Anthropology, Art and Architecture, Biology, History, Reviews

Review: Guthrie, The Nature of Paleolithic Art

jacket imageWho created the cave art of the Paleolithic era? And why?
In some academic quarters, those questions are regarded as more or less settled, and so R. Dale Guthrie’s book, The Nature of Paleolithic Art has been received about as warmly as the Ice Age. However, in her review of the book in the August 18 issue of the Times Higher Education Supplement, Nadia Durrani recognizes that the answers to those basic questions “remain unclear.”
Durrani found Guthrie’s book a “fascinating and compulsive read” even as she acknowledges that it is “a controversial book.” (Readers of this blog will have noted our previous postings that have excerpted bits of Guthrie’s book to convey some of the fascinating content of the book. Plus we have all of the preface available online.)
What is Guthrie’s thesis? The hot button that has drawn attention—and fire— is that much of the surviving Paleolithic art was not created by shamans for religious purposes or done purely for art’s sake, but was done by “testosterone-laden” young boys. Guthrie’s evidence for so radical a theory? Durrani explains:

Guthrie’s thesis draws its main impetus … from the surprisingly limited themes dealt with by the art. Although Palaeolithic art is a readily recognisable style, unified in its elasticity and freedom, it concerns a few subject matters only. It is dominated by large mammals, many bleeding and wounded, and complemented by images of voluptuous women, isolated vulva triangles and ochre hand prints. To Guthrie, the art smacks of themes of power relevant to a specific age and sex distortion, namely, adolescent boys akin to modern graffiti artists.

Guthrie’s study of Paleolithic rock art, illustrated with more than 3,000 images, is controversial, to be sure. It brings a huge array of frequently novel evidence to bear on the fundamental questions of Paleolithic art. Here at the Press we believe that it is a landmark study that will change the shape of our understanding of these images.
Guthrie’s techniques for understanding the many painted handprints among the examples of cave art are appreciated by Durrani in her review:

The “negative hand print” is [a] recurring image in the rock art. These prints were seemingly made by holding the hand on to the cave wall and spraying liquified pigment from a blow-pipe onto the hand. Many prints have missing fingers. They were left by poor folk who lost fingers in the bitter cold of the Ice Age and who, by leaving their tragic hand print on the wall, were asking for magical help or healing. Or so scholars have always tended to claim.
But in a stroke of pure genius Guthrie suggests that these ghoulish missing-finger prints were childish pranks. Or rather boys’ pranks: Guthrie comissioned an analysis of 201 Palaeolithic hand prints, which concluded that 162 are male and only 39 are female or young male prints. Guthrie thus attempts to get at the essence of the artists and puts a human slant on the art, which draws us close to our forebears and “the possibility that adolescent giggles and snickers may have echoed in dark cave passages.…”

Previous blog posts: “Paleolithic handprints” and “Who made this handprint on the cave wall?”.
Preface to the book.