Agency, Art and Altered Consciousness: A Motif in French (Quercy) Upper Paleolithic Parietal Art

Article excerpt

Is the meaning of prehistoric art beyond recovery - especially the meaning of early art in deep caves, a remote and strange location which itself suggests some out-of-the-ordinary purpose? David Lewis-Williams has been extending his explorations of meaning in later southern African rock-art to the famous enigma of the European Palaeolithic, here in the particulars of a single distinctive motif.

Eight years ago Johnson (1989: 190) made a sobering point: 'The individual has been triumphantly reinstated at the centre of the stage in theory, but quietly relegated to the wings, or written out of the script altogether, in practice.' Since then, the situation has not changed radically, at least in the publication of persuasive case studies (but see, for example, De Marrais et al. 1996; Joyce & Winter 1996; Mithen 1996).

In response to the lacuna that Johnson identifies, I lead my argument to a rock-art(1) motif that is known in Upper Palaeolithic art research as 'the wounded man' or 'the vanquished man'. After briefly situating the present study in the development of rock-art research, I explore the notion of agency in five cumulative sections. First, I discuss, in a preliminary way, the role that altered states of consciousness can play in the construction of selfhood. Secondly, I describe some clinically and ethnographically reported somatic hallucinations. I then draw on these reports in a specific case-study, the San. I show that certain somatic hallucinations were construed and manipulated in different ways by shamanic San rock painters. Next, drawing on principles and material adumbrated in my first, second and third sections I examine formal aspects of the 'wounded man' figures. Finally, I essay an explanation of these Upper Palaeolithic images that takes cognizance of human agency and the construction of selfhood.

The role of agency in rock-art research

The study of Franco-Cantabrian Upper Palaeolithic art has, at different times, placed markedly different emphases on the role of human individuality. Soon after the high antiquity of the art was established, the images were seen as the artistic products of artists: art pour l'art, as an explanation for the making of images, emphasized the activities and volitions of talented Upper Palaeolithic individuals who responded to innate compulsions to express themselves. This first phase of explanation did not last. Before long ethnographic analogies led to the proposal of hunting and reproductive magic as a more plausible explanation. In this understanding of the art, influentially advocated by the Abbe Henri Breuil, individuals were believed to have made the images in order to sustain the material basis of life.

Individualism was eclipsed with the advent of Annette Laming-Emperaire's (1962) and Andre Leroi-Gourhan's (1968) structuralism. These writers postulated a 'mythogram', or conceptual template, that persisted throughout the Upper Palaeolithic and that informed the subject matter and the placing of images within the caves. This mythogram derived from the supposed universal binary pattern of human thinking proposed by Claude Levi-Strauss. Levi-Strauss (e.g. 1963) argued that myths think themselves through the minds of people; for Laming-Emperaire and Leroi-Gourhan, it was the (comparably binary) mythogram that thought itself through the minds of people into the art. Although the association has not, to my knowledge, been explored, Laming-Emperaire's and Leroi-Gourhan's structuralism marched well, at least in one respect, with the adaptationist and processual archaeological approaches of the time. On the one hand, human volition and art were seen to be the products of a supra-human mythogram; on the other, human life was similarly reduced to the product of inexorable economic and ecological laws. In both cases, human agency was thought to be of little consequence.

At the beginning of the 1980s, a growing interest in what became known as cognitive archaeology (Renfrew 1982) proved congenial to renewed archaeological concern with agency (e. …