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Chauvet and Lascaux, The Deeper Syntax

Reflections on the Phenomenology of Upper Paleolithic Cave Art –

One of the most important questions we can ask is how we came to recognize ourselves. This is not the same as asking when we first saw our image reflected in still water, or how we learned to react selfishly to pain and fear. It is not merely self-awareness we are after, but the awareness of oneself as oneself—the awareness of ‘I’ apart from the material continuum of the natural world, and without any other quality attached to it. So many uniquely human technological achievements—the fishhook, fire, cutting edges, even basic seafaring—the results of millennia of trials and errors—seem possible without recourse to ‘I’. But identity, philosophy, poetry, psychoanalysis, and other foundations of classical and modern life are predicated on a language of introspection.

The answer to this question will involve changes in human anatomy and semiotic environment, but unfortunately evidence of these things remain scarce. Representation of the self and the world in art would seem to qualify as exploratory self-recognition and even self-reflection, especially if we remember that art has never been inextricably linked to the concept of audience. Franco-Cantabrian Upper Paleolithic cave frescoes, such as at Lascaux and Chauvet, along with the early Venus figurines, are cited as mileposts in the ripening of uniquely human mental faculties. The coordination of manual dexterity and ability to depict the world as iconography rather than intentionally variable notations becomes highly visible on the walls of Upper Paleolithic caves.[1]

If the rock art in the Chauvet cave is in fact 32,000 years old, it is the eldest of all European non-portable human art [2] and its implications for the evolution of culture are considerable, even if much older rock art is someday discovered. The front and rear sections of the cave seem to have been used in different ways by the artists. In the former, the majority of images are red and in the latter most everything is painted black. At least thirteen different species of animals are identified, though most of the depictions are of cave bears, lions, mammoths, and rhinoceroses. Aurochs, bison, horses, ibex, Megaceros deer, musk-oxen, panther, red deer, reindeer, and an owl are also represented. The choice of animals belies a significance greater than the common theory about sympathetic hunting magic, as only a few of them are known from the archaeological record to have been hunted.

The deepest caverns feature the most spectacular art. These dark, cold places could only have been colder 30,000 years ago. The last and deepest, the Salle du Fond, is the dwelling place of Venus and the Sorcerer, a charcoal portrait drawn on a high, a vertical limestone cone hanging from the ceiling. Classically Aurignacian in her proportions, and resembling other Venus figurines from prehistoric Europe, this Venus as well as others at Chauvet, seem to be positioned before corridors to other chambers, and may somehow indicate them. Also in this cold, deep place there is a chimerical figure appearing to be the lower body of a woman with the upper body of a bison attached. And scattered throughout the caves there are stenciled red ochre hand prints and hand stencils, as well as seeming abstractions made of dots and lines, and something vaguely butterfly in form. Perhaps the most aesthetically refined images are the Horse Panel and the Panel of Lions and Rhinoceroses. Werner Herzog, auteur of “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, a recent film documentary about Chauvet, is not the first to ascribe a sense of self-awareness to the art on the walls. As with all known European cave art, there are still no complete human figures, though the aptitude to create them is clearly in evidence.

“There is a certain strange, palpable power from these images, and it’s not only that the paintings are so accomplished,” Herzog said after visiting Chauvet. “There is something that touches us instantaneously, something that is completely awesome.  What you are witnessing is the origin of the modern human soul and the beginning of figurative representation.”

What kind of transition are we, in fact, witnessing? Even if earlier examples of figurative representation exist, Herzog’s point is still well taken. For at Chauvet we witness a near complete precapitulation of European schools and techniques—and so accomplished that we are taken to believe it is, like the Galgenberg figurine from Austria, the product not of some wild genius, but of generations of accumulated artistic tradition. In fact, Chauvet is a 5000-year collaboration, for radiocarbon dates range from 32,000± to 27,000± years. Although there is no evidence the caves were ever lived in, people visited them again and again. Human footprints belonging to a child seem to have been left many years after most of the art was made. Many of the paintings appear to have been made only after the walls were scraped clear of debris and concretions. This left a smoother and noticeably lighter area upon which the artists worked. Similarly, a three dimensional quality is achieved by incising or etching the outlines of certain figures.

So much is found on the walls of Chauvet: naturalism and zooanatomical precision combined with abstraction and an almost Cubist perspective; shading and perspective, such as would not be reinvented until Aristotle’s skenographia; cinematic motion; classical balance and completeness; mixed media; pointillistic and brushstroke techniques; stenciling; finely grained hues made of ground mineral and vegetable matter, and what you might call the artistic purity of pre-Classical Europe, celebrated by Nietzsche as Dionysian. Everything except calligraphy is found at Chauvet. It surely would have inspired the Primitivists, and indeed may have done, for we know Picasso visited Lascaux in 1940.

