Joel Christiansen

Izzy Wisher: Art in the Dark

May 12, 2024
Izzy Wisher, Why make art in the dark?, May 6, 2024:

One suggestion is that Ice Age artists were high-status shamans who performed mysterious rites in the dark. These spiritual individuals are thought to have induced trance-like states deep in the caves, either through rhythmic drumming or mind-altering drugs. Altered states of consciousness may have facilitated communicating with ancestors, experiencing otherworldly psychedelic imagery, or coaxing animals out from a spirit world beyond the rocky surfaces of deep cave environments. The shaman hypothesis draws on ethnographic accounts and has come under significant criticism both for inappropriately drawing parallels between peoples today and those who lived in the deep past, and for subsuming a huge breadth of cultural behaviours under one label: ‘shamanism’.

A different hypothesis is that abstract marks and ‘signs’ on cave walls were a proto-writing system or part of a widespread means of communication. These communication systems are posited to have had a plethora of different contexts of use, from marking the changing seasons to denoting group identities. On this view, caves were rich resources for understanding the surrounding environment, for recording which animals were where, when they would reproduce, and for developing awareness of the presence of other local populations of people in the area. As supporting evidence, some researchers have singled out the ethologically accurate details: the colouring of the horses depicted reflects the genetic diversity of Ice Age horses; the shaggy winter coats of animals are shown accurately; and even specific animal behaviour can be identified. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, these interpretations assume a kind of stasis to the cave art. Temporal dimensions of the art are collapsed into one system that is assumed to have persisted across thousands of years of changing climates and shifting population dynamics.