Friday, January 11, 2013

The Genius of Cavemen

More than 10,000 years before the earliest beginnings of civilization in Egypt and Mesopotamia and about 5,000 years even before the start of agriculture, cavemen were creating sophisticated and accurate paintings in color of animals that they hunted and ate.

In the pitch dark of the Altamira cave in Western Spain -- two hundred meters or so from the entrance -- they must have been aided by lamp or torch light. Deep inside they could only have painted from memory. And while the skill of these artists is as good as any modern painter, what impresses me the most is the accuracy of their work.

Artist's conception of how cave drawings were made. 

While the particular bison they hunted, the steppe bison (Bison priscus), is now extinct, we can gauge the accuracy of their paintings by looking at photographs of the closely related wisent or European bison (Bison bonasus).

In the pictures below compare a  painting of a single bison cropped from a photograph of the famous Polychrome Ceiling in the Altamira cave with a photograph of a European bison. 

 Cropped bison painting from a photograph of the polychrome rock paintings 
at the Altamira Cave in Western Spain. About 15,000 years old, 
this painting was created with a sophisticated airbrush technique. 

European bison photograph. 

To begin with it is clear that the painting is of a bison and no other animal. Next look at the back legs, the curve of the rump, the back bone, the angle of the head, the horns, etc.

While a painting like this might not seem that difficult, bear in mind that up until the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge in the 1870s no painter had depicted the movement of a horse's legs correctly when galloping. No one had seen that all four legs left the ground at one point in a gallop -- which was only proved by Muybridge's sequential high speed photographs. Furthermore these painters knew horses quite well and had observed them close at hand, often for decades. My point is that accurately depicting an animal is not an easy task.

Photograph of galloping horse by Eadweard Muybridge 
that proved what painters had not seen for centuries. 

As I said in my introduction to this blog: "I believe it is the modern human -- i.e. Homo sapiens sapiens -- sense of time that is the key difference between humans and the other animals. And further I believe that time, as we experience it, is created by our uniquely human brains..."

In the case of this Altamira bison painting, it appears that the human sense of time, i.e. memory, was exceptional. This drawing of the bison, which must have been drawn from memory, is proof that primitive humans had remarkable memories as well as keen powers of observation. 

It is even quite possible that the cavemen's ability to remember was much better than ours, as non-literate societies had to rely on memory rather than the written word. This has been well documented in studies of the oral tradition, before literacy, in which very long works such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey were often committed to memory, for example.

But even more than this, memory was a key component of the cave dwellers' ability to survive. In the hunting pictures below, we can see a coordinated bow and arrow attack on a herd of animals. This attack required a number of memory and time related skills: a knowledge of animal habits, day to day, month to month, season to season; a plan of attack that coordinated the efforts of the hunters; and the preparation for the attack with the construction of bows, arrows and spears that were designed for the greatest effect in the hunt.

"Hunting Scene" from the Cave of the Horses of Valltorta in Eastern Spain. Such an attack required knowledge of the animal's habits, planning, coordination and preparation. (

 Arrowheads. These are much more sophisticated than it appears to us moderns.

Detailed description of arrowhead construction. 

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