I make it a rule now and then to study pictures by people unfamiliar with the Renaissance convention of single-point perspective. Seeing how other societies depicted a moving, multidimensional world gives me hints for adjusting my own assumptions on what a figurative painting should be. In years past it’s been buffalo hide paintings or medieval altar pieces. In recent months I’ve been gorging myself on Paleolithic cave art thanks in large part to a captivating piece of scholarship.
According to R. Dale Guthrie’s The Nature of Paleolithic Art (2005), cavemen never lived in caves, and they spread through Eurasia as expert cooperative predators hunting large mammals on a “mammoth steppe”—a windy, cold, arid grassland stretching across the continent and bordered by forests in the south (18). These people banded together with spears to parry the charges of big cats, wolves and bears. And they made lots of art—or what we now call art, but what they probably saw as activity inherent to fashioning tools, preparing food, staying warm, and making sense of their world. A tiny fraction of their creative output survives in the natural climate control of European caves.
Guthrie, an emeritus zoology professor, artist and big game hunter, studies these paintings with a consilient approach. Stressing common ground shared by the humanities, social sciences and hard sciences, he combines methods to find conclusions that rest on solid scholarly ground. The book covers so much of that ground that I’ve been looking stuff up in a dozen more just to keep up with it. The result for me has been a technique-changing chance to imagine a way of seeing very different from our iPhone-centered worldview.
Guthrie’s main point is that the people who made Paleolithic art twenty or thirty thousand years ago were more like us than not, and with that in mind we can study the images they made for clues about their own time—like what markings extinct animals had on their hides—and clues that expose ourselves: Why do we make pictures? What makes some pictures compelling and others boring? Why do I paint what I paint?
The claim that we can assume these ancient people were close in nature and temperament to ourselves gets quickly controversial because so much scholarship and popular musing on cave paintings casts Paleolithic people as vastly more naïve and devoted to the sacred than we are today. Take Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), a film that revels in the 3-D beauty of Chauvet cave’s images of large mammals covered in a layer of crystalline calcite. Herzog narrates, “The strongest hint of something spiritual, some religious ceremony in the cave, is this bear skull. It has been placed dead center on a rock resembling an altar. The staging seems deliberate. The skull faces the entrance of the cave, and around it fragments of charcoal were found, potentially used as incense.” Is placing an animal’s skull on a rock a strong hint of religious ceremony? Guthrie thinks not. What if this bear skull was placed as a joke or for the same reasons a traveler sets a conch shell just so on the beach?
Guthrie rejects the idea that Paleolithic people went into these caves primarily for religious reasons, and he marshals an impressive array of evidence to support his theory that most cave art is graffiti done by kids. First, very few people ever visited these caves, and they did so infrequently. Few footprints, no trails, no hearths, and little soot from torches has been found in these caves. Guthrie writes, “The image of a shaman taking the initiates into deep caves for secret rites, generation after generation, is bogus” (36). Second, populations during the Pleistocene era were young, with a mean life expectancy of about thirty years. This relates to what Guthrie calls the “young moose antler effect” (132). Every year moose shed their antlers. The vast majority of antlers found in nature come from young animals because all moose start out young and only a few become old and large. The sample size is skewed toward the young. With humans and art, it’s the same. In a society where over half of the average person’s life is spent under age eighteen, there simply isn’t time for much artistic output after adolescence—especially since adults tend to have less reason to go spelunking into caves and drawing. Third, Guthrie points out who goes into caves today. Statistically, young males are most willing to push limits, explore deep recesses, and otherwise do risky things. That’s why young males pay the highest car insurance premiums. Fourth, Guthrie conducted a study of all known Paleolithic hand prints in caves, comparing their measurements with modern European hands of various ages and genders. He found a wide range represented, from toddlers to adults, “with most of the individuals falling between ten and sixteen” years old (125).
With no evidence that Paleolithic people commonly lived in caves and lots of evidence that young people were the most likely to be exploring them, Guthrie finds it perfectly natural if most cave paintings look like children’s drawings. They probably are. To scholars who have categorized some of these paintings as representations of sacred man-beasts, Guthrie asks, what if they’re mistakes made by developing painters? Drawing a bison leg with the wrong hinge pattern makes it look human.
Again, this theory equates a lot of cave painting to contemporary graffiti. Guthrie cites scholars who note “abundant Paleolithic vandalism in Paleolithic art caves” (188). Is Herzog’s bear skull the equivalent of tennis shoes flung up on a power cable?
This brings up another thought. If cave art is considerably more likely to survive than the outdoor art of several millennia ago, and caves were mostly explored by adolescent males, then our mental images of Paleolithic people are skewed toward the young and the male. That is, we have a better idea of what boys cared about than what old women cared about, and this is where things get really provocative for me as a painter.
The vast majority of cave paintings represent large mammals, especially the prized beasts people hunted. The next most common are pictures of genitalia, male and female. (Only one figure has been identified as a mother and baby among thousands of Paleolithic art pieces, and looking at the image, I agree with Guthrie that the artist might actually have meant to depict a backpack.) Because they painted them, we know these images—related to the adrenaline of hunting and sexual fantasy—were on these painters’ minds when they went wiggling back into caves with a torch and a pouch of pigment. Guthrie writes, “When hunters closed their eyes, we know that they could see muscle and tendon in their proper positions and articulations. Yet such an inner vision was no instant gift but was accumulated and honed by observation and experience, and the spoor of that learning is visible in Paleolithic art” (91). Improvising on natural shapes in the walls, these painters worked through what captivated them. Life revolved around hunting for them, on observing animals for hours on end, practicing making spears, throwing them, group tactics and camouflage. Play and painting were part of that practice. “Large mammals were more than symbols, shamanic forms, or stylized territorial markers. Paleolithic large mammals were the big game of life. Little wonder they are the core of preserved Paleolithic art” (220).
Studying how Paleolithic hunters depicted their visible world has me sketching more ideas for paintings than I can count. Paleolithic people probably didn’t have our pictorial concept of point of view (all lines vanishing to a single point from a stable, single tripod view), and so their pictures often incorporate the movements of the viewer and the subject in ways novel to us (but perhaps not novel to the cubists). For example, bodies often have certain parts twisted around, employing what we would call multiple points of view into a single image. A lion may have two eyes on one side of its head. A deer might have its rump and head both twisted into view or its hooves bent in a way that shows the shape of the tracks it makes. Sometimes Paleolithic people made what Guthrie calls “x-ray drawings” of the bones and organs they knew were in animals’ bodies (145), and sometimes they painted lines of red dots—perhaps representing the blood hunters follow while tracking a wounded animal.
Red dots as a portrait of the adrenaline-charged hours between wounding an animal and bringing home the kill—these are emotive, efficient attempts to sort out and celebrate the stuff of life. Their example has me staggering though a list of new ideas for how to depict the big in-between moments of my own twenty-first-century activity, where I find my own red dots.