The paleolithic art of decorated caves – talk by Philippe Grosos at the Symposium ‘The golden thread of the free mind’


Usually we understand ‘boldness’ or ‘audacity’ as the deed or the word of a human being who dares to do, dares to say whatever he or she is saying. The word then indicates: the courage to take a risk, no matter how small it may be. Boldness shows strength, that is when the concept is not confused with brutality or hubris. Contrary to those two motives, it will neither shock nor provoke morally or socially; it doesn’t get involved with those values, and therefore it does not foolishly run ahead to its powers.

As far as that is concerned, it is even possible to acknowledge its intrinsic ingenuity. In his Summa Theologica, Thomas of Aquino acknowledged the value thereof. But it is a value considered on the basis of a previous ambiguity. We have to keep that in mind if we wish to understand what the ‘paradoxical boldness of the image’ means. When he spoke of audicia, the theologist indeed thought of a passion that on the one hand can lack measurement, thus sinking into fearlessness (impavidum), and on the other hand can be ‘moderated by reason’, thus connecting to ‘the virtue of power’ (ad virtutem fortitudinis).

So if, behind any paradox, there is a possible acumen of the audacity – as there is for me a shrewdness of art – what can it be? For example, is it bold to depict ibexes? That seems like a strange, even somewhat absurd question these days. Sure, it can be socially audacious to tag an ibex on the walls of Tarascon at night. And even then, if that were to happen, it would probably be regarded as an aesthetic-poetic invitation to remember a distant past. Or we would see it as a political statement by animal rights or environmental activists.

While tagging on city walls remains a bold act today, and perhaps even undaunted because it so strongly opposes social prohibition, depicting ibexes is no longer the case. Was it so 13,000 years ago? Indeed, 13,000 years is about the age of that famous and magnificent drawing of an ibex in the Pyrenees, for the most part executed in manganese oxide, which can be admired in the Salon Noir (Black Hall) of the cave of Niaux. Was boldness then required to depict such an animal, and what was so bold about it?

To fully answer all the underlying elements of that question, we would need to know whether the depiction of an ibex had any specific symbolic charge. Since we do not have that information, which, moreover, has become forever inaccessible, we must therefore reasonably content ourselves with saying: if there was any audacity, it was of the same order as that which people of the Magdalenian of the same period signed bison in the said Black Hall. Or as demonstrated by those who entered the cave of the Tuc d’Audoubert a few centuries earlier to model two amazing bisons in clay 500 meters from the entrance! In other words, the bold thing is not so much that such figurative works were made, and animals were depicted in two or three dimensions, but in what circumstances this happened.

Today, if a visitor takes his entrance ticket and follows the guide to visit the cave of Niaux and finally arrives at the astonishing beauty of the Black Hall and the 71 animal images on display there, he is hardly taking any chances – and is imagining himself that besides that, nothing matters. Nor is there any reason to believe that there was any audacity in his motivation or his viewing. However, the situation was completely different in Paleolithic times.

The caves that you can visit today are always brightly lit for safety reasons and most of the time too adapted to the visitors. We do not enter under speleological conditions. At best, and very rarely – as in the cave of Chufin, located in the Spanish Cantabres, where I was allowed to be – visitors are asked to crawl a dozen meters, but not without them wearing knee pads, leg pads, a helmet and a headlamp. And if you have the chance to visit a cave that is closed to the public and that requires a more sporty, real speleological access, we wouldn’t have to crawl through winding holes with a lamp of animal fat in our hands and with no idea what we would run into past the next bend. The helmet lamps with which everyone who goes on adventure in the decorated caves is equipped today makes it a lot more comfortable!

All the more, we should admire the audacity of the ‘inventors’ as the prehistorians say, the discoverers of new caves who often take great risks. The three brothers, Max, Jacques and Louis, sons of Count Henri Bégouën, also had the same audacity when, in 1914, they discovered the cave which now bears the name of Les Trois-Frères, ‘the three brothers’; a humorous drawing by Vivian H. Seymer, son of Sir Basil Thomson and with a subtitle by Max Bégouën, managed to hit this perfectly.

But let us return to the essence: if the boldness of the Magdalenians who decorated the walls of the caves lies not so 26 much in their figurative works, as in the adventurous conditions of the image, it is precisely because it happened then – in the Ariège between 14,000 and 12,000 BC. – this form of art was already the successor of a very long tradition, thousands of years old. And if there was talk of the audacity of the image, and not only of difficult circumstances for access to the image, then that expression must lead us to the very origin of the image, in other words, to that which may have initiated the first figurative image or images.

However, such a formulation should be used with caution. For does it not make us fall into a myth of origin, as if it could be proved in time? Fortunately, the progress of prehistoric archeology today makes it possible to define things more precisely and, with the distinction between origin and beginning, to remind us that, according to the present state of science, the first figurative representations appear about 40,000 BC, in the womb of the cultures of the Aurignacian.

