Unreal Nature

May 12, 2015

25,000 Years

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… To venture underground was akin to moving between worlds … [I]n the other world, where spirits were literally within arm’s reach, the visitors could not have failed to see them taking shape …

This is from Cave Art by Jean Clottes (2008):

… The illumination the lamps provided was no doubt weak (about one fifth that of a modern candle), but it would have sufficed, since people’s eyes adapt quickly to the dark and become much more sensitive to the faintest light. An ample supply of grease — carried in a leather pouch — and wicks, as well as the equipment to light them, would have ensured a light source lasting several hours.

Both grease lamps and torches cast weak glimmers and shadows around their bearers and on nearby walls. The flickering light would have continually thrown elements on the surface of the walls into relief, or made them vanish altogether, giving them life and mystery.

… Why should this art be extraordinary? It is not a matter of aesthetics, as artistic appreciation varies considerably according to people, periods, places and cultures. Two well-established facts mark Palaeolithic art as deeply original: firstly, its very long duration, over a period of at least 20-25,000 years, proved beyond doubt by the radiocarbon analyses carried out in painted caves and the artefacts discovered in well-dated archaeological habitation layers. Secondly, there is the frequentation by humans of deep caves throughout that extremely long period. What can we conclude from such behavior, unique in the history of humankind? Other questions arise: does this art testify to a unity of beliefs and practices, and, if we are tempted to answer in the affirmative, could this really be possible over such an immensity of time?

… Elsewhere in the world, caves were mostly shunned, because they were generally perceived as spiritually dangerous, other-worldly places, where supernatural spirits or the dead dwelled. When people did frequent them, which happened only occasionally, and for short periods, they did so because they wanted to use them as shelters in troubled times, to hold propitiatory ceremonies, which were sometimes accompanied by the making of wall art, as with the Mayas, or to use them as burial places.

… The hypothesis that best accounts for the facts as we currently understand them is that Palaeolithic people had a shamanic religion and created their art within its framework.

… Shamans … play the part of mediators between the world of the living and the world of the spirits.

To venture underground was akin to moving between worlds, and was done as deliberately as when the shaman went into a trance for the customary healing ceremonies. In this way, the shamans would encounter the spirits that lived inside the rocks and inhabited those mysterious, frightening places, contacting the gods through painting and engraving and gaining their goodwill or some of their power. This does not mean that the shaman was necessarily alone. He or she could be accompanied by acolytes, sick people, or others who had an exceptional need to be exposed to this supernatural power.

Their long stays in these deep, dark galleries may have resulted in two different, if related phenomena. Firstly, being underground, cut off from outside stimuli and without any sense of time, could have led to hallucinations. Secondly, convinced that they were in the other world, where spirits were literally within arm’s reach, the visitors could not have failed to see them taking shape in the cave walls in the flickering torchlight, parts of their bodies emerging from cracks in the rock.

caveArt_lascaux

-Julie

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