But how can we interpret art made 30,000 years ago? Why was it made and what can it tell us about the individuals who created it, and a society to which they may have played a special role? How can we be sure we are seeing evidence of self-awareness and introspection? We are at an immediate disadvantage because we can treat the art only as indexical signs, not as symbols. If they were intended to be symbols, this language has been lost. Thus, we are restricted to describing it iconographically and stylistically, and to interpreting its utility in speculative ways, from the expressly sacred to the purely aesthetic. Abbé Breuil’s description of the cave paintings at Lascaux and Altamira as the vestiges of hunting magic, intended to procure success from the fickleness of nature, has become an interpretive touchstone. Max Raphael, a German art historian who studied the Dordogne caves, believes the animals in cave art were clan totems, the cave walls forming the narrative of an early epic clan saga. Other researchers use algorithms to analyze the frequency, positions, proximate placement of icons on the walls, or more simply study groupings and superimpositions of certain animals on certain panels to define a deeper syntax.

The superimposition of forms would suggest the process was more important than a finished product. This would lend weight to the notion that the act itself was symbolic in nature, or at least part of a rite with an intended result. Herein, the metaphysical gives way to the sacred, as Continental tradition understands it. According to Konrad Theodor Preuss, sacred things are essentially discharges emitted from the body, ipso facto spent forces—an idea which must have influenced George Bataille and the College of Sociology, who held a deep interest the poetics of European prehistory. Bataille’s book on Lascaux comes to prehistoric art as the beginning of man’s engagement with the great themes of all art and literature: violence, transgression, and mortality. Although the art at Chauvet seems less violent than at Lascaux, the elements remain. Bataille, writing on this subject in the 1930s and 40s, and therefore with access to fewer fossils and no DNA research, saw on the walls of Lascaux a direct link to the sacred—to an entire category of human practices and experiences beyond the measure of utility and reason, the transition from which is the theme of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.  Like de Sade, who aligned the desires and acts of the libertine with the motion of nature, the art at Lascaux and other cave sites is to be thought of not as unconscious or even unselfconscious, but as symbolic of the dawning of the transition from animal immediacy, retaining the vital power of nature itself.  “The actual doing,” Bataille wrote, “embodied the entire intention,” the painting itself therefore being a kind of dead issue, as Preuss suggested.

The importance of this perspective is that it allows us to set aside concerns about how the art functioned, and what exactly it symbolized for whom, and focus instead on the poetics of the sacred, and on the semiotic values of representation. The question of self-recognition in art should be approached first as the question of how life and semiosis emerge coterminously.[3] The Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexküll theorized that different species live in essentially different semiotic worlds (umwelt) though they may dwell in the same environment. By this is meant that an organism’s sensory perceptive organs and indices of communication define its reality, regardless of what more may be going on outside its body. Uexküll’s classic and eloquent study of ticks is helpful in understanding this.[4]

Given the differences in neuroanatomy, the semiotic world of humans is more complex, we might say, than that of the tick (if not that of the chimpanzee). But to appreciate and understand this difference, we must consider the dynamic relationship between our bodies and the rest of the material world. All technology, however we choose to define this, whether stone or fiber optic, allows us to extend ourselves, making us somehow more than we were—in the senses meant by both MacLuhan and the Futurists.[5] One aspect of this relationship is our ability to create representations, which  suggests we live no longer in an umwelt but in what Estonian semiotician Juri Lotman terms a semiosphere—a greater semiotic welt made up of all possible texts, behaving like an organism or mechanism. Technology, in a positive feedback loop with the human body, has allowed us to compile, categorize, and analyze as a rational system, all things on the planet.  Representation is part of this process.

This does not mean humans have transcended the tight hide of five senses. What all goes on beyond the borders of our bodies is still, at least in part, mysterious in the same way the inhabitants of Flatland cannot imagine Spaceland until they go there. The German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper, drawing on Aquinas and Plato rather than biology, cited rationality as the faculty which allows the human person to live in an intertextual welt while other forms of life remain in their umwelten. The paintings at Lascaux and Chauvet may reveal vestiges of the sacred—of something pre-rational and pre-utility—but they are also formally coherent. They are logical articulations that demonstrate observation and analysis of animals.

We can only speak of semiotic complexity in terms of scale, not as a unique faculty. After all, we share far more invariant faculties with other animals in this regard than that which distinguishes us. Changes in the brain and organs of perception and speech during and prior to the Lower Paleolithic suggest to us the possibility of complex sign-mediated semiosis even among Homo erectus, but representation is not a communicative aspect strictly limited to humans. What distinguishes us, according to Agha, is the superimposition of systematized grammar on these shared faculties. I would argue systematized grammar is visible at Chauvet and Lascaux, but not in the engraved ochre piece from Blombos Cave.

