What Is Art For? Part 6

“The Shigir Idol”, the world’s oldest known monumental artwork (this is a small scale replica): a sure sign of profound social change in the Siberian Mesolithic. Dated to 11.6 kya (11,600 years ago).

What is Art For?

Evolution of consciousness in Europe 2: Art after the Ice Age

Dr Charles Whitehead continues his series of  blog posts on the many functions of art, ‘What is Art For?’.

In 1894, gold miners dug up a curious larch-wood carving from the Shigir peat bog, on the Siberian side of the central Urals – right in the middle of the current boundary between Europe and Asia. Modern dating methods have now established its true age: 11,600 years old – around 7,000 years older than Egypt’s pyramids and 6,000 years older than Stonehenge – which dates it to the early Siberian Mesolithic, soon after the end of the Ice Age. The “Idol” was fragmented and several pieces were lost during the Russian turmoil of 1917, but the whole can be reconstructed from earlier drawings, revealing that it originally stood 5.3 metres (17.4 ft) tall – about as high as a two-storey house. It is believed that the Idol stood for around twenty years facing out across the waters of an ancient lake.

Professor Mikhail Zhilin, lead researcher for the Russian Academy of Sciences Archaeology Institute, told The Siberian Times: “This is a masterpiece, carrying gigantic emotional value and force. It is a unique sculpture, there is nothing else in the world like this … The ornament is covered with nothing but encrypted information. People were passing on knowledge with the help of the Idol. ”

The professor’s enthusiasm is understandable but, of course, he knows nothing about the “emotional value and force” of this work – what it meant to its creators and the people of that time. Note his stress on “encrypted information” and “passing on knowledge” – a cognocentric symptom afflicting all the sciences in this age of computing. Some archaeologists have even suggested that the designs engraved on the main body of the carving might be “the earliest form of writing”, so fusing logocentrism with the cognocentrism of the information age. They said the same about the alleged “32 signs” of Upper Palaeolithic cave art, and the same objection applies here – the designs are characterised by repetition and redundancy. No doubt they were meaningful to those who made them, but the designs are rhythmic patterns, not a cryptic code – more like dancing than writing; performance rather than communication. People had no need of writing before the rise of bureaucracy in the first nation states in Mesopotamia (5.4-5.1 kya) and Egypt (5.25 kya).

Drawings of the original ten pieces of the Idol as retrieved from the Shigir peat bog.

So what can we say about this piece with any confidence? Note: this is a fortuitous discovery. We have no way of knowing how much wood carving went on in the ancient past because wood rarely survives for thousands of years in the archaeological record. This one just happened to get preserved in a peat bog – there may have been many like it, or many not like it.

One thing we can say for sure is that monumental art always implicates class politics – people pushing other people around in a hierarchic society where a privileged elite has a lot of power and most people do not. So it may have stood as a territorial warning – like a “keep out” sign – or, like the totem poles of the northwest American coast, as a sacred testament legitimising the power and authority of a chief or aristocratic caste. Its “emotional power and force” resides in its sheer size: it is designed to impress, not to “pass on knowledge” with “encrypted information”. That would be far too helpful for an instrument of domination.

Remains of the Shigir Idol as currently displayed in the Sverdlovsk Regional Museum of Local Lore in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

Since there was no truly monumental art in the Upper Palaeolithic, and based on the evidence in my last blog, I think that society throughout the Ice Age was relatively egalitarian – in the sense that there were no individual chiefs, but rather a matriarchal system where women maintained power collectively as a united coalition of equals. Egalitarian societies are extraordinarily stable – far more so than hierarchic ones where competition and rivalry create a dynamic (and often painful) rate of change. Congo Pygmies and Kalahari Bushmen, both egalitarian, are believed to have maintained a Middle Stone Age culture for perhaps 100,000 years or more, whereas historic European cultures have seldom endured for more than a few centuries.

As ice sheets retreated northward, the Mesolithic began (and ended) earlier in the south than in the north. The very idea of the Mesolithic – as a distinct period between the Upper Palaeolithic and the Neolithic – was not widely recognised by archaeologists until 1945, and even then was not defined by what it had, but by what it lacked. It didn’t have the wonderful cave art of the Upper Palaeolithic and it didn’t have the agriculture of the Neolithic. It was a rather boring didn’t-have period which was not much studied. In the late nineteenth century, archaeologists and anthropologists also had a Eurocentric view of cultural evolution, with a linear progression from savagery through barbarism to civilization – with ‘scientific’ western culture, of course, seen as the apogee and final summit of human perfection.

