Saturday, December 26, 2015


Engraving of a brush hut.
Marcos Garcia-Diez, and
Manuel Vaquero, 2015,

There have been many attempts to define shapes and symbols found in paleolithic paintings or engravings on the walls of caves in Europe as habitation sites or structures. For the most part those have not been generally accepted by scholars.

Now we have the recent announcement and presentation of the discovery of "an engraved schist slab recently found in the Molí del Salt site (North-eastern Iberia) and dated at the end of the Upper Paleolithic, ca. 13,800 years ago. This slab displays seven semicircular motifs that may be interpreted as the representation of dome-shaped huts. The analysis of individual motifs and the composition, as well as the ethnographic and archeological contextualization, suggests that this engraving is a naturalistic depiction of a hunter-gatherer campsite. Campsites can be considered the first human landscape, the first area of land whose visible features were entirely constructed by humans. Given the social meaning of campsites in hunter-gatherer life-styles, this engraving may be considered one of the first representations of the domestic and social space of a human group." (Garcia-Diez and Vaquero 2015)

Drawing of the schist slab with
engravings. Marcos Garcia-Diez,
and Manuel Vaquero, 2015, PLOS One.

"The iconography of Paleolithic art is largely made up of figurative depictions of animals and, less commonly, human figures. There is also a wide repertoire of non-figurative signs. It is generally assumed that this imagery shows the importance of the animal world in the economic, social, and ideological systems of prehistoric hunter-gatherers. Moreover, these animal figures exhibit the capacity to represent reality in a naturalistic style. The signs are commonly interpreted as symbolic representations with a heavy ideological burden. However, other interpretations offer a vision of Paleolithic art as social images linked to the realm of the everyday world, challenging its association with a socially restricted religious sphere." (Garcia-Diez and Vaquero 2015)

I suspect that these interpretations of non-figurative, "abstract" images probably teach us more about the scholar making the interpretation then they do about Paleolithic art. "It seems that Paleolithic humans were less interested in representing features of the landscape. In particular, natural landscape features would be rarely represented and uncertain, let alone those forming part of the human landscape (huts and campsites). The few representations interpreted as huts are formally undefined and open to alternative interpretations." (Garcia-Diez and Vaquero 2015)

The schist slab with locations of the
engravings circled. Marcos Garcia-Diez,
and Manuel Vaquero, 2015, PLOS One.

The schist slab from the Molí del Salt bears seven domed or rounded, flat-bottomed shapes engraved into the surface that truly look like the portrayal of a village of huts made by a group of hunter-gatherers.

"There are seven graphic units in the upper surface, while only a small set of lines are recognized in the lower one. The graphic units correspond to seven semicircular motifs whose interior was filled by straight parallel lines. The geometric structures are constructed from two different contour lines–one straight and one curved–that define the convex character. The straight line defines the lower part of the motif, so all structures have the same disposition. The interconnection between the two structural lines is blurred, as neither contour line touches or exceeds the other (normally, the bottom line exceeds the ends of the curved line). The number of internal lines varies between 7 and 11, mostly covering the entire interior space. The internal lines, in general, do not reach the contour lines, and they show a horizontal (two cases) or oblique (five cases, three of which show a marked tendency to vertical) disposition. The size of the graphic units varies between 43 and 20 mm in width and between 22 and 14 mm in height. If we consider only the semicircular shape, without considering the appendices of the lower contour line, the dimensions range between 30 and 18 mm in width and 22 and 14 mm in height." (Garcia-Diez and Vaquero 2015)

"We hypothesize that the seven semicircular motifs in the MS engraving represent dwellings or huts. In addition, the close formal, metric, and technical linkages among these motifs, as well as their distribution in the graphic field, indicate their compositional association and their execution in a short time. To support the interpretation of the MS engraving as a campsite, we will focus on three aspects for which we have ethnographic information: the outline of the huts, their proportions, and the number of huts in a campsite. The use of ethnographic information in archeological interpretation has been common since the 1970s. This is based on the assumption that there are some analogies between present and past societies that produce similar archeological outcomes. Hunter-gatherer architecture is strongly conditioned by one of the characteristics associated to most hunter-gatherer societies: residential mobility. According to this assumption, mobile hunter-gatherers will show common traits in their architectural patterns, regardless their historical contexts." (Garcia-Diez and Vaquero 2015)

Added to this argument is the undeniable fact that the natural materials used for construction of such huts really only go together effectively in a limited number of ways, and the modern (and presumably paleolithic) brain is inherently in favor of efficiency  and effectiveness in preparing such structures. These huts should be expected to resemble the brush huts found in hunter-gatherer societies found in other times and places, and so they do.


Garcia-Diez, Marcos and Manuel Vaquero,
2015    Looking at the Camp: Paleolithic Depiction of a Hunter-Gatherer Campsite, PLOS One, Published Dec. 2, 2015, DOI: 10.1371/Journal pone.0143002.

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