The cave and the sky

A replica of art from Chauvet Cave from around 30,000 years ago
Art from Chauvet Cave, dated to around 30,000 years ago

Upper Palaeolithic art, the fruit of a creative explosion among humans around 60,000 years ago, is found across Siberia, in the African motherland, and in the outpost of Australia. But the most famous, spectacular, and concentrated examples are found in western Europe: the painted caves of France and Spain, the work of humans known as Cro-Magnons. Sites such as Altamira, Lascaux, Pech Merle, and the more recently discovered Chauvet Cave reveal a varied and impressive artistic tradition, mostly depicting large animals such as bison, horse, aurochs and deer, that lasted a staggering 30,000 years.

We know these paintings formed part of some kind of religious complex, probably shamanistic in character, because some of them are located in deep, hard-to-access recesses of the caves. Only individuals – fearless ones at that – would have been able to paint or view such figures, in the suggestive flickering light of their small deer-fat lamps. It seems likely that these obscure depths were the province of some kind of vision quest, manifest spiritual voyages that were physically demanding, and propelled the mind into its own cavernous, hidden spaces. Larger panels of paintings nearer the surface, more accessible to groups of people, possibly served for more communal purposes.1 Given this disconnect between the deeper, hard-to-get-at paintings and the more accessible large galleries, evidently some form of social complexity or stratification is at work – even if its exact nature and dynamics are unclear.

If we can glimpse hints of stratified shifts away from the egalitarianism of simple hunter-gatherer society in the location of the art in the caves, can we see anything of this in the art itself? The paintings’ protean interactions with the cave surfaces, the highly creative use of suggestive natural features to initiate designs, and the sometimes wildly palimpsestic overlays of multiple images from different time periods, have all generated much theorising. Many early observers were hugely impressed with the freedom and audacity shown by the paintings. Sigfried Giedion, a Swiss historian and architectural critic, wrote in 1962:

Each of us carries in his brain a kind of secret balance which impels us unconsciously to weigh everything we see in relation to horizontal and vertical – to the rectangular. This ranges from the composition of a painting to our everyday habits. We feel slightly uneasy when our knife and fork are not laid out straight beside our plate or when the writing paper on our desk is not parallel to the blotter. But this is not the only possible conception of order. A conception not dependent upon the vertical occurs in primeval art …

All directions were of equal importance …

The multiformity of surfaces, with an infinite freedom of direction and perpetual chance, is at the root of all primeval art.2

However, while the obvious contrast between the aesthetics of genteel civilisation and the Palaeolithic cave paintings is well taken, Giedion is perhaps overstating his case. The gulf between modernity and the pre-agricultural past is indeed large, but because of this vast distance we see the past hazily. Edges blur, and distinctions are lost.

Poet Clayton Eshleman looks more closely at these subterranean tableaux, and sees the signs of a transition away from the fully mobile freedom of simple foraging, hinting at the increasingly abstract orders of sedentary living and stratified social arrangements:

Art from the Axial Gallery in Lascaux, France
Art from the Axial Gallery in Lascaux, France

While there is no definite ground line upon which animals and humans are presented (or figures within a landscape setting), there are indications, at Lascaux, for example, that verticality/horizontality and the right angle are operative. The Rotunda at Lascaux is divided horizontally between an upper white calcite-covered level and a lower tannish limestone level. The calcite is more attractive and absorbent for painting than the limestone, so Cro-Magnon painted the animals on it. The top of the limestone, right under many animals, running like a band through the Rotunda and the Axial Gallery, thus functions as a ground line. In the Axial Gallery, below the stag with fantastic antlers, there is a row of dots ending in, or beginning with, the outline of a rectangle … In a number of other caves, there are tectiforms and brace-shaped signs, all of which involve right angles and rectangular shapes. While it is probably true that the right angle does not become a ‘conception of order’ in the Upper Palaeolithic – as it will in Egyptian representation – it is not absent.3

While it would be difficult and overly schematic to make precise links between such artistic traces of linear, axial thinking and the evidence for vertically-organised social hierarchies (such as the location of cave paintings here, or special burials granted to the few), the emergence of both in the Upper Palaeolithic can be seen as tentative pre-echoes of agricultural and civilised orders.

Given these traces of right angles and verticality, are there any grounds for sensing in this Palaeolithic art seeds of the kind of vertically-oriented, sky-centred cosmos that would become typical of later settled and civilised societies? On the contrary, the cosmology implied by this cave art seems to remain firmly within the ‘horizontal’ hunter-gatherer sphere in that it so readily matches Jonathan Z. Smith’s characterisation of Australian Tjilpa myth as ‘relentlessly terrestrial and chthonic.’4 Beasts that roam the land are assembled to populate the twisted, intestinal recesses beneath. Where’s the sky in this?

