Paleolithic art: awesome — but not religious

This would seem to be the conclusion from Dale Guthrie’s massive The Nature of Paleolithic Artalt, perhaps the most comprehensive and rigorous study to date of cave paintings and other Stone Age artefacts. Guthrie’s no-nonsense, scientifically rigorous study shatters our most cherished and deeply entrenched beliefs about rock art, demonstrating for instance that most of it was not terribly good, that it was probably not very important to Paleolithic people and to top it off that these awesomne paintings had less to do with metaphysics than with testosterone-fuelled young men’s feverish imaginations.

Gone are the “hunting magic”, “shamanistic revelations”, “fertility cults” and other flights of interpretive fancy that litter most classical discussions of rock art, not to mention more bizarre interpretations in terms of phallic magic or drug-induced ecstasy. Once discarded these fantasies, one can glimpse something much more interesting in cave paintings, to do with youth, sex, hunting and danger.


On the left: what we generally see of European Paleolithic art – the best samples, to be found in all coffee-table books. Average rock art (on the right)… is often rather average.

Guthrie, a paleozoologist specialized in Arctic mammals (see a National Geographic news item on his work here), also has two hobbies that happen to be crucial in the study of rock art: he is a skilled draughtsman and an experienced big-game hunter.


These competences spared him some of the embarrassing mistakes that crop up in many previous studies. For instance, some strange renderings of faces and bodies are not necessarily the expression of a particular aesthetic, as they turn out to be among the perspective and shading mistakes frequently made by apprentice artists. Many paintings show a few points emerging from the mouth of a wounded animal, a motif that has been repeatedly interpreted as a visual representation of the soul leaving the body – but as Guthrie points out, large animals wounded in the chest (where one must strike to kill them) generally cough out a mixture of air, saliva and blood, of which the red dots are a fairly good figurative representation.


Taphonomy is where the action is
The most important thing to keep in mind when discussing Paleolithic art is the dog that did not (and will not) bark, namely the overwhelming majority of artistic productions for which there is no trace whatsoever. A cardinal sin of cave art interpretation is to ignore taphonony, in other words to mistake the record for the fact – to think that what is central, important and interesting in the available record was the central, important and interesting part of the activity studied. Knowing that Cro-Magnons had the same brains as we do, and assuming that same causes produce similar effects, we can be confident that these people (who dwelt in ingeniously built shelters – emphatically not in caves) wore elaborate clothes, used make up and jewellery, danced, sang, played musical instruments and enjoyed well-crafted narratives. Of all these artistic achievements nothing survives, except a few drawings and paintings in the confines of a few deep caves. We know of rock art because caves preserved pigments – not because it was of any special importance to European Stone Age people.

Big game and big women
This being said, what does the record show? Parietal art is, overwhelmingly, about big mammals and big women. It shows, first and foremost, that whoever produced these hunting scenes was intensely interested in the physical aspects of hunting, in the anatomy of large animals, in the details of their gait, posture, typical behaviors and variations in appearance. Hunting is lovingly depicted, not just as the dramatic encounter of game and hunter, but in all its gory detail, with abundant representations of wounded animals, trampled hunters, broken limbs and puddles of blood. Second, the same attention to physical detail is lavished on depictions of women’s bodies, large women, large breasts, details of vulvae, as well as (often rather clumsy) sex scenes. All this is more or less familiar, but again, let us think of all that is missing, all those aspects of Ice Age life that no-one apparently bothred to represent. Women foraging or nurturing their offpsring are largely absent. Equally absent are infants, children, old folks, as well as bugs and reptiles, and actually most animals that are not big mammals. Artefacts too are ignored, other than spears and arrows.

Art or grafitti?
Who would draw obsessively about these limited themes? Whose mental life is teeming with fantasies of plump women and dangerous pursuits? The themes of parietal art suggest that most artists were young men, in feverish pursuit of both girls and game, young men who would derive some vicarious pleasure from depicting in lavish detail what could be experienced all too rarely in the flesh. This would seem to reduce a lot of rock art to the level of common graffiti. Guthrie does not shy away from this conclusion. Indeed, there is quite a lot of supporting evidence – albeit circumstantial, of necessity. The frequent use of stencils – the artist holds his hand against the wall and spits out a misture of pigments on the wall – as well as other hand prints, reveals the work of young men. In a more speculative vein, Guthrie also surmises that only young men in quest of adventure would dare to spend time in deep caves, difficult and dangerous to explore.


