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ArtPrintCritical dictionary

Pre-Historic Arts

António Martinho Baptista

By definition, Pre-historic arts cover the longest period of human history which, mainly due to methodological convenience, ends with the coming of Classical Antiquity to different parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East and the spread of writing, which was a phenomenon which lasted for some considerable time within places and moments which were considerably distant from each other both geographically and chronologically.

Keywords: graphic reason; hominization; hunting; painting; sculptureprimitivism; cave; symbolic

There is evidence of writing in the Iberian Peninsula long before the Roman conquest, but it was the end of the Bronze Age and more specifically the Iron Age, with the time far from the proto-historical transition (in a broad sense throughout the first millennium Before Christ) for the so-called historical societies, which became rooted through the Roman occupation, then the spread of Christianity and the resulting conversion.

And if the creation of art is not essential to ensuring the subsistence of the species it is as an element which distinguishes us from all the other species which have lived or do live on the Earth. That is because all art is communication, and the creation of art must therefore involve a producer and a receiver. And this presupposes a minimum of social organisation and some form of social contract. Before the invention and spread of writing, pre-historic cave painting and its symbolic codification, as a reflection of ancient knowledge, were thus the most important testimony to the most ancient intellectual history of humanity.

Therefore since the appearance of Homo sapiens more than 100 000 years ago, the artistic motivation born of the invention of symbolic worlds, has provided evidence of its existence, while debate still goes on whether Neanderthals (a true sapiens) would also have created art. There is no archaeological proof in terms of material cultural items to sustain this idea, although the presence of ochre in Neanderthal graves, an aesthetic formalism (as the supposed collection of beautiful objects or forms suggesting beauty), which would suggest a relationship between the phenomenon of death and the appearance of the first forms of religion and consequently art.

The academic ordering of pre-historic art has traditionally been divided into two long periods of pre-historic art history: The art of the Paleolithic era or glacial art, which ended (at least, that is, in part of Europe) with the end of Würm and the gradual climate warming which took place approximately 10 000 years ago (Prehistoric Antiquity); and post-paleolithic art, or art of the Holocene era, which continued until the coming of the classical civilisations (Recent Prehistory, at least until Protohistory). It is of course the case that in different regions of the world these classifications have rather fluid and differentiated dates. Thus, while in Europe the end of Würm signalled the end of the Stone Age or Ancient Prehistory, in Australia this period extended until the 18th Century, until the arrival of the first white colonisers. In fact, present-day Australian aborigines still make cave paintings in the prehistoric style.

Emmanuel Anati has considered, with some justification, that prehistoric art can be divided into four main categories characterised by both their states of social development and by the stylistic patterns of this ancient symbolism: that of the ancient hunter-gatherers, from the Aurignacian to the Epipaleolithic  (± until around 12 000 BP), or all the Upper Paleolithic and the final glaciation transition period, which was characterised by major stylistic uniformity until the clear difference established by the Magdalenian; that of the hunter-gatherers which developed from the start of the Holocene period; that of the shepherds and farmers of the Neolithic and Copper Age periods; and finally, the art of complex economic societies, the metalworking civilisations.

There were different forms of making Prehistoric art of various types and using various means: engraving and painting on rocky surfaces – cave and wall painting – were the most common or, rather, those which have best resisted the passing of the millennia. Prehistoric humans also valued sculpture, both made from stone, and from bone, antler, ivory or wood, with it certainly being possible to imagine other forms of art certainly lost forever, along with the cadences of their language (would there have been an ancient language?) and drawings on more rapidly perishable materials (sand, animal furs, vegetable fibre, etc). Amongst the oldest sculptural items, the so-called paleolithic Venuses, normally small in size, are well known and are female figurines which were deliberately corpulent – which some have seen as evidence of a cult of fertility – normally attributable to the Gravettian, in stone, bone or ivory (those made from wood would have disappeared, along with a large part of pre-historic art which must have used wood and other perishable organic materials). The humans also decorated their own body with tattoos, as Ethnography appears to show compared with the incorrectly labelled "current primitives which reveals a common phenomenon, along with the presence of tattoos on the mummified body of the iceman found in the Schnalstal glacier in the Ötztal Alps, near Hauslabjoch.

It was in the upper Paleolithic, more than 40 000 years ago, that the first artistic evidence appeared and developed as a truly creative activity, the reasons for which are (and always will be) an object of heated academic debate. From ludic art, which was  born, for example, through observing one’s self being reflected back in the water, to the image which each individual makes of themselves and each and every one around us and from which a graphical synthesis is then able to transmit an idea, a concept and hence a narration; to functional art of a religious kind or as a mark of territoriality or social order, art in all its forms did from a particular moment evolve and involve the full existence of pre-historical societies. Art for Art’s sake (Ars Gratia Artis), art to do with fetishism or the magic, the religious, the art of the shaman or the delineator of sacred or consecrated ground, or ethnic territory or that of the clan, or the hunt - all is possible.  In any event it seems possible to state that these forms of art must always be polysemous by nature.