The art has been interpreted by many through the application of cosmological constructs from shamanic cultures, a tactic notable in the work of the South African rock art specialist David Lewis-Williams. His book The Mind in the Cave takes the ‘tiered universe’ prevalent in shamanism – with realms of spirits existing both above and below this world – and maps it (generally with great care) onto the Palaeolithic caves. His use of the three-levelled shamanic map of the universe is married to modern neuropsychological research, which documents various forms taken by altered states of consciousness: descent through vortex-like tunnels into the earth, or into bodies of water, and sensations of levity and flight. He quotes an African Bushman shaman’s description of his trance journey:

When we emerged [from the ground], we began to climb the thread – it was the thread of the sky! Yes, my friend. Now up there in the sky, the people up there, the spirits, the dead people up there, they sang for me so I can dance.5

However, while the ‘descent’ aspect of the tiered cosmos maps comfortably onto the painted caves, the ‘ascent’ aspect – supported by ethnographic reports or not – doesn’t seem to fit. Lewis-Williams only really mentions shamanic flight in the context of the more recent rock art traditions he uses for comparison (those in southern Africa and in North America). A diagram showing ‘the way in which Upper Palaeolithic people used caves’ is given, with a two-ended arrow labelled ‘spirit world underground’ and ‘spirit world above’, in the sky over the scene of ‘daily life’ – but no real comment is given on the limited evidence for the importance of this heavenly realm.6 Again it seems that while the Palaeolithic caves may demonstrate a consciousness that is moving beyond the primacy of terrestrial concerns with immediate ecological relationships, towards a verticality that expresses spiritual transition, there is still precious little evidence to implicate the sky in the Cro-Magnon cosmos.

The cave, though, has many aspects. From the perspective of daylight at ground level, its character is obvious: dark, subterranean, enclosed. Once penetrated, however, its contortions confound our habitual categories, and the darkness reveals its own complexities – its own lights and spaces. Perhaps the sky is absent in the specific images in these painted caves, in the overt representations. But perhaps it is intimately present, right there in the metamorphic space of the cave – could the cave itself be a form of the sky?

The idea that the sky is a tent, dome, vault, sphere, or some other grand structure arcing over our heads is widespread in traditional cultures. Such projections of human-scale constructions onto the cosmos obviously help make the vastness more habitable and familiar. And while simplistic ideas pitting the ‘artificial’ nature of agricultural and city-based societies against the more ‘natural’ life of the hunter-gatherer might lead one to locate these projections relatively late in human history, it must be remembered that evidence for constructed habitations reaches surprisingly far back.

Impression of a hut found at Terra Amata
Impression of a hut found at Terra Amata

Remains in Terra Amata, France suggest that huts may have been made as early as 300,000 years ago – well before most estimates of our species’ arrival on the scene.7  Constructed shelters, it seems, not only go way back in our own history; they are the also province of other, older hominids besides Homo sapiens.

But even tracing ideas of the sky as some kind of solid covering to projections of artificial shelters onto the sky may be too conservative. After all, hominids from around 2 million years ago were using caves for shelter. African caves are important for the study of the early use of fire in hominid populations. For instance, a cave at Koobi Fora in Kenya has preserved traces of controlled fires that would have been the work of a bunch of Homo erectus, dated to 1.6 million years ago.8

The Upper Palaeolithic saw the earliest use of the deeper sections of cave complexes.9  But the earthly foundations necessary for imagining the sky as something solid overhead were right there, before we can even be sure that the capacity to imagine in this way existed.

Conversely, if this kind of projection had become embedded in some human cultures by the Upper Palaeolithic, could it have fed back to its origins during shamanic experiences deep underground? As the cave is projected onto the sky, the sky may in turn be introjected into the cave – a reciprocal pattern, perhaps even a ‘unity’, or ‘identity’, that will be familiar to anyone who has experienced such macrocosm-microcosm overlaps during intense trance states. Clayton Eshleman, having gained the confidence of the (human) guardians of Le Portel cave after many years of researching the Palaeolithic paintings in France, got permission to be left alone for half an hour in the darkness there in the summer of 1996. While this is a minimal experience,10  it hints at the psychedelic effect of subterranean sensory deprivation, and gave Eshleman an inkling of the possible transposition of underground and celestial space:

