This is somewhat old news by this point, but a new report in the journal Nature reports that a nearly complete Upper Palaeolithic bone flute (and fragments of several others) dating from around 35,000 years before the present have been recovered from Hohle Fels cave in Germany—the same location where the recently-reported Venus figurine was excavated.
So here we have a musical instrument from the early Aurignacian that was found in a cave in relative proximity to a Venus figurine. What’s going on?
The question of what part music played in the decorated caves is not new, and researchers have been studying the acoustic nature of caves in relation to the decorated panels for some time. Reznikoff and Dauvois note in their 1989 study of three painted caves from France (Le Portel,Fontanet, and Niaux) that it is sometimes the case that paintings are located in close proximity to “points of resonance” of certain notes. Scarre (1989) points out that
The resonance of the caves is not in itself surprising. but the significance of the study becomes apparent when the authors compare their points of resonance with the location of cave paintings. They draw three main conclusions. First, most of the cave paintings are at or within one metre of points of resonant. The Grande Salle at Portel, for example, which gave no resonance response, also has relatively few paintings. Second, most of the points of resonance correspond to locations with cave paintings. Indeed, the best points of resonance are always marked in this way. Finally, the authors claim that the location of some of the paintings can be explained only by the resonance of that particular location. A good example is number 23 at Portel. where a particularly effective point of resonance is marked by red painted dots, as there is not enough room for a full painted figure. (382)
In fact, rock art worldwide is often associated with sites with interesting acoustics (see, for example, the extensive list at independent scholar (?) Steven J. Waller’s Web site).
It’s the case that rhythmic music (e.g. drumming) can cause altered states of consciousness in the human brain, which is the same today as it was during the ice age—Upper Palaeolithic artisans were anatomically modern humans, after all. Clottes and Lewis-Williams, in their 1996 book, Le chamanes de la préhistoire, argue that these altered states of consciousness, possibly induced during shamanic contexts, and the hallucinations sometimes experienced may have been the inspiration of some ice age paintings.
It’s interesting in my mind that these flutes were recovered from an Upper Palaeolithic cave that is associated with other ice age art objects, but what that means in the broader scheme of prehistoric art in this one time and place is still, as always, unclear.
I’m not allowed to watch archaeology-related documentaries on cable anymore—my partner doesn’t think it’s healthy for me to argue with the TV—but I was thinking today about one of those kind of program’s favorite topics: archaeological mysteries. Think along the lines of “Uncovering the mysteries of the Pyramids” or “Mysteries of Stonehenge SOLVED!”
Frankly, as one of my old professors, Lawrence H. Keeley, from the University of Illinois at Chicago, might ask, what mystery? We know a lot, in fact, about both ancient Egypt and Druid culture in Britain, and if you really want to talk about archaeological mysteries, let’s talk more about Upper Palaeolithic cave art. Archaeologists have been studying ice age art for more than a century now, and certain some great headway has been made. Nevertheless, we’re still a long way away from understanding the real significance of these images.
From what I can tell, there’s not a huge number of people working in the area of Upper Palaeolithic art studies—I can only count a handful of people, probably less than twenty, off the top of my head who are currently studying in this field—so I figure we need to zombify the problem, and get more brains! That is to say, we need more minds working collaboratively on unraveling the mystery of prehistoric art in Europe.
There’s no easy solution to this issue, but I thought I’d throw that out there. What’s the best way to get more people interested in this area?
Anybody ever done this? In discussing the methods by which Palaeolithics created the famous hand stencils that adorn many art caves, Guthrie (2005) notes that
all that is needed is to nibble off a bit of common oxide pigment or charcoal and spit a fine spray on the wall. It requires a little practice, mainly the knack of spitting tiny amounts in little high-pressure sput-sput-sput fine jets. At its best, this results in a smoothly graded spray, like a modern airbrush. Of course, many images were made hastily with cruder, spit-splatter-spray glops of pigment chunks here and there.
I encourage you to try this method of hand stenciling at home. Use red powdered cake coloring, not ocher, as the latter is inordinately difficult to clean off your face. The best result is had by keeping the mouth about 20 centimeters away from the hand and background. It only takes a minute per hand. The most rudimentary Paleolithic ones may have been done in a matter of seconds (118).
