The Paleolithic Artisans: What can the high art of the Paleolithic era teach us about what it means to be a Modern human?
Paleolithic Art, literally, is the Art– the “expression or application of human creative skill and imagination”– of the Paleolithic Era, or Old Stone Age. It is the crystallized passion and imagination of our pre-historic ancestors recorded in the mediums of stone and bone. These pieces in our earthly museum of man do more than date intelligence and culture; they open a portent into the human potential and propensity to wonder.
When people refer to Paleolithic art they generally refer to the arts and artistic artifact creation of the third, and last, partition in the Paleolithic era, or the ‘Upper Paleolithic’. This upper period is more of a nebulous cultural delineation, ranging from 10-50 KYA (thousand years ago), up to the Pleistocene ice age. It is the advanced craftsmanship of the upper Paleolithic that distinguishes it from the lower Paleolithic—and indeed from any time in the known past.
It was during this period that we really see the creative fervor of modern humans evidenced. While these aesthetical artifacts came in multitudes of forms and styles, they can be bisected into two main categories: Portable and Stationary.
Portable art, quite simply, are pieces or artifacts that are independent and small enough to be moved, examples of which would be figurines, carvings, and really any mobile, aesthetically modified artifact. It tends to be figurative, or realistic.
Stationary art is what comes to mind when people hear Paleolithic art. It refers to, almost exclusively, cave paintings and the aesthetic modification of stone walls. These paintings are predominately expressive or symbolic, although their depictions / totems of animals and large game were generally very realistic.
There have been hundreds of sites evidencing the artistic prowess of early modern humans, the largest aggregation of which we find in France. Famous galleries include the Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira, and Cosquer cave paintings / sites.
What we find most often in these paintings are depictions of animals, of hunts, of big game. This lets us piece together the mindset and culture of our long-ago parents, to see what obsessed them, and perhaps what motivated them. They were extremely game-oriented, as food was scarce due to ice age. The ice age also worked to collect them together in earthen caves for warmth, perhaps for the first time making prolonged proximity an unavoidable condition, fueling what I imagine would be ‘story time’ around a cramped fire that made the canvas of a blank wall dance and beg for utilization as backdrops in paeans to human heroism.
Their communal time was seemingly haunted by the prospect of the next hunt- their would-be prey worked its way from the front of their minds to the surfaces of their homes.
Maybe it was this more familiar atmosphere that fomented the changes in carvings from simple scoring or ‘x-ing’ on stone, bone and ivory- and led to the sculptures that we marvel at in our modern aesthetic sensibility.
These Paleolithic figurines are often feminine and revolve around child-bearing females, which might indicate a matrilineal social structure echoed in many of the indigenous cultures of the Americas. Whatever the case, Paleolithic sites are replete with motherly archetypes of pregnant females—referred to as Venuses.
The ‘primitive’ sculptures and paintings could also be the archetypal totemization of their main goal: perpetuated existence and progeny, maybe so hardwired through Darwinian mechanisms it crystallizes and aggregates into tangible reality via human will.
Does this art represent the basis of human theology? Does it reflect the core struggles and designs of the human machine—food and sex? Don’t both struggles revolve around the hunt? Perhaps it is this yen / yearning / desire that marks what it means to be human. Venus is an apt totem, indeed.
Upon exiting the Lascaux cave in 1940, Pablo Picasso said, “We have invented nothing.”
It would be wise to keep in mind how our own ‘modern art’ will be thought of by our distant progeny– what it might betray about our modern human culture and desires– and how our ambitions will compare against our actions.
Everett Tucker is the creator and editor of Mystic Politics. He is condescending, overconfident, under-educated, and extremely interested in exploring religiopolitical overlap, the psychology of belief, and the conspiratorial tropes & memes- real or otherwise- of popular culture. Signup for email updates to be notified of future journalistic hack work.
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