Tuesday, December 18, 2018

On Prehistoric Cave Paintings

Paleolithic cave painting of bisons in Altamira cave, Spain
Several scholars have interpreted the cave paintings of wild animals created by prehistoric men as some kind of magic. But a man practices any magical ritual to acquire power. What kind of magical power did the prehistoric artists who created the cave paintings desire? Was it to make prey abundant or did they have some other motivation?

Jacob Bronowski, in his book The Ascent of Man, offers the following perspective on cave paintings:
I think that the power that we see expressed here [in cave paintings] for the first time is the power of anticipation: the forward-looking imagination. In these paintings the hunter was made familiar with dangers which he knew he had to face but to which he had not yet come. When the hunter was brought here into the secret dark and the light was suddenly flashed on the pictures, he saw the bison as he would have to face him, he saw the running deer, he saw the turning boar. And he felt alone with them as he would in the hunt. The moment of fear was made present to him; his spear-arm flexed with an experience which he would have and which he needed not to be afraid of. The painter had frozen the moment of fear, and the hunter entered it through the painting as if through an air-lock.  
For us, the cave paintings re-create the hunter’s way of life as a glimpse of history; we look through them into the past. But for the hunter, I suggest, they were a peep-hole into the future; he looked ahead. In either direction, the cave paintings act as a kind of telescope tube of the imagination: they direct the mind from what is seen to what can be inferred or conjectured. 
Here’s how he relates art to human actions:
Art and science are both uniquely human actions, outside the range of anything that an animal can do. And here we see that they derive from the same human faculty: the ability to visualize the future, to foresee what may happen and plan to anticipate it, and to represent it to ourselves in images that we project and move about inside our head, or in a square of light on the dark wall of a cave or a television screen. 

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