Emerging Trends in Rock-Art Research: Hunter-Gatherer Culture, Land and Landscape

By Ross, Mairi | Antiquity, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Emerging Trends in Rock-Art Research: Hunter-Gatherer Culture, Land and Landscape


Ross, Mairi, Antiquity


The archaeological perception of hunter--gatherer peoples who have created a large portion of the world's existing rock art has changed during the last 100 years. Radical shifts in prevailing theories about their rock art have emerged in the last decade (Bahn & Lorblanchet 1993; Clottes & Lewis-Williams 1998; Conkey 1996). Clottes & Lewis-Williams (1998) in their historical summary of rock-art theories remind us that the theories and conventional wisdom accepted in academia `are not born in a conceptual void. They are influenced by the major trends of thought at any given time'. This paper presents some of the current trends of thought in rock-art research.

Where we have been

Because academic study is a continuum, it is helpful to identify the legacies of thought and theory which have provided some of the foundations for rock-art research, but which are in the process of being superseded by new trends, theories and wisdoms. These legacies include:

1 the dualistic concept that mind is opposed and superior to nature;

2 a vision of public culture in which women are either absent or in positions of inferior status;

3 an assumption that agriculture-based urban civilizations are superior to tribal hunter--gatherer cultures;

4 a position of privilege assigned to the White race (Bradley 1997; Classen & Joyce 1997; Ehrenberg 1989; Lewis-Williams et al. 1993; Schaafsma 1985).

In rock art's academic heritage, Eurocentric and monolithic theories such as those of Abbe Breuil and Leroi-Gourhan dominated rock-art study for most of this century. Although based on tremendous field work and brilliant intellectual conceptualizations, strict allegiance to these theories squelched diverse viewpoints.

In addition, the complexities of American and European ideologies of conquest and colonialism affected research of the rock art created by conquered peoples. Such ideologies contributed to the ethnographic judgements which portrayed hunter--gatherer people as `young children with no ability for conceptual thinking' (Willcox 1956:85 in Dowson & Lewis-Williams 1994) wandering aimlessly across unknown and unclaimed territory.

New views of hunter--gatherer cultures

However, beginning with the world-wide cultural shifts of the late 1960s and continuing at an accelerated pace in the 1990s, the view of hunter--gatherers by archaeologists and anthropologists changed substantially (Conkey 1996; Ehrenburg 1989). One of the most significant developments was the participation of indigenous peoples in international academic rock art conferences. According to Robert Bednarik, founder of the Australian Rock Art Research Association (AURA) in 1983 and co-founder of the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations (IFRAO) in 1988, the first time indigenes addressed a major international academic event on rock art was at the First AURA Congress in Darwin in 1988. At the Second AURA Congress in Cairns (1992), one-third of the Australian delegates were Aborigine and by the Third AURA Congress (Alice Springs 2000) there was a strong indigenous presence which included North American First Nations, San/Bushmen, Maoris and others. Bednarik (n.d.) states that `the times when Eurocentric scholars stumbled blindly into the intricacies of a society whose sophisticated ontologies they did not comprehend are drawing to a close'.

Hunter--gatherers are now more commonly seen as master ecologists, people with sophisticated relational social structures and advanced environmental relationships, and as having extraordinarily stable and successful cultures that have sustained and nurtured people for tens of thousands of years (Bradley 1998; Dowson & Lewis-Williams 1994; Lawlor 1991; Ouzman 1998).

Shamanism, gender and cognitive bias

That previous patterns of thought may subtly persist even in the most advanced research is illustrated in a study of shamanism in French Palaeolithic caves (Clottes & Lewis-Williams 1998).

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