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The cave paintings and other preserved remnants of Paleolithic peoples shed light on a world little known to us, one so deeply embedded in time that information about it seems unrecoverable. While art historians have wrestled with these images and objects, very few scientists have weighed in on Paleolithic art as artifacts of a complex, living society. R. Dale Guthrie is one of the first to do so, and his monumental volume The Nature of Paleolithic Art is a landmark study that will change the shape of our understanding of these marvelous images.
With a natural historian's keen eye for observation, and as one who has spent a lifetime using bones and other excavated materials to piece together past human behavior and environments, Guthrie demonstrates that Paleolithic art is a mode of expression we can comprehend to a remarkable degree and that the perspective of natural history is integral to that comprehension. He employs a mix of ethology, evolutionary biology, and human universals to access these distant cultures and their art and artifacts. Guthrie uses innovative forensic techniques to reveal new information; estimating, for example, the ages and sexes of some of the artists, he establishes that Paleolithic art was not just the creation of male shamans.
With more than 3,000 images, The Nature of Paleolithic Art offers the most comprehensive representation of Paleolithic art ever published and a radical (and controversial) new way of interpreting it. The variety and content of these images—most of which have never been available or easily accessible to nonspecialists or even researchers—will astonish you. This wonderfully written work of natural history, of observation and evidence, tells the great story of our deepest past.
Customer Reviews (12)
Anthropology and natural history as documented in graffiti
The review title seems to basically sum up the book. The author makes the quite reasonable assumption that only a tiny fraction of paleolithic art has survived the tens of thousands of years of time between then and now. Furthermore, it's not even a representative sample. Only certain types of art could have survived, and generally only in specific places. So he argues that while the art does tell us something about the people and their time, we need to use our understanding of anthropology and natural history and human nature to put it into proper context.
I do wish he would have included at least a few photographs. The book is full of his drawings, but it would be nice to be working from more direct sources. The author explains this lack by stating that line drawings and etchings don't photograph well, and that is true. But regardless, some photos would have been nice.
However, the real interest in the book is not the art itself, but what the art might be able to teach us about how these people lived and what their environment was like. The author assumes that they were people, very much like us, and that what we see is not the works of their great masters, but more the casual doodling and carving of everyday people (mostly young men).
Where I went to college, we had a tradition of exploring the odd nooks and crannies of the buildings, going into the tunnels and above the false ceilings and such. And when you found a place like that, well you "tagged" it. You maybe made a little drawing or wrote your name and date. These people didn't have written languages or dates, but they could and did make drawings. I find his thesis claiming that most cave art was made by casual explorers to be very compelling.
Sheer joy in the glorious experience called life
A few months ago I came face-to-face with some beautiful drawings in a cave in France (Font de Gaume) which were made by people very like me, but they were made 40,000 years ago.This experience was riveting, especially when I learned that such drawings were to be found in hundreds of caves from Portugal to Russia, that they were mostly all of the same realistic type, and mostly of animals that were to be found in that area at that time.I was puzzled that the drawings over such large distances could be so similar, because communication over such distances was clearly impossible at that time.
This and other questions are answered by The Nature of Paleolithic Art, by R. Dale Guthrie.This is one of the best books I have ever read!It should perhaps be retitled something like The Nature of Mankind and its relationship to Paleolithic art, to better indicate the breadth of the author's concerns. There are many things to love about this book, including the obvious such as the drawings, and his unabashedly scholarly vocabulary combined with really graceful prose.But I also loved the author's gleeful unapologetic male heterosexuality; the deep-rooted optimism he has for our species; his conclusion that our species' amazing creativity stems from our playfulness; his straightforward explanation of evolution, not as a grand scheme, but as merely the result of the creatures who survive; and finally his sheer joy in participating with all other creatures in the glorious experience called life. Everybody should read this book.
Since the first finds of ancient cave art in Spain at the end of the 19th Century, researchers have sought to understand what prompted them.Various theories, from "hunting magic" to links to spirits have been put forward.Dale Guthrie, with many years experience in the field to draw upon, argues a new idea.Searching for "hidden meaning", he contends, is a false trail.Instead, he wants the art viewed as a window into the life of the times.What's important, he argues, is that the artworks represent what was significant to people living in ancient times.He considers those fabulous images as representations of rather mundane depictions of daily encounters.In this exhaustive study, Guthrie re-draws the art of the caves and inscribed on bone and horns, the tools, and some of the methods used.
