The Primitive Hunters
Altamira caves, Wikimedia Commons
The Paleolithic Caves
The Paleolithic Caves
The shamans of the great hunt.
In the vast, multi-chambered hunting-age sanctuary of Lascaux – which has been termed “the Sistine Chapel of the Paleolithic” – an experience of divinity has been made manifest through animal figurations. In almost all pictures of this kind, the representation of the animals have been carried out with great care, while the human figures are exceptionally sketchy. The pictures represent a consecration of the animal. The human figures are often shamans, mostly male but sometimes female. Other grottos, the labyrinth of “Trois frères” in the Pyrenees, and of Altamira in Spain are also among the most famous. The period of their use was all from more than twenty thousand years ago. The “Sorcerer of Trois Frères” is maybe the most famous of all shaman figures in these grottos.
In most of the caves the animals are inscribed one on top of the other, with no regard for aesthetic effect, the aim being not art but magic. Without exception these magical spots occur far from the natural entrances of the grottos, deep within the dark, chill corridors and vast chambers – so that before reaching them one has to experience the full force of the mystery of the cave itself. After going through the dark, mysterious halls the pictures then appear as a visual shock that creates an imprint in the mind of the person experiencing it.
The grottos as sanctuaries
Among the features to be emphasized is the fact that these deep, labyrinthine grottos were not dwellings but sanctuaries. The dwellings of people were either in shallow caves or under ledges, or out in the open plains, in various kinds of shelter. In the valleys of the Dordogne river, people are dwelling under those same ledges to this day. And just beneath the earth of these modern homes one can find strata of Gallo-Roman remains from the period of Vercingetorix and Julius Ceasar; below that remains of the earlier Gallic culture world; still lower, the neolithic of 2500 – 1000 B.C. – and then the Paleolithic, level after level: Azilian, Magdalenian, Solutrean, Aurignacian, and Mousterian; some fifty thousand years of human living in one amazing cross-sectional view in these valleys.
Whereas the mural paintings of the paleolithic caves are dominated by animal forms, the chief subject of interest among the sculptured remains of the same period was the human female. The female figurines, carved in bone, stone or mammoth ivory, are never masked or otherwise modified to suggest animals, like the shamanistic figures could be. The female body was experienced in its own character as a focus of divine force, and a system of rites was dedicated to its mystery.
There is a probable relationship between these female figurines and the realm of the tropical planters. They may represent the same mother-goddess who was later to become so important in the agricultural civilizations of the Near East. It seems therefore, that these Aurignacian statuettes are a prelude to the great goddess of planting cultures.
The totemistic hunting groups
Another important feature or type of primitive society in this cultural-historical context, is that of the large totemistic hunting groups, with their elaborately developed clan systems, age classes, and tribal traditions of ritual and myth. Examples of such peoples are abundant on the plains of North America and the pampas of South America, as well as in the deserts of Australia. Their rites of initiation are secret and women are excluded. There is a distinct one-sidedness in favor of the male in these highly organized hunting societies.
Matriarchy in the tropical planting cultures
In the sphere of the tropical gardening cultures, there was a development almost antithetical to that of the hunting peoples. In these areas it was the women, not the men, who enjoyed the magico-religious and social advantage. They have been the ones to effect the transition from plant-collecting to plant-cultivation. Here it was the women who showed themselves supreme. They were not only bearers of children, but also the chief producers of food. They had made the earth valuable and they became, consequently, its possessors.
The men in societies of this type were within one jot of being completely superfluous, and one may well imagine the utter abyss of their inferiority complex. Small wonder if their revengeful imaginations ran amok and developed secret lodges and societies, the mysteries and terrors of which were primarily directed against the women. The ceremonials of these secret lodges have to be distinguished radically from those of the hunting tribe initiations, their psychological function and their history being different. These lodges tended to be propagandistic and reached beyond the local tribe. In West Africa and Melanesia certain lodges are to be found dispersed among greatly differing tribes, with scull cults, cannibalism and pederasty commonly practiced. Highly elaborated use was made of symbolic drums and masks.
Climatic changes and gender dominance
The female figurines are the first objects of worship of Homo sapiens. Male centered development of rites and myths, born from a reaction to female dominance, may have developed over time in such a way that it explains the complete disappearance of the female figurines from the European scene at the close of the Aurignacian. This evolution may have been favored by climatic changes which made life in hunting tribes less stationary and more nomadic, thus favoring the men’s more mobile physical particularities. Throughout this evolution, shamanistic rituals have evolved – with female figurines as important objects of cult in the earlier periods.
The cult of the bear scull
Vestiges of a circumpolar paleolithic cult of the bear have been identified throughout the arctic, from Finland and Northern Russia, across Siberia and Alaska, to Labrador and Hudson Bay. Here there is a northern circumpolar hunting continuum in counterpoise to the equatorial planting belt from the Sudan to the Amazon. A series of caves containing the ceremonially arranged skulls of a number of cave bears have been discovered, dating back to the period of the Neanderthal Man. The period of the Neanderthal Man is estimated to have started about 200 000 years ago, during the last interglacial period (Riss-Würm), and to have lasted until about 25 000 years ago. He disappeared at the end of the Glacial Age, when he was superseded by Homo Sapiens.
Thresholds of the Paleolithic and the Neolithic
If we go further back in time, we move more and more to the center of Africa, where new discoveries are made constantly. This search of the origins of the Homo Sapiens and its mythology is an ongoing exploration.