At first I closed my eyes (wondering if it would make any difference; it didn’t), and rubbed my eyelids with my knuckles creating the dazzling diagrammatic millrace known as phosphenes. Then I opened my eyes and stared into the dark. After some 10 minutes, pinpoints of light appeared like a fine snowfall holding in place. I thought of the three levels of light in the dark I felt myself inhabiting: the light in my head, the light in the cave dark, and the stars in the night sky above. At some point in prehistory (possibly for navigational charts), they had become ‘heavenly bodies’ configured as creatures, humans, and objects. Dürer’s 1515 zodiacal map evokes a night belly with an intestinally entangled creature world. Animals are above us and below us …11

Dürer's 1515 star chart, the oldest of its kind
Albrecht Dürer’s 1515 star chart, the oldest of its kind

Of course there is no suggestion of specific zodiacal beasts, such as the bull of Taurus, being rooted historically, through direct lineage, in the painted Palaeolithic bestiaries. But the parallels between Dürer’s work and the marvels of the stone age caves are suggestive, making even clearer the potential of the cave to function as a hallucinatory analogue of the sky.12

Eshleman goes on to remind us of an association in the later ancient world between large mammals in labyrinthine underground spaces and the night sky: ‘The Minotaur of the early Cretan myth was named Asterior, synonymous with aster, “star”.’13

And we find that the brilliant British-born Mexican surrealist painter, Leonora Carrington, captured the poetic confluence of subterranean labyrinth and celestial dome with typically strange elegance in And then we saw the Daughter of the Minotaur (1953):

And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur by Leonora Carrington
And then we saw the Daughter of the Minotaur by Leonora Carrington (1953)

The oddly feminine Minotaur is seated next to a table with black-cloaked children and an ungainly florid figure. Crystal spheres on the table and the floor suggest both the occult perceptions of the ‘shew stone’ and the vast spheres imagined by pre-Copernican astronomers to support the planets and stars in concentric orbits around Earth. Above them all is a vaulted ceiling supported by stone pillars – superimposed by drifting clouds and twinkling stars.

The ‘Grotto Heavens’, Taoist sacred caves in ancient China, provide another evocative suggestion of our capacity to conflate above and below. Edward H. Schafer in Pacing The Void, his beautiful study of star lore from the T’ang Dynasty (seventh to tenth century CE), remarks of these sites:

It was possible to regard our world beneath the sky-dome as only a kind of pallid duplicate of the sphere of a grotto heaven. Indeed all the grotto heavens can be themselves envisaged as an infinite regression of mirror images, one the reflection of the other, and all equal in the end. … The underground skies and their population of lights is … a replica and twin of our own sky and its array of asterisms.14

One Taoist scholar of the ninth century, Tuang Ch’eng-shih, speaks of ‘Six Palaces of the Grotto Heavens’, which are ‘placed in the vicinity of the celestial pole instead of in the roots of mountains; and they are the future homes of the souls of the dead.’15  Tuang Ch’eng-shih also talks of the ‘little heaven of k’ung-tung’, which

was the name given both to the vast subterranean caves and also to the mythical mountain in the far west – a place of rebirth, initiation, and enlightenment where Huang Ti [the ‘Yellow Emperor’, legendary founder of Chinese civilisation] is said to have been given instruction about the nature of ultimate reality. It is hard to overlook the tantalising but unprovable suggestion of a linguistic affinity with K’un-lun, the name of the world mountain of the west, and with hun-t’un, the primordial sphere, to say nothing of a large word family, apparently derived from an archaic root like *klung, whose members have such meanings as ‘vault,’ ‘cavern,’ ‘canopy,’ ‘dome,’ ‘roof,’ ‘cage,’ ‘chamber,’ ‘rainbow,’ and the like.16

‘To sum up,’ Schafer concludes, ‘underground caverns … were never simple.’17

Upper Palaeolithic cultures, while their cosmologies would have been markedly different from the agricultural civilizations that were to come, were surely never simple either. The ubiquity of the archaic conception of the sky as a solid dome strongly suggests that early humans experienced the cosmos as a peculiarly interior space. I say ‘peculiarly’ because of course, if the sky is seen as a covering of some sort, can there be an earthly ‘exterior’ or ‘outside’, as we understand the terms? Some difference between cave and sky would naturally have been evident; the grand, airy spaciousness of a clear sky seems to be a perceptual fundamental. But our particular sense of spatial infinity and lack of containment may not have been prominent. Neither would our daylight common sense idea that the two realms – above ground and underground – were wholly distinct and experientially unrelated.

The Palaeolithic experience of interiors such as caves and tunnels may well have interfused with images and structural resonances of a celestial nature – enfolding vertical aspects of the cosmos even within the hunter-gatherer horizon of earthly entanglements.