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Paleolithic Art in France

by Dr Jean Clottes

The Bradshaw Foundation presents the recently published paper by Dr. Jean Clottes, French Ministry of Culture The paper provides a definitive and comprehensive analysis of the Palaeolithic rock art discoveries so far made in France. Given Jean Clottes' understanding of the complexities of the subject, his experience and knowledge gained from viewing cave paintings around the world.

The charcoal fallen from their torches (fiq. 8), their fires, a few objects, bones and flint tools left on the ground are the remains of meals or of sundry activities. They are also part of the documentation unwiittingly left by prehistoric people in the caves. From their study, one can say that in most cases painted or engraved caves were not inhabited, at least for long periods. Fires were temporary and remains are relatively scarce. Naturally, there are exceptions (Einlene, Labastide, Le Mas d’Azil, Bdeilhac). In their case, it is often difficult to make out whether those settlements are in relation - as seems likely - or not with the art on the walls. The presence of portable art may be a valuable clue to establish such a relationship.

Among the most mysterious remains are the objects deposited in the cracks of the walls and in particular the bone fragments stuck forcibly into them (see also below). After being noticed in the Ariegie Volp Caves. (Enlene, Les Trois- Freres, Le Tuc d’Audoubert) (Begouen & Clottes 1981), those deposits have been found in numerous other French Paleolithic art caves (Bedeillhaic, Le Portel, Troubat, Erberua, Gargas, etc.). They belong to periods sometimes far apart, which is not the least interesting fact about them because this means that the same gestures were repeated again and again for many thousands of years. Thus, in Gargas, a bone fragment lifted from one of the fissures next to some hand stencils was dated to 26,800 BP, while in other caves they are Magdalenian i.e. more recent by 13,000 to 14,000 years.

The Gravettian burials very recently discovered in the Cussac cave (Aujoulat et al. 2001) pose a huge problem. It is the first time that human skeletons have been found inside a deep cave with Paleolithic art. Until they have been excavated and studied properly it will be impossible to know whether those people died there by accident (which is most unlikely), whether they were related to those who did the engravings, whether they enjoyed a special status, etc. Their presence just stresses the magic/religious character of art in the deep caves.


Ever since the beginning of the XXth century, several attempts have been made to find the meaning(s) of Paleolithic rock art. Art for art’s sake, totemism, the Abbe Breuil’s hunting magic and Leroi-Gourhan’s and Laming-Emperaires’s structuralist theories were proposed and then abandoned one after the other (Delporte 1990, Lorblanchet 1995). Since then, most specialists have made up their minds that it would be hopeless to look for the meanings behind the art. They prefer to spend their time and efforts recording it, describing it and dating it, to endeavour to answer the questions 'what ?', 'how ?' and 'when ?', thus carefully avoiding the fundamental question 'why ?'. In the course of the past few years, though, a new attempt, spurred by David Lewis-Williams, was made in order to discover an interpretative framework. Shamanism was proposed (Clottes & Lewis-Williams 1998). Considering the fact that shamanism is so widespread among hunter-gatherers and that Upper Paleolithic people were admittedly hunter-gatherers, looking to shamanism as a likely religion for them should have been the first logical step whenever the question of meaning arose.

In addition, shamanic religions evidence several characteristics which can make us understand cave art better. The first one is their concept of a complex cosmos in which at least two worlds - or more - coexist, be they side by side or one above the other. Those worlds interact with one another and in our own world most events are believed to be the consequence of an influence from the other-world(s). The second one is the belief of the group in the ability for certain persons to have at will a direct controlled relationship with the other-world. This is done for very practical purposes : to cure the sick, to maintain a good relationship with the powers in the other-world, to restore an upset harmony, to reclaim a lost soul, to make good hunting possible, to forecast the future, to cast spells, etc. Contact happens in two ways: spirit helpers, very often in animal form, come to the shaman and inhabit him/her when he/she calls on them ; the shaman may also send his/her soul to the other-world in order to meet the spirits there and obtain their help and protection. Shamans will do so through trance. A shaman thus has a most important role as a mediator between the real world and the world of the spirits, as well as a social role.

Upper Paleolithic people were Homo sapiens sapiens like us and therefore had a nervous system identical to ours. Consequently, some of them must have known altered states of consciousness in their various forms including hallucinations. This was part of a reality which they had to manage in their own way and according to their own concepts.

This being said, we know as a fact that they kept going into the deep caves for twenty thousand years at the very least in order to draw on the walls, not to live or take shelter there. Everywhere and at all times, the underground has been perceived as being a supernatural world, the realm of the spirits or of the dead, a forbidding gate to the Beyond which people are frightened of and never cross. Going into the subterranean world was thus defying ancestral fears, deliberately venturing into the kingdom of the supernatural powers in order to meet them. The analogy with shamanic mind travels is obvious, but their underground adventure went much beyond a metaphoric equivalent of the shaman’s voyage : it made it real in a milieu where one could physically move and inwhich spirits were literally at hand. When Upper Paleolithic people went into the deeper galleries, they must have been acutely aware that they were in the world of the supernatural powers and they expected to see and find them. Such a state of mind, no doubt reinforced by the teaching they had received, was certain to facilitate the coming of visions that deep caves in any case tend to stir up (as many spelunkers have testified). Deep caves could thus have a double role the aspects of which were indissolubly linked : to make hallucinations easier; to get in touch with the spirits through the walls.

Paleolithic Art in France : Page
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