The Horizons of Prehistory

on June 19, 2004

One of the claims commonly made by twentieth century realists was that it was fruitless to look in the past for the state of wonder reflected in ancient myths and fairy tales. They insisted that the lives of prehistoric peoples were far more limited than our own, ruled in a mechanistic fashion by instinctual drives towards food, sex, and power. The obvious implication was that the present moment was as good as things had ever been, and that anyone who thought differently must be either a hopeless romantic or just not very good at coping with the world around them.

But what if the realists’ claim was false? What if it consisted of nothing more than self-favoring conclusions drawn from superficial surveys of the world’s last few remaining archaic societies? And what if those societies themselves were only pale remnants of the great paleolithic and neolithic cultures, living fossils that maintained the external forms of an ancient way of life but had lost its potential for growth and self-transformation?

Let us suppose, if only for the sake of argument, that ancient peoples inhabited a world vastly more expansive and filled with possibilities than the imaginally cramped quarters we tolerate today. Would that change our view of our own lives? Might it cause us to doubt the path we have followed?

The Shamanistic Theory of Ancient Art

During the course of the twentieth century, two competing theories were offered to explain the art of the Paleolithic. In one, the ancient cave painters were presented as crude primitives, engaged in some sort of magical mumbo-jumbo to ensure the success of the hunt and the fertility of the prey. In the other, they were described as simpler versions of modern artists and scientists, either expressing a purely aesthetic appreciation of the world around them or working diligently to record and categorize the facts of their environment.

Both these theories, however, had more to do with the limited horizons of twentieth century thought than with the real nature and purposes of Paleolithic art. Neither of them provided a satisfactory answer to the most basic questions about how and why this art was created. Neither made any attempt to understand the true interests and intentions of the culture from which it sprang. And neither one even hinted at the source of the enormous power, vitality, and hallucinatory sense of presence inherent in the great cave shrines.

There was one proposal made in the twentieth century that did offer a basis for further insights, and that was the idea that Paleolithic art was in some sense shamanistic. It was suggested quite early, as part of the hunting-magic hypothesis, that the “Sorcerer” of Les Trois Frères might depict a dancing shaman. Then, in the wake of the Sixties drug culture, it began to seem likely that both the powerful animal figures and the abstract geometrical signs common in rock art were representations of trance-induced visions rather than of actual events or objects.

Recently an intriguing new interpretation has been gaining ground, based on fieldwork among contemporary shamanistic societies. It appears that the artists of the Paleolithic may have considered their work not as a static record of past visions, but as a living manifestation of a higher reality straining to break through into our mundane sphere.

One article on the subject states, “the places shamans made rock art were held to be portals to the supernatural; cracks and caves in the rock were interpreted literally as openings to the beyond.” Another suggests “that the rock is merely a ‘veil’ between this world and the spirit world, and that rock art is the destruction of this veil.”

It would seem that for the earliest artists, the rock face was not a passive canvas, nor even a wall dividing this world from the other world, but a kind of dimensional portal that could, with proper shaping, enable travel between the two. And if that was so, then the world as those artists experienced it would have been far more akin to the dreams of science fiction than to anything we experience in our lives today.

Related:

A listing of all my posts on deep prehistory can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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