Friday, January 13, 2012

THe Dawn of Belief: Religion in the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern Europe

Book Review: The Dawn of Belief: Religion in the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern Europe by D. Bruce Dickson (University of Arizona Press 1990)

This book is a good survey of what is known of the Upper Paleolithic peoples of this part of Europe and the various academic explanations of what their beliefs may have been and the possibilities as to how they were formed.

The first section involves methodology: for defining culture and religion and the complexity of religion. He invokes the work of Emily Durkheim, Sir James Frazer, Claude Levi-Strauss and many others. In defining the complexity of religion he refers to the classification scheme of Anthony F.C. Wallace who classified cults towards increasing complexity as: 1) individualistic cults – where everyone is his own priest or shaman and no one else interfaces the supernatural for one; 2) shamanistic cults – where a part-time shaman endowed with special abilities and inspiration interfaces the supernatural on behalf of the community members of band-level societies; 3) communal cults – which are more elaborate than shamanistic cults and associated with bigger and more complex societies. In addition to shamans there are also various societies based on age, gender, kinship, and vocational abilities; 4) ecclesiastical cults – these are the most complex and exist in very large societies with much hierarchy and involve full-time priesthoods.

Next is more background into early humans before the Paleolithic period. The change from homo erectus to homo sapiens is briefly touched upon. The problem of the Neanderthals is also given where the three competing hypotheses (framed by Apsimon) are mentioned: 1) Neanderthals evolved into homo sapiens sapiens; 2) sapiens immigrated leading to extinction of Neanderthals; 3) sapiens immigrated and interbred with Neanderthals resulting in loss of distinctive Neanderthal characteristics. Consensus at the time of this book was that Neanderthals are not direct ancestors of modern humans but that may have changed or at least weakened in the last 20 years.

The divisions of the Paleolithic: Lower Paleolithic - 2.9 my to 90,000 yrs before present; Middle Paleolithic – 90,000 to 35,000 yrs before present; and Upper Paleolithic – 35,000 to 10,000 yrs bp are generally divided on the basis of changes in stone tool complexity.

The earliest evidence of human concerns beyond biological needs were noted by Stephen W. Edwards as intentional collection of red ochre and red rocks and special treatment of human and animal skulls. This activity was noted in the Early Paleolithic among homo erectus. Ochre, in the form of soft rocks and soil materials with iron oxides such as hematite, goethite, and limonite in red, yellow, brown, and black, when powdered and mixed with water and animal fat, later made excellent and durable paint – for walls and body. Humans’ relationship with ochre is exceedingly ancient and widespread. Ochre was involved in what Lewis Mumford termed “technical narcissism.” This refers to body decoration in the form of ornaments, masks, tattoos, scarifications, wigs, and clothing for purposes of establishing a human identity or purpose. It is also possible that Homo erectus was the first to utilize animal skulls. Greater complexity of tools and occasional burials with possible mortuary offerings occur in the Middle Paleolithic. Intentional burials among Neanderthals occur in widely scattered sites. It is thought that some corpses in both Neanderthal and Homo sapiens sapiens sites were bound in fetal positions – and whether this was to fit them into the hole or to bind them to keep them from returning to the living (as was done in some Germanic grave sites) is not known. There are sites where Neanderthals are thought to have stacked cave bear skulls on wall niches in a possible Bear Cult possibly similar to the bear veneration among Siberian peoples and the Ainu of Japan. Whether this was a bear cult or just where the bears died and ended up has been debated. Interestingly, a bear skull was found on a wall niche facing one entering a chamber in the recently discovered Chavez cave in southern France – a few years after the publication of this book. Another Neanderthal site in Italy shows a cave bear skull surrounded by a circle of stones. The veneration of the bear as ancestor in Siberia and the observation among Native Americans that a skinned bear looks remarkably like a human lends some credence to the bear cult scenario as well.

