Alternative Explanations


This chapter was initially intended to highlight the alternative explanations for Upper Palaeolithic cave art. However, a great deal of space would have been needed to summarise the main theories, which include: art for art's sake (Lartet 1861-1875 and Piette 1887-1907); hunting magic (Breuil 1905-1977 and Bgoun 1923-1987); fertility magic; and the positioning of certain depictions within different zones of the caves, and their possible male/female associations (Leroi-Gourhan 1958-1984 and Laming-Emperaire 1959-1972) among others (Bahn and Vertut 1988:149-191). I felt that rather than repeat the well-known themes, this chapter would be best used to highlight two areas which I have not read of in any publication. If these points have been expressed in any publication, then I apologise to the authors for not quoting them. The first theme is a summary of Nave Art, simply because the similarities in style and content between Upper Palaeolithic art and Nave art are indeed striking. The second theme is based on how perspective is used in Upper Palaeolithic art and its possible relationship to the theory of trance states put forward by Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988).


At first the similarities between British Nave Art and Palaeolithic cave art are by no means obvious. However, once the resemblance becomes apparent, it is most striking. By disassociating the animals drawn by these artists from their backgrounds, a similar style and artistic interpretation is revealed. Before I begin to give examples of these similarities, a brief outline of the nature and history of Nave Art would be appropriate in order to see how this art tradition came into being and what meanings have been attributed to it.

Nave Art, which sometimes goes under the banner of Folk, Popular, Primitive or vernacular art, had its heyday in the mid-19th century. The art did not only include paintings, but sculpture and furniture also. These pieces were made for, and consumed by ordinary people, as opposed to wealthy art collectors and patrons. The artists using their craft to earn themselves a living (Green 1993:3).

The only public collection of British Nave Art in the world is held at The Paragon in Bath. It was set up in 1964 and was recently acquired by the Peter Moores Foundation, in order to keep the collection together.

It was only in 1945 that people began to pay attention to the Nave Art of this country. This is relatively recent compared to similar traditions from Europe and the U.S.A. The distinction is drawn between the Nave Art of the period and Fine Art. As Lynne Green points out in the catalogue which accompanies this exhibition:

"the words Nave and Folk do not imply any absence of skill or ability. Even when the maker was an amateur, there is clearly an accomplishment which exceeds the capacity of most of us. Lack of formal or academic art training was outweighed by natural skill, and instinctive ability" (Green 1993:3).

The vast majority of Nave Art remains anonymous, and the aim, no matter what, was to set down an accurate likeness of the subject. However, this depended as much on the artist's knowledge of the subject as on what he could actually see. By distorting the visual fact, a more complete image could be presented. This included all the things which could be seen at the time as well as those aspects the artist knew existed but could not see. By painting in what they knew to be there they transcended the limitations imposed by what could be actually seen at any one time.

Nave Art is probably best known for its depictions of oversized livestock, paintings such as these were the only means available to a farmer to advertise their success at the newly-acquired scientific approach to breeding. However, there was a drastic slump in the market for Nave Art with the arrival of mass-produced images and commercial photography.

Probably the best known Nave artist was Alfred Wallis. As Melly (1981) points out, Wallis is often thought of as "The Father of British Nave painting". However, it is felt that this title is misplaced, for to be a father of a school implies disciples, but every Navist starts afresh. It has also been noted that Wallis did not consider his paintings as paintings so much as actual events, and that his voyages [sea voyages], whether he really made them or not, were therefore real to him. As far as is known, Wallis always worked from memory, and this would reinforce his much repeated statement that he painted "what used to be".

A major point to note concerning the work of the Nave artists especially Wallis, is that objects were often painted with a side on view, in Wallis's case the many ships he depicted throughout his career were viewed in this manner, prime examples being 'Penzance Harbour' ( Figure 60 ), 'Lighthouse and two ships' ( Figure 61 ), 'Boats under Saltash Bridge' ( Figure 62 ), 'Two Fishermen in their ship with one mast stepped' ( Figure 63 ), and 'Harbour with two lighthouses and motor vessel' ( Figure 64 ). Animals, people and houses were also depicted in this way, for example see 'Gateway' ( Figure 65 ) and 'Fishes and lobster pots' ( Figure 66 ). Another point to make about the painting 'Gateway' is his blatant lack of regard for perspective. In this painting, a dog appears to be the same size as the house in front of it, and the trees in the distance are twice the height of the houses in the foreground. Whilst on the topic of perspective, it has been noted in many cases of Palaeolithic art that the animals are seen to have shorter legs than would be expected, almost as if viewed from above, this is also the case in the examples of Nave art.