Merleau-Ponty identified artistic demand and its visual perception—the obligation, to see beyond the representation and into the world of semiosis beyond the limits of his body—as the basis for the 1:1 relationship of subject and object—of I and me—predicate to self-reflection and all its trappings. Since this cannot have changed overnight, we are again limited to charting the course of self-reflection in parallel to the course of the development of grammar, especially recursion and the hierarchical concatenation of forms. As residents of grammatical Flatland, it is difficult for us to imagine grammatical Spaceland, but surely the final chapter is not yet written. Perhaps the eventual obsolescence of the human body, as Stellarc has theorized it, will permit an engagement with a yet more expansive semiosphere, such as that described by Eckhart, Swedenborg and other religious mystics. We can only guess.

It doesn’t matter whether we interpret the authors of the art at Chauvet and other Upper Paleolithic caves as shamans practicing sympathetic hunting magic, or celebrators of success, or epic taletellers, or impish doodlers; to active social practice constitutive of social order (as theorized by Hodder and the post-processualists) or to a dead issue following a vital process of creation. Does the handprint panel at Chauvet indicate self reference or “I”?  These things may ultimately be unknowable. We can only approach the question of self-recognition in terms of how, not why. 32,000 years later we have no answer to the question of why, beyond market concerns, we demand to artistically represent the world either as we see it or idealize it; why we make the concrete abstract, and turn fantasies into reality. We don’t even know the paintings at Chauvet were intended for an audience beyond their authors; nor do we do ourselves any service defining it as art, per se. As Bataille suggested, the purpose of the cave paintings, whatever it was, is only of partial account to the constancy and universality, and grandeur of our experience of it as a kind of visual poetry written in a language common to us all.

[1] An example of intentional variability without iconography might be the engraved ochre pieces from Blombos Cave, east of Cape Town.

[2] There is some evidence of both portable and parietal figurative art practiced prior to 32,000 BP, c.f. the Berekhat Ram figurine from Palestine, and petroglyphs at Bhimbetka, India, both of which have been dated to the Acheulian Middle Paleolithic. In fact, many fundamental technological achievements seem to have been present in Eurasia prior to the arrival of Homo sapiens. Australia also has a very early rock art tradition.

[3] Winfried Nöth has even speculated on a broader origin of life in which the universe itself is coterminous with semiosis. See his article “Protosemiotics and Physicosemiosis.”

[4] “…this eyeless animal finds the way to her watchpoint [at the top of a tall blade of grass] with the help of only its skin’s general sensitivity to light. The approach of her prey becomes apparent to this blind and deaf bandit only through her sense of smell. The odor of butyric acid, which emanates from the sebaceous follicles of all mammals, works on the tick as a signal that causes her to abandon her post (on top of the blade of grass) and fall blindly downward toward her prey. If she is fortunate enough to fall on something warm (which she perceives by means of an organ sensible to a precise temperature) then she has attained her prey, the warm-blooded animal, and thereafter needs only the help of her sense of touch to find the least hairy spot possible and embed herself up to her head in the cutaneous tissue of her prey. She can now slowly suck up a stream of warm blood” (J von Uexküll & G Kriszat. 1934. Streifzüge durch die Umwelten von Tieren und Menschen: Ein Bilderbuch unsichtbarer Welten. Berlin: J. Springer. English translation by Kevin Attell). For the tick, the umwelt is reduced to only three known carriers of biosemiotic information: 1) the odor of butyric acid; 2) the temperature of 37° C (i.e., the blood of all mammals); 3) miscellaneous tactile sensations.

[5] Perhaps in other ways technology can makes us less than we were. Consider Deleuze and Guattari. Consider Ted Kaczynski.


  1. Interesting article. I am familiar with the sources/ lectured on the caves at Yale this last year in Visual Iconograpahy. I prefer a source you did not mention, Jean Gebser.

  2. The Answer, my good people is psychadelics. They are soley responsible for the “I” revelation inside the human brain. Problem Solved. Now go be good scientists and research, “entheogens”.

  3. Aram Yardumian says:

    Hi Ann, concerning Gebser: a longer-form version of this material would certainly mention him and the very interesting parallels between his theory of consciousness structure and Lotman/Uexküll, and MacLuhan. However, I do not yet understanding his ideas about Evolution as a reductive process. Sometimes it sounds as if he’s glossing niche construction onto Evolution. I got a bit hung up on that. Maybe it will make more sense in German.

  4. Aram Yardumian says:

    Hi Kim, I’m intrigued by the entheogen idea as much as anybody, but I don’t think it is the solution to the problem. Most all psychoactive flora is New World. Do you know of a Central European, or more importantly an East African variety? I am aware of the evidence from Tassili. But the evidence from Shanidar Cave is entirely unconvincing.

    Even if we presume an extinct varietal, in order for entheogens to have affected consciousness in the descendants of all living humans, it must have been consumed 200,000+ years ago, if we presume an out-of-Africa dispersal; longer if we presume a multiregional course of Homo sapiens evolution. Otherwise we could only say it enhanced the faculties of consciousness in some individuals, some of whom in turn may have been responsible for the cave art.

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