The Hooked Stick in the Lascaux Shaft Scene

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

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.

[Figure 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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. …

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