Archive for the ‘Palaeolithic’ Category

Visiting the Otherworld in Ice Age Nottinghamshire

Friday, February 28th, 2014

Creswell Crags

When three archaeologists decided to search for rock engravings at British Palaeolithic sites (reasoning that painting would have already been discovered if there was any but engraving is much harder to spot) they decided to start at Creswell Crags, a narrow valley on the Nottinghamshire / Derbyshire border. It was a wise choice as, on 14th April 2003, the team discovered an engraving in Mother Grundy’s Parlour (every cave has its own unique name). Job done, they packed up and were about to leave for Gower (where they would find rock engravings at a later date). Fortunately, the head ranger at Creswell persuaded them to have a look at Church Hole Cave on the Nottinghamshire side of the valley. They had already discounted this cave as not worth searching but, humouring him, the team took a look. What they found was later described (with a knowing hint of exaggeration) as an Ice Age Sistine chapel.

What surprised the team was that Church Hole was north-facing and therefore got very little daylight penetrating the interior; they assumed this would mean no engravings. Moreover, directly opposite this cave, on the south-facing side of the valley, was another cave – Robin Hood Cave – where there was copious evidence for Ice Age living but absolutely no rock engravings (except a few indistinct lines). It seemed counter-intuitive, but a closer look at the arrangement of these two sites – which were inhabited at the same time, around 13,000 to 11,000 years-ago – may provide the key to explain how people related to their valley home.

Robin Hood Cave, where people lived, was in sunlight and the large chamber just inside the door provided space for people to cook, prepare hides, and gather socially. This was a cave of light and life. In contrast, Church Hole Cave was on the dark side of the valley, reached by crossing a river that flooded the valley bottom, and showed no sign of habitation. People engraved images but did not live there. This suggests the cave was reserved for ritual use, a place of darkness and possibly death.

The evidence for Ice Age people having a shamanic worldview is now widely accepted and formed the basis of my book, Prehistoric Belief, published in 2010. Often, a journey to the shamanic otherworld (usually made in trance) involves crossing water, a symbolic element attributed to the phenomena of hearing sounds like rushing water. Another common element of trance is entering a long, dark passage and moving along it. At Creswell Crags, people visiting Church Hole Cave from their base in Robin Hood Cave, would do both. Setting off, they would travel down to the river, which they would need to cross. Climbing up to Church Hole Cave, they would then enter a long, dark passage. While most of the rock engravings they encountered were in the front of the cave, there were others further back, where the original artist would have been in total darkness. Could the cave have represented a shamanic otherworld to these early people?

I had the good fortune to visit both Robin Hood and Church Hole Cave last summer. It was an awesome experience getting up close to the rock engravings but I also began to ponder their wider symbolism. The engravings at the back of the cave were initially thought to be of water birds, until one of the team compared them with contemporary Magdalenian art from the continent, notably from Gönnersdorf and Lalinde. They suggested the images were not birds but stylised women, adopting the late Palaeolithic shape for women as tall and slender but with large buttocks (this replaced the near obese women from the early Palaeolithic). To me, it suggested that the cave was a place where female (and conversely, not-female or male) identity was important.

Looking at the carvings on the same side of the cave as the stylised women, I found images of triangles which, using analogies with other Palaeolithic sites, may represent female pubic triangles. One even had a trace of another triangle within it, possibly relating to pregnancy. In fact, all the images on this side – the eastern side – of the cave featured images related to females.

Conversely, on the other side – the western side – the images were mostly of animals. These included an ibis, a stag, a bison, and a horse, along with other animal shapes that are harder to determine. To me, this represented both the spiritual power of the animals (animal spirits would be expected in the shamanic otherworld) but also, more prosaically, their utility as prey. It is perhaps not too great a step to identify hunting as a male sphere of influence, allowing for the probability that certain women also hunted alongside the men. The image of the stag had a row of notches beneath it and, as I started to count them, I hoped they would total 13, the number of moons in an annual cycle. They did, perhaps denoting the times when the animal was available to hunt, assuming they would have seasonally migrated (as the people may have done themselves). It also hinted at a link to the female images opposite.

It seems that Church Hole Cave was divided between female images on the right side of the cave (east), and hunting prey, potentially a male realm, on the left side of the cave (west). Whether rituals that may have been performed there were segregated – with each group using the cave at specific times – or whether both groups visited and interacted with each other is difficult to tell but the cave itself would have taken a relatively large group. It is only towards the rear of the cave that the passage narrows and this is where the stylised female figures are located. This may be an inner sanctum visited by only a few, perhaps girls on reaching adulthood, initiating them into the mysteries of womanhood.

The Palaeolithic people who inhabited Creswell Crags had massive challenges with hostile weather and a lack of available game. Church Hole Cave may have been a response to this, initiating the young into the roles of adulthood. It taught womanhood, fertility, hunting prowess, and the proximity of the spirits. It was a shamanic journey made real.

Beyond the Veil: Otherworld Experience as Archaeological Research

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

Beyong the Veil

Shamanism, the ability to leave this world and travel to the realm of the spirits, has always been part of the human condition. As anthropology developed as a discipline, there were many reports of shamans from traditional societies in places such as South America, Australia, Africa and, of course, their traditional heartland of Siberia. It seemed that wherever anthropologists ventured there were shamans to wave back at them.

