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.

A pigment that’s older than modern man himself

In life and in death, our ancestors covered themselves with iron oxide.
Image of a horse colored with yellow ochre from Lascaux cave, France, c 17,300 BC
“What is the oldest pigment?” a reader asked me this week. That’s one of the few questions that archeology can answer definitively.
It’s ochre, one of the iron-oxide pigments. These minerals are common and easy to manipulate. Primitive man needed only to find suitable rocks and scratch or grind them. Adding water, he had paint. Adding milk, he had paint with a protein binder.
Ochre’s history is far older than modern man. A quartzite hammerstone found near the Danube shows a 500,000-year-old partial handprint of ochre. The earliest known cache of milled ochre comes from a Homo erectus site that’s about 285,000 years old. By 250,000 years ago, Neanderthals were using ochre at the Maastricht Belvédère site in The Netherlands. By 40,000 years ago, ochre was being manufactured in an ongoing process in an Ethiopian cave. That workshop lasted 4500 years.
Image of a human hand created with red ochre in Pech Merle cave, France, c.  25,000 BC
All that makes the Upper Paleolithic cave art at Lascauxseem downright modern.
Sienna, umber and red oxide are other iron-oxide pigments from antiquity, but none are as venerable as ochre. In ancient practice, different hues might have come from different rocks, or they could have been ochre that was heated or treated to change its structure.
The easiest way to manipulate ochre was to toss it in the fire. Burned, it turns red. Evidence of this dates from 100,000 to 70,000 years ago in deposits in Blombos Cave in South Africa.
Ochre filled a large niche in the prehistoric world. In addition to its obvious uses as a paint, it was a medicine, cosmetic, tanning agent and mastic.
Paintings in the Tomb of Nakht in ancient Egypt, c. 15th century BC
“[It] is not unusual to find a layer of the cave floor impregnated with a purplish red to a depth of eight inches. The size of these ochre deposits raises a problem not yet solved. The colouring is so intense that practically all the loose ground seems to consist of ochre,” wrote archeologist André Leroi-Gourhan of prehistoric Europeans. “One can imagine that the Aurignacians regularly painted their bodies red, dyed their animal skins, coated their weapons, and sprinkled the ground of their dwellings, and that a paste of ochre was used for decorative purposes in every phase of their domestic life. We must assume no less, if we are to account for the veritable mines of ochre on which some of them lived.”
Red ochre is closely associated with prehistoric burial rites. The so-called Red Lady of Pavilandwas a male skeleton dyed with red ochre about 33,000 years ago. 
Remains of the Red Lady of Paviland, Wales, c. 35,000 BC
“I found the skeleton enveloped by a coating of a kind of ruddle … which stained the earth, and in some parts extended itself to the distance of about half an inch around the surface of the bones … Close to that part of the thigh bone where the pocket is usually worn surrounded also by ruddle [were] about two handfuls of the Nerita littoralis. At another part of the skeleton, viz in contact with the ribs [were] forty or fifty fragments of ivory rods [also] some small fragments of rings made of the same ivory and found with the rods … Both rods and rings, as well as the Nerite shells, were stained superficially with red, and lay in the same red substance that enveloped the bones,” wrote its discoverer, the Rev. William Buckland.
Some prehistoric graves used cinnabar in place of ochre. That would have been a costly trade item. Even in death, society has always been divided between the haves and have-nots. Ironically, what they had in this instance was toxic.