Prehistoric Art and Totemic Belief, Shamanism and Fertility Ritual


Chauvet Cave: Four aurochs and two rhinoceros

1.  Introduction

2.  Chronology , distribution, and nature of Palaeolithic art

                a.  Chronology

                b.  Geographical distribution

                c.  Ecological Perspective

                d.  Nature of Palaeolithic art

3.  Totemism

                a.  Theory and definition

                b.  Totemism and cave art

                c.  Totemism and mobiliary art

                d.  Sympathetic and hunting magic

4.  Shamanism

                a.  Theory and definition

                b.  Shamanism and cave art

                c.  Shamanism and mobiliary art

                d.  Initiation and ‘Rites of Passage’

5.  Fertility Ritual and the Cult of Earth and Animals

                a.  Theory and definition

                b.  Fertility and cave art

                c.  Fertility and mobiliary art

                d.  Palaeolithic belief and myth

6.  Discussion and Summary

References and Sources Consulted                                                                                                                                                          

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Dedicated to my son William Frederick Edwards (1975-2009),

in memory of,  and gratitude for, the years we knew and shared.

Image (256)

Figure 1. 

Altamira, Spain. A bison circa 12,000 BC.

Part of a procession of Bison (Bison priscus) along a rock wall. The Altamira caves contain the masterpieces of the Ice Age Style and here shows the ponderous strength achieved through  economical drawing with imaginative impressionistic colouring. These fine paintings of Upper Magdalenian date are the “…period of the great polychromes…the frequency of his portraits no animal has held in higher estimation.” (Riddell, 1942). Source: Lommel (1966).


 Archaeological evidence of parietal (cave) art and mobiliary (portable) art can be analysed in terms of totemic belief, shamanic practice, and fertility ritual during the European Upper Palaeolithic. Such art may have had the multiple purpose of magical intentions, clan and tribal solidarity, and mythically interpreted relationship with the natural and supernatural worlds. Firstly a brief outline of Palaeolithic chronology and cultural sequences will be correlated with, and complemented by, an introduction to the geographical distribution of parietal and mobiliary art in Europe, followed by an outline of Palaeolithic ecology, and the nature of Palaeolithic art. There follows an introduction to totemism in relation to Palaeolithic art. -Thence to an introduction to shamanism in relation to Palaeolithic art, followed by an outline of fertility ritual in relation to Palaeolithic art. Cave art will be discussed in terms of totemic belief, shamanistic practice, and fertility ritual. Portable art will be discussed in terms of totemism, magical ritual, and fertility cults. Finally a summary will attempt to encapsulate the archaeological evidence for Palaeolithic belief and myth within the clan and tribal structure of Upper Palaeolithic human beings.

2.  Chronology, distribution, and nature of Palaeolithic art

2 a.  Chronology

The Palaeolithic period began in Europe circa 750,000 BP and endured until the end of the last Ice Age circa 10,000 BP (Gamble, 1996). The Palaeolithic is conventionally divided into three periods, the Lower, Middle, and Upper. The Lower and Middle periods were from 750,000 to 40,000 BP, during which time early hominids had reached Europe from Africa – by 150,000 BP the dominant type was Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, with their Middle Palaeolithic stone tool industry known as the Mousterian.

The Upper Palaeolithic, 40,000 to 10,000 BP was colder and more inhospitable than modern-day Europe with the coldest period between 20,000 and 18,000 BP (Sainz, 2004), and when modern Homo sapiens (Cro-Magnon man) replaced the Neanderthals in Europe. The early European Palaeolithic is associated with deteriorating climatic conditions – weak oscillations in temperature within the glacial environment enabled herds of reindeer, bison, horse, mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, and red deer to roam rich steppes and tundra of the mid-latitudes. After 30,000 BP the worsening climate led to major ice sheets expanding over Scandinavia, the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Carpathians, with large glaciers in mountainous areas and an ice-bound northern Europe (Sainz, 1004). The glacial expansion of the Upper Palaeolithic reached a maximum around 20,000 to 18,000 with de-glaciation starting circa 16,000 BP.

The Upper Palaeolithic or Late Pleistocene (Lawson, 1991) is divided into four industries – Chatelperronian (from 35,000 BP), Aurignacian (from 32,000 BP), Gravettian (from 27,000 BP), Solutrean (from 22,000 BP), and Magdalenian from 19,000 to 10,000 BP (Lawson, 1991). The Solutrean is named after the type site of Solutre at Saone-et-Loire in France, with thousands of horse bones found dating from the Upper Aurignacian or Gravettian (Lissner, 1961). Other fossils included cave bear (extinct by 40,000 BP), reindeer, wild cattle, and mammoth, as well as fine flint tools. The Solutrean culture is found in southwest France and Hungary, whereas the Late or Upper Solutrean is exclusive to northwest Spain. Bows and arrows date from the Cantabrian period of the Solutrean culture and, apart from Roc de Sers (Angouleme, Charente) the Solutrean is poor in art. The Late Upper Palaeolithic, dating from 20,000 to 10,000 BP, was a period when refugee populations abandoned northern areas for southwest France (Gamble, 1996). The Magdalenian of the Upper Palaeolithic derived from the western Gravettian and included miniaturised stone tools, and emerged around 20,000 BP with an increase in art and ornament. However, in France the Chatelperronian and Gravettian are also termed the Lower and Upper Perigordian, whereas in Spanish Cantabria, French Chatelperronian, Aurignacian and Gravettian are known as the Upper Palaeolithic, the Late with Solutrean and Magdalenian (Lawson, 1991), with the Final Palaeolithic in Spain equating with the last Magdelanian and post-glacial industries elsewhere.  The chronological framework shows overlapping and sequential prehistoric  cultures in Upper Palaeolithic Spain and France, with the French Upper Palaeolithic from 33,000 to 21,000 BP comprising two alternating and sometimes contemporary cultures known as the Aurignacian and Upper Perigordian (Jochim, 1983).

The Magdelanian tool industry (18,000 to 10,000 BP) is “…associated with the period when cave painting flourished” (Gamble, 1996), therefore during the last stages of the Wurm glaciations the European Palaeolithic hunter groups developed the first artistic cycle (Sainz, 2004). The Aurignacian is named after Aurignac in France, the Perigordian after the Perigord region, and the Magdalenian after the type site of La Madeleine near Les Yyzies. Carbon dates for the Tito Bustillo layers in Spain gave 13,000 BP approximately, whereas Reseau Rene Clastres – part of the Niaux cave complex – gave two dates of 10,000 and 5000 BP. In 1985 carbon 14 dates for Cougnac in France gave 12,350 BP.

2 b.  Geographical distribution 

Caves are created by the scouring action of underground rivers and are often found in limestone, therefore there is no generality in cave form and size. Some caves occur in mountainous areas such as Covalanas in Spain, or near sea level such as Tito Bustillo and El Pindal in Spain. Parietal art, such as at Fontanet in the Upper Ariege valley, is therefore limited to areas where rock shelters and caves occur. These Ice Age caves are therefore clustered in particular regions, for example Perigord and the Pyrenees, their art spanning the whole of the Upper Palaeolithic with most dates in the latter part of the Ice Age – especially the Magdalenian (Renfrew & Bahn, 2000).

Twelve sites have been located in Italy and Sicily and only one in Romania at Cuciulat, with only one at Kapavaia in the southern Ural  mountains. However, 172 sites have been found in France with concentrations in the Dordogne and Lot area (64), with 41 sites in the central Pyrenees. Another great concentration occurs at the confluence of the Dordogne and Vezere – Le Beaune – there are 11 decorated shelters and 7 sites in the western Pyrenees form part of the extension of the Cantabrian mountains of northern Spain. In southern and central Spain there are the cave locations of Parpallo, Los Ardales, La Pileta, and Cueva del Ninos, which are part of the 110 sites found in the Iberian Peninsula (with only one in Portugal). Some 82 sites occur in north Spain with 35 in Asturias, 39 in Cantabria, and 8 at Pais Vasco and Navarra. The five most important cave art sites in Cantabria are in the labrynthine complex beneath Monte Castillo outside Puente Viesgo near Santander. There are no decorated cave sites in Britain.

The cave site of Altamira, near Santillana del Mar, was discovered in 1868 and the credit for the recognition of Palaeolithic cave art given to Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, who visited the site in 1876. La Mouthe was discovered at Les Eyzies in 1895, paintings at Niaux in the Pyrenees before 1895, with extensive decorated caves at Marsoulas in 1897. Louis Capitan, Denis Peyrony, and Abbe Henri Breuil published their discovery of the Dordogne caves at Les Combarelles and Font de Guame in 1901. Further dated discoveries in France and Spain (Lawson, 1991) include Bernifal (1903), Teyjat (1903), La Calevie (1903), La Greze (1904), and Cap Blanc (1909) in the Dordogne; El Castillo (1903), Hornos de la Pena (1903), Covalanas (1903), La Loja (1908) and La Pasiega (1911) in northern Spain; Gargas (1904), Niaux (1906), Le Portel (1908), Le Tuc d’Audoubert (1912) and Les trios Freres (1914) in the Pyrenees. Up to the present day decorated caves are still to be found including Lascaux (1940), Le Gabillou (1940), Cougnac (1952), Las Monedas (1952), Las Chimeneas (1953), and Rouffinac in 1956. Recent Spanish discoveries appear to the most accomplished and include Altxerri (1962), Tito Bustillo (1968), Ekain (1969), Cueva del Ninos (1970), and Zubialde (1990), with more recently Grotte de Cosquer (1991), located in Provence near Marseille, Grotte Chauvet (1994), and Coa Valley (1994) rock engravings in Portugal (Lawson, 1991; Clottes, 1998).

