Many `experts' have attempted to interpret the Paleolithic images and forms found in underground passages and caves such as Lascaux, Altamira, and Chauvet. Known as Franco-Cantabrian, because 95 percent of cave art in the world lies in Southern France or the Iberian Peninsula, these works rank among the most mysterious. What were the artists thinking??
In THE SHAMANS OF PREHISTORY, Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams put forth their interpretation of the meaning of Paleolithic cave art. Clottes is currently investigating Chauvet and Lewis Williams is a professor of cognitive archeology affiliated with the University of Whitwatersrand in South Africa.
During the last Ice Age, Paleolithic humans gathered in the warmer parts of the European continent in what is today southern France and northern Portugal and Spain, along with large numbers of animals including horses, bison, deer, aurochs, and others. For some reason, these humans felt compelled to depict some of these animals in "parietal" or cave art. The discovery of this art has launched much speculation.
Early on, experts suggested that the cave art was "art for art's sake" (posited by anti-church scientists who could not accept any religious connection). Most recently, experts in Structuralism have suggested binary patterns underlie the meaning of the art, but these patterns are so general as to be unhelpful.
The most persistent interpretation of the art during the past 100 years has been that it was created in conjunction with sympathetic magic rituals used to increase the size of herds of animals hunters stalked. But this interpretation has many flaws. For one thing, the area surrounding the caves was brimming with game at the time the art was created. For another, many of the animals consumed by Paleolithic humans were not depicted (fish, birds, boars, for example). For another, horses outnumber other beasts pictured, and although they were sometimes consumed by humans, the bones left behind in various camp sites indicate horses were not at the top of the menu. Other problems with the "hunter" interpretation lie in the actual depiction of the animals-spears and arrows are often placed at odd angles for killing; animals are placed at odd angles for living or dying; animals appear to be more alive than dead; pregnant females are seldom shown--and last but not least, some of the animals are predators themselves. Naturalists that they were, Paleolithic folks certainly understood the source of baby animals and they certainly would not have wished to increase the numbers of their competitors.
Clottes and Lewis-Williams propose another interpretation of the cave art -- Shamanism. The term Shaman is taken from the Siberian word Tungus-the name of one who goes into a trance and has visions. All humans are capable of entering a trance or "altered state" and cultures around the world exhibit variations of Shamanism -- including many orthodox Western religions. Some enter a trance via drugs (wine, peyote, etc.), others engage in ritual behavior (chants, songs, and/or dancing). Shamanic trances produce out-of-body experiences involving various apparitions which may or may not be rendered into art forms.
I found the authors arguments concerning Shamanism persuasive and logical. The evidence they offer to support their thesis is excellent (many colorful photos). Their interpretation is helpful while not overreaching. Probably the most important aspect they stress is that while there is much diversity in cave art, a pattern is present. Best of all from my perspective, this thesis is gender and age neutral. Whatever Paleolithic humans did, women probably took part. This is a beautiful Abrams art book.