Understanding Hominin's Transition From Animal To Human Through Art

Undergraduate's Perspective on Upper Paleolithic Cave Art and Portable Art

the sorcerer in chauvet cave
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Last year I took a great Anthropology course about the Origins of Human Society. It was very interesting and thought-provoking; I learned a lot. We had to complete 3-4 essays throughout the semester. The 3rd prompt especially interested me, and I think I wrote a pretty good response. (Not to brag, but I got 100% on it.) Looking at cave art (in Chauvet, Lascaux, etc.) and portable art (Venus figurines) of Upper Paleolithic humans, I offer an explanation of how they perceived themselves at this time. This paper examines the relationship between humanity and animality in the Upper Paleolithic.

This essay is in part a response to George Bataille's "The Passage from Animal to Man and The Birth of Art" from his book The Cradle of Humanity: Prehistoric Art and Culture, Director Werner Herzog's movie Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and my own visit to the Hall of Human Origins exhibit at The American Museum of Natural History. I hope you enjoy; tell me what you think in the comments!

Instructions for the Essay

To Prepare:

The Prompt:

For this assignment there were two options. I chose the one that was a longer essay (1800 word minimum) rather than two shorter essays. This option combined the prompts from the two other essays.

Prompt 1: I Am A Scientist, But I Am Also A Human
horses in chauvet cave the internet

"What these admirable frescoes proclaim with a youthful vigor is not only that the man who painted them ceased being an animal by painting them but that he stopped being an animal by giving the animal, and not himself, a poetic image that seduces us and seems sovereign."

Bataille was writing of Lascaux. Just think how he would have fallen to his knees had he known what lay in store hidden away in Chauvet Cave! Use this essay as a space to think with both Bataille and Herzog about the spectacular iconography and surreal subterranean landscapes of Chauvet.

You may take this essay in whatever direction you see fit - most of us are moved by this unprecedented archaeological site in personal and poetic ways, and you should feel free to permit your writing to be similarly moved. But I am especially interested to read your reflections on how the Paleolithic artists of Chauvet may have understood the animal, the other than human species that they depicted so elegantly in the dark recesses of the cave complex.

In evaluating your essay, we will - as before - be considering (1) the depth of your engagement with both the film (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) and the essay ("The passage from animal to man and the birth of art"), (2) the originality of your ideas, and (3) the style and crafting of your written composition.

Prompt 2: Communicating the Complexities of Hominin Evolution and the Human Experience to Public Audiences
American Museum of Natural History's HOH Human Origins Hall Exhibit

Building upon and expanding the scope of Prompt 1, utilize the Upper Palaeolithic portions of the AMNH Hall of Human Origins to inform and enrich your ideas. Feel free to take photographs to bring context of your essay; or include your own personal reactions to the dioramas depicting life among Neanderthals and Behaviorally Modern Humans; and/or your contemplations on the material culture and art (portable and parietal) on display in the Hall.

Courtesy Adam S. Watson (ANTH V1007; Barnard College & Columbia University)

Enjoy reading the essay. Write your thoughts in the comment section.

The Essay

Finding A Balance

The creation of art accompanies the shift from animal to man. Art was a way for early humans to express their recognition that this change was occurring, but that there is uncertainty to where it was leading them. They look back to the familiar to try to understand the unknown.

Early humans were much less separated from nature than we are today. They coexisted among animals, opposed to how we tend to push them to the margins by establishing urban centers. Before adopting a sedentary lifestyle, nomadic human groups would live similarly to how other animals lived, traveling in search of resources. They embraced this connection to animals, venturing into caves where predators made refuge. Instead of avoiding Chauvet Cave, a possibly dangerous place, humans seemed to see it as sacred. Even though they noted the importance of the cave, they also respected this as the cave bear's domain. "...[H]umans never lived in the cave. They used it only for painting and possibly ceremonies" (Cave). Instead of trying to dominate the cave bears or take over their space, they only used the cave when necessary. The location and subjects of their paintings revealed the amount of respect they had for some of their fellow animals.

