The Hooked Stick in the Lascaux Shaft Scene

By Irwin, Arthur | Antiquity, June 2000 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

The Hooked Stick in the Lascaux Shaft Scene

Irwin, Arthur, Antiquity

The Lascaux shaft scene has provided the source for much analysis and discussion of Palaeolithic bison-hunting practices. The ideas may need reconsideration in the light of research, both around the cave at Lascaux and from parallels drawn from the North American plains. American and Native American hunters were well documented and their activities create a new image of the bison and of the hunt, when conducted by individuals or small groups of hunters.

Additionally, research has focused on finding a use for the hooked stick lying at the foot of the hunter/shaman on the `floor' of the scene. It is thought that it was an early variety of harpoon, capable of opening and ripping the paunch of the bison; but this suggested function can only be tested by studying the historical records showing how bison were hunted in the recent past in the North American continent.

The spear in the painting is shown to be ineffective by a break at about one-third the shaft length from the point. It appears to have been shattered upon the bison's weighty and closely spaced rib-cage (Haines 1970: 44-5). It seems to be characteristic of an early harpoon, allowing the hunter to retain control over the wounded or dead animal; the point enters the flesh, followed by the tine, which is compressed towards the shaft.

This harpoon is accompanied by the hooked stick, the function of which barely eludes the imagination, but it is probably a weapon, much like the harpoon. I identify this as the `short-harpoon', and found that if one rotates the image 90 [degrees] counter-clockwise and stops when the shafts are parallel (FIGURE 1), the duplication of design, in both principle and shape, can easily be seen. The cross-handle at its base has been added by the maker to provide a means of manipulation and possibly to open the wound, releasing the intestines.


Such a tool, although much smaller in size, can be seen in Russell Greaves (1997, in Knecht 1997: 295, figure 2, top) which shows a barbed point made by the Pume Indians in Venezuela. It is shown as a throwing instrument, having a point and tine (or barb), and one assumes that it is effective in the field.

The bison and hunting methods

To understand the use of the short-harpoon we must project our thoughts to the Dordogne region of France in c. 17,000 BP, the time of the Lascaux shaft scene painting (Ruspoli 1986:27). We find here, though, that the European evidence for the use of this tool has largely been lost with the passage of time. But data collected and observations made in North America are relatively fresh, and I propose the substitution of this young material for the disappearing European. Supporting this extrapolation of information is the work of R. Dale Guthrie and others, who have helped to establish a link between the American plains bison, Bison bison, and the bison of the cave paintings, Bison priscus. This pair and two other extant species form a `single species complex' (Guthrie 1990: 114). To this we can add the opinion of Bjorn Kurten (1988: 58-9) that the contemporary bison of North America are descendents of Bison priscus.

Further support is provided by the work of L.G. Freeman et al. who found the social behaviour and gestures of the American bison to be strikingly parallel to that of the bison shown in Altamira, and closely related to the shaft scene bison. He cites the opinion of Robert Hainard that the American and European species are `conspecific' (Hainard 1949 in Freeman et al.: 1987: 73). Thus, what we learn from one can generally be applied to the other.

The comparisons discussed here are thus not cultural analogies. They are, rather, genetic continuities, since the physical and psychic structures of man and bison seem to lead to repeated and similar behaviour patterns over the millennia.

The Approach, a 19th-century hunting term (Wyeth & Townsend 1970:160-61; Parkman 1964: 58-9; Gard 1959: 194), describes the approach of the hunter by crawling from concealing point to concealing point, as seen in Buffalo chase under wolf-skin masks (FIGURE 2), a painting (possibly composed en situe) by George Catlin c.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

The Hooked Stick in the Lascaux Shaft Scene


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?