Resurgence 192 (January/February 1999): 12-15

Bear from the Chauvet cave, France
Paintings for this article are reproduced from Chauvet Cave: the discovery of the World's oldest paintings, published by Thames & Hudson, £32

LET'S SAY WE'RE about to enter not the twenty-first century but the fiftieth millennium. Since the various cultural calendars (Hindu, Jewish, Islamic, Christian, Japanese) are each within terms of their own stories, we can ask what calendar would be suggested to us by the implicit narrative of Euro-American science - since that provides so much of our contemporary educated world-view. We might come up with a "homo sapiens calendar" that starts at about 40,000 years before the present (BP) in the Gravettian-Aurignacian era when the human tool kit (already long sophisticated) began to be decorated with graphs and emblems and when figurines were produced not for practical use but apparently for magic or beauty.

Rethinking our calendar in this way is made possible by the research and discoveries of the last century in physical anthropology, palaeontology, archaeology and cultural anthropology. The scholars of hominid history are uncovering a constantly larger past in which the earlier members of our species continually appear to be smarter, more accomplished, more adept, and more complex than we had previously believed. We human beings are constantly revising the story we tell our Self about ourselves. The main challenge is to keep this unfolding story modestly reliable.

One of my neopagan friends, an ethnobotanist and prehistorian, complains about how the Christians have callously appropriated his sacred solstice ceremonies. "Our fir tree of lights and gifts," he says, "has been swept into an orgy of consumerism, no longer remembered as a sign of the return of the sun," and "People have totally forgotten that the gifts brought from the north by Santa Claus are spiritual, not material; and his red clothes, white trim, round body and northern habitat show that he represents the incredibly psychoactive mushroom Amanita muscaria."

My friend is one of several poetscholars I know who study deep history (a term he prefers to "prehistory") - in this case that of Europe - for clues and guides to understanding the creature that we are and how we got here, and better to steer our way into the future. Such studies are especially useful for artists.

I WENT TO FRANCE last summer to further pursue my own interest in the Upper Palaeolithic. South-west Europe has large areas of karst plateau, which allows for caves by the thousands, some of them enormous. Quite a few were decorated by Upper Palaeolithic people. With the help of the poet and palaeo-art historian Clayton Eshleman, my wife and I visited many sites and saw a major sampling of the cave art of south-west Europe, in the Dordogne and the Pyrenees. Places like Pêchemerle, Cougnac, Niaux, El Portel, Lascaux and Trois Frères. The cave art, with its finger tracings, engravings, hand stencils, outline drawings and polychrome paintings, flourished from 10,000 to 35,000 years ago. The Palaeolithic rock and portable art of Europe thus constitute a 25,000-year continuous artistic and cultural tradition. The people who did this were fully homo sapiens and, it must be clearly stated, not just ancestors of the people of Europe but (in a gene pool that old) ancestors to everyone everywhere. The art they left us is a heritage for people of the whole world.

Horses, ChauvetThis tradition is full of puzzles. The artwork is often placed far back in the caves, in almost inaccessible places. The quality fluctuates wildly. Animals can be painted with exquisite attention, but there are almost no human figures, and the ones that are there are strangely crude. Almost no plants are represented. Birds and fish turn up only two or three times (one cave provides an exception). Many animal paintings appear unfinished, with the feet left off.

The theories and explanations from the twentieth-century cave-art specialists - the great Abbé Breuil and the redoubtable André Leroi-Gourhan - don't quite work. The hunting-magic theory, which holds that the paintings of animals were to increase the take in the hunt, is contradicted by the fact that the majority of animal representations are of wild horses, which were not a big food item, and that the animals most commonly consumed, red deer and reindeer, are depicted in very small number. The horse was not yet domesticated, so why this fascination for horses? (My wife, Carole, suggests that maybe the artists were a guild of teenage girls.)

