Saturday, February 18, 2006

Giggles in the caves

A respected expert on prehistoric art suggests that many of the Paleolithic cave paintings were made by teenagers, not the mature male shamans usually assumed to be their authors.

“This assumption may be true of a few of the best known and better-drawn images, but these are a small proportion of preserved Paleolithic art,” said R. Dale Guthrie of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Using new forensic techniques on fossil handprints of the artists and examining thousands of images, “I found that all ages and both sexes were making art, not just the senior male shamans,” Guthrie said. These included hundreds of prints made as ocher, manganese, or clay negatives and a few positive prints made with pigments or mud applied to hands that were then placed on cave surfaces.

“The possibility that adolescent giggles and snickers may have echoed in dark cave passages as often as the rhythm of a shaman’s chant demeans neither artists nor art,” writes Guthrie.

“I was using Paleolithic art both to appreciate the colorful renditions and to find useful and interesting details about Pleistocene animal anatomy,” said Guthrie, professor emeritus of the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. A symposium of Paleolithic art scholars in 1979 “... set me on a new course of trying to place Paleolithic art in a larger dimension of natural history and linking artistic behavior to our evolutionary past,” writes Guthrie.

When I was in high school, some friends and I started an "underground" newspaper. Maybe some of the cave art was "underground" in both senses of the word as well. Or were the kids just slapping down handprints--"I was here!"--and the accomplished artists doing the heart-stopping lovely bison and horses? It seems like you would have to pay your artistic dues even in the Paleolithic.

(Via Dienekes' Anthropology Blog.)



Blogger Steve Bodio said...

Got the book Chas-- birthday present from Reid, who also has a copy-- and it's MAJOR. I suspect we will both have things to say. You'd love it.

5:31 PM  

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