Paleolithic art is to be found to some extent all around the world (from Australia to the Old World) colonised by the Cro-Magnons, an offshoot of an African branch of the first Sapiens. It was however in Western Europe that one of the most original and major artistic cycles in the history of humanity flourished. The discovery of the first pieces of moveable art in the first half of the 19th Century [bone with two carved does from the Chaffaud Cave (Vienne, France) discovered in 1834 and others, then attributed to the mythical Celts] and then afterwards the wall painting of Altamira in 1879 and other decorated caves in the Franco-Cantabrian region contributed to the idea that Paleolithic art was an art involving cave paintings. Both because it was there that humans sheltered from the long glacial night, and because these very caves possessed the conditions to all the art to be well preserved down the millennia of history and its convolutions. Resisting erosion, cave painting became a stereotype which would only be changed at the end of the 19th Century, especially due to the discovery of the art at Vale do Côa. From an art involving darkness and shadows, Vale do Côa transformed paleolithic art into an open air art full of light. Nowadays, and in addition to Vale do Côa, the Iberian Peninsula contains the best examples of this open air art (Siega Verde, Vale do Sabor, Domingo Garcia, Vale do Guadiana, etc.).

It is in essence an art characteristic of societies of hunters, with it being fundamentally zoomorphic in its drawn figures. And its preferred style, stretching across millennia is, at first sight, naturalistic from its early beginnings. However, this classification is illusory, since if the animal forms seem to us to follow certain patterns in their drawing, they on the other hand cohabit the space with a vast range of abstract and geometrical figures, signs of more obscure meaning, but which as a whole give the narrative a meaning, a sequence, a structure involving the cave as a whole, but also the river and its banks and slopes.

Along with this style, the concept of the location in paleolithic art may be compared with some artistic currents of the present day. Figures apparently appear as if without defined planes and thrown haphazardly onto the walls of the caves or on the schist slabs of river valleys such as in Côa, but that should not be understood as such, as there is an evident sense of association/disassociation between many of these motifs, some also playing with the typography of the relief and the surfaces and also penetrating the very geomorphology of the environment. A large part of paleolithic art is thus a structured art, but it is difficult to attach more than hypothetical meaning to it, as André Leroi-Gourhan has maintained.

What is truly amazing in the most naturalistic patterns and not only in paleolithic art is its great typological and even aesthetic uniformity (there appears to have been consistency in the canons of primitive symbology, as Anati has stated) throughout paleolithic Europe and even in other places of the world in which artistic evidence of this period has now been discovered. But at the same time, it is as if the artists were true founders of the arts of design and painting, masters of a timeless canonical school. As such, art is the most integrative element of the intellectual history of these ancient societies.

In accepting the dating of the oldest paintings in the exceptional Chauvet cave (prior to 32 000 BP), the evolution of paleolithic art does not exactly lead from abstraction to naturalism, but rather the two currents run in parallel. Indeed, figurative art and abstract art show development in parallel, both constituent elements of the invention of the symbolic worlds of the first Sapiens. And at the end of the Paleolithic period, that is from the Solutrean period, art became part of daily life, as can be seen in the great explosion of the mobile, more characteristic of the Magdalenian period. And Vale do Côa as well.

The end of the Paleolithic would see the emergence of new artistic patterns such as the gradual rise of anthropocentrism, slowly making humans the centre of graphical activity. An art of hunters gradually changed to an art of shepherds and farmers and then the first metalworkers. Artistic patterns altered and also motivations for such. In the Iberian Peninsula, after an Epipaleolithic  period (found in the valleys of the Côa and the Tagus) in which animalistic art was still predominant (but very sensory), Neolithic and Calcolithic art is normally classified within symbolic schematics. The figures, and specifically the numerous human representations, but also the animals and signs, were now smaller in size and almost always simple "schemes" or "symbols", reduced to their essential features.

One of the most enigmatic and least well known of the artistic cycles within the Peninsula is that of the art of the Northwest, engraved on granite (Galician-Atlantic petroglyphs) centred around Lower Galicia and Minho, all of which is abstract-symbolic, with an obsessive figurative grammar of geometrical features, and with a well ordered richness regarding the structuring of each of its major sites. In Portugal, Bouça do Colado (Lindoso, Ponte da Barca) is the jewel in the crown of this period which apparently flourished between the late Neolithic period and the Bronze Age.

The origin of art is thus intertwined with that of the origin of modern humans. And its evolution through thousands of years of history is that of the very evolution of the symbolic thought of modern Sapiens.



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