Lucky Hunter-Gatherers

T.J. Clark

  • Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind
    British Museum, 7 February to 26 May

There is a terrifying moment in Rousseau’s ‘Essay on the Origin of Languages’ when Rousseau tells the story, with the pieties of Enlightenment in his sights, of the human animal first coming across itself and deciding on a name:

A primitive man, on meeting other men, will first have experienced fright. His fear will make him see these men as larger and stronger than himself; he will give them the name giants. After many experiences, he will discover that the supposed giants are neither larger nor stronger than himself, and that their stature did not correspond to the idea he had originally linked to the word ‘giant’. He will then invent another name that he has in common with them, such as, for example, the word man, and will retain the word ‘giant’ for the false object that impressed him while he was being deluded.

This is how it feels a lot of the time in the British Museum’s Ice Age show. Bewilderment, mis-estimate of sizes, a sense of familiarity but also slight wariness, always a background tinge of alarm: in front of the cases these brain-states come and go. Paul de Man, glossing Rousseau, points out helpfully that ‘giant’, as we have the word now, is a kind of back-formation from (normal-proportion) ‘man’, and that the original fear-filled figure for the Other-that-is-ourself which Rousseau had in mind would have been something more floating, more monstrous: familiar (yes, this creature is like me) but for that very reason potentially deceptive, possibly treacherous, unrepresentable.

Sculpture of a Woman, Lespugue cave.
Sculpture of a Woman, Lespugue cave.

Suppose I am a man by the fire at Willendorf or Kostienki or Lespugue some 25,000 years ago, fashioning a tiny image out of mammoth tusk or limestone, and what I make is a ‘woman’ with a kind of helmet hairdo or balaclava, lacking a ‘face’. (The scare quotes come thick and fast in what follows because I grew increasingly aware, going through the rooms at the British Museum, that all the concepts at my disposal to understand this world – especially the speculative totality ‘modern mind’, which the exhibition seems to believe will reassure me – dissolved as I looked.) Suppose the ‘woman’ in question is massively, pendulously breasted, with a belly that looks ‘pregnant’. (Whatever cluster of powers, dangers, potentialities, causes and effects may have been gathered up, for the image-maker and his audience, in a notion even roughly equivalent to the question-begging word ‘pregnancy’ is of course a matter of speculation. The archaeologists admit they haven’t much clue.) The sculptor seems to have been interested in, among other things, the way a body with another body inside it escapes from the control of arms and hands. This must have mattered greatly in a world of manual labour. The arms and hands seem spindly, almost vestigial. They don’t know where to go. Sometimes they look to be cradling the enormous breasts; sometimes maybe to reach down and support – not very convincingly – the belly; the Venus of Willendorf (she is not in the show, but still a presiding presence, well photographed in Jill Cook’s marvellous catalogue) lets her forearms rest along her breasts as if on a massive shelf. So does the incomparable woman found in the cave at Lespugue, who greets the visitor in room one; only in her case the long slim upper arms are held as if in poised tension on either side of a slim, hollowed-out torso, shoulders and chest lightly bowed forward, forearms draped across her ballooning mammaries as if what supports them – the whole roiling, but somehow self-balancing, bladder-work of breast, belly, buttocks, thighs – was a separate person or non-person, whom the woman had learned to be patient with, almost to placate. Maybe ‘giant’ and ‘monster’ are helpful. Maybe not. I look again at the reality of Willendorf and Lespugue – let alone at the inscrutable ‘woman with two heads’ from Grimaldi, or the ‘figure of a woman’ scratched out so confidently and schematically on a mammoth tusk at Předmostí – and know I am lost. I seem to be back, for an instant, in a world where markers and stabilisers like ‘man’, ‘woman’ and ‘pregnancy’ are still to be invented.

I began the previous paragraph imagining myself a man. It is equally likely, some would say more likely, that the self in question was a woman: the hearth and its handicrafts may have been, at least part of the year, a female preserve. This presumably would have altered the terms of terror and otherness at stake in the little figures, but I doubt by much. For all concerned (and that meant everyone, in chilly river camps continually in need of new manpower) the long moment in which a woman’s body became other to itself in order that another might issue from it would have been thought of – this is the hypothesis – as fearful, astonishing, ominous. Everything in the show (the range of small animal sculptures and engravings is just as rich as the array of figurines) confirms the commonsense picture we have of hunter-gatherer society’s inwardness with the ways of wild beasts. Surely such knowledge would have put in relief the sheer dreadful inefficiency – the pain, waste and danger – of the human animal’s means of reproduction. The figures from the settlements along the Danube and Don seem to me to be trying to recognise the dreadfulness, perhaps in order to make it bearable. It is important that they are small (though obviously accidents of preservation may have skewed the sample). Smallness in this case goes along with gigantism – I would say, aids and abets it. To miniaturise the monster is exactly not to tame its monstrosity. The figurines seem meant to be clasped in the hand or dangled from the neck (thread-holes sometimes survive), and therefore available for close scrutiny, maybe at moments when the monster called ‘man’ (or ‘woman’, which is always the name for man-not-quite-being-‘man’) had to be held tight and contained, in both senses: admitted, touched, manipulated, magnified, made familiar, but also petrified, stilled, de-fleshed, stylised, abstracted, given (ultimate mysterious word) ‘form’.

