The news last week that archaeologists rooting around an Oregon cave found coprolites containing human DNA and dating back 14,000 years has shaken Art Scatter right down to the toes of its foundation myth. Art Scatter emerges from lithic scatter, the circle of rock shards and shavings that stone-age men and woman created as they bent themselves to the task of making objects.
The findings in the Paisley Caves in central Oregon on what were then the shores of once-great Summer Lake, connect us to that image — and expand it. Because along with flaked stone spear points, grinding stones and other tool-making remnants, the archaeologists based their most important claims on the coprolites, a word we use to avoid the less elegant “dried dung” or worse. Art Scatter’s concept of itself, it turns out, was a sanitized idea, and the shudder generated by the new evidence involves the implications of this addition to our “image.”
What else were our paleo-precursors doing in that cave? Coincidentally, I’ve been listening to a new CD by the Kronos Quartet, “The Cusp of Magic,” a composition by Terry Riley. Riley (or rather liner notes writer Gregory Dubinsky) says it’s based on Native American peyote rituals, and the first movement begins with a drum sound that resembles Native American drumming. Maybe it’s also significant that the quartet is joined by Wu Man on the pipa, a Chinese instrument. We don’t know at this point how “Asian” our cave carvers were, how “Native American.” I don’t know that they were doing psychedelics, but it’s very possible that they were drumming in that cave — and singing, too. Maybe a song that they’d been singing for thousands of years, like Nzamba Lela, a group of 16 musicians from the BaAka clan of the Central African Republic. Nzamba Lela played and sang with Alonzo King’s Lines Ballet in Portland in 2001, one long complex song with variations that the clan had been working on deep into history, perhaps before the Paisley cave sheltered humans. The song sounded as though it could have been that old — its harmonies, counterpoint, rounds, call and responses, its abrupt changes in tempo and key, shifted through seamlessly by the singers. It was as close in time to those cave dwellers as I have ever been, I’m sure.
“The Cusp of Magic” gets progressively darker and “crazy” as Riley juggles contemporary music ideas, toy instruments, the pipa, a wedding song and a lullaby, Cuban and flamenco music. It’s too much. For me, it starts to sound merely odd, and though some moments are striking, insinuating or even beautiful, the pieces stop adding up to anything. Perhaps I’m just intended to enjoy the pieces. The points. The mixing bowls. But the undercurrent of dread is unmistakable, even in the squeaky toy sounds. Maybe MOST in the squeaky toy sounds.
Because the cave is dark. It’s not just happy carving, drumming, singing and eliminating. No. There’s tension, too.
“Oh man, did you have to make number two in the cave again?”
“Hey, it’s cold outside.”
“Haven’t I explained that Man doesn’t HAVE to foul his own nest?”
“Until we figure out a way to take our waste outside of the cave without going outside ourselves, then the cave floor will have to do.”
Tension. Debate. Aggravation. Bad smells. The cave is dark. We can only imagine the taboos breached and enforced. Or maybe it doesn’t take imagination, just a trip to your local theater where an adaptation of Ken Kesey’s “Sometimes a Great Notion” is in full swing. And a decent one at that, though its reductions of Kesey’s prose to stage action and stage pronouncements may irritate Kesey purists. (Will the Kesey purists confirm or deny, please?) And there, taboos, mostly the one about sleeping with the wives of members of your family, are honored mostly in the breach. The Oregon woods are dark and deep, too. They teem with the desire for power and the desire for sex, and there’s not much to check it, just other humans, who are intermittently blown to smithereens by the same desires. Are our hunters in the cave menfolk only? Or is there a bit of gender tension there, too, with a bit of Oedipal fury mixed in? If we turn to our “Clan of the Cave Bear” (I know, a completely different circumstance, deeper in time, deeper in fiction), we read about sexual coercion (also modern positions!). I’m starting to dislike these caves.
We have drifted afield of the debate among archaeologists about the new Oregon discovery, which seems to contradict the argument that the Clovis people were the first settlers of North America. The earliest Clovis artifacts have been dated to 13,000 years ago; the Oregon findings seem to indicate the existence of earlier, non-Clovis people. I like this idea of a more diverse invasion of the Americas for some reason, but I’m not prepared to argue for it from anything more than imagination, and perhaps the logical point that the absence of evidence for prior cultures isn’t conclusive proof that they didn’t exist. The Oregon site isn’t the only one that disputes Clovis priority, either.
Back to the cave, its evidence of toolmaking, its evidence of bowel function. What can we learn? These were not peaceful herbivores. They were making spear points for a reason. Their scat revealed a diet that included now-extinct horses, bison, lizards, fish, squirrels, as well as wild grains. (The last may surprise those who have visited this part of Oregon, which is mostly juniper/sagebrush desert these days. But even until the latter part of the 19th century this part of Oregon was dry grassland, the juniper kept under control by fire. Overgrazing by cattle turned dry prairie into desert.) Humans, including stone-age humans, affect their watersheds, the deep lesson of William G. Robbins’ “Landscapes of Promise,” the clearest account I’ve read of how Native and European-American culture changed Oregon.
So, in the Paisley caves our paleoindians are pausing to make more points. Maybe because the hunting is good on the shores of the great inland lake. And that “maybe” is just the beginning of what can only be conjecture. Why, for example, did they leave behind the great salmon protein stream of the Columbia? Were they rebels? Outcasts? Cultists? Natural-born adventurers? Or maybe they weren’t fishermen enough to reel in the salmon? Or was that great inland lake superior to the river as a source for food? I miss that lake. My imagination is not good enough to recreate it, and Summer Lake today is probably not very close. I don’t think I miss those caves, though. I’m not that much of a nostalgist. Not anymore.
Note: photos from the Paisley caves are from the University of Oregon site linked above; the points aren’t the ones fashioned 14,000 years ago