Sights and rites of the hunters

Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art - Journey through the Ice Age
June 12, 1998

Paul Bahn, archaeologist and historian of archaeology, notes in these beautifully illustrated volumes of art history that there are literally millions of images and symbols made by early hunter-gatherers and by later populations before the beginnings of formal writing. A large proportion of these are images incised or painted on stone surfaces or in caves. Rock art appears in every region of the habitable earth, from Patagonia at the southern end of South America, northwards through South and North America and across Eurasia, Africa, Australia and the islands of the Pacific. In the Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, Bahn provides fascinating examples of this rock art and of other modes of image-making extending from the Ice Age to historic times. Even the so-called "explosion" of image-making that occurred in the Ice Age of Europe, c.35,000 to 10,000bc, provides us with tens of thousands of images, symbols and signs, as well as more than 300 decorated caves; in Journey Through the Ice Age, Bahn provides us with a detailed voyage through that extraordinary Ice Age corpus, its discovery, and the persistent attempts at interpretation. Significantly, the cultures providing these thousands of images, from the Ice Age to historic times, had vastly different ecologies and ways of life. Nevertheless, they all produced fascinating, often beautiful and complex images that referred both to their regional natural surroundings and their cultural realm. Bahn notes that world rock art represents the near-universal human tendency to create and mark a symbolic territory or "spiritual landscape".

How does one study and interpret this huge and variable body of early and prehistoric imagery when language and text are absent? The problem has bedevilled archaeology since this imagery began to be acknowledged, particularly as, Bahn notes, because it represents one of our major sources for investigating the nature of humanness and humanity's many early cultures. The two volumes by Bahn attempt to address this crucial problem in a number of ways.

In the Journey, Bahn describes the discovery and recognition of Ice Age imagery, the first images recognised as having been made before the period of "history". Carefully, often with great humour, he shows the persistent efforts that have been made to interpret and study this complex and variable body of early imagery. In the Cambridge volume he reports not only on the discovery of the Ice Age images but on the thousands of later images found throughout the world and describes the ongoing effort to interpret and understand this later imagery as well as that from the Ice Age. These millions of images, widely distributed in time and space, were largely made by hunter-gatherers before contact with formal writing and record-keeping, and before images and symbols, following the introduction of agriculture, began increasingly to be relegated to permanent villages and the walled structures of houses, temples and palaces. Bahn notes that while all of this early imagery marked and gave symbolic meaning to a particular region and territory, we are left with only surmise and analogy in our attempt to understand its meaning and uses.

Some things are clear. The images, as Bahn notes, gave meaning to, and made reference to, the natural and cultural processes and the diversity of species found in a territory. The iconographies included animal species, images of animal and human sexuality, depictions of ritual performance and symbolic killing, mythic beings, hand prints indicating a human presence at a particular time and place, examples of seasonal observation, rare cosmological and astronomical signs and even depictions of simple everyday acts. In the Ice Age, Bahn notes, there is also evidence of pre-writing record-keeping and notation, a form of symboling that does not, of course, come under the rubric of "art".

With the approaching end of the 20th century, the century often termed the Information Age, it is worth noting that the information technologies involved are also based on a use of image, language and forms of record-keeping, and that they therefore call on the same suite of human capacities that were involved in the creation of the images and symbol systems found in prehistory. While the early images were produced in cultures that had language, the archaeological evidence for that use of language is missing. But the archaeological evidence for the concomitant capacity to create an almost infinite range of images and symbols continues to be uncovered. The vast corpus described by Bahn is one of the primary sources for our attempt to understand both early human capacity and early human culture.

Though Bahn indicates that the early images were produced in many modes, from personal decoration and tattooing, to symbolic artifacts and artifact decoration, all of which are illustrated, it is the rock art that is a major focus in both volumes. Bahn describes the history of the discovery of rock art as an aspect of western colonial expansion, beginning in the 16th century and extending through the 19th. He indicates that this rock art was at first variously ascribed to the lost tribes of Israel, the near-historic Celts, or the cabalistic scribblings of unschooled "savages". But following Darwin's 19th-century publication of On the Origin of Species and the almost simultaneous discovery of incised images in Europe depicting the extinct woolly mammoth, and then bison, reindeer and woolly rhino, acknowledgment of an ancient past for humankind and the presence of an early symboling capacity began to grow. Bahn notes that in recent years the evidence for early image-making and, presumably therefore of language, has begun to be pushed back to the Mousterian period of the Neanderthals and, recently, even to the far earlier Acheulian period of "archaic" Homo sapiens or late Homo erectus, c.250,000bp.

