Does art begin in the Lascaux caves?
Neanderthals, "whose face appeared more beastly than any other living human", did not produce any "work of art". On the contrary, the Human at Lascaux has shown his aptitude to go beyond tradition and "produce a work of art". "Under candlelight, he went beyond what had until then existed in creating something which had not existed a moment before".
We should thus "attribute to Lascaux a starting value".
We cannot accompany Bataille, nor his theoretical developments concerning the "prohibitions and transgressions" which he believed to have found in Lascaux, nor, above all, in the categorical opposition he formulated between Homo faber, the maker of tools belonging to the world of work, and Homo sapiens, who achieved that which would belong to the world of play (Homo ludens) and of art - which, according also to Bataille, but also in agreement with a widely shared opinion, is play par excellence.
Nowadays we know that Lascaux is not the beginning of art in the chronological sense of the term, given that, despite the lamentable lack of direct dating from pigments, it is only considered to be 17 thousand years old.
However, Georges Bataille is partially correct. With its "cavalcade of animals in pursuit", the spectacular extension of images covering its rock surfaces, Lascaux is, undoubtedly, one of the first artistic monuments of the history of Human Beings. Given its aesthetic workmanship, it can also be considered a beginning: better than hundreds of other more modest mural sets, this cave, along with Altamira, supplies unequivocal proof of the highest creative talents of humans since the Palaeolithic Age.
Following Georges Bataille's writings, other places of equal importance, but dating back even earlier, have been discovered: The Chauvetc Cave, the Cussac Cave, the open air art of Southern Europe, which, to the same extent, show the plenitude of art up to the Palaeolithic.
Let us therefore put the following question: to what extent is the "miracle of Lascaux” (which could equally be that of Chauvet, Cussac, Côa, etc.), equivalent to the “Greek miracle” according to Bataille, which seduces us and what are the consequences of the seduction which it exercises upon us?
Through their tools and their form of life, the humans of Lascaux - or, more generically, the people of the Ice Age - are strangers to us; but through their art, on the contrary, "they communicate with the distant relative which he considers present-day humanity". In the spectacular form of art which this cave offers, we find ourselves, we recognise ourselves. We are led to think - in our condition of being Westerners - that Lascaux, Chauvet, Cussac, Altamira, and the around three hundred and fifty decorated European Palaeolithic sites, mark the rise of ART, that nothing - or so little - had previously announced.
In the eyes of contemporary European artists and writers (such as, besides Georges Bataille, André Breton, Pablo Picasso...), this explosion of beauty appears to even eclipse the unknown message which such images may contain, messages to which pre-historians have bound themselves in such a pathetic manner! Magic, totemism, sexual symbolism, hallucinations, shamanisms* (for most reasons) seem laughable when compared to the emotion generated when contemplating the major Palaeolithic compositions. In their power and beauty, which undoubtedly go beyond the respective sensation, these works appear to proclaim that which, in 1790, Emmanuel Kant labelled as "free beauty" (that which is in opposition to "dependent beauty", such as tools, for example), a freedom comparable to that of contemporary art, free of the religious messages which art traditionally transported.
For the first time in the history of human beings, we are in a presence of not just figurative art, which represents elements of reality, as above all a visual art, which is placed in its context, and which is open to communication, being aimed at other able humans or divinities, to, like themselves, see and appreciate.
The "exhibitional value" of this art, which is inscribed in the natural surroundings of the caves, or the open air landscape, is new in effect, independently of the existence within the same moment, and often in the same sites, of a secret art which hides within nature's folds and which is the inverted double of the art on show.
A Traditional opinion
Like Bataille - who has here contributed an explanatory and handy introduction - most of the pre-historians consider that art begins with this form of spectator art (not just wall* but also movable* art) and "suddenly" appeared in Europe around 35 thousand years.
According to the opinion of Henri Breuil, as outlined in his 1952 book Les Quatre Cents Siècles d’Art Parietal, Cro-Magnon Humans became artists when accidentally discovering the power of the form of natural phenomena such as "shaped rocks*", natural rock forms, fossils and animal and human traces (digital traces, fleshlessness* marks on bones). The desire of modern humans to imitate would be the source of the first artistic endeavours.