It is no longer PC to think like that, and twenty-first century research is revealing the Mesolithic as an extremely inventive, dynamic, and diverse period, which saw major new technological and cultural changes, with multiple developmental trajectories – often in opposite directions – as different groups adapted to new and diverse ecological niches presenting many new challenges and opportunities. All this was triggered by the end of “The Ice Age” (the Weichselian glaciation).

Ice ages are geologically defined as periods in which there are year-round ice sheets covering both poles of the earth as well as mountain glaciers – which means that we are currently living in an ice age, so defined. There have been at least five such ice ages in the history of the earth, separated by “greenhouse” periods with more limited or no enduring ice. The last ice age – the one we are living in now – is called the Quaternary. It began with the formation of the Arctic ice cap 2.58 mya (million years ago), which means the entire evolution of the genus Homo took place during the Quaternary Ice Age.

Ice ages are punctuated by intensely cold periods called ‘glacials’ and relatively warm intervals called ‘interglacials’. The Upper Palaeolithic lasted around 30,000 years, and took place in the last third of the Weichselian glacial. Around 11.7 kya (thousand years ago) there was a dramatic warming of the climate – the start of the current interglacial, known as the Holocene. Without human interference, it is estimated that the Holocene would last for another 50,000 years. Burning fossil fuels, however, could bring the Quaternary to a premature end.

During glacial periods, when vast quantities of water are trapped in ice sheets often two miles thick, sea levels drop along with lowered ocean temperatures, meaning less evaporation and so less precipitation (rain, hail, and snow). Climates become much drier. During the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), sea levels were 125 meters (about 410 feet) lower than they are today, and much of the current seas around Britain were dry land. Around 11.7 kya, Greenland temperatures (based on ice cores) jumped by 15-20°C within a few decades. Europe became much warmer with a great increase in rainfall. Polar deserts, tundras, and steppes shrank – giving way to expanding forests, lakes, and marshlands. This imposed massive changes on human foraging tactics, and they were not the same everywhere.

Soon after the start of the Mesolithic, much of the Ice Age megafauna became extinct in Europe and Siberia, probably in part due to hunting by expanding human populations.

The Mesolithic also saw the extinction of sub-Arctic megafauna like mammoths and rhinos, in part no doubt due to human predation as well as climate change and habitat loss. In woodland areas, in place of the large nomadic hunting parties typical of the Upper Palaeolithic, a broader and more scattered pattern of hunting emerged, focussed on smaller game.

Throughout the Upper Palaeolithic, people lived in much the same way right across Europe, especially during the Last Glacial Maximum, when there was remarkable cultural continuity extending from the Atlantic coast all the way to Siberia. Any such uniformity broke down during the Mesolithic. As glaciers retreated and environments changed, different groups reacted differently. Some were highly mobile ‘simple foragers’ (explained below); others became more settled ‘complex foragers’. Some switched from ‘simple’ to ‘complex’ foraging and back again. The nineteenth century view of linear cultural evolution hardly fits the Mesolithic.

‘Simple foragers’ are highly mobile and have no more possessions than they can carry while travelling on foot. (San Bushmen lighting a fire, Kalahari Desert).
‘Complex foraging’ in settled communities can lead to wealth accumulation and social hierarchy. (Tlingit Chief Charles Jones Shakes, pictured at home in Wrangell, Alaska, with a plethora of prestige art objects, ca. 1907). One important cultural function of art is wealth display.

In anthropology, ‘simple foragers’ are those who eat what they gather on the same day, with perhaps a few leftovers eaten later for breakfast. ‘Complex foragers’ are those who have abundant local food sources or periodic gluts (such as whale hunting and the salmon harvest on northwest coastal America). Surplus food can be preserved for future use or traded for other goods. Such people are able to settle in more or less permanent villages. Nomadic people can never own more than they can carry – perhaps a bow and arrows, a knife and a few other stone tools carried in a bag, and embers from the last camp fire wrapped in leaves. Settled people, on the other hand, can accumulate wealth – whether in the form of surplus food, ‘useless trade goods’ or sumptuary items, and monumental art. Wealth accumulation invariably leads to inequity and social stratification (in NW coastal America, for example, there were hierarchies of aristocrats, commoners, and slaves). All known hierarchic societies are markedly patriarchal. The people who produced the Shigir Idol were presumably patriarchal complex foragers with territorial concerns.

Much of central Europe was impenetrable forest at this time, whilst plentiful supplies of marine life, waterfowl, and fish enabled many more settled communities to establish themselves along sea and lake shores and in marshlands. At the Holocene Climatic Optimum (8-4.5 kya), the climate was much warmer than today. As far north as Denmark, people were living in settlements and eating marine and land animals such as swordfish, sturgeon, sardine, tuna, Dalmatian pelican, and pond turtle, which today are only found much further south. Whilst many in southern Scandinavia lived in permanent settlements consuming a wide range of wildlife, others became nomadic specialists tracking reindeer herds. Here. there were widespread networks trading prestige or sumptuary items such as furs and amber.

