I’m fascinated by ancient rock art and have written about it a few times here at TetZoo, in part because it often gives us a great deal of useful information on the life appearance of extinct Pleistocene animals. My article on the life appearance of the Woolly rhino is here, the one on Pleistocene horses is here, and the one on Megaloceros is here. As per usual, at least some of these articles have been ruined by hosting issues (if you’re patient, they’ll eventually appear in one of the Tetrapod Zoology books – which are a thing, I promise).
Today I want to talk about a few examples of Palaeolithic art that have caused controversy and uncertainty as goes what they depict. I’ve been unashamedly hokey and sensational with regard to which I’ve chosen, and have deliberately picked cases where especially odd things have been said about them, often in decidedly grey literature. This doesn’t mean that I endorse said odd things, but they’re certainly relevant and inspirational to my interests. Furthermore, they aren’t so much ‘enigmas’ as ‘ambiguous cases open to interpretation’.
I should also emphasise that I’m concentrating here on European rock art. Australian, African, Asian and North American rock art also has its fair share of intriguing images that have been the topic of contention.
1. The Unicorn of Lascaux. Among the most famous of enigmatic rock art animal depictions is the bovid-like, horned quadruped from the ‘Hall of the Bulls’ at Lascaux, Dordogne, France, sometimes called the licorne. It’s 1.65 metres long and combines a dark, rectangular muzzle and shoulder hump with a sway back, rotund belly (leading some to suggest that it might be pregnant), short tail and dark legs. Large dark reddish blotches with pale centres cover its sides. Its most memorable feature is its two long, parallel, straight horns, which project forwards and upwards from its forehead in a manner that doesn’t really match any known animal. The fact that there are clearly two horns means that ‘unicorn’ is a total misnomer, but I guess we’re stuck with it.
The animal is standing at the far left of a frieze that features horses, aurochs and deer – among the best examples of their kind, in fact. The realism of the two aurochs in the same frieze is intriguing, since this somehow adds credence to the ‘unicorn’: surely it must be a realistic depiction of something real as well? Needless to say, it doesn’t match anything known to science. Is this a representation of a species otherwise unknown, it is a ‘bad’ depiction of a known species, or is it a fictional, symbolic or representational animal of some sort? Well, people have suggested a bunch of ideas.
A few informal suggestions have drawn attention to the supposed cat-like form of this animal (err, not sure I see that myself… what would this mean – that it’s a bovid-mimicking horned cat? Bwahahaaaha), or the possibility that it might depict people wearing a skin as a hunting disguise (nice idea, but no way to be at all confident about it) (Eberhart 2002). The best known idea – “best known” because it was mentioned in Björn Kurtén’s Pleistocene Mammals of Europe – is probably Dorothea Bate’s that it depicts a Chiru Panthalops hodgsoni (Kurtén 1968). While there’s a really vague superficial resemblance, the spotted body and forward-canted horns of the ‘unicorn’ aren’t at all Chiru-like. The suggestion that it might be saiga is out there too, but this suffers from the same problems: the horns are the wrong shape, what’s with the spotting, and why are the key features of saiga (most notably the distinctive snout) missing?
2. The Sorcerer of Trois Frères. I can’t not talk about the famous ‘deer man’ of Trois Frères, Ariège, France, even though it almost certainly isn’t a depiction of a non-human (reminder: TetZoo isn’t just about non-human tetrapods). This image is 75 cm long, and is most typically imagined as an illustration (it combines both engraving and paint) of a bipedal male humanoid, standing with partly folded, short forelimbs, and with a low shoulder hump, short neck, small-eyed, bearded face, erect, deer-like ears and stout branched antlers. A curving tail and dangling male genitals are supposed to be visible as well, and prominent dark stripes run the length of the body and hindlimbs. Could this be a god-like creature believed in as a protector or object of worship? Or does it show that the artist was part of a group who believed in human-non-human transmogrification or transmutation? Is it a therianthrope (a mashup of human and non-human body parts of the sort illustrated elsewhere in the ancient world)? Or is it a semi-abstract take on a non-human bipedal creature of some sort… something unknown to science!!
At the time of writing I’ve recently watched the 2017 movie The Ritual, and - while watching it - I couldn’t help but wonder if the creature in that movie – I’ll say no more because spoilers, but it’s called the Jōtunn – was in some way inspired by the Trois Frères sorcerer. But it wasn’t.