In 1964, André Leroi-Gourhan also stated that “the first step was taken by Homo sapiens”. [Prior to this] the range of what could be called pre-artistic manifestations - ochres, cupolas, natural forms, - created a fine halo around the flattened cranium of Neanderthal Humans: qualitatively and quantatively, the Mousterian and post-Mousterian manifestations (see figure 1) are not proportional to development.
Thus, for the major 20th Century specialists in pre-historic art, art emerged at a final phase of human evolution just a few tens of thousands of years ago, whilst human history extends throughout almost three million years. This emergence is understood as evolutionary progress with a biological basis; it is considered as the exclusive distinctive mark of the most recent human, Homo Sapiens, modern human beings*, our direct ancestor. Some even think that art could have been born due to a genetic mutation.
Others, such as those arguing for evolutionist psychology, maintain a theory according to which the creativity of human beings at the start of the Upper Palaeolithic was linked to the emergence of new cognitive abilities, which enabled a change from sectorial or specialised intelligence to a generalised intelligence.
Neanderthals would only have had the ability to analyse events in the moment, and respond to each one of these with the immediate necessities of daily life, with the modern human the only one able to carry out a synthesis and develop general concepts beyond those immediate necessities. In accordance with this theory, the origin of art would accompany the emancipation of spoken language.
A specialist in rock art, the South African David Lewis-Williams3 links the birth of art to that of consciousness, which he sees as "a continuum, [which ranges] from rational consciousness to altered consciousness”. Only Homo Sapiens, with their augmented brain, would dominate the "entire spectrum of consciousness", the state of monitoring sleep, including daydreams and sleep, spirits and all the artificial or natural hallucinatory imagery. The "neurological bridge" which appears to exist between humans and Cro-Magnons - since their brain is identical to ours - enables us to think that from the Upper Palaeolithic period onwards introspection took place and that there was an interest in states of the soul and psychic states, such as to provoke hallucinations which it was necessary to record, and trace them on the walls of the caves! Thus, according once more to Lewis-Williams, the beginnings of art would be connected to alterations of consciousness and shamanism, which would have corresponded to a "universal need" [which would have consisted of the need] to provide a meaning to these altered states of consciousness [and] which is the origin of all later religious forms".
These global theories, which have been widely published - shamanism seeks to explain the whole of world art, and throughout time - present an extremely diminished view of pre-historic art and art in general. It is no more than a modification of the classical point of view which attributes the whole of art's hereditary to Cro-Magnon man. This is not based on objective archaeological data but rather on a metaphorical type of theoretical argument, combining the biological with the cultural, with knowing clearly what belongs in one area or the other: The inspiring visions of the shamans regarding rock art would thus be a mixture of universal hallucinatory reasons, produced by the mental structure of modern humans (the so-called "entoptic" motives) and local cultural elements, for example, and also according to Lewis-Williams, "episodes of myths regarding the training of a shaman told to novices". We shall not attempt a refutation of this "conceptual soup" here, to utilise a phrase coined by some of those opposed to this point of view: a recent book supplies an in-depth critique4 .
The classical point of view regarding the appearance of art systematically underlines the incomplete character of the types of humans prior to modern humans, and their lack of intellectual and spiritual adaptation in the broadest sense, given that it is generally admitted that artistic expression - above all in those far off times - is linked to beliefs. if Neanderthals and Homo erectus were incapable of artistic production, it is because their language was insufficiently developed and because they had not reached the psychic state which enables the incorporation of magical-religious beliefs. This opinion results in the elimination of creations prior to the Upper Palaeolithic, forming a "narrow halo" around the "flattened cranium" of our distance ancestors, which Leroi-Gourhan evokes. This work is considered as not being artistic and relegated to a vaguer, somewhat more pejorative, category, of the merely "symbolic" category, which avoids an excessively explicit reference to the term "art".
According to the same theory, the emergence of art in the distant Upper Palaeolithic period must have been brutal; it took place within a relatively short period - at the most one or two millennia - corresponding to the settling of the sapiens immigrants in Western Europe. It is indeed considered a revolution or, better still, a "creative explosion", to use John Peiffer's expression.
