During the last stage of the Paleolithic, which began about
years ago, we meet
the earliest works of art known to us. These already show an assurance
and refinement far removed from any humble beginnings. Unless we are to
believe that they came into being in a single, sudden burst, we must
assume that they were preceded by thousands of years of slow growth
about which we know nothing at all.
At that time the last Ice Age was drawing to a close in Europe, and
the climate between the Alps and Scandinavia resembled that of
present-day Siberia or Alaska. (There had been at least three previous
ice ages, alternating with periods of subtropical warmth, at intervals
of about 25,000 years.) Huge herds of reindeer
and other large herbivores roamed the plains and valleys, preyed upon by
the ferocious ancestors of today's lions and tigers, as well as by our
own ancestors. These people liked to live in caves or in the shelter of
overhanging rocks wherever they could find them. Many such sites have
been discovered, mostly in Spain and in southwestern France. On the
basis of differences among the tools and other remains found there,
scholars have divided up the "cavemen" into several groups, each named
after a characteristic site. Of these it is especially the so-called
Aurignacians and Magdalenians who stand out for the gifted artists they
produced and for the important role art must have played in their lives.
28. Wounded Bison. Cave painting, ñ
15,000-10,000 B.C. Altamira, Spain
ALTAMIRA AND LASCAUX.
The most striking works of Paleolithic art are the images of animals
incised, painted, or sculptured on the rock surfaces of caves, such as
the wonderful Wounded Bison from the cave at Altamira in northern
Spain (fig. 28). The dying animal
has collapsed on the ground, its legs no longer able to carry the weight
of the body, its head lowered in defense. What a vivid, lifelike picture
it is! We are amazed not only by the keen observation, the assured,
vigorous outlines, and the subtly controlled shading that lends bulk and
roundness to the forms, but even more perhaps by the power and dignity
of this creature in its final agony. Equally impressive, if not quite as
fine in detail, are the painted animals in the cave at Lascaux, in the
Dordogne region of France (figs. 29 and
30). Bison, deer, horses, and cattle race
across walls and ceiling in wild profusion, some of them simply outlined
in black, others filled in with bright earth colors, but all showing the
same uncanny sense of life.
29. Axial Gallery, Lascaux (Montignac,
How did this extraordinary art happen to survive intact over so many
thousands of years? The question can be answered easily enough. The
pictures never occur near the mouth of a cave, where they would be open
to easy view and destruction, but only in the darkest recesses, as far
from the entrance as possible (fig. 31).
Some can be reached only by crawling on hands and knees, and the
path is so intricate that one would soon be lost without an expert
guide. In fact, the cave at Lascaux was discovered purely by chance in
1940 by some neighborhood boys whose dog fell
into a hole that led to the underground chamber.
What purpose did these images serve? Hidden away as they are in the
bowels of the earth, to protect them from the casual intruder, they must
have been considered far more serious than decoration. There can be
little doubt that they were produced as part of a magic ritual, perhaps
to ensure a successful hunt.
We gather this not only from their secret location and from the lines
meant to represent spears or darts that are sometimes found pointing at
the animals, but also from the peculiar, disorderly way the images are
superimposed on one another (as in fig.
Apparently, people of the Old Stone Age made no clear
distinction between image and reality. By making a picture of an animal
they meant to bring the animal itself within their grasp, and in
"killing" the image they thought they had killed the animal's vital
spirit. Hence a "dead" image lost its potency after the killing ritual
had been performed and could be disregarded when the spell had to be
renewed. The magic worked, too, we may be sure. Hunters whose courage
was thus fortified were bound to be more successful when slaying these
formidable beasts with their primitive weapons. Nor has the emotional
basis of this kind of magic been lost even today. We carry snapshots of
those we love in our wallets because this gives us a sense of their
presence, and people have been known to tear up the photograph of
someone they have come to hate. Even so, there remains a good deal that
puzzles us about the cave paintings.
30. Cave paintings.
15,000-10,000 B.C. Lascaux
Schematic plan of Lascaux
Why did they have to be in such inaccessible places? Couldn't the
hunting magic they serve have been performed just as well out in the
open? And why are they so marvelously lifelike? Would not the magic have
been equally effective if the "killing" had been practiced upon less
realistic images? We know of countless later instances of magic which
require only the crudest and most schematic kind of representation, such
as two crossed sticks for a human figure.
We should regard the Magdalenian cave pictures as the final phase of
a development that began as simple killing magic at a time when big game
was plentiful but shifted its meaning when the animals became scarce.
(There is evidence that the big herds withdrew northward as the climate
of Central Europe grew warmer.) At Altamira and Lascaux, then, the main
purpose may no longer have been to "kill" but to "make" animals: to
increase their supply, perhaps through seasonal rituals repeated year
after year. In some of the weapons associated with the animals, images
of plants have recently been recognized, ft may well be that the
Magdalenians practiced their fertility magic in the bowels of the earth
because they thought of the earth itself as a living thing from whose
womb all other life
springs. Such a notion is familiar to us from the cults of earth
deities of later times; its origin perhaps goes back to the Old Stone
Age. If so, this would help to explain the admirable realism of the cave
paintings, for artists who believe that they actually "create" an animal
are more likely to strive for this quality than those who merely set up
an image for the kill.