Early reports attempted to explain shamanism by describing the shamans themselves: what they wore, how they arranged their ceremonies, and what type of tools and objects they used. No mention was ever made of the actual visit the shamans made to the otherworld. In fact, when such journeys were described to the anthropologists, they came to the ‘logical’ conclusion that shamans must be clinically deranged and they invented new illnesses such as ‘Arctic Sickness’ to explain it.

There was a clear gulf between anthropologists and shamans which, given that most of the anthropologists had never heard of the otherworld of the spirits let alone experienced it, was perhaps understandable. At least they didn’t behave like the evangelical missionaries a few centuries earlier that condemned the practice as consorting with devils and persecuted many shamans to extinction.

A change came when otherwise respectable anthropologists such as Carlos Castaneda (if he is to be believed) and Michael Harner threw academic convention to the wind and agreed to follow the shamans they studied beyond this world and into the other. To their initial surprise, once in the otherworld, they had similar experiences to those described by the shamans. Moreover, for those in the academic community waiting behind, it tentatively opened a new and now far more legitimate  field of research.

What was soon established is that shamans go into trance in order to facilitate their entry into the otherworld. The experimentation in the laboratories of the 1960s and 1970s showed that certain hallucinogenic drugs could induce similar trance states and, not surprisingly, researchers found that some shamans took natural forms of the same drugs to assist their journeys to the otherworld.

All of a sudden much of the ethnographic record that had previously been unfathomable began to make sense. By ignoring trance experience of the otherworld, anthropologists could only understand part of the world shamanic people lived in. As it turned out, the otherworld and the existence of the spirits informed pretty much everything these people did.

This also had repercussions for archaeology, as archaeologists quickly realised that if traditional people today order a large part of their lives around trance experiences (and it has been shown that some 90 per-cent do), then the same is likely true of the past. But that was not all. The anthropologists had already shown that they could enter trance and journey to the otherworld as easily as traditional people; shamanic experience did not depend on where or, indeed, even on when you live. All human beings can enter trance and will undergo a similar experience and this was as true for the first modern humans to walk the earth as it is for us. To find out why this is so, involved the application of a little neuroscience.

All trance is facilitated by a given stimulus. Anthropologists already knew about drugs and, when archaeologists looked again at the environmental records from the past, they found everything from opium to burnt henbane seeds. Even the engravings on bronze razors turned out to show a hallucinogenic mushroom. Drugs, it seems, were rife.

But drugs are not the only means of inducing trance. Listening to repetitive drumming at a certain beat and frequency is also effective. This may be why Neolithic people designed the forecourts around burial tombs to resonate drum beats at just this frequency; trance states were probably part of any funeral ritual. Similarly, mounds of burnt stones in the Bronze Age may denote saunas and it is striking that shamans in Siberia induce their trance states by inhaling steam in a sauna. Other portals are less obvious, such as the upside down tree thrust into the sands of Norfolk. Again, this mirrors Siberian practice, where an upside down tree driven into the earth is recognised as a clear route to the otherworld.

Upon entering trance, many people see geometric shapes, and these are formed entirely within the eye itself with no outside stimulus. Scientists call them phosphenes. Discovering these patterns allowed archaeologists to recognise them in the past and they turned up in contexts ranging from the first scratched art anywhere in the world, on 70,000 year-old stones from South Africa, to fine designs engraved onto Iron Age mirrors. It seems that, once we knew where to look, the shapes of trance were everywhere.

Moving deeper into trance, these shapes rapidly coalesce into a tunnel and, if it is followed to its end, a new landscape reveals itself, which shamanic people the world over identify as the otherworld. The familiar pattern of a long tunnel leading to another realm may have induced Palaeolithic people to follow passages into the earth and, when these also opened out into huge caverns, they completed the symbolism by painting phosphene shapes on the wall.

These early artists also decorated the caves with images of animals and it is unlikely to be a coincidence that of all the entities that may be experienced in the otherworld, animals are the most common. Images of animals, either painted onto walls, modelled in clay, or engraved onto gold and silver objects, form a large corpus of representational art in prehistory. The phosphene shapes that overlay these designs, or the odd inclusion of mythical creatures such as griffins, may hint at their otherworldly source. In some cases, people incorporated animal parts into their houses, fixing them to the walls or burying them under the floor. One house even had half a cow that would have protruded into the room. It would have made an interesting conversational piece.

The deeper individuals go into trance, the more their identity dissolves and merges with whatever is before them. Since this is often an animal, shapeshifting results, where someone takes on the physical form and attributes of the creature. In the Palaeolithic, there are models of half-human half-animal forms and this appears to be a motif to which people continually returned. At Lepenski Vir in Serbia, recognising that sculpted boulders depicted people shapeshifting into fish has revealed an intimate portrait of the spiritual life of the inhabitants who once lived there.

It is not only animals that live in the otherworld but also dead spirits. In the past, the deceased often walked, and this explains many of the intricate rituals and traditions surrounding burial. In the Neolithic, people built huge tombs that, with their long passages leading to an enormous chamber, matched the trance journey to the otherworld; a journey that people seem to have believed that the dead also undertook. At Newgrange, there is even an interlocked spiral deep in the tomb and, every winter solstice, it is brightened by the rising sun, perhaps flaring into life the final portal the dead needed to transverse in order to reach the afterlife. Finally, as if to extinguish any doubt that entering the tomb was a journey to other realities, people carved phosphene shapes onto the walls of the passage: the imagery of trance.

