A TRIBAL dance was held in the clearing in the woods. Beautiful it was, and a joy to behold. Masks over men’s faces made them look like queer animals. It made the children screech with glee.
Then the solemn ceremonies inside the great cave. For the first time this cave had been thrown open for all to see. It was a state occasion. Many weeks the men of the tribe who had the gift had worked in that cave. They had chiseled, ground color, painted. Great pictures did they make and little ones. All the animals known to the tribe did they put on those walls. Now all were gathered to see these wonders. And to pray for better hunting.
Of a sudden came the alarm. The snorting of a mammoth had been heard from afar. “To your weapons, men, to your weapons.” Away they went? For man must eat. Presently they came back. They admired this new art. For man must express himself.
This scene goes back, far back. Fifty thousand years maybe more. Even then mankind had evolved an art. This we know. We do not guess.
Art, says one writer, is like a great river; the distant rills from which it derives its water are hidden. The origins of all civilizations are swallowed up in the stream. Yet enough is known of the artistic efforts of prehistoric man to make an exceedingly interesting story. It reads like a fairy tale, though substantiated by fact.
The Stone Age is divided into two parts, the Palaeolithic or older Stone Age and the newer, Neolithic. In the Palaeolithic stage man expressed himself in native stone. In the Neolithic period he had learned to polish his material. Hence the latter is also known as the age of Polished Stone. We have no definite knowledge as to the number of years which have elapsed since the Stone Age. But it goes back beyond the glacial period.
Man’s early artistic expression is in stone, bone, ivory, pottery, copper, gold, bronze and iron. Useful articles and ornamental come close together. In the caves of France and England are found implements of stone chipped to a hatchet shape dating back to the days of the woolly-haired rhinoceros and the mammoth. Remains of these extinct animals are alongside of crude weapons and bones of the men who used them.
Here, worked in flint by, primitive hands, is found what appears to be man’s first effort at attaining form for a definite purpose. Boucher de Perthes, writing of the people who lived in these caves, says, “If they had not persevered in their efforts we should have neither our towns nor our palaces nor our works of art. He who struck the first pebble against another to give it regular form gave the first blow of the chisel which made the Minerva and the figures of the Parthenon.”
When the mammoth becomes less numerous and the reindeer is in abundance work in stone begins to show a decline. Beautiful leaf-shaped instruments are replaced by others more crude in form. But we have advanced with newer mediums. Working in bone and engraving in horn now develop. We have harpoons and spear-throwers of reindeer horn. Needles of bone are made. The graver, a pointed piece of flint for engraving on stone, becomes quite common. From this period tools have been found apparently, used for grinding pigment, color for painting the body or cave pictures.
Palaeolithic man was a hunter. He lived by the chase. Naturally he came to appreciate the food not only around, but inside the animal’s long bone. Breaking the bone shaft and extracting the marrow for food, it was not long before he found a use for the broken bone. Not much skill was required to make of it a rough dagger. A little experimentation soon showed its possibilities in producing an awl or some other tool.
Working in bone brought the eyed needle. This needle was a highly finished article. According to some authorities it is superior to anything of its kind as far down as the fifteenth century A.D. With articles of use came ornamental work of bone. Carvings in bone and horn of animal forms are found, also outlines of animals made of flat bone with features indicated by incised lines.
A great vehicle for artistic talent is the reindeer horn. A carved reindeer on a dagger handle found in a cave shows skill in sculpture as well as in putting a piece of horn to practical use. Numerous other sculptured carvings show powerful realism. These, incidentally, give evidence of advanced familiarity with animal anatomy.
Of this remote period a small figure carved of horn representing the human form was found in Belgium. From France we have remarkably realistic bas-relief sketches of stags and birds. Sculptures in mammoth-tusk ivory reveal an array of lifelike heads which are the work of no mean artists.
Sculpture preceded engraving. Earliest examples are in the round; later ones are largely in bas-relief. ‘We have stone figures of the deer and the horse. At Laussel, in the valley of the Beuna, on an exposed surface are figures of several horses sculptured in high relief and arranged as a sort of frieze. One of these horses, seven feet from head to tail, is unusually well done and shows evidence of having originally been colored. In a rock shelter near Laussel are four bas-reliefs in limestone of the human form. Stone figures of Palaeolithic times in France and elsewhere are audacious in realism and artistic in conception.
