Artistic expression has been present roughly since the first physically-modern men wandered the earth, and will likely never disappear from human cultural practices. Across all eras and continents, artists have used painting, sculpting and myriad other techniques to produce representations of generic daily life, broad zeitgeists and internal emotions or curiosities. Whether rendered with lifelike accuracy or in an unearthly, surreal composition, one would be hard pressed to encounter a work of art that does not communicate some sort of inherent significance to its viewers. While attempting to construe its understanding of the cosmos through creative means, mankind has often included animals in its iconography.
I think studying human relations with, and attitudes towards, non-human creatures is a worthwhile task that can be completed from any number of angles. It’s a line of questioning that can tell us much about who we are. Yet taking an art historical approach allows for the visual demonstration of the deep infatuation modern peoples’ ancestors harboured for animals, and can define and measure changes in many areas— including man’s valuation of animal life in comparison to his own, and the usefulness assigned to animals for survival, entertainment and companionship.
Join me on a five-part safari through the ages, as I analyse imagery that runs the chronological gamut to reveal humankind’s fluctuating glorification and demonisation of animals, and emphasise just how interconnected the history and bonds between people and other species are.
Chapter One: Prehistory
To truly gain an understanding of how human relationships with and portrayals of animals have oscillated over time, it is pertinent to first focus on the world’s original artists. Beginning around 40,000 BCE, the archaeological record shows that anatomically modern humans effectively replaced Neanderthals and remained the sole hominid inhabitants across continental Europe. During the same epoch, directly linked to this development, the first art was created. In ancient caves, primarily in France and Spain, the earliest unequivocal visual evidence of the human capacity to interpret and give meaning to physical surroundings is painted dazzlingly across rock-hewn walls.
The interconnected series of caves at Lascaux, in the Dordogne region of southwestern France, shelters some of the most impressive and well-known artistic creations of early peoples. Dating to about 15,000 BCE, most of the paintings are placed in oddly inaccessible regions of the caves, like ceilings and narrow, vertical shafts in the stone. All of the images depict animals found naturally in the nearby landscape, such as horses, bison, mammoths, ibex, deer, lions, bears and wolves. Included are both species that would have been hunted and eaten, as well as those considered to be fearsome predators. All are represented in profile, striking alert, energetic stances. The vitality of these creatures is achieved through the use of broad, dark, rhythmic outlines around areas of soft reds, yellows, blacks, browns and violets derived from minerals. Remarkably, only one human form is represented at Lascaux, no more than a hastily drawn stick-figure.
The most famous chamber at Lascaux is a large, sloping, water-carved hall, deemed The Hall of the Bulls for the most appropriate of reasons. Its scenery, void of any plant life or vegetation, spills out in a stampede of wild horses and bulls which converges on a small cluster of standing stags. The four most imposing bulls, a couple reaching over seventeen feet in length, are painted in thick black outlines and sport some delicate mottling. The horses posses a silky fluidity of movement and are predominantly grey-brown in colour, but a handful of the larger ones are a rich red featuring black shading on their manes, legs and bellies, which grants them an astonishing realism. The stags, done in graduated blacks, reds and browns, boast complex racks of antlers and a certain stationary elegance. A composition of such scale, subject matter, fine colouration and haunting beauty makes it obvious that the animals encircling early man were paramount in shaping his worldview and way of life.
In a well-like shaft that dips metres into the earth resides the most perplexing image at Lascaux. The grouping of figures features a rhinoceros on the left, rendered with all the skilled attention to animal anatomy customarily seen in the cave’s art. On the right is depicted a bison bristling with rage, screaming as its bowels pour from its body in a heavy coil. Between the two animals is a prone bird-faced man, possibly wearing a mask, with outstretched arms, a prominent penis and only four fingers on each hand. Near him lie accents of a bird-topped staff and a pointed spear, yet the man and his accoutrements are drawn with far less care and detail than either beast, and his presence only adds ambiguity to the work. It is unclear whether the man is dead or dying, whether he or the rhinoceros mortally wounded the bison, or whether or not the three pictures are even related at all. Researchers will never be sure, but it has been suggested that the painter placed the very different figures together to tell a story; possible evidence of complex narratives involving humans and animals at a much earlier date than previously imagined.
It is important to ask why these compositions were created, and more curiously, why are they discovered in the deepest nooks of already perilous caves? Many archaeologists have proclaimed cave paintings to be records of great hunts, a way for early humans to catalogue their daily activities and preserve their impressive deeds. However, David Lewis-Williams, a South African scientist, believes this assumption to be inadequate. He feels the paintings were a clear distinguishing factor between modern man and Neanderthal man, who despite his close evolutionary proximity, did not possess an “imagination” in the sense Homo sapiens do. Humankind is the only kind on the planet capable of creating “art”, of transferring images held tightly in the mind onto outer surfaces.
Lewis-Williams believes that paintings of the type seen in Lascaux were in fact visions, what the mind observes when it experiences altered states of consciousness— another aspect of human existence distinct from that of other creatures. At least some of the earliest people were familiar with mind-altering substances, and it is clear that such substances highly intrigued them, as similar recreational experimentation continues in the present day. Lewis-Williams claims the artwork in the caves show what our ancestors witnessed on their trips: trailing lines, rich hues, and swirling patterns twisting into familiar animal forms. This is not the most traditional of theories, but it does outline a logical comparison to what any free spirit today still sees after downing mouthfuls of hallucinogenic mushrooms. In prehistoric times, Lewis-Williams argues, those visions would have been the basis for the creation of worship, of belief in an “otherworld” beyond normal, physical senses. In this respect, the caves and painted animals of Lascaux could indeed be one of the first cathedrals of mankind’s proto-religion.
While no expert will ever ascertain the true motives of humanity’s first artistes—whether they employed pragmatic or psychedelic-spiritual intentions— surviving imagery blatantly demonstrates the centrality of non-human animals to man’s existence, long before written history was first scratched into clay tablets. It was a time nearly unfathomable now, in which people essentially lived like and among other species; surviving by outsmarting prey or bleeding out at the teeth of insatiable predators. Such closeness to nature resulted in reverence, religious or not, for all its creatures great and small, which was reflected pictorially in sophisticated, painstakingly-done-by-torchlight depictions of the animals which sustained countless generations of people and allowed for the future foundation of booming empires.
Tune in next week to discover how deep respect for animals transformed into a grisly taste for pitting beasts against one another in ancient Roman arenas…
Sources: Laura Anne Tedesco, “Lascaux (ca. 15,000 B.C.)”, The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000—
“The Cave Art Paintings of the Lascaux Cave”, The Bradshaw Foundation for Rock Art, Archaeology, and Anthropology
Kevin Clarke, “The Sistine Chapel of Prehistory”, Minerva Archaeology, August, 1996
Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History, Enhanced Edition, 2010
Philip Coppens, “Cave Paintings: Entrancing the Otherworld”, Frontier Magazine, No. 9.6, November/December, 2003