The term “Ice Age art” usually evokes images of painted caves. However, by the time the first cave was painted around 20,000 years ago, there already exist¬ed in Europe a tradition of engraved and sculpted objects extending back 20,000 years before that. Indeed, from the world’s first known visual representations to the painting of Lascaux Cave is a period longer than the one that separates Lascaux from Picasso. The discussion that follows considers the full sweep of material representation from about 40,000 years ago to the end of the Ice Age about 11,000 years ago. It tracks the origins and evolution of these repre sensations from the Mousterian through the Magdalenian and pre¬sents new evidence and interpreta¬tions for the spatial patterning, motivations, and evolutionary signifi¬cance of Ice Age images.
The Mousterian Culture
Visual representations first appeared in Europe about 40,000 years ago as part of a revolutionary transformation known as the Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition. This transformation coincided with the replacement of archaic humans (Neanderthals) by modern ones (modern Homo sapiens) and the replacement of the corresponding Mousterian culture by the Aurignacian. While Neanderthals of the late Mousterian collected oddities (such as fossils and minerals: Fig. 2) from their surroundings and brought them back to their living sites, only a handful of purposely fabricated representational or “symbolic” objects have been proposed for this entire period_ Virtually all of these either come from older excavations where there is a strong possibility that deposits of different ages have been mixed, or are the result of natural processes rather than human activity (Chase and Dibble 1987). An example of the latter is a series of cave bear teeth thought by some archaeologists to have been purposely altered in order to be suspended as pendants. The `alteration,’ a channel around the circumference of each tooth, has now been shown to be a natural product of the chewing and digestive processes of living bears. In reality, the oldest certain personal ornaments are pierced animal teeth from the sites of Bacho Kiro (Bulgaria) and Mladec (Moravia) dated to around 40,000 years ago.
The near absence of symbolic objects in the Mousterian has been taken by many anthropologists as evidence that language as we might recognize it was probably absent in this period (White 1985). This remains a contentious issue in Paleolithic studies (see Chase’s article on language, this issue).
Neanderthals were replaced by modern Homo sapiens in Europe in the period between 45,000 and 30,000 years ago (see Minugh-Purvis article, this issue). During most of the time that the two physical types coexisted, each seems to have maintained its own ways of making tools and adapting to its environment.
Near the end of this period, however, the culture of the Neanderthals began to change, taking on some of the aspects (e.g., body ornaments, bone tools) previously restricted to modern Homo sapiens. Many archaeologists are beginning to view this change as the result of the acculturation of local archaic populations in the face of the newcomers.
The Aurignacian Culture
By about 40,000-35,000 years ago, the culture of modern Homo sapiens included such features as body ornamentation (see box on Personal Ornaments and Figs. 6-8) and graphic representation. In early Aurignacian sites we see the first unmistakable representations of human and animal figures. We also see a variety of as yet uninterpreted markings or signs that are repeated from site to site. Aurignacians produced a surprising diversity of images. There are fragments of bird bone with carefully spaced incisions. There are engravings and sculptures in the form of 26,000-year-old sites of PrePredmosti and Dolni Véstonice in Czechoslovakia, numerous figurines of fired loess, many in the form of humans and animals, are the earliest evidence for ceramic technology (Fig. 4). It has even been suggested that these kiln-fired figurines were purposely broken by thermal shock in some form of ritual (Vandiver et al. 1989).
An important feature of some Gravettian sites is the negative human handprint, produced by blowing liquified pigment around a hand set flat against a rock surface. (For more on painting techniques, see box on Lorblanchet.) These are especially numerous at the southern French cave of Gargas and at the newly discovered underwater site of Grotte Cosquer near Marseilles, where many of the handprints appear to have missing digits, leading some specialists to conclude that Upper Paleolithic people may have practiced ritual mutilation of the hands, or that they may have suffered digit loss due to disease or frostbite. However, in his analysis of the 159 painted handprints at Gar-gas, Leroi-Gourhan (1986) suggests that fingers only appeared to be missing, having been purposely held back against the palm of the hand. He supported this argument by demonstrating that there was a descending frequency in handprints from the most easily formed configuration (the entire hand) to the least easily formed configurations (e.g., the palm with only the third finger showing).
By far the most distinctive representations of the Gravettian are the female statuettes (Fig.10, 11). Although they are found throughout Europe, they show regional differences in style. They were sculpted from a variety of materials, including ivory, limestone, steatite, and calcite. Certain examples from Czechoslovakia were even modeled in clay and kiln-fired. The figurines range in style from anatomically robust, such as the magnificent “Venus” of Lespugue, to more moderately proportioned, such as the ivory statuettes of Brassempouy. Most appear to be pregnant. Facial features are seldom represented, and lower legs most often end in points. Henri Delporte (1979) has suggested that these pointed legs may have allowed the figurines to be stood upright in the ground. Breasts are most often large and pendulous, and buttocks are generally pronounced. In some cases the pubic triangle is indicated. Two-dimensional examples of female forms, engraved or sculpted on large limestone blocks, are also known.
At the Russian site of Sungir. thousands of personal ornaments and a number of ivory carvings in geometric and animal forms (Figs. 1,3) were produced near the end of the Aurignacian, about 28,000 years ago (White 1992b). One these pointed legs may have allowed the figurines to be stood upright in the ground. Breasts are most often large and pendulous, and buttocks are generally pronounced. In some cases the pubic triangle is indicated. Two-dimensional examples of female forms, engraved or sculpted on large limestone blocks, are also known.
