Art as information

When we paint, we speak to our present generation, but we’re also speaking to the future.

Giant deer from the replica of Lascaux.

The Irish elk was one of the largest deer that has ever lived. Its range was vast, across all of Eurasia from the Atlantic to Siberia, feeding on the same boreal woodlands that appeal to modern moose. Males had ridiculous showy racks. Some scientists think those racks were their downfall, because they made grazing too difficult.

What we know about them is limited mainly to fossils, and to the cave art of Lascaux (17,000 years old) and Chauvet Cave (30,000-35,000 years old). The interpretation of paleolithic art can be problematic, colored as it is by our own preconceptions. However, the animals themselves are straightforward, rendered with an eye to detail and description.

Lion painting replica from Chauvet Cave, courtesy Brno museum Anthropos.

At Lascaux, they include aurochs (the wild cattle that preceded our domestic cows) and a large animal that looks like a unicorn. There are big cats, horses, ibex, red deer and bison. At Chauvet Cave, the walls feature predators: cave lions, cave hyenas, leopards, bears, and rhinoceroses. Many of these species, like the Irish elk, have been extinct for millennia.

Fossils can be reconstructed, but they’re often just bones. They almost never give us a sense of musculature or color. Real-time paintings coupled with the fossil record give us a much more rounded view of these extinct animals.

Meanwhile, in Australia, scientists discovered a 17,300-year-old painting of a kangaroo. (Well, it’s a line drawing, and it’s been partially obscured, but it’s certainly a marsupial of some sort.) In Indonesia, there are cave paintings of a wild pig (45,000 years old) and a buffalo(44,000 years old). All of which tells us that there’s a whole world of undiscovered art underground, for those with the courage to go spelunking.

Nakht and Family Fishing and Fowling, Tomb of Nakht, c. 1400-1390 BC, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The fruits, vegetables and game that we eat have been portrayed in art since the ancient Egyptians. These paintings tell us a lot about the evolution of the human diet, including when certain staples appeared in different parts of the world.

Dutch Golden Agepainters were focused on the abundance of their trade-based culture. That makes them a treasure-trove of information about food (and ships’ rigging, and window hardware, and almost every other aspect of 17th century European culture). Their traders were importing goods from all over the world, and the Dutch artists recorded it all. When we look at their paintings through the lens of art history, we tend to gloss over the taxonomy of what’s shown. However, the meticulous painting style that was prized in the Dutch Republic makes these paintings a scientific and historical resource.

Still life with monkeys, 1630-40, Frans Snyders (Flemish), courtesy National Gallery of Prague. Does that lobster call into question the story that they originated as food given to prisoners in Massachusetts Bay Colony?

Photography and our current excessive written history seem to have erased the need for paintings as documentation; that’s one reason for the explosion of abstraction in the 20th century. But, surely, that’s a short-sighted view. The nameless cave-painters at Chauvet Cave weren’t painting lions to preserve them for history—and yet they did. When we paint, we speak to our present generation, but we’re also speaking to the future. How that’s interpreted, and what it will mean, is beyond our current understanding.

Prehistoric shapeshifters in equatorial Indonesia

Our ancestors were a lot smarter than we give them credit for.
Megalithic stone in central Sulawesi. Photo courtesy of Oliver van Straaten
We think we know the history of art, and then something comes along to upset that narrative. For example, it’s long been accepted that the first figurative art (which means art that retains references to the real world) was made in Europe. Recent re-dating of cave art in Sulawesi, Indonesia has set that theory on its head—at least until something else is discovered.
Prehistoric cave art and megaliths in Sulawesi are not news. What’s changed is how old we think they are, based on more recent uranium-series dating. You can find the methodology here. However, what interests me is the shift in how young scientists see ancient man.
Too often, pop anthropology involves discussions of ancient man’s credulousness. In the 20th century, scientists seemed to buy wholly into the idea that intelligence is a modern trait; our lowbrow ancestors had no higher end thinking, except that they walked closely with the Otherworld.
Lion-man of the Hohlenstein-Stadel is a prehistoric ivory sculpture discovered in a German cave in 1939. It’s about 40,000 years old. Photo courtesy of Dagmar Hollmann
All unexplained prehistoric behavior was thrown into the black hole of spiritualism. Once, a park ranger in Mesa Verde carefully explained that regularly-spaced drilled holes in the rock were religious in significance. My husband whispered to me that they looked like footings for a now-missing superstructure. Since they were in front of a cliff dwelling, that seemed clear, but when I suggested it, the expert brushed the idea away. In his mind, the ancestral Puebloans were incapable of that kind of engineering.
This NPR story does a good job of balancing that. “I think the overall theme here really is that we’ve vastly underestimated the capacity of our ancestors,” said Australian paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger.
Researchers Adam Brumm et alrecognize that the important part of their discovery has to do with ancient man’s abilities “for inventing, telling and consuming stories.” Because prehistoric man didn’t have written language, the best place to see their creative life is in narrative cave art. When we recognize the interactions between the characters in these paintings, we are reading their thoughts.
Photostitched panorama showing a therianthrope hunting, from Leang Bulu’ Sipong in Indonesia. Photo courtesy F3News

Along with recognizable figures and obvious abstractions (dot, swirls, etc.) paleolithic cave art contains figures that anthropologists call therianthropes. We lay-people are more likely to call them shape-shifters. They are a clue to just how complex and intelligent prehistoric man was.

Therianthropes “arguably communicated narrative fiction of some kind,” wrote Brumm. The previous oldest-known example is from Germany, a figurine of a human with a feline head. It’s about 40,000 years old.
The limestone cave of Leang Bulu’ Sipong in Sulawesi portrays several of these shapeshifters hunting wild pigs and dwarf bovids. These are about 4,000 years older—hence the excitement. Because there are no humans doing the hunting, it’s a tantalizing version of early human fiction—one we don’t have the key to read.
Unsurprisingly, the paintings are deteriorating at a rapid rate. Merrit Kennedy projects another modern shibboleth when she suggests the culprit is climate change. The cave art at Lascaux degenerated rapidly after its discovery in 1940. Human visitation meant humidity changes, increased carbon dioxide levels, and rises in temperature from artificial lighting. These triggered infestations of a variety of molds, fungi, and bacteria, which eat into the limestone and required enormous intervention to ‘cure.’ The caves were closed to the public in 1963. And Lascaux is in the temperate Dordogne, whereas Sulawesi is an equatorial jungle-covered volcanic island.
A special thanks to Sandy Sibley for bringing this story to my attention.