Has the Oldest Enigma of Humanity been really solved?

A review of The Oldest Enigma of Humanity: The Key to the Mystery of the Paleolithic Cave Paintings, Bertrand David and Jean-Jacques Lefrère   (Translated by M G Lynch), Arcade Publishing, New York, 2014

I bought the book by Bertrand David and Jean-Jacques Lefrère with keen interest to see how the mystery around Paleolithic Cave Paintings has been solved. The book is small and easy to read. First few chapters of the book are about Mr David’s entry to the subject. I skipped parts of these chapters to get to the content I was eager to read. I found myself to be little disappointed with the way the key idea of the book was argued for. Their idea was simple yet needed supportive evidence. Early people used figurines of animals to cast shadows on the cave walls with the help of the ‘flickering’ flames of lamps. It is known that there is an abundance of animal figurines from the Paleolithic Period. Not only figurines but also the lamps were discovered in these Paleolithic Caves. The authour himself acknowledges the difficulty of producing a traceable image using the suggested technique. “Yet no matter how many times I tried, I never managed to arrive at a helpful rule of thumb that would make it possible to consistently obtain a clear shadow, or even discernible one for that matter”p79.

If making a shadow is such a vexing task, how could the early man do it in a deep dark cave? If the lamps were burning for a long time inside the cave they should have definitely blackened the cave roof. But one can argue that they used a method that was similar to what I used to do as a child to collect the soot from oil lamps. They might have placed a shiny side of a dry bark over the lamp to collect the soot, which they in turn used to draw in black.

The authours claim that when they came up with their idea, they didn’t know about Mr Matt Gatton’s work, which shows some similarities to theirs. According to them, Mr Matt Gatton imagined that camera obscura effect might have created a ‘negative’ image of an animal on a ‘plaquette’ that Paleolithic painters used for creating its ‘positive’ image on the cave wall (p. 111). Mr Matt Gatton in a series of papers (Gatton, M (2010) Pleistocene Coalition News Vol 2 (3) May-June p4-5, Vol 2(4) July-Aug p6-7 and Vol 2(5) Sep-Oct p8-9) explained how an appropriate size of hole on the tent of Paleolithic people could act as a camera obscura (“Paleo-Camera”), which could cast inside the tent an inverted image of an animal lurking outside. This inverted image can be traced on to a surface like a paver stone some examples of which were found in the caves. The image was small and had to be transferred onto the walls of caves via a process of projection somewhat similar to Mr David’s. However, Mr David observes that these drawings on free-standing surfaces are markedly different to the cave paintings in composition. Jean Clottes in his book on cave art agrees and says, in the least in respect of one cave, “the artists who made them [sandstone plaquettes found in Les Trois-Freres] were therefore not the same ones who had access to that cave walls.” (p244 of Cave Art, Phaidon).

Furthermore, Mr Gatton’s idea seems to be somewhat convoluted for the creation of a cave art. Why do someone go through such a process when Mr David’s process is simpler. Animals are always moving and it is very difficult to imagine that they would stay quite until an artist traces the image on to some surface. Mr Gatton and Dr Leah Carreon (Gatton, M and Carreon, L (2012) Pleistocene Coalition News Vol 4 (4) July-August p1-3) uses probabilistic arguments to prove that these ancestors of ours might have seen camera obscura effect at least one per cent of the time in a day (a range of 1-8% per day). The existence of the said effect doesn’t mean a lot because observing camera obscura effect doesn’t prove that these artists used it to create the prehistoric images. On the other hand, I also believe their conclusions are confusing, to say the least. On the basis of the assumptions and deductions used to derive their probabilities they can only draw conclusions about the year not the day. Their sample space for estimating various probabilities about factors such as the weather and dwelling’s exposure to sunlight consists of the year. Thus, one should wonder how  they can interpret their final probability as chances per day. In this light, even the probability of observing a camera obscura effect should be far lower than what Mr Gatton and Dr Carreon believe, i.e. between one to eight times in a 100 year period. In the final analysis, the said probabilities don’t add much value anyway. One imaginative individual with the bright idea was very probably all that was required. The rest could be taken care of by the diffusion of innovation. Even though none of the points in the above discussion prove that Mr David’s approach is better, it makes it equally important contender. In favour of Mr David’s method, we can say that the artist didn’t have to go through the extra step of using the camera obscura effect to create a mobile art. The only trouble with Mr David’s method is adjusting the light to get the image displayed on the wall.

There are some other counter-arguments to the reasoning provided in support of Mr David’s method of creating cave paintings. One such argument is about the relative difficulty of the method in contrast to some easier ones. The early ancestors could have drawn these images on an animal hide in daylight, cut the shapes using their stone implements and used those cutouts to draw the outlines of animals inside the caves. If they had some supernatural theme associated with this practice, it would have been very easy for them to find time to perform the above task. As we know the areas where there was light, were usually avoided by these early painters. They could have done the drawing on an animal hide at the area near the opening of the cave and the finished product might have been carried inside to trace it on to the wall. Perhaps, few people held these cutouts on to the wall and others drew the outline. The painters did not need any extra light at all. Like reading Braille writing, a cutout can be easily traced even if there’s very faint light or no light at all. Let us assume that the pubescent girls lived inside these caves as a ritual practice in Paleolithic period (Reflections on Palaeolithic Cave Art, Girls at Puberty and the Origin of Religion, published in Social Science Research Network – SSRN). They had been secluded and had nothing much to do. They had all the time to draw an image on a hide, cut it out and use it to trace an image inside the cave as a collective activity.

The second argument is concerned with the ease of testing Mr David’s hypothesis. It is easy to reverse-engineer the process and work out what the distances involved and the size of the figurines required to come up with the images on the wall had to be. Did they have enough space inside the caves to do all the manoeuvres needed to get the images right? Such a process will be almost like a definitive proof of the feasibility of Mr Davis’ hypothesis and doesn’t involve all the work discussed in the book as a proof of concept. It seems strange that the authors of the book didn’t use the above scenario to build a strong case for their hypothesis.

Thus, the Oldest Enigma of Humanity sadly is yet to be solved.

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The website aims to show the possible origin of religion through a ‘uniquely’ human process which has links to the seclusion of girls at puberty. It also advocates the view that the Paleolithic Venus figurines are related to these puberty rites and hence, the prehistoric Venus figurines may carry a much larger meaning. Thus, Religion is something more than a throwback from our animal past.

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