Evolution of consciousness in Europe: 1: Upper Palaeolithic art
Dr Charles Whitehead continues his series of blog posts on the many functions of art, in ‘What is Art For?’.
Statue of the seal woman Kópakonan, in Mikladalur, Kalsoy, Faroe Islands
Everything great in western civilization comes from struggle against our origins
The picture above shows a bronze and stainless steel statue, 2.6 metres tall, commemorating the legend of Kópakonan, the ‘seal woman’ or selkie of Mikladalur. She holds her seal skin in her left hand. Selkies (or silkies) are seals that come ashore at full moon or Thirteenth Night, shed their seal skins, and step out as human beings. Beliefs in selkies were at one time common in Scotland, Ireland, the Faroes, and Iceland. In one popular theme, a young man hides on the beach at full moon, hoping to catch for himself a selkie bride. The selkies come ashore, take off their seal suits, and dance naked in the moonlight. The young man steals the suit of a beautiful young woman, so forcing her to marry him. The woman, of course, eventually finds her seal skin, returns to the sea, and is lost to him forever.
You might like to check out Jean Redpath singing “The Grey Silkie” on YouTube: a traditional ballad about a woman who has a baby by a selkie father, with tragic consequences. Redpath sings the Orkney version in an ancient pentatonic scale (unlike the American ‘cooked’ version sung by Joan Baez, Steeleye Span, and most modern recording artists). Selkie tales are generally poignant or tragic, with themes of loss, death, betrayal and revenge.
In my last blog I wrote about perspectivism, which includes the belief that animals are humans wearing animal skins. Selkies are clearly a perspectival construct. The tragic outcomes of tales in which selkies are killed for food – like the legend of Kópakonan and “The Grey Silkie” – suggest a folk memory of perspectival guilt (maybe the remote ancestor of “original sin”). For if animals are human, all hunting is murder, and eating meat is cannibalism. Hence hunters’ propitiation rites are widespread among hunter-gatherer communities, and shamans may perform exorcisms after meals, to prevent the meat from ‘biting back’ (the English word ‘remorse’ comes from Latin ‘remordere’ – to bite back).
Selkie tales are just some of the evidence that our ancestors once had a perspectival worldview. Folk tales from five continents are populated by talking animals, animals that shape-shift into humans, and humans into animals – typical perspectival themes. The aim of this and subsequent blogs is to sketch how European culture, uniquely, evolved from a perspectival to a physicalist worldview. There were up to six discrete transitions, reflected and – at least in part – accomplished by art.
The Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel, carved from mammoth ivory.
31.1 cm (12.2 in) tall. Dated to 40 kya (forty thousand years ago).
The story begins during the Würm glaciation (popularly known as ‘The Ice Age’) 40,000 years ago with the first known sign of a perspectival world view – the lion-headed “man” from Hohlenstein Stadel in Germany. This is the oldest uncontested example of figurative art found anywhere, and it is a therianthrope – a figure combining human and animal features. There are seven transverse cuts across the left arm, perhaps indicating clan or tribal cicatrisation.
A recreation of this carving, using the stone tools available at the time, suggests the sculptor took over 370 hours to complete his work (it should be remembered that modern foragers, despite now living in the most hostile inhabited environments on earth, still enjoy plenty of leisure time). Debates over the gender of this piece have made it an “icon of the feminist movement”. A possibly triangular pelvic area might suggest that it is female, and most Upper Palaeolithic (UP) figurines are indeed female. On the other hand, most female images have prominent buttocks and breasts, and most therianthropes (there aren’t many) are probably male.
At one time, the relatively abrupt appearance of iconic art in Europe around 40,000 years ago (the dramatic transition from the Middle to the Upper Palaeolithic) was seen as a “human revolution”, perhaps caused by a highly un-Darwinian “macro-mutation” radically altering the way our brains are wired. However, it is now recognised that “culture of modern human type” originated in Africa, and the UP was triggered by the arrival of modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) bringing ‘modern culture’ with them, and gradually replacing the indigenous population of Neanderthals (Homo sapiens neanderthalis). The dawn of culture of modern human type – the true “human revolution” – occurred in Africa, perhaps as long as 300,000 years ago, and was probably perspectival from the beginning.
