Lost and Found: Ice Age Art (3/29/79)

In 1979, in San Francisco, the California Academy of Arts and Sciences in Golden Gate Park opened Ice Age Art, an exhibition prepared by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and curated by Alexander Marshack, an archaeologist associated with the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. It was the first exhibition of its kind ever mounted in the United States—and, as a depiction of fragments of lost rituals, it was a kind of ritual itself, an exhibition of an origin myth, with anyone who wandered through perhaps pulled in close to any of its unmarked gathering spots, to circle around tale-tellers’ fires last lit no one knows when.


Using mostly reproductions rather than original artifacts—casts of sculptures, photographs and photomurals of cave paintings, graphic reconstructions of engravings—Ice Age Art is less a presentation than a dramatization of prehistory: the world-vision of peoples who lived from more than 30,000 to 10,000 years ago, from France to Siberia. The show insists on a complex cultural experience rather than a staged confrontation with official masterpieces or a desultory contemplation of the leavings of primitive tribes. In a society that measures its history in centuries and takes history itself to be a straight, ascending line from intellectual poverty to mastery, the exhibit is revelatory, and it is also unsettling. Again and again, the categories of cultural time one brings to the exhibit dissolve. You see cave art; portraits of people who lived 13,000 years before Christ, engraved by their contemporaries; animal figures beautifully made as personal ornaments or as part of involved seasonal compositions; tools; notations, probably of lunar cycles, marked on bone; tiny sculptures of mammoth, horse, woolly rhinoceros, lion, and the female figurines known as Venuses—some rendered so crudely as to enforce an impossible sense of distance, some created with such grace as to smash distance altogether, and with it the idea of progress. You look at the hugely enlarged photo of a tiny sculpture of a horse, 32,000 years old, from Vogelherd, Germany. The aesthetic finality—the completion of vision—engages you so fully that the image comes to represent not only a horse but human sensibility as such. It is a struggle to go back to the very beginnings of Egypt and Sumer, and then back again, and again, and again, and again—back four times more to reach the time when this horse was made.

The exhibition reaches a sort of climax when one comes to Jean Vertut’s overwhelming photomural of a famous scene from the Paleolithic sanctuary of Lascaux, dating to about 17,000 years ago. Distance and recognition somehow come together. In orchestrated movement—too much movement to take in all at once, so much movement it seems to produce noise—more than a dozen animals flash across a cave wall, heading toward each other; then they meet. Two huge bulls (in the cave of Lascaux, they are more than life size), the one on the left preceded and followed by black and red horses almost as big, face each other; between them are little stags. Along the bottom on the left is a series of smaller horses. At the far left—waiting, not running, as are the others—is a pregnant, cowlike animal, its humped back marked with red ovals, and protruding from its head not the horns of its apparent species, but two long straight lines, the horns of no animal that ever lived.Though the images on this wall were made at different times, the tableau carries an inescapable sense of composition, of totality: of definitive, coherent, perhaps cumulative vision. The scene is not realistic. The animals shown did not run together, let alone under the gaze of the oddly silent, neutral figure of the imaginary animal. And yet every moment of the composition is supported by realistic detail—including, by means of blanks at the tops of the animals’ back legs, perspective. The great bull on the right, pulling up short, apprehending the massed procession heading toward it, is so forceful and kinetic an image, so direct and unencumbered, that it seems less to have been painted on the wall than to have appeared there. Its realism animates the far more stylized horses it faces, just as the symbolic abstractions of the horses intensify the symbolic qualities of the realistic bull.

What are we to make of all this?

