JEAN CLOTTES — DAVID LEWIS-WILLIAMS
THE SHAMANS OF PREHISTORY, TRANCE AND MAGIC IN THE PAINTED CAVES
WHAT CAN WE THINK OF IT 20 YEARS LATER?
This book is fundamental because of its content. I am going to follow some threads coming out of the book and I will show one or two elements that are missing, and that causes a few widening research questions to be missed. The book could have been really revolutionary if it had included the couple of points I will bring forward. In fact, when it was published these questions were already important, though I will use all that has been discovered since 1996 to argue my various points, and research in this field has been galloping over the last ten years.
First the timeline. It is clear in the book but not repeated enough and it is not indicated page 54 on the chronological table: the peak of the Ice Age is 21,000 years ago, and I prefer counting from year 0 of our era, hence it is 19,000 BCE. That means the Magdalenian period which is essential in the book is after that peak and the Upper Paleolithic concerned by the caves starts around 35,000 BCE. Today we could go a little bit farther in the past and probably speak of 45,000 BCE. This Peak is important, and the Magdalenian concerned here is also important if the dates are correct in our minds, and though it is part of the Upper Paleolithic it stands apart because it is after the Peak of the Ice Age, when the waters are already going back up with a tremendous climate change and the Old Europeans still alone started shifting from survival in icy weather to surviving in a weather that is a lot warmer, and the continental platforms are starting being reconquered by the oceans and the rivers are rivers again and not glaciers any more, etc. The fauna changed and the flora changed. The Old European Homo Sapiens are of Turkic origin and they speak Turkic languages, hence agglutinative languages, and note Basque is the best-known surviving language from this time and it is a Turkic agglutinative language. The New European Homo Sapiens, hence the Indo-Europeans started arriving around 10,000 BCE and they brought a new life with them: agriculture, herding, commerce, cities or at least constructed permanent villages, the wheel, new technologies of all types, and of course a new set of languages. The book is only concerned by the Old European Homo Sapiens from 16,000 before the Peak of the Ice Age to about 10,000 years after the Peak of the Ice Age. Even if we extend this period slightly into the past, that makes it start 26,000 years before the Peak of the Ice Age. I think it would have been good to wonder where these Old Europeans were coming from, hence what heritage they were bringing in their “backpacks”.
This is essential because the book takes the examples of Samoyed Shamans, Inuit Shamans, and San Shamans to compare them with Old European Homo Sapiens shamans if we can accept that term. From what I know, the Samoyed Siberians are of the Uralic language family, hence speaking Turkic agglutinative languages. The Inuit Eskimos are also from an agglutinative language family, coming by the way from Siberia. But, even if it is more difficult to find a San description that does not stop at considering the clicks, here too we have a language that is slightly phylogenetically older than the Bantu languages of Africa, hence the San languages are somewhere between an agglutinative state and a synthetic state. This means these languages are all third-articulation languages, the very last migration out of Black Africa or, as for the San languages, they haven’t left Black Africa at all. This should require a long development for my point to be perfectly clear. Let me say that I think Shamans are connected with third-articulation languages because of their very phylogeny. It is at least a hypothesis that has to be studied seriously.
What I mean here, if we neglect the common phylogenic point among these cultural references, is that all the book considers can only find its meaning and equilibrium if these pictures, images, paintings, carvings, etc., and of course the initiation that is stated behind some of them, are understood to be always associated with linguistic words, and linguistic mantras. In agglutinative and synthetic languages, the names of things are nouns determined in grammatical gender or class, in number, and, more than anything else, in syntactic function which determines the relation with the painter and of course with the viewer. It is impossible for these Old Europeans to have had any analytical linguistic practice. These had not reached Europe yet, so that — since they did not have dictionaries — they could only have syntactically marked discursive nouns for the objects or animals they were representing, invoking, chanting, etc. And the mantras could only be simple sentences (two or three words, duly syntactically marked with functions and time relations. I will come back to this later to show how much the authors failed to see.
The book is interesting when he speaks of mutilated hands painted on the walls with the authors’ idea that this mutilation is both voluntary (maybe) and initiation to cause pain in order to reach the vision or hallucination you need to become a Shaman. That is maybe true but that is not the most important point. The most important point is the great number of such hands and the fact that they are most of them, and I mean most of them, women’s hands and children’s hands. This leads to the question of why women? That should have led the authors to wondering about the sexual division of labor that made women a collective body taking care of delivering children (after carrying them in their womb), feeding these children for twelve months or maybe slightly more, caring for them for three or four more years, and above all being pregnant every 16–18 months so that out of the eight or ten pregnancies they could have, between 13 and 29 years of age, they could be sure and guarantee three will reach procreative age and will be able to start all over again as soon as 13 years old for the girls. That could only be collective, so that half the women could take care of the children day in and day out, while the second half could on a rotating pattern go around to collect the ingredients and prepare the paints, could go around and collect some herbs and plants for various rituals or proto-medical care, and of course spend some time painting the spiritual temples the caves were, and they were also the ritual performers, particularly those who performed the chanting and the mantras. This is logical and the community had to have three children per woman brought to procreation age (a very precautious adult age: there was no teenage in those days and communities), no matter what, to expand, and, the conditions being what they were becoming with the Ice Age advancing, survival was a real challenge, and men had enough to do to plainly nourish the community.