In the Journey, Bahn evaluates the efforts of the great names in the study of Ice Age art, from Cartailhac at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, to Breuil and Leroi-Gourhan during the first half of this century. He then provides a description of current efforts by a new generation of researchers across Europe who are using new technologies to more precisely date the images, describe their modes of production, the paints used in painting, the possible relevance of "style" in dating and assumptions of supposed ethnicity. He expounds on the difficulty of assigning a vulvar interpretation to many of the so-called "female" images found both in Ice Age homesites and in the caves. He discusses the extraordinary variability in the imagery but, as an archaeologist and author of archaeological reference books and texts, Bahn is critical of the often untestable interpretations which have been changing almost every decade for more than a century. He evaluates Breuil's early effort to ascribe the imagery to hunting and fertility magic and Leroi-Gourhan's mid-century effort to interpret the imagery in terms of French structuralism which saw the imagery in terms of philosophical "oppositions".

In both volumes, Bahn's sharpest criticism is directed at the recent ethnographic and psychological/neurological attempt to explain the complexity and variability of early human imagery as an aspect of shamanistic practice involving the supposedly universal phenomenon of hallucinatory trance with an accompanying perception of "entoptics" or geometric forms that are often seen in the first stages of trance. Bahn notes that the most complex body of pre-literate imagery available, the rock art found in Australia, provides no ethnographic evidence of having been produced by "shamans" either before or after hallucinatory trance. He also notes that Siberian shamanism, the original area for descriptions of such behaviour, while it provides evidence for the practice of trance, provides no evidence that the bulk of imagery found among these shamanic cultures, including the images in Siberian rock art, was "entoptic" or was derived from trance. World ethnography, instead, documents the fact that the shamanic universe was complex and many-layered. Shamans maintained both the practical and spiritual and mythic order, they were the calendar keepers, the curers, the practical guides through the animal, plant, and social-cultural realm. One of the key ethnographers often cited for the "entoptic" hypothesis, Gerald Reichel-Dolmatoff, who worked in Colombia, informed this reviewer that shamans in that country made and kept calendars and created mythic and pragmatic "maps" of the symbolic and pragmatic realm of their culture, that is, of the "spiritual landscape". These cognitive, conceptual constructs look exactly like geometric "entoptics" but they do not derive from trance. I should also note that the ethnographer who first tried to apply the hallucinatory and "entoptic" hypothesis to Ice Age art came to his conclusion before he had studied any of the Ice Age images or the Ice Age cultures and contexts at first hand. Merely by looking at the huge and diverse body of Ice Age images, he declared, on a priori grounds, they were derived from hallucination and trance.

After describing a century's efforts at interpretation, Bahn writes that all attempts at interpreting the early imagery, though they may occasionally contain some small aspect of insight, are inevitably inadequate, unverifiable and erroneous. Instead, Bahn suggests that the arena for future research lies with the new and developing technologies that he describes, technologies which attempt to describe primarily how and when the images were made and used.

Bahn is right in his critique of blanket attempts to interpret the variable and complex body of imagery. He indicates that in North America some rock panels are known to represent clan or tribal insignia. Other panels are cosmological, apparently having been made at a particular place at a particular time. The "spiritual landscapes" described by Bahn were marked with different categories and classes of imagery, but were always marked at proper cultural times, in proper cultural places and for the proper cultural reason. Since the iconographies represent different classes of imagery and intent, an attempt at understanding might more realistically investigate the relation of these images, and all human imagery, to the time-factored cultural tapestries of these cultures. This would move us far from the mere study of dates and modes of production.

Bahn, for instance, notes that much of world rock art occurs near sources of water: water is both a necessary resource and a dynamic, changeable and transformational mythic presence, whether it concerns freezing, thawing and flooding in mid-latitudes or rains and drought in other areas. This reviewer has indicated, for instance, that the symbolic image of water occurs in home-sites and caves throughout the European Ice Age. The Ice Age cultures were, in fact, essentially riverine. Rivers flow through many caves, pools occur in some caves, and the dripping of water creates forests of stalagmites and stalactites. Water, as Bahn indicates, was a significant part of the pragmatic and spiritual landscape. But when were water images made in the home-site and in the caves? Were they seasonal as well as locational? Questions of this type do not posit a single interpretation, but they do make it possible to begin investigating the spiritual and pragmatic landscape in behavioural terms that go beyond dates, styles, modes of image production, and endlessly changing hypotheses. Any reader interested in, or familiar with the complexity of the human symboling capacity can read and browse Bahn's two sumptuous volumes and find a feast of insights and unending questions.

These two volumes by Bahn are not comprehensive "encyclopedias" of all the materials and traditions involved, but they are intriguing, exciting visual voyages and journeys through one aspect of the extraordinary, specifically human past.

Alexander Marshack is research associate, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, United States.

Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art

Author - Paul G. Bahn
ISBN - 0 521 45473 5
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £24.95
Pages - 302

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