Museum of the Ice Ages 1 (Caveman Erotica)

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But a line branching from its neck looks like a human arm with fingers.

Part II: How promiscuous were prehistoric humans?

The relationship of these figures to each other, and to the frieze on the adjacent wall, is among the great enigmas in cave art. In the course of a friendly correspondence, Yanik Le Guillou gave Curtis a warning about indulging his imagination. Perhaps that sin might be forgiven in an American journalist, but not in Jean Clottes. The authors cited laboratory experiments with subjects in an induced-trance state which suggested that the human optic system generates the same types of visual illusions, in the same three stages, differing only slightly by culture, whatever the stimulus: drugs, music, pain, fasting, repetitive movements, solitude, or high carbon-dioxide levels a phenomenon that is common in close underground chambers.

In the first stage, a subject sees a pattern of points, grids, zigzags, and other abstract forms familiar from the caves ; in the second stage, these forms morph into objects—the zigzags, for example, might become a serpent. In the third and deepest stage, a subject feels sucked into a dark vortex that generates intense hallucinations, often of monsters or animals, and feels his body and spirit merging with theirs. Peoples who practice shamanism believe in a tiered cosmos: an upper world the heavens ; an underworld; and the mortal world.

When Clottes joined forces with Lewis-Williams, he had come to believe that cave painting largely represents the experiences of shamans or initiates on a vision quest to the underworld, where spirits gathered.

Museum of the Ice Ages

The caves served as a gateway, and their walls were considered porous. Where the artists or their entourage left handprints, they were palping a living rock in the hopes of reaching or summoning a force beyond it. But, in doing so, they were also locating the dwelling place of an animal from their visions, and bodying it forth. But Homo sapiens is Homo spiritualis. The ability to make tools defines us less than the need to create belief systems that influence nature.

And shamanism is the most prevalent belief system of hunter-gatherers. The divide seems, in part, to be generational.

The Walrus

The strict purists tend to be younger, perhaps because they came of age with deconstruction, in a climate of political correctness, and are warier of their own baggage. Jean-Michel Geneste, a leonine man of fifty-nine with a silver mane, told me about an experiment that he had conducted at Lascaux in In addition to directing the work at Chauvet, he is the curator of Lascaux, and last winter he had to deal with an invasion of fungus that was threatening the paintings there. Geneste decided to invite four elders of an Aboriginal tribe, the Ngarinyins—hunter-gatherers from northwestern Australia—to visit the cave, and put them up at his house in the Dordogne.

I said no, and that stupid reply made them afraid. I was terribly disappointed, and finally, as good guests, they agreed to take a look.

Why Is Neanderthal Erotica So Hot? | The Walrus

But first they had to purify themselves, so they built a fire, and pulled some of their underarm hair out and burned it. Their own rituals involve traversing a screen of smoke—passing into another zone. When they entered the cave, they took a while to get their bearings.

The Scrolls from the Dead Sea

Yes, they said, it was an initiation site. The geometric signs, in red and black, reminded them of their own clan insignia, the animals and engravings of figures from their creation myths. Everyone must have heard that these sanctuaries existed, and felt drawn to them. And, like the art in a church, the richness of graphic expression in the caves was satisfying to lots of different people in different ways—familial, communal, and individual, across the millennia—so there is probably no one adequate explanation, no unified theory, for it.

For the next week, I climbed the hill to Chauvet once a day. Only a few members of the team enter the cave at a time, each to pursue his or her research, though because of potential hazards, especially carbon-dioxide intoxication, no fewer than three can ever be alone there. But Aujoulat felt more intimidated at Lascaux. But after a while it became oppressive: those huge animals staring you down in a small space—trying, or so it feels, to dominate you.

Those who have elected to stay behind spend the day in a prosaic annex next to the camp parking lot which was built to provide the team with office space and computer outlets. Of necessity, Fritz and Tosello spend more time Photoshopping their research than conducting field work. Henri Breuil made tracings directly from cave walls—an unthinkable sacrilege to modern archeologists. They digitally photograph an image section by section, print the picture to scale, and take it back underground, where Tosello sets up a drawing board as close as possible to the area of study. The digital image is overlaid with a sheet of clear plastic, and he traces the image onto the sheet, referring constantly to the original painting as he does so.

Then he transfers the tracings as many as a dozen layers onto the computer, where they can be magnified and manipulated. Once again, the surface was carefully scraped beneath the throat, which suggests to us a moment of reflection, or perhaps doubt. The last horse is unquestionably the most successful of the group, perhaps because the artist is by now certain of his or her inspiration. This fourth horse was produced using a complex technique: the main lines were drawn with charcoal; the infill, colored sepia and brown, is a mixture of charcoal and clay spread with the finger.

