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WiseGuy: The Author's Blog

The Painted Caves of Southern France, Part V

Figure 5: Portrait of a man drawn in Magnesium dioxide. Bernifal Cave, near Les Eyzes. The face, an almost perfect oval, is much more distinct than shown here. 12,000 BP?

 

by Richard W. Wise

 

Copyright: 2022

 

At Bernifal, near the town of Les Eyzes, we got our biggest surprise. Our guide, Christine Desdemaines Hugon, trained the beam of her flashlight on the cave wall, and a beautifully drawn portrait of a Paleolithic man emerged. Human representations are rare—almost non-existent in French Paleo art. Unlike animal renderings, anthropomorphic figures, when they do appear, tend to be vaguely rendered, partial and indistinct. They are often hybrid figures like the Lion Man and the famous Sorcerer (La Grotte du Roc Saint Cirq). These images are best described as anthropomorphic and man-like, rather than as distinct images of human beings. 

 

This portrait is one of the unique images in Bernifal and all of the caves of Southern France. We were not allowed to take pictures. The image, downloaded from the internet, hardly does the portrait justice. The flashlight's beam revealed a distinct, realistic image of a man with a long oval, pale white face outlined in black, prominent eyes and eyebrows, nose and mouth with black hair worn in a topknot gazing out at us. 
 
Granted, our flashlight projected a white light measuring about 5500 kelvin. The artist would have been using the light of a direct flame at perhaps 1500 kelvin. Even so, unlike the image here, what we saw was white and very well-defined; the white color may have been due to calcite drippings that covered the portrait. The face would have been more poignant if seen against the natural gray background of the cave.
 
My immediate question: could it be a later drawing? No! The guide explained, the portrait is rendered not in charcoal but in Manganese dioxide, a chemical compound that cannot be dated directly. The calcite encrustation dates it as prehistoric.
 
To me, he resembled a Samurai warrior with Western eyes. Lit from the side, he sported a mustache. Who was he? Was this a self-portrait of the artist? He looks deceptively modern. He could be my neighbor. The artist, whoever he was, broke a taboo, but what sort of taboo? Human-like images are ubiquitous in Paleolithic art---though not so much in Southern France, where there is almost a complete lack. If were are talking about a realistic portraits, such as those at Chauvet, Lascaux, and Altamira, there, there are none.
 
Next: Prehistoric Engravers. Stay tuned.



  

 

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The Painted Caves of Southern France, Part III


 
By Richard W. Wise
©2022

 Did I say seven? More like ten days in Southern France devoted to cave art. From Vallon Pont d'Arc to Les Eyzes de Tayak, we've visited Chauvet, Bernifal, Lascaux, Font de Gaume, Cougnac, Rouffignac and Abri du Cap Blanc. The first cave, Chauvet, one of the most important, is also the oldest dating 33-36,000 BP. The caves clustered around Les Eyzes are all from the Magdalenian Period 24-17,000 BP. Our travels covered about five hundred miles.
 
The paintings at Chauvet are true marvels. Out The art is about predators not the grazing animals typical of the caves at Les Eyzes. Cave lions, mammoth, cave bears and wholly rhinoceroses make up 65% of the art.
 
A brace of lions, visible only to the withers—heads outstretched—stalking the primeval taiga. Horses—each an individual—whiney and neigh. Below them, a pair of Wooly Rhinos meet horn-to-horn. Another group of stacked Rhino, the first six back lines only, or is it a single multi-legged proto-futurist animal, shown in multiple poses, shaking his horned head?
 
Most of what is seen at Chauvet are charcoal drawings. Much easier to date than later works where the artists used a mineral, Magnesium dioxide to draw the black outlines. The age of the oldest drawings was recalibrated in 2020 to 36,500 BP. 
 
The images portrayed are sophisticated. They have a freshness and originality lacking in the later works in Lascaux and Altamira There is some evidence of stylization, but it is limited. Is it any wonder that its discovery in 1994 threw the preconceived linear evolution of art into a cocked hat?  There is evidence that many groups visited Chauvet over the millennia prior to the landslide that sealed it 22,000 years ago. Perhaps, Chauvet acted as an inspiration to later painters.
 
Could Chauvet have been a beginning, the creative spark that resulted in a school of painting that lasted more than 20,000 years? And, what does it say about the cultural evolution of European Homo Sapiens? Stylized art is, after all, degenerate art. It takes creativity and turns it into uniformity. It is also an indicator of a maturing, settled culture. 
 
