An Enigmatic Scene

One of the more curious characteristics (at least for us today) of Paleolithic art is the near-total absence of pictorial representations of men and women. The exceptions are precious few, and many of them are not much more than thoughtless doodles. The most interesting images depict creatures that are half-man and half-animal, such as the so-called "bison-man" of Trois Frères and, particularly interesting for our purposes, the famous "bird-man" at Lascaux.

The Lascaux cave undoubtedly has many features that would induce one to call it a "sanctuary," starting with the fact that it is basically a large frescoed hall with chapel-like recesses in the back. We will resist the temptation to go down that road, however, for it leads nowhere. We will take instead a more "aseptic" point of view. The fact is that the images found in the main chamber, genuine masterpieces of figuration, represent only animals, the most famous being a marvelously lively herd of bulls. The only "human" representation anywhere is the one mentioned earlier, which is painted in one of the small rear recesses, not easy accessed and visible to no more than a few people at a time. (Plate 1 )

In what is perhaps the most enigmatic image in the entire history of humanity, a male creature with the head of a bird and body of a man with an erect phallus gives us his profile. His right hand seems to be holding a stick, though they are not in contact. The handle of the stick is carved in the form of a bird, perhaps a dove. On the bird-man's left, a large bison lies dying, shot full of arrows. A woolly rhinoceros (an animal which is now extinct) and a horse complete the scene.

The scene has been interpreted as describing a hunting scene, a funerary commemoration, worship of the dead, hallucinogenic visions, sacrificial and even sexual rites. Obviously this just means that we haven't the vaguest clue what it represents, and probably will never know with certainty. However, the German scholar Michael Rappenglueck (1998) has proposed a reading that is in many ways revolutionary. He addressed the problem by insisting

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Figure 1.2: The "bird-man" of the Lascaux Cave in the Milky Way (from Rappenglueck 1998, with kind permission)

that his analysis be based on the most objective data possible. To do this he took accurate measurements of the images in the cave and logged them into a computer; that way he'd have all the time he needed to look for eventual connections, whether visual or spatial, between the painted images. Then he conducted an operation that we encounter here for the first, but certainly not the last time during the course of this book: he sent the sky back in time.

Because of a phenomenon known as precession, the sky is not always the same night after night. Precession is a slow movement of the earth's axis that describes a complete cone over a period of about 26,000 years. Since the north celestial pole is the projection of the axis of Earth's North Pole into the celestial sphere, as a result of precession the pole describes what we see (or rather, what we would see if a human life span were not so brief as to render these movements imperceptible) as a circumference. Between 19,500 and

12,000 BC, the North Pole crossed our galaxy, the Milky Way. The polar region of the sky in 15,000 BC was therefore not the same as that of today, which is dominated by the constellations Ursa Minor, Ursa Major, and Draco, but was situated in the area of the Milky Way that today we associate with the constellation Cygnus. Back then, the pole star, that is, the visible one closest to the pole, was Delta Cygni, and the great bird of the night sky was therefore seen to rotate, as if tethered to the North Pole. Cygnus thus had the same polar function back then as Ursa Minor has for us now, and not surprisingly that is precisely where our polar star is located (for further information and clarification on the astronomical concepts introduced here, such as precession and the north celestial pole, see Appendix 1).

What Rappenglueck did was use a computer program to reconstruct the sky above Lascaux during the epoch in which it was painted, and then looked for correspondences in the image of the bird-man. He observed that, entering the recess, the stick is inclined at an angle of 45.3 degrees with respect to the vertical of the bird-man himself, which, at Lascaux's latitude, corresponds rather neatly with the North Pole (45.1 degrees). He also found that the eyes of the bird-man, the carved bird on the staff, and the bison form a triangle, and if this triangle is superimposed on a map of the polar region of the sky as it was in the epoch of Lascaux, the figures come to life as constellations. Obviously, they are different from the ones we are familiar with, and include stars that for us belong to other constellations entirely. But back then, the bird-man appears to have been a major constellation stretched across the Milky Way. The upper part is composed of stars from the constellations we know as Cygnus and Vulpecula, while the lower part includes stars from our Aquila, Serpens, Hercules, and Sagitta. The bird-man rotates around the pole, indicated at the time by Delta Cygni, and the bird-headed staff represents the polar axis. The three animals that surround the scene—a bison, a woolly rhino, and a horse—are recognizable as three large constellations connected, respectively, to the northwest (autumn), northeast (spring), and south, with the horse corresponding to the constellation we call Leo.

Rappenglueck went further and proposed an interesting "cosmographic" interpretation of the scene, identifying the bird-man as an intermediary who put humans in communication with the divine, like a shaman or priest, and the rest of the scene as a representation of his "cosmic voyage.'' This is an interesting example of an ethnological-analogical reading, an approach we'll be investigating in great detail in Chapter 15.

The data presented by Rappenglueck are fairly convincing. However, we still do not know when people started grouping stars into constellations. All we can say is that it remains quite possible that it dates back to remote prehistory (Gursthein 1997, Frank 2000), which leaves us having to admit that we will probably never know for certain whether the intention of the Lascaux artist was to create a complex cosmographic image, or something else entirely.

But if we move ahead to the fifth millennium BC, we can begin retracing the ancient skies and man's relationship to them, this time clearly and unequivocally.

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