Engraving first appears on tools and weapons in dots and lines forming simple geometric designs. Later come animals which Palaeolithic man bunted and knew so well. There are engravings in bone of deer and horses. On the walls of caves, on stone, on ivory and stalagmite are found engravings of the mammoth, the cave bear and the woolly-haired rhinocerosanimals long extinct.
Palaeolithic drawing finds its highest expression in two animals which must have existed in large numbers in southwest France, but now very far from that country, the reindeer and the bison. The reindeer, by the way, seems to have been the most useful of all the animals. It furnished food and clothing. Its antlers were used for implements and weapons as well as for the artistic work in which these people delighted. This animal was engraved in all positions and attitudes. And always with a high degree of skill. In an engraving on stone from Gourdan called the “dying reindeer” the artist seizes with a few powerful lines all the essentials of expression. Engravings of fish are not uncommon, and occasionally we find some of birds. Plant life is rarely represented. These people were hunters. Art goes hand in hand with everyday interest.
The banks of the river Vezere in the Department of Dordogne, southwest France, are full of thrills for anyone interested in pre-historic man. Caves and rock shelters there hold numberless wonders. So do those along the northern flank of the Pyrenees. Amazing are the works of art in all of them. Marvelous ability is shown in engravings and carvings. These, mind you, are of Palaeolithic origin.
In a cave near Santander, Spain, some creditable paintings were found on walls and roof. So well done were these that their age was doubted. Engravings, some partly colored, were later discovered on the walls of a cave near the village of La Mouth, in France. From the similarity of drawing of the mammoth and the presence in the latter cave of prehistoric implements the Palaeolithic origin of both was made certain. Along the north-ern flank of the Pyrenees, the Dordogne and through Spain a great many caves with wall decorations are now known.
This work must have been done by artificial light. One cave, for instance, is two hundred and seventy yards long, yet the first drawing is no less than a hundred and twenty yards from the entrance. At Cambarelles the first drawings encountered are about a hundred and fifty yards from the entrance, even farther from the light of day. Here are engraved animal figures from a few inches to more than a yard in length extending for a distance of one hundred and twenty-five yards. There is not much of color, but occasional emphasis of the engraved line with a black band. The drawings are of astonishing accuracy.
Font de Gaume Cave near Les Eyzies is the finest yet discovered. It has scores of representations of the bison, horse, reindeer, mammoth, wolf and rhinoceros. There are no less than a dozen polychromes of the bison. One engraving is of the human face. Figures on the walls are arranged in groups forming frescoes. Colored figures are in red, brown and black. There is remarkable delineation in two reindeer with heads lowered facing each other; the pose is most natural and the drawing admirable. Rare draftsmanship is shown also in two paintings of extinct rhinoceros. There are drawings of human hands and of huts or tents.
The cave of Altamira a Santilane, near Santander, Spain, is rich in frescoes and wall decorations of animals in varying positions of rest, movement and energy. Some show masked men in savage dances. La Pasiega Cave near Castilla, Spain, has more than two hundred paintings and thirty-six engravings. Caves in far Australia show similar work. A cave near the village of Copul, province of Lerida, Catalonia, has a painted fresco of ten human figures, a man in the center with five women on one side and four on the other. Their attitudes are suggestive of a dance. Two caves near Alpera, Spain, contain no less than a hundred and fifty human figures. Some of these are in head-dress of feathers similar to those worn by the American Indians. Some are in the act of drawing’ the bow and some in attitudes of the dance.
While these decorated caves often show signs of habitation many of them seem to have been used for none other than artistic purposes. Some were too difficult of access, others generally unsuited for living quarters. Near a number of the caves there is evidence of the artist having lived elsewhere in the vicinity.
Why were these works done? Some authorities tell us they were made for totemic or magical reasons, so the gods would increase the number of animals for hunting. Others point out that wherever among primitive people that is the intent no such pains are taken to present fine delineation and beauty of color. The artists, they say, must have been seeking an outlet for self-expression. Be that as it may, I would call your attention to the fact that cave decorations had to do with performances in which all male members of the tribe took part. These caves may have been the first temples for religious worship.