Given that this appearance took place in an artistic vacuum, the idea of progress is associated with the phenomenon in two ways: with not only the art in itself being progress, but also its internal evolution also being based on the concept of progress. Art appeared in the Upper Palaeolithic period, then developed along the usual rhythm of growth, passing from infancy to maturity, and, then, degeneration (or senescence), according to a regular upward curve which then moved downwards, passing from simple forms to complex forms, from schematism to a faltering abstraction and a triumphant naturalism, to finish, at the end of the Upper Palaeolithic, after a journey of 25 millennia, in a marked return to an ever more elementary schematism which lead to the death of cave painting in Western Europe around ten thousand years ago. Breuili's stylistical chronologies, followed by those of Leroi-Gourhan, developed into two or four successive styles, whose trajectories often underwent periods of arrest and return.
Such views carry with them certain implicit ideas. With ethnocentric elements, figurative and naturalised art-progress bears testimony to the supremacy of the modern human being that we are, more particularly western humans and, if we take this line of thinking to the extreme which it itself suggests, we end up by simply believing that there is a birthplace for art which can only be European. The progression of Palaeolithic forms supposes an arrow winging its way through time clearly directed at ourselves.
What is more, these traditional views imply a reduced definition of art: art had only existed in a magnificent form and in the representation of the real or imagined world. Palaeolithic art had in fact confirmed that, since its origin, the primary function of art consisted of representing the real! Furthermore, that perception of pre-historic art emphasised the most spectacular aspect of cave art: the animal figures (for example, the great bulls of Lascaux); as such tending to eclipse the indeterminate motives and the signs - less impressive, certainly - but nonetheless certainly present in great number on the ornamented walls.
A carved bone, with indeterminate marks, a stone with cupolas, a collection of fossils, a beautiful tool, the use of dyes and rare minerals do not know how to respond in terms of artistic behaviour or are not worth of being considered as "objects of art". Isn't this a projection of a particular and diminished concept of art?
The extraordinary diversity of contemporary art should however have widened the perception of the pre-historians who, it is understood, cannot completely escape the influence within the society in which they live. The painter Pierre Soulages, for example, considers painting as "a harmonisation of shapes and colours upon which is made and unmade the senses lent to it": The self-sufficient supremacy of shape and colour and, above all, the ever-present semantic availability of what is created. Notions of this kind could be of use to the pre-historians in their research concerning the origins of art.
The contradictions in the traditional conception of the "birht of art"
Could the origins of art be linked to the appearance of modern human beings?
Archaeological data show that, in contrast to the hypotheses presented in the previous chapter, the birth and evolution of art are not uniform phenomena, but "splintered".
There is no direct immediate correspondence between the appearance of modern humans and art; what is more, the evolution of art took place through extremely varied models, which were different according to the regions of the world and the periods under consideration.
The lack of precision and the limits of radiocarbon dating do not make it at all easy to understand the phenomena of contemporaneity and divergent evolutions throughout time. However, it appears that in Europe - as, in fact, we will see with regard to Australia - there was a gap of several millennia between the arrival of the first Homo sapiens and the appearance of the first decorated caves. The Aurignacian (culture of the first modern human beings, see table 1) is not homogenous and did not appear at the same time in all regions throughout Europe. In the West, the oldest cave with date roof decoration, the Chauvet cave, does not appear to be contemporary with the oldest Aurignacian - which could date back to around forty thousand years, in Cantabria, for example (leaving aside, for the time being, an Indian cave of several hundred thousand years, that of Darakhi Chattan; we will return to it).
What is more, the first forms of Upper Palaeolithic art are varied: It appears to have been at approximately the same time, between -34,000 and -32,000 years, that the statutes of Jura Souable were created; the highly schematic paintings on the walls of the Fumane cave, in Veneto; the magnificent frescos of the Chauvet cave, in the Ardèche Valley; the blocks engraved with vulvular shapes in the Vézère Valley; some dichromatic paintings (black and red), on the cupola of certain shelters within the same valley (the Blanchard shelter, the La Ferrassie shelter); and the simple parallel incisions in the walls of the shelters in Asturias. In their styles, themes and techniques, the oldest designs are thus radically different from one another: some appear simple and rudimentary, while others are incredibly sophisticated, using from the outset the full set of resources to create them. Such is the case, for example, with the decorations of the Chauvet cave or the lion person of Hohlenstein-Stadel, which could figure in a set of Egyptian statues!