Nevertheless, something special must have happened in Europe because so far nothing comparable has been found in Africa older than 40 kya (forty thousand years ago). The oldest known iconic art in Africa is the Apollo II Cave Stones, which are less than thirty thousand years old, although the San (‘Bushman’) rock art tradition is of unknown antiquity. Further, no finely crafted iconic sculptures in durable materials have been found dating to the African Middle Stone Age, though there may have been wooden carvings which have since perished. But we need to bear in mind that Europe has been intensively investigated by archaeologists since the nineteenth century, whereas Africa – three times larger than Europe – has been much more recently and sparsely studied, and mostly in the south and east. So there must be a great deal of African palaeoart yet to be discovered. (Note that ‘Stone Age’ terminology is usually reserved for prehistoric African periods, whereas terms ending in ‘-lithic’ are used for everywhere else).
More pertinently, modern humans arrived in Europe around 48 kya with a second immigration around 45 kya, long before we see the first signs of UP art. So the spectacular cave art and fine sculptures appearing from 40 kya is a European development. However, ancient rock art also appeared independently in Indonesia and Australia, so all these distant populations must have brought their artistic abilities with them from Africa (unless you believe that an implausible “macro-mutation” coincidentally occurred on two or three continents around the same time).
UP culture also seems to be much more dynamic than anything in the African Stone Age or European Middle Palaeolithic (a Neanderthal period). For example, the Acheulian tradition in Africa endured for 1.5 million years with little evident change in technology or way of life, and the Middle Palaeolithic in Europe lasted for a quarter of a million years. In contrast, the UP shows a much more rapid rate of cultural and technological change, with major new cultures emerging every few thousand years – notably the Aurignacian (40-26 kya), Gravettian (26-22 kya), Solutrean (22-17 kya), and Magdalenian (17-12 kya).
Lions and rhinos in Chauvet Cave (32 kya: Aurignacian). The most impressive feature of UP rock art is its rich bestiary of animals portrayed with superb artistry throughout this 30,000 year period. However, the Aurignacian has the most portrayals of dangerous animals like lions, rhinos, bears, and mammoths, whereas later periods are increasingly dominated by herbivores. The most numerous are horses – even when the people were mainly eating reindeer. The horse seems to have had special spiritual significance.
When anatomically modern humans migrated out of Africa they colonised Asia and even reached Australia by 65 kya – twenty thousand years before they entered Europe. Clearly, Europe was a daunting prospect for these early colonisers, probably in part because Neanderthals were much better adapted to the Ice Age climate. They eventually did enter Europe during an interglacial – a relatively warm spell during an ice age – around 48 kya. But the second wave of immigrants (ca. 45 kya) faced winter temperatures of -20 to -30oC.
Neanderthals were stronger than early modern humans – adapted to a more strenuous lifestyle – and were adept big game hunters, killing mammoths and rhinos at close quarters with spears. The new arrivals, however, had sophisticated weapons including long distance projectiles. They too were culturally adapted to big game hunting, but they also captured small mammals, probably using snares or nets. They wore tailored fur clothing for warmth, and built shelters with hearths to heat them using animal bones as fuel. They also dug ‘refrigerator’ pits into the permafrost to preserve meat and bones, which suggests a relatively settled existence in contrast to Neanderthals.
Signs of stress in Neanderthal teeth, and extreme femoral neck shaft angles, might indicate that entire communities travelled together, frog-marching their children in arduous treks across the sub-Arctic steppe; whereas early moderns almost certainly had a gendered division of labour, with men hunting and women gathering and perhaps harvesting small game. Theoretically, this would mean that Neanderthals would have no need for rituals ensuring that male hunters brought the meat home to meet the dietary needs of pregnant and lactating females. It would also mean that Neanderthal children had less time to play. Neanderthal childhood was also shorter than in modern humans, and Neanderthal mothers may have had less free time to encourage and scaffold their children’s play. This could mean that role-play was less developed in Neanderthals – role-play being the core pre-requisite for human ritual and the hypnotic ability necessary for ritual trance. This could be the reason why modern humans eventually replaced their Neanderthal cousins, although they did also interbreed with them. Non-African people living today have two to four percent of their DNA derived from Neanderthals.