I think a trip down to the store is in order.
Guthrie, R. D. 2005. The Nature of Paleolithic Art. Chicago: U Chicago Press.
Reader Anna McDonnell of Santa Monica, California writes in this week’s Nature that perhaps we should be more thoughtful in how we describe ancient artifacts such as the recently discovered Venus figurine in Germany, which have been compared to modern pornography. Unfortunately, the Chicago Public Library has a one-year embargo on the online content from Nature, so I haven’t been able to read McDonnell’s letter yet. (Any kind soul want to email me the PDF? The blog’s email address is mail at palaeogeek dot net.)
Nevertheless, I agree that more care and respect should be given to the people who made these figurines—even if we’re separated by 35,000 years. We may eventually learn that, yes, these types of figures were the skin rags of the Upper Palaeolithic, but I somehow doubt that’s the case. It’s more likely that these figures represent important cultural beliefs and practices, perhaps based on fertility ritual, or they could represent devotional images akin to crucifixes. Venus figurines might even be self-representations made by ice age women for their own purposes.
The point is that we don’t know why these figurines were created, and until we have more information about them, we owe these forbearers the common courtesy of describing the artifacts they left behind—which are an extension of their culture—with more dignity.
This article is from December 2007, but I’ve only just come across it:
Fungus is threatening France’s most celebrated prehistoric paintings, the mysterious animal images that line the Lascaux cave in the Dordogne region of southwest France, scientists say.
Terrible news—anyone know what the current status of Lascaux is?
Here’s a question: how did Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers perceive the passage of time? The short answer is that we don’t know, but it may not have necessarily been the same as the modern, Western construct. We might find clues to that question if we knew anything at all about the language(s) that were spoken during the course of the 30,000 years of the Upper Palaeolithic, but that’s an anthropological dream that I don’t expect to be solved until some enterprising person develops a working TARDIS. (C’mon, c’mon! </Cartman>)
Nevertheless, an Aurignacian panel in the Chauvet cave may offer a piece of the puzzle. White (2003) comments that
One panel in particular, usually interpreted as a frieze of horses painted in perspective, provokes an understanding of how meaning was being constructed through the painted medium. Working with a [graduate student], we have noted the behavioral impossibility of this “scene.” From left to right there is a calmly walking horse; a second is in an aggressive posture with its ears flattened backwards; a third is in a relaxed posture, perhaps sleeping, with its ears up and oriented forward; a fourth, alert, its open mouth suggesting vocalization or snorting, seems to be a pony.
In nature, four individual horses in such proximity would never show such a diversity of behavioral postures. So, this may not be a painted scene painted in perspective, but instead may represent the same horse in four different behaviors or life-phases; or it may be an attempt to depict the postures themselves with little concern for identifying particular animals. Remarkably, then, it may be time rather than space that is the primary focus of these images, an approach that evokes the Inuit logic of representation…
We want so badly, as a result of our own cultural logic of representation and our own aesthetic values, to construe this panel as a perspective drawing of a moment in time, that we blithely ignore a fundamental contradiction: the relative size of the four horses is precisely opposite of what we expect in a perspective drawing. This recognition poses the equally provocative question as to whether the conventions for creating the illusion of perspective, a major constituent of our own cultural logic of representation, were shared by the Aurignacian painters of the Grotte Chauvet. (79–80)
It doesn’t seem very likely that this particular panel was meant to be instructive—for one thing, it’s very likely that once it was drawn, no one saw it again for thousands of years, and for another, it’s location deep in the back of Chauvet makes it difficult to access. But looking at the complete Horse Sector, it appears that a succession of animals is moving back and forth from an alcove in the cave wall, which looks like—let’s be frank here—a vagina/birth canal. In my mind, this is unsurprising considering the apparent fascination that Aurignacian Palaeolithics had with vulvas and images of female sexuality (Bahn 1997: ref.). Is this sector explaining a creation myth or cultural belief of some kind? For example, does the alcove represent a mother goddess (the Earth itself) from whom all life comes and eventually returns (themes of birth and death)?
In any case, Romain Pigeaud (2005) observes that while the cave itself is a reference to space, it is inherently linked to both the time people spent inside, as well as the time spent decorating the walls. “The main difficulty,” he says, “consists in finding a time within a place that is essentially related to space” (813 abstract).
