Arts & Culture

Scholar: Cave paintings show religious sophistication

4 min read

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but for Catherine Perlès, cave paintings provide a link to understanding thousands of years of human history and thought. In examining cave paintings in Western Europe and archaeological sites in the Near East, Perlès said that the similarities and differences between the artifacts shows that, contrary to a controversial theory by archaeologist Jacque Cauvin, human belief in gods pre-existed the birth of agriculture and the cultivation of animals.

Perlès, a professor of anthropology at the University of Paris X, presented her findings at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology where she delivered the Hallam L. Movius Lecture on April 19.

The thrust of Perlès’ talk focused on the causes of the Neolithic Revolution, a shift from hunting and gathering to an agricultural lifestyle that occurred approximately 12,000 years ago and was marked by the development of villages and agriculture as well as the invention of war, writing, and administration. Currently, the debate surrounding this issue focuses on whether the causes for the shift were economic (a scarcity in flora and fauna to hunt and gather) or ideological (human conception of gods caused them to meditate on divine domination of humans who in turn dominated plants and animals).

Analyzing the European cave paintings from the earlier Paleolithic Age in comparison with Neolithic devotional artifacts from the Near East, Perlès showed that depictions of animals in the paintings were not merely decoration or representational depictions of life, but instead reflected a religious iconography and conception of the world similar to that of the Neolithic Age. Displaying slides of artifacts from the two eras, she pointed out that both Neolithic and Paleolithic art depicted large, powerful animals such as bison or aurochs that humans of the time were loath to hunt due to the inherent danger in the task.

Examining a slide of cave paintings, she said, “Most of the animals depicted were rarely hunted because they were powerful and dangerous species. … The images insist on parts deemed most important — antlers for reindeer and belly for horses.” To Perlès, these facts “express a symbolic vision of the world” earlier than Cauvin and his acolytes had expected.

Artifacts from both periods also displayed a scarcity of human figures. When they appeared, however, human figures in devotional settings of both eras were either unsexed or masculine, with female figures appearing almost exclusively in domestic settings.

Perlès did illustrate the presence of the vertical axis as a crucial difference between the two artifacts from the two periods. Focusing on the cave paintings, she pointed toward the organization of animals on horizontal axes or in circular patterns as being fundamentally different from the Neolithic artifacts in which animals are arranged vertically on pillars and in other media.

Perlès argued that this organization around a vertical axis represents a new evolutionary ideology that reflects a sedentary lifestyle but predates the development of agriculture. The vertical axis symbolized the presence of a hierarchical structure in which relationships between humans and human spirits became more important than relationships between humans and animal spirits. Elaborate burial rituals involving decapitation and storage of the head as a form of honor further contribute to her theory. The lessening of importance in animal spirits as no longer an integral part of the human spiritual world has double importance. First, it shows that humans had begun a process of mental subjugation of animals long before cultivation began. Second, this evolution of the spiritual world in a hierarchical format preceded the development of agriculture and could be seen as part of the sedentary lifestyle.

Concluding her lecture, Perlès stated that the available evidence showed that the conception of gods was not an ideological revolution — a vast, sweeping change that took place in a relatively short period of time and altered human life forever. Instead, she said that when taken together, the cave paintings and archaeological artifacts from later eras showed a slow, evolutionary development of the conception of gods that show evidence of influence from the changing relationships between humans and animals and between humans and their ancestors.

“It is difficult to pinpoint the moment where deities appeared,” Perlès said. “But their appearance could not be a revolution — a brutal and fast process. Rather, there was more likely a natural, slow evolution of gods.”