The cave at Combarelles in the Dordogne is 726 feet long and its drawings some 350 feet from the entrance, whereas the cave at La Pisiega (Spain) is 726 feet long (Lewis, 1969). The La Pisiega cave is entered by a hole, in the floor entrance of the outer cave, which leads to a labyrinth of richly painted walls in the last chamber. The cavern at Niaux stretches 4,000 feet into the mountain, and that at Les Trois Freres contains the famous image of the so-called ‘sorcerer’. The cave at Tuc d’Audoubert contains a dangerous stream plus clay modelled animals and horses, a central clay model of a bear, horse models pierced with arrows and spears and a scene possibly connected with hunting magic. Most of the caves are water-coursed limestone cavers, the inner recesses difficult to access and requiring negotiation of chasms, waterfalls, narrow fissures, and perilous eerie galleries as at Font de Gaume, La Pisiega, Tuc d’Audoubert, and Montespan (Hawkes, 1965). Into these sanctuaries, the one-time haunt of cave bears and lions, Palaeolithic Cro-Magnon people slipped, crawled and scrambled, to penetrate these dark and mysterious passages (Lewis, 1969). In 1991 at Grotte Cosquer 145 images of bison, horses, and great auk were found, drawn in black charcoal and from 18,000 years BP, with the handprints of 25,000 BC, the cave described as a “…painted sanctuary in the earth.” (Krupp, 1997). Chauvet cave, discovered in 1994, is situated on the Ardeche river in south west France, and contains 300 images of bison, mammoths, horses, and woolly rhinoceros (Krupp, 1997). In adition there are lions, bears, aurochs, reindeer, leopards and owls.

Paintings and engravings from the Upper Palaeolithic are almost entirely limited to southwest and western Europe in three main regions – southwest France (Dordogne, Coreze, Vienne), north Pyrenees (Ariego, Haute Garonne, west of Tarascon), and north Spain (Cantabrian mountains west of Bilbao) – with other traditions with Mediterranean links such as Parpallo, the Rhone Valley, Italy, and Sicily (Hawkes, 1965), as well as Malaga, Guadalajara. Cave art occurs only in exceptionally on the walls of inhabited caves, such as Cap Blanc, Angles-sur-l’Anglin, and Pair-non-Pair. Every cave is different as some have only one figure but others, such as Lascaux, have hundreds (Renfrew, 2000). This is not the case for mobiliary art. The distribution of figurines is different and which extends eastwards as far as Siberia – some are works of art such as the ‘Venuses’ of Lespugues, Willendorf, and Brassempouey, whereas others are cult objects or fetishes. They do not occur in Africa. Portable or mobiliary art is found therefore from partogal and north Africa to Siberia and is distributed geographically differently to cave or parietal art, with very few decorated caves found in central Europe (Bahn, 1996). 

2 c.  Ecological perspective 

The Aurignacian witnessed the beginning of art in a portable form and developed into the decorated cave walls of France and Spain at such locations as Altamira, Gargas, Trois Freres, Le Portel, Cabrerets, and Font-de-Gaume (Lissner, 1961). The analysis of Palaeolithic art is characterised by its changing temporal and spatial distribution, because mobiliary and parietal art may “…represent manifestations of different social responses to processes and climatic deterioration, population movement, and economic change.” (Jochim, 1983). Not only was Upper Palaeolithic art “…embedded in social and economic process…” (Gamble, 1996), but as shown by southwest France there existed in the Late Pleistocene a “…range of topographic features universally attributed with social and symbolic meanings by modern hunters and gatherers.” (Carmichael, 1994). Upper Palaeolithic hunters and gatherers inhabited a landscape imbued with symbolic meaning (Mithen, 1998), and a sequence from increased economic production leading to a shift in social organisation and the development of Upper Palaeolithic art that “…formed part of a wider system of social knowledge…served through ritual to sanction many varied patters of social interaction and economic production.” (Gamble, 1996).

During the French Upper Palaeolithic large herds of herbivores roamed the landscape and these therefore fluctuated in abundance with Later Pleistocene climate changes (Jochim, 1983). There is good evidence that horses, reindeer and elk were all hunted, but there is so far “…no evidence for hunting of mammoth, woolly rhinoceros or other large mammals.” (Stuart, 1988). The mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, giant deer (Megacerops), cave bear were all entirely extinct by 10,500 years ago. The rhinoceros Dicerorhinus hemitoechus survived until 20,000 BP from around 120,000 BP. This one world, this one environment, demonstrated an indissoluble relationship that embraced animals, plants, and humans (Mithen, 1998), a world that around 25,000 BP, underwent a series of simultaneous demographic and environmental processes. These were (1) deterioration of climate stsrt of main glacial phase, (2) abandonment by humans of northern European fringes, (3) a resulting impoverishment of central European resources and the virtual abandonment of the region, and (4) the influx of the refugee population into the south-western European area (Jochim, 1983). Dramatic shifts in human hunter-gatherer populations therefore occurred as a result of the maximum European glacial expansion, forcing many to migrate southwest and for others either low density persistence or extinction with little now visible archaeologically.

Upper Palaeolithic populations would have lived in groups of 12 to 30 age ranged members and “…these groups may have formed larger tribes of up to a thousand individuals.” (Hawkes, 1965), surviving in a hunter-gatherer landscape that was “…socially constructed and full of meaning.” (Mithen, 1998), a landscape saturated with personal powers in which all humans and animals moved and the social and natural world the one and the same. It was in this milieu that cave and rock shelters were covered in paintings and there developed anthropomorphic images. In both Old and New Worlds there developed a system of clans which “…may or may not coincide  with the group hunting together.” (Hawkes, 1965), which linked to greater population mobility and contact, and periodic group aggregation led to “…fundamental changes in social arrangements and mating networks.” (Jochim, 1983).  Mobiliary art was widespread throughout Europe whereas cave art was restricted mainly to northern Spain and southwest France and, furthermore, this art has to be seen in terms of its “…functions within cultural systems dependent upon co-operative hunting of herds of big game animals” (Jochim, 1983), as well as its development in the context of fluctuations in the environment.

 2 d.  Nature of Palaeolithic art

Upper Palaeolithic art comprised two forms – mobiliary consisting of engraved and sculptured objects and parietal cave decorations (Leroi-Gourhan, 1968). Palaeolithic art has to be located within its cultural and chronological context through the Solutrean of 21,000-17,000 to the Magdalenian of circa 10,000 BP (Jochim, 1983), with parietal art isolated from other archaeological materials whereas portable art is associated with archaeological deposits. Dating for parietal art is therefore problematic. Even though cave art is not generally found directly linked with datable archaeology it is however only associated with sapiens (Homo sapiens (Waechter, 1976). Cave art is primarily associated with parietal or wall art of the Upper Palaeolithic, and is generally divided into two categories parietal and portable or mobiliary, but in reality both are “…two ends of a continuous range of expression.” (Bahn, 1998). The art of Franco-Cantabrian regions is classified into (1) painting, (2) incising. and (3) relief carving on walls or stones, with some of the finest Magdalenian art found on implements and weapons (Hawkes, 1965). The disappearance over time of paintings and engraving is generally the result of water, humidity, and formation of stalagmitic layers, with surviving images almost always found on resistant calcareous surfaces (Grazioli, 1960).

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Figure 2.

Horse and ibexes and rectangular figures representing traps or nets.

From the caves at Lascaux. Source: Grazioli (1960).

Two theories exist to explain Palaeolithic art of which (1) claims it is purely aesthetic or art for art’s sake, and (2) it is a utilitarian activity connected with magic for hunting and reproduction among animals – however, neither hypothesis is acceptable in extreme form (Grazioli, 1960). In the 1960’s a systematic approach was developed by Leroi-Gourhan (1968) following the lead of Laming-Emperaire (1962). It was argued that paintings formed compositions and represented simple hunting or fertility magic (Renfrew & Bahn, 2000), and that Leroi-Gourhan saw a ‘blueprint’ or mythogram for the way each cave was decorated. Leroi-Gourhan thus attempted to establish a basic thematic unity based on the limited range of animals and clearly intentional layout of the figures (Leroi-Gourhan, 1968; 1978). The source of more traditional views was Abbe Henri Breuil (Breuil & Lantier, 1965) who based his ideas on three assumptions: (1) the painting underneath another is older; (2) painted caves were inhabited continuously with decorations from many periods; (3) since animal and human forms were depicted then it was individual execution for magical purposes (Leroi-Gourhan 1968).  For Breuil there was no evidence of an organised body of thought, paintings were not contemporaneous, and just the result of gradual accumulation. However, paintings and engravings appear throughout caves without apparent order, often superimposed and cancelling each other out (Grazioli, 1960), thereby creating wall palimpsests. Early cave artists therefore had little regard for the work of their predecessors and very commonly engraved or painted on top of earlier work (Waechter, 1976). Techniques used in painting are complex and limited with chromatic scale from black to light yellow through browns to red (Grazioli, 1960).