He reminds us that most of the portrayed animal life wasn't a major part of the Paleolithic diet.Lions, bears and horses weren't consumed by those early peoples.Reindeer, easier to hunt and comprising much of the meal debris found, are far less common on the cave rocks.Cave art, he says, exhibits an unexpected unity of subject and presentation.As "unrealistic" portrayals, cave images show frequent exaggerations, which are common across many sites.This point, coupled with the hidden locations of so many rock art sites, instead of giving the art "hidden" purpose as well, suggests to Guthrie that the artists were just as likely people staying out sight.From this, he surmises that young people not occupied in hunting or other specialised tasks, may have been "dabbling" in making the images.He cites the number of small hand prints found on the walls as an indication of this claim.As he, and others have recognised, people went into the caves to make images, not to live in them.Caves are fine places to shelter, particularly during extended cold seasons.Passing the time by engaging in making graffiti may be our species' oldest form of alleviating boredom.
The author's surmise about young men being a significant portion of the cave artists leads him into further speculations about Paleolithic society in general.From the premise that those ancient people were physiologically much like ourselves, he assumes their mental capacity and social relations were much like modern humans, if a bit more primitive in technological abilities.Family relations were probably monogamous, he assumes - which departs from the numerous polygamous cultures that still exist today.The harsh environment forced people into small, intimate bands: "tribes" remained an innovation of the future.Conservation or almost any form of game animal management was impossible.Habitat relocation would be forced by the paucity of vegetable foods due to cold or varying conditions.
Guthrie's background is zoology, not graphics.That foundation gives him the basis for his fresh outlook on the subject.Yet, instead of offering a "coffee-table" volume of photographs, he has created his own images, all in sepia, to explain his ideas.Nearly every page contains these miniatures with explanatory text accompanying them.We must trust his abilities in conveying the images, and in some cases, what they actually represent.The minimal size of these graphics limits the available detail, and are indicators of his points, not evidence.It's a daunting task to keep track of his themes and how the images support them in many instances.However, since the images are the basis for his thinking, fewer of them and larger renditions would grant his ideas more credibility.Although his chapters are short and direct in making their points, bringing all the information together isn't a task for a novice in the subject.It's not an introductory text.[stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
This book is an absolute tour de force and I was totally won over to Guthrie's premise at the end, after at first being a little skeptical. I will leave it to the experts to argue detail points, but I will assume that Guthrie's reproductions are accurate, and that his intellectual and philosophical underpinnings will stand firm in the storm. I don't see how it is possible to fault Guthrie's profound analysis and interpretations of Paleolithic art, all written in a graceful and delightfully friendly style. What a wonderful, insightful book. My eyes filled with tears of gratitude as I finished the last sentence and closed the cover. A masterpiece.
A different look at Paleolithic Art
Suppose you were astudent in an art appreciation class and your professor assigneda critique of Paleolithic art, that is, the art produced between about 40000 and 10000 years agoWhere would you start?Perhaps by looking at some of the finest cave paintings, which, without a doubt, are the work of talented artists.This is the approach taken by many of the specialists on Paleolithic art.It is not R. Dale Guthrie's approach in his book "The Nature of Paleolithic Art".
Guthrie has looked at all of the art, the best and the worst, and comes to a startling new conclusion as to its origin.He is uniquely qualified for such a study.
First he has probably seen more Paleolithic art than any other specialist. And much of the art consists of images that would never appear in a coffee table book on Paleolithic art.
Guthrie is an artist himself.He shows that some of the Paleolithic artists lacked a sense of perspective or other talents that today separate a doodler from a true artist. Guthrie becomes almost wistful when he talks about the art that nobody has seen and will never see.What about clothing, women's art, story telling, tattooing, any art done at non-permanent sites using non-permanent materials?All gone. In other words, what remains is only a very small select sample, and as Guthrie concludes, most of it done by teenagers exploring caves and taking risks just as teenagers do today.
Guthrie is an avid hunter and as a hunter in Alaska he has studied in a very practical way the behavior of big game animals.He knows, for example, what it is like to return to a kill and find that a grizzly bear has claimed it - the same scenario illustratedin one of the Paleolithic drawings.Would anyone but a hunter have interpreted this image in this way?I suspect not.
As a student of mammalian behavior and vertebrate paleontology, Guthrie can speak with authority on the probable behavior of the extinct mammals that were subjects of much of the art.He shows that Paleolithic men (boys really) knew as much or more about the behavior of the large mammals they hunted as any modern expert.
Guthrie's conclusions are radical, yet at the same time refreshing because they paint a picture of human beings 30000 years ago that were in many ways like us, with similar urges, thoughts and behavioral characteristics that persist in us, despite our thick cultural patina, even to this day. Another reviewer (see review by Paul Matheus at Amazon.com) concludes that Guthrie's book is really "About Us". I could not agree more, but in some startling ways those people of 300 centuries ago were also different from us.For example, Guthrie finds no drawings that depict battles and war, scenes quite common in later art, down to the present.It's something to think about.
Read this book.It will become a classic.It is much more than a book about Paleolithic Art and yet it is a book that all artists should read.I recently heard of one artist who read the book and declared that it "was the most important book he had ever read."
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