Saturday, May 8, 2021

A CARVED SLAB IN FRANCE IS CLAIMED TO BE THE OLDEST MAP IN EUROPE:


St. Belec slab, France. Photograph ancientorigins.net.

Well, here we go again. Another carved stone slab has been designated as a map, and not just any map. No, this map has been designated the oldest map in Europe.

Readers of RockArtBlog should know that I am very skeptical of claims of maps in rock art. I have gone so far as to say that I have not seen one yet in North America that I can agree is a map. It seems that when confronted by a mess of tangled lines on the rock face the fallback position for amateurs is always “that is a map of the surrounding area”. Indeed, the very first column I wrote for RockArtBlog was “Are There Maps In Native American Rock Art,” on April 18, 2009, debunking a claimed map on a petroglyph panel in southeastern Colorado.


Qenqo, Peru. Internet photograph, Public Domain.

In other locales, and other situations, I can accept the concept of a carved stone map, Q’enqo, in Peru, and a few other locales, have Incan carve stone representations of  miniature landscapes that are thought to have been used in rituals. This might just be the case with the Saint-Belec slab.

The authors of the analysis believe it is a map meant to represent its surrounding region. “A recent re-examination of the Saint-Belec slab suggests that its sculptured surface and scattered motifs represent the surrounding landscape and a series of contemporary structures now known from archaeological evidence.” (Nicolas et al. 2021)


                      St. Belec slab, France.                   Photograph Bournemouth University, UK.

“When discovered, the slab formed the western side of one of the largest stone-cists in the region. It was orientated east-west and measured 3.86 m long, 2.1 m wide, and 1.86 m high.” (Nicolas et al. 2021) In other words it was used as part of the structure of a burial chamber under a mound or barrow. The work of constructing a stone burial chamber and raising a barrow over it suggests that the person buried inside was of some importance. The Bronze Age date assumed for this rock seems to be the result of its incorporation into a structure dating from that period, plus the fact that the authors state it does not bear any resemblance to earlier Neolithic carvings.

“A key point is that the engravers seem to have modified the original surface relief of the slab to create the desired 3D-form that compares to the topography of the surrounding landscape, the Odet River valley, overlooked by the Saint-Belec barrow. Furthermore, a series of lines appear to figure a more extended river network. To test this hypothesis, we have led several network and shape analyses that confirm a good correspondence between the carvings and the topography, with similar results to ethnographic solicited maps. Such correlations give the opportunity to georeference the Saint-Belec slab and get an idea of the possible scale of the space represented: an area c. 30 km long and 21 km wide. Furthermore, the carved motifs might have depicted early Bronze Age settlements, barrows, field systems, and tracks.” (Nicolas et al. 2021)

                    St. Belec slab, France.        Photograph Bournemouth University, UK.

“While there are relatively few blank areas on the decorated surface, there is very little overlap of the motifs, except at their ends. Therefore, it appears that the successive phases in creating the panel did not significantly change the overall composition but were rather added in a planned way.” (Nicolas et al. 2021) In other words, there seems to have been a plan for the composition which was worked on until completed and then the surface was essentially left alone.

”One outstanding question about the Saint-Belec slab is why it was made? One possibility is that such a territorial depiction was a material and symbolic act enforcing. Set alongside the contemporary development of field systems in Brittany making the slab perhaps suggests the appearance of a new form of land tenure., while the distribution of elite graves is closely linked to soil fertility. Against this background, we can hypothesize that the Saint-Belec slab was used as a cadastral plan for managing the territory and controlling land.” (Nicolas et al. 2021) My interpretation of this statement is that the authors believe that this slab, representing a map of the surrounding area that the elite possessor had influence over, would have been used in the same fashion as a stereotyped military commander in a movie standing over his map table and making plans for actions.

I would like to suggest another possibility; where the authors state that “the Saint-Belec slab was used as a cadastral plan for managing the territory and controlling land,” I would like to suggest that it may have had a ritual function such as the above mentioned Q’enqo in Peru, where rites performed over the surface of this representation of the territory may have magically and/or spiritually effected the territory itself, perhaps for annual fertility rites, or magical security and protection.