It is not just the dead that have spirits which abide in the otherworld but all other items and objects from this world. This is called ‘animism’ and refers to the belief that all things are alive and are born and die just as we do. This is probably why Bronze Age people treated the creation of a sword as a birth and its demise as a death. They marked both events with great ceremony, mirroring their concern with human rites of passage. In the Neolithic, people considered objects that originated from otherworldly places – high in the mountains, deep from within the earth, or across the sea in foreign climes – as incredibly special, as if something of the place itself remained within the item. Identical objects from more mundane places were passé by comparison and people completely ignored them.

As the self disintegrates totally in trance, it can feel as if the body is rendered into many pieces before disappearing entirely. Siberian shamans identify this as ritualised dismemberment at the hands of the spirits and one shaman describes how it was followed by the resulting body parts being boiled in a cauldron. This matches bodies from the Iron Age that were also dismembered, albeit by human rather than spirit hands. In a cave in the Czech Republic there is even a cauldron next to these dismembered remains. It is as if the description of the Siberian shaman had been brought to life.

The recognition that there is more to shamanism than the mere physical characteristics of the practitioner and his or her rituals, has opened an entirely new window on the past. No longer are the thoughts and beliefs of prehistoric people out-of-bounds for archaeological enquiry. We can now, more than ever, peer directly into people’s minds and attempt to understand how they saw their world. It is a huge step forward, but there is more.

Since trance and the experience of journeying to the otherworld is common to all people, in all times, it also applies to us, here and now. The otherworld of the spirits that prehistoric people experienced is not made up, or a figment of a deluded mind, but is something wired into the brains of every human. This may be why, following the writings of Carlos Castaneda and Michael Harner – the first pioneers into experimental ethnology – the Western world has fairly exploded with shamanism. It is now possible to learn in a weekend how to journey to the otherworld, meet a power animal, and even talk with dead ancestors. It is as if the past and the present have met. Whether what people experience in trance is real or merely a result of coincidental wiring in the brain is, and perhaps will always be, beyond the scope of science. People in prehistory certainly believed that the spirits and the otherworld they inhabited were real but can we, should we, summon the faith to do the same? Perhaps, above all else, this is the real issue as to why otherworld experience is essential to any form of research. Without going beyond the veil, how can anyone decide?

The Implications of a New Study on Upper Palaeolithic Burial

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

Palaeolithic BurialIn an interesting study of Upper Palaeolithic burials, researchers at the University of Colorado Denver have shown that most burials of modern humans were simple affairs with only a few items afforded the deceased, mostly everyday tools. Of the 85 burials analysed, the majority were male with only very few children represented. This makes sense if social status derived from achievement.

The lavish burials, such as Sunghir, Paviland, Dolní Vĕstonice, and Brno are exceptional, the researchers argue, and need to be treated differently. This difference is further emphasised by the burials at Sunghir including children and the burial at Dolní Vĕstonice including a female.

This study leads to two important conclusions.

First, the majority of modern human burials in the Upper Palaeolithic were little distinguished from contemporary Neanderthal burials. Many researchers – myself included – have posited the lavishness and complexity of modern human burial (citing the exceptional burials listed above) as evidence of difference between modern human minds and Neanderthal minds, with the former showing traits that are not found in the latter. This may need to be revised. It also raises the possibility that modern humans reaching Europe actually copied Neanderthal burial traditions rather than developing their own. This has resonance with the re-dating of some cave art, suggesting it could have been painted by Neanderthals. In both spheres, it is possible that modern humans may have first copied and then advanced existing Neanderthal tradition.

The second implication of the new research needs less rethinking on my account as I covered it in my book, Prehistoric Belief. If certain burials of the Upper Palaeolithic are exceptional – and they also include members of the population under-represented in other burials – there has to be a reason for this. The new research only makes finding this reason more pressing.

In my book, I have suggested that the ritualistic aspects of these exceptional burials make it likely that people honoured the occupants for spiritual reasons. They were possibly the equivalent of shamans within Palaeolithic communities and their burials hold clues supporting this. Many were covered with ochre (and an earlier post explores the spiritual use of this earth pigment), they were accompanied with ritualistic items – the “wands” at Paviland and the marionette at Brno –  and some of these people were disabled, perhaps marked by the Gods – the woman at Dolní Vĕstonice in particular. The fabulously rich child burials at Sunghir may also have been spiritually motivated, as the lavish costume of ivory beads and the mammoth sculpture attests. It is hard to see any reason that children would have been singled out for rich burial in a presumably egalitarian society (and until agriculture, all comparable societies have no marked inheritance of position; status is earned).

This new research, although deceptively simple in its findings, adds much weight to our understanding of Upper Palaeolithic burial. It further elevates Neanderthal minds, closing the gap on their modern human cousins, and it reveals the most famous burials of the period as truly exceptional and requiring further explanation for their existence. The ancient past has just got a few steps closer.

Full details of the study can be found on the University of Colorado Denver site by clicking here.