The Franco-Cantabria region of Southern France and Northern Spain is the main focus of the book as there are numerous Upper Paleolithic sites and caves here with well-preserved art and artifacts. The various industrial traditions through time are recounted as are the varying weather patterns through time. The Ice Ages tended to push people to the south to these regions. Large and small herd animals were available for hunting, sometimes in abundance as well as salmon spawning inland in the spring. Both the large migrating herd animals and the salmon were cyclic in availability. Portable and cave art appear. Mobile artifacts of bone, ivory, and antler become more common in the Upper Paleolithic and the appearance of personal ornaments ensues in the form of amber, shells, flint, and ochre. The number of burials increases drastically in the Upper Paleolithic. Quantity and diversity of grave goods increased much in the Upper Paleolithic. Female burials become prominent for the first time in the Upper Paleolithic. All these changes suggest a more populated, more complex, and less overall mobile society. Paleolithic peoples were thought to have lived quite short lives. One study showed only 12% of skeletons over 40 and most under 30.

Mircea Eliade coined the term “heirophany” to describe “manifestations of the sacred.” The collection and use of ochre, the arrangement of skulls, and ritual burial can fall into this category. The use of red ochre to coat corpses is thought to represent blood and to promote the idea of life to the dead presumably in another world. The above mentioned body ornaments and clothing also appear on corpses at this time. It is in the Upper Paleolithic that we see the decoration of tools, ornaments, and weapons. We see drawings and possibly symbols. Andre Leroi-Gourhan classed these implements as: 1) expendable weapons – such as spears, 2) implements of lasting utility – such as spear-throwers and pierced staffs, 3) objects to be suspended – such as ornaments, , and 4) miscellaneous objects. Engravings on mobiliary art objects led Alexander Marshack to conclude that these referred to a calendrical and notation system. Leroi-Gourhan describes the objects of religious significance as statuettes and decorated slabs. Statuettes of animals are quite rare in the Franco-Cantabrian area but are more common in Upper Paleolithic sites to the west. The most numerous of statuettes in the Franco-Cantrabrian area as well as throughout Eurasia are the Ice Age Venuses – such as the Venus of Willendorf from Austria. They were made between 14000 and 29000 yrs bp but most may have been made between 23000 and 25000 yrs bp. The large buttocks and protruding breasts of the figures suggest the acknowledgement of the mysteries of female fertility.

The term “parietal art” refers to the Upper Paleolithic cave paintings which are plentiful, well preserved, and well drawn, are mostly drawings of animals, and include animal-human hybrids. There are hundreds of these caves in Europe and likely more to be discovered. In many of these caves there are drawings of later times superimposed on those of earlier times and since these “traditions” represent thousands of years some have suggested changes in styles to be representative of different time periods. Leroi-Gourhan classed these into time periods as: Style I Primitive (32000 bp to 27000 bp) – naturalistic renderings of animals, female genitalia, and lines and dots; Style II Primitive – drawings appear in rock shelters and these drawings achieve their maximum geographic distribution; Style III Artchaic (20000-15000 bp) – polychrome becomes more common and improvements in painting and sculpting technique are seen. Rectangular and bracket-shaped signs appear; Style IV Classic (15000 -11000 bp) – shading, texture, and line work lead to the technological and aesthetic height of this form of art among these peoples. There are other classification schemes and much uncertainty as exact dating of these artistic layers is not always reliable. The artists definitely utilized the natural relief of the rock walls to enhance drawings (as can well be seen in the recent Werner Herzog documentary – Cave of Forgotten Dreams – about the Chavez cave discovered in 1994).
The paints were mineral-based which led to their survivability into the present day. The most common subjects of the paintings are large mammalian game animals such as horse, bison, auroch, mammoth, ibex (wild goat), and deer. Less common are reindeer, wooly rhinoceros, bear, lion, antelope, and musk ox. Other subjects are patterns and symbols such as meander patterns (W and M), lines, grids, ovals, parallel lines and dots. Animals were later superimposed on other animals in rather artistic ways. Some original drawings were re-engraved or re-painted. This suggests that the drawings retained their ritual value and so were restored. Less common subjects are fish and birds, less common animals such as boar, fox, wolf, and ferret, hybrid animals where a head of one animal is paired with body of another, human –animal hybrids (such as the famed Sorcerer at Les Troise Freres), and strictly human depictions which are rare. There are some profiles of humans and engraved depictions of human vulvas. Images of human hands (in red and black) also appear though infrequently – but sometimes in dense clusters which suggest some sort of ritual function. Deformed hands, or hands with missing fingers, are sometimes depicted. Rarer still are story panels. Story panels are more common in the rock art of the San people of South Africa and the Pueblo of the North American southwest. Depictions of plants and insects are very rare though Marshack sees them as representative of a seasonal calendar system and possibly more widespread than previously thought. Certainly the paintings may well have been much more common than we see today as they are so old that they are only preserved in the depths of the caves. Paintings were likely present in cave openings and more exposed places as well. Many of the preserved paintings are in cave chambers that are quite difficult to reach – some requiring significant climbing and/or crawling. This suggests to some researchers that different chambers served different cult functions – where the less accessible chambers were used by a minority of humans. The proximity to underground springs and ponds may have been significant as well. These sacred waters (according to Bahn 1978) may have been associated with rebirth and the underworld.