Almost the whole range of known Pleistocene fauna is represented in cave mobiliary art including seals, birds, snakes, eels, with humans playing a subordinate role (Waechter, 1976). Upper Palaeolithic art had an obsessive concern with large and magnificent beasts of the times (Lewis, 1969), but not just with animal attributes but with mysterious and invisible powers associated with them – the animal is not merely portrayed it is stylised. Animals represented also include mammoth, ibex, reindeer, horses, bears, bison, wild cows, rhinoceros, fish, and some birds (Hawkes, 1965; Cornwall, 1968). Horse and bison are the most common totalling about 60% and concentrated on wall panels, with ibex, mammoth and deer located in peripheral positions (Renfrew & Bahn, 2001), with less common rhinoceros, felines, bears in the cave depths.

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Figure 3

Top: Baton de Commandement, from La Laugerie Basse, engraved with an ibex.  Middle: Bone engraved with a man crawling

up to a bison and a reindeer, from La Laugerie Basse. Bottom: Head of a bear engraved on reindeer bone, from Massat Ariege.

Source: Kuhn (1958).

Engravings or incised drawings are found on rock walls, ivory and bone, exampled by plaquettes and batons de commandment, as with a reindeer head on antler at Saint-Eulalie (Dordogne), the horse at Hornos de la Pena, and engraved aurochs at Trou de Chaleux in Belgium (Lewis, 1969). Bas-reliefs are found in many rock shelters carved on walls or roofs, for example a procession of horses 45 feet long at Le Cap Blanc (Dordogne), reliefs of bison, horses, ox, and a bird’s head at Charanti (Lewis, 1969). Home, portable or mobiliary art comprises figurines of some women as possible fertility symbols, and others portraying ibex, mammoth, bears and horses. They are remarkable representations of natural objects, often with abstract schematic patterns, possibly having magical significance (Hawkes, 1965), with Venus figurines usually found in the litter of ordinary occupation. Carvings in the round are found in many locations including Lourdes and Mas d’Azil. According to Ucko (1969) and Leroi-Gourhan (1978) Palaeolithic cave art underwent stylistic development over time.

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Figure 4.

Upper Palaeolithic carvings.  A. reindeer ivory from Bruniquel. B, horse head on reindeer antler from Mas d’Azil.

C, bird on spear-thrower on reindeer antler from Mas d’Azil.  Source: (Hawkes, 1965).

3.  Totemism

3. a.  Theory and definition

Totemism is a magico-religious system characteristic of tribal society (Thomson, 1978), a system that provides a group with its identity that depends upon a certain intimate and exclusive relationship towards a particular animal or plant (Lewis, 1969). Various definitions have been offered over time and include  “A special class of animals or plants to which a certain group of people pay reverence, assuming a mysterious affinity between themselves and the animal or plant.” (Karsten, 1935), and “…a class of material objects which people regard with superstitious respect, believing that there exists an intimate and altogether special relation with every member of the class.” (Frazer, 1910). Totemism is an institution scattered world-wide and has both social and religious significance (Adam, 1954), with totemism proper practised by hunting peoples such as Amerindians, Australian Aborigines, and some African tribes which “…disappears when agricultural ways of life take over…” (Cooper, 1995). For Amerindians the raven is the Hero-Trickster; the Bear Clan is the most important of the Hopi Indians, the totem of the Ouataouaks, there are bear tribes in California, among the Huron, Iroquoians, and Ute of Colorado; the beaver is totem of the Cayeuse, Creek, Onondaga, Seneca, and Shuswop; the buffalo the totem of the Plains Indians such as Cree, Pawnee, Sioux, and the Mandan Okapi; and there are also deer tribes and clans (Cooper, 1995). The Aborigines of Australia call totemism Kobong and have many totem clans including dingo and Water-Hen. All birds were originally totems and ancestors of all aboriginals in the Dreamtime. In Africa the buffalo is a Bantu totem. The term totem is derived from oteteman, an Objibwa word cognate with the Algonquin dialect and meaning ‘his brother-sister kin’ (Reed, 1986), however it has also been said to mean ‘…supernatural “friend or helper”…’ (Adam, 1954), in essence a belief that the primeval ancestor of the group, or clan, or tribe, was closely related to a particular animal (Lewis, 1969). The whole system of totemic belief reflects social structure, depending on whether hunter-gatherers (Australia) or farmers (Central Africa), and this implies beliefs and mode of thought differ and thus several simultaneous systems exist throughout the world – different places, different times (Levy-Bruhl, 1923).

The understanding of totemism is owed to Elkin, and Spencer and Gillen, for their work among Australian Aborigines (Lewis, 1969), where the totem appears to identify with group unity and solidarity to which it s attached e.g., Kangaroo Men. Controversy and debate still surrounds the validity of the term and concept of totemism. Its study was the core of 19th century social anthropology, with noted protagonists between 1910 and 1950, including Frazer, Radcliffe-Brown, Malinowski (1932), and Levi-Strauss (Mithen, 1988), with a renaissance of totemic studies in the 1970’s (Willis, 1990). Attempts to demolish totemism included Goldenweiser (1937), opposition from anti-evolutionists included Lowie (1940), Kroeber (1948), and Boas (1966), with the subject dismissed as “…speculations which eventuated in the totemic illusion.” (Levi-Strauss, 1962). Opposition to the liquidation of totemic studies came from the evolutionists such as Frazer (1910) and Tylor (1958; 1960). Nonetheless, apart from the view that totemism was irrelevant and only incidental Levi-Strauss still regarded the topic as indispensable for the study of social origins (Reed, 1986).

Totemism was thus divided into three classes, the individual, the social, and the cultic, encompassing a “…philosophy which regards man and nature as one corporate whole…” (Elkin, 1938). Among Australian Aborigines totemism is a religious system in which the group depends on exclusive and intimate relationship with animal or plant for its identity, and such a totem provides the group with its name, secondly this name becomes the visible, external sign of a supernatural force that binds the tribe together, and thereby the totem is considered ancestor of the tribe – a sort of fund of energy out of which all tribe members originate (Lewis, 1969). With Australian and Amerindian totemism we have the we have the most elementary stratum of direct knowledge with the majority of totems being edible species, the origin of which are connected to the food supply (Thomson. 1978). For Australian Aboriginal totemism the totem and the ‘Dreamtime’ are indissoluble because totems “…link people with the non-empirical world and they established a firm foundation for belief in the essential unity between people and their natural environment.” (Berndt, 1970), where in ‘Dreaming’ people and nature are one (Cooper, 1995).

Totemism and taboo (tabu) are inextricably linked and permeate the whole of so-called ‘primitive’ or ‘savage’ society (Reed, 1986), and thus cannot be explained by a single definition. The definition of taboo (Steiner, 1967) is concerned with: (1) social mechanisms of obedience which have ritual significance: (2) specific, restrictive behaviour in dangerous situations; (3) protection of individuals in danger; and (4) protects society from those endangered. recent interpretations have encompassed concepts of purity and contagion, the clean and the unclean, cooked and uncooked (Douglas, 1978; Levi-Strauss, 1962; 1969). In essence taboos function to separate the workaday world from wonder-world, the separation of the sacred from the profane (Evans-Pritchard, 1984). Each clan is akin to its totem species and descended from it and therefore forbidden to eat it (Thomson, 1978), however the taboo is directed against eating not killing, and not eating species of another clan without permission (Spencer & Gillen, 1904; Spencer & Gillen, 1914).

As a rule then clans refrain from eating their totem and, in general as the totem is the guardian and protector of its human counterpart, the totem is also taboo (Harrison, 1977), and thus in a mutual relationship. The first stage of the evolution of totemism was the differentiation into primitive segments or bands, which again divided to gain access to different sources of food (Thomson, 1978), and once integrated as clans according to food supply and shared products were maintained by a taboo. The totem is always taboo, the term totem itself means taboo, thus totemism is the “…absolute, inviolable food taboo…the task of totemism, the earliest social institution.” (Mithen, 1998). Moreover, the totem is not the individual animal but the species as a whole, the most common feature of tribal behaviour towards the totem is the prohibition of the species as food (Adam, 1954).