Early Aurignacian people wore beads fashioned from ivory and soapstone, played flutes made from bird bones and ivory, and most probably had other instruments in perishable materials like foraging people today. One can imagine them in the evening, sitting round the hearth, telling stories and singing in the firelight as do modern foragers in most parts of the world. I think they could have had a very agreeable lifestyle despite the harsh climate. Maybe they developed sufficient leisure time, combined with a belief in the spiritual power of caves, to account for the flowering of UP art.
In my first blog I suggested that the Berekhat Ram and Tan Tan “Venuses” (over 230,000 years old) and Makapangsgat pebble (3,000,000 years old) may have been children’s playthings. We know that paint was being systematically manufactured in Africa since 100,000 years ago. San rock art in southern Africa includes paintings around 20,000 years old, but because most paintings were made on exposed surfaces, older work has almost certainly perished. We also have rock art in Europe apparently 64,000 years old, but if so it is the work of Neanderthals. It is also non-figurative and difficult to interpret. I think it is no coincidence that the oldest known undisputed iconic art, clearly made by adults for adult purposes (in view of the enormous effort involved), should reflect shamanism and ritual culture. In tribal societies today, iconic art – well-crafted ‘toys’ for dedicated grown-ups – is almost exclusively created for ritual purposes.
A further point to note is that the most common images in UP cave art are non-figurative geometric shapes such as aviforms (bird-like), claviforms (club-like), and penneforms (feather-like). Such conventional glyphs are twice as common as the beautiful animals so admired today, and the earliest rock art is entirely non-figurative. Curiously, according to recent research. there are only 32 such signs, used repeatedly throughout Europe and across 30,000 years of cave art – though there have been changes of ‘fashion’ with some signs falling out of favour and others becoming more common.
Spanish tectiforms (‘roof-like’ glyphs) and lines of dots from El Castillo. The signs are large – many of them are two to three feet in length. Throughout prehistory, red ochre has been the preferred pigment used by hominins. This has been invoked to support the menstrual sex-strike theory of cultural origins, or the Female Cosmetic Coalitions Model. In the UP, people used fire on iron oxide to get the most intense reds.
David Lewis-Williams has compared these glyphs with those from three other sources: (1) San rock art; (2) the art of the Coso who practice ritual trance today; and (3) visual phenomena experienced by people entering trance using meditation or hallucinogenic drugs. He called them ‘entoptic phenomena’ (images formed ‘within the eye’), though a more correct term is ‘phosphenes’ (images formed in the brain regardless of optical input). He concludes that UP and San rock art represents the visionary experience of shamans in trance. The rock walls, he suggests, were seen as portals to the spirit world. An intriguing feature of rock art is the way that artists repeatedly drew, painted, or engraved across the work of earlier artists, even where there were nearby blank surfaces apparently suitable for such art. These over-worked areas, according to the spirit portal view, were the most permeable to the spirit world, where artists in trance repeatedly saw the spirit animals emerging from the rock, and turned them into durable images.
Parallels noted by David Lewis-Williams, implicating shamanic trance in the creation of rock art.
Human figures, on the other hand, are extremely rare in UP art. Where they do occur, they are never represented with the impressive naturalism shown in portrayals of animals. If the art was used in hunting magic, representing humans realistically might have threatened human lives. Some figures are so sketchy that we can’t be sure they are human, However, in the Magdalenian, there are several groups of dancing women engraved in a highly abstracted style, emphasizing buttocks and occasionally breasts whilst omitting heads, arms, and feet. Some of these figures have been repeatedly over-drawn, re-emphasizing their outlines, as if to derive ritual power from images of synchronised female dance. In one from Lalinde, engraved lines connecting and crossing the women’s vaginas might indicate ritual power deriving from synchronised menstruation. There are also many vulvas throughout the UP, often inscribed within a highly conventionalised pubic triangle, and occasional phallic images.
