The birth of Cro-Magnon art

August 23, 1996|By Donald R. Morris

HOUSTON -- The search for the early history of Homo sapiens sapiens is endless. Bit by bit we add to the prehistoric picture of what went on before that first recorded eclipse in 4241 B.C.

Even the taxonomy is murky. Homo erectus, who evolved from earlier Homo habilis, seems to have vanished perhaps 200,000 years ago. By 120,000 years ago, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis was roaming Europe, and within 50,000 years was co-existing with archaic Homo sapiens sapiens -- modern man (whose earliest fossils, before it was realized they were in fact modern humans, were called ''Cro-Magnon''). Neanderthalensis died out about 39,000 years ago (at least, no younger fossils have been found), and Homo sapiens sapiens has had the hominid world to itself ever since.

It took a long time to sort even that much out, and longer still to erect a chronological framework. Dating baffled the early investigators; the best they could do was to establish a relative framework (which can now be dated), with the earliest, crude stone tools constituting a Paleolithic Age (lasting until perhaps 17,000 years ago), followed by a Mesolithic Age, and then a Neolithic Age (with finer, polished-stone tools and weapons) kicking in about 8,500 years ago -- followed 2,500 years later by the advent of copper tools.

Within that framework specific cultures were identified by the style of their artifacts -- Aurignacean, Solutrean, Magdelenian. Although no art work was ever found associated with Neanderthalensis, Homo sapiens sapiens sites are rich with art, which comes in two varieties -- small carved figurines (''portable art'') of humans and animals, and the spectacular cave paintings (''parietal'' art, from Latin paries, wall). Cro-Magnon man was not a ''cave-man;'' he simply used caves in cold weather, if they happened to be handy -- as they were in France and Spain.

Portable art could often be dated by the strata in which it was found; parietal art gave no clues. But Stephen Jay Gould, in the July Natural History, gives a fascinating account of the efforts of the two leading experts, Henri Breiul (1877-1961) and Andre Leroi-Gourhan (1911-1986) to date it.

In the darkest chambers

Breiul studied the individual (and frequently superimposed) images, and was convinced they were a form of hunting magic (''If you draw it, it will come''). Leroi-Gourhan concentrated on each ''canvas'' as a whole, following artistic theories of structuralism; he assigned gender values to the images (and the frequent symbols), and suspected a fertility cult. That question is still open; the paintings are invariably found in the deepest, darkest chambers -- not where people lived and cooked and ate. And there was something like a cult of the cavebear associated with the wall paintings.

To add to the mystery, a NASA computer expert in the 1980s made a computer analysis of all the paintings, and made a point often overlooked -- what the cave-dwellers ate is well known from the immense quantities of garbage and bones that have been unearthed, and, by and large, they did not eat (or thus, presumably, hunt) the species portrayed in the paintings.

Both men, for archaeological and artistic analysis, looked for an evolution of artistic skills over thousands of years -- and automatically assumed there would be a progression from crude, early renditions to more realistic and sophisticated versions later. Breiul identified five stages (and two cycles), with a final deterioration; Leroi-Gourhan found four stages.

But as Mr. Gould points out, this ''evolution'' of artistic talent was not necessarily valid. Could scholars 10,000 years in the future, presented with a Michelangelo and a Picasso painting, tell which came first? Must cubism precede realism?

Breiul worked long before carbon-14 dating was established; Leroi-Gourhan was unable to take advantage of it because large amounts of material were needed for the testing -- amounts no one would dream of scraping off the walls. But in the last few years, advanced (and far more accurate) carbon-14 dating techniques require only a minuscule fleck of black paint, and the parietal art has now been accurately dated, with specific caves assigned dates from 32,310 BP (Before Present) to 11,600 BP -- all within the Paleolithic or Mesolithic Age, and all within the last Ice Age.

But in 1994 the most fabulous, awesome cave of all was discovered -- the Chauvet Cave, in southern France. The paintings here are masterpieces of realism; the impact of the art by itself, let alone the antiquity, is stunning. Surely this was the culmination of the long, slow evolution of Cro-Magnon art.

Alas for the ''evolution of artistic talent,'' no. For the Chauvet Cave has been dated to 32,410 BP -- the oldest of all known parietal art, and 7,000 years older than the earliest known portable art of figurines, or inscribed bones or discs.

And the mysteries crowd ever closer -- whence this talent? Did it suddenly spring, full-blown, into the life of Cro-Magnon man? What led up to it? Was such artistic talent general, or limited to a small, gifted, elite? How were artists trained? How was the knowledge passed, from artist to artist, from group to group, from one century to the next? And what role did art really play in Cro-Magnon societies?

We will, almost certainly, never know; this is prehistory, and there are no written records. But the unknown genius who set to work in the Chauvet Cave (and more than one may well have been involved) differed, physically and intellectually, not a whit from us; we live in a world of technologies and complexities beyond his comprehension -- but his artistic imagination, and his skills, were the full equal of all that has followed in the 32 millennia that have passed since he first raised his torch to contemplate his rocky canvas.

Donald R. Morris is a free lance.

Pub Date: 8/23/96

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