Cave Art

It's easy to read dark and mysterious things into the ancient world. It's so long ago, and often leaves fragmentary traces, so any budding Dan Brown can weave mystery upon enigma and actually convince people.

(Speaking of Brown, did anybody else except me get right to the end of Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum"? It was the scholarly forerunner of Brown's Da Vinci Code, and at times you wonder if Eco put about two dozen European history books through a strip shredder and then randomly pasted strips together to write the thing. But it's also leagues more sophisticated than what Brown did.)

Sometimes you can read too much into it all though, which was actually the final message of Eco's book, but he makes you wade through 500-odd pages to realise (maybe it was a literary device - what a clever dick).  

I feel that way a bit when I see cave art. The theories about it are generally pretty grand, with shamans painting great visionary vistas in the darkness while stoned, or cultures transmitting wisdom to future generations, or voodoo-type magic to increase the size of the herd for the hunt. That's the thing about the ancients, they were apparently always so terribly earnest. Budding little anthropologists with ancient spray cans. Quite funny really, take a bit of a look around at anything scrawled on a wall or sign where you live, and chances are it's not how you'd want a future archaeologist to remember you. 

One of the grand theories of cave art notes that the themes are often those that might appeal to adolescent boys. Now we're cooking, because funnily enough it's adolescent boys who still do most of the scrawling on walls. What if cave art is just graffiti? Boys having a laugh. Why not?

But it's not my favourite theory, although there's no reason to assume a homogeneous motivation for every bit of cave art. My favourite came to me when watching a doco, with people crawling into these black caves with torches, and coloured painted horses and bison appearing out of the gloom. One of the expedition commented that it'd be much easier for them if they could bring in some big lights and illuminate the lot in one go. This was my a-ha moment. 

The ancients didn't have floodlights, so this wasn't the way they ever experienced these pictures. They created them also never thinking that they would experience them in this way. The horses and bison and naked girls were always going to pop out of the gloom one or two at a time, in the light of a flickering flame.

It's a stretch, but to me that all adds up to the possibility that cave art was the first cinema. You crawled from the light of day into the darkness and saw images appear and fade before your eyes, as you moved from one painting to the next. Like a film moving from frame to frame, but here the frames are fixed and the viewer moves. The experience would have been very powerful and exciting, plunging into this darkened world where bright colourful images suddenly appeared out of almost nowhere.

I like the theory, poo to you if you don't. It seems a fair bet even the ancients liked a good time.


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