A totemic group is usually exogamous stipulating that is only permitted to marry into another totemic group (Lewis, 1969). The term ote means a consanguine kinship between uterine brothers and sisters who cannot intermarry (Reed, 1986). and thus totemism is connected to a matrilineal system and therefore clan exogamy. According to Morgan (1907) descent within the ancient gens is through the female line with a supposed ancestor implying a common gentile name. The gens came into being on three main conceptions: (1) bond of kin; (2) pure lineage through female descent, and (3); non-intermarriage between clan members. It is possibly worth distinguishing clans of matrilineal descent (possibly older system) and the gens where offspring belong to the father’s group, and within clans subdivisions of a social, educational, and religious duties to a community, and where invariably “…clans and gens are exogamous.” (Hawkes, 1965).

Totemism has two important characteristics – firstly it is to do with a group and not an individual, and secondly the group is in relation to another group of natural objects, therefore totem means not plant or animal but tribe (Harrison, 1977). Totem thus means tribe or group, whilst totemism is the idea of the unity of a group. Therefore, one human group has a special relation to another group best figured by kinship, unity of blood, expressed in terms of identity (Levy-Bruhl, 1910). It follows that a taboo will be applied on sexual intercourse between men and women belonging to the same totem-kin group (Reed, 1986), and the essence of this totemic taboo also means “…it eradicated any possibility that a kinsman would hunt, kill, or eat another kinsman.” (Reed, 1986). Totemism is the other side of the human and animal coin because it “…involves embedding human groups and individuals within the natural world.” (Mithen, 1998). Totemism is epitomised by tracing descent from non-human species, and for tribal hunters and gatherers operating clan exogamy, the “…study of natural species provided non-literate and pre-scientific groups with a ready-to-hand means of conceptualising relations between groups.” (Willis, 1990).

3 b.  Totemism and cave art

Ice Age artists, with ancestral bonds with certain animals, avoided eating them so paintings are therefore clan emblems (Pearson, 2002), the animals depicted having but a small part in prehistoric diets (Krupp, 1997). A particular totem animal can be an item of group diet. Therefore totemic rituals thought of as maintaining the species to provide food for other groups (Lewis, 1969). In southwest Africa the Bushmen are a totemic hunting people and their pictures are found all over the continent, from the Sahara to Lake Tanganiyika (Leakey, 1936; Adam, 1940). In Transvaal a herd of ostriches, one with bow and arrows and human legs is a huntsman from the ostrich clan? (Thomson, 1978). He is surrounded by both sex onlookers wearing antelope heads which may be the mimetic dance of the ostrich clans (Adam, 1940; Schapera, 1930). Paintings on cave walls show clan members have a strong sense of affinity or identity with clan species, implying that clan elders are ancestor worshipped in totemic form (Landtman, 1938). The ritual identification of animal/human ancestor  of totemic type is “…a man fully identified with an animal, his totem or otherwise, in fertility rites for the increase of the species.” (Hawkes, 1965).


Figure 5. 

Lascaux, France. Bulls superimposed on an aurochs. Circa 15,000-12,000 BC.

Not as fully modelled as the Altamira images, but appear more spirited. Shows repeated use of same rock walls.

This may represent a totemic animal of a succeeding generation of artists after those who painted the aurochs.

Source: Lommel (1966).

Ritual participation is associated with animal totemism. For many the ‘sorcerer’ is the same realm of ideas as the Lord of the Animals, therefore some supernatural being rather than a man in disguise (Hawkes, 1965; Breuil, 1965). Most pre-literate peoples have a Lord of the Beasts, a protector of game, a “…preserver and patron of the hunting culture.” (Lissner, 1961). The famous image of a fallen man with a bison at Lascaux is a case for both totemic and shamanic practice. The man appears bird-headed while beside him a bird-headed wand, so “…this picture may be of totemic significance, showing the human member and his totemic emblem”. (Hawkes, 1965). The well known ‘bison scene’ in the cave of Lascaux has many different interpretations including “…given a totemistic explanation and interpreted as an initiation scene.” (Hawkes, 1965), also as shamanistic ritual. According to this theory “…the anthropomorphic figure would be a human being (shaman) collapsing in a state of ecstasy.” (Hawkes, 1965).

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Figure 6.

An engraved bison and bison-man at Trois Freres Ariege, France. Magdalenian.

A composition involving hunting magic and shamanic ritual. Source: Sandars (1968).

Strong contenders as totemic animals include the bull, the boar, rhinoceros, mammoth, salmon. The bull is the “…primary symbolic and sacrificial animals of the hunter.” (Cooper, 1992), and has been reverenced and worshipped from earliest times. Boar bones have been ritually placed in graves and caves with the head of special importance, with many ritually interred bones including bear, ox, bison, horse, ibex, woolly rhinoceros, mammoth and hyena.

The salmon is sacred to northern Amerindians. The bear seems especially important when compared to cave bone assemblages of hunted animals. Dances as imitation of animals are found with Amerindians and Australians – the animals usually totems of objects of the hunt including bears, buffalo, deer (Cooper, 1992). The deer is an Amerindian totem animal and the deer-dance a fertility rite for southwest Amerindians. Reindeer sacrifices are made by Lapps, and palaeo-Siberian peoples have a ‘Lord of the reindeer’, whose shamans can take the form of reindeer. Bison are subjects of mask dances and sympathetic magic among Plains Indians. Chauvet Cave is problematic because of the dominance of fearsome animals, 61% of which comprise rhinoceros, lions, mammoths and bears (Chippindale, 1998). Moreover, Aurignacian sites in the Dordogne include three times more dangerous animals than those of Gravettian origin in the same area, therefore concluding that “…the enormous number of dangerous animals at Chauvet is not a unique phenomenon.” (Chippindale, 1998). In terms of totemic belief a more detailed examination of bear cults can be made.

There is sufficient evidence to the extent that the cave bear, mammoth, and other great beasts figured in the minds of their human contemporaries (Matheson, 1942), as Neanderthal or Mousterian man “…associated certain cult-conceptions with the bears he had killed.” (Abel, 1934). Kindred ideas are found in remote parts of the world. The bear is the oldest verifiable sacrificial animal. From earliest times there have been bear-cults. Neanderthal man had sacred shrines of ‘Master Bear’, with bear skulls and bones often interred with human skulls (Cooper, 1992). It is worthy of note that, considering the location of much cave art, in the carnivals of the Pyrenees the bear is still a notable figure. Finds of bear remains “…in more or less clear association with human remains or artefacts are of course numerous.” (Matheson, 1942), and comprise two species – the cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) and brown bear (Ursos arctos). In southern France there are several representations of cave bears from the Aurignacian, but later French Magdalenian pictures only brown bears. The drawings, which are claimed to show erotic symbolism, may indicate that “…Man of the Aurignac period was well as Man of the Madeleine period connected religious and cultic  conceptions with the Cave Bear, and, after its extinction, with the brown bear…” (Abel, 1934). Strange composite animals at Les Trois Freres include bears with heads of wolves and at Montespan a dying sacrificial bear with holes (Grazioli, 1960). Extinction of the cave bear may have been due to human agency but, whatever the cause “…the type of bear generally known as cave bear completely disappeared, but not before leaving a deep impression on the mind of Palaeolithic man.” (Matheson, 1942), with modern indications that bears were powerful totemic symbols.

In Drachenloch Cave near Vattis, Tamina Valley, in Switzerland, several stone chests each containing 4 or 5 bear skulls (all pointing in the same direction, were found (Matheson, 1942), and similar material was found at Petershohle in south Germany, and at Drachenhohle near Mixnitz in Austria. These were explained by Abel (1934) as representing “…skull and long bone sacrifices of Mousterian hunters, which must have been connected with their religious conceptions.” Ancient bear-cults occur among Amerindians, in Iceland, Finland, Siberia, and Japan (Cooper, 1992). In terms of totemism all Siberian shamanistic cultures regard the bear as a mythical ancestor, plus the Amerindian, Finnish, Tartar, Ugarian, Samoyeds, and for Mongols descent is from a woman who had two children by a bear. The bear as ‘Animal Master’ is the sacred animal and instructor of shamans, and bear-gods are often hunter-gods working through shamans. The she-bear symbolises maternal love through hibernation and renewal. For the Inuit the great shaman spirit is the Polar Bear, and for the ‘Bear Sacrifice’ of Ainu of Japan the sacred and sacrificial animal is often treated as kin. For the ancient Greeks the goddess herself was a bear with worship of Artemis in Arcadia as Artemis Brauronia. Early hunters persuade themselves they are not really killing animals but only their bodies and that they come to life again “…if their bones are looked after and treated with the correct magic.” (Lommel, 1966).

3 c.  Totemism and mobiliary art

The people of the Upper Palaeolithic had a rapprochement with their environment and themselves, and this can be seen with the female figurines showing the existence of anthropomorphic imagery in their art (Bahn 1989; Leblanchet, 1989). At Chauvet Cave, circa 30,000 BC, a figure with head and torso of a bison and legs of a human is therefore anthropomorphic thinking reflecting the “…seamless integration between social and natural history.” (Mithen, 1998). Humans as animals, animals as humans suggests totemic ritual and anthropomorphism. The image of an animal with human attributes, or a human descended from a lion, is anthropomorphism reflected in totemic thought.