If what I say here is refused, if women are refused in this spiritual position, then their stencil-painted hands on the rocks have little meaning at all. They are like candles in a church, a vague trace on the wall to say, “I have been here.” But we can do better than that. Along the same line, the authors speak of the children’s hands and the children’s footprints. By children we mean of course under 13 years of age. This is very true but this time we cannot know which footprints are girls’ and which are boys’. But, children being taken care of by women, to go along with them was just natural, and they could make themselves useful with the lights, the ingredients, the brushes, and other tools, not to speak of bringing some water to drink or use with the paints, and some food. If we are true about the spiritual role of women, then the children were probably mostly girls since sooner or later they will have to do it as women and as mothers. The book systematically avoids the question in a simple way. The authors use the plural so that in English the gender reference is erased, but since the book was originally written in French, then I guess Jean Clottes must have used in French the masculine plural which is even harsher as for erasing the reference to women.
If we come to this idea that women were the “shamans” of these Old Europeans, we have to understand too that the spiritual position is completely different from what it can be if they were men. All events in women’s lives become spiritual, such as menstrual bleeding, being pregnant, delivering life. This would explain why the sexual theme is absent from the paintings. And that’s probably where Leroi-Gourhan and Annette Laming-Emperaire are shortest in their approach. The masculine and feminine elements they identify are from the male point of view of a man, even if that anthropologist is a woman, though this fact might explain some variations. But it would be interesting to know the words for these animals or items represented on the walls in the Turkic languages we are speaking of since they have feminine and masculine, and we perfectly know that there is no rule at all for a cow to be a feminine noun, like in German or French, and a plain neuter noun in English and a horse is masculine in French but neuter in both German and English. What was it in the various Turkic languages of these Old Europeans? Maybe in 1996 that was not the most important question in archaeology. But today we cannot avoid the question.
I will make a similar remark on the various signs, symbols, geometric forms, etc. used in these caves, and not only in Europe but all over the world before or after the Peak of the Ice Age. A lot of work has to be done, though some has already been done recently. When we have something that looks like a spear it has a name in Turkic languages. To give two examples taken from page 108, illustration 107 that represents a feline with eight spears on its back, I asked Google Translate to give me “eight spears on a wild cat” in Basque and it was “zortzi lantza katu basati bati, ” and then in Turkish and I got “vahşi bir kedi üzerinde sekiz mızrak.” It is not even important whether the translations are right or wrong. What is important is that language accompany the images and that brings me to a fundamental remark.
Homo Sapiens is connected to his/her environment with his/her five physical senses and his/her mental sense that the mind is. These senses produce sensations that are sent to the brains as nervous influx. This nervous influx is processed by the brain into perceptions or percepts. The brain remembers these percepts and to recognize them later, it identifies them with some brain code which is nothing but some machine code at the level of the brain. Thus, Homo Sapiens can recognize this or that pattern he/she has already sensed and then perceived. Actually, many animals have such a capacity and they can recognize some patterns, hence the colors of flowers for bees, and for a dog its master. But Hominins could go beyond and Homo Sapiens was at the top. Hominins could build a virtual mind beyond their organic brains. This mind is able to go beyond what other animals did before Hominins because they develop a language. We do not know when it started though Hominins inherited the capability to utter calls like monkeys for example. To be able to go beyond a few calls un-economically produced with a few vowels and a few consonants, Hominins had to develop their breathing, respiratory and articulatory organs to become bipedal and then start running a little and then start running long distance. The side effect of this development is the possibility to produce many vowels, many consonants (including clicks), and quite a few tones and intonations. The first thing Hominins had to invent was to rotate the vowels and the consonants to produce hundreds and then thousands of uttered items that they could associate to the patterns the brains had identified in brain machine code. And that was the beginning of language and at the same time, simultaneously, of the mind. This virtual mind devised and developed this virtual language that developed the mind in the same movement. This led to a new level of communication. It is this level of communication (that goes along with conceptualization, experimentation, and speculation) that permits migrations, planning, imagination, and all the progress Homo Sapiens has inherited from his/her ascendants and developed him/herself beyond. That’s what is missing in this book. These Old Europeans, not identified as such by the authors, are for them mute, speechless and consequently mindless.
The idea that the wall of the cave is the skin of a supernatural underworld is all the more feasible, conceivable, acceptable if it is seen as mental speculation whose architecture is a language, hence a discourse. One simple example is the important numerical symbolism you have everywhere in these caves, particularly with the signs or symbols or geometric forms. When Homo Sapiens reached the third articulation of human language it is impossible to think they could not count. It might be true these numbers have no symbolic value, but it might also be true that they do. Two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten are symbolic in all cultures all over the world. So, I cannot believe they are not for these Old European Homo Sapiens speaking Turkic languages.
I am not bothered by the shamanism the authors see in these paintings. In fact, I would agree and support some of their ideas, but there cannot be ONLY ONE explanation. There are many ways of looking at things and what I have attempted here is to show that one is always right when one only considers what supports their cases. If you widen the horizon or the landscape you find out there are other possible explanations that do not exclude shamanism, but that brings up the hypotheses that these shamans are women and that these shamans perform spiritual rites in a language that speaks to everyone and that language is not the images but the mantras or utterances that go along with these images, just like a marvelously decorated Orthodox churches means nothing if you do not have the stories that go along with the pictures. In a way, it is not enough to know the music of a song if you do not know the words. Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams sure have the pictures of the tale but not the words. But since 1996 many of these words have been discovered, developed and recognized. In twenty years, we have improved tremendously.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU