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August 1, 2006

Were the great cave painters sex- and violence-obsessed teenage boys?


That's the novel suggestion raised by paleobiologist R. Dale Guthrie of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

In the new (August) issue of Scientific American, J R Minkel's story and interview with Guthrie, headlined "Paleolithic Juvenalia," explored this hypothesis.


Here's the article.

    Paleolithic Juvenalia

    Were cave artists sex- and hunting-obsessed teenage boys?

    Few images fire the imagination like Paleolithic cave paintings, part of the scant physical record left by humans who lived more than 10,000 years ago. To some scholars, this ancient art represents the handiwork of shamans; others detect traces of initiation rites or trancelike states. A new interpretation offers a more prosaic explanation for cave art: the expression of adolescent boys' preoccupation with hunting and sex.


    During the late Paleolithic era, 10,000 to 50,000 years ago, humans roamed a vast steppe covering modern Europe, Asia and North America. These wandering hunters left behind myriad paintings on cave walls and artifacts depicting human figures and the large mammals of the day, including mammoth, elk, bison and horses. Early interpretations cast the images as religious icons or magical totems, perhaps part of hunting or fertility rituals performed by shamans. Humans definitely produced repetitive, stylized iconography over the past 10,000 years, says R. Dale Guthrie, a paleobiologist emeritus at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. "Paleolithic art isn't like that," he contends. "It was done in a more naturalistic way, [showing] real animals eating, copulating, braying or bellowing, biting." To Guthrie, a hunter and amateur artist himself, cave painters seem more like natural historians than shamans.


    Curious to discern more about the artists, Guthrie analyzed the handprints common to many image-bearing caves. He identified 201 handprints from Spanish and French caves that could be reasonably measure for width and length of fingers, palm and hand.


    He compared these data with measurements taken from 700 children, teenagers and adults at local Fairbanks schools. The groups are comparable, he reasoned, because both came from European stock and were well fed on high-protein diets.


    Statistically, the cave handprints match up with modern children aged 10 to 16, Guthrie reports in his book, "The Nature of Paleolithic Art," published earlier this year. "We've always known from the footprints


    in these caves that children are represented, but they're never given much to do by paleoanthropologists; they're regarded as invisible," says anthropologist Clive Gamble of Royal Holloway, University of London. Guthrie estimates the sex ratio of the handprints as largely male, by three or four to one. He argues that the subject of much Paleolithic art is consistent with its being created by adolescent boys, who would have been preoccupied with hunting and mating. Images of animals sometimes display lines through the beast's midsection, along with streaks of red pigment issuing from the mouth or loops below the belly — clear natural hunting imagery, in his view. Voluptuous female imagery is even easier to understand, if modern adolescents are any guide.

    Much cave art is spontaneous and playful, not shamanistic, in Guthrie's view. As evidence of its down-to-earth origins, he cites images that incorporate features of the cave wall or show a rudimentary skill level. Religious impulses and other motivations could still have played a role in some images, however. "I suspect there's not a one-size-fits-all answer" for Paleolithic art, say anthropologist Nicholas J. Conard of the University of Tübingen in Germany. "We're talking about 30,000 years of some fairly complex imagery."


Guthrie's book is $28.35 at Amazon.


Read an excerpt here.

After reading it and the rave reviews on Amazon, a number of them by people expert in the field, I bought it.

August 1, 2006 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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Humans in the earlier times were small and were considered old if they lived to their early 20's.

Posted by: | Jun 30, 2008 1:54:52 PM

It would make more sense to compare the sizes of the hands with the hands of contemporary fossils, which can have their age determined with at least /some/ degree of accuracy.

Diet is only a part of size - there's infections, activity level and type etc. I suspect he's extrapolating an awful lot from not very much.

Posted by: Skipweasel | Aug 2, 2006 5:53:36 PM

I was watching "Journey of Man" last night, and it's clear that people 10,000 years ago were much smaller than modern humans. Hell, people just 200 years ago were smaller. So measuring the handprints against modern children is probably not accurate.

But, yeah, since there were no notebooks or notebook paper on which bored cave kids could doodle their fantasies, why not walls?

Posted by: Al Christensen | Aug 1, 2006 4:36:22 PM

The hands look like they are stenciled on from far away. By this I mean the hand image was not necessarily made from the hand being directly on the wall. If you examine the shape, it is not the shape of a normal flat hand, but instead like a shadow. I don't believe the drawings were made by adolecents. The handcraft is far too controlled. I'm not convinced, but interesting still.

Posted by: Alex | Aug 1, 2006 4:15:02 PM

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