Tag Archives: art

First signs

In July and August, this blog covered one of the great revolutions in information transmission, the evolution of language.  And as we move into September, we will consider another, the invention of writing. But in between these two great revolutions, there are tantalizing hints that people were experimenting with other techniques for enhancing social memory.

Genevieve von Petzinger has made an extensive study of cave paintings from Ice Age Europe, 40,000 to 10,000 years ago; her results are presented in a recent book. The most famous cave paintings are pictures, sometimes of extraordinary quality. But von Petzinger has been interested in something else, in the geometric signs that often accompany these paintings, or stand on their own.  These are not random doodles. A limited number of different signs – she lists just thirty two – is found repeatedly. Some signs, like the Spanish Tectiform, are limited in geographic distribution. Some appear early and disappear later, some do the reverse, others persist through the whole period.

ice age signs

These signs would seem to be some kind of symbolic code. But not, yet, a writing system. Perhaps some of them represent astronomical phenomena, like modern astrological symbols:

astrological signs

or perhaps they represent the terrestrial natural world, or social divisions, or all of the above. At this point we don’t know.

Birdman

Lascaux cave paintings, Southwest France, discovered in 1940.

lascaux copy

below, from Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering how the Brain Codes Our Thoughts (an excellent book, not mainly about cave paintings)

Deep inside the Lascaux cave, past the world-renowned Great Hall of the Bulls, where Paleolithic artists painted a colorful menagerie of horses, deer, and bulls, starts a lesser-known corridor known as the Apse. There, at the bottom of a sixteen-foot pit, next to fine drawings of a wounded bison and a rhinoceros, lies one of the rare depictions of a human being in prehistoric art. The man is lying flat on his back, palms up and arms extended. Next to him stands a bird perched on a stick. Nearby lies a broken spear that was probably used to disembowel the bison, whose intestines are hanging out.

The person is clearly a man, for his penis is fully erect. And this, according to the sleep researcher Michel Jouvet, illuminates the drawing’s meaning: it depicts a dreamer and his dream. As Jouvet and his team discovered, dreaming occurs primarily during a specific phase of sleep, which they dubbed “paradoxical” because it does not look like sleep; during this period, the brain is almost as active as it is in wakefulness, and the eyes ceaselessly move around. In males, this phase is invariably accompanied by a strong erection (even when the dream is devoid of sexual content). Although this weird physiological fact became known to science only in the twentieth century, Jouvet wittily remarks that our ancestors could easily have noticed it. And the bird seems the most natural metaphor for the dreamer’s soul: during dreams, the mind flies to distant places and ancient times, free as a sparrow.

This idea might seem fanciful were it not for the remarkable recurrence of imagery of sleep birds, souls, and erections in the art and symbolism of all sorts of cultures. …

Millinery

28,000 years ago

The Venus of Willendorf, from Austria, is one of a number of “Venus figurines” from the European Upper Paleolithic.

willendorf

The statuette is realistic, except for the attenuated/missing hands and feet, and the absence of facial features. Obviously she’s nude, and fat. But not entirely unclothed. The pattern on her head is not just an abstract design, but carefully depicted piece of headgear.

venushat

It took a woman, archeologist Olga Soffer, to notice that this figurine represents not just a naked woman, but a fashion statement.  Here’s a quotation:

A close examination of this specimen shows a spirally or radially hand‐woven item which may be initiated by a knotted center in the manner of some kinds of coiled baskets. The technique represented is a two‐element structure in which an apparently flexible, horizontal foundation element or warp is vertically wrapped with stem stitches. The foundation element is clearly visible between the stitches, some of which are plain while others are countered. Work direction is right to left, and at least seven circuits encircle the head, with two extra half‐circuits over the nape of the neck. The selvage, as depicted over the forehead, simply has the wrapping element encircling the final horizontal warp circuit. Several areas on the body of the cap appear to illustrate splices, where new material has been added.

Many other Venus figurines are also nude but adorned – with headgear, or with bands and belts, or with skirts, sometimes worn, gangsta style, below the buttocks. These figures tell us something about the complexity of textile technology long ago. What more is going on – whether we’re seeing a representation of mythology, of a beauty pageant, or an initiation rite, or all of the above – is a mystery.

Blombos

75 thousand years ago

The period between the time Homo sapiens leaves Africa 120 thousand years ago, and the time when H. sapiens spreads far and wide through Eurasia, replacing Neanderthals and others, 45 thousand years ago, sees episodes of increasing cultural complexity in Africa. One of these occurs at Blombos cave, at the southern tip of South Africa. There, over tens of thousands of years, people make a cultural great leap forward.
blombos2
75 thousand years ago, we find that they produce finely crafted stone blades that are part of multi-part composite tools. They make shell ornaments.

blombos

And they etch ocher (a red stone useful as a dye, but not for tools).