In terms of interpretation of this art and religion there are four main ideas and these overlap quite a bit: 1) totemism, 2) rites of passage, 3) hunting magic, and 4) cave art shamanism. The totemism interpretation stems from the work of Emily Durkheim who compared Upper Paleolithic peoples to the native Australians. These aborigines regarded the totem plants and animals as representations of sacred beings related to their clans and social groups. He concluded that this was the worship of the clan itself, and that all religion is the worship of society. Rites of passage refer to the usual rituals of coming of age, marriage, and death as the most important transitions in the life of a human. Here one crosses a boundary between one ‘status’ and another. The notion of hunting magic was derived mainly from the work of James Frazer regarding sympathetic magic. Frazer made a distinction between magic and religion. Magic, he said was manipulating the material world through the supernatural while religion is propitiating the power of the supernatural. Frazer felt that religion developed after magic as a response to the difficulty of magic. Frazer’s magic is based on two principles: homeopathy- or like produces like, and contagion – where things that are connected in some way can influence one another. So here the drawings of game animals are seen as a form of imitative magic. Pictures of animal predators such as bears and lions – which are rivals – can be seen as a form of destructive magic. Various stab-marked and wounded predator and prey animals support these ideas. Body positions of several drawings suggest dead animals and perhaps the study of the appearance of dead animals in order to be able to depict them for magical purposes. Some have noted that the absence of fish and waterfowl that were thought to be abundant and used as a main food source suggests that hunting magic is not the main focus of the drawings – although others have distinguished between big game hunting requiring skill and less skilled harvesting of abundant fish and fowl. Magic may have been aimed at increasing availability of game. Depictions of animals giving birth support this hypothesis. Cave art as part of shamanic tradition does not contradict Frazer’s notions. The animal-human hybrids here can be seen as the shaman in communication and cohabitation in body with the creation form or universal form of the animal species itself. The ideas of Andreas Lommel through his 1967 book - Shamanism: The Beginnings of Art - are here examined. Lommel mentions four motifs originating in shamanism: 1) man-animal representations, 2) hybrid creatures, 3) scenes depicted men and animals or animals fighting, and 4) drawings in X-ray style. Examples of man-animal and hybrids are the Sorcerer at Les Trois Freres,the “chamois man” and the bird-headed man being charged by a wounded bull in the cave at Lascaux. Interestingly, there is a report by an amateur archaeologist describing an unreported site with many drawn figures of bird-headed and fish-headed men. These man-animal figures and animal hybrids likely represent shamans in trance according to Lommel which is quite reasonable when one looks at the known history of Siberian and Native American shamanism which almost certainly stretches back to the Upper Paleolithic. Man-animal combat scenes may represent psychic battles between shamans and spirits or they may be taken at face value as a history of an event. The X-ray drawings may represent as well the shamanic vision powers to see within and to penetrate to the inner or bone level – or the vital level. These may possibly be related to motifs of counting the bones in order to reconfigure the slain prey (as well as the initiated shaman) and taking care not to break bones. Perhaps, as Eliade conjectures, Upper Paleolithic man was dominated with the mystical relations between man and animal – and as Leroi-Gourhan contends – with the mysteries of reproduction and especially the woman’s role.