Figure of a Woman on mammoth tusk, Předmostí.
Figure of a Woman on mammoth tusk, Předmostí.

How much power or importance the Ice Age makers and users attributed to their sculpture is again a matter of guesswork. There are interesting new data, from attempts to reproduce the artefacts using the tools and techniques most probably involved, on how long the figures and more elaborate patterns took to make. Scores of hours, it looks like. This leads to the question of quality. Archaeologists (and right-thinking art historians, by the way) are reluctant to trust their powers of judgment here, but my ‘modern mind’, as it moved through the rooms in the show, was soon reeling from the huge disparities of skill and aesthetic complexity obvious from piece to piece. How fabulously, ruthlessly brilliant the best craft performances were, and how pathetic and negligible the worst! The social anthropologists tell us that ‘symbolic thought entails consciousness of the aesthetic.’ Nice to know. Whoever it was made the Lespugue Venus, or carved the fish-patterns on the tusk from Eliseevitchi (but the fish-scale analogy undersells the weird multiplicity of the rhythms and sizes of mark in play), or imagined the torque of the bison’s neck from Zaraysk – well, they knew that their mastery-mystery would soon set the fireside chattering. Just as surely as the scratchers of the mammoth scrawl from La Madeleine or the listless ptarmigan from Isturitz or the lavatory-wall woman from Courbet Cave couldn’t have cared less. Consciousness of the aesthetic has never necessarily meant competence; or even, most often, the wish to compete. A lot of the time, any old visualisation will do.

Images carved from ivory, or spectacular leaf-shape points chipped thin out of flint, absorbed a lot of labour power in the making. They were the business of specialists. But we shouldn’t assume that the hunter-gatherers’ ideas of time-and-motion conformed to our ‘modern mind’ calculus of social (or even cosmological) benefit. Time was elastic, non-continuous. ‘Work’ was far from being a stable category, and certainly wasn’t an all-determining one. Lucky hunter-gatherers, at least in this respect. Things might be admired – specialists given rations – without being considered important, exactly, or powerful.

Some of the most beautiful things in the show seem to have been deliberately smashed; and often it took some doing. A wonderful figure of a swollen-breasted, haltered and necklaced woman from Kostienki had her head and lower legs knocked off before she was buried in a pit. (The head was found and glued back on.) One of her breasts was hacked at. Another fat woman in limestone has legs missing and the marks of a stone hammer trying time and again, in the end successfully, to smash through her torso at breast level. Even the spellbinding Zaraysk bison had its legs on the left side battered off – the impact fractures are there if you look – before being placed on a platform at the bottom of a pit two feet deep. Modern interpreters tend to see all this as evidence that the pieces were originally granted some kind of power – that they did some kind of magic, or were thought to have failed to. Maybe. It would be nice to think that art and iconoclasm have always been twins. But the pit at Kostienki doesn’t seem to have been associated with any sort of ceremony or sanctity. It just filled up with rubbish. You decide if that suggests the figure had lost its ‘aura’ or never had one in the first place.

Again I am lost. The line between taboo and surplus to requirements seems thin. The figures in the show repeatedly looked to me – the best of them – intensely made and enjoyed and experimented with. The Lespugue craftswoman is showing her best stuff. But this doesn’t mean that the figures were ‘valuable’, necessarily, or not in ways that slot into any of our value-systems. Gratuitous pleasure may have been the point. If it took four hundred hours to produce the pleasure … in Ice Age winter there were four hundred hours to spare. And once the pleasure of the little simulacrum had been indulged in, the pleasure of spoiling or annihilating it would follow. Its littleness – its disposability – carried within it the seeds of its destruction.

Pregnant Woman from Kostienki.
Pregnant Woman from Kostienki.

