What is never shared with the children of America, for whom archaeology figures with disproportionate prominence among the career choices of a still-fictional adult life, is that the art of prehistoric Europe – paintings and carvings on cave walls, but also sculptural and decorative artifacts made from stone or organic materials – carries a deeply sexual charge. This omission is understandable, given that prepubescent students lack that hormone-driven centering of sex at the core of every calculation and effort made by We the Reproductively Mature – a sexualization of the world’s subjective skin whose evidence in the aesthetic activity of paleolithic humans makes their art cognitively intriguing, and whose absence among the kiddies would make this dimension of the art exceedingly difficult for them to appreciate. It was with deeply rewarding astonishment, then, that I found myself, during a trip to Southwestern France with Professor Mann’s Program in Human Origins, unhooking the conceptual bra strap of (and proceeding directly to second base and then some with) that childhood pal – archaeology – who I suddenly realized had filled out over the summer. Now we are more than friends.
The Upper Paleolithic is a span of time roughly dating to between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago. It is the final phase of the Old Stone Age, tapering into the Neolithic, or New Stone Age. This era felt the last of the major periodic ice ages – which had thrown the earth into cyclical glacialization – thaw away before a steadily warming climate. By this time, the cognitively modern humans who had migrated out of Africa bearing language, culture, and sophisticated technologies were now dispersed across the Old World from Australia to Iberia. One of the last regions in which these people arrived was a recently deglacialized Western Europe. There, Neanderthal populations that had once flourished around the entire Mediterranean rim now clung along with the last of the receding ice to a waning presence in modern-day Germany, France, and Spain, and it is with much heated contention that anthropologists and archeologists debate the nature of the circumstances leading up to that hominid species’ eventual disappearance from even this terminal edge of Europe.
The Perigord is a region in the south of France lying just inland from the Atlantic coast and a two hours’ drive from the Basque hills that straddle the Spanish border, a former province of the pre-revolutionary regime that is now incorporated into the departement of the Dordogne. It produces excellent truffles, foie gras, and wines on farms and vineyards plotted softly amid a rolling bucolic landscape of greenery, streams and rivers. Limestone makes up the bedrock of the area, and the porous, erosive quality of that stone has brought feature over millions of years to the cliffs, canyons, screes, overhangs and – most importantly here – extensive cave networks that mark the terrain. Long before the mouths of these caves were used to grow truffles, long before grapes and goose-pens shot up in the valleys, the grass of these valleys fed herds of giant vanished mammals – the auroch and megaloceros and mammoth and rhinoceros and wild horse and bison – that were the prey and awe of hungry humans, for whom the mouths of these caves were often homes and workshops. And it was deeper into the caves, in labyrinths of passages and halls and galleries each ranging in scale from the claustrophobically narrow to the enormous – and all plunged into a subterranean darkness pierced only by the meager flames of fat-burning lamp-bowls – that people carved into the soft limestone walls and painted with pigment onto their contoured surfaces the likenesses of those beasts, among other things. This is where the famous Lascaux cave is, although it has since been joined by many others, with new caves filled with astounding art discovered every year.
All this I knew in principle: they painted animals in caves, and maybe it was bound up in some kind of religion or functional magic, or just a way for the ancient consciousness to reckon with the world around it, none of which is at all far in motive from the drives to artistic creation today or at any other time. But staring up at the rippling cavern ceiling of the Font-de-Gaume cave, some dimension of what is going on up there begins to murmur its announcement. This gallery is densely painted with couples of giant male and female ungulates – the male in black, the female in red. Their gender is easily discernible to the trained eye of a biologist, notably so because both genders of every species depicted here are painted displaying features characteristic of their respective sexes during mating season. These mammals in heat are not just hanging in rockspace side by side – they are running haunch to haunch, leaning atop one another, and the unbelievable centerpiece: a red female deer is standing face-to-face with her black male counterpart who sports a gigantic span of antlers. She leans her long, broad neck down just slightly to receive atop her head a gentle kiss from her mate. This scene of animal romance was painted over 20,000 years ago.
