Bison 15,000 - 12,000 BCE Altamira, Spain Paleolithic Art

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Bison 15,000 - 12,000 BCE Altamira, Spain Paleolithic Art

Form:  Most images from Altamira and Lascaux depict profile views of the animals done with diagrammatic contour lines.  (Not unlike the form lines used in Kwakiutl art.)  The profile view is the most effective and clear way of depicting the animals.  There is no depth or space created and the scale and sizes of the animals vary widely possibly  because these were not concerns of the artists nor are the images designed to relate to one another. 

Iconography:  Bisons could represent a number of things: strength, virility, and or food. The spaces these images were painted in might have been some of the world's first churches or temples.  The caves and the ritualized descent into them may have been iconic of rejoining the earth.  Rising out of the cave might have been symbolic of rebirth.

The Hall of Bulls, Panoramic view of a cave wall  Lascaux, France,  early Paleolithic Period, 15,000-13,500 BC France

Context:  These paintings were probably not meant purely as decoration.  The technology used is based on the available resources.   The artists that made these bison either blew the pigments on to the wall or mixed them with animal fat medium as the medium.  They used stones for palettes and made brushes or blowpipes from reeds. 

The images were probable used for some kind of religious or magical  function and most likely as an attempt by early man to control his environment.  By descending into a cave, which in some ways is a sacred womb like space, early humans could paint the bison they were attempting to control.  Possibly using the images as "stand ins" for specific rituals.  The spaces they are painted in were reused over and over again.  The images are layered because they were often painted over by later artists.

Interestingly enough both the sites in Lascaux and Altamira were discovered accidentally.  In the case of Altamira, the Marquis Marcelino de Sautuola was not believed that his discoveries were legitimate and this gave rise to the use of scientific method to legitimize such finds.

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