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Stumbling in the footsteps of St Thomas
Rock art scholars are stuck in their drug- culture phase, writes Paul Bahn
When Spanish and Portuguese missionaries traversed South America in the 16th century, they frequently came across examples of rock art. Every time they saw a footprint in the rock, it was attributed to St Thomas who, they believed, had preached throughout this continent. In one case, however, where a footprint was associated with what looked like keys and an anchor, it clearly belonged to St Peter!
Such kneejerk reactions to rock art, plucked out of the realms of fantasy, may seem risible today, but in fact they still persist, albeit in a different and apparently more scientific guise.
The basic problem with prehistoric art one which many people dislike intensely and refuse to accept is that, in the absence of testimony from the original artists, or at least from local indigenes who may retain some knowledge of the most recent arts content, we simply cannot read it. It comprises millions of markings of different kinds, all over the world. Some seem recognizable to the modern eye humans, animals but we can never be sure what they were supposed to represent, let alone what they mean. The history of cave and rock art research is filled with interpretations which have come into and fallen out of favour, as new discoveries were made, tastes changed, and concepts about early cultures developed. Each interpretation reflects the times and beliefs of the interpreter. Simplistic ethnographic analogies, invoking hunting or fertility magic, gave way to French structuralism; the space age brought an emphasis on archaeoastronomy, and the computer age a focus on prehistoric art as a means of storing and transmitting information. Most such hypotheses probably contain some truth, and can be applied to a sample of motifs, although we can never be sure to which or to how many.
Fortunately, one of the joys of prehistoric art is that it does not necessarily require interpretation, and can convey huge amounts of information of other kinds in its technology (including pigment analyses), in its location, as in Richard Bradleys studies of rock art in Britain and Galicia (see BA, November 1995), and in its dating. Finally, the content of prehistoric art is also rich in information, provided it has been fully and accurately documented: the outstanding example here is the work of the late Harald Pager, easily the greatest rock art recorder of all time, whose thousands of drawings of figures painted in Namibias Brandberg Massif are gradually being published. Locational and statistical analyses of this incomparable database are revealing many fascinating insights, such as the differing roles of men and women in that culture.
I have absolutely nothing against interpretation per se, providing it is put forward as tentative hypothesis and applied to a limited range of material. But there is no excuse for foisting simplistic and all-encompassing explanations onto the subject. We are currently suffering the shamanism band wagon (largely born of the drug age and the New Age phenomenon) wherein certain scholars, basing themselves on distorted ethnography, dubious psychology and a huge amount of assumption and wishful thinking, are interpreting rock and cave art exclusively in terms of supposed shamanism, entoptics (ie, trance imagery), and altered states of consciousness (ASC). Even in South Africa, the heartland of this approach, it is already becoming clear from research by a new generation of specialists that the rock art is far better understood in terms of local mythology, and of beliefs still held by living descendants of Southern Bushmen. Nevertheless, the oven-ready shamanistic/ ASC interpretation is currently being applied automatically to the wall art in everything from passage graves to Çatal Hüyük!
The most depressing aspect of this situation is the damage it is doing to gullible students who are spoon-fed this stuff instead of being taught to question and criticise. For example, at a rock art congress in Bolivia last April I heard a shy student deliver her first paper. First, she regurgitated all the three stages of trance and entoptic party-line verbatim; then she turned to a rock shelter in Argentina, for which there is no ethnography whatsoever, and uncritically declared that all its non-figurative motifs were entoptics, and all its bird and animal figures were transformed shamans! This was the sad result of her attending a rock art course in Britain. Sometimes I wake up screaming.
I wish that those who are peddling this interpretation to these uncritical minds would pause to reflect that the entire ASC bandwagon will have collapsed within a few years, like others before it. The automatic application of this unfalsifiable interpretation to any and every rock art motif is not so different from the missionaries seeing the footprints of St Thomas everywhere. Indeed, those who are being taught this nonsense would do better to follow St Thomass example, and be far more sceptical.
Dr Paul Bahn is the author of The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art (CUP), and (with Jean Vertut) Journey Through the Ice Age (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), both of which were published last year.
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