The other most commonly represented animals, the huge Pleistocene bison and the auroch, or wild cattle (which were living in the forests of northern Europe up until the sixteenth century), were apparently too large and dangerous to be major hunting prey. Ibex, chamois and leopard occasionally show up, but they were not major food items. (There are also pictures of animals long extinct now - woolly rhinoceros, mammoth, cave bear, giant elk.)

In the art of early civilized times, there was a fascination with large predators - in particular, the charismatic Anatolian lions and the brown bears from which the word arctic derives. Big predators were abundant in the Palaeolithic, but sketches or paintings of them are scarce in all caves but one. It was the bears who first used the caves and entirely covered the walls of some, like Rouffignac, with long scratches. Seeing this may have given the first impetus to humans to do their own graffiti.

The theory that these works were part of a shamanistic and ceremonial cultural practice, though likely enough, is still just speculation. There have been attempts to read some narratives out of certain graphic combinations, but that too cannot be tested.

AFTER SEVERAL DECADES of research and comparison, it came to seem that cave art began with hand stencils and crude engravings around 40,000 BP and progressively evolved through time to an artistic climax at the Lascaux cave. This is the most famous of caves, discovered during World War 11. It is generally felt to contain the most remarkable and lovely of all the world's cave art. The polychrome paintings are dated at around 17,000 BP. Last summer I had the rare good fortune to be admitted to la vraie grotte of Lascaux (as well as the replica, which is in itself excellent and what all but a handful of people now see). I can testify to its magic. There's a fifteenfoot-long painting of an auroch arcing across a ceiling, twelve feet above the floor. A sort of Lascaux style is then perceived as coming down in other, later caves, excellent work, up to the Salon Noir in the Niaux cave in the Ariège, dated about 9000 BP. After that, cave art stopped being made, and many caves closed up from landslides or cave-ins and were forgotten.

Until quite recently everyone was pretty comfortable with this evolutionary chronology, which fits our contemporary wish to believe that things get better through time. But in 1994 some enthusiastic speleologists found a new cave, on the Ardèche, a tributary of the Rhône. Squeezing through narrow cracks and not expecting much, they almost tumbled into a fifty-foot-high chamber and a quarter mile of passageways of linked chambers full of magnificent depictions that were the equal of anything at Lascaux. There are a few animals shown here that are totally new to cave art. Images of woolly rhinoceros and the Pleistocene maneless lion, which are rare in other caves, are the most numerous. This site is now known, after the lead discoverer, as the Chauvet cave.

The French scientists did their initial carbon dating, were puzzled, looked again, and had to conclude that these marvellous paintings were around 33,000 years old: 16,000 years older than those at Lascaux almost as distant in time from Lascaux as Lascaux is from us. The idea of a progressive history to cave art is in question. A new, and again larger, sense of the homo sapiens story has opened up for us, and the beginnings of art are pushed even further back in time.

I wrote in my notebook:

"Out of the turning and twisting calcined cave walls, a sea of fissures, calcite concretions ... stalactites ... old claw-scratchings of cave bears floors of bear-wallows & slides; the human fingcr-tracings in clay, early scribblings, scratched-in lines and sketchy little engravings of half-done creatures or just abstract signs, lines crossed over lines, images over images-, out of this ancient swirl of graffiti rise up the exquisite figures of animals: swimming deer with antler cocked up, a pride of lions with noble profiles, fat wild horses great-bodied bison, huge-horned wild bulls, antlered elk; painted and powerfully outlined creatures alive with the life that art gives: on the long-lost mineralled walls below ground. Crisp, economical, swift, sometimes hasty ... fitting into the space, fitting over other paintings, spread across . . . outlined in calligraphic confident curving lines. Not photo-realistic, but true."

To have done this took a mind that can clearly observe and then hold within it a wealth of sounds, smells, and images and then carry them underground and re-create them. The reasons elude our understanding. For sure the effort took organization and planning to bring off. we have found the stone lamps and evidence of lighting supplies and traces of ground pigments sometimes obtained from far away. The people must have gathered supplies of food, dried grass for bedding, poles for scaffolding, and someone was doing arts administration.