From Blood Red to Brilliant White: Colour Symbolism in the Palaeolithic

Friday, January 25th, 2013

Red LadyAround 29,000 years ago, during a warm spell between the repeated ravages of the Ice Age, a group of mourners brought a recently deceased young man to an isolated cave on a small rise, which would, one day, be the southern coastline of Wales. Within the cave, they dug a small pit for his body, placing a stone at either end as support for his head and feet. After lowering the man into the earth, possessions were laid upon and around him before the assembled group carried out the final act of the burial. They took copious amounts of red ochre, a natural earth pigment, and sprinkled it liberally over the body. It not only stained the man’s leather clothing deep red but also the body beneath. His remains, initially mistaken for a woman, became the ‘Red Lady of Paviland’, after the cave in which he was found.

Red Ochre Pigment

Ochre is also known from other burials during the Palaeolithic, such as Dolní Vĕstonice in the Czech Republic, where three bodies dating to around 26,000 years ago lay in a single grave: a woman between two men. Mourners sprinkled red ochre over the heads of the three, and across the groin of the woman, offering a tantalising possibility for her demise. Perhaps she had died from haemorrhaging during childbirth; the red of the ochre thereby mirroring the blood that drained from her body. Scenes such as this have led some researchers to suggest that ochre did indeed stand for blood, symbolising the life force that is within all living beings. Its use in burials created a continuum from life to death and possibly also reveals people’s understanding and expectation of an afterlife.

Many Upper Palaeolithic burials in Europe contain ochre pigment but its use also dates to far earlier times. People from Blombos Cave in South Africa, around  75,000 years ago, used ochre blocks as the canvas for some of the earliest art in existence. It is quite possible that the choice of medium was entirely intentional since there are hints that people also ground the pigment for painting. Over time, evidence for ochre use intensifies with its deep red colour increasingly used for ornamentation. People may have even used ochre for body decoration; a badge of belonging denoting to which group an individual originated. But was ochre merely a convenient medium for ornamentation or did it actually stand for something? Before its use in burials, it is difficult to be sure but clearly people were consciously choosing to use the colour red for their decorative designs.

Ornamentation developed further during the Upper Palaeolithic with people wearing small items on strings or sewn into their clothes. Again, it seems likely that these carried a message, not only to which group an individual belonged but also other symbolic associations. Teeth, for example, were popular during this time and were usually taken from predatory animals rather than prey species. When worn around the neck or sewn into clothing, the teeth may have denoted group affiliation, but the prevalence of predator species suggests they also brought other symbolic properties; the tooth becoming a metaphor for characteristics of the animal, such as defending the group or success in the hunt. But why did people select teeth to wear? After all, it was a long and bloody process to extract them from the jaw of an animal and longer still to prepare them for suspension. But teeth have a property that may have been especially important to people: they are shiny.

Brilliant White and Spiritual Power

Other materials Palaeolithic people used to make ornaments were also shiny, including ivory, mother of pearl, and soapstone. These all share a visual similarity that makes them almost appear to glow. Certain modern-day hunter-gatherers equate such inner brilliance with spiritual power and the Yolngu of northern Australia finely cross-hatch their artwork so that it shimmers and glows. The glistening nature of Yolngu art – its brilliance –instils it with spiritual power that appears to radiate out from the design. Moreover, such experience is not limited to Yolngu alone. Others who view the art also note its effects and have similar reactions to when they view shimmering water, the sun moving behind a patchwork of leaves, or even when examining the same type of objects worn by Palaeolithic people. People are captivated by the brilliance and, fleetingly, are held in its thrall, as if something reaches out and holds them fast. Whilst the encounter can be reduced to a natural neuropsychological response to a complex interplay of stimuli, the effect on people can be akin to a spiritual experience. Certainly, this is how the Yolngu people interpret brilliance – a spiritual power emanating from the object or art – and this may have been how Palaeolithic people also related to shiny objects. Their brilliance contained and radiated spiritual power. The tactile nature of the materials people worked may even suggest that people handled the objects, possibly in an attempt to absorb some of their power.

Crafting Ornaments

Most of the items Palaeolithic people made into ornaments are naturally shiny except one: ivory needed to be polished to uncover its brilliance. Whilst it may seem that this would have put people off using it, this is not the case. Ivory beads, animal models, and even replica hunting weapons proliferate during the Palaeolithic and it seems that people were entirely prepared to invest the time needed to make their ivory creations shine. Within two linked graves at Sunghir in eastern Russia, dating to around 24,000 years ago, two children had thousands of ivory beads sewn into their clothes. It has been estimated that each bead took 45 minutes to make, which means the 5,000 beads worn by the girl would have taken in excess of 3,750 hours working time. That is the equivalent of a person working 12 hours a day for  over 10 months; an incredible investment of time. With the harshness of everyday life, it is hard to understand why anyone would invest so much time in creating ornamentation (or why others would support them whilst doing so), unless actually working with ivory was considered important in its own right.

