Philobiblon: Democratic paleolithic art

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Democratic paleolithic art

I nipped up to the British Museum this morning for a talk on "animals in ice age art", a complement to my recent visit to the Peche Merle caves. (Discussed here and here.)
It was a good chance to look closely at some of the paleolithic items, including the wolverine pendant. It was interesting to learn that even among Arctic Circle hunter today these fierce predators (related to weasels, but in size between a fox and a wolf) are still a high-status species, so anyone who kills one can be assured of a great fuss being made about it. Their fur is also excellent for shedding water, usefully reducing the risk of your clothes sticking to your skin.
(This last point I already knew from Jean Auel's "Earth's Children" series, for which I must confess a shameful addiction - the writing is terrible, but the research seems pretty good, and the thesis - of one woman single-handedly inventing most of the advances of the Upper Paleolithic- irresistible!)
This piece, dated to about 12,500BP, is somewhat unusual for its time, however, in depicting a predator; the earlier art tends to show lions, wolves etc, and the later more horses, reindeer and other prey species. (Such as this horse.)
One theory suggests that as anatomically modern humans moved into Europe they first encountered, and did battle with, lots of animals which regarded them as dinner, but later on, having cut their numbers, they were more interested in their own dinner.
The other main point I got out of the talk is that the images on this portable art on useable, and used objects, the "art of the light", very closely match - in subject, motifs, design, perspective, pretty well anything you can think of - the "art of the night" (in the caves). It was suggested that this might mean that the cave art was not an "elite", restricted art, available only to the specially initiated, but "democratic", available to all, or at least all who could navigate the passages to get to it.
Mmmmm, not sure about that ... it seems to make sense, but if there was thought be a lot of power in the cave paintings would not inevitably someone have tried to restrict access to them?


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