The attempts at approximation which try to show that the art of Chauvet forms part of a coherent context, cannot conceal the extraordinary solitude of the great Ardèche sanctuary, whose themes, techniques and styles are distinguished not just from those evident in the rare European cave collections attributable to the Aurignacian, but also to all of the collections from the Upper Palaeolithic period. It is in fact the same with Cussac, Lascaux and Altamira; the particularities of each figurative cave, which the general evolutionary schemes have difficulty in integrating, is extolled in the main sanctuaries which, in many aspects, remain as unique.
Upper Palaeolithic art does not therefore start at ground zero; the singular trajectory which goes from the simple to the complex and serves as the basis for the stylistic chronologies, is dead!
Neither in Europe nor in any place in the world is it the case that the art of the Upper Pleistocene (the end of the glacial period) started with simple forms which evolved to complex forms. In Australia, within the same period as that of the Chauvet cave, for example, there appeared the geometrical figurative style of Panaramitee, the digital lines of certain caves of the South and the naturalist animal and human figures of Arnhem Land. In India, paintings in shelters dates back some ten thousand years, involving the dynamic figurative art of the "green dancers", the hierarchical and symbolic animalistic art, and geometrical figures with intricate designs.
In Africa, as in other places, the major initial cave art varies: two styles of painting co-existed in the Sahara, the naturalistic Buffalo and that of the Round Heads, which was more symbolic; in South Africa, carved geographical figures dating from between -6000 and -2000 succeeded an original phase of naturalistic cave engravings.
Not all of the regions occupied by Homo Sapiens produced art at a level equivalent to that of Chauvet or Lascaux; they may even have been completely lacking in it. Vast geographical regions occupied by "modern" humans, through long periods of the past with such humans dwelling there, had a complete absence of mural or cave art: in great tracts of Asia and America there is nothing; and, in Africa, birth of Homo Sapiens two hundred thousand years ago, there is a modest sporadic amount of mobile art, from 75 thousand years ago, but the major cave art only appeared in the Holocenic period (see table 1). It is clear that the coming, and going, of major animalist art did not occur at the same time in the various parts of the world. What solid archaeological proof is there to argue that Saharan cave art goes back to a period before the Neolithic? And can the group of premonitory cupolas, which are very old and not easy to date, really place India before the start of the Mesolithic period?
In Europe, the brutal disappearance of this major animalist art at the end of the Palaeolithic Period and its absence during the Mesolithic provides full evidence that the equation "art= Homo sapiens" must, as a minimum, be strongly tempered.
In Australia, a country inhabited by modern humans for more than six thousand years, the latency period which preceded the longest and richest complex of cave art in the world was of the order of ten to fifteen millennia. An artistic tradition was established in that continent in the open air rocks and the walls of shelters some ten millennia before Chauvet, which links pure abstraction to a figurative naturalism tending towards geometrical features, which has persisted until the present day. It is a surface art, with a decorative tendency, which is radically different from volume art - which has a naturalistic tendency - from the Paleolithical time of our regions and which places itself in contrast to that European art.
As such, the appearance, disappearance or absence of art in the world in its most spectacular form, namely mural art on show, are phenomena of an incompatible diversity within time which do not seem to be directly linked - at least not exclusively - to the presence or absence of modern human beings.
It is even likely that such appearances and disappearances could have been for local reasons throughout the Upper Palaeolithic era in Europe; they have multiple causes, which are simultaneously cultural, economic and religious.
The causes of the appearance of cave paintings in Australia and in Europe
In Australia, the first immigrants who arrived from Indonesia occupied from the outset the whole of an empty continent where resources where abundant. According to the traces of dyestuffs found at excavation sites, for fifteen millennia these first settlers would not have produced anything more than elementary art - certainly body painting. Then, around 45 or 50 thousand years ago, they started the progressive rarefaction of "megafauna" (the name given to fauna made up of giant herbivore species and creatures such as kangaroos, wombats, emus...) which had until then supplied an abundant and easy source of game. This reduction in fauna, which led to the extinction of certain species, was linked to overhunting which in turn was caused by the continuing drought which devastated the territory at the end of the Pleistocene era. The absence of water left the first hunter gatherers in an economically stressful situation which, according to some Australian researchers, could have contributed to the development of the major art of the continent: it could specifically have caused the inclusion or strengthening of rites inducing the fertility of species (which are still common nowadays) - given that this would include drawing the cave figures.
