The Paleolithic Cave Art of France


The Horned God or Sorcerer Les Trois-Freres
The Horned God or Sorcerer
Les Trois-Freres
Ever since the beginning of the 20th century, several attempts have been made to find the meaning(s) of Paleolithic rock art. Art for art’s sake, totemism, the Abbe Breuil’s hunting magic and Leroi-Gourhan’s and Laming-Emperaires’s structuralist theories were proposed and then abandoned one after the other (Delporte 1990, Lorblanchet 1995). Since then, most specialists have made up their minds that it would be hopeless to look for the meanings behind the art. They prefer to spend their time and efforts recording it, describing it and dating it, to endeavour to answer the questions 'what?', 'how?' and 'when?', thus carefully avoiding the fundamental question 'why?'. In the course of the past few years, though, a new attempt, spurred by David Lewis-Williams, was made in order to discover an interpretative framework. Shamanism was proposed (Clottes & Lewis-Williams 1998). Considering the fact that shamanism is so widespread among hunter-gatherers and that Upper Paleolithic people were admittedly hunter-gatherers, looking to shamanism as a likely religion for them should have been the first logical step whenever the question of meaning arose.
In addition, shamanic religions evidence several characteristics which can make us understand cave art better. The first one is their concept of a complex cosmos in which at least two worlds - or more - coexist, be they side by side or one above the other. Those worlds interact with one another and in our own world most events are believed to be the consequence of an influence from the other-world(s). The second one is the belief of the group in the ability for certain persons to have at will a direct controlled relationship with the other-world. This is done for very practical purposes : to cure the sick, to maintain a good relationship with the powers in the other-world, to restore an upset harmony, to reclaim a lost soul, to make good hunting possible, to forecast the future, to cast spells, etc. Contact happens in two ways: spirit helpers, very often in animal form, come to the shaman and inhabit him/her when he/she calls on them ; the shaman may also send his/her soul to the other-world in order to meet the spirits there and obtain their help and protection. Shamans will do so through trance. A shaman thus has a most important role as a mediator between the real world and the world of the spirits, as well as a social role.
Henri Cosquer Cave Art Paintings France
Panel of the Black Horses discovered
in 1985 by diver Henri Cosquer
Bison Niaux Cave Art Paintings France
A Bison from the Niaux cave follows
the natural ridge of the cave wall
Shaman Cave Art Paintings
Shaman drawn by
Nicholas Witsen in 1705
Upper Paleolithic people were Homo sapiens sapiens like us and therefore had a nervous system identical to ours. Consequently, some of them must have known altered states of consciousness in their various forms including hallucinations. This was part of a reality which they had to manage in their own way and according to their own concepts.
This being said, we know as a fact that they kept going into the deep caves for twenty thousand years at the very least in order to draw on the walls, not to live or take shelter there. Everywhere and at all times, the underground has been perceived as being a supernatural world, the realm of the spirits or of the dead, a forbidding gate to the Beyond which people are frightened of and never cross. Going into the subterranean world was thus defying ancestral fears, deliberately venturing into the kingdom of the supernatural powers in order to meet them. The analogy with shamanic mind travels is obvious, but their underground adventure went much beyond a metaphoric equivalent of the shaman’s voyage : it made it real in a milieu where one could physically move and in which spirits were literally at hand. When Upper Paleolithic people went into the deeper galleries, they must have been acutely aware that they were in the world of the supernatural powers and they expected to see and find them. Such a state of mind, no doubt reinforced by the teaching they had received, was certain to facilitate the coming of visions that deep caves in any case tend to stir up (as many spelunkers have testified). Deep caves could thus have a double role the aspects of which were indissolubly linked : to make hallucinations easier; to get in touch with the spirits through the walls.
Wall images are perfectly compatible with the perceptions people could have during their visions, whether one considers their themes, their techniques and their details. The animals, individualised by means of precise details, seem to float on the walls ; they are disconnected from reality, without any ground line, often without respect of the laws of gravity, in the absence of any framework or surroundings. Elementary geometric signs are always present and recall those seen in the various stages of trance. As to composite creatures and monsters (i.e. animals with corporal attributes pertaining to various species), we know that they belong to the world of shamanic visions. This does not mean that they would have made their paintings and engravings under a state of trance. The visions could be drawn (much) later.
Trying to get into touch with the spirits believed to live inside the caves, on the other side of theveil that the walls constituted between their reality and ours, is a Paleolithic attitude of mind which has left numerous testimonies, particularly the very frequent use of natural reliefs. When one’s mind is full of animal images, a hollow in the rock underlined by a shadow cast by one’s torch or grease lamp will evoke a horse’s back line or the hump of a bison. How then couldn’t one believe that the spirit-animals found in the visions of trance - and that one had expected to find in the other-world which the underground undoubtedly is - are not there on the wall, half emerging through the rock thanks to the magic of the moving light and ready to vanish into it again. In a few lines, they would be made wholly real and their power would then become accessible.
The Sorcerer of the Chauvet Cave
The Sorcerer of the Chauvet Cave
The Chapel Horse from Chauvet cave
The Chapel Horse from Chauvet
(left) Animals are sometimes represented as though they were coming out of cracks or - as here in the Chauvet Cave - out of the ends of deep recesses. Photo J. Clottes. (right) The Sorcerer from the Chauvet Cave.
Cracks and hollows, as well as the ends oropenings of galleries, must have played a slightly different yet comparable part. They were not the animals themselves but the places whence they came. Those natural features provided a sort of opening into the depths of the rock where the spirits were believed to dwell. This would explain why we find so many examples of animals drawn in function of those natural features (Le Roseau Clastres, Le Travers de Janoye, Chauvet, Le Grand Plafond at Rouffignac).
Red hand stencil from the Chauvet Cave
Red hand stencil from the Chauvet Cave
In addition to the drawings of animals and signs, the intention to get in touch with the powerful spirits in the subterranean world may also be glimpsed through three other categories of testimonies. First, the bone fragments and other remains (teeth, flints) stuck or deposited in the fissures of the walls. Finger tracings and indeterminate lines might stem from the same logic. In their case, the aim was not to recreate a reality as with the animal images but to trail one’s fingers and to leave their traces on the wall, wherever this was possible, in order to establish a direct contact with the powers underlying the wall. This might be done by non-initiates who participated in the ritual in their own way and with their own means. Finally, hand stencils enabled them to go further still. When somebody put his or her hand on to the wall and paint was blown all over it, the hand would blend with the wall and take its new colour, be it red or black. Under the power of the sacred paint, the hand would metaphorically vanish into the wall. It would thus, concretely, link its owner to the world of the spirits. This might enable the 'lay people', maybe the sick, to benefit directly from the forces of the world beyond. Seen in that light, the presence of hands belonging to very young children, such as those in Gargas, stops being extraordinary (Clottes & Lewis-Williams 1998, 2001).
The Paleolithic Cave Art of France
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