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(I am nearing completion of Part I of The Varied God–the part that deals with the science and history of early humans and how their development was influenced by life in a world ruled by seasons. My next few blog posts, I don’t know how many yet, will deal with some of the things I’ve learned in that research.)

I saw Werner Herzog’s movie Cave of Forgotten Dreams a few weeks ago and I was more than a little disappointed. It wasn’t much of a movie, after all I’d heard about it. He doesn’t seem to have prepared well for it or to have expended much budget making it; he didn’t find good experts to speak with–or at any rate he didn’t conduct interviews that would elicit compelling insights or intriguing information. I will note that I watched it at home and didn’t see it in Glorious 3-D, which may have made a big difference in the spectacle of it; still, that doesn’t excuse the aforementioned flaws. And really, if the only thing to recommend a film is one visual trick, then somebody needs to go back to the drawing board. With that said, I have to admit that I learned some things. I didn’t know how Chauvet (the cave in the movie) was discovered, and I didn’t know that at about 32,000 years old, its art is far and away the oldest of the painted caves. The paintings in Altamira are about 18,000 years old; those in Lascaux closer to 17,300.

I looked forward to seeing the film because I have read much lately about cave paintings and other Paleolithic art. If you want to trace evidence of humanity’s growing fascination with the seasons, you need to start with the earliest art. We didn’t always see it this way. For decades after we started discovering painted caves and mobile art pieces of a similar age, the art was viewed within the context of a few major theories about its ‘uses.’ The main schools of thought were hunting magic and fertility magic. Both schools of thought had major problems with them, but it took a long time to come to grips with that fact because nobody did what you would think might be the first thing to do–carefully analyze the artworks.

In the 1970s a hugely talented amateur named Alexander Marshack, working on a hunch of his own, began a more careful analysis of Paleolithic Art, both mobile art pieces and cave painting. This work is detailed in his book The Roots of Civilization, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in early humans, especially the earliest intimations of culture.

The Montgaudier Baton

Marshack has his doubters and detractors, but it should be noted that his work is considered important enough that even without an advanced degree in any subject he was made an associate in archeology at Harvard’s Peabody Museum.

I’m using the example of this baton of deer antler from Montgaudier in France, dating to the Magdalenian Era (about 17,000 years ago), to show his process. When it was found, since it was covered with etchings of animals, it was assumed to be a piece of hunting magic: wave this around and you’ll catch more fish, or seals, or eels. But Marshack cleaned the piece and put it under a microscope. The fish was revealed to be a salmon; the seals, in pursuit of it, were demonstrating a springtime behavior that still occurs today. The eels were not eels at all, but young grass snakes, a species that hatches in spring. A number of small scratches, which had been taken to be either representations of weapons or of little consequence, turned out to be delicate renderings of buds and shoots of new plants. The entire baton, once seen as a crude piece of ‘hunting magic,’ turned out to be unified tableau heralding the coming of spring!

The baton laid open to show both sides

Marshack applied the same careful observation and analysis to much Paleolithic art. Everywhere he found a similar preoccupation with the seasons, and a determination to represent knowledge about them and appreciation of them. There was something in the art, he said, that went beyond belly hunger or primal drives. They are clearly artifacts of a growing aesthetic sensibility. That sensibility, if unified by anything, emphasizes an overwhelming sense of the cycles of the seasons.

From Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten, seasonal paintings from Bruegel to Wyeth, the poetry of Vergil, Thomson, Shakespeare or Millay, we know that all of the arts have indulged a love of the seasons, have interpreted them in a thousand ways. But how little we know of the people who were here tens of thousands of years ago, and felt exactly like we do about the first warm days of spring.

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