Sometime around forty thousand years ago, our ancestors began to view Nature from a new perspective. Although Homo sapiens and its ancestors knew Nature well in order to survive, a different visual outlook was in the making. Hunting or scavenging prey or dodging predators kept people aware of other animals. As physical changes made speech possible, there must have been some exchange of observations and ideas. With the new outlook, however, came a change in expression. Graphic images, especially those of large and powerful creatures surrounding them, were painted on rock walls. Those images and the models incorporated into tools and weapons, could be seen by all and became part of the society. Since their first known discovery in 1575, but chiefly in the 19th and 20th centuries, a great deal of interpretation and debate has occurred over their antiquity, what prompted their creation, and what they "mean". White, in this superb global survey of "art before writing", dismisses most of the theories, while placing the artworks in their likely social setting.
Even if the author failed to provide new insights into what prehistoric art might convey, the illustrations make this book something special. The images in this collection make it an outstanding example of the new wave of such studies. While there are books on Altamira, Lascaux, Chauvet and other locations, few, if any, offer the comprehensive prospect of so many sites. White devotes chapters to such scattered locations as Siberia, Anatolia, South Asia and the Americas. Each region has its own varieties of art, spanning a particular time-line and incorporating many traditions.
One point White reiterates often is his dismissal of art being "an invention of European civilization". This racist cavil has persisted even among serious scholars until very recently. Although most of the rock and cave art found has been in Western Europe, White notes how "art" in other places predates those creations. Even in Africa, the continent of our origins, South Africa alone holds over thirty thousand "rock or cave art" examples alone. The lack of resources for cataloging and analysing them is shameful. Australia and Africa alike have symbols and images from long before even the outstanding Chauvet and Lascaux depictions were daubed on the cave walls. The scattering of paintings, carvings, and objects from various times and places indicates the diversity of cultures making them.
This diversity leads to another theme White wants dismissed: prehistoric art reflects many ways of thinking and imagining. "Prehistoric" doesn't translate to "primitive" and there is no "universal" style underpinning of the works. More to the point, is how we tend to view the term "art". Our recent history has associated art with hierarchical societies containing a leisure class that could create or promote "art" as a purely creative process. White argues this narrow view obscures the more likely reasons the art was produced. The images would have been highly significant to both artists and viewers. Nature, he contends, was being reconfigured. While the implications of that mental leap remain debateable, the long-term consequences are still with us. The language may have academic tones, but the clarity of the message is not obscured. We need to understand our ancestors far better than we do. The implications for the future are significant. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]