Looking for Biological Meaning in Cave Art
The Nature of Paleolithic Art. R. Dale Guthrie. xii + 507
pp. University of Chicago Press, 2005. $45.
I suppose it had to happen that someone would eventually write a
book that took Paleolithic imagery to be "an immensely valuable
archive for natural history." As theoretically questionable as
this approach is, at least the culprit—R. Dale Guthrie, an
emeritus professor of arctic biology at the University of Alaska in
Fairbanks—is someone who knows his animals, both anatomically
and ethologically. This fact is the saving grace of his book,
The Nature of Paleolithic Art, which provides plenty of
small gems of interpretation of animal behaviors and postures, some
of them missed by previous generations of researchers.
If Guthrie had simply sought to expose nature in (and not
the nature of) Paleolithic imagery, the book could have
opened up some new windows and shed light on some old questions.
Instead, however, he reacts with great energy against
"the persistent sense that the really important questions to
ask are connected with uncovering or detecting the meaning of
images." According to him, "the traditional approach"
has (mistakenly) sought clues to the "symbolism and ritual
meaning hidden in the images." Researchers shouldn't be digging
so hard for hidden significance, he insists, because "the art
seems more focused on complicated earth-bound subjects, diverse
everyday interests and wonders."
Archaeologists have long recognized that simply identifying the
animals and animal behavior that are depicted on cave walls or
objects is merely a point of departure for asking and answering more
profound questions about ancient human culture. For example, these
days no specialist in prehistoric art seriously believes, as Guthrie
apparently does, that the problem of the meaning and motivation
behind the painted ceiling of Altamira Cave (which dates to about
12,000 years ago) is resolved by identifying the species represented
and their species-specific postures.
In some ways, this book returns us to an earlier era, when pioneers
of the field argued that Paleolithic art was primarily a hunter's
art. Abbé Henri Breuil (1877-1961), in particular, provided
renderings of cave art that ignored most of the associated markings
except those that resembled wounds, weapons or traps. In modern
research, it is these long-ignored signs and markings that often
provide insight into context and meaning. The hand silhouettes made
about 27,000 years ago at Cosquer Cave (which is now partially
submerged in the Mediterranean near Marseilles) are
interesting—physiologically—as hands, and even as
indicators of sex, age and handedness; but their symbolic
significance is unmistakable when one recognizes that they were
systematically overmarked and defaced by later Paleolithic painters.
Hands, like animals, are the raw material of culturally embedded
systems of meaning.
Today's researchers have consistently demonstrated that the animals
most often represented in Paleolithic caves are among the ones least
frequently consumed as food. The people who lived under the ceiling
and in the cave entry at Altamira ate almost no bison, dining
primarily on the meat of red deer (Cervus elaphus).
Likewise, at Lascaux images of horses, bovids and red deer dominate,
whereas reindeer, the primary dietary item in the food debris,
aren't depicted at all.
In looking for answers to such questions as Why bison at Altamira?
Why horses at Lascaux? and Why mammoths at Rouffignac?, researchers
are propelled immediately into more profound matters of cosmology,
belief and the relation of culture-bearing humans to the living
world of which they are a part and to the mysterious world of the
underground. As anthropologist Marshall Sahlins demonstrated 30
years ago in Culture and Practical Reason, the way we think
about and represent animals speaks to questions that go far beyond
their acquisition for food. This is as true of modern game hunters
and traditional Inuit as it was of Paleolithic peoples.
Of course, the problem is how to explain why any of this animal
world was graphically depicted, why our ancestors would have chosen
to create images hundreds or even thousands of meters back from the
cave entrances, why various subjects were arranged the way they were
underground, why they are associated with particular acoustic
qualities of caves, why some caves are chosen over others, why
pictures engraved on portable objects are different from those on
cave walls, and so on.
Disturbingly, Guthrie's book lacks any theoretical discussion of
"art" and "meaning" in cultural or ethnographic
terms. His ecological determinism leaves almost no room for
metaphor, for the experiential power of caves or for a spiritual
understanding of this underground world by ancient humans. Surely
the fact that the horses at Niaux are 700 meters from the cave
entrance is as important to understanding them as the fact that they
represent animals in winter coat. Also, consider the engraved horse
on a stone plaquette that was found at Etiolles in the Paris basin
in an open-air Magdalenian campsite dating to about 12,000 years
ago; a half-human, half-animal figure is following the horse (see
illustration at right). Guthrie does not discuss this particular
image, but it is the sort of thing that he would have difficulty
asserting to be a page from a hunting manual. Interpretation of the
object takes a rather different turn when one understands that the
plaquette was found with the engraved face down, tucked beneath a
limestone fireplace block. Context counts, and so does the world of
human imagination and belief!
In spite of all of the above, the greatest problems with Guthrie's
book are scholarly and methodological. As is the case with many
recent American treatments of Paleolithic imagery, the list of
references betrays limited mastery of recent foreign-language
publications, especially by French, Spanish and Russian authors.
It is this language problem that leads Guthrie to overlook the
details of pioneering works such as Léon Pales's detailed
anatomical and ethological analyses of the La Marche engravings, and
in particular Pales's wonderfully accurate drawings of the
Magdalenian-period engravings from this key site in south central
France. Guthrie (unlike Pales) leaves out of his own drawings
precious details in order to promote his proposed readings. Surely
it is important for the reader to know that the vast majority of the
hundreds of animal and human images from La Marche were
"defaced" by a mass of finely incised lines that make
reaching an understanding of the original drawing an enormous visual challenge.
Guthrie's interpretations of Paleolithic images are expressed with a
kind of certainty that approaches stridency. For example, his
identifications of certain images as plants are made without
reservation, even though the originals are notoriously ambiguous. He
seldom provides alternative readings, and the fact that his drawings
are not faithful to details and surface features prevents the reader
from independently evaluating his propositions. The book does not
contain a single photograph against which to judge the author's sketches.
It is not clear whether Guthrie viewed all of the original images
and objects that he sketched, but I got the impression that
foreign-language sources were mined for drawable images without due
attention to the analyses in the accompanying text, which are
sometimes identical to Guthrie's. He has redrawn all images in his
own style without providing cultural attribution, without directing
the reader to the original and without noting in the legend the
actual size of the Paleolithic representation. He ignores context to
such an extent that he does not inform the reader whether a given
sketch he has made represents an engraving, a three-dimensional
sculpture, a cave painting or a bas-relief.
Decontextualization permits Guthrie to pretend that Paleolithic
representations ranging in length from one centimeter to more than
five meters were, over a span of 30,000 years, stable, unchanging
and unmodified by cultural changes, and that portable images from
sites where people lived are the equivalent of paintings made deep
in caves. Surely the fact that Gravettian female figurines (dating
to between 28,000 and 22,000 years ago) are often buried in
ritualized pits trumps their interpretation as universal examples of
sexual presentation behavior. Guthrie's natural-history approach to
women has been little softened by criticism of his 1984 paper
"Ethological Observations from Paleolithic Art," in which
he likened female figurines to the images in Playboy. Of
course, that comparison underestimates the cultural context of both
the figurines and the Playboy photographs.
The study of Paleolithic art has struggled over the years to become
the rigorous and meticulous field that it is today. There is
considerable food for thought and ecological insight in Guthrie's
approach, and for that reason alone I am happy to have this book on
my shelf. Unfortunately, its extreme ecological determinism, its
lack of cultural and contextual sensibility and its failure to
include images faithful to the original works make for a flawed enterprise.