The respect the artists had for the animals manifests itself in the detail in which they depict them. Dominique Baffier, the former Curator of Chauvet Cave, states that the art displays "their key knowledge of the animal world. They tell us stories" (Cave). Their ability to accurately depict not only the appearance of the animals, but also their actions show the artists must have observed these animals closely. In Chauvet, there are paintings of multiple horses shown with their mouths open giving the impression they are whinnying, rhinos fighting with legs jutting forward and horns colliding, and a male lion courting a female who is "raising her lips [and] baring her teeth" (Cave). What is amazing about these pieces are the sensory response they trigger in the viewer. The viewer is able to hear the whinnies, the clashing of the horns, and the harsh growl. More importantly, the viewer feels the emotions of the animal and can understand their story. To properly display this story through painting, the artist must have felt a strong connection to these animals. In order to properly depict these stories, he or she must have been able to empathize with the animal and to understand its emotions. By empathizing with the animals, they saw themselves as a part of this animal kingdom, not necessarily above it.

The strong connection early humans had with animals is clear from the paintings, but what is more obscure is the purpose for creating this art. The first step in illuminating their motivations is to note which animals they decided to depict. George Bataille notices they "are both the animals that the men of the caves hunted and those the early civilized man treated as equals" (74). This would explain the paintings of animals "in a state conforming to [early humans'] desire" (Bataille 74), such as them being shot with arrows or copulating. This line of thinking could suggest that the anthropomorphic figures (e.g. "the Main with a Mammoth's head, the one with the bird's head") "... are perhaps hunters in disguise", one of the hypotheses of Abbé Breuil (qtd. in Bataille 68). This explanation is weakened by the sole semi-human figure painting with a bison head and a female lower body on the rock pendant in Chauvet Cave. Since the hunters are men in other paintings, it is unlikely women would have participated in the hunt, meaning that there is likely a more compelling explanation for the semi-human figures in Lascaux.

Abbé Breuil's other explanation for these figures is that "they are members of the tribe performing some magic rite, or mythical beings from whom favors must be requested and who must be conciliated" (qtd. in Bataille 68). This hypothesis is logical considering the apparent respect the artists had for these animals, the status "The Sorcerer/God", one of the most famous paintings of Trois Frères, holds (being isolated above the other animals), and the existence of similar traditions in current cultures. By continuing to look at these current cultures of "traditional people", one will find "the concept of fluidity and the concept of permeability. Fluidity that the categories that we have... can shift... The concept of permeability is that are no barriers... between the world where we are the world of the spirits." (Cave) This provides an even more compelling explanation for the figures.

Rather than a masked human performing a magic rite, or a god, the paintings could depict a being in flux, between a human and an animal. This hypothesis takes into account the idea that the painting shows the artist's desires. Early humans had a supreme respect for the animals that they painted, so they would see something to be gained from them, whether it be physical might or a unique understanding of the world. By connecting to the spirits of these animals, one could gain that power.

The location for the paintings gives credence to this hypothesis. The artists chose caves, not only because they are the homes of cave bears, animals they desired to be like, but also because it was dark. As a scientist in Chauvet points out "in this big chamber... - it's the biggest in the cave - there are not paintings except right at the end... [W]hen the entrance was still open, there must have been some light here, so they put the paintings, really, in the complete dark" (Cave).This is because the dark played a fundamental role in the process of creation. "In the darkness of the cave, with the glow of the lamps, [the Paleolithic man] celebrated a rite of evocation" (Bataille 77). What mattered was the ceremony, not necessarily the final product. This makes sense of the clustered, overlapping drawings of animals in Lascaux and the plentiful hand prints in Chauvet. Being in complete darkness (i.e. sensory deprivation) can cause hallucinations, thus bringing the artists closer to the spirit world where they will be able to interact with the spirits of the animals they wish to become more like.

Even the act of painting on the cave walls can come to resemble the acts of the animal. Archaeologists, Carole Fritz and Gilles Tosello describe a series of events in which a cave bear scratches a section of the wall, followed by "drawings stretching over eight feet in height" made over the scratches, "followed by the main phase [that] starts with the scraping of the wall to get to the white of the rock" (Cave). The artist of the first drawing chose this spot as it had been touched by a cave bear. This shows a willingness to mirror the bear's actions by leaving his or her own mark on the wall just as the bear did. The second artist chooses the same location, probably for the same reason, but takes this mimicking even further. This human begins by scratching away at the rock, now not just copying the bear's choice for location, but its exact action as well. This ceremony of painting on cave walls in darkness connected the artist as much as possible to the subject of painting in order to learn from that powerful animal.

