October 04, 2006
Secrets of the Cave Paintings
William H. McNeill in the New York Review of Books:
In 1879 a Spanish landowner named Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola was searching for prehistoric artifacts on the floor of a cave on his family property in northern Spain when his young daughter interrupted, calling out "Look, Papa, oxen" as she looked up at the cave's ceiling and "saw vivid yet delicate paintings of bison, almost fully life-sized, that appear to be tumbling across the sky." Her discovery swiftly brought ancient cave paintings to widespread public attention, and set off a complex history of dispute about their origin and meaning. Since then, thousands of similar paintings have been discovered in more than two hundred caves scattered through southwestern France and northeastern Spain on either side of the Pyrenees. Argument still rages about them and the contrasting viewpoints of the two books under review carry the controversy forward.
A century of study widened the initial focus on the Altamira cave, where Sautuola's daughter made her discovery, but all the additional images and reliable radiocarbon dating of bits of charcoal used to make black paint for many of the drawings have not diminished disagreement about the nature and purpose of the sometimes masterful, sometimes enigmatic, yet often hasty, or even clumsy, cave art of Europe.
Posted by S. Abbas Raza at 03:00 PM | Permalink