The Cave Painters – Gregory Curtis

The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists
Gregory Curtis
Anchor Books, 2006
278 pages

I’ve been fascinated by cave art for years, particularly that found in southern France (such as Lascaux, Les Trois Freres, etc.). However, I hadn’t really done any in-depth study on it, other than what I got incidentally through things like Joseph Campbell’s works. The Cave Painters wasn’t just a good read–it managed to blow away a lot of my preconceived notions about paleolithic art and its spiritual/cultural implications.

Curtis offers a detailed, though fast-paced, collection of highlights of the study of paleolithic art in the past century and a half. Special attention is given to the experiences and contributions of Henri “the abbe” Breuil, as well as lesser known (to the layman, anyway) folks as Max Raphael, Annette Laming-Emperaire, Andre Leroi-Gourhan and Jean Clotte. The primary theories that these experts postulated are explored in detail, and their succession (and occasional debunking) are described. It’s an absolutely fascinating true story, and it’s apparent that Curtis did some serious research into this book.

Additionally, the art itself is explored. One thing that I really appreciated was the presentation of the idea that paleolithic peoples weren’t “primitive”, but instead were the first classic civilization. There are good arguments against the application of pure ethnography to the interpretation of cave art, in which the cultures of modern hunter-gatherer cultures are used as potential models for paleolithic cultures. The latter are treated as independent entities, and more weight is given to the actual evidence found specific to them, as opposed to speculation based on modern cultures. In all this is the art, which is shown to have much more structure and skill than is often assumed, and which reveals quite a bit about the people who created it over 20,000 years.

Also fascinating were the ideas that Curtis presents about the importance of animals to paleolithic peoples. Along with Breuil’s hunting magic, he presents such concepts as the painted animals representing different clans symbolized by their respective totems (particularly stemming from Raphael’s material), illustrations of myths being circulated at the time, and the shamanic theories put forth by David Lewis-Williams and Clottes. It definitely gives good food for thought, particularly from an animal totemists’ perspective.

Rather than being a dry, stereotypically boring academic text, The Cave Painters is written well enough that just about anyone could pick it up and give it a good read. His descriptions are compelling, and he’s remarkably talented at organizing the information in a sensible manner that conveys the importance of the people, theories and discoveries in relation to each other. However, it’s not dumbed-down in content, for all its accessible language. There’s an impressive bibliography, and Curtis did quite a bit of interviewing in the process of writing this book as well.

Where this book ties into neopaganism is that it does show that there have been solid theories for the meaning of paleolithic art since Breuil’s hunting magic ideas. The latter are still commonly found in neopagan thought, and I’ll admit a certain fondness for them. However, given that there is newer evidence that counters Breuil’s ideas, I appreciated the chance to get the basics of alternate theories laid out in a good, understandable format. I certainly want to do deeper research, but this book is a great introduction. Whether your interest is incidental, or whether the cave art is a primary topic of interest for you, I highly recommend it. It’s a relatively quick read, but packed full of information, without a wasted word in the entire thing.

Five ochre pawprints out of five.

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