Saturday, December 3, 2016


We have long been convinced that mythology could offer insights into the meaning of rock art. I am sure that we all know of examples where we are convinced that this works, that the meaning of a rock art panel can be inferred by knowledge of the mythology of the people who created it. Now an article in the December 2016 issue of Scientific American makes the fascinating claim that mythology can be used to decipher meaning in cave art produced during the Paleolithic period.

Drawing of the Polyphemus
myth panel in Les Trois-Freres. 
Public domain.

Julien d'Huy, in The Evolution of Myths, explains his process of phylogenetic analysis using statistics to generate "phylogenetic trees (that) reveal that species of myths evolve slowly and parallel patterns of mass human migration out of Africa and around the globe." (d'Huy 2016:64)

D'Huy explained that "my phylogenetic studies make use of the extra rigor of statistical and computer modeling techniques from biology to elucidate how and why myths and folktales evolve." (d'Huy 2016:64)

One of the myth families that he has applied this technique to is the "Cosmic Hunt", where "a man or an animal pursues or kills one or more animals and the creatures are changed into constellations." (d'Huy 2016:64) This story, in a number of variations, was common to the ancient Greeks in the story of Callisto who becomes the constellation Ursa Major, the great bear, and to the Iroquois, Chukchi, and Finno-Ugric tribes of Siberia. According to d'Huy "although the animals and the constellations may differ, the basic structure of the story does not." (d'Huy 2016:64)

D'Huy has traced the Cosmic Hunt myth back through history and around the world. He found it to be "nearly absent in Indonesia and New Guinea an very rare in Australia, but present on both sides of the Bering Strait, which geologic and archaeological evidence indicates was above water between 28,000 and 13,000 B.C. The most credible working hypothesis is that Eurasian ancestors of the first Americans brought the family of myths with them." (d'Huy 2016:65)

Another myth family that d'Huy has traced back to early origins is known as the Polyphemus myth after the one-eyed giant in the Odyssey who trapped Ulysses' crew in a cave and devoured some of them. In the same way as Polyphemus kept his herd of sheep in a cave, in variations of this myth animals are kept concealed by a trickster or other being, and a hero bring them to the surface of earth to sustain the people. The Algonquin Blackfoot people acquired buffalo in this way. "A composite phylogenetic tree of Polyphemus myths indicates that the stories followed two major migratory patterns: The first, in Paleolithic times spread the myth in Europe and North America. The second, in Neolithic times, paralleled the proliferation of livestock farming." (d'Huy 2016:68)

Drawing of the hero in the
Polyphemus myth panel in
Les Trois-Freres. Public domain.

"Phylogenetic reconstructions of both the Polyphemus and Cosmic Hunt stories build on decades of research by scholars who based their work primarily on oral and written versions of folktales and legends. The current models also incorporate empirical observations of mythological motifs in prehistoric rock art. Similarities in certain rock art motifs and the reconstructed stories open a new window on the mental universe of the first humans who migrated across the Bering Strait to the New World between 30,000 and 15,000 years ago. 
In the myth of Polyphemus, as its original public most likely heard it, a hunter faces one or many monsters that possess a herd of wild animals. He enters the place where the monster keeps the animals and finds his way out blocked by a large obstacle. The monster tries to kill him. The hero manages to escape by clinging to the underbelly of one of the animals.
This protomyth - revealed by three separate phylogenetic databases, many statistical methods and independent ethnological data - reflects the belief, widely held by ancient cultures, in the existence of a master of animals who keeps them in a cave and the need for an intermediary to free them." (d'Huy 2016:69)

Drawing of the hero of the
Polyphemus myth panel in
Les Trois-Freres. Public domain.

D'Huy believes that this theme to can be applied to the Paleolithic world view on the origin of game. "At the Cave of the Trois-Freres (or "three brothers")
in the French Pyrenees, frequented during the upper Paleolithic, a panel shows a small creature with the head of a bison and the body of a human, which seems to be holding a short bow. Lost in the middle of a herd of bison, another animal, similar to a bison, turns its head toward the human hybrid, and the two exchange gazes." (d'Huy 2016:69)

This, he sees as an illustration of the herd of game animals being brought out of concealment (hidden in the cave perhaps) by a hero, to the people.
Now I have been relatively critical of statistical analysis in the past, especially when applied to rock art, but even without relying on statistics this explanation makes a great deal of sense, and when combined with the phylogenetic analysis of the mythology, I have to concede that I believe there is something here that is possibly of great importance to rock art studies. I look forward in the future to more contributions by Julien d'Huy. 

NOTE: Read the whole article in the December 2016 Scientific American magazine.


Julien d'Huy,
2016  The Evolution of Myths, Scientific American, December 2016, Volume 315, Number 6, pages 62 - 69.

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