Mobiliary art is an expression of Palaeolithic mentality with the processions of anthropomorphic figures surrounding bison is a curiously repeated composition (Grazioli, 1960). Some mobiliary engravings on ivory and bone may be indicators of clan membership if worn as neck pendants. In the 7800 year old cemetery at Oleneostrovski Magilnik in Karelia some graves were associated with neck effigies, others with effigies of elks (Mithen, 1998), the clusters of two graves suggesting two groups divided on a totemic clan basis (O’Shea & Zvelebil, 1984, cited by Mithen, 1998). Aurignacians and Magdalenians shaped and carved bone and antler plaques in ways very similar to Australian churingas (Hawkes, 1965).

3 d.  Sympathetic and hunting magic

The classic division of sympathetic magic is into two principles of thought (Frazer, 1978), with (1) like produces like and thus effect resembles cause, and the things once in contact continue to act on each other (Ucko, 1967). The theory of sympathetic magic is based upon a “…proposed relationship of identity between an image and its subject.” (Pearson, 2002), therefore acting on an image equates with acting upon a person or animal represented. For Upper Palaeolithic people there were two major aspects of sympathetic magic – hunting and fertility magic (Ucko, 1967). Magic rests upon the principle “…that by creating the illusion that you can control reality you can actually control it.” (Thomson, 1978). Cave art, as a magico-religious function, served sympathetic magic which (1) depends upon belief that similarity or relationship equates with identity, and (2) that anything down to an image or related part will affect the thing itself (Hawkes, 1965). The three main aims of magical practice are hunting, fertility, and destruction (Pearson, 2002). As a guide to action “…the ideology of magic embodies the valuable truth that the external world can in fact be changed by man’s subjective attitude towards it.” (Thomson, 1978).

Hunting magic, by possessing the image of the desired animal thereby possesses the animal itself (Pearson, 2002), and was applied to great hunted herbivores – bison, horses, aurochs, ibex and deer. Destructive magic was applied to animals dangerous to humans – felines and bears. Upper Palaeolithic images rest upon the premises of sympathetic magic, within the scenario that magical arts have a utilitarian objective in aiding survival (Pearson, 2002), therefore totemic magic is the pictorially dramatic representation of the sacred animal driven by the “…implicit theory of the kinship of all forms of life.” (Thomson, 1978). Hunting involves also a sexual division of labour – with mobile hunters being male (Malinowski, 1913; Bancroft, 1875); females immobile due to pregnancy and lactation (Zuckerman, 1936). With hunting positing a division of labour within matrilineal descent the clan is centred on women with children members of the clan of their birth (Thomson, 1978). As clan membership is determined by descent and reckoned originally through the mother, and this instances matrilineal to patrilineal not the reverse, then matrilineality would preponderate among hunting peoples of ancient times.

Mimetic dance increases the power of the hunter and ceremonies for species propagation are “…performed at the opening of the breeding season at a prescribed spot, called the totem centre, on the hunting ground of the clan to which the totem belongs.” (Thomson, 1978). Clansmen are forbidden to eat but not kill, but there are exceptions, with the headman obliged to eat a little to get the totem inside him to work his magic (Spencer, 1904). The interpretation of Palaeolithic art has been used “…as evidence of beliefs in the efficacy of magic…” (Ucko, 1967), therefore there was Upper Palaeolithic sympathetic magical practice, as well as the allusion, to totemic beliefs. An increase ritual represents the growth of the totem and includes dances by disguised performers who mimic the species, because mimicry of a successful operation is the essence of magic (Thomson, 1978).

Magic is employed to useful animals – reindeer, bison, horse, and hunted for food, plus magic associated with dangerous animals – bear and lion (Grazioli, 1960). Therefore the exteriorisation of art for the “…reproduction of visual reality by the need to attain practical ends.” (Grazioli, 1960). Countless bison, horses, oxen, ibexes, reindeer are engraved or painted with weapons transfixing bodies, arrows and javelins fly around animal figures at Lascaux (Grazioli, 1960). At Niaux animals are painted stuck by arrows, with a carved bison with engraved arrows, another with engraved wounds. At Montespan a horse engraved on clay is pockmarked with spear thrust holes, and images of wounded animals are plentiful. Magic practices are related to capture of prey portraying nets and traps (often painted next to animals) with associated animal figures. In addition hand-prints mean taking possession of prey in connection with animal images.

4.  Shamanism

4 a.  Theory and definition 

Shamans are ritual specialists in hunter-gatherer societies (Lewis-Williams, 2002) who are more potent and important than witch-doctors (Lewis, 1969). Shamanism is a religious practice where there is communication with good and evil spirits through “…a professional class of priest-seers…” (McKillop, 1998), and thus associated with “…archaic techniques of ecstasy…” (Eliade, 1964), and a widespread practice across Eurasia and elsewhere as a primitive religion survival. Presently shamanism is a religious phenomenon characteristic of Siberian and Ural-Altaic peoples. The term shaman is Tungus in origin from saman meaning ascetic (KcKillop, 1998) and in Sanskrit  sramanas. Shamanism is not limited to circumpolar peoples as it occurs in south-east Asia, Oceania, and with Amerindians. The name comes from Siberia where a shaman is also called a tabid and female shamans called shamankas, Inuit angekok, in Lapland noi’de (Sandars, 1968), with shamanism the basis of Finno-Ugric religion (Guirand, 1982). In Siberia a shaman is such by hereditary transmission or spontaneous vocation, whereas in north America shamanism is a voluntary quest. Shamanism occurred all over the ancient world (Matthews, 1991), and is an animistic belief that “…presupposes an elemental force in all objects which can be dominated by a greater force…” (Guirand, 1982). A shaman is not a magician, not a visionary, not a healer, are usually male but female shamans occur, but importantly it is the “…intensity of his experience that makes him unique. His ability to extend his consciousness beyond that of the ordinary human being.” (Matthews, 1991).

A shaman is a particular type of individual combining functions and abilities (Lommel, 1966) who requires special training, with separation from cares and distractions of ordinary life (Lewis, 1969). A shaman often shows signs of mental instability, excitability, and hysterical dissociation, exhibiting suggestibility and subject to hallucinations (Lewis, 1969), but shamanism is not linked to mental illness because the shamanistic mind is “…a complex interweaving of mental sates, visions and emotions.” (Lewis-Williams, 2002). A shaman must have a mana to carry on his role which he can only obtain  by being predestined for it, as well as by submitting to certain rituals (Adam, 1954). Mana, a term originating in Polynesia, can be considered as an immaterial power believed by many pre-literate peoples to be inherent in certain privileged persons and things.

Hunter-gatherers exhibit a number of characteristics of shamanism (Lewis-Williams, 1997), which distinguish it from other religions by “…the power that man or rather certain men particularly endowed, the shamans, exercise over nature.” (Guirand, 1982). Hunter gatherer shamans are therefore specialists with authority and prestige who mediate between people and surrounding natural and supernatural powers (Sandars, 1968). Characteristics of shamanism are: (1) it posits a range of institutionalised altered states of consciousness; (2) the visual, aural and somatic experiences of altered states are seen as conceptions of alternative states of reality; (3) people with special powers and skills – shamans – have access to this alternative reality; (4) the nervous system via altered states leads to dissociation. Shamans use dissociation to achieve four ends which are also features of hunter-gatherer shamanism: (1) shamans are believed to contact spirits and supernatural entities; (2) they heal the sick; (3) they control the movements and lives of animals; (a) have the ability to change the weather. These four functions coupled with the altered states are believed mediated by and facilitated by “…a variously conceived supernatural potency of power…” and this potency is “…commonly associated with animal helpers that assist shamans in the performance of their tasks.” (Lewis-Williams, 1997; 2002).

4 b.  Shamanism and cave art

A large amount of Franco-Cantabrian cave art is shamanistic and “…produced by shamans and derived from their modes of thought.” (Lommel, 1966), therefore archaeologically cave art includes images that can be called shamanistic. Basque myths from the region are concerned with ghosts, shamans, red bulls, cows, horses, birds and snakes (Lommel, 1966), and significant are the half human half animal spirits. The female is Mari, male spirits are Maide and associated with female Lamin, thus Mari and Lamin are “…probably preserved characteristics of the more ancient Mistress of the Beasts.” (Lommel, 1966). Thus the consideration that the “…repetitively portrayed Palaeolithic ‘sorcerers’ and ‘shamans’ were divine owners of animals and forests.” (Gimbutas, 2001).