Stencils of hands provide cues as to the age and sex of the painter (often an adolescent male) and his clothes (as sleeves often caught some of the pigments spat out by the artist).

Why see metaphysics in bison?
Most of Guthrie’s inferences are backed by meticulous attention to facts, notably to the statistical properties of the record, to the possible taphonomic factors that structured it, and finally to the details of Paleolithic existence in the harsh conditions of the European late Stone Age. Beyond the wealth of information about rock art, it also raises questions about our common assumptions about distant cultures.
Ever since figurative Palolithic art was discovered, scholars and layfolks have used it as the springboard for the most outrageous flights of interpretive fancy. Bisons and other large mammals demonstrated hunting magic, and the many images of large women were obviously some form of ferrtility cult… Guthrie is at his wittiest when showing that the evidence for all this is largely non-existent.

But why would we want to see “religion” in these paintings? Why not consider that masterful and clumsy representations of wounded bison and fertile women are, perhaps, about bison and women? Guthrie emphasizes the puritanical impulse beyond some of this. To your ordinary religious scholar, a picture of ample breasts is rather embarassingly erotic, unless you can recategorize it as something to do with a fertility cult. But that is not enough – and would not explain why hunting scenes, too, were construed as metaphysical.

A need for “religion”
It seems to me that many people are really committed to the existence of “religion”, as the integrated package of metaphysics, morality and coalitional dynamics that we are familiar with in large historical, state-based societies. No matter that most anthropologists have repeated at great length, that there is no such thing in most societies – many people just want to see the other as religious.

For a few years now, I have received occasional queries from journalists about such themes as “science and religion, “evolution vs. religion”, “Darwin and religion”, “Is our brain designed to be religious?” and so on. Every single time, I have found that the time and energy spent on answering these questions, sometimes for hours on the phone or for many pages of email, were entirely wasted. They certainly never brought me fame, however minuscule, since my wise remarks and profound opinions were entirely ignored by the journalist, or sometimes quoted in two sentences as amounting to something like “but Boyer thinks that religions are very diverse”. This is of course deeply frustrating (we all want and need our fifteen minutes) but I now realise it was entirely my fault.

In answer to these queries, I always tried to point out that “religions”, with doctrine, corporate identity, brand of services, etc., certainly did not exist before large state societies. There is therefore no point in looking for the Pleistocene origins of salvation doctrines or religious intolerance. There is no origin of “religion” in that sense. There may be evolutionary underpinings to thoughts about non-existent agents, or to the compulsion to engage in ritualized behavior, but these are found in many forms of human experience that have nothing to do with gods, spirits and ancestors.
This simple point, altogether banal in cultural anthropology, seems almost impossible to convey to a larger audience. To a degree, a belief in “religion” seems convenient both to members of modern religious guilds, for obvious reasons, but also to the Dennetts and Dawkinses of recent fame.
This is not just an academic debate, as many discussions in modern politics bear on such issues as “religion and the state”, “religious freedom”. If you think that policy should be, if not based on, at least informed by sound scholarship, it does matter that politicians are debating institutional arrangements to do with non-existent objects like religion… but this, being rather far away from Paleolithic rock art, will be the subject of anoter blog.


  • Helen De Cruz
    Helen De Cruz 24 February 2009 (18:23)

    Thank you for this interesting post, Pascal. I purchased the book about a year ago, and found it refreshing and insightful. Especially the bits where Guthrie dispels the myth of Palaeolithic perfection in depicting animals and people. Guthrie’s knowledge of hunting and drawing put him at a clear advantage. However, he is surely not the only one who has proposed a non-religious interpretation for Palaeolithic art. Halverson’s paper in Current Anthropology, published in 1987, argued that Paleolithic art was art for art’s sake. And Steven Mithen, in 1988, proposed in Looking and learning: Upper Palaeolithic art and information gathering (World Archaeology 19) that Palaeolithic art was a way to record externally relevant information, such as the best way to kill an animal, the shape of particular hoofprints for particular animals, etc. Most of the modern interpretations for Palaeolithic art that spring to my mind (e.g., Venus figurines as self-portraits) do not explicitly endorse a hunting magic or other religious point of view. An exception is perhaps Clottes and Lewis-Williams’ Shamanes de la préhistoire, with a very strong emphasis on entoptic signs (grids, dots, etc) and art as a visual record of shamanic experience.