At La Souquette, in France, shells were replicated in ivory before being made into jewellery. It seems ivory brought something to the finished ornament that shells were unable to provide on their own. Since ivory is the only material to require polishing to make it shine, it is possible that this was the crucial stage of production. Like the Yolngu, it is possible that Palaeolithic people were polishing ivory objects to bring out their brilliance, making themselves participants in uncovering the inner power of the item. Making an ivory bead may have even been akin to a spiritual act, uncovering power that would benefit not only the person wearing the object but also the group as a whole. It was therefore beneficial for the community to support these craftspeople for the considerable time they needed to perfect their creations. There is also one final element of the process that may be significant: the polishing agent used to bring out the brilliance of ivory was ochre, the same red earth pigment people sprinkled over the dead. Ochre released the brilliance, and potentially also the spiritual power, of ivory. From red came brilliant white.

Buried Shamans

The red ochre spread over burials may not have been to symbolise blood or life force but rather a means of bringing forth brilliance and spiritual power. It may have also referenced the decomposition process of a body whereby the flesh and blood rots to reveal white bone, which, in its raw state, is often shiny. This transformation may have also been apparent when collecting teeth to wear as ornaments. It has been noted that the extraction process was particularly bloody and the teeth would have needed cleaning after removal from the jaw. Any adhering blood would need to be wiped away before the shiny white enamel of the tooth became apparent. At Brassempouy, in France, people even collected and pierced human teeth for suspension. Ochre spread over the body may have been connected with such transformation, ensuring that an individual’s spiritual power was released upon death. It is striking that at Sunghir, where the children were effectively covered in ivory beads, and therefore already brilliant, ochre was not spread over the bodies but was added to the grave stuffed inside an older human leg bone. It seems that, whilst mourners considered the presence of ochre to be an important part of the burial assemblage, its usual role in covering the body was not necessary.

The presence of ochre in Palaeolithic graves, and its potential associations with spiritual power, suggests that the people within those graves may have been considered special in their own right. The man from Paviland had the skull of a mammoth sitting nearby, perhaps watching over his body, and a number of broken ivory rods and bracelets were placed on his chest. Perhaps the rods were used in the burial ritual, rather like magic wands or, perhaps, more prosaically, they were blanks for cutting beads. Those choosing the burial site may have even considered the cave a special place, perhaps an entrance to the lowerworld, and it is striking that people returned to the site and left objects, possibly as offerings, long after the burial would have been forgotten.

A man from Brno, dating slightly later at around 23,000 years ago, had an ivory marionette of a human figure in his grave, with the arms and legs joined to the body so that they could move independently. It is possible that the man used the marionette in magical performances and the addition of a possible drumstick in the grave adds another element to these performances. Similar marionettes are used in other cultures, far removed in time but perhaps not in focus. Inuit people, for example, carve figurines of humans for use in their shamanic rituals. As the Brno man was closely identified with these items (after all, they were confined to his grave) it is possible that he was a shaman or, at least, the Palaeolithic equivalent to a shaman. Brno man also suffered from the bone disease periostitis and this is mirrored by the woman from the grave at Dolní Vĕstonice, who was badly disabled, and also by other Palaeolithic graves. Why these disabled individuals were singled out for special burial is difficult to discern but shamans from more recent times are often disabled, or suffer debilitating illness, and it is possible that a similar attitude prevailed during the Palaeolithic. Equally, the children at Sunghir are special precisely because they are children; there is no other sign of hereditary hierarchy at this time so whatever singled the boy and girl out as special presumably happened in their lifetime. Perhaps they had the power of prophesy or were considered spiritually important in some other way.  That may be why so much effort was undertaken to furnish them with such extravagant grave goods.

The Colour of Spiritual Power

This is a small but representative selection of Palaeolithic burials since others seem to share characteristics that make them special. It is plausible that all interred individuals were considered spiritually powerful whilst alive, possibly even the shamans of their communities. But while people may have accepted these individuals had power during life, after death, the situation was more ambiguous. Some lay secure with their ritual paraphernalia, and the two children at Sunghir dazzled in their layer of ivory beads, but for most it was a final layer of ochre that released such latent power. Perhaps this helped in crossing to the afterlife, or perhaps people thought that it actually kept the dead spirit close, in order to watch over the community. It is striking that many Palaeolithic burials were weighted down or were bound, possibly in an attempt to keep the spirit close.

It was not the colour red that made ochre significant during the Palaeolithic but its ability to bring out spiritual power through brilliance. Even kept sealed within the confines of a bone holder as at Sunghir, ochre was a vital component of burial. If these burials were shamans and their spirits had tasks to complete after death, it was a deep red covering of ochre that brought forth their power. Red may be a significant colour to us today, and we might readily associate it with blood and the spark that provides life, but to Palaeolithic people the colour may have been only a means to an end. Blood red brought forth brilliant white and released the latent power it contained.

This article was originally published in Origins Issue 2 (Fall 2012) and is reprinted here with permission. For the full illustrated article and complete references click here.

The Lion and the Bull in the Night Sky

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

For those who watch the stars in the night sky, this time of year is dominated by Leo rising in the south-east. Unlike some constellations, Leo looks as he is supposed to, with stars defining his head, the edge of his mane, his two front paws, and the tip of his tail.

Away to the south-west – at the other end of the spring zodiac – is Taurus the Bull, descending from view until, by the beginning of May, he disappears from sight completely. He is less easy to define, although a loop of stars, including the very bright star Aldebaran, depict his muzzle. Just above his shoulder is the small group of stars known as the Pleiades, perhaps better known by their Japanese name of Subaru; the well-known car manufacturer adopting the stars as their logo.