The author gives a survey of more contemporary interpretations of Upper Paleolithic art and religion – mainly the work of Andre Leroi-Gourhan and Alexander Marshack but also Anne Sieveking, Clive Gamble, and Michael Jochim. Leroi-Gourhan surmised that the deep cave chambers were sanctuaries. He defined seven types of zones in the caves. He thinks the most important central positions of cave art were occupied by the most important animals: bison, wild oxen, aurochs, and horses. Smaller prey like deer and ibex – but also mammoth – occupy a less important position, and prey animals like bear, lion, and rhino occupy a different position. He interpreted the signs near the animals as representative of human genitalia and so assigned bison and aurochs to female genitalia and horses, ibexes, and mammoths to male genitalia. He saw these representations as a sort of syntax though I don’t quite get it. These ideas are controversial and do not seem likely or at least of utmost importance to me. The work of Marshack also challenged past interpretations in that he postulated that various markings especially on bone and antler mobiliary art (which would be assumed to be always near a mobile people) represented “time-factoring” by these ancient peoples. These markings had previously been assumed to be decoration but Marshack thought they had to do with marking the passage of time. He tried to find and present evidence that various markings were made at different times, possibly by different people and different tools so that they represented tallies of the passage of time. These decorative markings occur in widespread areas and time periods of the Upper Paleolithic so could possibly have a been a widespread “language” of sorts for reckoning time. Particularly, he noted markings of 29 to 31 likely to represent moon phases. Lunar periods could be used to count to the changes of seasons. He interpreted migratory animals and fish as occurring with images of plants (though the images are apparently hard to interpret as plants) as time-season reckoning for availability of these animals and plants. Plants and hook-jawed salmon in spawn would represent spring and fighting stags would represent autumn. The appearance of a crescent horn with 13 marks has rather obvious lunar phase symbolism. Apparently though much of Marshack’s examples are way less than obvious and his interpretations have been criticized. Anne Sieveking analyzed animal migration patterns and human settlement patterns in the Pyrenees region in order to define likely homogenous social groups. These groups likely had winter and summer residences based on food availability, movement of reindeer herds, and salmon spawning in spring. She also thought that since similar mobiliary art styles were widespread that the social systems were also related and widespread. Clive Gamble suggested that the need for collaboration in hunting big game like reindeer was closely related to the development of art – that maybe the art was a strategy for maximizing hunting success. This required larger human groups that may have been related through wider kinship ties. This strategy and technique of tracking and hunting may have had initiatory components as the young were introduced to the reindeer hunting groups. Michael Jochim compared the population dynamics required of reindeer hunters (small) and salmon gatherers (large). Both of these game could be gotten in large quantities but only in part of the year. Both could be stored and indeed the cold winters of the Upper Paleolithic in this area may have allowed meat and fish to be stored through the winter. The difference is that salmon are much more predictable than reindeer and so lead to a settled pattern for part of the year. The settled pattern would also lead to a territorial exclusiveness around certain rivers. Reindeer hunting required mobility and perhaps the sharing of regional information by different hunting groups in order to maximize success. This sharing of information may have led to extended social groups, social affiliations, and marriage ties between groups.

The next section analyzes recent and modern hunter-gatherer societies for comparison. He lists the following characteristics of these societies: 1) a simple technology – tools, skills, and social organization, 2) a subsistence system capable of producing only relatively low levels of food energy, 3) little emphasis on accumulation – possessions are a hindrance to mobile people, 4) a low population density – as resources dictate, 5) a dependence on spatially dispersed wild foods with seasonally fluctuating availability. 6) a population size determined by the amount of collectible wild food during the season of minimum availability, 7)  band organization, 8) reliance on kinship as most important social bond, 9) economic distribution and exchange based on reciprocity – gifting to balance needs and surpluses among groups, 10) individual and collective ownership – individual in terms of tools and weapons but collective in terms of resources and distribution of resources, 11) absence of full-time specializations, 12) absence of statuses and roles (beyond those of age and sex), 13) feuding, but no true warfare.

Different styles of hunter-gatherers have been recognized such as: 1) pedestrian hunter-gatherers – ie. the !Kung San of South Africa; 2) Fishing, with supplementary hunting and gathering – ie. the Tlingit of the Pacific Northwest – who were much more settled and socially stratified than other h & g groups; 3) equestrian hunter-gatherers – ie. the Cheyenne of the plains of Western North America – interestingly among them the seasonal festivals were arranged around the times when the regional groups converged for bison hunting.

