When I was a kid, I spent one week every summer in the boroughs of New York visiting my aunt and cousin. My aunt had this intriguing, three-family stacked house full of fun knickknacks, oversized couches, and towers of bright clothes and jewelry to use for games of dress up. The backyard circular pool, a tiny blue-green gem in a patchwork of concrete and fences, was also a big hit with me. Yet what I remember most vividly is the drive from LaGuardia Airport to her house because I knew we were getting closer to home when we traveled under a bridge with large, pastel flowers spray-painted along its retaining wall. Those flowers were a source of beauty along a dreary stretch of highway, someone’s attempt to show that graffiti could indeed be a welcome addition to a landscape.
Years later I watched a documentary entitled “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” about a very different set of wall drawings. The cave in question is called Chauvet Cave, after Jean-Marie Chauvet who led a small team into its depths for the first time in 1994, and can be found in the Ardeche region of southern France. Four years later, the French prehistorian Dr. Jean Clottes organized a research expedition into Chauvet Cave and gave the world a better look at the images of bears, horses, lions, owls and other creatures left almost perfectly preserved. Suddenly, “cave man art” wasn’t so rudimentary after all. These works were remarkably lifelike and strikingly gorgeous, especially when one considered that they were roughly 32,000 years old.
It is believed this artwork, the product of the Paleolithic people who lived in the region at the time, was influenced by the landscape around the cave as well as the ancient cultural practices and belief systems of the artists. But how can one even begin to interpret it? Once the culture that created it is gone, how can anyone ever know for sure what its originators were trying to express?
Dr. Clottes best sums up this predicament when he explains, “And when dealing with art for which no ethnological data are known, our predicament is worse still. What appears obvious may not be obvious at all. Does a painting of a bird depict an eagle, a supernatural spirit, or a shaman whose soul has taken flight? Is a bear really a bear, or a human transformed?”
Intriguingly, there are hardly any human figures in the cave except for a sole female representation–actually the legs and genitals of a woman–who is standing in alignment with the only other human figure in the cave portrayed by the lower body of a man with the upper body of a bison. This centaur-like depiction is now known as The Sorcerer. Researchers have postulated that this drawing might symbolize a relationship between a mortal woman and a supernatural animal spirit.
Rock art has enjoyed myriad meanings within the scientific community over the years. Different interpretations include using art as a way to mark off a group’s territory, a testimony to a belief system, a route to come into direct contact with the spirit world, or a way to influence nature through drawings.
Although many thousands of years separate the hidden mysteries of Chauvet Cave from the modern, and oftentimes ugly and disrespectful, graffiti art that we see daily in urban areas, isn’t it interesting that people are still motivated to draw on walls to express themselves? Sunlight rarely finds the underside of that bridge in Queens to fade the pastel paints that made those highway flowers. Yet the lack environmental influence maintained by Chauvet Cave’s sealed entrance preserved its interior. Perhaps scientists will one day unlock the mysteries of such prehistoric art, but until then, maybe a little reflection about our own drive to create–on canvas or cement–can shed light upon the motivations of those who lived so long ago.
- Engravings of Female Genitalia May Be World’s Oldest Cave Art (news.sciencemag.org)
- Oldest Known Wall Art Found in France (theepochtimes.com)