Deeply engraved dancing women, from Two vulvas in pubic triangles, with cupules, from La Ferrassie Lalinde, Dordogne (Magdalenian) (Aurignacian)
Engraved stone slabs with dancing female figures (Magdalenian):
(1) and (4) Gönnersdorf (after Bosinski & Fischer 1974)
(2) and (3) Lalinde (after Marshack 1972, 308-9)
It seems likely that the 32 “signs” in UP rock art are not signs at all, as understood by today’s archaeologists. That is, they are probably not used to convey ‘information’ – otherwise why would anyone repeat numerous identical signs in the same place? If one sign conveys specific information, then half a dozen would be redundant. Redundancy is not a feature of a cryptic code. Repetition looks more like ritual re-enactment. Camilla Power interprets a row of claviforms (so-called “club-like” glyphs) as another abstracted line of dancing women, associated with a wounded and bleeding horse (see below). This has obvious shamanic parallels – but here, instead of a shaman (usually male) linked to a dying game animal, we have an entire coalition of dancing females. If Power is right, as I think likely, these claviforms are not phosphenes either.
The row of claviforms (‘P’ shapes) may represent dancing women superimposed on a bleeding horse, which seems to have been outlined more than once. From Les Trois Frères (Magdalenian).
Some of the other alleged ‘signs’ are also questionable. One such is the cupule – a roughly hemispherical indentation hammered or ground into the rock face. These are found across six continents, appear in large numbers long before the Upper Palaeolithic, and seem unlikely to be part of a 32-sign system. At Daraki-Chattan Cave in India there are more than 530 cupules on the cave’s quartzite walls, dated to the Lower Palaeolithic. Cupules have been claimed to be the ‘oldest form of art’, but there is no reason to regard them as ‘art’ and they certainly do not look like an attempt to convey ‘information’. It is not possible to interpret the motives of those who made them from archaeological data alone. For example, a rock in the Northern Territory of Australia, traditionally regarded as the body of Cockatoo Woman, has sixteen cupules hammered out during pulkarin rituals, in order to cause the pink cockatoo to lay more eggs. The dust released by pounding carries the cockatoo spirit from the rock which fertilises the hen birds. We cannot know what our UP ancestors believed in any detail, but their beliefs are likely to be no less complex.
Cupules on vertical quartzite wall in Daraki-Chattan Female hand stencils around life-size spotted horses in
Cave, India, securely dated to the Lower Palaeolithic. Pech Merle Cave, Midi-Pyrenees, France (Gravettian)
Fluting created by trailing fingers through soft deposits on cave walls has been included in the list of 32 alleged ‘signs’. One such pattern on a cave roof was made by the fingers of an infant, who could only have reached the roof if held up by an adult. That could have been done ‘just for fun’ – an instance of embodied play.
Two more of the 32 ‘signs’ – hand prints and hand stencils – are found all over the world and first appear well before the iconic rock art. Along with footprints on the cave floor, many are those of children. Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University, who studied the hand marks in the French caves of Pech Merle and Gargas, and in the Spanish rock shelter of El Castillo, found that a strong majority of the hands belonged to women. The European art world has been dominated by men for hundreds of years, and male archaeologists have tended to assume that UP rock artists were men. There are no grounds for such an assumption. We might even suspect that UP society was matriarchal. “Rule of women” myths are found on several continents, which claim that patriarchal authority today was achieved by appropriating the instruments of ritual power from women – including rites of synchronised male “menstruation” (whereas women are often obliged to menstruate in isolation huts). Logically, the original “human revolution” must have been engineered by women, because men would hardly give up their philandering inclinations and submit to a monogamous marriage system unless compelled to do so, nor would they willingly bring the meat home to meet women’s needs. If so, patriarchy must be the result of a “counter revolution”, probably as a consequence of climate change – such as the end of the Ice Age – profoundly altering foraging and hunting patterns.
