Cave art. I’m still working on it. Chauvet is the oldest, most famous and recent discovery, but there are lots of things that are blowing my brain cells on the topic.
The caves are across Europe – there’s even one in England. But none in the middle – South Belgium, Germany, Romania, and the amazing Moravia have none. But fear not, ye fans of Moravia. They are famous for something else – terracotta. Just think about that. That almost puts all the famous Moravians into context. Or perhaps not – if you missed that blog, it’s worth tracking down. But I am going off on a tangent here. Again.
Prehistoric cave art covered lots of styles, from naturalistic to abstract; the figures could be static or animated, – some described as cinematic – carved, shaped with fingers, sculpted in clay, painted in charcoal or ochre, or a combination. They could be complete or incomplete figures, but they often formed complicated, well designed panels. So this is proper skillful art, not a few daubings on a wall.
Since we have no idea what their culture was, we cannot read these paintings. Since they were done by hunter gatherers, and modern and historic hunter gatherers, especially in the arctic, all seem to follow shamanistic rituals, the assumption is that these caves are in some way involved. Since they were seldom visited, they were not part of daily rituals, which if they existed, were held elsewhere.
Some rock shelters where people lived had art nearby, but some of them became buried in human wastem showing whatever they depicted was no longer of any interest or significance. There is no sign that this happened in the caves, as none of them were inhabited. Chauvet, for instance, was a lair for wolves; bears hibernated there, but not humans. Chauvet is well preserved because a rockslide blocked the entrance, so preserving it for millenia, and archaelogists are now carefully sifting through the cave that is frozen in time.
But before this, the cave art itself was frozen. As Jean Clottes explains:
“We do know that beliefs and myths are extremely complex everywhere in the world, whatever the culture. Whenever they are not directly explained by their makers or users, the images which embody them always remain mysterious. Things are no different for Paleolithic art. … the geometric signs in the painted caves occasionallly bear, are devoid of any real meaning. Though their makers must have used them as symbols, the absence of any syntax means that these signs constitured neither a language nor a script. The ideas and perhaps the stories and religious practices behind them will always elude us. However, from the images on the walls of the caves and shelters, we can see that the structures of Palaeolithic thinking and the manner in which they manifested themselves barely changed until the upheaval at the end of the ice age, which drew to a close the longest artistic tradition humankind has ever known.”
This artistic tradition he described lasted 20,000 years. Twenty thousand years!!! Can anyone get their brains around that? A way of life, a fixed series of rituals, of artistic and religious practices that did not change for more than 10 times as long as Christianity has existed.
“For the art and its practices to last for such a long time alll over Europe, in structurally unchanged forms, its conceptual framework had to be particularly strong. This implies a continuation of knowledge and thus teachng of myths and srtistic techniques.”
What on earth were they doing to not evolve, to not change over such a huge span of time?