Another explanation has been advanced which, though controversial, is
intriguing. According to this theory, the creatures (and even the plant
forms) on cave walls can be divided according to sexual typology, so
that bulls, for example, are male and horses female. If so, they can be
regarded as the ancestors of the animal divinities, and their
half-human, half-animal cousins we shall meet throughout the Near East
and Greece. Indeed, how else are we to account for their rise? Such a
hypothesis accords as well with the animism found in ethnographic
societies the world over. Nor does it necessarily contradict our
explanation of fertility magic, of which it can be seen as a late
Some of the cave pictures may even provide a clue to the origin of this
tradition of fertility magic. In a good many instances, the shape ol the
animal seems to have been suggested by the natural formation of the
rock, so that its body coincides with a bump, or its contour follows a
vein or crack as far as possible. We all know how our imagination
sometimes makes us see all sorts of images in chance formations such as
clouds or blots. A Stone Age hunter, his mind intent on the big game he
depended on for survival, might well have been even more likely to
recognize such animals as he stared at the rock surfaces of his cave and
to attribute deep significance to his discovery. Perhaps at first he
merely reinforced the outlines of such images with a charred stick from
the fire, so that others, too, could see what he had found. It is
tempting to think that those who proved particularly good at finding
such images were given a special status as artist-magicians and were
relieved of the dangers of the real hunt so that they could perfect
their image-hunting, until finally they learned how to make images with
little or no help from chance formations, though they continued to
welcome such aid.
A striking example of this process of creation is the remarkable
Nude Woman from the La Magdelaine Cave at Penne (fig.
32), one of the
rare instances of the human figure in Paleolithic art. (Apparently human
fertility was a less pressing problem than animal fertility.) The legs
and torso have been carved from natural ledges of the rock in such a way
that the shapes seem to emerge almost imperceptibly from the stone. The
right arm is barely visible and the head appears to have been omitted
altogether, for lack of "cooperation" on the part of the natural
surface. What kind of ritual may have centered on this figure we can
only guess. The existence of cave rituals relating to both human and
animal fertility would seem to be confirmed by a unique group of
Paleolithic drawings found in the 1950s
on the walls of the cave of Addaura near Palermo in
Sicily (fig. 33).
These images, incised into the rock with quick and sure
lines, show human figures in dancelike movements, along with some
animals; and, as at Lascaux, we again find several layers of images
superimposed on one another. Here, then, we seem to be on the verge of
that fusion of human and animal identity that distinguishes the earliest
historical religions of Egypt and Mesopotamia.
32. Nude Woman.
B.C. Lifesize. La Magdelaine Cave. Penne
33. Ritual Dance
engraving, ñ 10,000
Height of figures
(25.4 cm). Cave of Addaura,
Monte Pellegrino (Palermo),
Carved and Painted Objects
Apart from large-scale cave art, the people of the Upper Paleolithic
also produced small, hand-sized drawings and carvings in bone, horn, or
stone, skillfully cut by means of flint tools. The earliest of these
found so far are small figures of mammoth ivory from a cave in
southwestern Germany, made
years ago. Even they, however, are already so
accomplished that they must be the fruit of an artistic tradition many
thousands of years old. The graceful, harmonious curves of the running
horse (fig. 34)
could hardly be improved
upon by a more recent sculptor. Many years of handling have worn down
some details of the tiny animal. The two converging lines on the
shoulder, indicating a dart or wound, were not part of the original
design. In the end, then, this horse too has been "killed" or
Some of these carvings suggest that the objects may have originated
with the recognition and elaboration of some chance resemblance. Earlier
Stone Age people, it seems, were content to collect pebbles in whose
natural shape they saw something that rendered them "magic." Echoes of
this approach can sometimes be felt in later, more fully worked pieces.
The so-called "Venus" of Willendorf (fig.
one of many such female fertility figurines, has a
bulbous roundness of form that recalls an egg-shaped "sacred pebble."
Her navel, the central point of the design, is a natural cavity in the
stone. And the masterful Bison (fig.
36) of reindeer horn owes
its compact, expressive outline in part to the contours of the
palm-shaped piece of antler from which it was carved. It is a worthy
companion to the splendid beasts at Altamira and Lascaux.
from Vogelherd Cave, ñ
Mammoth ivory, length 2'/2"
(6.4 cm). Private
(Photograph copyright Alexander Marshack)
36. Bison, from
La Madeleine near Les Eyzies (Dordogne).
B.C. Reindeer horn, length
4" (10.1 cm).
Nationales, St.-Germain-en-Laye, France
"Venus" of Willendorf.
ñ 25,000-20,000 B.C
Stone, height 4
Naturhistoriches Museum, Vienna