The striking resemblance between these two art forms can be best seen by use of comparison, examples of such follow:

Nave examples Palaeolithic examples
Master George, 1870. Oil on canvas, fig.67a Chinese Horses, Lascaux, fig.67b
Spotted Horses, Pech-Merle, Cabrerets, fig.67c
Horse Panel at Ekain, Guipzcoa
Painted and engraved horses in the Panneau de L'Empreinte at Lascaux.
Engraved horse, Mazouco, Portugal.
Nine Angry Bulls, c. 1870.Oil on canvas, fig.68a Herd of Piebald Cattle, Tanzoumaitak, fig.68b
Frieze of Bulls, Albarracin, fig.68c
Fishes and Lobster Pots. Alfred Wallis, fig.69a Fish engraving, cave near Les Eyzies, fig.69b
A Farmer and His Prize Heifer, 1820. Oil on canvas, fig.70 Frieze of Bulls, Albarracin, fig.68c .
Domestic Scene, Cogul, Lerida, Spain.

A further point I would like to make concerning Wallis, is that he painted on almost anything. He was given cardboard by his local grocer which he used in place of canvas. It is evident from his work, that there was never any attempt to reshape these irregular pieces of card (as can be seen in Figures 60-66 above). If the cardboard ran out, it is said, that Wallis would paint anything else he could find in his kitchen (where he painted), cups, plates, even the kitchen table was the recipient of many of his works. This appears to bear a strong similarity to art from the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic, where rock shelters and mobile pieces were covered in art; and to the the Neolithic with its decorated pottery.

Might he have been stylistically influenced by the stress he underwent before and after he was committed to a mental hospital (note stress being one of the circumstances under which phosphenes occur).


If one accepts, as Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988) suggest, that trance states were being entered into, one must also consider points noted in Chapter V (pp.68-79) above. For example, some societies underwent the ritual use of hallucinogens to induce a trance state in order to see visions. During these visions, the Cashinahua, the Jvaro, the Sharanahua and the Mazatec all reported that they became an integral part of the hallucination. Merely thinking about an animal, it is said, transforms one into that animal or quite often a bird. If this is indeed the case, then perhaps one would also take on not only their visible external form, but also their viewpoint and vision. For instance, if one was transformed into a mouse, one would see things from ground level, and if one became an eagle, one would see things from on high. Making this major assumption, it would be fair to say that our perception of perspective would be dramatically altered from a human view to that of the animal in question. For example, a bird would not perceive a bison or mammoth as a human would. It would have a view from above, giving emphasis to the back and the head and less to the legs.

It is often the case that, on the cave walls of such places as Rouffignac and Lasaux, the depictions of animals are often distorted, with small legs, small heads, and unusual emphasis to the body, as was the case of Nave art. In the case of Wallis, not only did he draw what could be seen, but also what he knew to be there, but was out of view.

Today's population spend the majority of the time seeing the world through the eyes of a human. It is only in our imaginings and our dreams that our usual perception of our day-to-day surroundings is altered into an imaginary state. Humans have the unique ability to imagine what an object would look like viewed from a different position, without actually having to to have seen it in that way. We use our store of visual data to build a different picture.

Accepting this, it would be reasonable to assume that, if our antecedents were undergoing drug-induced trance states (being transformed into other beings, and seeing their everyday surroundings in a different form), they would wish to record these unusual happenings in some concrete form.

Were the cave artists 'seeing' animals in the distorted manner described here, during their visions? Once in a normal state of consciousness, they altered their depictions, adding features they knew to be present, but had not seen in their visions, in order to make their drawings more recognisable. Or was their recognition of the animals during trance states altered naturally when remembering their visions? Or did they have difficulty replicating the strange images they saw?

It should also be borne in mind that, with modern high-tec effects, it would take something very unusual to engage people's interest, whereas in the past, an event such as a vision of this nature, would indeed be magical because any explanations for its happening would have been limited by their knowledge. For example, the occurrence of lightning to our ancestors, could have been frightening, mystifying, or supernatural; to modern men and women, it's just another annoying atmospheric occurrence with a simple cause. A rainbow may have had any number of meanings for our antecedents, whereas to children it is a magical occurrence which invokes tales of leprechauns, and to adult humans it's nice to see, but comprehensible. The way our ancestors thought about the world in which they lived is bound to be different from the way in which we view ours, and this is a point which must be born in mind in ever study of archaeology.

Copyright 1995, Suzanne Carr. All Rights Reserved.


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