“Venus and the Sorcerer” (on the right) from Chauvet Cave (Aurignacian: ca. 32 kya)
The “Venus and Sorcerer” from Chauvet cave has been drawn in charcoal on a conical limestone projection descending from the roof of the cave. At roughly eye level, there is a conspicuous pubic triangle with a deeply engraved vaginal slot, between legs which taper to points rather like the much later Magdalenian dancing women mentioned above. The female figure was drawn first, and then parts of this figure were deliberately erased in order to superimpose what appears to a bison-headed therianthrope. Several caves nearby have similar pubic triangles, and they always face the cave entrance, suggesting they have particular importance, perhaps as doorways to the other world. The “Venus and Sorceror”, like the “Lion Man” of Hohlenstein Stadel, belongs to the Aurignacian – the earliest UP period.
“The Three Graces” from the Roc-aux-Sorciers are the only known life-size and naturalistic UP “Venuses”, thought to represent (from left to right) a young pregnant woman, a mature woman, and possibly a young girl. This is a coloured diagram because the original bas-reliefs do not photograph clearly. Not shown are a bison behind the third torso, and a second below her thighs. These figures are clearly intended to be seen as a unit, and centrally placed in a 20 metre (65 ft) frieze, 2.6 m high, of well-carved animals. An intriguing detail is the non-associated head, engraved above the women, whose heads, arms, and feet were not portrayed. (Magdalenian). Two traditional Venus figurines were found in rubble nearby: these are small portable objects, carved in the round, 33 mm and 75 mm tall.
Also from this early period are the oldest “Venus figurines”, though they become much more common in the Gravettian (ca 26-21 kya), across a vast area extending from western Europe to Siberia, suggesting cultural continuity and exchange networks crossing remarkable distances in an age when people travelled only on foot. This was also a bitterly cold period, coinciding with the Last Glacial Maximum, when northern Europe was mostly covered by ice.
Venus figurines are usually modest in size (3-40 cm tall), with exaggerated buttocks, bellies, and breasts; whereas faces, hands, and feet – everything that could express individuality and volition – are often missing or underemphasized. Some have vaginal slits. Feminists might see this emphasis on sexual characteristics as evidence of patriarchy, but it could equally be argued that the apparent suppression of individuality is an expression of collective female power – for in a coalition, as in a synchronised dance or ritual performance, individuality is submerged in the solidarity of the group.
From the later Magdalenian period comes another image linking a procession of apparently wounded women with a similar procession of wounded bison (from what remains on this fragment, we can only see that one woman is pierced with an arrow. and one bison pierced with two – but the parallels are so striking that this is unlikely to be of minor significance). From what we know about hunting magic and blood-related ideology among modern hunter-gatherers, it is hard to resist seeing something very similar in the meaning of this piece. When the rib is held horizontally and rotated between the fingers, the women turn into bison, and the bison into women. The ‘wounded’ women (by ethnographic analogy) would implicate menstruation; and they are being linked to – or transformed into – bleeding bison.
Engraved rib fragment with two women and two bison. Isturitz Cave, France, (20-12 kya)
In what appears to be the most primordial hunting ideology surviving today, a hunter is not allowed to eat the meat he has killed himself. He must hand it over to the women to be cooked and shared out. Two root metaphors of hunting ideology equate eating with sex, and women with meat. So the hunter’s own kill rule is metaphorically identical to the incest taboo – both mean you must not ‘eat’ your own ‘meat’. Incest is regularly equated with cannibalism for the same reason. There is a further association between menstrual blood and the blood of a dying game animal. Just as women are sexually inviolable when menstruating, so meat cannot be eaten until it has been surrendered to women and its bloodiness removed by cooking. There is a yet further link to ritual, in which dancers commonly wear animal costumes and, in accordance with perspectival belief, are actually transformed into the animal portrayed. When a shaman ‘dies’ in trance, he may likewise be transformed into a dying game animal. In the Great Dance of the San (‘Bushman’), men entering trance often bleed from the nose, as commonly happens when a game animal is killed. This psychosomatic phenomenon might be compared with the bleeding stigmata which can occur spontaneously in devout Christians.
Left: San trance dancer apparently transforming into an animal. Right: Tracing of a shamanic figure with blood smeared back from the nose. The line from his mouth leads to a group of eldritch (‘weird and scary’) figures – presumably shamanic. Rock art from Storm Shelter, Drakensberg, South Africa.
