Lecture 1: The Prehistoric Past – The Beginnings of Culture
KEY TERMS: Paleolithic, Neolithic, Cave Paintings, Chauvet Cave (France) , Lascaux Cave (France), the caves of Altamira (Spain), narrative thought.
Image of four horses
The image above is yet another example of a cave painting. In the “Welcome” section and the “Specific Course Information” (both sections which you should read carefully if you have not already done so), you found images from the caves of Lascaux and Altamira, but the image above is of even greater significance.
Radiocarbon dating establishes this image and others found at the Chauvet Cave in Southern France to be 32,000 years old - predating the paintings at the Lascaux Cave in France by 17,000 years and the images in the Caves of Altamira, Spain, by 23,000 years. These findings have forced Archeologists to significantly revise our understanding of how the human revolution - the transition to a modern style of life associated with the development of this new species called Homo sapiens - took place.
Prehistory is the story of human becoming. Five million years ago there were no humans on earth, nor among the then-existing apes and monkeys were there any beings that we would recognize as closely resembling humans in appearance or behavior.
The genus Homo is first represented in most current classifications by Homo habilis ("skillful man) from about 2.5 million years ago, associated with the first stone tools, and first recognized by Louis and Mary Leakey at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, East Africa. Beginning around 1.7 million years ago, Homo erectus, Homo ergaster (“working man”) and Homo heidelbergensis made their appearance. These three species are seen as related, and what they have in common is that they are the very first species to be found outside of Africa.
Our own species, Homo sapiens, descended from these three species above about 200,000 years ago; as well as our cousins Homo neanderthalensis, who developed ‘a little earlier’ about 350,000 years ago (see image of a facial recreation from a Neanderthal skull below).
Recreated from the skull of the head of a male Neanderthal
The Neanderthals are traditionally considered to be our last surviving relatives. They died out about 24,000 years ago - meaning that the Neanderthals were still around for another 6,000 years after the images in the Chauvet cave (see example above) had been created. (As a side note here: DNA evidence now provides strong evidence that humans and Neanderthals interbred. Between 1-4 percent of the DNA of humans of European and Asian heritage most likely to carry the Neanderthal genes.)
Another way to get at how old the images in the Chauvet Cave truly are is to realize that at the time of their creation, the body of water that separates England and France had not yet been formed. When the artist (or artists) drew these two rhinoceroses above, one was able to walk through grassy lowlands from France to England.
Humans - Story Tellers and Myth Makers
What does it take to be a cave painter?
Though many human cultural developments such as the production of stone tools and the use of fire came about much earlier, around 40,000 years ago, some behavioral changes, associated with the appearance of our own species in France, took place. Among these were (1) an increase in the variety and complexity of the stone tools produced, (2) the appearance for the first time of artifacts made out of bone, antler or ivory, (3) significant changes in both the economic and social organization of human groups and (4) the appearance of representational or “naturalistic” art (the cave paintings at Chauvet, etc.).
These activities must have been made possible by the capacities that differentiate Homo sapiens from other primates. In contrast to others, our species came with fully modern speech, that means with the capacity of using grammatical structures reflecting new modes of thought. Our language capability allows us to distinguish present, past and future, and through conditional speech (i.e. I could have …), we can imagine and express hypothetical actions.
Paleontologists have suggested that fully developed consciousness accompanied this more flexible speech capacity and that the remarkable representations on the walls of the painted caves are a clear exteriorization of the thoughts and imaginations of humans in the paleolithic age.
Cave paintings of rhinoceroces
As far as we know today, cave art during the Upper Paleolithic period, with these lively representations of groups of animals as well as of individual animals, was exclusively restricted to France and Spain. With some modest exceptions, such cave art is not found on any other continent until a period twelve thousand years ago. To say this is not to deny that there are indications in Africa and beyond of a human capacity for representation, but those images do not even come close to the vibrancy of the art produced in France and Spain.
Why there should have been this remarkable and localized creative explosion in upper Paleolithic France and Spain, and why such extraordinary scenes of animals did not occur elsewhere until very much later, is not at present clear. It is one of the intriguing mysteries of prehistory.
Werner Herzog, the German film maker who gained exclusive access to the Chauvet caves to direct the documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), commented on the experience of seeing this art, “There is a certain strange, palpable power from these images, and it’s not only that the paintings are so accomplished. There is something that touches us instantaneously, something that is completely awesome. What you are witnessing is the origin of the modern human soul and the beginning of figurative representation.”
How and why where these images made?
To get some more perspective on the meaning of this art and what it reveals about being human, please watch these two u-tube videos (see links below). The first one gives some historical background information (about four minutes long), the second one (about eight minutes long) explains how these images where produced and lists current theories as to why these images came into being.
Paleolithic Art Movement and & Ritual, Part 1
Paleolithic Art Movement and & Ritual, Part 2
Why is all this important?
In our quest to find out what it means to be human, symbolic representation (apart from language) stands out. Merlin Donald, in his study of human culture and cognition (Origins of the Modern Mind, published in 1991), advances a theory of five phases of cognitive development in homo sapiens and their ancestors, of which the third one, the mythic stage marks the advent of our own species. It is characterized by the use of complex language skills and by narrative thought. Narrative thinking is significant in that it leads to telling stories that create meaning out of the material that make up the story.
The production of stories (through words or images) is an attempt at shaping the random and chaotic events and conditions of the natural world into some orderly, logical and predictable. By creating meaning, stories not only impose a certain order, they also allow the listener (or much later the reader) to gain a different understanding of the world. This understanding in turn creates the idea of a certain degree of control over the conditions in which the listener exists.
The mythic stage (followed by the ‘material symbolic stage’ to be discussed in Lecture 2) represents that uniquely human capacity to analyze the world and to express our worldview in symbolic form - not only in words, but in non-verbal communication, in gesture, in painting and sculpture, in music and dance, and in ritual.
The importance of all of this lies in the real possibility that it might just have been this ability - to create narrative and art - that enabled our species to survive. Though Neanderthals (whose DNA show that they had the same genes for speech as we do) may have painted, too (possibly on perishable surfaces rather than cave walls), our capacity to create great, long lasting art might have given us the ‘edge’ that enabled us to survive.