19 February 2006
Ancient cave art full of teenage graffiti
Many art historians and anthropologists believe Paleolithic cave wall art was done by accomplished shaman-artists, but mixed in with the finer paintings are graffiti-like scenes of sex and hunting. Using new forensic techniques on fossil handprints of the artists and analyzing thousands of paintings from the late Pleistocene epoch suggests the graffiti artists back then were likely the same as today—teenage males.
Most cave art from 10,000 to 35,000 years ago was done by hand, quite literally. Artists would chew up a bit of red ocher, place their hand against a wall, and spit over their hand. "It was like kids taking a pencil and drawing an outline around their hand," said Dale Guthrie, a paleobiologist from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. These included hundreds of prints made as ocher, manganese, or clay negatives and a few positive prints made with pigments or mud applied to hands that were then placed on cave surfaces.
Men and women have different hand proportions—men have thicker thumbs and palms—so by analyzing the dimensions of the hands in European cave art, and comparing them to 1,000 photocopies of modern hands of men and women of different ages, Guthrie determined just who painted what. Men and women and boys and girls of all ages left their marks but, statistically, teenage males dominated, contrary to popular belief.
Most of the paintings are of large game, such as bison, horse, ibex, and red deer. Cave bears and lions, which would have inspired fear, were also depicted. Many of the hunting scenes, although sloppily done compared to the fine, finished work of an adult artist back then, are full of graphic detail. "Lots of the wild animals in the caves have spears in them and blood coming out of their mouths and everything that a hunter would be familiar with," Guthrie said. "These were the Ferraris and football games of their time. They painted what was on their minds."
And as with modern teenagers, the ancients had more on their minds than just cars and sports. "In the graffiti, there is a lot of below-the-belt-art," Guthrie said. "The people in the art are predominantly women, and not a single one has any clothes on." But these weren't just any women, they were Pleistocene women adorned with ludicrously huge breasts and hips. The walls were also decorated with graphic depictions of genitalia. "These were not the type of paintings that make it into the coffee table art books," Guthrie said.
While female artists accounted for less than 20 percent of the cave art, they were being creative in other ways, researchers say. "What we find in the fossil record doesn't always represent what was going on," Guthrie said. "Prior to the pottery age, women in all societies are working in things that don't preserve very well, such as skins and braiding fiber." Guthrie presents his findings and more than 3,000 images in his new book, "The Nature of Paleolithic Art" (University of Chicago Press, 2006). Guthrie will present a free public seminar on The Nature of Paleolithic Art, Friday, February 24, at 3:30 p.m. in Elvey Auditorium on the UAF campus. Seminar information available at: www.iab.uaf.edu/events/events.php
Sources: Institute of Artic Biology (10 February 2006), LiveScience, Yahoo! News (15 February 2006)