Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Coolest Thing I Learned All Year

Though I am not systematically researching another Pleistocene book at the moment, I am indiscriminately reading everything on the topic that crosses my path. I own a few books on Pleistocene art, especially paleolithic cave art, which has fascinated people for decades. These paintings are so gorgeous, and mysterious, and just plain old, tucked away in limestone caves, most of which weren't visited at all between the time the paintings were made and the time they were rediscovered. People look at them and compare them to the oldest Europeon mythology we have, and draw conclusions, and argue.

A friend of mine gave me a copy of The Nature of Paleolithic Art, by paleontologist Dale Guthrie (University of Chicago Press, 2005). Guthrie, who is a pretty big cheese among American Ice Age paleontologists, started looking at the art for clues as to how the animals he was interested in looked while living - coat colors and patterns, behavioral indications, that sort of thing. He found he could learn a lot of other things, too, and writes in great detail about that, but my favorite thing, the revolutionary idea, comes in Ch. 3, "Tracking Down the Pleistocene Artists: The Unemphasized Role of Children."

Most students of cave art have assumed that the artists were talented, specialized adults. After all, the Hall of the Bulls must have been painted by a master hand! But many caves contain art anybody could do - specifically, handprints, mostly made by placing the hand against the wall and blowing or spitting paint onto it, leaving a negative print. Guthrie did a statistical analysis, which he explains in detail, and found that most of the prints were probably left by teen-age boys, with most of the ones that weren't belonging to younger kids of indeterminate sex.

Now think about that. If we assume that the handprints are representative of people who visited the caves, then the cave art must have been mostly created by teen-age boys. Suddenly I picture groups of Paleolithic kids hanging out, exploring, finding their way into deep dark caves, and maybe making their secret hideout there for a season or two - just the way modern kids do. (Almost all the caves we know about were found by modern kids hanging out, exploring, by the way!) And they draw on the walls, because drawing on the walls is fun.

And what do they draw? Lots of things, but mostly:
Large charismatic prey animals (which Guthrie compares to sportscars and planes, such as modern boys are fond of drawing).
Large charismatic predators (which Guthrie compares to tanks and fighter planes, such as modern boys are fond of drawing).
And the naughty bits of women (a subject that never gets old).

These drawings survived, not because the artists took care to preserve them, but because they were in caves, protected from the elements. And many of these drawings are exceptionally beautiful, because creating beautiful art was a routine, not an exceptional, activity for the boys who made them. Presumably they made art all the time to get so good at it; and presumably their sisters, mothers, and fathers did so, too; but we don't get to see that art because it wasn't in caves and didn't get preserved. What masterpieces of leatherwork, basketry, bodypainting, and woodcarving have rotted away while the bulls sheltered in the caves?

If they can make wonderful ordinary art, we can too. They were fully modern humans. They had exactly the same potential we had; only they didn't assume (as we too often do; as so many students of the cave art have assumed) that Great Art was something only special people could do.

It may not be the key to understanding all Pleistocene art. But it's a pretty mind-blowing way to understand ourselves.

1 comment:

  1. It's weird to think of the distant ancestors as juvenile "taggers" rather than mighty hunters and tribal shamans commemorating, or perhaps invoking spirits to bless, a hunt. Makes sense as described, though.