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THE OLD STONE AGE
When did human beings start creating works of art? What prompted them to do so? What did these earliest works of art look like? Every history of art must begin with these questions--and with the admission that we cannot answer them. Our earliest-known ancestors began to walk on two feet about four million years ago, but how they were using their hands remains unknown to us. Not until more than two million years later do we meet the earliest evidence of toolmaking. Humans must have been using tools all along, however. After all, apes will pick up a stick to knock down a banana or a stone to throw at an enemy. The making of tools is a more complex matter. It demands first of all the ability to think of sticks or stones as "fruit knockers" or "bone crackers," not only when they are needed for such purposes but at other times as well.
Once humans were able to do this, they gradually discovered that some sticks or stones had a handier shape than others, and they put them aside for future use. They selected and "appointed" certain sticks or stones as tools because they had begun to connect form and function. The sticks, of course, have not survived, but a few of the stones have. They are large pebbles or chunks of rock that show the marks of repeated use for the same operation, whatever that may have been. The next step was to try chipping away at these tools-by-appointment in order to improve their shape. This is the first craft of which we have evidence, and with it we enter a phase of human development known as the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, which lasted from about 40,000 to 10,000 B.C.
CHAUVET. The most striking works of Paleolithic art are the images of animals incised, painted, or sculptured on the rock surfaces of caves. In the recently discovered Chauvet cave in southeastern France, we meet the earliest paintings known to us, dating from more than 30,000 years ago. Ferocious lions, panthers, rhinoceroses, bears, reindeer, and mammoths are depicted with extraordinary vividness, along with bulls, horses, birds, and occasionally humans. These paintings already show an assurance and refinement far removed from any humble beginnings. What a vivid, lifelike image is the depiction of horses seen in figure 28! We are amazed not only by the keen observation and the assured, vigorous outlines, but even more perhaps by the power and expressiveness of these creatures. Unless we are to believe that images such as this came into being in a single, sudden burst, we must assume that they were preceded by thousands of years of development about which we know nothing at all.
ALTAMIRA AND LASCAUX. On the basis of differences among the tools and other remains found there, scholars have divided up later "cavemen" into several groups, each named after a characteristic site. Of these it is the so-called Aurignacians and Magdalenians who stand out for the gifted artists they produced and for the important role art must have played in their lives. Besides Chauvet, the major sites are at Altamira, in northern Spain (fig. 29), and Lascaux, in the Dordogne region of France (figs. 30 and 31). At Lascaux, as at Chauvet, bison, deer, horses, and cattle race across walls and ceiling in wild profusion. Some of them are simply outlined in black, others filled in with bright earth colors, but all show the same uncanny sense of life. No less important, the style remains essentially the same between the two caves, despite the gap of thousands of years--testimony to the remarkable stability of Paleolithic culture. Gone, however, are the fiercest of beasts.
How did this extraordinary art happen to survive intact over so many thousands of years? The question can be answered easily enough. The pictures never occur near the mouth of a cave, where they would be open to easy view and destruction, but only in the darkest recesses, as far from the entrance as possible (fig. 32). Some can be reached only by crawling on hands and knees, and the path is so intricate that one would soon be lost without an expert guide. In fact, the cave at Lascaux was discovered purely by chance in 1940 by some neighborhood boys whose dog had fallen into a hole that led to the underground chamber.
What purpose did these images serve? Hidden away as they are in the bowels of the earth, to protect them from the casual intruder, they must have been considered far more serious than decoration. There can be little doubt that they were produced as part of a magic ritual. But of what kind? The traditional explanation is that their origin lies in hunting magic. According to this theory, in "killing" the image of an animal, people of the Old Stone Age thought they had killed its vital spirit; this later evolved into fertility magic, practiced deep within the bowels of the earth. But how are we to account for the presence at Chauvet of lions and other dangerous creatures that we know were not hunted? Perhaps initially cavemen assumed the identity of lions and bears to aid in the hunt. Although it cannot be disproved, this proposal is not completely satisfying. In addition to being highly speculative, it fails to explain many curious features of cave art.
There is a growing consensus that cave paintings must incorporate a very early form of religion. If so, the creatures found in them embody a spiritual meaning that makes of them the distant ancestors of the animal divinities and their half-human, half-animal cousins we shall meet throughout the Near East and the Aegean. Indeed, how else are we to account for their existence? Moreover, such a hypothesis accords as well with the belief that nature is filled with spirits. This belief was found the world over in the ethnographic societies that survived intact until recently.
The existence of cave rituals relating to both human and animal fertility would seem to be confirmed by a unique group of Paleolithic drawings found in the 1950s on the walls of the cave of Addaura, near Palermo in Sicily (fig. 33). These images, incised into the rock with quick and sure lines, show human figures in dancelike movements, along with some animals; and, as at Lascaux, we again find several layers of images superimposed on one another. Here, then, we seem to be on the verge of that fusion of human and animal identity that distinguishes the earliest historical religions of Egypt and Mesopotamia.
POSSIBLE ORIGINS. Some of the cave pictures may even provide a clue to the origin of this tradition of fertility magic. In a good many instances, the shape of the animal seems to have been suggested by the natural formation of the rock, so that its body coincides with a bump, or its contour follows a vein or crack as far as possible. We all know how our imagination sometimes makes us see many sorts of images in chance formations such as clouds or blots. Perhaps at first the Stone Age artist merely reinforced the outlines of such images with a charred stick from the fire. It is tempting to think that those who proved particularly good at finding such images were given a special status as artist-magicians so that they could perfect their image-hunting, until finally they learned how to make images with little or no help from chance formations, though they continued to welcome such aid.
Carved and Painted Objects
Apart from large-scale cave art, the people of the Upper Paleolithic also produced small, hand-sized drawings and carvings in bone, horn, or stone, skillfully cut by means of flint tools. The earliest of these found so far are small figures of mammoth ivory from a cave in southwestern Germany, made 30,000 years ago. Even they, however, are already so accomplished that they too must be the fruit of an artistic tradition many thousands of years old. The graceful, harmonious curves of a running horse (fig. 34) could hardly be improved upon by a more recent sculptor. Many years of handling have worn down some details of the tiny animal. (The two converging lines on the shoulder, indicating a dart or wound, were not part of the original design.)
Some of these carvings suggest that the objects may have originated with the recognition and elaboration of some chance resemblance. Earlier Stone Age people were content to collect pebbles in whose natural shape they saw something that apparently rendered them "magic." Echoes of this approach can sometimes be felt in later, more fully worked pieces. The so-called "Venus" of Willendorf (fig. 35), one of many such female figurines, has a bulbous roundness of form that recalls an egg-shaped "sacred pebble." Her navel, the central point of the design, is a natural cavity in the stone. She and like carvings are often considered fertility figures, based on the spiritual beliefs of "preliterate" societies of modern times. Although the idea is tempting, we cannot be certain that such parallels existed in the Old Stone Age. Likewise, the masterful Bison (fig. 36) of reindeer horn owes its compact, expressive outline in part to the contours of the palm-shaped piece of antler from which it was carved. It is a worthy companion to the splendid beasts at Altamira, Lascaux, and Chauvet.
Copyright © 1997 Harry N. Abrams, Inc.. All rights reserved.