A series of fine engravings perfectly follow the profile. With energetic and precise movements, the significant details are indicated nostril, open mouth. A final charcoal line, dark black, was placed just at the corner of the lips and gives this head an expression of astonishment or surprise. Guthrie, a professor emeritus of zoology at the University of Alaska, specializes in the paleobiology of the Pleistocene era. Not only is he an expert on the large mammals that cavort on cave walls; he has spent forty years in the Arctic wilds hunting their descendants with a bow and arrow. In that respect, perhaps, he brings more empiricism to his research than other scholars, though he also brings less humility.

It is a handsome, five-hundred-page volume composed, like a mosaic, of boxed highlights, arresting graphics, and short sections of text that distill a wealth of multi-disciplinary research. The prose, like the layout, is designed to engage a layman without vulgarizing the science, or, at least, not too much.

A number of prehistorians are and have been, as he is, gifted draftsmen and copyists. But unlike the devout Breuil, or the cautious Tosello, Guthrie is a desacralizer. He stresses its erotic playfulness, even straining to discern evidence of dildos and bondage, despite the rarity of sexual acts depicted on walls or artifacts.


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The reverence with which certain researchers—including, one infers, the Chauvet team—treat even the smallest nick in a cave strikes him as a bit too nice, and, where they perceive an elaborate, if obscure, metaphysics, he sees high-spirited improvisation. It is true that among the masterpieces there are many line drawings, including pubic triangles, that seem hasty, impish, or doodle-like. Guthrie is both provocative and respected—Clottes wrote one of the cover blurbs on his book—but some of his methods make you wonder how much of the light that he throws onto the nature of the art owes to false clarity.

By culling examples of erotica from a huge catchment area without noting their size, date, or position, he distorts their prevalence. But those who lived on could, thanks to the rarity of infectious diseases and the abundance of protein, expect to survive for thirty years more—considerably longer than the Greeks, the Romans, or the medieval peasants who built Chartres. Can puerility as we know it—horny, reckless, and transgressive—be attributed to a people for whom early parenthood and virtuosity in survival skills were, as Guthrie acknowledges, imperative? A few days before Easter, I left the camp and drove southwest, over the mountains, stopping at the town of Albi, where the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, in a thirteenth-century palace off the cathedral square, has a small gallery of Stone and Bronze Age artifacts.

The Neanderthals had come this way. Pascal Alard, an archeologist, met me the next morning at Niaux, where he has conducted research for twenty years. It is one of three caves with Chauvet and Lascaux that Clottes, who had arranged the rendezvous, considers paradigmatic. I had driven south for about forty minutes, the last few miles on a road with hairpin turns that wound up into flinty, striated hills. The site was nothing like Chauvet.

There was, for one thing, a parking lot at the entrance, deserted at that hour, a bookshop, and an imposing architectural sculpture, in Corten steel, cantilevered into the cliff. It is supposed to represent an imaginary prehistoric animal. Niaux is Magdalenian—its walls were decorated about fourteen thousand years ago—and it was one of the first caves to be explored.

Visitors from the seventeenth century left graffiti, as did pranksters for the next three hundred years. But when Alard had unlocked the door, and it closed behind us, we were alone. He had two electric torches, and he gave me one. He told me that he and some colleagues, all of whom know the cave intimately, decided, one day, to see if they could find their way out without a light source.

None of them could. The floor near the mouth was fairly flat, but as we went deeper it listed and swelled unpredictably. Water was dripping, and sometimes it sounded like a sinister whispered conversation. We were, in fact, walking on the bed of a primordial river. Where the passage narrowed, we squeezed between two rocks, like a turnstile, marked with four lines. They were swipes of a finger dipped in red pigment that resembled a bar code, or symbolic flames. Further along, there was a large panel of dots, lines, and arrows, some red, some black.

I felt their power without understanding it until I recalled what Norbert Aujoulat had told me about the signs at Cussac. He was the second modern human to explore the cave, in , the year it was unearthed, some twenty-two thousand years after the painters had departed. Beyond the turnstile, the passage widens for about six hundred feet, veering to the right, where it leads to one of the grandest bestiaries in Paleolithic art: the Black Salon, a rotunda a hundred and thirty feet in diameter. All these creatures are drawn in profile with a fine point, and some of their silhouettes have been filled in with a brush or a stumping cloth.

I looked for a little ibex, twenty-one inches long, that Clottes had described to me as the work of a perfectionist, and one of the most beautiful animals in a cave. Every encounter with a cave animal takes it and you by surprise. Halfway home to the mortal world, I asked Alard if we could pause and turn off our torches.

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The acoustics magnify every sound, and it takes the brain a few minutes to accept the totality of the darkness—your sight keeps grasping for a hold. Whatever the art means, you understand, at that moment, that its vessel is both a womb and a sepulchre. With extensive travel and life experience, she hopes to create stories with deep, true meaning.


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