Following the Last Glacial Maximum, as climate became warmer, the Gravettian age gave way to the Solutrean and then the Magdalenean. During the Solutrean, stone tool technology became much more sophisticated and, perhaps partly as a result of this, cave art became much more dominated by engraving and bas-relief sculpture. Some fine animal painting also comes from this period, but there was a shift in the animals portrayed. Dangerous animals like rhinos, bears, and lions become rare, and the focus shifted much more to game animals such as horses, aurochs and bison. It might be inferred that these people were much more in command of their environment than their Gravettian ancestors, perhaps because of their finely crafted weapons.
Abbé Henri Breuil’s drawings of two “Sorcerers” from Bison-headed human figure from the cave of Gabillou
The Sanctuary in the cave of Les Trois Frères (ca 13 kya) (Dordogne, France): Magdalenian (15-8 kya)
The Magdalenian period sees a hunting culture at its zenith. The lines of dancing women mentioned above belong to this period, but we also see unmistakeable therianthropes which may represent individual male shamans in animal costume or transformed into animals (in perspectival belief, ‘costume’ and ‘transformation’ are synonymous).
The Sanctuary is the most remote chamber in the cave system of Les Trois Frères, 400 meters (1,300 ft) from the entrance, and it seems to have been a very special place. The most famous image from this chamber is “The Sorcerer”, 75 cm (22 in) tall, engraved and painted on a prominent overhang, four meters (13 ft) above the cave floor, and dominating the crowded mass of animal figures that cover the walls of the chamber. The artist must have used some kind of ladder or scaffold to reach it. This is a human figure, with features of several animals. He has antlers in Abbé Breuil’s drawing (this has been contested – and defended, especially by the distinguished Jean Clottes, who says he has seen it twenty times and the antlers are definitely there). His masculine genitalia swing back from between his thighs, and there are signs of X-ray vision (note the left knee cap). He has been variously interpreted as a “horned god”, “great spirit”, or “master of animals”. His prominent position might suggest that he is something more than just a dancing shaman.
In the midst of a panel below is “The Small Sorcerer” (on the left in the drawing above), almost buried by a jumble of animals engraved one on top of another in a haphazard manner – including bison, horses, stags, reindeer, ibex, and mammoths – no doubt superimposed in successive enactments across a long period of time. This ‘sorcerer’ has human legs and posture, a tail, an animal muzzle, and bison horns. He is commonly interpreted as playing a nose flute, though it could be a musical bow, His hoof-like hands, however, are not holding the assumed instrument, and it might even represent a spurt of nose blood.
Many of the animals surrounding this figure are pierced with arrows, and one bear, riddled with spears, is vomiting blood. Some are surrounded or covered by claviform “P” signs (the horse pictured above is one of them) which Camilla Power interprets as dancing women. Elsewhere in the cave, above an arch, is a large “P” sign, 40 cm (16 in) tall, painted in red ochre “like a trail of blood” (Bégouën, 1920).
Entranced shaman from the Shaft Scene at Lascaux (ca 19 kya)
A few thousand years earlier than the therianthropes of the Sanctuary is the shaft scene at Lascaux. This is painted at the bottom of a shaft, five meters (17 ft) deep, where there is no room for more than one person to stand with any comfort. So public display would not appear to be a priority for the artist. A bison, with drooping head and disgorged intestines, appears to have been wounded with a spear and dying. Relative to the matchstick figure of a man, it is portrayed naturalistically. The man has the head of a bird and an erect penis. Beside the man is a staff topped with a bird and an indeterminate linear object. This scene was initially interpreted as a hunting accident: the man had supposedly been killed by the bison. But that would not explain such curious features as his bird head, prominent erection, and bird-headed staff. In shamanic societies, birds often represent the flight of the shaman’s soul as it leaves his body in trance and ascends to the sky world. A likelier interpretation is that we have an entranced shaman associated with a dying game animal. There are clear parallels in San rock art.
So what can we infer from the UP art?
