The Upper Paleolithic Period and Art Interpretations

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  • Topic: Cave painting, Upper Paleolithic, Prehistoric art
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  • Published : April 13, 2013
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Upper Palaeolithic Cave Art

Table of Contents
An Introduction to the Upper Paleolithic Period and Art Interpretations1 Hunting Magic2
Art for Art’s Sake4
Structuralism………………………………………………………………………………………5 Shamanic Religion…………………………………………………………...……………..…….6 Conclusion………………………………………………………………………………………..8 List of Images:10
Works Cited11

An Introduction to the Upper Paleolithic Period and Art Interpretations Competent scientists disagree as to the purpose of cave paintings. The following interpretations are among those put forward by these scientists: hunting magic, art for art’s sake, structuralism, and shamanic religion. Each interpretation brings a different perspective to the arguments by highlighting different, but valid, points. There may never be a single interpretation of the paintings found in the caves of Europe that is considered the complete explanation of cave paintings, but whatever interpretation is preferred, it is universally accepted that cave art was an integral part of human life in the Upper Paleolithic period. The Upper Paleolithic period, often called the “Upper Paleolithic Revolution” or “Creative Explosion” is so named because of the sudden increase of technology and art (Halverson 1991). This period has captured the attention of many archaeologists. It spanned from approximately 40,000 to 12,000 BP during which time new technologies including spear throwing, harpoons, rope, oil lamps, and the sewing needle were developed (Halverson 1991). As a result of these new technologies, hunting and gathering methods became more sophisticated. People were hunting large game animals in addition to gathering berries, roots, leaves and mushrooms. Along with the sophistication of food accessibility, hominins were beginning to express themselves more and more through creative means. Cave art was a prominent feature of Upper Paleolithic creativity. Humans used natural resources such as iron oxides, charcoal and manganese to create colour pigments of red and black (Whitley 2009). Using their hands and small flint tools, humans created masterpieces on the walls of caves and open sites depicting animals and situations of their time. However, the sun, stars and moon are never seen in these cave depictions, nor are mountains or other natural landscapes. There have been no paintings of plants found (White 2003, p.94). Huts and tools are also very rarely pictured (Whitley 2009). This trend leads archaeologists to believe that the paintings and engravings were not intended to give an accurate account of the world outside the caves but instead were symbolic, having ritual, religious or aesthetic meanings. Hunting Magic

One of the initial interpretations of cave paintings emerged from dominant perceptions of European Paleolithic pre-history. This pre-history was envisioned as being comprised of Ice Age people hunting large megafauna, such as woolymammoths and cave lions, in an unforgiving, frozen environment (Whitley 2009). Sympathetic magic or more commonly, hunting magic, is a concept which combines these perceived elements of the Upper Paleolithic period and the animals that existed during this time. Presumably the hunter would paint an image of the animal he intended to kill in order to exert some sort of dominance over the prey, pointing to a direct relationship between the image painted and what it represented. “The pictures were part of the technical apparatus of this magic; they were the 'trap' into which the game had to go, or rather they were the trap with the already captured animal -- for the picture was both representation and the things represented, both wish and wish-fulfilment at one and the same time“ (Hauser 1951). Abbé Henri Breuil, the leading French archaeologist throughout most of the first half of the twentieth century, was a major proponent of the hunting magic theory (Whitley, 2009). Eugene Hirschfeld, a Marxist theorist based in Britain,...
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