The people who are the subject of this exhibition lived thousands of years before the invention of writing. That they possessed language, ritual, and even music (photos of a four-stop flute and an ensemble of bone percussion instruments, from Siberia, are part of the exhibit) can be established; the purposes and content—the motive and meaning—of such cultural systems are unknown. Archaeologists and paleoanthropologists are beginning to show that art-making Paleolithic Europeans—generally known as Cro-Magnons, and barely distinguishable physically from contemporary men and women of European descent—were hardly the rootless nomads they were once thought to be, but questions about how they evolved anatomically, where they came from, their gender roles, and their social organization remain unanswered. The record, pieced together since the first Neandertal discovery in Germany in 1856-57, is full of contradictions and lacunae; almost all theories are more easily disproved than proved. This lack of certainty—a wealth of artifacts, few social facts—has led to a shrinking of questions, and to a shrinking of our sense of who and what the Cro-Magnons were. It has led to a reduction of prehistory to subsistence and superstition. Ice Age Art moves in the opposite direction.

The exhibition is based in the theories and discoveries of Alex­ander Marshack, and the whole thrust of his work in Paleolithic culture has been against simplistic assumptions about the nature of behavior, consciousness, and motive in the distant past. In 1963, an almost chance insight, sparked by a Scientific American article on the excavation of the 20,000-25,000-year-old site of Ishango, in Zaire, led Marshack—then a popular-science journalist—to guess that marks on Paleolithic bones, previously thought to be random scratches, hunting tallies, or doodles, were really lunar records and calculations about the future: protean calendars. The pursuit of that insight, and its nearly endless implications about the cognitive abilities and practices of the Cro-Magnons, led to a re-envisioning of the cultures of Ice Age peoples, and became Marshack’s life’s work. It was a classic example of the thesis that scientific revolutions are made by outsiders, the thesis being that of Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: “Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change.”

Using microscopic and infrared photography to reveal previously unknown detail in artifacts excavated over the last century, Marshack and others have begun to rescue the productions of Cro-Magnon culture from characterization as childlike cause-and-effect magic, meaningless decoration, automatic realism, or plain indecipherability. Marshack has been able to show that engravings, paintings, and notations were “time-factored,” or “storied,” and that they were made and passed down, sometimes across hundreds of generations, within an intellectual matrix of complexity and depth. The microscope has revealed that notations were made with different points over long periods, thus establishing an awareness of time. There were also compositions linking animal and plant images, telling stories of seasonal change with precise naturalism. Animal images were “renewed,” and their meanings perpetuated or changed.

Originally, Marshack argues, the various symbol systems—glyphs, notational sequences, representations of animals and humans—were kept separate from each other. The cognitive, associative leaps between them had not been made. The combining of these systems—as on the 15,000-year-old antler from La Marche, France, which includes a probable lunar notation marked down over seven and a half months and two renewed, re-engraved horses—“represents,” he has written, “one of the great intellectual achievements of man.” It represents the association not merely of two techniques but of two versions of reality.

The most confusing part of the exhibition is the section on people. Here one finds the very early statuettes of women—mostly pregnant, faceless, with exaggerated breasts, hips, and buttocks—that began to be made across Europe 30,000 years ago. There are examples from France, Austria, Siberia, Italy, and one from the extensively excavated site of Dolni Vestonice, in Czechoslovakia. They move beyond the narrow context of fertility magic, to which they used to be consigned: again, cause and effect. They suggest instead an attempt to connect to the mystery of procreation—there is no evidence that Paleolithic peoples understood biological conception—which itself suggests the mystery of human beginnings: the dim shape of a creation myth, a concept that is a prerequisite to the idea of a soul. In a way that the exquisite Vogelherd horse may not, the Venuses represent a fundamental act of self-recognition—“Who are we?”—the basis of the long process that led human beings to stand outside themselves, to think, to move backward and forward while standing still.