Amber animals from Denmark - bird and bear (Bølling Sø, Jutland).
Amber animals from Denmark. - elk (east coast).

As sea levels rose, vast tracts of land became submerged. In the early Mesolithic, Doggerland, with an area greater than that of the British Isles today, may have been the richest hunting, fowling, and fishing ground in Europe. But by about 6.5 kya it was almost entirely submerged beneath the North Sea. Displaced populations emigrating from there into Britain and mainland Europe must have provoked territorial conflict and a need to defend territory. Territoriality is a second factor leading to social hierarchy – and warfare.

But two things are most diagnostic of the Mesoloithic. One is the widespread use of microliths – tiny stone blades, typically around 1 cm long. These could be hafted on to a wooden or bone shaft using resin and fibre to make composite tools and weapons. Two harpoons from Star Carr in Yorkshire had 35 and 40 microliths fitted to the shafts.

The second is the imaginative shift manifest in Mesolithic rock art, which was most commonly painted or engraved on open air cliff faces. With a warmer climate, caves seem to have lost some of their spiritual significance. As in the Upper Palaeolithic there are still many paintings of game animals, but they are much smaller and more stylised. Most strikingly, whereas human figures are rare in the UP, there are more human than animal figures in the Mesolithic. These too are highly stylised, though often in very energetic poses – more similar to San rock art than to figures from the UP. This is art that emphasizes dynamism, collective action – and masculinity. What is also new in Mesolithic art are depictions of clothing and everyday activities, such as hunting, dancing, and gathering honey.

Gathering honey, Spider Cave, Bicorp, Valencia, Spain (10-8 kya). These paintings reduce the activity to its bare essentials – climbing to the hive, lianas or ladders, a basket for the honeycomb, and swarms of buzzing bees.
Mesolithic hunting scenes from Spain. Cueva de la Araña (Spider Cave) (10-8 kya)
Gathering honey, Spider Cave, Bicorp, Valencia, Spain (10-8 kya). These paintings reduce the activity to its bare essentials – climbing to the hive, lianas or ladders, a basket for the honeycomb, and swarms of buzzing bees.

There are also scenes of possible ritual action, such as the “Dancers of Cogul”, which shows a group of nine women surrounding a small ithyphallic figure, with a slain deer, perhaps implicating the hunter’s own-kill rule (requiring male hunters to surrender their kills to the women of the community). In fact no human community could survive unless pregnant and lactating women received the dietary fats necessary to feed their babies’ large fast-growing brains.

Also from the Spanish Levant (the Mediterranean coast of Spain and its hinterland) and elsewhere are many depictions of warfare and apparent executions. The matchstick warriors in the Spanish paintings appear to be commanded by one or two more well-defined figures wearing elaborate head dresses. Some of these figures have male genitalia. This is strong evidence for territoriality and patriarchal hierarchy in this region.

The reason I have emphasized hierarchy and patriarchy is because this is the major shift that made possible the so-called “Neolithic revolution”, which saw the development of agriculture, animal husbandry, polished stone tools, decorated pottery, and megalithic monuments. A lot of nonsense is written about this fateful change in society. Some archaeologists wonder why agriculture spread so slowly across Europe, and why hunters and gatherers lived alongside farmers for a thousand years or more without seeing the “obvious advantages” of agriculture. From its origins in the Levant farming took four thousand years to reach north-western Europe, and the “revolution” is still unfinished even today.

‘The Dancers of Cogul’, El Cogul Caves, Roca del Moros, Catalonia, Spain (12-9 kya)
Warfare in the Spanish Levant: Battle scene: Abric de les Dogues, Castellón
Warfare in the Spanish Levant: Slain warriors: A and B, Cova Remigia, Castellón; C: Abrigo Grande de Minateda, Albacete. D, Warrior carrying a dead or injured comrade, Cingle de la Gasulla, Ares del Maestre, Castellón.

Around ten percent of the Sämi people of northern Scandinavia (many of whom hate to be called “Lapps”) still live as reindeer herders. They retained a Mesolithic lifestyle with traditional songs, dances, and animistic beliefs into historic times. It was not until 1726 that Norway abolished the death penalty for “Sämi sorcery” – meaning shamanism. Reindeer herding today is little different from the specialised foraging of Mesolithic Scandinavia – simply following the herds of reindeer on their seasonal migrations. The main difference is that modern Sämi ‘own’ their reindeer and mark the animals’ ears accordingly. Other Sämi groups still live by hunting, trapping, and fishing. Further east, along the Arctic rim, peoples such as the Nenets and Buryats still retain their ancient shamanic culture, which is essentially Mesolithic even though they have acquired metal tools (not to mention mobile phones).

