|TO BE OR NOT TO BE PALAEOLITHIC|
TO BE OR NOT TO BE PALAEOLITHIC
Petroglyphs of supposedly Palaeolithic style have been discovered in
Cueva del Moro, a rockshelter near Tarifa in Cádiz, at the southernmost
tip of Spain. Lothar Bergmann reports this find in Almoraina (No.13, April 1995),
describing the images of a large-bellied, near-complete horse and two horse
heads as being of the 'linear style of the Upper Palaeolithic'
(see also Revista de Arqueologia of January 1996).
Sergio Ripoll López, the principal researcher of the large site complex
of Domingo García in the Northern Meseta of Spain, has examined the new
find and confirms its authenticity as 'Palaeolithic', but he nominates
as its age only 8000 years.
There are also some red paintings in the same shelter, whose exact location
is not disclosed for the art's protection.
The horse figure is reminiscent of horse petroglyphs at other sites across
the Iberian Peninsula, notably in the Côa valley of northern Portugal.
Ripoll López is one of the many European rock art researchers who regard
all these sites as Palaeolithic, and often as 20 000 years old.
The direct dating evidence of some overseas researchers points to a
Holocene age of the Côa art, and although it is universally rejected by
European Palaeolithic art experts, this finding seems to have begun to
shake their confidence. Ripoll L. had attributed the similar Domingo
García figures to the late Solutrean shortly before the Côa affair.
The most likely explanation for the naturalistic, Palaeolithic-like
petroglyph traditions on the Iberian Peninsula is simple, but in the
highly polarised and jingoistic debate so far generated by this topic
it has remained ignored. It is known that in parts of the Peninsula,
an essentially Palaeolithic style of economy continued through to
about 8000 years BP.
The last 2500 years of that duration is then labelled the Epipalaeolithic.
It seems perfectly possible that a style resembling classical Palaeolithic
art styles could have continued well into the Holocene.
The one most striking feature of the western European rock art of the
Pleistocene is how readily modern Europeans relate to it: it resembles
closely the perception and artistic preference of contemporary Europeans,
even their preferred ways of depicting, say, animal figures.
This phenomenon has never been explained satisfactorily, and it would
be rather nonsensical to seek some phylogenetic explanation for it.
Europe has experienced enormous demographic changes over the past ten
millennia, and it is not possible to relate any present ethnic group to
some definable Pleistocene ancestry.
But there is another possibility, related to the context of the Australian
longevity of artistic universals.
The most outstanding characteristic of rock art is its near-permanence
in a natural landscape.
It could act as a long-term cultural determinant, not just within a given
culture or society, but even cross-culturally, between cultures that had
no actual contact.
It could simply operate at the level of iconographic or stylistic communication.
When this possibility is applied to the Iberian context it means that
the use of an artistic genre could survive across cultural boundaries
simply by its powers of communication.
Pictures may have been retouched, as often happens in rock art traditions,
and the styles of previous occupants of a region may become incorporated
in the iconographies of new cultures which relate to pre-existing rock
art by regarding it as super-natural.
We know for instance that in Australia, all rock art not created by the
Aborigines was made by beings of the Dreamtime, 'when the rocks were still soft'.
In the case in Spain, these open sites could show how Palaeolithic stylistic
traits survived into modern times in European artistic preferences,
and thus explain the otherwise inexplicable affinity Europeans feel for
their Pleistocene rock art.
If this were the right explanation for the Iberian open air sites,
it would not only in one breath explain several phenome-na, it would
elevate the sites in question to considerably greater importance than
that bestowed by a Pleistocene antiquity.
It would tell us that European artistic cognition and stylistic perception
are rooted in Palaeolithic imagery, not because Europeans are necessarily
connected to the peoples of the Palaeolithic period culturally, but
because they are heirs to that period's perception of Gestalts
in the visual reality.
In other words, Europeans might have been conditioned by the use of
Palaeolithic art to process visual information in a similar way.
We need to consider the very strong possibility, that in the
first several millennia of the Holocene, Late Palaeolithic rock art
would have been widely visible out of caves, thus providing visual
templates of how objects 'are to be depicted'.
During the course of the Holocene, rock art out of caves was
gradually eradicated by taphonomic factors, and only in some
regions have examples survived of traditions modelled essentially
on Palaeolithic iconography.
We know that, even in recent centuries, Palaeolithic rock art
in caves was still known to local populations, and apparently
even used by them.
In 1458, Pope Calixtus III decreed that the religious ceremonies
taking place in 'the cave with the horse pictures' in Spain had to cease.
We do not know which cave he referred to, but Calixtus was a Borgia
from Valencia, and the pictures were most probably of the Upper Palaeolithic.
It was rather unfortunate for Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola,
the re-discoverer of Altamira, that by the 19th century, knowledge
about the ancient cave pictures seems to have disappeared, and his
find was rejected by archaeology for decades.
We can assume, from other evidence world-wide, that the taphonomic
threshold for rock art isnormally about 10 000 years.
This means that after such a period, the surviving population
has been reduced to a near-equilibrium population of close to
nil even in the most favourable of climatic conditions.
Rock art survives beyond the taphonomic threshold only under
most unusual conditions, e.g. in deep caves, or under rock darnish
and other mineral accretions.
If we apply this rule of thumb to Europe, we find that Palaeolithic
rock art outside caves may have survived until quite recently in
some instances, in which case it may have profoundly influenced the
artistic perception of more recent arrivals throughout much of the Holocene.
Towards the late Holocene, this art body eventually disappeared
entirely (except in deep caves), but not without leaving its legacy:
the European way of experiencing iconographic veracity in art,
the European sense of aesthetics, the European way of processing
conditioned visual perception.
This, in a nutshell, explains why Europeans feel such an empathy
for Upper Palaeolithic art: their own visual experience of the
physical world is ultimately derived from it.
The Côa sites and others like them may be the evidence for this,
if their scientific dating to the late Holocene were correct.
That would make them outstandingly important.
Robert G. Bednarik