In any case, if it was indeed used in such a fashion by an elite owner, it must then have been built into the wall of that elite’s tomb upon death and burial. So, in this case, I find myself agreeing that this may indeed be a map in rock art, but in this specialized way, not as an image per se of the land surface itself, but as a spiritual go-between representing the large area of land depicted.

NOTE: Some images in this posting were retrieved from the internet with a search for public domain photographs. If any of these images are not intended to be public domain, I apologize, and will happily provide the picture credits if the owner will contact me with them. For further information on these reports you should read the original reports at the sites listed below.

REFERENCES:

Faris, Peter, 2009, Are There Maps In Native American Rock Art?, April 18, 2009, https://rockartblog.blogspot.com

Nicolas, C., Y. Pailler, P. Stephan, J. Pierson, L. Aubry, B. Le Gall, V. Lacombe, and J. Rolet, 2021, La Carte et le Territoire: La Dalle Gravee du Bronze Ancien de Saint-Belec (Leuhan, Finistere), April 2021, Bulletin de la Societe Prehistorique Francaise, tome 118, 1, p. 99-146.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

HIGH ON HYPOXIA - DID OXYGEN DEPRIVATION INSPIRE PALEOLITHIC CAVE ART?


Painted wall at Chauvet Cave France. Photograph from www.donsmaps.com.

“Don’t take the brown acid, it’s bad” Does anyone remember Wavy Gravy’s announcement at Woodstock? This came to mind as I read a silly recent article from a team of Israeli rock art researchers. It explained that Paleolithic artists placed their artistic masterpieces so deep in caves because they were inspired by the effects of brain hypoxia. Brain hypoxia is the condition resulting from insufficient oxygen being delivered to the brain by the bloodstream. 

According to Healthline.com: “Brain hypoxia symptoms range from mild to severe. Mild symptoms includeTemporary memory loss, Reduced ability to move your body, Difficulty paying attention, and Difficulty making sound decisions. Severe symptoms includeSeizure, Coma, Brain death.” (Badii 2018) What on this list sounds like creativity? Creative production in the visual arts not only requires physical activity and a great deal of dexterity, precision and coordination, it is a rigorous mental activity that requires decision making, judgement, memory, and concentration, exactly the opposite of the effects of hypoxia. Yet this is exactly what a recent Israeli study claims.

"The study explains why so many ancient paintings are deep inside cave system(s). Prehistoric cave dwellers living in Europe purposefully starved themselves of oxygen to hallucinate while creating their decorative wall paintings, a groundbreaking new study has found. Researchers have been questioning for years why so many of the world's oldest paintings were located in often pitch-black tunnel systems, far away from cave entrances. But a recent study by Tel Aviv University now reveals that the location was deliberate because it induced oxygen deprivation and caused cavemen to experience a state called hypoxia." (Ankel 2021)


Lions, rhinos, and bison, Chauvet Cave, France. Internet photograph, Public Domain.

It is true that psychedelic hallucinations were associated with some art in the late 60s and 70s but this was usually the psychedelic art associated with the Hippies or high abstract expressionism. No realist painter would have been helped by the effects of psychedelics, let alone hypoxia.

"'People have always been fascinated by caves. Underground cavities and hollows in mountains played a special role in the ontology and cosmology of indigenous societies, past and present' Yafit Kedar, a PhD candidate in the Department of Archaeology and Near Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University explained. Kedar's research focuses on understanding the implications of smoke dispersal and air circulation on humans at Paleolithic caves and rock shelters." (Tercatin 2021)

"According to Ran Barkai, the co-author of the study, the cavemen used fire to light up the caves, which would simultaneously also reduce oxygen levels. Painting in these conditions was done deliberately and as a means of connecting to the cosmos, the researcher says. 'It was used to get connected with things,' Barkai stated, adding that the cave painters often though of the rock face as a portal connecting their world with the underworld, which was associated with prosperity and growth. The researcher also suggested that cave paintings could have been used as part of a kind of initiation rite." (Ankel 2021)

"'The natural oxygen concentration in the atmosphere is 21%.' Kedar explained. ' A lower concentration of oxygen creates a condition known as hypoxia.' Hypoxia officially occurs when the oxygen concentration is below 18%. Its symptoms, the researchers pointed out, include dizziness and headaches but also euphoria and an increase in the release of dopamine - which can lead to hallucinations and out-of-the-body experiences, especially if the level of oxygen drops below 14.5%." (Tercatin 2021)