The last Mesolithic nomads of Europe. A Sämi family in front of their lavvu, early 1900s (Norway).

One highly respected archaeologist – Colin Renfrew – even proposed what he called “The Sapient Paradox”. How is it, he argued, that our ancestors had evolved fully modern brains around 300 kya, yet did not “use” them to invent agriculture until around 10 kya?

The last Mesolithic nomads of Europe. Traditional Sämi costume (Finland). The gäkti dress used to be made from reindeer hide and sinews, but is now more commonly made from wool, cotton, or silk. It is not unfeasible that organic dyes could have been applied to leather in the Mesolithic using urine or alum as a mordent. Dyed flax fibres have been found in the Republic of Georgia dated to 36 kya, whilst First Nations foragers, with essentially Mesolithic technology, have used a range of vegetable dyes for buckskin clothes.

He should have known the answer to that question. The Neolithic revolution marked a dismal decline in the quality of life for the vast majority of people. Bodies got smaller due to malnutrition, and brain size also decreased, perhaps partly due to social suppression. Vitamin deficiency diseases such as rickets were common, along with repetitive stress injuries due to the arduous work of reaping and grinding cereals, and rotten teeth due to grit in the diet. Life was not good in the early Neolithic. But someone must have benefitted, and this implies an aristocratic class who could live in relative luxury by exploiting the labour of others.

Mesolithic foragers enjoyed a much more varied and nutritious diet than Neanderthal farmers, not to mention modern urban populations (75% of the food eaten by people today is provided by only twelve crops and five animal species: data from ‘Flourishing Diversity: Learning from Indigenous Wisdom Traditions’: https://f619210b-9732-4a8a-b280-f8581760e761.filesusr.com/ugd/f14ac9_1e31a40832f84d15a5844607d78132fc.pdf).

San foragers living in the harsh environment of the Kalahari Desert know thousands of species of plants, which they use as food, medicine, and arrow poison. They hunt and eat any animal they can find, including antelope, zebra, hyena, porcupine, wild hare, lion, giraffe, fish, tortoise, snake, and (depending on locality) 18 to 104 species of insect. They also gather eggs and wild honey. The “Neolithic Revolution” introduced a severely limited diet with only three crops (emmer, einkorn, and barley) and four domesticated animals (cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats).

No archaeologist should be surprised that foragers resisted conversion to farming, because there are many foraging peoples today who live alongside farming populations, and are determined not to switch to a more limiting, arduous, and – in their view – undignified way of life.

Perhaps most importantly, the Neolithic represents the invention of work. All animals that move live by foraging and it is instinctive for them to hunt and gather food. Foraging is what our ancestors evolved to do, and instinctive behaviour cannot be regarded as ‘work’ – urban people today fish, hunt, and forage purely for the fun of it. A foraging lifestyle also affords plenty of leisure. Even in the most hostile environments foragers spend no more than fifteen hours a week hunting and gathering. They spend many more hours socialising, telling stories, singing, dancing, and engaging in rituals that, though deeply spiritual, are often occasions of  merriment, joking, and erotic flirting. Ritual trance has deeply therapeutic effects – Malaysian Temiars say they must trance regularly, or they would go mad. One !Kung Bushman told Richard Katz: “I want to have a [trance] dance soon so that I can really become myself again.” Shamans sometimes weep at the beauty of their song. African foragers laugh more than we do, are more demonstrative with their affections, and find the world both sacred and beautiful. A foraging lifestyle is no doubt the happiest for human beings, and no sane people would switch from foraging to farming unless someone pointed a metaphorical gun at their heads.

I believe archaeologists have now found that smoking gun – right at the apex of the fertile crescent, where agriculture began in southwest Asia. This is Göbekli Tepe, the world’s oldest known megalithic complex. Archaeologists refer to this period in the Levant as ‘Epipalaeolithic’ rather than ‘Mesolithic’ to stress some differences between the two – distinctive regional conditions that led to such a massive feat of engineering by hunter-gatherers.

The Fertile Crescent showing sites related to the dawn of agriculture. Note the position of Göbekli Tepe, near the apex of the crescent.
Artist’s impression of hunter-gatherers constructing Göbekli Tepe, the world’s oldest known megalithic structure,11.5 kya. Phase 1 has more than 200 pillars in about 20 circles. Each pillar has a height of up to 6 m (20 ft) and weighs up to 10 tons. In phase 2, pillars were smaller and stood in rectangular rooms with floors of polished lime.