Articles about our ancient family.
“It darkles, (tinct, tint) all this our funnaminal world.” ― James Joyce, Finnegans Wake
In 1994 three researchers wandered the Ardèche valley in southern France beside the river of the same name. Their work would look odd and delicate to us. They were hoping to discover hidden caves and their method was to feel for small drafts of air rising through piles of rock. Some explorers do this by literally sniffing about, hoping to scent the smell of a cave. That day, these three discovered a near miracle. It was a huge cave full of ancient human art perfectly sealed by a landslide for around 20 thousand years. This is the Chauvet cave, named for the lead explorer.
Abundant charcoal on the site allowed good carbon dating. The primary use of the cave by humans dated from 32 thousand years ago. This placed the art at 10 thousand years older than the oldest art we knew of. I want to write that age as a number.
32,000 years ago. 30,000 BCE. This time is the upper paleolithic or “old stone age”. Something strange happened in the neolithic. About 9000 years ago an emergent rush of lifestyle change transformed humanity from small tribes of wandering hunters to villages of farmers. As a group, we abandoned what we had always done for something new.
The long paleolithic period in southern Europe leaves little to tell us who we were, but what we do find is vivid and strange. The paintings in the Chauvet cave are amazing. Like most cave paintings they are of animals rendered with smooth confident lines and subtle shading. What isn’t so obvious is what the paintings meant to the artists. When it was in use, Chauvet cave had a large opening that would have allowed sunlight into the first chamber. There are no paintings in the first chamber. Well, only one… just at the point the sunlight could not reach.
Paintings are for darkness.
The painters used all the features of the cave as part of the art. A horse appears to be running out of an alcove. Bumpy cave walls become 3d anatomy; a bison shoulder, a lion’s hip. Looked at from different angles things transform and shift identity. This part of a horse turns into that part of a wolf. Some animals might be a group standing together, or a single animal moving through space as if we paused an animation with multiple frames visible at once.
The world surrounding this canvas is worth considering. Europe was in an ice age, there were glaciers 9000 feet thick. It was cold but dry and sunny. The people would have dressed as traditional Inuit Indians do, with reindeer leather and furs. They carved bone flutes on the pentatonic scale. The sea level was 3oo feet lower and a determined hunter could have walked from Paris to London (or you know, those geographical locations). The world was crammed with animals familiar and strange: Cave bears, lions, hyenas, mammoths, hairy rhinoceros, horses, bison, leopards, wolves, ibex, reindeer. In the same area lived a distinctly separate species of humanity; Neanderthals. Neanderthals left no paintings. Why did we paint and why didn’t neanderthals paint?
Humans didn’t live in the cave. They went down into the dark with their torches to conduct some kind of passionate business they had with this wild world they lived in. Continue reading
- Extremely sharp spear points
- Long spears that let the holder stay well back from danger
- Throwing spears with atlatl, a flexible extension that gave the throw far more power and accuracy by using a snap motion just before release
- Bows and arrows
- Cutting and scraping tools for butchering