An additional source of evidence regarding the influence of the natural evolution of the surroundings and the fauna on artistic creation may be shown the by disappearance of Palaeolithic art at the end of the glacial era.. The same general phenomenon of change in the surroundings could have led to opposite results in different regions. It would undoubtedly be useful to carry out an in-depth comparison of these phenomena, which were very different in Australia and Europe.
The arrival of Homo sapiens to Western Europe around forty thousand years ago might have been one of the factors favouring the emergence of a new art - but not art in the true sense.
It was in the more remote and intensely populated regions settled by the Neanderthals, at the South-western end of Europe that Palaeolithic art developed. The settlement of the newly-arrived alongside a relatively important and long-standing indigenous population caused an increase in populational density, an increase in exchanges and social ties and perhaps an improvement in language. This was followed by competition to exploit natural resources as well as a challenging fight for belief identity, which resulted in the building of sanctuaries embodying the spiritual and economic appropriation of their respective area by the groups.
It would thus have been the cultural and economic shock associated with the immigration of modern humans in Western Europe and their interaction with Neanderthals throughout various millennia which would have created the exceptional conditions which would have facilitated or caused the emergence of a new religion and a new art. The situation of Western Europe was, indeed, very different from that which took place in the Near East, where the symbiosis between Neanderthals and modern humans - sharing the same culture for millennia - produced nothing equivalent to that of the French-Cantabrian Quaternary era. In Europe, cave painting and its southern appearance, the art of the open sky, were responses to particular socio-economic contexts. It is certain that Modern humans are in fact the authors of this cave art, but the Neanderthals played their part in raising the abilities of the artists! It is indeed possible, that the Neanderthals have not yet said their last remarks with regard to archaeology: many things continue to be learnt about the Upper Palaeolithic period and about the ancestry of cultures which cohabited at the beginning of this new era.
The acculturation produced at that moment could have been less limiting than what is generally admitted and could have occurred in two manners. Firstly, Neanderthals would not have been the only benefactors, since the Cro-Magnons would have progressed to inventing, through contact with them, a new form of art; secondly, the Neanderthals, whose cognitive abilities have been confirmed a long time ago, could have sometimes imitated the new arrivals extremely well, and their artistic abilities could in such a context have flourished. Is it possible that one day research will lead us to accept that they were the creators of a form of mural painting; in fact, would it not have at least have preceded the Aurignacian in the extremely symbolic production of cupolas in blocks of stone?
Australia has also given us one final subject for reflection: to understand the distribution of the artistic styles of that continent, Australian researchers have attempted to carefully apply sociolinguistic models of present-day Aborigine societies to pre-historic art. Cave painting is considered as a communication system. In such a context, in the regions and periods when living conditions are harder, the tribal and artistic territory is immense, and difficult living conditions create strong social cohesion, a mechanism to come closer and to adopt the same style of cave painting. However, in favourable habitats (near the coast), where the population increases, social tensions occur, the tribal territories are in opposition, and local social identities are affirmed and the regionalisation of styles appears and is thus reinforced.
This Australian model of stylistic territorial fragmentation in terms of resources and population density may shed light on field work carried out and the appearance and evolution of art in the European Quaternary era and enable us to go beyond the dogma of the single stylistic path proposed by previous generations of researchers.
A Definition of Art
The Lower and Middle Palaeolithic, an immense period preceding the advent of cave art, is seen by Georges Bataille as a «never-ending path». This elegant formula seems to suit those who associate the birth of art with the – so expected – arrival of modern man in the Upper Palaeolithic.
Another point of view can be suggested, but it implies several previous clarifications.
First of all, art does not consist only in the figurative rock engravings as they appear, splendorous, on Australian and European walls. Since its origin, its manifestations can be extremely varied: the utilitarian art of tools, the use of fossils, minerals and «precious stones», mobile art, body paintings, adornments, masks, etc., can also adopt the figurative, abstract or geometric style.
We should then divest ourselves of the false process that the new Anglo-Saxon archaeology intended for European specialists in cave art. It condemns them for projecting the model of contemporary Western art on palaeolithic productions, with the excuse that the notion of «art» was unknown to ancient civilizations, whose creations cannot have had as target the search for the aesthetic pleasure alone, as happens with contemporary creation. To this critique we can bring forward the following answers:
- The notion of «art» certainly has a history: we should be suspicious of the modern aesthetic discourse and see in the figures on the walls something else, beyond their mere beauty and formal quality. The study of rock art must make an effort to recreate the perception and use of images by the peoples from the past.
The necessary prudence that the use of the term «art» requires in prehistoric research must not, however, make us forget that there never was the least opposition – but always, on the contrary, a close relation – between aesthetic function and utilitarian, religious or magic function. By means of its visual impact and chants, religious art aims to impress the believer, to facilitate his communication with divinity. In traditional and so-called «primitive» art, beauty ensures the effectiveness of magic; the splendour of colours and forms expresses respect towards the forces that govern the world, as well as the effort to please them, seduce them and even turn them in one’s favour. Figurative or ornamental beauty is, first and foremost, functional. Just as men, divinities love beauty.
- Pleasure is biologically linked to artistic creation, it is its driving force. In all times, the contemplation of natural harmonies, of colours, lights, forms and materials arose pleasure, while the spectacle of the ugly was felt as unpleasant, if not even repugnant.
The ability to be moved before the spectacle of beauty offered by nature – the aesthetic feeling – is the essence of man and produces a «chemistry», as all emotions do. Through his own artistic creation, man aims to reproduce and arouse the pleasure he feels in that contemplation of beauty, a pleasure that therefore is an integral part of art, irrespective of its declared objectives. If the aesthetic feeling or sensation are a permanent given of human nature, the concept of beauty itself, on the contrary, is not absolute, but built and cultural, and so variable according to the human groups, periods in time and regions of the world.
To try and define its origin, let’s thus widen the definition of art... Let’s consider as first manifestations of art those accomplishments that are the marks of the mind over nature, the appropriation by man of the curious productions of nature and the human creations that, no matter what their objectives and contents (which we ignore), imply a game of materials, colours and forms (of which we are aware). This definition aims to be useful to the archaeologist. It only concerns the arts that produce material marks, those that appeal to the senses of vision and, secondarily, of tact; it leaves aside the arts of sound and orality such as music, chant and poetry, since these artistic forms only convey exceptional or very late material traces such as, for instance, the bird-bone flutes from the Upper Palaeolithic.
Anthropologists discovered, however, anatomic signatures of the arts of voice, language, vocalizations and chant in the first hominids who used more elaborate types of vocal communication than those of present-day chimpanzees. The development of the temporal lobes in the gracile Australopitechus witnesses a very ancient origin of language and music, while the nose and pharynx anatomy reveals that a mode of articulated language already existed 1.5 million years ago! This probable antiquity of language and music argue for an extremely ancient origin of all forms of artistic expression.
A particular case relates to architecture that produces material traces that are often ephemeral. Millions of years of nomadism left in the landscape few enduring marks of the fleeting settlement of men. The first structures, made of branches, basketwork and animal skins, were not conceived to be durable, but may have however fulfilled symbolic functions... Much before the first cities and monuments associated with sedentarization, the scattered marks of these fragile structures, which archaeologists recorded since the Lower Palaeolithic (Oldoway, Terra Amata, etc.), place the origin of architecture among that of other forms of art, in the beginning of mankind.
From this perspective, man and art history are indissociable: art begins with man or maybe with his direct predecessor, the Australopitechus.
Since his origin, man asserts himself as an artist, as he shares his first drives with other animals - namely with some big apes -, as he previously gathers and collects nature’s “works of art”, as he immediately creates forms, produces marks and sketches, and very early invents the first adornments.
Georges Bataille, La Peinture préhistorique: Lascaux ou la naissance de l’art, Genebra, Skira, 1986.
Dominique Sacchi (dir.), L’Art paléolithique à l’air libre; le paysage modifié par l’image, Colloque de Tautavel-Campôme, 7-9 de Outubro 1999, Carcassonne, GAEP, e Paris, GEOPRÉ, 2002.
David Lewis-Williams, L’Esprit dans la grotte: la conscience et les origines de l’art, Mónaco, Éditions du Rocher, 2003.
M. Lorblanchet, J. Le Quellec, P. Bahn, H. P. Francfort, B. e G. Delluc (dir.), Chamanisme et arts préhistoriques, vision critique, Paris, Errance, 2006.