Back to the caves for some paleolithic multi-media

Art Scatter has declared its keen interest in Cave Doings in the past. What attracts us? Maybe it’s just that we see ourselves. Not ourselves specifically, of course, not with our sense of direction, not rooting around in the back of a cave where carbon dioxide levels are high enough to induce hallucinations and strange blind fish look up at us from cold, mineral drenched water, perhaps attracted by the pungent aroma of our dingy torches. Do fish smell? I mean with their own olfactory devices? I digress.

Those cave people, homo sapiens, were us, at least in terms of the intelligence they brought to bear on their environments. I haven’t ever seen any studies that suggest the human brain has evolved dramatically during the past 50,000 years or so. If you have, please let me know, because that would be interesting, too. So, their brains were operating in the world like ours, except without the same sort of technology, which has “evolved” over time. What we can piece together of their creativity in the face of the universe can’t help but be interesting in a deep way.

So we are preambling toward something — Judith Thurman’s story on cave art in The New Yorker. Thurman’s story examines a couple of recent books on cave painting, tests their propositions with experts studying the caves on the ground and then eyeballs those paintings itself (or rather herself). In her lead-in she cites the famous Picasso observation about the Lascaux paintings, reported by his guide: “They’ve discovered everything.” The list of painting “advances” includes perspective, Pointillism and stenciling, various colors and brushes and as Thurman points out, the “very concept of an image.” What I like about the article was the sense of amazement that Thurman conveys at just how perceptive the cave painters were — both about the caves themselves and the surfaces they offered for image-making AND the animals they created on the walls. But the primary point is to describe the dispute among cave historians, which basically comes down to this: To what extent is it possible to interpret accurately the “meaning” of the paintings.

She seems to have a soft spot for the older generation of historians who believe the cave art must have been part of the same shamanistic rituals that have been recorded among hunter-gatherer societies that anthropologists have recorded in our own time. On the other hand, she admits that the younger generation has a point, too. We simply don’t know enough to hazard a guess, in a serious way, about what it all meant.

What emerged with that revelation was an image of Paleolithic artists transmitting their techniques from generation to generation for twenty-five millennia with almost no innovation or revolt. A profound conservatism in art, (Gregory) Curtis notes, is one of the hallmarks of a “classical civilization.” For the conventions of cave painting to have endured four times as long as recorded history, the culture it served, he concludes, must have been “deeply satisfying”—and stable to a degree it is hard for modern humans to imagine.

“That revelation” was simply that the art found in the oldest caves was just as accomplished and similar in many regards to that painted 25,000 years later. In other words, the techniques and imagery were passed down intact while the wild beasts howled outside the caves and the climate changed, surviving the friction that human society inevitably creates, surviving our seemingly natural inclination to “improve” things, surviving our creativity itself.

And so, thinking about “deeply satisfying” and trying to get a handle on what could be that satisfying, enough to sate me and mine for the next 1000 generations, I encountered another cave story. Maybe you read it, too.
Heather Whipps at MSNBC reported that tests of cave acoustics proved, um, interesting:

Analyzing the famous, ochre-splashed cave walls of France, scientists found that the most densely painted areas were also those with the best acoustics. Humming into some bends in the wall even produced sounds mimicking the animals painted there.

Goodness! If you follow the initial Cave Doings link, you will find our own speculations about cave music. It only makes sense.

The cave paintings were part of a ritual system — like early religious beliefs — practiced by Paleolithic humans that likely also included singing and music, (Iegor) Reznikoff said. He noted that bone whistles and flutes have been found inside many of the caves.

Reznikoff is a specialist in ancient music at the University of Paris X in Nanterre, and he is speculating here. The story itself has its share of “one can imagine” phrasings. But his study results are, um, sound enough, it seems, sound enough to invite our sort of speculation about the nature of paleolithic “opera”. What wouldn’t we give to hear recordings of those flutes and whistles and the voices that accompanied them? Would we say with Picasso, “They discovered everything”?

And if the answer is yes, what does that suggest to us?