First of all, nothing created at this time is a “work of art” in the modern sense. There is no attempt at “composition” and rock art was not curated – some pictures have been modified repeatedly over long periods of time and artists imposed new pictures on top of old ones with little regard for the value of prior work. What was important, it seems, was not public display but the act of image-making itself. This is a kind of ritual in its own right – as was the case with San art. San informants have reported that pigment had to be ground by maidens at full moon, and blood from the sacred eland had to be mixed with red ochre to increase the spiritual potency of the paint. According to David Lewis-Williams, rock paintings exuded power which “electrified” shamans, driving and empowering their trance activities. There can be little doubt that UP art had spiritual functions that we would call magical today, and powers (real or imagined) which the art of historic times could never aspire to.
In regard to the imagery, two things are certain: animal portrayals are essentially concerned with hunting and carnivory; and human portrayals are massively dominated by female imagery. Female figures associated with game animals seem to be a convention of UP art. I think we are looking at a matriarchal society – unlike anything that exists in the world today – where women are exploiting their sexuality to exert power, forging a link between menstruation and meat, and so maintaining a perspectival belief system and the grand metaphors of blood that characterise foraging ideology to this day. There are even traces in post-industrial cultures, such as the way we refer to our kin as ‘blood relations’, and the tales we tell to our children at bedtime, which get their magical fascination from perspectival phenomena.
According to Chris Knight’s menstrual sex-strike theory, dancing women in the first ritual performance – the one that launched the “human revolution” – synchronised their menstrual periods. It is a striking coincidence that the duration of the lunar month closely matches the average human menstrual cycle (28.25 days). According to Knight’s theory, synchronised menstruation was phase-locked to the new moon, so coordinating ritual dance displays which signalled to men that they should go hunting and bring meat home if they want to enjoy sexual relations. To this day, the waxing moon is known as ‘the hunters’ moon’ because it extends the effective hours of evening light. If we reverse-engineer the rituals, beliefs, and myths of present-day foragers, we must arrive at something akin to this theory.
Foraging women seldom menstruate, because for most of their fertile years they are either pregnant or lactating (menstruation has been dubbed ‘the urban disease’). Hence the Female Cosmetic Coalition Model is a modification of Knight’s thesis, holding that menstrual synchrony was mostly faked using red ochre as ‘blood’, so explaining the predominance of the reddest ochre in the archaeological record.
There are technological advances during the UP (every five thousand years or so) but no evident revolutionary change in culture, though there are some shifts in frequencies of motifs. It is interesting that the Gravettian, coinciding with the Last Glacial Maximum, should be so uniform across so vast an area, and that Venus figurines were much more common in this period. As climate got subsequently warmer, the Solutrean was much more localised (limited areas of France and Spain). Gravettian people were highly mobile, roaming over greater distances in search of prey, and were probably more nomadic. Hence they would contact distant groups more frequently, and may have favoured the small Venus figurines because they are highly portable. By the time of the Magdalenian, Homo sapiens sapiens was undoubtedly the top predator in Europe, quite capable of dealing with large and dangerous animals. It is probably they who drove Europe’s megafauna into extinction, though climate change was also a likely factor.
Therianthropes – probably male shamanic figures – are present in the earliest Aurignacian, though rare, but become somewhat more frequent in the final Magdalenian. Some of them, as with female figures, are associated with dying game animals. There are clear parallels in the San rock art of southern Africa, linking shamanic trance with dying game animals and animal transformation.
As I have argued above, there must have been a patriarchal counter-revolution because, logically, the “human revolution” – the origin of modern human culture – must have been engineered by women, whereas all surviving cultures today are either egalitarian (with a slight patriarchal bias), or outright patriarchal. However, I don’t think this counter-revolution occurred during the UP, although the presence of male shamans does suggest some degree of power sharing (as among the Mbendjele today – see the video link below). Truly dramatic changes occur later, at the beginning and end of the Mesolithic leading to the so-called “agricultural revolution”.
I will examine these two in my next blog.
Jerome Lewis has been studying pygmy peoples for decades. In collaboration with Bruce Parry (of the TV series “Tribe”), he and his wife Ingrid made a film for the BBC. The video linked below was never broadcast but is particularly illuminating in regard to gender relations among the Mbendjele, who are still living in something like the African Middle Stone Age.