Although there are seven main stars in the Pleiades, many people can count only six with the naked eye and the Subaru car badge contains only this number. It is possible that our ancient ancestors, some 35,000 years ago, had no better eyesight. Indeed, one of the potentially earliest depictions of the Pleiades shows only six stars within the cluster.

Deep inside the cave of Lascaux in France are paintings of many bulls but one in particular seems to replicate the constellation of Taurus in the sky. The image shows only the front portion of the animal, just like our modern representation of Taurus. The artist also marked six dots just above the bull’s shoulder and these may represent the Pleiades in their springtime location. Just in front of the Lascaux bull is a line of further dots, right where the belt of Orion lies at this time (although the artist depicted four dots rather than the three stars we associate with the belt).

The evidence from Lascaux Cave might be wholly serendipitous of course, but as communities settled and the first civilisations arose, people still looked towards the heavens for inspiration. In places as diverse as Egypt and Iran, artists depicted Imperial power by showing a lion devouring a bull (the illustration above is from Persepolis in Iran). It was a compelling symbol and signified both the power and ascendancy of the ruler as well as the defeat of his or her enemies. But to understand the symbolism, you needed to understand the night sky. Western astronomy developed in ancient Babylon and these ancient sky watchers set the names of the constellations at around 700 BC.  In particular, they identified Leo the Lion and Taurus the Bull. Moreover, thanks to records kept by the Greek Eudoxus of Cnidus, these constellations are still with us today.

As we have seen, during the spring – when the earth comes alive, the days lengthen, and the sun gets hotter and hotter – Leo the Lion rises higher and higher in the south-east of the night sky. In doing so, he pushes Taurus the Bull lower and lower in the south-west, until his bovine form disappears altogether. If you were a ruler of an ancient civilisation, you would want to be Leo the Lion, rising triumphant at this auspicious time of year. And you would want your enemies to be the Taurus the Bull, trampled underfoot until nothing remains. Suddenly, the symbolism of the ancient world – the lion defeating the bull – makes sense.

From the caves of Lascaux, through the early civilisations of Europe, to a Japanese car manufacturer, the wonder of stars has been a constant presence in human lives.

The Evolution of Sex

Friday, April 1st, 2011

The human line began with apes. Anyone watching documentaries about bonobo chimps knows that they shag almost constantly and our distant lineage was probably no different. In fact, the bonobo chimp humps through virtually anything. Some birds might do everything on the wing, bonobo chimps do everything whilst performing the horizontal hustle with their partner. And not always their partner but their friend’s partner, their friend’s same-sex partner, their sister, their mother, their grandma, for goodness sake. If our distant ancestors were indeed like this then the complete human line started as an inbred group of monkeys. Actually, that explains a lot.

The first recognisable human, well, recognisable through its habit of walking on two legs not carrying an ipod and wearing aftershave, was Australopithecine. You can tell straight off the bat that this poor creature had very poor PR to come up with a, quite frankly, bizarre name like Australopithecine, but there you are. Lucy was the first of the species to be found and, without being too harsh, she resembled a monkey. Sex was likely a bit passé; she hadn’t even got breasts. Mind you, walking on two legs did have advantages. It had the effect, as the palaeontologists tell us, of thrusting out the hips and this meant that sex could take place face-to-face and lose none of its, er, thrust. That’s if you would want to look at Lucy’s face if you were shagging her. I suppose if you were another Australopithecine you might want to. Some clearly did as Australopithecines rapidly – million years or so – gave way to a new species, Homo.

The first species of real human, as opposed to those who climbed trees and drank PG Tips and went into politics, was Homo habilis, meaning handy man. Immediately, you can tell their PR is better. If you’re an early human looking to get laid, there is no better advertisement to the opposite sex than saying you’re a handy man. You’ve seen the videos, yes? Plumbers, electricians, even window cleaners. They turn up at some sorority house and before they can even whip out their tools they’ve whipped out their tool and are hammering away like there’s no tomorrow. Homo habilis was like this. Sex on legs. For a rocking Friday night in the Palaeolithic, there was only one call to make.

Next came Homo rudolfensis. But with a ridiculous name like that he got absolutely no sex whatsoever and that is why the entire line of rudolfensis is represented by a single skull. I imagine when we find the rest of him old Rudolf will have a hugely enlarged wrist and several subscriptions to some dodgy magazines.

The most successful human after Homo habilis had steep competition to outdo the handy man image. He doubtless agonised over what to call himself that would get the chicks to leave the window cleaner alone and come flocking. Not known for his subtle approach, this new type of human settled on Homo erectus. Girls, I bet you’re wet already. Homo erectus was so incredibly popular that he ranged widely and, according to evidence of fossilised Kleenex tissues and cigarette ends, shagged his way around the world. In particular, he is well known from the islands of south-east Asia and, let’s face it, most people today if they were named for their constant erection, would probably end up there. He also learnt a new trick: cooking his own food. So you have brains in the kitchen and brawn in the sack. It’s a wonder Homo erectus ever needed to evolve into anything else.

But he did and along came Homo heidelbergensis. He was German and had corresponding sex appeal, which is to say, absolutely none whatsoever. It should be noted that, even then, female Homo heidelbergensis did not shave her armpits. Enough said.