Pigeaud sees four kinds of indications of time in Upper Palaeolithic art caves:
- those that represent seasonality (saisonnalité) in that “the seasons represented can be one of mating, of (animal) birth, such as winter or summer” (page number uncertain, my translation from the French);
- those that indicate life stages (les “âges de la vie”), such as the horse panel, showing the passage of time;
- pictures showing continual action (la pictographie), or action that takes place in the present moment and through which we can foresee the very near future (e.g. the Shaft of the Dead Man in the Lascaux cave);
- finally, missing or “blank” scenes (les “blancs” iconographiques) where, perhaps, there could be a representation, but which served a functional purpose in relation to nearby decorated walls.
Let’s end here for right now, but I will continue my summary of Pigeaud’s article in the near future with his discussion of the measure of time in the decorated caves, probably this weekend sometime.
Bahn, P. G. and J. Vertut. 1997. Journey Through the Ice Age. Berkeley: U California P.
Pigeaud, R. 2005. “Immédiat et successif : le temps de l’art des cavernes.” Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française 102: 813–28.
White, R. 2003. Prehistoric art: The symbolic journey of humankind. New York: Abrams.
Well, I don’t know about everything in this video, but it’s interesting nevertheless.
I lost my previous graduate school proposal when my old laptop took a nosedive and the hard drive died. So rather than try to recreate that proposal, I’ve been giving some thought as to what makes a successful research proposal when it comes to applying to graduate programs in archaeology.
The feedback I received on the old one ranged from “looks good” to “weak bibliography,” to “you need to get your (already impressive) GRE scores up” (without even looking at the proposal). None of these responses were particularly helpful.
The challenge I’m facing is finding a narrow enough topic that is within the realm of possibility, and then writing a solid, impressive proposal that shows that I’m serious about graduate school. Broadly, one subject that I’ve recently found interesting is the possibility of shamanic influences in Upper Palaeolithic art, having read Clottes and Lewis-Williams’ Les chamanes de la préhistoire: Transe et magie dans les grottes ornées (The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and magic in the decorated caves), Lewis-Williams’ The Mind in the Cave, and other works.
Clottes, Lewis-Williams, and others suggest that some, not necessarily all, Upper Palaeolithic art may be the result of hallucinations seen by prehistoric shamans in altered states of consciousness brought on by sensory deprivation or hallucinogenic plants (e.g. “magic” mushrooms) that are hardwired into the human nervous system. To support their claim, they cite not only ethnographic research from the San bushmen of South Africa, North and South American Indians, and other sources, but from neurophysiology, and research into the effects of illicit hallucinogenic substances, such as LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and mescaline, as reported by contemporary users. They make the observation that some geometric patterns, images, and experiences of various stages of trance reported closely resemble some of the images of Upper Palaeolithic art, Aboriginal art from Australia, and elsewhere.
Without going into detail, subjects begin seeing shimmering, colorful geometric patterns that seem to move and change size and shap, which they begin to rationalize into their own worldview. A zigzag line, for example, may be intrepted as a snake. These first stages transition into seeing “real” animals and people, and there may be a sense that one is, in fact, transforming into an animal, or a feeling of flying.
Upper Palaeolithic art has numerous “abstract” or geometric signs that accompany the more familiar animal images that seem to be reminiscent of the first stage of hallucinogenic experiences. Animals that were important, feared, or regularly encountered by Palaeolithics may have been seen in these visionary states, and the low-light of prehistoric lamps casting flickering shadows on cave walls would have caused certain aspects of the topography to come alive. Indeed, it is often the case that prehistoric artisans “filled in the lines” on surfaces that already suggested a shape, such as the famous spotted horses in Pech-Merle cave, or the vague form of a mammoth in Chauvet cave that was completed by a craftsperson with red ochre. Finally, composite creatures that are half-human, half-animal–e.g. the bison-man of Chauvet, the sorcerer of Les Trois Frères, and the bizarre bird-headed figure in Lascaux’s Shaft of the Dead Man–may have been inspired by hallucinations while under the influence.
(This line of thought will be continued, as it’s a little late, and I’m tired.)