Identifying Great Auks and Other Birds in the Palaeolithic Art of Western Europe: A Reply to d'Errico

By McDonald, Joan F. | Antiquity, December 1994 | Go to article overview

Identifying Great Auks and Other Birds in the Palaeolithic Art of Western Europe: A Reply to d'Errico


McDonald, Joan F., Antiquity


The craft of bird-watching lies in the distinctive look any bird has, so it may be recognized even from a passing glimpse. That may help with identifying the prehistoric birds captured as passing glimpses for us in Palaeolithic pictures.

In a recent article in ANTIQUITY, d'Errico (1994) discusses the painting depicting the Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis), recently discovered at the Grotte Cosquer (Alpes Maritimes, France) (Clottes et al. 1992), draws attention to Middle and Upper Palaeolithic sites where bones of the Great Auk have been found, surveys other images of birds from the Upper Palaeolithic of western Europe and attempts to identify further depictions of the Great Auk. I would like to comment on d'Errico's reading of the Cosquer painting and his remarks concerning the Great Auk, and suggest more appropriate identifications for three of the birds shown in his figures 4-7. For those unfamiliar with the species, the page reference is given for Lars Jonsson's (1992) Birds of Europe.

The Cosquer Great Auks

Figure 2 in d'Errico (1994: 41) is a photograph of a museum specimen of a Great Auk, shown in lateral view. This stance is unlikely to be as the bird appeared in life on land and is perhaps an artefact of differential shrinkage. The bird should be mounted with a more upright posture, like its extant close relatives the Guillemot (Uria aalge) and Razorbill (Alca torda) (Jonsson 1992: 294). Two anecdotal accounts quoted in Bent (1919) support this view. Martin, writing in 1753, says the Great Auk 'stands stately, its whole body erected'; and Newton in 1861 says, 'On the rocks they sat more upright than either guillemots or razorbills'. The wrong posture and the emaciated look typical of museum specimens should be borne in mind when-comparing the birds shown in d'Errico (1994).

The painting from the Grotte Cosquer (d'Errico 1994: 40) consists of three figures. D'Errico, seeing that two of the figures (P1, P2) dynamically face each other with their wings outstretched, suggests they could represent males fighting over P3, which he believes to be a female lying down; this action taking place on land. P1 and P2, however, are head to head rather than facing one another and if P2 (the most complete figure) were to be rotated upright, its feet and tail would be in the wrong position for standing. A less gladiatorial interpretation of this scene is that P1 and P2 are swimming underwater -- as Great Auks were supremely adapted to do -- and that P3 is merely swimming on the surface. Among most of the extant alcids, the chick joins its parents at sea before it fledges, and this is the grouping most commonly encountered for some months after the breeding colonies have been abandoned. This family grouping may, I believe, be depicted at Cosquer.

In discussing the Cosquer painting, d'Errico (1994) uses terms such as 'combat' and 'impressive battles'. These terms are too strong for describing the territorial bahaviour of alcids in general, and a flightless one in particular. Although the bill is used in territorial disputes among colonially nesting alcids, it is more akin to squabbling than combat D'Errico also states: 'In the second half of the breeding season there would be new nests to rob', implying that there was an extended period when the auks were available for harvesting. In reviewing the known breeding ecology of the Great Auk, Bengtson (1984: 5) concludes that only one egg was laid per season, and if this was lost, it was not replaced; there was no second half to the breeding season.

Birding in Palaeolithic art

With the enormous rise in popularity of birding -- the study of birds in their natural habitat for pleasure -- sophisticated techniques of accurate field identification now derive not only from subtle differences in posture, shape and plumage (their field marks) but also from the characteristic ways in which species behave. These techniques can, I believe, be applied to representations of birds in Palaeolithic art. …

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