To take the words of Mircea Eliadc in The Myth of the Eternal Return, the question the female figures raise is “how and why for the man of the premodern societies certain things become real.” As one looks at the radically abstracted or stylized Venuses, it’s easy to imagine that the culture in which they were produced was one in which reality was purely symbolic—where reality had no prosaic dimension. Three extremely schematized statuettes (two from Dolni Vestonice, a woman reduced to breasts in one and vulva in the other; a pendant of female buttocks from a much later Czech site) deepen the impression. But a few feet away in the exhibit are two tiny bone faces of women, from France and Dolni Vestonice, that are as early as the Venuses, well over 20,000 years old. With their well-defined faces and intricate hairdos, they seem to be images of actual people, of individuals, as the Venuses do not—and the exhibit does not mention that in the case of the face from Dolni Vestonice, there is a mature female skeleton from the same site with a skull deformity, a paralysis of the left side of the face, that matches that of the sculpted head.

Still, these faces cannot be simple portraits. Only one individual from Dolni Vestonice was singled out. The deformed woman was dented, or memorialized, perhaps as a symbolic ancestor, perhaps as a living link to a specific body of mystery. No matter how specific or generic, once both possibilities are present, the little heads signify—among other, unknown things—a movement from the iconic to the actual and back to the iconic.

The ability to move back and forth along that line may be the essence of consciousness, and on the wall above the tiny Venus heads it is orchestrated by hand-drawn copies of 15,000-year-old engraved stones, again from La Marche in France. The stones come from an extensive cache discovered in the late 1930s. There are many multiple images, and most are covered with hundreds of intentional marks and lines, made by hundreds of people, or by one. The stones were not definitively rendered and published until 1976, when Leon Pales completed the work and his two-volume Les gravures de La Marche appeared in France; the images from that work have never been exhibited before.

Here, rather than a community subsumed into an icon, is the community itself. There are men, women, adolescents, infants and elders, naked and dressed, smiling, frowning, in postures we see as prayerful, dancing, showing fear and delight. Some seem storied, engaged in ritual; some as if they simply meant to have their portraits made. There’s a great shock of recognition when one views these images. You’ve seen these faces before, and here they are so animated you begin to see them on the street as soon as you leave the exhibition.

Contrasted with the abstract or schematic Venuses, these pictures embody a strikingly casual realism. But while an immediate, prosaic aspect is surely present, implying that in the minds of Ice Age peoples the prosaic was now real, that aspect can be deceptive. The smiling, seemingly praying woman, perhaps pregnant, perhaps not, reaches us as an actual person. But she is also clearly a continuation of the tradition of the faceless Venuses, and possibly a transformation of it. The apparently male ghost figure, shown opposite the woman in the exhibit’s graphics, is on the original stone intermingled with her, indeed seems to be diving into her. This would make the story that begins with the Venuses a new story, linking male and female for perhaps the first time. But even if this is a misreading, which it probably is, it is inescapable that this representation of a female is at the very least doubled. This is a monumentally potent, fundamental mythic symbol, already rooted 15,000 years in the past—not our past, but the past of the people of La Marche; part of the “single religious system,” as Andre Leroi-Gourhan writes in Treasures of Prehistoric Art , that “seems to underlie the works of art from Russia and the Ukraine to Spain”—and also the image of an ordinary woman. The elements of individuality, an empathetic warmth an icon cannot convey, remain, coexisting and combining with the symbolic aspects of the image. And this suggests that those engravings from La Marche shown in the exhibit that seem free of symbolism—a laughing youth, an old man—may not be.

What these drawings appear to say is that by 15,000 years ago, the purposeful movement from the actual to the iconic, from the iconic to the actual, and the recognition of places in between, was not simply a possibility of culture, but an ordering principle. The existence of an individual could be expressed, as could symbols independent of individuals, the individual or the collectivity absorbed into the symbol, or the unity—the relationship—of individual, collectivity, and symbol. This is not a reality we have progressed beyond. If anything, it is a reality we inherited, have broken into parts, and can no longer put back together.