The past few decades have seen an enormous increase in the sample of female statuettes, especially in the former USSR. For example, Soviet archaeologist Maria Gvozdover has spent more than forty years excavating the 26,000-year-old Russian site of Avdeevo (1987). This extraordinary site has yielded nearly as many of the so-called Venus figurines as all of the sites of this age in Western Europe combined. Gvozdover careful analysis concludes that most of these statuettes, carefully sculpted from the tusks of 10,000-pound woolly mammoths, depict women in the terminal stages of pregnancy and frequently in birthing postures.
sexual organs, most often female, although this interpretation is controversial. There are limestone blocks with simple, often fragmentary animal forms and, in some instances, traces of paint. There are hone and ivory plaques with series of dots. Surprisingly, however, some of the earliest surviving representational objects are tiny three-dimensional animal and human sculptures in mammoth ivory (Fig. 9). These are most numerous in Germany, hut at least one example is known from France.
Perhaps the most unexpected object that has survived from the early Aurignacian is a multi-holed wind instrument., frequently described as a Flute, From the cave of lsturitz in southwestern France. This flute is contemporary with some of the earliest material representations and in dicates quite clearly that sound was part of the symbolic environment that people had created for themselves.
At the Russian site of Sungir. thousands of personal ornaments and a number of ivory carvings in geometric and animal forms (Figs. 1,3) were produced near the end of the Aurignacian, about 28,000 years ago (White 1992b). One of the more striking characteristics of the ivory representations of Sungir is the use of color to complement the sculpted images.
Personal Ornaments and Social Identity
No known human societies are totally egalitarian. Even the least hierarchical societies known to anthropologists are subdivided along lines of age, gender, and personal achievement. Within limits, all modern human societies evaluate a person’s social position by such vehicles as jewelry, clothing, and displays of wealth. The performance of ceremonies and the offering of goods at the time of a person’s death are also important means of expressing the internal divisions of a society. This use of objects to construct and communicate social identities is evident from the very beginning of the Upper Paleolithic in Europe. Nowhere is it better exemplified than in the rich record of body ornaments recovered by Louis ❑idon and Marcel Castanet from the French site of Abri Blanchard.
In 1909, Castanet, a farmer and informed amateur archaeologist, found an ivory bead on the surface of the ground beneath the Ahri Blanchard. a rock overhang in the Vézère Valley adjacent to his farm. With this find, he piqued the interest of ❑idon, a distinguished amateur archaeologist and hotelier of some considerable means. For the next two years, Castanet and Didon excavated this site, bringing to light some of the world’s earliest known engraved images and personal ornaments. These precious objects came from two different stratigraphic levels of the Aurignacian culture, the lowermost level dating to about 34,000-32,000 years ago, the uppermost to no more than about 30,000-28,000 years ago.
Castanet was passionate about prehistory. To him, even the seemingly most insignificant artifacts were precious, so he decided, far ahead of his time, that it would be a good idea to pass all of Abri Blanchard’s sediments through a fine sieve. By doing so, he recovered more than 200 ivory and stone beads (Fig. 6), many of them as small as the sequins on a formal gown. There were also decorated pendants, animal teeth with drilled holes, and pierced seashells. This was incontrovertible evidence of bodily adornment from the very beginning of the Upper Paleolithic. But it took several decades for archaeologists to begin to believe that body ornaments such as these were anything more than mere trinkets. In the meantime, the artifacts from Abri Blanchard languished in dusty museum drawers.
In the 1980s, with increased interest in social archaeology, it became clear that ornamental objects were crucial to communicating, even constructing, human social identities. Imagine our own or any other contemporary society without material objects that signal status, role, gender, and wealth. As if to underline the social value of personal ornaments, recent analysis of the beads from Abri Blanchard indicates that each of them required more than an hour to produce (White 1989). Equally important, many of the ornaments are made from raw materials (shell, exotic stone) whose natural points of occurrence ie hundreds of kilometers from Abri Blanchard. We must imagine that these were objects endowed with great value, objects that were obtained either by long treks or by trade with other groups. In all probability, the enerigy and time that went into Early Upper Paleolithic body ornaments from Abri Blanchard and dozens of other sites from France to Australia reflect the emergence of, or increased emphasis upon, the marking of internal social distinctions as a feature of the organization of human society.
The Solutreun Culture of Western Europe
From 22,000 to 18,000 years ago in Western Europe, a new and dramatic representational form, large-scale bas-reliefs, came to dominate (Fig. 12). The most spectacular example occurs at the site of Roc de Sers in southwest France where a series of massive sculpted limestone blocks line the back wall of a rock shelter. More such blocks were found on the slope in front of the shelter. The blocks are decorated with horses, bison, reindeer, ibex, and at least one human figure. All are executed in deep relief, which exceeds 6 inches in some places.
These magnificent works seem to have decorated the very place where people slept, cooked, and ate. They were an integral part of day-to-day existence.
By 20,000 years ago, in some areas of Europe, the practice of deep cave painting of animals seems to have become significant. The cave of Tete du Lion, the oldest dated painted cave, was found during road construction in the Ardeche region of France in 1963. Along with a dot and some traces of red paint, there were a group of animals painted in red: a deer, an aurochs, and the heads of two ibex associated with a series of yellow dots. Careful excavations at the base of the paintings by Jean
Combier yielded four smears of red pigment and a number of fragments of charcoal, apparently from a torch used by the painters to light their way. The charcoal gave a radiocarbon date of 20,650±800 1W (see box on Dating). No stone tools or animal hones were found, indicating clearly that Solutrean people did not live in the cave but merely visited it, perhaps only once.