Oddly though, this tradition doesn’t last. It’s over by 60 thousand years ago. It may be that people left as climate deteriorated. But Blombos cave is a reminder that cultural progress is not always a permanent thing. It looks like an early instance of Rise and Fall: a culture rises to new heights, and then falls back.

Pox

Contact between the Old World and the New was a disaster for the latter. Conquest, mass killing, and enslavement were part of the story, but even more important was the introduction of a whole slew of epidemic diseases – measles, tetanus, typhus, typhoid, diphtheria, influenza, pneumonia, whooping cough, dysentery, and smallpox.

The flow of diseases wasn’t entirely one way. In Europe, syphilis is first recorded  in Naples, in 1495. It almost certainly came from the Americas, brought back with Columbus’s crew. Columbus himself may have been an early victim. In the Americas, syphilis may have been spread largely through skin contact, but the Old World version was mostly sexually transmitted. The disease initially showed itself in spectacular, gruesome boils and skin lesions, and killed quickly, but eventually evolved to a more slowly progressing version that left victims alive for decades while gradually destroying their circulatory and nervous systems, often ending in insanity.

syphilis

Deborah Hayden’s book Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis is a popular overview of the subject. Part of the book is given over to identifying likely cases in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Of course retrospective diagnosis is difficult, a matter of probabilities, not certainties, but Hayden argues that there is good evidence for syphilis for each of the following:

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Franz Schubert
  • Jane Austen*
  • Robert Schumann
  • Charles Baudelaire
  • Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln
  • Gustave Flaubert
  • Guy de Maupassant
  • Vincent van Gogh
  • Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Oscar Wilde
  • Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen)
  • James Joyce
  • Adolf Hitler **

* Just kidding

** He reportedly tested negative for syphilis on the Wassermann test, but Hayden notes that the test isn’t very reliable for the later stages of the disease.

Back to the future with Renaissance Man

1440-1472

The Renaissance walked backward into the future, with eyes fixed on the past, scorning the Middle Ages for Antiquity. The Renaissance was not the first or last epoch to be blinded by “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome,” but the Renaissance, at the beginning of the modern age, caught a particularly bad case of nostalgia. This period is famous for recovering a sense of history. (Donald Brown argues that this has to do with Italians – and then urban Westerners in general – moving from a closed to an open class system; this in turn has to do with the decline of serfdom and the rise of cities in the West.) The Renaissance also coincided with the beginning of the modern scientific revolution. Not coincidentally, the pioneers of the scientific revolution, all the way up to Newton, considered that they were doing intellectual archaeology, recovering the Lost Wisdom of the Ancients.

vitruvian-man

Leonardo da Vinci – not quite a scientist, but equally fascinated by art and technology – is an early example, from the time when the Two Cultures were one. Lucio Russo, who argues that the Hellenistic age produced a Forgotten Revolution in science, puts it this way:

The oft-heard comment that Leonardo’s genius managed to transcend the culture of his time is amply justified. But his was not a science-fiction voyage into the future so much as a plunge into a distant past. Leonardo’s drawings often show objects that could not have been built in his time because the relevant technology did not exist. This is not due to a special genius for divining the future, but to the mundane fact that behind those drawings there were older drawings from a time when technology was far more advanced.

Birdman

Lascaux cave paintings, Southwest France, discovered in 1940.

lascaux copy

below, from Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering how the Brain Codes Our Thoughts (an excellent book, not mainly about cave paintings)

Deep inside the Lascaux cave, past the world-renowned Great Hall of the Bulls, where Paleolithic artists painted a colorful menagerie of horses, deer, and bulls, starts a lesser-known corridor known as the Apse. There, at the bottom of a sixteen-foot pit, next to fine drawings of a wounded bison and a rhinoceros, lies one of the rare depictions of a human being in prehistoric art. The man is lying flat on his back, palms up and arms extended. Next to him stands a bird perched on a stick. Nearby lies a broken spear that was probably used to disembowel the bison, whose intestines are hanging out.

The person is clearly a man, for his penis is fully erect. And this, according to the sleep researcher Michel Jouvet, illuminates the drawing’s meaning: it depicts a dreamer and his dream. As Jouvet and his team discovered, dreaming occurs primarily during a specific phase of sleep, which they dubbed “paradoxical” because it does not look like sleep; during this period, the brain is almost as active as it is in wakefulness, and the eyes ceaselessly move around. In males, this phase is invariably accompanied by a strong erection (even when the dream is devoid of sexual content). Although this weird physiological fact became known to science only in the twentieth century, Jouvet wittily remarks that our ancestors could easily have noticed it. And the bird seems the most natural metaphor for the dreamer’s soul: during dreams, the mind flies to distant places and ancient times, free as a sparrow.

This idea might seem fanciful were it not for the remarkable recurrence of imagery of sleep birds, souls, and erections in the art and symbolism of all sorts of cultures. …