Inora Newsletter #42
AND MEDICINES UNDER THE SEA
A few facts must be recalled before presenting our new discoveries. The Cosquer Cave (Marseilles, France) was discovered in 1985 by a diver deep under the sea (the original entrance is about 115 feet below present-day sea level) but its paintings were not mentioned until 1991 after three divers died in the cave when they got lost. The gallery slopes up for about 360 feet under water before reaching a huge chamber that partly remained above the sea and where many prehistoric paintings and engravings are preserved on the walls, as well as remains on the ground (charcoal from fires and torches, a few flint tools). This is the only painted cave in the world with an entrance below present-day sea level where cave art has been preserved from the flooding that occurred when the seas rose after the end of the last glaciation.
Right from the start, it was obvious that the discovery of the Cosquer Cave was both an important and original art find. It was located in the Provence near Marseilles, an area where no Palaeolithic art had ever been discovered. This highlighted a supposedly well-known but rarely referred to problem, which is the disappearance of uncounted caves under the sea all along the Mediterranean and other shores since Ice Age times. Several large caves are next to Cosquer. A number of them could have been - and probably were - lived in, painted or engraved.
A number of hand stencils have been scratched or painted over with dots and bars. Only adult hand stencils have been found. Many of them have incomplete fingers (Fig. 2): they were made by bending the fingers. Hand stencils with incomplete fingers had until very recently only been found in very few caves, mostly in the Pyrenees (Gargas, Tibiran, Fuente del Trucho). Now, we know that the phenomenon was far more widely represented than had been thought. The now established fact that roughly at the same time such hand stencils were being made in sites hundreds of miles apart should deal a death blow to the theory of pathologic mutilations: how likely would it be that human groups living at such distances from one another should independently develop the same crippling diseases and should react in the same way by immortalizing them on the walls of the caves by means of the same techniques?
Cosquer has already significantly added to our knowledge of cave art. The presence of many sea animals, as well as the unusually numerous caprids, testify to the influence the local environment played in the myths. The Cosquer Cave was located a few miles from the shore in an environment of limestone hills favourable to ibex and chamois. It is no coincidence then that the artists chose to represent the local fauna. This has not always been the case. In the deep Vicdessos valley, in the Ariège Pyrenees, where mostly ibex were hunted by the Magdalenian of La Vache, the cave art of Niaux nearby shows an over-whelming majority of bison and horses.
Right from the beginning, by studying superimposition of figures, we could determine that there had been two main phases in the art of Cosquer, the earlier one including the hand stencils and the finger tracings, while most of the animal paintings and engravings appeared to belong to the later phase. This was confirmed by direct radiocarbon dating, when 27 dates were obtained which for the most part cluster into two groups, one around 19,000 BP and the other around 27,000 BP. After the Chauvet Cave, Cosquer is the rock art site where most radiocarbon datings have been made in the world (Clottes & Courtin 1994, 1996, Clottes et al. 1996, 1997).In the summers of 2002 and mostly of 2003, after one of us (Jean Clottes) learnt how to scuba-dive for the express purpose of going to the cave, we did an in-depth study of it.
Fig. 3. Example of descriptive form used at Cosquer
First, we carried out a careful examination of the walls and roofs with the help of LED lamps, which are the best sources of light to discover fine engravings, to work out their superimpositions and, more generally, to study the traces of human activities on the surfaces. As we proceeded with the examination, we checked the already existing descriptive forms (from the data recorded before) and completed them according to the criteria we had worked out, so that they would be homogeneous (Fig. 3). All the drawings were systematically measured, as well as their height in relation to the ground, and we recorded their characteristics, those of the wall and of the ground, the superimpositions and the presence of other images nearby. Each was precisely pinpointed. Each was also sketched on the form. This systematic work enabled us to find out many errors which were corrected and to discover a number of new images that had gone unnoticed till now. That work and all the conclusions it led us to has just been extensively published in a new book (Clottes, Courtin & Vanrell 2005).
The total of figures is now 177 animals, belonging to 11 different species which is rather unusual in Upper Palaeolithic art, since if 14 species are represented in Chauvet, only 6 are known in Niaux and 9 in Lascaux, 1 human with a seal's head, 44 black hand stencils and
21 red hand stencils, 216 geometric signs, 20 indeterminate figures, 7 others (like traces, holes in the walls, etc). We have now 78 more animal figures than those recorded in our preliminary book (Clottes & Courtin 1994, 1996).
We can now state that the Cosquer Cave was once one of the most important cave art sites in Europe, comparable to Lascaux, Trois-Frères, Altamira or Chauvet. This is because we are only left with a small part of the art. Exploring the submerged passages and chambers has shown that between three quarters to four fifths of the whole network is now under water. There the walls and vaults are corroded by the sea and by the shells and algae and no painting or engraving could be preserved. As all the parts of the cave which were accessible where the water did not reach are covered with engravings, meanders and drawings, we can assume that it was more or less the same in most of the submerged chambers, because the level of the sea could not coincidentally have stopped just before the places where the art happened to be. Therefore there could have been anything between 400 and 800 animal figures in the cave.
