The Nature of Paleolithic Art

  • R. Dale Guthrie
University of Chicago Press: 2006. 520 pp. $45 0226311260 | ISBN: 0-226-31126-0

It is an odd fact that the art of the last Ice Age (the Upper Palaeolithic) is characterized by its numerous stylized or naturalistic animal images, and yet its study has rarely involved animal ethologists, apart from an occasional article by specialists in bison or big cats, or by a veterinarian keen to argue that some of the depicted animals were dead or dying. A palaeobiologist has now carried out a long, in-depth study of this art, and the result is The Nature of Paleolithic Art, a massive and unusual book whose witty title succinctly expresses its approach.

Dale Guthrie has in the past equated much palaeolithic art with the cheesecake of erotic magazines, and the trophies of hunting magazines. Here he presents these beliefs in far more depth and detail. He also sets the production of palaeolithic art into the context of the environment and social life, focusing particularly on life, love and death in the Ice Age. Much of this study is enlightening and valuable, drawing on the author's wealth of experience in cold environments and with hunting cultures.

Unfortunately, his reading of the images is extremely literal, excessively so in my view. In his quest for “clear expressions of the artists' hunting preoccupations”, he thinks he can recognize depictions of “males with hunting weapons such as spears or spear-throwers”, of hunting parties with men “being attacked by wounded game or dangerous carnivores”, of nosebleeds and defaecations, and even of bleeding puncture wounds without weapons. People often see what they want to see in rock art, and I think it is safe to say that few of Guthrie's interpretations would be readily accepted by most specialists in Ice Age art.

The fundamental problem with these claims is that they are based, as so often in theories about rock art, on a small number of carefully selected examples, which are presented as typical. Some of his statements are surely exaggerations; in particular, declarations such as “images of rotund women, vulvae, and men with erections are found at many sites” or “giant penises ... occur throughout Paleolithic art”. Unfortunately, such imagery is far rarer and less characteristic than that presented here.

Horse-play? Debate rages over the motivation for cave paintings of animals, such as this one at Lascaux. Credit: BETTMANN/CORBIS

For example, if hunting and “testosterone themes” (to use Guthrie's term) were indeed one of the major causes of the art, surely one would find numerous hunting scenes. Yet in the tens of thousands of images, there is not a single clear depiction of a hunt, and the scenes highlighted in the relevant section of the book are sketchy and ambiguous, and lead Guthrie in some cases to provide his own interpretative drawings, dramatic ‘reconstructions’ of what he thinks is represented.

Regarding the highly enigmatic ‘shaft scene’ of Lascaux, he writes: “Surely there is little argument over what this scene is about,” whereas in fact one would be hard pressed to find a depiction over which there has been more argument! Similarly, for Guthrie the Laussel ‘playing card’ figure “is clearly a couple copulating”, but again it would be hard to find a vaguer and more enigmatic depiction. His interpretation of ‘chimney’ and ‘Placard’ signs as stylized women with legs spread is startling and novel, to say the least.

Another major emphasis of the book is the author's conviction that works by youngsters constitute more of the art than had hitherto been proposed. This emphasis has led to regrettable and sensationalist headlines such as “Cave paintings are graffiti by prehistoric yobs”, from the UK newspaper The Independent on Sunday, with much of the art now attributed to “sexually charged, intoxicated teenagers intent on vandalism”. Guthrie's position is more sober, being based on new analyses indicating that many of the hand-stencils were done by young males. This is an interesting piece of evidence, but one wonders how far the results can safely be extrapolated to figurative Palaeolithic art. It has long been known that almost all the surviving footprints in the caves are those of children and adolescents, but that does not necessarily mean that they were also the artists, let alone that much of the art can be ascribed to sniggering youngsters.

One of the most welcome aspects of Guthrie's book is its determined shunning of the fantasies and speculations published in recent years about the role of so-called ‘shaman-artists’, ‘trances’ and ‘altered states of consciousness’ in the production of cave art. Guthrie rightly states that the ‘magico-religious’ approach, as he calls it, has generated confusion and error, and has “resulted in a derailment of rock art research”. It is worth noting that, with a lone exception, not one specialist in Ice Age art takes these shamanistic notions seriously at all. On the other hand, there can be no doubt that some kind of profound religious motivation — however one defines it — does lie behind some cave art. It cannot all be attributed to sex, hunting and teenage scribbling.

In short, this book attempts a far too literal reading of much Palaeolithic art, and contains a great deal of wishful thinking in exaggerating the abundance, clarity and supposed ubiquity of hunting and sexual imagery in the art. Nevertheless, it provides a great number of interesting insights into the nature and behaviour of the species depicted, including humans, and is undeniably thought-provoking and challenging. I can recommend it highly, despite my reservations.