Delayed-return subsistence systems probably represent an evolved (or new) form over immediate-return subsistence systems since they support surpluses and temporary settlement. This also likely aids the development of more complex social systems. One important difference between the Upper Paleolithic societies of southwestern Europe and those of both today’s pan-arctic regions and modern hunter-gatherers in other areas – is that the availability of food resources is thought to have been significantly greater in the Upper Paleolithic of that region giving more possibility of more settlement time and larger populations than we see in h & g groups today. The environments were different as well – tundra and grassland in a temperate to subtropical region which we don’t see today.  The Saami, or Lapps of northern Finland and Scandinavia may be the best analogy for Upper Paleolithic peoples as they still follow and keep reindeer herds. Their food gathering is seasonal-cyclic with fishing and sea mammals in spring-summer, trapping and reindeer hunting in fall, and “broad-spectrum subsistence” in winter. Socially, they are arranged in bands with a council that heads a group of bands. The confederation of groups also provides for help to the sick and poor and they share hunting and fishing resources such as weirs. Surpluses among the Tlingit were distributed as part of a ceremonial gift-giving reciprocity and this may have been a model in the past as well, especially at convergence times among different groups.

Analogies of the religious organization of modern hunter-gatherers reveal that they do not tend to have religious specialists but that the ability to enter altered states of consciousness is highly-prized. Hunting and the distribution of meat are filled with procedure and prohibition – essentially religious taboo. He notes that anthropologists tend to divide rituals into two types: rites of passage and rites of intensification. Rites of intensification may be more related to seasonal rites in order to re-orient the group focus to the new activities of the new season. Rites of passage are mainly concerned with the change from childhood to adulthood. The scale and elaboration of funerary rites among hunter-gatherers is determined “by the degree of their sedentism, the nature of their seasonal schedule, and whether or not they practice a delayed-return form of subsistence.” Typically, the Middle Paleolithic Neanderthal burials are interpreted as a new interest in an afterlife and the Upper Paleolithic burials due to increased population but they may be related to increased sedentism as well. 

Interestingly the caves where parietal art are found are not where people lived so there was a separation of sorts where these areas were used for special purposes but not for living quarters. Since the more difficult to reach areas of caves were decorated more elaborately and in more detail it has been assumed that these areas played a more intense ritual role. The idea that ceremonial centers built up around seasonal times when different groups could converge (like the Cheyenne did) seems a reasonable assumption in a society relying on similar resources. The author thinks the site of Altamira may have been such a site being close to variable resources as well as the coast. Seasonal pilgrimages may have included visits to the abundant parietal art caves in the region.

There is a short section speculating on ideas of binary thought among Upper Paleolithic peoples. This includes an analysis of the drawing of codes, pairs of things, and hands. Hands were seen to be red or black (two opposing colors: red for life, power, sex and black for death, morning, and decomposition) left or right, positive or negative, and whole or with missing digits.

The author takes all the above views and synthesizes them a bit. He considers that the art and religion is related to recognition a sexual dualism of sorts. He considers Marshack’s account of recognition of the lunar cycle and its relationship with the female menstruation cycle as well as the cycle of human birth, growth, and death (in terms of waxing and waning). Based on this he suggests that:

“... the Upper Paleolithic worldview probably represented a fusion of understanding of two separate, empirically knowable phenomena of the natural world: the passage of time and the nature of human – especially female – sexuality. Both of these natural phenomena are characterized by dramatic surficial or formal changes that can be observed and predicted with great ease and precision by virtually anyone.”

He says the predictability of these things molded how early man contemplated nature. The experience of cycles allows greater predictability and some idea of certainty. Predictability in nature allows practical advantages in finding food.

Regarding the Venus figures some have suggested that they were not goddesses but representatives of woman with rare medical conditions who were venerated as magical because of it. I find this unlikely due to their widespread nature in space and time. It seems more likely that they were fertility and child-birth aids. Some have given the icons not sacred functions but secular and psychological functions. Most of the Venus figures were found in domestic settings so this supports that they were perhaps not exclusively sacred.

Here is a final quote at the end of the book that I found interesting:

   “Human life is fragile and transitory and its essential fact – the inevitability of death – can be countered only by birth, by more life. Human existence is both obvious and mysterious: we know it must end in death yet it is filled with signs and portents suggesting otherwise. Fragility and mystery – fear and hope – provoke the yearnings for fertility and immortality in humankind. To find that we share these yearnings even with peoples of as remote an age as the late Pleistocene is to recognize our kinship with all humanity.”

Worthwhile read indeed.

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