Palaeolithic Images and the Great Auk

By Eastham, Anne; Eastham, Michael | Antiquity, December 1995 | Go to article overview

Palaeolithic Images and the Great Auk


Eastham, Anne, Eastham, Michael, Antiquity


In this final contribution on the identification of the birds painted in the Palaeolithic Grotte Cosquer as Great Auks, it is noticed that the birds need to be seen within a Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer's view of the world, which is not the same as that of a modern natural historian or taxonomist.

D'Errico, writing on the avian forms in the Grotte Cosquer (1994a; 1994b) presents the thesis that they represent Great Auks; he quotes one of us correctly as saying that the birds in the engraved panel from El Pendo (Cantabria, Spain) look like 19th-century illustrations of the extinct Great Auk, Pinguinus impennis (Eastham 1968). Because of the similarity, we had not questioned Breuil's 1912 remarks on the El Pendo engravings (later in Breuil 1952: 348) in calling one of the birds a pingouin, is a name we knew was usually but not always translated as Garefowl or Great Auk; and the bones of Great Auks are known from chronologically compatible Upper Palaeolithic levels. Now we are no longer sure that the ambiguity d'Errico detects behind the name pingouin is a fault. Whatever the intentions of the Palaeolithic draughtsman, we have no reason to suppose that the characteristics represented in the picture were chosen to signify a certain Species, as defined by modem zoologists. Palaeolithic categories had no cause to follow our Linnaean rules.

Auks as a family were demonstrably of economic significance to Upper Palaeolithic communities within foraging distance of sea-cliffs. We found the distinctive Great Auk bones in Wurm I levels at Gibraltar, and in late-glacial levels at Nerja, Malaga (Eastham 1986) and Urtiaga, Guipuzcoa (Spain) (unpublished), and numerous finds are reported in the literature (Casoli et al. 1985). We have also found Guillemot, Black Guillemot, Puffin and Little Auk. At Inch da Damph, near Loch Assynt, Scotland (unpublished), a glacial site excavated in the 1920s, all the species were found together.

Great Auks - `larger than a goose' (Grieve 1885), bearing great quantities of valuable fat as well as flesh and feathers, and thoroughly colonial - were easy to cull in such numbers as finally to exterminate the species. El Pendo is within 14 km, or 2 1/2 hours' walk, of sea-cliffs which dominate deep inshore waters with abundant cold-current fish: a likely Great Auk habitat.

The other type of bird to which the French name pingouin refers, the Southern Ocean penguins, does not pass through equatorial latitudes today. That ambiguity in the French word reminds us that there is no simple match between the creatures painted on Palaeolithic cave-walls and the species represented in bones. Caprid bones are absent from Upper Palaeolithic sites around the Gironde estuary, but animals with ibex-like horns appear on the walls of Pair non Pair (Delpech 1993); mammoth and rhinoceros, absent from the middens, appear on the walls of Ardeche caves (Combier et al. 1958; Chauvet et al. 1995).

The Eurasian Bittern, Botaurus stellaris, is suggested by McDonald (1994: 853-4; figure 3) as the subject of the El Pendo engraving. Like the other Ardeidae, it does not appear to have been of economic or other significance to western European Palaeolithic peoples. Part of a Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax, mandible may have been found in Middle Palaeolithic levels at Lazaret, Nice (Mourer-Chauvire 1975). and a Grey Heron, Ardea cinerea, femur was found by one us among bones from Magdalenian levels at Dufaure (Eastham in press). Their absence from El Pendo - and other French and Spanish Palaeolithic sites - is not surprising, although birds might have been taken from the marismas of the now-canalized Rio de la Mina, 2-3 km from El Pendo. An adult Bittern, weight 1-2 kg, carries little flesh, less fat, and no feathers of special form or colour. Solitary and territorial, it could not be killed repeatedly or in the mass. Identifications for the Palaeolithic, again, need to notice these concerns, as well as the form of the creature known to the modern enthusiast bird-watcher. …

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