Bandi envisioned. So I prepared an illustrated talk outlining several new themes in Paleolithic natural history. But the meeting was taut with an unaccountable underlying tension and at its close I left quite puzzled.
I have come to understand the differences among us at that Sigriswil meeting pertained less to the detailed questions we discussed than aspects of our respective orientations and assumptions. In that meeting hall, with the bright spring alpine panorama of melting snow out the window, we sat on opposite sides of a dividing aisle as in C. P. Snow’s Two Cultures (1959): those interested in the symbolic significance and spiritual motivations behind the art and those looking into the art for clues to life in the past. It was my first experience of this kind of dichotomy in scholarship.
Until then, I had looked at Paleolithic art both to appreciate the colorful renditions and to find useful and interesting details about Pleistocene animal anatomy. But the experience of that conference set me on a new course of trying to place Paleolithic art in a larger dimension of natural history and of linking artistic behavior to our evolutionary past. This book addresses common ground shared by the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences—attempting to step across Snow’s aisle and try to fit all these interests together in a consilient manner. So it is an idea book, obviously not the normal, colorful, coffee-table sort but a new kind of investigation of Paleolithic art that develops insights into the natural history of art making and the nature of creativity—using our human nature to understand this old art and using this old art to understand human nature. I have tried to present all of this accessibly and artfully, because these ideas should be interesting to most people.
Over the last two decades, I have been able to examine most of the thousands of images that make up our collection of late Paleolithic art. Contrary to popular literature, many Paleolithic works do not seem to bear any obvious imprint of ritual and magic but, rather, express more casual and earthy themes. The majority were done quickly and are contingent and undisciplined, with overlapping, incomplete, and often askew imagery. I found details in which I was originally interested coalescing into unanticipated patterns. There are many unskilled Paleolithic drawings that are rarely reproduced in art books. Forensic work with fossil handprints of the artists greatly changed the way I looked at this art: I found that all ages and both sexes were making art, not just senior male shamans. Throughout all of this, my interests in the evolutionary and behavioral patterns of woolly large mammals turned into a study of Paleolithic artists and the evolution of their art.
For me, to recognize that so many of the preserved Paleolithic images were done casually, by both sexes and all age-groups, more often than not by youngsters, who even left their tracks under renditions of wounded bulls and swollen vulvas, in no way makes Paleolithic sites less hallowed. The possibility that adolescent giggles and snickers may have echoed in dark cave passages as often as the rhythm of a shaman’s chant demeans neither artists nor art. Instead, it opens the possibility for us to conceive, with familiar warmth and greater immediacy, the entire range of preserved Paleolithic art. Indeed, as I will argue, our collection of this art is to a great extent a distorted sample. Preservational contexts, I propose, sometimes favored the art making of people whose technical art skills were not yet polished. I hope to make such neglected and underplayed aspects of Paleolithic art better known and appreciated.
My main conclusion is that preserved Paleolithic art, unlike most "tribal art," is a graphic expression whose articulation we can largely comprehend, and that the perspective of natural history offers an essential dimension to that appreciation; it is the "code-breaker." Paleolithic artist-hunters were keen students of natural history—they had to be. Their art is not an obtusely symbolic language but something very deep and very dear. Across a span of 30,000 years and despite the many different cultures that likely existed in western Eurasia during the late Paleolithic, their art displays a striking unity and is readily distinguishable from later, post-Pleistocene tribal art.
I began with Paleolithic art hoping to use it as a window into the Pleistocene, then came to realize that it is both a window and a mirror. And it is peculiarly distorted as both. It lets us see some things and obscures others, with distortions that are to some degree identifiable. Looking at Paleolithic art as a mirror sometimes lets us glimpse ourselves in the reflected fears, play, delights, and preoccupations that are drawn there. And this mirror, tens of thousand of years old, also reflects our animal-involved past. After all, watching other large mammals is one of the oldest intellectual, as well as aesthetic, human endeavors. We can see that the makers of these images were addicted animal watchers.
I depend a great deal in this book on our animal being, the animalness we share with other large mammals, and in developing my lines of thought about human universals, I will rely on the common evolutionary past that we share with Paleolithic peoples. Tastes in art to a degree do disclose character, both individually and for the groups to which we belong. And because this is so, we can pick among archaeological remnants to reconstruct imagination as well as artifact. There is much variety and a good measure of contingency in this old art, but out of it we can develop a little order, some principles, and more than a few insights.
The story I have to tell is not simple, and I hope you will bear with me, because my lines of evidence, like characters in a Russian novel, do weave among one another: evolution gets entangled with the natural history of hunting, love, nurture, the erotic, graffiti, creativity, youth, sexual differences, science, myth, and mystery. We’ll meet all these influences as the story unfolds.