Cave imagery is a palimpsest resulting from changing exploitation of the topography coupled with changing shamanistic beliefs and social relations (Lewis-Williams, 1997; Clottes, 1996), implying Upper Palaeolithic people “…did not adhere rigidly to set formulae.” (Lewis-Williams, 1997). Thus as the Upper Palaeolithic progressed the historically and geographically situated forms of shamanism changed. In order to understand shamanic cave art it is best to look in more detail at two examples – the so-called ‘sorcerer’ in the Sanctuary at Les Trois Freres, and the ‘Man and Bison’ composition in the Shaft at Lascaux.

The ‘Sorcerer’ has an antlered deer head and hide who appears to be leading a dance to secure success in hunting (Lewis, 1969). The image is of a masked human being to endow a unique, magical or religious act with greater permanence by means of pictorial recapitulation (Lissner, 1961). The unreal atmosphere is compounded by the half human half animal that is engraved and painted in an innermost recess of the complex Ariege cave (Grazioli, 1960), implying the ‘sorcerer’ is a mystical being. The painting is of a powerfully symbolic magico-religious ritual. The shaman is harnessing a group effort through  group ritual dance to objectify the killing of an animal (Lewis, 1969). This shaman at Lourdes, wearing a tail and a beard, can be compared to Tungus shamanic portrayals because “…the adoption of several animal characteristics is throught to increase a shaman’s chances of sending hi soul on its travels…” (Lissner, 1961).


Figure  7.

   The Magdalenian painted ‘sorcerer’ at Trois Freres, Ariege, France.

The shaman requires maximum assistance from various animals while on his journey.

He therefore wears a deer mask, owls eyes, wolf’s ears, horse’s tail, and bears paws, as well as dancing (Lissner, 1961).

Among circumpolar peoples deer antlers and bears feet are the most effective in magical equipment (Ucko, 1967).

The ‘man with a bison’ in the Shaft at Lascaux is a shamanic scene with a sacrificial bison and an outstretched man (with a bird mask) lying on the ground in a trance (Lissner, 1961). The rhinoceros in the composition is insignificant because it is the man and bison in confrontation (Blanc, 1949). The supine figure is the shaman and the bird his tutelary spirit, and its perch a grave stick or sky-pole. The wooden bird poles symbolise a shaman’s spiritual journey and is thus “…a path to heaven symbolised by an upright pole and the belief that a bird can carry a shaman’s soul into the sky.”  (Lissner, 1961). The whole is a complex composition that contains evidence of totemic belief, shamanic practice, and fertility ritual.

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Figure 8.

A man in a bird’s head mask attacked by a wounded bison (?). Cave painting at Lascaux, France, circa 15.000 t0 10,000 BC.

Can be explained by Siberian legends of modern times. A spear seems to have pierced the bison and eviscerated it.

The shaman sends his soul to heaven while he lies as though dead (Lommel, 1966), as he hunts animal spirits of negotiates with the Mistress of the Animals. A number of factors indicate the shamanic nature of the composition. The bird is gallinaceous or grouse-like and resembles the grouse carving on a spear-thrower from Le Mas d’Azil (Davenport, 1988). The feet are humanoid, as is the phallus, but the hands are four-toed typical of a bird, and as such a pictographic symbol. The artist has portrayed the shaman as his spirit helper (the bird-headed wand) at the moment of his transformation or shape-shift into a Black Grouse or Capercaille (Davenport, 1988), a performance quite familiar to the Palaeolithic hunter, resembling the communal dances, strutting and ritualised fighting of the Blackcock. The secret of successful hunting is mimicry (Lommel, 1966), and a successful expedition is envisioned by the shaman beforehand. The entrails of the bison are wrenched out by a barbed spear and the whole image means for Abbre Breuil (1965) the hunter is wounded by the bison and then killed by the rhinoceros, whereas for Leroi-Gourhan the man is dying from wounds inflicted by the bison (Lissner, 1961). However, the shaman is most likely in a trance state. rock art in South Africa is historical evidence for ceremonies and roles of trance plus hallucinogens, so perhaps “…decorated caves in Palaeolithic Europe, at the end of the last Ice Age, might also reflect shamanic practices and trance ceremonies.” (Pitts, 2001). In addition, shamanistic practices among early Celtic divinations they wore cloaks of birds feathers as Siberians did, bearing in mind the Celtic belief in metamorphosis – shape-shifting – or ability to change shape or appearance at will. At Santander there are wall engravings of men in bird masks who seem to be dancing, and the bird-men of Altamira are also shamans, as are the masked figures at Les Combarelles  (Lissner, 1961). At Teyat, Abri Mege (Dordogne) three strange figures resembling sea horses are probably shamans dancing in ibex masks. There are further examples of hybrid figures as hunters or shamans occupying territory between the human and animal world (Grazioli, 1960).

4 c.  Shamanism and mobiliary art.

Palaeolithic batons or ‘wands’ may be shamans drumsticks, and certainly more than items of everyday use (Lissner, 1961), and female statuettes are the earliest known figurative representations in the world  and may have a shamanic ritual role as auxiliary dolls. The female statuettes of Siberian tribes, who often had female shamans or ‘shamankas’, may have had a ritual role. At Ma’lta,  50 miles north of Irkutsk, female figures and birds carved in bone represent duck and geese, reminiscent of bird figures which modern Siberian tribes place on top of their shamanic sky-poles. In view of the fact that shamanic mobiliary art may not have been durable – wands, sky-poles, drums, and other equipment such as masks – it is nonetheless possible that portable engravings of birds may have had a ritual and shamanic role.

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Figure  9. 

 The ‘man and the bison’ of the Shaft at Lascaux.

Comparative evidence for the shaman using birds as tutelary spirits or spirit helpers for a shamanic ritual.

Source: Davenport (1988).

4 d.  Initiation and ‘Rites of Passage’.

Mankind get all that makes them human from society, it is the religious cult and the ritual that recreates them, initiates them into the life of the tribe, and therefore regenerates the tribe itself (Lewis, 1969). The relationship is ritualistic involving rites connected with totem animals, usually including dancing, mimetic animal movements and cries (Cooper, 1995). Originally individuals survived as members of a group with group reproduction inseparable from subsistence existence (Thomson, 1978). Hunters are part of a sexual division of labour graded through children, adults, elders (Webster, 1932), when children help women, men hunt and elders direct and supervise. The transition from one grade to another is effected by rites of initiation, thus at puberty an individual dies and is reborn. The new-born is a clan ancestor reborn, a reincarnation of the clan totem that determines naming (Thomson, 1978), the name being the totemic symbol, but not revealed because it is a totemic secret (Frazer, 1910). In Latin name and mark are nomen and nota, kin and know are gens and gnosco, which means name and mark correlates with oral and visual with “…the totem incarnate and the bearer.” (Thomson, 1978). The totemite receives manhood or womanhood and individual essence from the tribal spirit which possesses him in ceremonies and rites of totemism and initiation.” (Lewis, 1969).

Two ingredients to social, therefore common (but not universal) to the exogamous clan system (Hawkes, 1965) apart from the totemic are admission and related initiations or rites of passage. Initiation means admission to adult status, not admission to the clan, with the implication that it is admission to a totem cult where one exists. Initiation rites symbolise the idea of death and rebirth “…into the full life of the tribe.” (Hawkes, 1965). In many cases a dying person is wrapped in the skin of their dying totem animal, implying the souls of the clan are closely bound by their totem and reincarnated in that animal, with children named after the animal from which the tribe has descended (Cooper, 1995). With initiation at puberty the child dies and is born again as man or woman, whereas the death of an elder is numbered among the totemic ancestors (Thomson, 1978). Therefore birth is death and death is birth, part of an internal process of change (Van Gennep, 1960), with the interment of the corpse in a foetal position “…the posture of the unborn child.” (Webster, 1933).

Therefore hidden and daylight art signifies daylight totemic images and hidden recess art are initiation images (Ucko, 1967). At Montespan heel-prints on a clay floor left by “…men of hunting, sexual and religious maturity…” are not merely dancing magically but sharing religious experience.” (Lissner, 1961), thus in Lake Chad (Niger) mahibi (hunters) leave initiation sites walking on their heels. It can be assumed that  cave recesses do contain images related to initiation and this may explain some of the hand-prints and symbols found in the art – a symbol a way of hiding the totemic name.

5.  Fertility Ritual and the Cult of the Earth and Animals.

5 a.  Theory and definition

Fertility magic is “…thought to assist the procreation of useful species by depicting pregnant females or animals of opposite sex in pre-coupling scenes.” (Pearson, 2002), and Breuil (1965) interpreted Palaeolithic art as a reflection of fertility and hunting magic. Sympathetic magic is the basis of Palaeolithic art, the cave is the sanctuary where magic is used for reproductive rites, destruction of predators, and increase ceremonies for animals and human beings (Ucko, 1967). Upper Palaeolithic artists imaged animals to symbolise earth’s cyclic rebirth creating a “…mystic rapport with the animals, a rapport negotiated by their shamans, and cemented by their paintings.” (Krupp, 1997). Fertility magic plus hunting magic usually combined as one overall sympathetic magic interpretation, therefore “…totemic and fertility magic interpretations are most clearly related (Ucko, 1967). Scenes of hunting as pictorial magic are found worldwide.

