Monday, April 9, 2007

Paleolithic handprints

Paleolithic handprints

In The Nature of Paleolithic Art, Dale Guthrie overturns many of the standard interpretations of the ancient cave paintings of the Paleolithic era. Among other things, Guthrie argues that many of the cave paintings were done by children and have similarities with present-day graffiti. Here is an illustration and short excerpt from the book:
Guthrie fig pg 131

Missing Fingers in Art: Ritual, Disease, Frostbite, or Kids Playing?

"Many hand images in the French Gargas-Tibran cave complex and Cosquer and in Maltravieso Cave in Spain appear to have missing fingers or other malformations. These "disfigured" hands have fueled discussions for the last 100 years. Groenen (1987) has provided a review of this debate. The central issue, of course, is that virtually all apparent mutilations are also replicable by simply contorting fingers in the stenciled hand (as one does in shadow art). But many people still insist that these represent real ritual amputations.

"More recent speculation on possible causes of these disfigured hands has focused on Raynaud's disease, in which capillaries fail to respond normally by flushing with warm blood when hands or feet get cold. I find this explanation unconvincing, because Raynaud's disease is seldom expressed in young men (Larson 1996), and the hands with the "missing fingers" are mainly those of young males. Individuals who experience extreme winter temperatures, like cross-country dog-mushers, winter mountain climbers, and so on, do sometimes suffer frozen tissue. Yet, in Alaska, certainly among the coldest well-populated places on earth, complete loss of individual fingers due to freezing is rare. I have never seen one case. Nor have I seen any in my travels in northern Siberia. This is despite the fact that many residents in both places have had multiple experiences of frostbite.

"These Paleolithic images will, no doubt, continue to puzzle and prompt speculation. Having played with making spatter stencils of my own hands, I find the ease with which one can replicate the "maimed-hand look" has left me very convinced that all, or virtually all, were done in fun, especially when we recall that these are largely young people's hands and appreciate the quick, almost careless, casualness with which they were made. This phenomenon of altering the hand stencil patterns by finger contortion is also well documented from a number of other cultures."

1 comment:

A. G. Showers said...

Be careful with anthropological resources in terms of suppositions. It is true that scientific analysis shows most of the hand prints to be of women and children or young adults. There is overwhelming evidence to the fact that these are very likely not folly at all. The conditions under which these paintings were produced were very extreme (take into account cave depth and the use of only small juniper/animal fat fuse hand "lanterns" made out of cobbles for light).

Reproducing these hand-prints, even the most simplistic and normative representations is NOT easy, on the contrary, it is painstaking, deliberate, and a very significant visceral experience that involves getting yourself really up close and personal with the cave walls and grounds as well as covered in red ochre or manganese (or charcoal)--the aftereffect of which looks like you just ripped apart a caribou carcass with your teeth lion style. That's something that's very difficult for the associative human mind to pass off as mundane or non symbolic even if it is at the very least unconscious (the intensity of the colors and the all of the other senses that are engaged)--and ESPECIALLY given the setting (eg. deep underground in a dangerous unlit cave).

To create a hand-print in the negative you need to know exactly what you're doing and you need to have practiced it deliberately many times before as well as with social support and context. It involves putting gobs of ochre, mixing the pigment directly in your mouth and working it into your saliva and teeth. The actual spitting process is difficult to get used to though intuitive- but keep in mind this is basically like creating an evenly distributing compressed air gun with your lips and tongue (it's slow, straining, and not easy). In my experience a shotty regular hand print takes at least 25-30 minutes to complete if you're really good and the form is left ishy.

for one article, check out Michel Lorblanchet
Spitting Images: Replicating the Spotted Horses of Pech Merle 1991
(for him the replication took 32 consecutive hours to paint and required a second person to hold a lamp and prepare pigment)