Every cave one visits is similar. In these works of art, some of which date back as far as 30,000 years or older and none of which are newer than 15,000 years old, every animal is rendered in voluptuous proportions: massive curvaceous haunches that bulge out with the natural contours of the cave wall. The use of the line is nothing short of sensuous. Every animal is clearly gendered, clearly represented in its mating period. Although we were not shown it on the tour, one cave supposedly contains a difficult-to-reach gallery in which pairs of rhinoceros are shown mating, and mating, and mating. In the Abri Poisson, a small chamber set into the base of a rocky overhang in which a prehistoric stone-carver chiseled out a fish, the salmon that has been etched onto the chamber ceiling bears the sign of a horny salmon swimming upstream to the spawning grounds: a bulbous swelling at the front of the snout that acts as a navigatory clitoris, giving pleasure to the salmon as it is buffeted by the current of water against which it struggles.
The minute details of sex never escape the eye of the prehistoric human artist. What registers here is a fascination with the sexual that extends beyond its ritual fetishization in functional appeals to some magical force for human fertility or robust herds. This art is uncanny and wonderful because sex is not sublimated or displaced into some other visual language, but is itself sublime, itself celebrated. At the National Prehistory Museum in the small hillside town of Les Eyzies, mounted on the wall for several jaw-dropping yards behind a plastic barrier is one after another prehistoric vulva carved from stone, soft triangular beaks that have been removed from dozens of caves and gathered here as a testament to the paleolithic genius of sculpted vaginoportraiture. These vulvae find their male counterparts in the profusion of stone phalli on display in museums across the region, ranging in size from the minutely decorative to the heftily… serviceable. Of the handful of human representations on cave walls, two sport sizeable erections, priapic lines of ink. What is interesting here is that both of these erections are occuring on men in ritual contexts. One is in a deep, carbon-dioxide rich gallery of the Lascaux cave that may have been used as a site for shamanic activity. There, in front of an enormous bull bison rearing down with his horns and partially disemboweled by a protruding spear, there is a simple stick-figurish line drawing of a man with a bird’s head who leans at a 45 degree angle beside a bird-topped staff. This man has an erection. The other erect man is in another cave- he bears the head and antlers of a deer or elk, might be holding some other ritual object, and has an erection. All this, along with the sexual saturation of the animal renderings, suggests that for these people it was not the representation of sex that was magical, but rather that magic itself was sexual. These people knew something about sex and the human psyche that Sigmund Freud didn’t have to tell them.
The female sex also makes its appearance in pigment. One of the archaeologists who came to speak to our program, Jean Clotte, showed us digital pictures of a mystery in a recently-discovered cave that had just been solved. Down in a hard-to-reach pit in this cave, something was painted on a prominence jutting from the wall. There was a debate as to the nature of the creature represented down there. Then some clever researcher put a digital camera on a long pole and took a flash photograph of the myserious drawing face-on. It was a painting of the spread-eagled legs and great inky blue vagina of a woman, a shallow slit carved out between the labia.
The favorite mode of female representation in prehistoric art is the so-called “Venus” style of figurine, most famously represented by the Venus of Willendorf, named for the town in Germany by which it was found. Venuses have been found all over Europe – fabulously ample women with engorged buttocks, belly, breasts and thighs, an etched vagina and usually a plaited orb in place of a head. Most of these figures can be grasped in one hand, and our professor on the program, Professor Mann, suggested the provisional hypothesis that alongside their use as fetish-idolistic, venerative or ritual objects in the same fertility/sex cult that inspired other artworks, the exaggerated sexual characteristics of these statuettes might be explained by their use as tactile erotica. In this scenario, a man on a long hunting or trading voyage who yearns for the women at home could be found sitting in front of the campfire or out in the bushes getting off with the assistance of this shapely memory aid, speaking its lady lumps into the palm of his free hand. His sweetheart, meanwhile, is either back at home or off on her own provisioning trip, removing a stone phallus from her deerskin satchel beneath that same lonely wash of moonlight.