Anyway, we owe this view of the figure to Abbé Henri Breuil (1877-1961), priest, archaeologist and master of French cave art. Breuil did a lot of good work and came up with many influential ideas on why, when and how cave art was produced (most famously in Breuil (1952)), but he wasn’t ashamed to speculate way beyond the confines of the data and at least some of his thoughts on the art involve a lot of interpretation that’s difficult to be at all confident about. Indeed, photos of the image show that a substantial amount of imagination is required to turn the fuzzy, partly indistinct humanoid figure visible today into the antlered novelty that Breuil depicted, and it simply isn’t possible to be confident that his take on the image is valid. Some people say that this is because photos typically don’t capture the subtleties of the images (which are often formed of cracks and lumps on the rock and hence don’t transfer well to flash photography), and others that the image may have faded or degraded since Breuil drew his take on it during the 1920s.
Whatever’s going on, there’s clearly something unusual in the original art. We’re seeing an interesting image of some kind.
3. The Lion Statuette of Isturitz. Big cats are depicted in several European caves and are most usually images of cave lions (and a whole article could be written on what that cave art tells us about life appearance and behaviour in Pleistocene European lions). A few depictions, however, show other cat species (like leopards). The Isturitz cave in Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France, yields some of Europe’s most interesting Palaeolithic art, and among this is a 16 cm long statuette of a big cat, seemingly shown with a short tail, rectangular face, prominent chin, and sparse array of spots across its upper surface. Conventionally identified as a lion, it was argued by Vratislav Mazak (1970) to instead be a depiction of the sabretooth Homotherium. This would be pretty radical for several reasons: not only would it be the only known human-made image of a sabretooth on record (though read on), it would also require that Homotherium persisted in Europe much later than anyone had previously thought (to 30,000 years ago, rather than to 300,000 years ago). The statuette is lost today (sigh), but there is at least one photo of it.
Mazak’s idea was accepted by several other authors, most notably Michel Rousseau (1971a, b), who argued that several other European Palaeolithic illustrations could depict Homotherium as well. The idea was made better known thanks to the coverage it received from Shuker (1989) and Guthrie (2005). And in 2000 it received what looked like support from the discovery of a geologically young Homotherium fossil (a lower jaw from the North Sea), dated to c 28,000 years ago (Reumer et al. 2003). So far, so good – maybe the Isturitz statuette gives us an unparalleled insight into the life appearance of an iconic sabretooth.
But… no. In a detailed re-examination of the case, Mauricio Antón and colleagues argued that it isn’t a depiction of Homotherium at all, but a Cave lion Panthera leo spelaea (Antón et al. 2009). They argued (following rigorous and detailed anatomical assessment of the life appearance of Homotherium) that the statuette lacks the longish neck, level (rather than convex) dorsal outline to the head, protruding canine tips, and sloping back that would be evident if this really was a depiction of Homotherium. I find these arguments pretty compelling and think that the statuette is a lion after all. Probably.
Long-time readers might recall this as something I covered way back at TetZoo ver 1. That article (with about half of all the other TetZoo ver 1 articles) is included in my 2010 book Tetrapod Zoology Book One (Naish 2010). Book Two will be published this year or in 2020, incidentally.
4. The Beast-Women of Isturitz. Isturitz is also the discovery site of an engraved piece of bone that features a bison on one side, and two humanoids on the other. The humanoids are depicted in side view, as if swimming past the viewer, and they appear to be women. But they’re very unusual women.
For one thing, while they’re certainly human-like, they aren’t as human-like as regular humans. The one breast we see is shown hanging from the armpit region, rather than at the front of the chest, the profile of the face is not especially human-like and features an unusual protruding nose, and the body is unusually massive and stocky, exceeding the proportions of a human with substantial body fat. Additionally, the figures have collars or binding around their necks and wrists, and one of them has a barbed harpoon symbol on its thigh – the exact same symbol elsewhere shown on prey animals, like the bison on the other side of the engraving.
The most likely explanation is that these are stylized or badly drawn figures, and that we’d be silly to over-interpret them and think that they’re meant to be anatomically accurate in all their details. Perhaps the harpoon symbols show the images represent one or more particularly unpopular members of the tribe (maybe this is even a deliberate parody or cartoon), or perhaps this is a sort of Palaeolithic ‘most wanted’ poster (Bahn & Vertut 1997) and maybe the collars and wrist bindings are just ornaments or jewellery.
I can’t resist mentioning, however, the far more out-there idea that these aren’t depictions of Homo sapiens, but of another hominin species, and one that differs from ours in being more massive, different in head and nose shape, and in being regarded by us as an enemy or prey species, or even a beast of burden. The idea has been seriously proposed in the cryptozoology literature wherein it’s argued that ancient humans knew, and sometimes depicted in art, a more bestial, snub-nosed hominin that was perhaps part of H. neanderthalensis (Loofs-Wissowa 1994, Raynal 2001, Heuvelmans 2016). Regular readers will recall me covering this very niche take on prehistoric hominins in my 2016 review of Bernard Heuvelmans’s book Neanderthal: the Strange Saga of the Minnesota Iceman. I don’t think it’s a valid take on these illustrations, but… come on, it’s such a fun idea.