Next on the scene and, frankly, with Homo erectus away in the South Seas it wasn’t a particularly happening scene sex wise, were the Neanderthals. These were the real deal. Archaeologists are in complete agreement that Neanderthals had big brains, pecs of steel, and threw the best parties since the monkeys’ orgies. Neanderthal was legendary. Females used to dress in fur and required no more foreplay than a crack over the head and dragging back to your place. To them, the G-spot was the position on the headboard that their head whiplashed onto when the fireworks started. Absolutely outstanding. Admittedly the brow ridges were a drawback, and they couldn’t read a train timetable to save their lives, but in the bedroom department Neanderthal man could go all night and still have energy to wrestle a woolly mammoth for breakfast. In an age when Brian Cox is the new pin up, we can perhaps appreciate that these were real men with a real appetite for sinking the pink torpedo. In fact, the Joy of Sex textbook was written by Neanderthals. Just look at the pictures.

It’s incredible that the human line didn’t stop with the Neanderthals but it didn’t. Next were Homo sapiens, meaning thinking humans and that says it all really. Brian Cox was on his way. Whilst the Neanderthals still rumbled the jungle, Homo sapiens fussed over the cave decorations – do you want the picture of the rhino on this wall or on the wall with another thousand pictures of bloody rhinos. Sex was low on the agenda. This may be why several of the women sought out Neanderthal men and got a real old-fashioned seeing to. Apparently, we are all 4% Neanderthal as a result, although some people have a lot more than that. Like footballers. In a desperate attempt to work up some sex appeal, Homo sapiens tried to emulate Homo erectus and go around the world. Good call buddy, but you blew it with the arctic. Nobody thinks an eskimo is sexy.

There is evidence that some women took matters into their own hands – literally – and a number of dildos are known from cave sites in eastern Europe. Nothing has changed much in that part of the world since, but it is notable that the dildos are all at least eight inches long and very thick. This is the best evidence we have that early male genitalia was a little lacking in the size department and that their women were still lusting over those horse-hung Neanderthals. Shame they went extinct really.

Sex never really recovered from the loss of the playboy Neanderthals but at least the time that earlier humans used to spend hiding the sausage was now put to more productive pursuits. Farming, civilisation, cities, and writing blogs; what an incredible curve of human excellence. But from a high point with the Neanderthals, sex withered and died until it reached a real low point when the Romans came. From contemporary records, this was always too quick and never with real vigour. It’s no wonder they had time to forge an empire.

Taming the Wolf – Domesticating the Dog

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

The first evidence for domesticated dogs has just got earlier with the recent dating of a dog’s skull and teeth from Kesslerloch Cave in Switzerland. That puts the transition from wolf to dog to over 14,000 years ago. Previously, the earliest date was from a single jawbone that was found in a human grave at Oberkassel, in Germany, dating to about 13,000 years-ago. (There are earlier dates claimed for the first definite identification of dogs but these are usually discounted by experts).

The finds from Switzerland were uncovered in 1873 but it was only last year that archaeologists at Tuebingen University in Germany recognised that the remains came from a dog rather than a wolf. The dating carried out on a tooth has revealed the animal died between 14,000 and 14,600 BP (before present).

These early dates are curious, as hunting strategies at that time would not necessarily require the assistance of dogs. Studies from northern France show that hunting was ambush based with animals speared as they passed through natural bottlenecks in the landscape, such as the Ahrensburg Valley. Here, the use of a spear-thrower increased the effectiveness of the weapon and the migrating reindeer died in great numbers. Interestingly, some people engraved their spear-throwers with scenes of the hunt but none shows the appearance of dogs. Indeed, in such a massacre, it is difficult to see how dogs would fit in at all and, yet, the remains from Switzerland suggest that they existed by this time.

Stalking, the hunting method where a dog might have proved invaluable, came later. The warming climate at the end of the Ice Age caused large game animals to either die-out or move north and it was red deer and wild boar that took advantage of the advancing tree cover to expand their range. The people of the time changed their hunting strategy accordingly and the bow and arrow now became the weapon of choice. Dogs would have proved invaluable for stalking, flushing, and tracking dying animals. This is the time that we might expect people to have actively sought to domesticate the dog but, from the evidence at Switzerland, it had already happened, presumably without any human intervention. The change from wolf to dog requires a different explanation.

It is likely that wolves had always been aware of humans in the landscape. Scavenging human kill sites would have been a sure way of obtaining food and it is likely that this became the main survival strategy for a few packs. Over time, they may have ventured closer to human camps and even started to forage leftovers or eat any excrement that lay nearby. The people at the camp may have welcomed this cleaning service and tolerated the presence of the wolves. They may have even kept other, more dangerous predators at a safe distance.

Over time, it is likely that animals that chose to live with humans bred with other animals that adopted a similar lifestyle, replicating the traits that made the animal tolerant of humans. Slowly, the camp-wolves became the camp-dogs. In effect, the dog domesticated itself.

It is likely that the dogs did not remain in packs for long but divided themselves between the family groups of the hunters. Evidence from modern hunter-gather villages where semi-tame dogs roam, shows that these animals do not necessarily form packs but tend to organise themselves into groups of no more than three, which then adopt a particular dwelling (and its occupants) as their own. In the past, perhaps this was the reason that people began to interact with dogs on an individual basis and the first relationships, with which we are now so familiar, began.