Archaeologically, the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern France is divided into five broad successive periods; Aurignacian (∼39,500–34,000 BP), Gravettian (∼34,000–26,100 BP), Solutrean (∼26,100–24,600 BP), Magdalenian (∼24,600–15,500 BP) and Azilian (∼15,500–11,500 BP). BP means "Before present" which is figured from the year 1950. The problem is coming up with a basis for these divisions, if divisions they are. All we have is a pile of bones in one hand and a pile of flint in the other. In some cases; we have images, painting, engraving, drawing and sculpture which is often ignored in archeologists  demographic evaluation of cultures in these successive periods.
 
Next: Spectacular Lascaux. Stay tuned.

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HISTORICAL NOVEL SOCIETY INTERVIEW: Richard Wise on launching The Dawning: 31,000 BC. (Expanded)

How would you describe this book and its themes in a couple of sentences?

 

The Dawning: 31,000 BC is a story about the deep past and a meditation on the present. Aside from the romance and adventure, the theme revolves around the development of human political and social culture which I contend is based on human nature, a nature which has not changed since the beginning of human history.

 

In contemporary literature, prehistory is often portrayed as an idyllic period, free of strife, where men and women were equal and there was magic in the air; the domain of Rousseau's noble savage. While an interesting theme, it is total fiction. In The Dawning, I have attempted to portray the people and the period as I believe it really was.

 

What attracted you to writing fiction about prehistory?

 

The magnificent 30,000-36,000-year-old paintings discovered in 1994 at Chauvet Cave in Southern France. The art is dynamic and sophisticated and tells of a culture which could hardly be called primitive.

You paint a vivid picture of daily life in prehistory: hunting, making fire, travelling, the weather, animals such as cave lions and hyenas. What kinds of research did you do for this story?

 

I took an archaeology course at University of Virginia, read about twenty-five books, everything from scholarly tomes to the Boy Scout Manual. There are a number of groups practicing experimental archaeology and there are published journals. I watched videos of fire making, flint knapping and spear throwing to name just a few.

 

Which research books did you pull off your shelf most often?

 

The Bulletin of Primitive Technology (experimental archaeology) was useful. I bought a set. Desdemaine-Hugon's Stepping Stones was another. Don's Maps and The Bradshaw Society were two very useful websites.

 

The shamans play significant roles in your story. How did you imagine your way into these characters and their influence in their communities?

 

The first shamans were tribal wise men. Often, they were the dreamers, the non-conformists, the tinkerers. Small groups of hunter/gatherers produced little surplus. Everyone had to, literally, pull their weight. No one was just wandering around, shaking rattles and mumbling to themselves.

 

I favor the Eastern European term, šamán and used it throughout The Dawning. "Shaman" carries with it a boatload of connotations—men in horned headdresses and painted faces, covered in feathers. These images conjure up something of an anachronism, a stereotype. I doubt that tribal wise men fit that image in these small mobile clans in earliest times. More likely, they earned their keep as part-time healers and storytellers.

 

Later we see shamans morphing into priests and then into priestly castes who claimed to influence the spirits but were essentially parasitic. In the historical development of culture they--along with the warriors--eventually took over and still rule. Osirus, Anubis, Enlil, Ahura Mazda--most of these made up dieties were worshipped far longer than Christianty has been around. Among these hunter/gatherers there was no surplus upon which a priestly class could feed and take root. 

 

Are there elements of your own life experiences that you have woven into your story?

 

Very little. My academic background is in philosophy. My views of human nature—which is pretty dark—definitely influenced my characterizations.

 

There is tension between the two half-brothers, Baal and Ejil. Do you have tricks for getting to know your characters?

 

No tricks. The experts tell us that these people were just like us. We share the same nature. So, analogies about the relationships of modern human siblings were useful.

 

Not so many novelists have chosen to write about the period of prehistory. Jean Auel, William Golding, Raymond Williams spring to mind. Have other prehistory novelists been significant for you?

 

Don't forget Jack London. I haven't read Williams. Auel's first book was brilliant though it's a bit dated given what we've learned through DNA studies and other discoveries over the last twenty years. Golding took on the impossible. How do you write close third person with characters who lack self-consciousness? Neanderthals did have a sense of self.

 

 

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