One important reminder here is that "There is no progress in art." It is either good, or it isn't. Art that moves us today can be from anywhere, from any time.

The cave paintings had their own roles to play back in the late Pleistocene. Having been protected by the steady temperatures of the underground, they return to human eyes again today and across the millennia can move us. No master realist painter of the last 500 years could better those painted critters of the past: they totally do what they do, without room for improvement.

This is quite true, in certain ways, for the literary arts as well.

WHAT WAS THE future? One answer might be, "The future was to have been further progress, an improvement over our present condition." This is more in question now. The deep past also confounds the future by suggesting how little we are agreed on what is good.

If our ancient rock artists skipped out on painting humans, it just may be that they knew more than enough about themselves and could turn their attention wholeheartedly to the nonhuman other. In any case the range of their art embraces both abstract and unreadable signs and graphs and a richly portrayed world of what today we call "faunal biodiversity". They gave us a picture of their animal environment with as much pride and art as if they were giving us their very selves.

Maybe in some way they speak from a spirit that is in line with Dögen's comment, "We study the self to forget the self. When you forget the self, you can become one with all the other phenomena."

We have no way of knowing what the verbal arts of 35,000 years ago might have been. It is most likely that the languages of that time were in no way inferior in complexity, sophistication or richness to the languages spoken today. I get this opinion in a recent personal communication from the eminent linguist William Bright. It's not far-fetched to think that if the paintings were so good, the poems and songs must have been of equal quality.

One can imagine myths and tales of people, places and animals. In poetry or song, I fancy wild-horse chants, "salutes" (as are sung in some parts of Africa) to each creature, little lyrics that intensify some element in a narrative, a kind of deep song - cante jondo - to go together with deep history, or quick "bison haiku".

Rhinocerous, Chauvet

It was all in the realm of orality, which as we well know can support a rich and intense "literary" culture that is often interacting with dance, song and story. Such are our prime high arts today: opera and ballet.

Today, then: the Franco-Germanic-Anglian creole known as English has become the world's second language and as such is a major bearer of diverse literary cultures. English is and will be all the more a future host to a truly multicultural "rainbow" realm of writings. The rich history of the English language tradition is like a kiva full of lore, to be studied and treasured by writers and scholars wherever they may find themselves on the planet. It will also continue to diversify and to embrace words and pronunciations that will move it farther and farther from London Town. Even as I deliberately take my membership to be North American and feel distant from much of European culture, I count myself fortunate to have been born a native speaker of English. Such flexibility, such variety of vocabulary! Such a fine sound system! And we can look forward to its future changes. Performance and poetry, storytelling and fiction are still alive and well. Orality and song stay with poetry as long as we are here.

Multiculturalism is generally conceived in synchronic terms: cultures and peoples of this historical time frame, in their differences. I'm suggesting we also be open to a diachronic view and extend our tolerance back in time. It would do no harm to take a sympathetic, open and respectful attitude toward the peoples of the deep past. We can try to hear their language coming through paintings of lions and bison. This is now part of what our past will be.

Then we can also wonder through what images our voices will carry to the people 10,000 years hence - through the swirls of stillstanding freeway off-ramps and onramps? Through the ruins of dams? For those future people will surely be there, listening for some faint call from us, when they are entering the sixtieth millennium.

Gary Snyder is a poet and Professor of English at the University of California. His latest book is A Place in Space, published by Counter Point and available through Schumacher Book Service.

© Resurgence 1999

Chauvet Cave
 (in use for ten thousand years)
 La Grotte Chauvet: the story of the discovery (external)
Rhinos    Horses    Mammoth  (external)
Index of Chauvet Cave links (external)
Cognitive Cultural Studies

Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles