The Nature of Paleolithic Art by R. Dale Guthrie

I recently finished reading The Nature of Paleolithic Art by R. Dale Guthrie.  Dr. Guthrie also authored Frozen Fauna of the Mammoth Steppe and dozens, perhaps hundreds, of articles for scientific journals, many of which I’ve read.  It took me almost a month to read The Nature of Paleolithic Art because it’s 500 pages and has small print and numerous pictures on every page that are worth careful examination.  The book is a brilliant creation, taking decades of research and writing to complete.  It’s well-written and the line drawings replicating the cave paintings show Dr. Guthrie is a talented and patient artist.  Because I can’t live in the Pleistocene as I so often fantasize on this blog, I wanted to get inside the heads of the humans who actually did.  Dr. Guthrie does this with his detailed analysis of their art.  Most books about paleolithic art have been written by art historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists, but this book is the first written from the point of view of a vertebrate paleontologist, making it unique.  I noticed amazon.com didn’t have much information about this book, so I will remedy this with a chapter-by-chapter review.

The first chapter is entitled “Drawn from Life.”  It consists of a discussion of how this work compares to others on the subject.  This is where Dr. Guthrie introduces one of the important themes of his book: Most paleolithic art was drawn realistically and the images were not representations symbolizing magic or religion, a view held by many anthropologists.  I agree with Dr. Guthrie.  To me this seems rather obvious–too many scholars look for something deep and complex when there is a much simpler explanation.  The people living in Europe then depended on hunting and that is what they depicted.  This chapter also covers the ecology of Pleistocene Europe.  Humans lived on the ecotone between southern European forests and the vast mammoth steppe that stretched from the British Isles to Alaska.  And there are detailed descriptions of cave geology, preservation, and taphonomy.

The second chapter is “Paleolithic Artists as Naturalists” which was perhaps one of the most interesting for me (well…that and the sex chapter).  He finds usable information about extinct species and extirpated subspecies from cave paintings.

Page from The Nature of Paleolithic Art.  The top drawings depict the most common large mammals living in Eurasia during the Pleistocene including Woolly mammoths, woolly rhinos, Megaloceros–a giant extinct deer, elk, caribou, aurochs–wild cattle, bison, musk-oxen,  horses, asses, ibex, sable antelope, cave bear, brown bear, lions, hyenas, wolves, and humans.

For example the cave paintings inform us that European lions had no manes, and horses in southwestern Europe had some striping, an adaptation for living in brushy habitat.  Dr. Guthrie shows the reader how the cave paintings represent real animal behavior–there are depictions of mating and flight response.

Chapter 3 is “Tracking down the Pleistocene Artists.”  Dr. Guthrie conducted a study that analyzed the hand prints on the cave walls.  Statistical differences between age and sex exist in the measurements of finger and palm size.  The cave painters made the hand prints by spitting a mouthful of red ocher over their hands.  Based on hand measurements, Dr. Guthrie determined most but not all the cave painters were boys aged 12 and under.

A statistical analysis of hand measurements suggests most the cave painters were boys aged 12 and under.  The kids making the hand prints were likely the same kids who were drawing the animals.

Although many cave paintings are masterpieces, most look like something a third grader might doodle.  The highest quality paintings are famous, but they’re vastly outnumbered by little known drawings that were done by less talented or less experienced artists.

It’s no coincidence that nearly every cave with paleolithic art was discovered by teenaged boys.  During the paleolithic just like in the present time, adventurous boys would be the most likely members of society to venture into caves.  Because life expectency was so low then, children made up a bigger percentage of the population then than they do now and teenaged boys would have been a significant segment of society.  Contrary to popular belief, paleolithic people didn’t live in caves but inhabited open air sites, temporary huts, and rock shelters.  This explains why most of the cave artists were young boys.