The discussion of the intentions for this parietal art turns the focus to who exactly these artists were. Because of the locations of the cave art (i.e. darkness) and the apparent ceremony in its creation, it is likely that shamans, humans trying to contact the spirit world, were the artists. Analysis of the hand prints, done by Archaeologist Dean Snow, in caves showed that 75% of them were left by women (Hughes). This new evidence gives insight to some of the parietal art of Chauevet and the portable art of the Upper Paleolithic.

The artists, shamans who were seemingly mostly women, most likely took a privileged role in Upper Paleolithic society. In Chauvet, with paintings dating from around 32,000 years ago, there is "only [one] partial representation of a human", the half-bison, half-women on the rock pendant in the farthest chamber of the cave (Cave). Because of it's uniqueness, it is important to note, especially in comparison to the cave art in Lascaux (dating from around 17,000 years ago) where the semi-human figures were mostly male. This first apparent recognition of the fluidity between human and animal by the people that painted Chauvet, was seemingly connected to the female, probably because the shaman recognizing this fluidity was female. What can account for this change between the female semi-human figure in Chauvet and the male semi-human figures in Lascaux?

Possibly, there was a shift in the role of women in early society during this period. If female shamans were able to bring insight from the spirit world back to their group, they may have enjoyed a privileged status in that group. The portable art between the periods of Chauvet and Lascaux, show an emphasis on the female body which supports this claim. The Venus figurines (from about 28,000-22,000BP) show a figure that is overtly human and female (AMNH Exhibit). The figurines emphasize the permanent sexual characteristics of the female (e.g. large breasts, smooth skin, large hips (also for passing uniquely large human crania)) that distinguish humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. The apparently pregnant belly and pubic triangle emphasize her fertility and femininity. It is significant that these exaggerated depictions of femininity and humanity were portable art. Parietal art was kept in the domains of the animals, but the portable art was kept in the domain of the humans. These Venus figurines showed early humans beginning to recognize their uniqueness. Women had brought the concept of art and spirituality to humans through noticing their similarities to animals. In doing so, they established themselves as what made humans unique, thus earning themselves recognition in the form of the Venus figurines, tokens of humanity's uniqueness. Because of this representation of females as humanity's uniqueness and the continuing desire to find refuge in the animal world, males took the role as the ones depicted as semi-human figures. The Upper Paleolithic people found a balance between recognizing both their uniqueness and also their commonality to the rest of the animal kingdom, one that is being lost in the present.

The exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History made a valiant attempt at trying to regain this balance, though. The first case you encounter contains a large "horse deeply engraved on a massive limestone block" that captures your attention, even though the caption for the case states that the first piece of art was actually an engraved ochre plaque that is shown almost hidden behind the limestone block. Having this as the centerpiece recognizes the important contribution the rest of the animal kingdom made to the development of our species. The next board you come to is one posing the question "What Makes Us Human?" This shows that we are unique as a species, but posing this as a question leads to some uncertainty. The following boards, "Tools and Technology", "Art", "Music", and "Language" provide objective information on the capabilities of both early humans (and other hominins) and the rest of the animal kingdom in these areas. At the top of each of these boards is the question "Are we unique?" This repetition leads to a questioning of the notion of the growing belief that we are unique to the point of being completely separate from animality.

Humans of the Upper Paleolithic were better able to see their connection to the living things around them. They saw their own uniqueness not as a difference between themselves and the rest of nature, but in the sense a cave bear and ibex were different. They noticed the importance and power of their fellow animals. Humanity would benefit from a "devolution" to this mindset.

Works Cited

American Museum of Natural History Exhibit. 31 Oct. 2014

Bataille, George. "The Passage from Animal to Man and the Brith of Art." The Cradle of Humanity: Prehistoric Art and Culture. Ed. Stuart Kendall. Trans. Stuart Kendall and Michelle Kendall. Zone Books, 2005. 57-80. Print.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Dir. Werner Herzog. IFC, 2010. Film.

Hughes, Virginia. "Were the First Artists Mostly Women?" National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 8 Oct. 2013. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

Written: November 13th, 2014

Published: June 19th, 2015

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