5 b.  Fertility and cave art

Ritual renewal in Upper Palaeolithic Europe is “…evidence for a theme of cyclic renewal everywhere in Upper Palaeolithic art.” (Krupp, 1997). Fertility compositions and images occur in Franco-Cantabria (Grazioli, 1960), and deliberately relate the different sexes. At La Marne a bull pursues a cow, at Le Portel two bison face each other, thus in compositions where two animals form a scene “…they are almost invariably male and female animals…connected with the proprietary magic of reproduction.” (Graziolli, 1960). At Fonte-de-Gaume two rendeer approach each other, at Levanzo a bull follows a cow, at Chaire-a-Caluini a horse in bas-relief copulation, at Font-de-Gaume a horse is copulating and one pursues a mare. At Tuc ‘Audoubert a clay statue shows a male and female bison in copulation. At Spanish Cogul women surround a man and suggest celebrants in a fertility cult, and at Tuc d’Audoubert signs of rites celebrated indicate fertility magic and beyond that fertility religion, it suggested Venuses are “…crystallisations of the Mother Goddess concept.” (Hawkes, 1965). A number of wall engravings and low-reliefs of females demonstrates fertility related images.

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Figure 10.

Horses circa 20,000 BC. Cave painting at Pech-Merle.

The large coloured spots inside and around the outline of the wild horses “…were probably put there in the belief that

they increased fertility.” (Lommel, 1966). The meaning of the silhouette hand prints but may have been connected to hunting magic,

 but also represent some aspect of a totemic ‘rite of passage’.

5 c.  Fertility and mobiliary art

Aurignacian ‘Venuses’, which are little statuettes of exaggerated form, are in a class by themselves (Lewis, 1969). Found in France and Austria they represent a fertility cult of 20,000 years ago – all violently distorted with head, legs and arms, treated in summary fashion, the purely sexual features enlarged to confirm fertility cult purpose. Aurignacian ‘Venuses,’ not found in Spain, are little figures of ivory, limestone and other materials, and intended to symbolise fertility, thus “…the statuettes from the Grimaldi Caves were associated with some fertility cult.” (Lissner, 1961).

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Figure 11.

The Venus of Dolni Vestonice, Moravia. One of the earliest known depictions of the female form.

Ceramic, or baked clay. Gravettian 29,000-25,000 BCE.

Savignano Venus has female features, conical coiffure or conical cap, the Venus of Willendorf has a basket-like coiffure, of limestone and perhaps an Alma Mater or Earth Mother, whereas the Gagarino Venuses (Upper Don) are two obese ivories and resemble the Willendorf Venus (Lissner, 1961).

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Figure 12.

The Venus of Willendorf a Gravettian figurine from Austria carved from limestone (Sandars, 1968). Fertility cult statuette (Cornwall, 1968).

Found with traces of red ochre suggesting she represented a Mother Goddess or perhaps similar to house goddesses of Siberian tribes (Waechter, 1976).

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Figure 13

An artists reconstruction of the Venus of Willendorf.

The Venus of Laussel is a rock-relief carving circa 15,000 to 10,000 BC. At Ma’tla (north of Irkutsk) evidence of 20 statuettes of mammoth tusk were all of slender form. Figurines at Ma’lta and Gagarino, found inside remains of ancient huts, hung up in niches near the hearth, may represent female ancestresses (Lissner, 1961). Many figurines found in dwellings at Kostienki Island, Mezin (Garonne), Vestonice and Predmost (Czechoslovakia), and Mainz (Germany), can be compared to the constantly moving hunters of the Magdalenian

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Figure 14.

The Venus of Laussel, circa 15,000-10,000 BC. Rock relief carving. One of earliest stone sculptures of the female nude in history of world art.

The filled horn she holds is connected with myths of the Mistress of the Beasts, a kind of goddess who holds sway over animals and drives

them towards hunters (Lommel, 1966). Source: Sandars (1968).

The unique female head from Brassampouey (Lourdes) has an arranged cap or coiffure known as a tete a la capuche. The Venus of Lespugues (Haute- Garonne) seems to represent the golden age of the Aurignacian. It has an ‘apron’ at the rear which is similar to the second Venus of Willendorf – and may represent animal tails as worn by modern Siberian shaman attire.

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Figure 15

The Venus or Lady of Brassempouey. The Lady in the Hood from the Grotte du Pape, in the French Pyrenees.

Ivory from the Gravettian circa 22,000 BCE (Sandars, 1968). Accompanied by modern reconstruction.

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Figure 16.

Artists reconstruction of the Venus of Brassempouey

Upper Palaeolithic figurines are the earliest tangible expression of the idea that views womankind as embodying the beginning and continuance of life. Palaeolithic man portrayed the human form, especially during the earlier Aurignacian-Perigordian period with female statuettes, stressing attributes of fertility and seen “…dedicated to s different cult – the cult of maternity (Grazioli, 1960).

5 d. Palaeolithic belief and myth

Hunters do not produce – they participate in the life of their milieu (Lommel, 1966), so they only kill prey needed thereby leaving animal reproduction to nature. Totemic ritual is an expression of social cohesion whereby man’s significance is not individual but tribal membership – in other words his entire personal domain is the sacred, supernatural and divinised tribe. Some cave art compositions with a strange, incomprehensible and otherwise esoteric stance may have magical connotations and thus belong to “…a fantastic, unreal, possibly mythical world which has no apparent connection with the clear, elementary and practical world of hunting magic.” (Grazioli, 1960). The mode of thought of the hunter and his art is dominated by animals and such a mythology does not distinguish between man and animal. Feeling at one with nature the hunter sees his environment as both spiritual and material, thereby his art “…attempts to impose the power of his intellect upon his surroundings…” (Lommel, 1966).

Caves show no sign of habitation or domestic use because they were sanctuaries for religious rituals, dark retreats within Mother Earth for initiation ceremonies (Krupp, 1997), where “…men may be transported into animals and vice versa (Lommel, 1966) with the artistic result humans appear as beasts and later as hybrid beings. The penetration of darker recesses from the daylight suggests a “…growing interest in and insistence on spatially distinct ritual areas.” (Lewis-Williams, 1997). It was thought initially that animal images were a component of imitative hunting magic, however most paintings do not show wound marks. This suggests they “…played only a small part in the prehistoric diet.” (Krupp, 1997), because the artists had an “…ancestral bond with particular beasts and avoided eating them…” (Krupp, 1997). Palaeolithic communities being totemic were aware of the totemic cycle of birth and death. For example the ‘uterine’ or ‘foetal’ burial position is not known in Australia but is “…common in Palaeolithic interments…” (Thomson, 1978).

6 . Discussion and Summary

Art was a complex, essential ingredient of Upper Palaeolithic life, essential for very existence, a deeply felt need rooted in this activity (Grazioli, 1960). They were not practising ‘art for art’s sake’, the drawings, paintings, reliefs and sculptures had a religious purpose explain the use of inaccessible cave areas (Lissner, 1961), and only experienced hunters could portray animals in such a realistic way. Four strands permeate Upper Palaeolithic art (Sandars, 1968): (1) a diffused sense of sacredness; (2) an order of relationships with no account of genetic barriers allowing ideas of metamorphosis; (3) unhistorical time and returning cycles with ancestor actions, culture heroes, myths and rituals; the character and position of the shaman. Cave art and associated forms of ritual served to promote a “…necessary social cohesion in the face of competition or spatial separation.” (Jochim, 1983), but not all cave art is mysterious or religious though some is certainly tied to ritual and ceremony (Bahn, 1998), and it does contain messages. In terms of totemism, shamanism, and fertility rituals it must be considered that “…there can no longer be a single meaning…to account for the thousands of images, media, contexts, and uses of what we lump together under the term ‘Palaeolithic art’.” (Lewis-Williams, 1997).

Archaeological evidence indicates that totemism was pervasive in human society since the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic (Mithen, 1998). Totemism is not a one way relationship of dependence upon the numinous because the totem requires sacred rituals to provide strength and fecundity (Lewis, 1969), therefore totem, taboo, and ritual are indissoluble parts of an interdependent and dynamic relationship. Totemic institutions imply exogamy, mimetic magic, and zoomorphic ancestor worship (Thomson, 1978). With modern hunter-gatherers the totemic clan system has collapsed, leaving only: (10 a sense of kinship by common descent; (2) a distinctive ancestral cult; (3) the practice of exogamy; (4) a formal taboo on particular species and; (5) proliferation of totemic myths (Thomson, 1978). It is their persistence and prevalence (much attenuated), that “…various combinations of clan structure, exogamy, totemism and matrilineal descent encourages a belief in their extreme antiquity.” (Hawkes, 1965).