The animals most often represented are the horses (63) (Fig. 4), then the ibex (28), the bison and aurochs (24) and the red deer (15). The other animals are far more rare : 4 chamois, 2 megaloceros deer, 1 feline, 1 saiga antelope. Sea animals are fairly common (17), far more than in any other cave: 9 seals, 4 fish, 3 auks. We can add that 20 animal figures could not be identified precisely and 3 were composite animals (i.e. with characteristics pertaining to different species).
Some of the results we have obtained during our research in addition to the inventory of the art, to numerous details relating to the art (animals and original signs), to the use of the cave and to the people who frequented it , are the following:
a number of small animal engravings that had been seen in 1992 but had remained unstudied are to be found on the slanting wall next to the big now submerged shaft, which we have called the Big Shaft. They are difficult of access because the water is quite deep at the foot of the wall. The lower level of the water during our second spell of field work in 2003 has enabled us to spend more time there and to take close-ups of those engravings and of the black hand stencils nearby (Fig. 5). Contrary to what we had thought first, we found out that they had been done before the hand stencils, because one of those hand stencils was on top of them. This means that part of the animals were done during what we called Phase 1 by the Gravettians, between 26,000 and 28,000 BP, which is an important new fact;
in addition to the phallus already described (Clottes, Courtin & Collina-Girard 1996), other sexual symbols, both male and female, have been observed. In particular, a few natural hollows on the walls have been marked with black to transform them into female sexual organs (Fig. 6);
among the rare objects found in the cave are a Pecten shell in which a big live coal had been put (Fig. 7), a piece of clay which has been kneaded and bears distinct traces of fingers and nails, and also a flat calcite plaque which was worked and used as a makeshift lamp (Fig. 8);
handprints of children have been observed in the mondmilch (i.e. the white altered soft surface of the limestone wall) of relatively high walls, at more than eight feet from the ground (Fig. 9). This means that kids did have access to the deepest parts of the cave, and also that they were held at arm's length or on the shoulders of grown-ups so that they could imprint their hands high up on the surface of the walls. This cannot be construed as a random gesture but as a very deliberate action;
as to the grown-ups themselves, some of them must have been at least six feet tall to have been able to make engravings where they did and in the impossibility of using ladders in those particular places;
Fig. 8. The plaque with charcoal marks used as a lamp. Drawing J. Courtin.
We have researched the uses to which calcium carbonate powder from broken stalactites and stalagmites as well as mondmilch have been put in the course of history (see Shaw in Hill & Forti 1997, Clottes, Courtin & Vanrell 2005). The oldest uses known in pharmacopeias are in China (stalactites and stalagmites) (4th and 1st century BC). As late as in the 19th century in China and in the 18th in Europe (including mondmilch), they were consistently used for all sorts of ailments and treatments: treatment of fevers (to encourage sweating), heart conditions (when diet was poor in calcium), to stop bleeding, to curb diarrhea, for the relief of cough, and to aid the production of milk in wet-nurses, for strengthening broken bones, for drying up of abscesses, ulcers and wounds. Even nowadays calcium carbonate (CaCo3) is widely used for osteoporosis (together with D vitamin), to help with bone regeneration and for problems relating to growth, for pregnant women and feeding mothers, to relieve tiredness etc.
Originally, about 27,000 years ago, people scraped powder from the walls and took away fragments of stalactites and stalagmites from the deeper parts of the cave probably because they believed that those stones were charged with supernatural power. The fact that the poultices and/or medicines did work in some cases cannot have passed unnoticed and this accounts for the long continuance of the practice. We may have in the Cosquer Cave, associated to abundant rock art, the very first concrete example of the making of specific medicines in the history of the world (for more details see Clottes, Courtin & Vanrell 2005).
Jean Clottes, Jean Courtin & Luc Vanrell
CLOTTES J. & COURTIN J., 1994. La Grotte Cosquer. Peintures et gravures de la caverne engloutie. Paris. Le Seuil.
CLOTTES J. & COURTIN J., 1996. The Cave Beneath the Sea. Paleolithic Images at Cosquer. New-York, Harry Abrams.
CLOTTES J., COURTIN J. & COLLINA-GIRARD J., 1996. La Grotte Cosquer revisitée. INORA, 15, p. 1-2.
CLOTTES J., COURTIN J., COLLINA-GIRARD J., ARNOLD M. & VALLADAS H., 1997. News from Cosquer Cave: climatic studies, recording, sampling, dates. Antiquity, 71, n° 272, p. 321-326.
CLOTTES J., COURTIN J. & VANRELL L., 2005. Cosquer redécouvert. Paris, Le Seuil, 256 p., 209 fig.
HILL C. & FORTI P., 1997. Cave Minerals of the World. Huntsville, National Speleological Society.
Our project has been funded by the French Ministry of Culture and by the Leakey Foundation. We gratefully thank them as well as all those who have helped us, both during the dives and expeditions and by giving us information. We also thank our publishers, Les Éditions du Seuil (Paris) for having quickly published our work in such a beautiful volume.
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