Upper Palaeolithic Figures as a Reflection of Human Morphology and Social Organization

Article excerpt


We assume that Palaeolithic artists portrayed men and women from models around them. If this assumption of realistic representation is correct, their art should display the diversity of their life, portraying both physical variations and individuals of both sexes and every age. The animal art does indeed present such a diversity -- for example, the panneau aux bouquetins (ibex panel) of the Bourdois shelter, in Angles-sur-l'Anglin, which shows seven subjects, 'three males and one female preceding her calf', then 'a male following his female' (Saint-Mathurin 1984). We shall try to demonstrate by means of examples, cross-checked by our own observations, that the same applies to human art, which provides a picture of nature and the behaviour of human Palaeolithic groups, as much from the demographic as from the social point of view.

The social range

In Palaeolithic art it is a mistake to retain the common picture of representation exclusively of obese women, mothers or nurses, for they are not the general rule. In addition to these over-publicized cliches, and humans of indeterminate sex, there are many slender feminine subjects and a not inconsiderable number of masculine subjects, as well as human beings of all ages, from infants to old people.


We have demonstrated (Duhard 1989a; 1989b) that Upper Palaeolithic art showed pregnant or parturient women and scenes of copulation. Logically, there must have been children, which we wish to confirm in this paper.

1 The 'new-born' no. 35-I from La Marche

Pales pointed out that the head was 'too large in relation to the body', and that there were two bulges on the occiput; he wondered if the 'glove finger' outline in front of the knee was a semi-erect penis (1976) which would allow it, 'rightly or wrongly', to be identified as a male (1968). Having examined this trapezoidal limestone plaque (Laboratoire de Prehistoire, Musee de l'Homme, Paris), we regard it to show a new born infant, for the following reasons:

a the head is very large, as is the case with babies, where the length of the head is one quarter of the height;

b the double occipital contour suggests a cephalic bruise ('cephalematome') as L. Pales believed it to be; it is in fact an extravasation of blood beneath the periosteum, resulting from a fracture of the external surface of the bone, which appears between a few hours and two days following birth, reaching its peak around the tenth day and only showing resorption after several weeks; the osteogenic reaction, at the limit of detachment, results in a hard rim and shows a clean circumferential edge (Merger 1967);

c the lower limbs are slightly bent, which is post-birth persistence of the foetal posture. We find it again in Fontanet's small subject no. 103;

d the 'glove finger' outline, the extremity of which disappears in the lines of the plates, does not correspond to the position of a penis, which would be hidden by the thigh, but to that of an umbilical cord;

e the superposition on subject no. 35-II, with a bulging and gravid-looking abdomen, is not a conclusive argument, but this comparison should be borne in mind.

2 Children of plate no. 27

We have also examined the large triangular slab fractured into three matching pieces (La Marche, Laboratoire de Prehistoire, Musee de l'Homme, Paris), and we agree with Dr Pales' estimation (1976):

The impression produced is that of young individuals, children or teenagers, mainly the first one (I), whose face is truly baby-like.

The shape of the head of the latter, with its bulging forehead, and the back of the occipital elongation, are very reminiscent of the plastic cranial deformation which can occur during childbirth in frontal presentation. It would be unwise to give ages to these heads, but the impression is that of 'young individuals', as Pales wrote.

3 The 'young girls' of Laugerie-Basse and Bruniquel

'Only the genitalia permit identification as a woman, unless she is a young girl', A. …