The antiquity and ubiquity of shamanism implies it was practised by hunter-gatherers of the European Upper Palaeolithic (Lewis-Williams, 2002), but it was not static or unchanging across western Europe during 30,000 years, indeed “…shamanism is the most archaic form of magico-religious relation of man towards himself and his surroundings.” (Wiercinski, 1989). Upper Palaeolithic people associated logically consistent concepts to their cave painting (Lommel, 1966), thus prehistoric man attempted to integrate into life surrounding him by performing symbolic actions that included mimicry, dance and vocalisations. Hunter-gatherers of the Upper Palaeolithic had specialists, or shamans, whose authority and prestige permitted them to mediate between the surrounding natural and supernatural powers and their own people (Sandars, 1968). Their art was thus “…the particular expression of shamanic cosmology and social relations as it existed at a given time and in a given period.” (Lewis-Williams, 1997). The prevalence of art deep within caves is the “…cornerstone of the totemic and the magical interpretations.” (Ucko, 1967), that deals the death blow to ‘art for art’s sake’ theories. The Palaeolithic cave artist therefore “…does not differentiate his aesthetic activity…in a world of mystic perception which is one single unity.” (Read, 1949). There are two reasons to assume that Upper Palaeolithic shamanism existed (Lewis-Williams, 1997) which are: (1) the ubiquity of hunter-gatherer shamanism; (2) the ability of the human system to achieve altered states of consciousness. Despite the worldwide similarities of shamanism (Eliade, 1972; Vitebsky, 1995) it is therefore probable “…that some form of shamanism – not necessarily identical to any ethnographically or historically recorded type of shamanism – was practised by hunter-gatherers of Upper Palaeolithic Europe.” (Lewis-Williams, 1997).

Sympathetic and cooperative magical ceremonies restored and reinforced community life for hunter-gatherers – thus between totemism and religion stands magic (Harrison, 1997), and cave art “…had definite magical connotations, and many cave pictures may have been executed with magic in view.” (Lissner, 1961). In Palaeolithic art all coupled animals, pregnant females, wounded, trapped or being hunted are “…clear and well defined instances of a certain kind of magic…” (Grazioli, 1960). For example, hand-prints in prehistoric art are a mysterious practice that must have involved dancing, magic or religion (Verbrugge, 1957), but Franco-Cantabrian hand-prints were not art, but ritualistic effigies or two-dimensional representations of the human hand (Lissner, 1961). Cave painting did not appear until the mid-Aurignacian but hand-prints are much older whereas hand silhouettes date from much later periods (Lissner, 1961).  Positive hand prints are not common and always red, but negative hand-prints are normally black, see Figure 17.  Additionally hand-prints could possibly be part of a totemic initiatory or ‘rites of passage’ ritual where the print substitutes for the unmentioned totemic secret name. Hand stencils and hand-prints are usually in the ‘red’ entrance area of a cave while, incidentally, reindeer, bison, Megaloceros, aurochs and horses are only black implying that “…each location was chosen for a special function or was used by people of different status. ” (Chippindale, 1968).


Figure 17.

Hand prints in a cave at El Castillo, Cantabria, Spain.

Fertility rituals were elaborate totemic rites employed to maintain the life-force of the animal (Lewis, 1969), ensuring its reproduction and availability for others. For Durkheim (1915) sacramental rites confirmed the sacredness inherent in the totem which was transferred to those of the Totemic group and ritual as existing to strengthen and symbolise group solidarity. Thus rituals have considerable survival value and he calls such universal and unquestionable values and assumptions “…collective representations.” We do not know if Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers regarded themselves as communicants with Mother-Earth or if they perceived themselves as interacting with an otherworld Master of Animals (Krupp, 1997). If fertility rituals took place in cave sanctuaries it is plausible that they regarded the earth’s interior as a womb-like corral for seasonal, cyclic return of animals suggested by cave bear cults. Was a bear cult a single cult? It seems that only bears, not other beasts, appear in these gory scenes, for example the bear in extremis at Lest Trois Freres is covered with circles and ovals or assumed wounds? This may indicate the existence of a bear cult in the Upper Palaeolithic accompanied by images of human heads wearing bear masks, and bear heads depicted on their own. It may be that the cult derived from a Cave Bear (Ursus spelaeus) rite even though all bears painted engraved, sculpted during the Magdalenian are brown bears (Ursus arctos). Cave images in northwest Spain and southwest France are directed towards successful hunting – but not just hunting because the caves are also for cult ceremonies and places of initiation.

Primitive art from its inception was both decorative and geometric, as well as realistic and symbolic, but ‘primitive’ does not imply ‘child-like’ because it was frequently advanced in both sophistication of handling and technique. Upper Palaeolithic people did not process caves in a rigid formalistic way (Lewis-Williams, 1997), as suggested by Leroi-Gourhan (1968) because they “…explored and adapted each cave in accordance with its peculiar topography…” (Lewis -Williams, 1997; Vialou, 1983; 1986). Note must be made of the social conditions, cosmologies, and religious beliefs of the different times at which the cave was used (Pearson, 2002). A major interpretation of cave art postulated the introduction of order and that analysis of painting positions reveals a general scheme, therefore that “…there is order in Palaeolithic man’s art providing a basis for investigating its evolution” (Leroi-Gourhan, 1968). Problems of chronology include the fact that there are few instances of mobiliary art associated stratigraphically, whereas parietal art is not stratified at all, thus “…classifying Palaeolithic art…is considerably harder than the classification of prehistoric man’s other material remains.” (Leroi-Gourhan, 1968).

Cave art did not have a single beginning or a single climax but instead “…many variations, between regions and periods…” (Bahn, 1998), it had many heydays, many beginnings, which means cave art is the “…tangible manifestation of complex cultural beliefs during the Upper Palaeolithic   .” Chippindale, 1998). Many unique developments occurred in the European Upper Palaeolithic which indicate  increasing social complexity (Jochim, 1983) including climatic deterioration and consequent population movements, and the impressive parietal and mobiliary art is evidence of long-distance exchange as a reflection of these cultural adjustments. The obvious ornamental features of mobiliary art are complimented by clear signs of magic in much cave art (Grazioli, 1960)., thus for parietal we can read sacred and for mobiliary we can read profane (Riddell, 1942)  – the original Latin for profane being ‘without the temple’. In view of this, aestheticism and utilitarian purpose are not incompatible because “…cave art hinged on creation of images almost exclusively connected with magic, the same cannot be said of mobiliary art…” (Grazioli, 1960). Above all – the cave and home artists were most likely hunters themselves, practically engaged in activities to secure good hunting so to try to “…separate art and magic and religion in the unified life of early man shows the folly of the over-critical mind.” (Hawkes, 1965).

Over 30,000 years there were periods of progress, stagnation, and regression in Palaeolithic art – development therefore was not linear (Bahn, 1998). In essence cave art is: (1) more diverse than first assumed; (2) there was not linear evolution from the awkward to the more elaborate; (3) compositions were painted long before or at the same time as others and, importantly “…the contents of the art did change considerably over time.” (Chippindale, 1998). The art of the Upper Palaeolithic indicates a psychic unity of Homo sapiens that is not a ‘mythogram’ of sequential styles pre-ordained or pre-planned. The thirteen sea animals and caprids (goats) at Grotte Cosquer indicates what”…the influence of local biotype played in painters myths.” (Chippindale, 1998). The environment of the Grotte Cosquer was one of limestone hills favouring ibex and chamois, whereas the Magdalenians of La Vache hunted mostly ibex in contrast to the cave art at Niaux with its overwhelming numbers of is bison and horses. At Chauvet there were many rhinoceros, lions, long-eared owl, panther and hyena.

The theories of Leroi-Gourhan (111968; 1978) are no longer tenable after the evidence from Chauvet Cave, especially as his Style 1 is detectable in only a few Dordogne sites, and his views are now challenged (Clottes, 1996). The positions of lions and rhinos are centrally placed at Chauvet, not in entrances or bottoms and moreover (rather than being a mythogram) Leroi-Gourhan’s stylistic dates “…appear to be totally random and irrelevant, offering no redeeming feature at all.” (Bednarik, 1995). The artists of the Upper Palaeolithic were us, and in order to appreciate the meaning of their art, we must try to put ourselves in their circumstances, look though their eyes, and try to walk in their foot-ware, and not as was stated previously indulge ourselves with over-analytical minds. Even that caves were places of seasonal aggregation for tribal ritual and trade (Bogucki, 2000) for hunter-gatherer bands or exogamous clans.

Image (20)

Dedicated to my son William Frederick Edwards (23.06.1975 to 31.10.2009).

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Filed under Volume 1

5 responses to “Prehistoric Art and Totemic Belief, Shamanism and Fertility Ritual

  1. Pingback: Palaeolithic rock art found in Egypt | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Pingback: Fertility rites & Rock paintings | Karmit EvenZur

  3. paulgarzajr

    Thank your for making this available to a broader readership. Wonderful work.

  4. Leanne McClements

    I really enjoyed reading your paper. Thank you for your time in researching the subject and writing the paper, and publishing online for general access. I felt enriched by its contents.

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