Although in the Pyrenees of the Ariège there are apparently not very old works, there is the cave of Gargas in the same department of the Hautes-Pyrénées, located a little more to the west. Dating from the Gravettian, it shows us a little over 210 images of hands, probably including at least 193 ‘negative hands’. The oldest dates here take us to almost 27,000 BC.

The earliest depictions of hands are not on this side of the Pyrenees, but on the Spanish side. Contrary to what Blaise Pascal said, referring to a statement by Michel de Montaigne, for once it is not ‘Truth on this side of the Pyrenees, mistake on the other side’5, but truth from the imprints here and over there. Only there in the cave of El Castillo the negative hands are dated at about 40,000 years and thus take us at once to images that are among the oldest existing. This brings us closer to their very first appearance in the history of mankind.

We can draw a first conclusion from this: if such figurative images existed at that time, then those of the Magdalenian cultures belong to a very old movement and they have nothing really daring in themselves anymore.

We must bear in mind that in the art of the Aurignacian about 40,000 BC the boldness of the figurative image emerges and draw the consequences from it. That audacity, as we will now 27 understand, is not only related to the external circumstances, such as harsh environmental conditions or difficult access to the image location: the difficulty of venturing into the narrowness of a dark cave, the fear of an evil encounter, fear of danger and death. All these difficulties are certainly very real in an ice age, but they are not enough to explain the problem clearly to us.

More to the core, the audacity in question is probably more to be found on the side of an inner quality of our humanity. At least that is what Marcel Otte suggests in his recently published book L’Audace de Sapiens6. In that work the Belgian prehistorian rightly emphasizes the audacity that Homo Sapiens needed to go through its evolutionary process, to successfully complete its stormy expansion, and constantly conquer new areas and new skills. All this seems as intuitive as it is descriptive. However, if a concept becomes too generalized, you risk weakening it and missing its essential momentum. Therefore, it seems important to me to focus our attention on what I call: the boldness of the image, that is: the boldness required in the transition to a figurative representation.

Why am I emphasizing this point? Because it is possible that this opening, this entrance to the performance, has a more paradoxical importance than appears at first sight. Let me clarify this a bit. To reasonably define art as a symbolic activity, we can say that the first art forms arise together with the first tools. More precisely formulated: with the first stone carving. That is, for example, the interpretation of Michel Lorblanchet, the highly skilled prehistorian and specialist of the decorated caves of Quercy, in his book La naissance de l’art (the birth of the art), published in 1999. Indeed, a hand axe – cut on both sides – requires the realization of symmetry, coupled with a strong abstraction ability.

Moreover, as if such antiquity in itself were not astonishing enough, we now know that the first carved stones are much older than the hand axes of the Acheulean. This is according to information published in 2015 by several Early Paleolithic specialists after they found a carved stone in Kenya’s eastern Turkana that is dated to be about 3.3 million years old. To make you dizzy! They propose to place him in a material culture called Lomekwian.

Finally, we should add that the oldest coloured and engraved stone found so far dates back to 75,000 years ago. This one was found in the South African cave of Blombos and shows very clearly a drawing of 9 intersecting lines and a colouring with iron oxide. Which can’t be a coincidence… From this we can easily conclude: Homo Sapiens, the species to which we belong, is not the origin of the artistic creations. Art forms existed long before its appearance, which is now estimated to be about 300,000 years ago. If such a statement disturbs us, we can indeed call those art forms archaic; but they cannot be denied.

Is Homo Sapiens then at the origin of the artistic image, or more precisely, of the figurative image, that is, of the appearance of figurative motifs? While such a hypothesis is likely, it is no less questioned today, as the importance of Neanderthal culture is reconsidered. An article led by Dirk Hoffmann (of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany) that appeared in the journal Science in 2018 has cast doubt on this.

The study is devoted to three Spanish sites. On the first site, at La Pasiega in Cantabria, the scientists studied a red linear pattern; at the second site, in Matravieso in Estremadura, the imprint of a hand; and finally at the third site, in Ardales in Andalusia, red painted speleothems, mineral deposits. They dated the limestone layers over the paintings using the uranium-thorium method and concluded that the rock paintings must be more than 64,800 years old. This means that they were made in a period when only Neanderthals were present in Western Europe; genetically modern humans do not appear until about 20,000 years later.

That Homo Sapiens may not be at the origin of the image is therefore no longer a fantasy. Yet, in addition to the extreme rarity of such representations, two elements must be introduced here. On the one hand, the studies in question report more on coloured signs than on figurative shapes. If we have to conclude that the Neanderthals in that period had a complicated symbolic system then that is a foregone conclusion; and this because of the cross-checking with other similar information, which is also much older. The first is their ability to create truly symbolic sites, as evidenced by the discovery, in the cave of Bruniquel in the Tarn-et-Garonne, of a spatial structure composed of more than 400 juxtaposed, aligned and superimposed stalagmites dating
from about 180,000 years ago.11 The second is the arrangement of tombs.

