When Caves were Temples (Part 1)
Essay | I was eight years old the first time I set foot in a prehistoric cave. It was the same cave my father visited as a child, and my grandparents before him.
Magic Words - Inuit poem
In the very earliest times,
when both people and animals lived on earth,
a person could become an animal if he wanted to
and an animal could become a human being.
Sometimes they were people
and sometimes animals
and there was no difference.
All spoke the same language.
That was the time when words were like magic.
The human mind had mysterious powers.
A word spoken by chance
might have strange consequences.
It would suddenly come alive
and what people wanted to happen could happen –
all you had to do was say it.
Nobody can explain this:
That’s the way it was.
I was eight years old the first time I set foot in a prehistoric cave. It was the same cave my father visited as a child, and my grandparents before him. Altamira, nestled in the wet green hills of Northern Spain where my grandfather was born and where he died, where my family fought for Franco in the civil war, and where my father found a priest willing to breach the Church rules against inter-faith marriage to wed my Welsh mother some thirty years ago. This land was home to my ancestors for at least five generations. It was the last part of Spain to be colonised by the Romans, and the only part of the country the Arabs of the eighth century had no interest in because of its wild terrain and peoples. The Cantabri, or Ancient Cantabrians, were seen as savage and barbaric mountaineers by the ‘more-civilized’ Iberian Peninsula, and earned a derogatory name that translates as ‘cave people’ given to anyone who did not take on the Christian faith at the time of its dissemination.
I feel irrepressibly drawn to caves. To their darkness. To their peace. Perhaps it is because their ochre runs in my ancestor’s blood. Or perhaps I’m just tired of a love and light spirituality that seems to have forgotten that all light, all life, came from darkness.
Caves offer a reminder of such a time. One that makes me gasp with wonder. The prehistoric era is a time shrouded in mystery and is deeply misunderstood. I think its study is of utmost importance if we are ever to know our origins and, as a result, ourselves. Caves are holy, sanctified, sacrosanct. Being within them is a religious experience. And it is in the descent that I know there is nowhere higher to go. It is down deep in the belly of the Earth where I find my God.
In this two-part essay, I will share some of my findings from my fieldwork in the prehistoric caves of Northern Spain and Southern France over the past six years. There are many theories concerning prehistoric caves and their paintings. I believe that the images were created by shamans, and that those shamans were women – a topic I have been keenly exploring and will share in more detail separately. I think that the paintings represent the religious belief and cosmology of prehistoric culture, which I think was, at its heart, animistic. To briefly describe animism for anyone who is unfamiliar with the term, it simply means the belief that everything is alive – that all things, animal, human, river, rock, tree or cave, are imbibed with the same life force and have their own intelligence. This belief is still held by indigenous peoples around the world, such as the Arctic Inuit, the Australian Aborigines and the South African San. I propose that cave art is one of the earliest depictions of a spiritual belief, and that it represents the first record of a religion, a cosmology and a worldview. The paintings can be approached as religious icons. In other words, representations that hold the symbolic essence of a tradition. Imagine our descendants tens of thousands of years from now excavating churches and trying to decipher iconography like the Cross or the Mother with her Divine Child, without the use of any documentation or scripture. Only images. Such is our task. The more time I spend both in the caves and studying them, the more I am convinced that approaching them as humankind’s first temples can provide vital understanding concerning our origins and, ultimately, self-knowledge. Understanding the prehistoric worldview and seeking what was there before can help us deconstruct both modern belief systems that stem from systems of oppression, and the modern world’s obsession with the concept of ascension from an unholy material world that arose, I think, when we began to build our places of worship aboveground.
The Temples of Prehistory
The Palaeolithic era, also known as the Stone Age, covers 95% of human history. This is a rather large chunk of time when compared, for instance, to the lifespan of monolithic religion that dates to only a few thousand years. From 2.6 million years ago, the early human species was in Tanzania using stone tools. And for approximately 40 000 years, people were painting in caves. There is Palaeolithic cave art all over the world, but art in deep caves is mostly focused in Europe, particularly Southern France and Northern Spain, where most of the art is concentrated in very deep, dark caves.
The oldest cave painting on Earth has recently been attributed to El Castillo, Spain, where archaeologists found a 40 000 year-old painting that puts into question what we know about our origins. This means that Neanderthals were much more sophisticated than previously accredited by nineteenth-century narratives rooted in colonial notions of progress. It also suggests that the worldview they practiced was extraordinarily old.
The painting in El Castillo consists of a disk made of ochre within a panel of hands. A study of finger ratios attributed most of the hands to women, overturning the former belief that the cave painters were men. Not only is cave art now attributed predominantly to women, but to shamans. It is perhaps they who look back at us through the cracks and crevices and membranes of the cave.
So why is the art in the caves in the first place? And why is it where it is in the caves, in the deepest darkest parts? Some paintings are so high up that some sort of scaffolding and a communal effort would have been needed to paint them. Some of the larger spaces point towards their use for communal or ceremonial events. The caves are water soundscapes, with the sound of constant dripping. And it is dark. Pitch black. A darkness so deep you can see - there’s really no other way to put it. Another kind of sight takes over. Most artwork is of animals. And the more common forms of human figures are of women.
The animal artwork depicts a narrow range of species that appear repeatedly, particularly bison, deer, horses and aurochs. There is no indication of landscapes, such as trees or hills, so that the animals appear to be floating in empty space. Half animal, half human figures are also frequent, along with hand prints and abstract geometric signs. David Lewis-Williams suggests hand prints were a way of making intimate contact with the cave itself. This concept of permeability suggested by the hands and the shapeshifting quality between human and animal indicate there was believed to be no barrier between the human and other-than-human-worlds. As the Inuit poem tells us, ‘Sometimes they were people, and sometimes animals, and there was no difference.’
The Bias Against Prehistoric Culture
Altamira was the first cave to be discovered in Southern Europe by a hunter in 1868. A few years later, the archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola and his eight-year-old daughter Maria went exploring in the cave. As the story goes, Maria wandered off on her own into the darkness, leading her way with a torch, and she was the first to come across the paintings.
Marcelino Sautuola proceeded to document the cave paintings. And he argued that they were created by prehistoric peoples. But his work was dismissed for the ensuing twenty years of his career. He died discredited and dismissed as a fraud by the church and the academics of the time. Why this initial scepticism? Scholars could not accept that Palaeolithic peoples could have created something so sophisticated. Everything about cave art went against nineteenth-century notions of progress that saw evolution as the development from savage to civilised man. Colonial notions of primitive people coloured the early research and interpretations of cave art. A lot of energy was invested in trying to prove the Eurocentric theory that Palaeolithic people had moved outwards from Europe, dispersing around the rest of the world. But we now know that Europe is not the cradle of civilization, as nineteenth-century scholars assumed, and that Homo sapiens likely originated in Africa and gradually moved into Southern Europe.
The discovery of cave art necessitated a radical alteration in the way humans thought about themselves and their place in nature and history. When C. Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was published in 1859, Victorian Britain remained a largely Christian society, with many still clinging to Bishop Ussher’s calculation that the world was created in 4004 BC, on the 22nd of October, around 6pm. So it’s not surprising that the notion of art being made by people that lived tens of thousands of years before Ussher’s date of creation was met by many with suspicion, downright disbelief and even anger. The surfacing of cave art suggested that the world was far older than initially thought.
The World’s Oldest Religion
Up until fairly recently, I believed that caves were the homes of pre-historic peoples. This is what we were taught in school, and what I was always told by guides when I visited the caves as a child. I believed this narrative until I began to study shamanism. Beginning with the work of anthropologists Mircea Eliade and Michael Harner, and continuing on to apprentice with shamans in Bolivia, Peru and the UK, I became fascinated by the question of our origins and an animistic worldview that seemed to span across cultures and time and spoke to the wonder of the child in me. Recently, I’m thrilled to say the narratives are changing. Archaeologists and cave guides are now beginning to call caves the churches of prehistory, and referring to their artwork as religious symbols painted by shamans.
Cave art tells us that there was once a magical relationship between humankind and the other-than-human-world. For Neolithic people, that ‘magic’ was the belief in a neurologically generated and emotionally charged cosmology inhabited by supernatural beings and forces that influenced human life. The predominant view now is that the cosmology was animistic, or shamanistic. If we can shape our modern thinking to imagine what an interaction with a cave may have been like when caves were perceived as live, sentient beings, then perhaps we can begin to conceive of the changes that ensued from our migration away from them.
There is a remarkable consistency of images over a period of more than 25 000 years. This suggests a long period of a fairly consistent belief system. In his book on cave art, Jean Cottes remarks that it is the longest tradition humankind has ever known.
Part 2 to follow.
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Absolutely fascinating and beautifully spoken …thank you for your study and empathy xxx
I love your perspective on caves--especially that the paintings may have been done primarily be female shamans. That makes a lot of sense to me! I love your writing and appreciate your responsible research. Thank you for sharing!