Of course I am doing no more than produce a wild theory of the first iconoclasm (to go along with Rousseau’s of the first naming). An anti-anthropological myth. But mine is just as likely an explanation, I insist, as the ones that creep into the respectable literature, where smashing hard with a hammer must involve, the story goes, a discharge of affect – of fear or hostility or even disappointment. (If the swollen figurines were meant as childbirth charms, then disappointment – not to say horror and despair – must have been commonplace. But even this speculation can turn back on itself. If the spells regularly did not work – if childbirth so often ended in death or deformity – then would affect actually ever adhere to the idol? Whatever the tiny pregnant figures were supposed to do, could they ever have been imagined to have power over reality? Their powerlessness would have been endlessly reconfirmed. Images bring aspects of the world to people’s attention, pre-eminently. That is their humble and indispensable function. It may have been more than enough.)

Zaraysk Bison.
Zaraysk Bison.

This once-in-a-lifetime show – the loans from Russia and France and the Czech Republic are astonishing, and there seems no likelihood of such an assembly happening again here for decades – is a good example of the way the simple presence of things together in a room can outpace, not to say render faintly ridiculous, the best efforts of experts to make sense of them. This is not the experts’ fault. It comes with the primordial territory. Once upon a time it was all lunar calendars and esoteric hunting tips, then it was San shamans and spirit journeys, then modular minds, and now the neo-Lockeanism of the neuros. The frightful ‘Polichinelle’ from Grimaldi opens her vulva imperturbably on all efforts to address her thus; the eyes of the woman in ceramic from Dolní Věstonice look out and past any possible viewer with unfathomable disdain.

The Dolní ceramic looks to me (again I risk an art historian’s intuition) to be possible only towards the end of a long, now-lost sequence of sophistications. The rhyming of the terrible incised girdle below the figure’s belly with the great rampart of her collarbones, and then in turn with her visor eye slits; the frightening weight and ‘foreignness’ (to the body that carries them) of the asymmetrical breasts; the complete certainty of the whole body’s (dis)proportions; the heartless comic gashes in the adipose tissue on the back; the opening sideways of the umbilicus-mouth … This is the idiom of an imperious masonry of moulders. The archaeologists tell us that clay figures like this one were lined up alongside the camp’s central hearth, but others were deliberately left in the ashes and allowed to overheat. So behind the black mother one should imagine a little theatre of hissings and explosions. Beats me what the son et lumière was about.

Woman from Dolní Věstonice.
Woman from Dolní Věstonice.

Let us admit that part of the purpose of Rousseau’s origin story was to scandalise the good readers of Bougainville; but his deeper point – and he had one, as usual – seems to me this. Perhaps there had been a moment in the career of the human animal at which something like self-consciousness became a possibility, and a complex of notions clustering round a blank centre called ‘man’ began to perpetuate themselves. Some people would like to believe that the moment was strongly linked to a specific cerebral mutation or the elaboration of a mental ‘module’ (species-recognition, over to you). Others, me included, stick to the idea that what happened must have been the emergence of a new pattern of cognition directed and deformed by an ongoing symbolic sociality. Maybe it will turn out that the argument here is over-polarised. But Rousseau suggests, and I think the Ice Age material backs him, that whatever its neural or social mechanics, the moment of self-consciousness was inseparable from one of distanciation and self-loss: from seeing oneself as Other, as not known, as threatened or threatening, as ‘taboo’. The true cognitive depth to the palaeolithic sculptures – their challenge, ultimately, to our anthropological schema – seems to me the way they suggest how self-loss and self-consciousness were intertwined. The movement of the new world of representations was at least twofold. One aspect (and that I have concentrated on the little figurines does not mean I have forgotten, or mean the reader to, that the overall image-world of the Ice Age is oriented to the bison, the mammoth, the horse, the cave bear, the reindeer, the wolverine) involved the invention, by the look of it somewhat suddenly, of more and more ways to bring the realm of animals up close, imaginatively – into being, into movement. The painters and carvers seem to have been intent on staging and immortalising the human animal’s familiarity with – maybe its dreamed-of inclusion in – a world where the ‘human’ was only a small part of the show. (In the painted caves, the very notion of human ‘viewpoint’ – certainly the notion of a unitary or focalising place-from-which-to see – seems deliberately put in abeyance. And this, after all, would have been in obvious tension with the imperatives of the hunter’s seeing-to-kill.) But all this new celebration of a wider world in which ‘I’ hardly figures is necessarily accompanied – here is what seems to me the implication of the last three decades’ mind-boggling finds, laid out so beautifully in the show – by a drive to depict the ‘human’, the not-quite-like-me, in all its shape-shifting concreteness and abstraction. The human ‘herself’, one might say. Standing at an infinite conceptual distance. Bearing her otherness as burden or threat. ‘Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat!’ to quote the poet. ‘I am the personal./Your world is you. I am my world.’ You surely are a giant among women.