5. Great auk… or Long-Necked Sea Monster? Finally, birds are not especially abundant in ancient rock art, but nevertheless such species as owls, swans, geese, duck and herons were all depicted on occasion. Among the most interesting of ancient birds in rock art are those at Cosquer Cave in Marseille, France, an amazing cave – discovered in 1985 and only announced in 1991 – with a submerged undersea entrance. The birds here are big-bodied, short-legged, and with flipper-like wings and a small head, and the most popular identification is that they’re Great auk Pinguinus impennis*. That would be a big deal since it would be the first rock art of that species; it would also be consistent with fossil evidence showing that this species occurred in the Mediterranean during prehistoric times.
* An error meant that these birds were initially announced as ‘penguins’. As many as you will know, the term penguin was originally applied to the Great auk, and only later applied to the sphenisciforms of the south.
However, the Cosquer Cave illustrations don’t look much like Great auks at all – this suggestion could be completely wrong, or it could be that they’re schematic or abstract depictions of this species. Indeed, some experts think that providing a specific identification like this is going too far and that it might be better to just identify them as generic seabirds (Bahn & Vertut 1997).
An even more exotic suggestion is that the massive body, stumpy tail, flippers and small head of these animals makes them look like…. the long-necked sea monster – a sort of enormous seal with a long seal and a humped back – endorsed by some cryptozoologists (most famously Bernard Heuvelmans, who proposed the name Megalotaria longicollis for this creature).
Yes, the idea that these might be depictions of a sea monster are out there in the cryptozoology literature, specifically in a 1994 article by François de Sarre*. Given that this idea requires Megalotaria to be real (something I don’t endorse, regretfully: see Woodley et al. 2008), I don’t think that this is an especially good idea, though I do agree that there’s a superficial similarity.
In the end, the idea that these images can be precisely identified to a species is probably erroneous, as it is in many similar cases. People must surely have drawn things badly, or in abstract fashion, or perhaps with only partial or second-hand knowledge of the animal concerned. And sometimes they might have made things up, or mashed things together.
And that’s a good point to end on. Prehistoric rock art – produced over tens of thousands of years, by all manner of different groups of people with all kinds of influences, motivations, beliefs, experiences, artistic techniques, materials and technologies – no more performs the same function as human-made images do in the modern world. Some depictions were meant to be true to life, and to be educational, practical or naturalistic; others were abstract, symbolic, whimsical or even satirical; and surely others were practise pieces, or the work of individuals less skilled than others. We must not, I think, assume that everything can be identified to a known animal species with certainty or confidence.
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For previous TetZoo articles on ancient rock art and related issues, see…
Tet Zoo picture of the day # 3 (Elasmotherium), May 2007
The remarkable life appearance of the Woolly rhino, November 2013
The Life Appearance of the Giant Deer Megaloceros, September 2018
Refs - -
Antón, M, Salesa, M. J., Turner, A., Galobart, Á. & Pastor, J. F. 2009. Soft tissue reconstruction of Homotherium latidens (Mammalia, Carnivora, Felidae). Implications for the possibility of representations in Palaeolithic art. Geobios 42, 541-551.
Loofs-Wissowa, H. 1994. The penis rectus as a marker in human palaeontology? Human Evolution 9, 343-356.
Martin-Sanchez, P. M., Miller, A. Z. & Saiz-Jimenez, C. 2015. Lascaux Cave: an example of fragile ecological balance in subterranean environments. In Engel, A. S. (ed) Microbial Life of Cave Systems, De Gruyter, pp. 279–302.
Mazak, V. 1970. On a supposed prehistoric representation of the Pleistocene scimitar cat, Homotherium Farbrini, 1890 (Mammalia; Machairodontinae). Zeitschrift fur Saugertierkunde 35, 359-362.
Raynal, M. 2001. Jordi Magraner’s field research on the bar-manu: evidence for the authenticity of Heuvelmans’ Homo pongoides. In Heinselman, C. (ed) Hominology Special Number 1. Craig Heinselman (Francestown, New Hampshire), unpaginated.
Reumer, J. W. F., Rook, L., Van Der Borg, K., Post, K., Mol, D. & De Vos, J. 2003. Late Pleistocene survival of the saber-toothed cat Homotherium in northwestern Europe. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 23, 260-262.
Rousseau, M. 1971a. Un félin à canine-poignard dans l’art paléolithique? Archéologia 40, 81-82.
Rousseau, M. 1971b. Un machairodonte dans l’art aurignacien? Mammalia 35, 648-657.