Of all that you can take away from this exhibition, most disturbing might be the sense that you cannot understand what you’ve seen as the work of a primitive people. The idea of the primitive has no real meaning save as a description of people who live almost solely within limits: within imaginative and technological restrictions that do not simply define the perimeters of life but are its essence. Primitive people are culturally stagnant, immobile, often regressed from a more active state—and a definite artistic and probably technological regression took place across Europe about 12,000 years ago, when the last Ice Age ended and Cro-Magnon cultures began to break up. The Cro-Magnons’ technology—their tools included knives, needles, spear-throwers, paints, oil lamps, grinding stones, firing kilns, rope, and the like—could perhaps be called primitive, even though Marshack’s analysis of notations (the idea that Paleolithic peoples practiced notation was heresy only fifteen years ago) has convinced him they solved problems as we do. But the cultural dynamic of the Cro-Magnons was not essentially technological. It was ontological and artistic, less a matter of shaping a tool than of recognizing and shaping the world.Technology can function very well within the limits of necessary utility, but there are no limits on the mind’s demand for meaning once the perception and representation of meaning have become the basis of life. What we see in the Cro-Magnons’ close observation and visual representation of animal anatomy and behavior, in their intensification of symbolism, in their expansion of technique in order to render an increasingly complex vision, is an enormous reach beyond limits—a reach that opens imaginative and intellectual possibilities rather than, as in a primitive milieu, closes them off. The art of the Cro-Magnons does not look primitive to us because it is not, and it is not because it was motivated by demands on the world that were not primitive.

Ice Age Art allows us to enter the cosmology—not the cult, not the magic—that gave meaning to life 15,000, 20,000, and 30,000 years ago: the symbolic and iconographic construction of the world. The cosmology of the Cro-Magnons must have been to them the apprehension of reality, and an attempt to pierce and enter its mysteries; to us that cosmology can represent the invention of reality, its founding. Even though it is out of reach as one looks and thinks, the feeling that some unifying myth lies behind each artifact, each image, is present; so, as one looks again at the Lascaux photomural, is the feeling that, as William Irwin Thompson writes in At the Edge of History, “myth is not an early level of human development, but an imaginative description of reality in which the known is related to the unknown through a system of correspondences in which mind and matter, self, society, and cosmos are integrally expressed in an esoteric language of poetry and number which is itself a performance of the reality it seeks to describe.”

Within a cosmology, all things are related in special, storied, intentional ways. A complexity of motive, perception, action, and belief builds on itself, deepens. A sense of time emerges and becomes inseparable from the creation of an image and the way in which that image must be seen and used. Nothing is random. There can be no such thing as a doodle, and no such thing as a meaningless mark on a bone. There can be no such thing as a single, contained meaning for a painting, or an engraved face, or a carving, or an act.

In the cave of Pech Merle, in France, there is a painting [pictured above] of two large horses—one of the most stunning tableaux in prehistoric art, and fully reproduced in the exhibit. The composition is completed with red and black dots, hand prints, a circle, and a fish. Marshack has been able to show that the outlines of the horses were made first, then filled in with dots, and that more dots, and the hand prints, came last.

Hand prints, here and elsewhere, are a fundamental motif of preliterate art, whether in 20,000-year-old cave paintings in Europe or Australia or in the painting of present-day children anywhere. Those at Pech Merle have been much interpreted: as signifying human control over the horses (ensuring that they could be killed), or as a Kilroy-like I-was-here. Both ways of seeing are quaintly modern, stressing aggression and ego as motives; both say more about the mind of the present than that of the past. One can see something richer: the act of people joining themselves to the composition, not so much as its masters or creators but as members of the cosmology it speaks for. It is a connecting of the individual, the group, or the human species as such to the whole, and as dramatic a statement of the shape of our culture as there is.

The shape of its first fully realized form is reappearing now in outline; it remains to be filled in. One can deduce the presence of legends and symbol systems without knowing their content. The Cro-Magnons surely had an explanation of their own origins, a myth perhaps shared all across Europe for tens of thousands of years; for the moment, Ice Age Art can be understood as a version of the myth of our own origins.


New West, March 29, 1979


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