Of the 40 Neanderthal graves discovered to date, 7 are located at the archaeological site of La Ferrassie in the Dordogne. Excavations have been made by Denis Peyrony and Louis Capitan since 1896 and the first skeleton was discovered in 1909. That of a grown man. In 1973 the most recent discovery was made: that of an incomplete skeleton of a child of about two years old. The age of the graves was estimated at 45,000 years.

So it is clear that humanity has not waited for the Homo Sapiens that we are to arrive at a complex symbolism. However, it cannot be denied that something new came about with his entry. This is evidenced by the fact that only this human species has survived until now. Can we relate this observation, if not with the appearance, then with the extreme development of figurative art within the cultures of the Aurignacian of modern man from 40,000 BC? How can we relate this information to the concept of boldness?

One of the great mysteries of paleoanthropology is the disappearance of several human species that lived up to 35,000 BC, and presumably could still exist side by side. In addition to the Sapiens, the only survivors there, were the Neanderthals in Europe and the Denisova people in the south of present-day Siberia. There were also two other groups of people in Indonesia, notable for their small stature of probably 1 meter, namely Homo Floresiensis and Homo Luzonensis. Their disappearance may have to do with the fact that they inhabited islands. That, of course, does not apply to the Neanderthals and the Denisovans.

Certainly, those populations may have suffered from various biological problems: extensive inbreeding led to a genetic impairment or to a viral disease. In the past, to justify the disappearance of the Neanderthals, either their weak social and symbolic organization or their extermination by the Sapiens during a territorial conflict has been argued. The current knowledge of their symbolic coherence and of their physical robustness and their adaptation to the environment makes these hypotheses very unlikely. Especially now that we know that there has been interbreeding between them and the Sapiens. Indeed, studies of the paleo-genome have shown that the actual peoples are carriers of genomes from the extinct human groups. In European peoples one finds 2 to 4% genome of the Neanderthal and in the peoples of Melanesia 4 to 6% genome of the Denisovans.

Thus, one of the hypotheses to be considered becomes that of a cultural and symbolic shock that occurred during these encounters. And again, the question of boldness pops up.

What is the invention or at least the extreme generalization of the figurative image across the entire Eurasian continent from 40,000 BC other than a radical symbolic revolution? The Aurignacian people are believed to be the only Sapiens to have encountered Neanderthals and Denisovans. After all, in the time of the Gravettian man and a fortiori of the Solutrene Solutrean and Magdalenian cultures, those groups of people had already disappeared. Well, when the Aurignacians arrived in Europe from Africa and the Near East, they brought with them a strong symbolic culture: a culture capable of producing a symbolic image.

While it is almost impossible to understand what enabled the boldness of their creations, we can certainly ask what produced that boldness of the image. What it has produced is a presumably symbolic cosmology with a strong capacity to organize and stabilize the social system, playing a clear role as a structural factor, as a historical and ideological binding agent of the communities at a time when – as we realize – writing did not yet exist. This is evident from the decorated walls of the sublime Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave from the Aurignacian, among other things. Artworks such as the panel of the lions in this cave, which are of course not decorative in any way, do they not show a really unifying and integrating force to those who understand their cultural charge? But if this is the case, how can one – when one comes not only from another culture, but from another humanity (which is actually unimaginable to us today) – compete with such symbolic richness, a richness which has a very expressive vital dynamic.

The hypothesis can now be formulated as follows: the confrontation with that symbolic force, coupled with the boldness of the image, was so powerful that it could not help
but accelerate the decline and eventually disappearance of the Neanderthal peoples. They were very quickly, especially in light 31 of their thousands of years of existence, culturally absorbed by the Sapiens. That is the paradox, the cruel paradox that lies in the boldness of the image. It probably contributed to the assimilation and thus the disappearance of the other human groups – as a result of a cultural shock, a civilization shock that was insurmountable.

Yet it also managed to nourish the future sublime creations and symbolic expressions of the cultures of the Homo Sapiens with their beautiful energy. This is witnessed by the exceptionally decorated cave of Cussac, from the Gravettian, in which a dead person was placed face down in a bear crib. What a wonderfully powerful symbol! Much later, in the Solutrean period, it is still the same symbolic power that will radiate in the no less exceptional Salle des Taureaux, the Hall of the Bulls of Lascaux, and later in the sanctuary of the Trois-Frères of the Magdalenian, or also in the Salon Noir of Niaux.

Boldness, boldness again and again, moving between strength and intrepidity. Probably, for better or for worse, this is a fundamental feature of our humanity.

Philippe Grosos, professor at the University of Poitiers, philosopher, author of the book Philosophie de l’art et art paléolithique (Philosophy of the art and Paleolithic art), 2017 and Lucidité de l’art. Animaux et environnement dans l’art depuis le paléolithique supérieur (Lucidity of art. Animals and the environment in art since the Upper Paleolithic), 2020



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