  • Olivier Morin
    Olivier Morin 27 February 2009 (11:40)

    I really enjoyed reading Guthrie’s book two years ago. What left an impression on me, however, was not so much the evo-psych speculations about “testosterone-fuelled young men”, as the brilliant demonstration of the identity of cave-painters. Guthrie doesn’t unearth any new evidence, but he links the pieces to make a compelling case of his contention that adolescents and children – mostly male – were behind cave art. Let me explain why I think this ‘Goonies hypothesis’ is both true and important. First (this proves nothing, it’s just a remark) the hypothesis has historical priority. In the XIXth century, the very first discoverers of cave art identified it as ‘(ancient) children’s graffiti’. That was before conflicts over religion muddled the issue. Why was this the first explanation that came to their mind? Well, it’s really quite obvious. Wherever there is cave art, it needs to be protected from groups of adolescents’ graffiti. If you see a modern graffiti in a tunnel or a cave, it’s not difficult for you to figure out the demographic group the artist belongs to. Second, every paleolithic cave that wasn’t purposefully discovered by professionals, was found by a group of boys (from 10 to 16 years old): Les Trois Frères, La Mouthe, Lascaux, Ekain, Pech Merle, Les Eyzies, Niaux, etc. One could say the same thing of other deep underground archeological discoveries, such as the Dead Sea manuscripts. It is not such a bad measure of the propensity of modern ‘Goonies’ to wander into the kind of deep caves suitable for paleolithic art. Third, there is the wealth of directe evidence from handprints and the few footprints that we have, as well as the sketchy, amateur quality of most drawings. Fourth, modern children and adolescents arguably draw a lot more than the average modern adult. Thus, if one looks at the fossil record of our drawings, 30 000 years from now, her chances of finding children’s drawing will be enormous, because younger humans tend to draw a lot more than other humans, and also because of the following taphonomic bias: all adults were children and adolescents at some point in their life, but not all children become adolescents or adults. Consequently, in a population, the total amount of human lifetime spent as a child is greater than the amount of lifetime spent as an adult. The amount of art left by children to the fossil record is correspondingly greater. Another thing taphonomy tells us is that the ‘Goonies’ were probably alone, unaccompanied by adults. Caves are fragile environments, and they could only stand so many visitors without the graffiti getting lost. Again, one only needs to look at the French paleolithic caves of today to realize that. Because caves that preserved fragile pigments are archeological tupperwares, we can also be sure that no important amount of light was used to explore them (otherwise the smoke would have left traces). This excludes the possibility of frequent visits and complex sceneries in the context of “initiation ceremonies”. Assuming it is true, why is this ‘Goonies hypothesis’ important ? In my view, it’s because young people’s peer-groups are a quite underestimated factor in human cultures. Studies of cultural transmission typically focus on cross-generational information transmission, and neglect the role of young people’s peer culture. We know, however, that ‘playground cultures’ can be quite rich and survive for centuries, but that fact is seldom explored by mainstream students of cultural transmission. Guthrie’s Goonies hypothesis allows us to suppose that young people’s peer cultures – bands of Goonies, treehouse groups, cave clubs and such – have been with us humans from the very beginning.

  • Bill Benzon
    Bill Benzon 11 April 2009 (00:19)

    I’ve not read Guthrie’s book (and I’m on record as sympathetic to the shamanic-art hypothesis), but it’s not clear to me that there is a tenable opposition between art and graffiti. I’ve spent a good deal of time documenting [url=]graffiti in my neighborhood[/url] (in Jersey City, across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan), some of it in very obscure places. Some of the writers (their term for themselves) are quite serious about the aesthetic qualities of their work. Yes, there is a strong element of competition among them – I’ve seen battles fought on walls – and many writers never develop elaborate styles. But a few do, and among those few there is a small elite who travel the world writing graffiti on walls. And some of these guys – it’s mostly guys, but not entirely – are into psychoactive drugs; I’ve got observational knowledge of drug use while writing. I’m not saying these guys are modern-day shamans, but I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss graffiti as [i]mere[/i] testosterone-fueled young male hijinks. I think anyone who is deeply interested in cave art would do well to take a serious look at current graffiti culture.