Friday, October 13, 2006

Author argues that, even in the Paleolithic, boys would be boys and do the graffiti thing

The prehistoric cave paintings of Europe at sites like Lascaux are usually attributed to artistic motives, the desire to invoke magic for the hunt, or shamanistic religious practices. But in "The Nature of Paleolithic Art" author R. Dale Guthrie, who specialized in Pleistocene paleozoology before retiring as a professor of zoology at the University of Alaska, thinks otherwise. He thinks most of the paintings are the work of adolescent Paleolithic boys, graffiti taggers of their day.

Writing in the New York Review of Books, reviewer William H. McNeill thinks he makes some good points.
The most definite proof he offers comes from his measurement of hand images left in some, but not all, decorated caves, wherever someone sprayed a mouthful of ochre paint against an outspread hand held close against the wall (see illustration on page 22). Human hands change shape and proportion with age and differ between the sexes, so by careful measurement of nine different widths and lengths compared with the same hand measurements of adults and schoolchildren in Alaska, Guthrie found that
handprints of adolescents are the most numerous among the Paleolithic sample.... The second important observation is that the vast majority of these individuals were males. From the total sample of 201 Paleolithic hands, discriminate analysis classified at least 162 as male and the other 39 as either female or young male.
Other observers also found that "virtually all...of the foot tracks in Paleolithic art caves are those of children."

The other evidence Guthrie offers is the subject matter of the graffiti that survive abundantly but have attracted scant attention since they lack significant artistic value. Crude, sometimes unfinished or corrected outlines of animal forms are numerous; so are images of male and especially of female sexual organs—exactly what adolescent boys would be most acutely interested in. Guthrie then devotes an entire chapter to explaining the effects of testosterone on human consciousness and behavior and imagining how small groups of boys, emancipated from their mothers' supervision, spent surplus energy and spare time in risky, scary caves, leaving behind innumerable scratch marks and painted images that expressed their adolescent hopes and fears.
Guthrie next takes up the importance of play and more especially of art-making for enhancing creativity and shaping a distinctive human ecological niche for "the artful ape." He explains:
The evolutionary tack of more learning gained through a long childhood was a difficult route because it involved acquiring facility and wisdom through many mistakes—and mistakes can be costly. The partial evolutionary fix for this was to create a sort of virtual world, paralleling the adult world, a vital playground of make-believe.
Cave art is the principal surviving part of that "virtual world," attesting how "play, art, and creativity are all linked to the process of our becoming large-mammal-hunting specialists." He sums up his entire argument in the chapter's final sentence: "Paleolithic art is the first clear spoor of advancing creativity in the human line..., not art for art's sake, but art for life's sake."
These are just a few excerpts from McNeill's long, comprehensive review. He's not entirely persuaded, but thinks Guthrie offers an interesting corrective perspective. He concludes by noting, "His imaginative reconstruction of family patterns, demographics, and the psychological effects of being dependent on killing large-bodied mammals strikes me as plausible. And he convinced me that adolescent boys made most of the casual graffiti that adorn the cave walls. These are valuable correctives to older views. But his repudiation of magical and religious motivation for making the masterworks of cave art remains implausible."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I suppose it's also possible that adolescent boys were very attracted to the great images made by adults and imitated them.