This statement is erroneous, these figures are far from absolute. They state that hypoxia occurs as oxygen concentration is below 18%. The effective oxygen concentration in Boulder, Colorado is 17.3%. I have lived in Boulder and went to graduate school there and functioned just fine. The effective oxygen concentration in Aspen, Colorado is 15.4% and I, and most other people do just fine in Aspen. The authors say that there will be "hallucinations and out-of-body-experiences" if oxygen drops below 14.5%. The effective oxygen concentration at the altitude of Leadville, Colorado is 14.3%. I have been to Leadville and done just fine. I know artists in Leadville who paint very well without "hallucinations and out-of-body-experiences."


Horses, Chauvet Cave, France. Photograph Wikipedia.

So, if our erstwhile cave artist is actually experiencing that euphoria and hallucinations along with his dizziness and headaches I can picture him perhaps summoning up the energy and concentration to make a handprint, a smear of some sort, or a simple abstract pattern, and, in fact, all of these can be found in cave painting. What I cannot picture is that same cave artist producing the masterful paintings of Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira, or any of the other acknowledged examples of masterpieces of art found in caves. That quality and level of creation requires much more decision making, judgement, memory, and concentration to pull off. The beautiful horses, lions, bison, rhinos, and other animals in Chauvet and the other caves are not the result of hallucination, they are the result of the deliberate and sober use of the highest level of human analysis and creative concentration.

I believe that the authors of this so-called scientific study came up with their theory of oxygen deprivation prompting the paintings in the far depths of caves and then pushed it to what they saw (or wanted to see) as its logical conclusions, without referencing it to the reality of facts, ending up going down their own imaginative cave with Alice and the Cheshire Cat, not based in the real world.

Indeed, that the authors may have had some reservations in their theory is suggested by this statement from the discussion section of their paper. “It is also possible that people who are accustomed to the alternate states of consciousness induced by hypoxia could become somewhat inured, with the symptoms decreasing after recurrent visits to the cave. Perhaps these people retained their ability to perform some of the practical tasks associated with their endeavor, such as building scaffolding, guiding others, or executing the depictions, while less experienced visitors to the cave would have been much more severely affected.” (Kedar et al. 2021)

I would like to suggest to them a different interpretation of their story which might be more plausible. The quality of the fine art itself disproves their theory as stated so we can assume that one or a few artists with their small oil lamps did not use up so much oxygen that they went into hypoxia when the art was being created. If, however, a larger number of people gathered together there with their larger number of light sources, then the oxygen might have been depleted by the larger crowd. If they gathered there for some sort of ceremonial purpose that included the art as a background, then perhaps the audience may have experienced mild hallucinations from hypoxia. This would enhance the experience and the effects of the art. So, not for the artists, but for the audience, this theory might make a little more sense - but note, this is not what the authors claimed.

I am aware that this whole argument is a little simplistic and overlooks variables like the human body adapting to various environments, but, I would argue, their whole premise is even more simplistic and I just cannot buy it.

NOTE: Images in this posting were retrieved from the internet with a search for public domain photographs. If any of these images are not intended to be public domain, I apologize, and will happily provide the picture credits if the owner will contact me with them. For further information on these reports you should read the original reports at the sites listed below.

REFERENCES:

Ankel, Sophia, 2021, Prehistoric Cavemen Starved Themselves of Oxygen to Induce Hallucinations and Inspire Their Ancient Paintings, Study Finds, April 11, 2021, https://news.yahoo.com  

Badii, Chitra, Brain Hypoxia, September 29, 2018, medically reviewed by Seunggu Han, M.D., https://www.healthline.com/health/cerebral-hypoxia#symptoms 

Kedar, Yafit, Gil Kedar and Ran Barkai2021, Hypoxia in Paleolithic Decorated Caves: the Use of Artificial Light in Deep Caves Reduces Oxygen Concentration and Induces Altered States of Consciousness, Time and Mind (Journal), DOI:10.1080/1751696X.2021.1903177

Tercatin, Rossella2021, Stoned in the Stone Age: Prehistoric Humans Got High - Israeli Scholars, April 8, 2021, The Jerusalem Post