Nothing ever starts or ends, but it has roots before and casts a shadow ahead.
We know of more than 200 European caves with Paleolithic paintings and carvings. Of these, 85% are in Southern France and Northern Spain, a striking concentration. Only a dozen in Italy and only one has been found in eastern Europe - the Kapova Cave in the Urals.
This concentration has much to do with the Ice Age, but here is the bottom line: Food was plentiful, and life was much more pleasant than has sometimes been imagined by their descendants. We know that 20,000 years ago at Les Eyzies on the Veyzere, 400 to 600 people lived side by side under the protection of a half-dozen rock shelters known as "abri". Some demographic evidence indicates the population was even much larger when mega-fauna were ranging in the neighborhood. We have evidence of mass kill-offs. For example, at a kill-site in Solutre, the remains of 100,000 horses. In addition, Salmon filled the streams--and are depicted on the caves, dried and stored. A rich and varied way of life is depicted, and which we are only beginning to understand.
What is the significance of Lascaux ("Sistine Ceiling of the Cave"), Altamira, Chauvet (oldest, at 30,000), Les Tres Freres (6-part shaman), the riparian region of Dordogne and Vezere, the coast of what is now Basque country in the Franco-Cantabrian heartland, the dotted horse and dance prints of Peche-Merle, the 500 footprints of children deep in the dark passages of the Niaux, the underwater Mediterranean gallery of Cosquer Cave?
1. Ritual - evidence of use other than for subsistence function. No one needs to paint a great auk (flightless relative of razorbill) to catch one or eat its eggs. No painting of a bison or mammoth helped bring one to ground. However, the symbols helped recall the Memory, wove the Dream, and told the Story. The Story passed to the children attempts to intervene in the future, attempts to create a future, insure prosperity in an environment of change and surprise.
2. Dance - flat rock spaces and seating areas with fire posts and fat lamps. The mud prints. Footprints in dance lines.
3. Acoustics - some chambers perdured the echoing, for example, of clapping. The staccato thunder perhaps emulating the stampeding herds depicted of aurochs, reindeer and bison; Pictures of big growling cats and bears in acoustically "dead" ends that resonate low sounds without echoing interference.
4. Fertility - again the tie to the future. More female parts. The earliest are all female, vulvular. Rising again, rebirth images, pregnant. All. Female. In fact, there is a dearth of "weapons", of depictions of killing other people. It is all about nurturing and beauty. All.
5. Totemism - system of clan organization distinguished by objects or animals with special relationships. There is an alphabet of relationships. A Story telling.
6. Mythology - many of the creatures are indeterminate or mixed, half-man, half woolly rhinoceros and feathered creature, the dominance of sexual symbolism (and gravid) and the relative scarcity of the game animals.
7. Dreams. Walk-about in the darkness, following the guide-string, with the fire-flickered shadows telling the story. Direct invocation of memory, hopes, visions. The re-emergence as awakening.
8. Eye-lid visions. The color and shape-shifting seen on the closed eye-lid after exposure to the high contrast black bison on the white rock.
9. Pharmacology. In the last two years, scientists have re-appraised the sites in terms of What to look for in light of the discovery of a high-level technology in pharmacological preparations among hunter/gatherers in Sur America (the Ayahuasca experience), and our own measuring and detecting technologies. Now we are looking for drugs in all the cave places, and finding them in spades, or more specifically, in mushrooms and vegetation. Of the 38,000 mushrooms, some 20 are seriously hallucinogenic as well as poisonous -- requiring a "technology" to ingest safely and a culture to want to, or to find some purpose in doing so. The abundant paintings of unidentifiable creatures, the half-man creatures (for example, the famous 6-part "shaman" at Les Tres Freres), may be readily recognizable portraits of things encountered as a result of ingesting amanita muscaria, or a muscarin or psylocibin compound. There is no question that hemp was in abundance and was actually used in the caves -- in the making of a "guideline" to hold onto in the dark.
10. Absences. Note the complete absence of ANY indication of wars, or gangs bent upon attack or annihilation of other humans. Very few depictions of men. No caudillo or personality worship. No gods. No virginity. No gross inequality -- pharoah and serf. No Big Man.
Some people, our people, were squatting around a fire, waving skin-reflector-shields, echoing drums and hunting calls, bringing their sons and daughters to the Story, to their senses, and hoping for a bountiful future for their children...and here we are.
- Did Socrates say "Know Thyself", or was he misunderstood, as all are. Show Thyself is all we can do. The knowing is unknowable. I am filled with joy. It can't be helped.
Became a Farmer, Builder, Musician, Tank Commander, Librarian, Lawyer and Minister. I have failed at many things. And now retired. Filled, just filled, with Joy.