A burial from Israel dating to around 11,000 BP contained an elderly woman with her hand resting on the flank of a puppy. This may be the first sign of the affection we still hold for dogs but it was not until much later, during the Mesolithic, that the esteem in which people held them becomes apparent.

In the earliest cemetery at Skateholm in southern Sweden, dating to around 5,000 BC, dogs were sometimes buried in the same graves as people. These were likely animals that were sacrificed to accompany their masters into the afterlife. Clearly, the dog was considered indispensable by some.

Other dogs were afforded their own grave and people gave them items such as tools and weapons that would usually be the preserve of a hunter. But then, perhaps this is exactly what these dogs were considered to be: hunters and, accordingly, they were buried as such. At this time, grave wealth usually accumulated to the young and fit, likely reflecting their ability to provide food for the others. The dogs were no different: they provided food from the hunt and they were honoured in the same way. Moreover, this was a time before any other animal had been domesticated and the cognitive boundary between humans and animals was still fluid enough to be breached: sometimes human into animal and, on this occasion, animal into human. It was a very different way of seeing the world and is almost diametrically opposed to everything we think about animals.

It was not to last. Perhaps familiarity bred contempt, but in a later cemetery at Skateholm (and possibly dating to only a few hundred years after the first cemetery), dogs were afforded a separate area for their burials, before being excluded altogether. Dogs had moved from being equal to humans in the hunt to being subservient to their masters. Perhaps, as their usefulness increased, their worth actually diminished. We still retain something of this contradiction in our own relationship with dogs. They can be our closest companions but are also the source of our cruellest insults. A bitch can be both our best friend or our worst enemy.

There is even evidence that the minds of dogs have evolved since they have been interacting with humans. Observing and identifying the attention state of others was thought to be the sole preserve of humans and yet it appears to be something dogs can also accomplish. Anyone who has had their dog watch their every move when they walk towards the dog lead will know how this appears.

Our relationship with dogs has come a long way since the first wolves started to follow the camps of our Palaeolithic forebears. We may never know for sure what made these wild animals befriend us and change to become an altogether different species but I am sure that I am not alone in being extremely grateful that they did.

Bringing the Spirits to Life

Monday, August 9th, 2010

This is the first of five edited extracts to be posted this week from my new book, Prehistoric Belief: Shamans, Trance and the Afterlife. I really hope you enjoy them.

Nicholas Conard, an American archaeologist working in Germany, is usually very calm when he digs. He was excavating a cave called Hohle Fels during 2003 when something, in his own words, ‘got my heart pumping a bit’. Conard can be forgiven, for he had just lifted out of the ground a Palaeolithic ivory carving, dating to around 30,000 years ago. A wonderful find in itself but when he looked closely at the subject of the carving that his heart began to race: held in his hand was a figurine that was half-lion and half-human. He knew that, potentially, here was the proof that people in the Palaeolithic were shamanic and that they regularly shapeshifted into animals whilst in trance. For this was not the only half-human half-lion figurine that had been found. At Hohlenstein-Stadel, another cave in Germany, a similar figurine had been discovered in 1939. As Conard puts it, ‘If there are two, there must have been hundreds of these things; they must have been part of daily life’.

With the figurine, Conard also found the head of a horse and a water bird, both in ivory. The bird was stretched out, as if in flight, and it was not lost on Conard that, here, was another find with potentially shamanic roots. Water birds are equally at home on the water on the land, and in the air. Consequently, in crossing between these worlds, many shamanic people believe that they can also cross between this world and the otherworld. The birds were seen as messengers of the spirits.

Southern Germany is particularly rich in figurines carved out of ivory and most come from the earliest occupation of Europe by modern humans, around 32,000 years ago. Although many have finely carved bodies and heads, the limbs are often stumpy with no hooves or paws, as if the figurines are flying above the ground. However, if, like the water bird, these figurines represent the spirits of the otherworld, then perhaps an ability to fly was an integral element to their form. Moreover, as if to emphasise that these animals were indeed spirits, many of the figurines have geometric patterns engraved on their sides, which match the phosphenes that are sometimes seen in shamanic trance. These were not ordinary animals that were depicted but, like the paintings on the cave walls, these were animal spirits.

The figurines are often worn smooth by the hands that have carried them, or are stained red by being tied onto clothing (ochre was used as a preservative for animal hide and rubbed off with use). These images were clearly made to be seen and used in everyday life. Perhaps they were similar to Native American fetishes, carried for the power that is believed to emanate from them. If so, then the type of animals represented may give some indication as to what sort of power was being sought. Most of the animals represented are large land mammals and many are predators rather than prey. Moreover, many of the animals take aggressive or threatening stances, perhaps as a prelude to attack. A lion from Vogelherd in Germany has its ears cocked back in a threatening pose, and a bear from Geißenklösterle is in a similar pose. It seems that it was the strength and ferocity of these animals that people sought when they made and carried the figurines. However, a beautifully crafted stallion, also from Vogelherd, was not in an aggressive pose at all but, rather, was in a pose that seemed designed to impress the mares. Whoever carried this figurine had very different aims in mind; but then, since Conard also found an eight-inch, 28,000 year-old dildo in his cave at Hohle Fels, perhaps there were times when Palaeolithic man felt a little under pressure.