Chapter 4 is “Testosterone Events and Paleolithic Imagery.”  This one is about the evolution of human behavior and art.  He explains the evolutionary reason why paleolithic men and women differed in the partition of labor and why modern politically correct attitudes stifled early studies on the role evolution played in making men the hunters while women were better able to perform tedious tasks such as sewing clothes.  Younger men with higher levels of testosterone than women took more risks when hunting and were also more likely to explore caves.  Accordingly, the art on caves is more representative of a young male’s point of view.  Much information about women’s contributions is missing–the clothes they made are organic and long gone.  Boys painting on cave walls rarely drew people wearing clothes, even though they must have, considering the harsh climate.  There are rare exceptions.  The few pictures depicting clothes show paleolithic people wearing parkas, hoods, and boots.

Chapter 5 is “The art of Hunting Large Mammals.”  Dr. Guthrie begins by reviewing the evolution of hunting behavior in hominids.  He uses evidence from physiology, sociobiology, ecology, and accounts from the ethnographic record to show that hunting was a driving force in human evolution.  He believes hunting created the modern social bond between man, wife, and child.

Incidentally, Dr. Guthrie believes the red spots on some cave paintings of Pleistocene horses represent the tracking of blood from wounded animals.  This is an alternative explanation for the ones I gave in a previous blog entry– https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2011/12/02/pleistocene-spotted-horses/

Another page from the book.  These are line drawings of cave paintings.

The chapter on hunting is a long one covering paleolithic weapons, the use of disguises, tracking wounded game, and harpooning fish.

Chapter 6 is “Full-figured Women in Ivory and Life.”  He explains the common depiction of full-figured fat women represents the female sex when they were most fertile. In most hunter-gatherer societies, women are rarely fertile due to a combination of environmental stress and the care of an already existing baby or toddler.  Women were most likely fertile during times of plenty when they had no young children nursing.  Men evolved to identify when women were most fertile.  And, of course, young boys drew pictures on cave walls and sculpted the famous figurines because women with big boobs and big butts were what was constantly on their minds, along with hunting large mammals.

Dr. Guthrie doesn’t go so far as to suggest the possiblity that the Venus of Willendorf represents sex slavery as I did in a previous blog entry– https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2011/10/14/the-venus-of-willendorf-pleistocene-sex-object/

But he does dismiss the notions they represent fertility or goddess cults.

I don’t agree with Dr. Guthrie when he writes that paleolithic people chose their mates carefully.  The population was so low then that people probably had a hard time even meeting members of the opposite sex who were not related to them, and they had to accept what they could get.

Paleolithic people had many sexual items and enjoyed practices we consider modern.  Cave paintings prove paleolithic women wore lingerie.  Many cave paintings depict buxom women wearing nothing but bracelets, belts, and boots.  Paleolithic dildoes (made of stone) are very common.  One broken sculpture suggests they played bondage games.

Chapter 7 is “The Evolution of Art Behavior in the Paleolithic.”  Here, he discusses the evolution of play and how art is an extension of play.  Art contributed to the survival of paleolithic people because it helped make their brains more creative which did have practical uses.  Creativeness is heritable.

Chapter 8 is “Bands to Tribes.”  Very little paleolithic art is abstract, but the development of agriculture led to an increase in the use of abstract symbols in art.  Humans needed to invent abstract symbols to account for stored foodstuffs.  Agricultural civilization changed the human experience but not all for the better–humans suffered more malnutrition from starch-based diets, they contracted diseases spread from domesticated animals, and they experienced more warfare from being in economically unequal societies.  Not a single paleolithic drawing known depicts a shield or warfare, though individual man on man violence was rarely drawn.

Chapter 9 is “Throwing the Bones.”  This was the only chapter I found uninteresting.  It’s about the evolution of the belief in the supernatural.  There’s not enough concrete evidence left about early human’s supernatural beliefs, making this part of the book too vague and unnecessarily long-winded.  That’s really the only negative criticism I have of the book.  Sometimes, Dr. Guthrie overwrites and gives 5 or 6 examples when 1 0r 2 would have been enough.  Otherwide, I enjoyed the book very much.

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