Think of the simple proto-emoji 🙂 I’m not even going to go into all the aspects of language, alphabet and machine language that enable me to type that, but just the symbol itself. It’s a smiley face, right? No, it’s not. It’s just two dots and a curved line – and that’s even if you rotate it through 90° so that it’s ‘right way up’. But we know that those three elements go to make up the smiley face. And that’s what art is – it’s the process whereby humans conceptualise and create symbols that other humans can interpret. It’s art that makes us human so, when the Sci- Bono Discovery Centre hosted an exhibition of the Lascaux International Exhibition, which is touring the world, I made a point of going to Joburg to see it. Shown together with a comprehensive display of South African rock art, this may have been the best combined rock art exhibition the world has ever seen. I know and love much of our local rock art, so I was more focused on the Lascaux paintings, and one thing immediately struck me as different. In South Africa we have rock paintings, mostly in the coastal regions, and rock engravings, mostly in the interior, but they are rarely – if at all – seen together. The Lascaux paintings, though, are also engravings. The artists first engraved the outline, and then filled it in – well, that’s what the voice-over said. I suspect it’s just as possible but less likely that the paintings were done first, and then outlined by carving. It’s not important, but the fact that they were carved has given rise to some interesting speculation.
Just in case you don’t know, the Lascaux Caves are in southwestern France, close to the village of Montignac, in the Dordogne region. Discovered in 1940, Lascaux is one of the richest rock art sites in Europe, with about 6,000 individual figures spread through seven main chambers. The caves themselves are not open to the public, but you can tour a very realistic, full-size replica of the main chambers with their paintings at Le Centre International de l’Art Pariétal. This full-size digitally crafted replica of six of the cave chambers offers a realistic (albeit enhanced) simulation of actually walking in thecave and – together with a host of state-of-the-art interactive displays – offers about as good a view as you can ever get of Cro-Magnon life 20,000 years ago. But not everyone can travel to France, so a portion of reproduced cave is touring the world. You’ve missed its sojourn in Joburg, but it was enlightening.
We tend to think of rock art as static – as the prehistoric version of the oil paintings we hang on walls – but it’s not. And here I’m not even going to start on the symbolism – I’ll just stick to the mechanics. It would seem, from most of the rock art around, that ancient artists were not remotely fazed about painting over existing paintings, and many of the world’s best-known rock art sites are veritable palimpsests of ancient images. And Lascaux, too, has its peculiarities. Some horses, for example, have two heads and six legs, which – at first glance – may appear to be the result of superimposed images. But they’re not. They’re deliberate. It’s taken researchers years to figure out why, and the reason is astonishing. Remember, these are dark, deep, inaccessible caves with no evidence that people actually lived in them, so they were used primarily for cultural/ritual/artistic purposes – art galleries, if you will. Or, perhaps, the very first cinemas. The only lighting would have been pitch torches, or perhaps a small fire, and the resulting illumination would have flickered. So researchers reproduced that flicker (and the creators of the touring replica also recreated it). And – you guessed it – in the flickering firelight, the excess legs and heads are alternately lit so they appear to move. The horse runs, dips its heads, or rears up – the very first animated movie that we know of. How flippin’ amazing is that?
Oh but it gets better. You may not be old enough to remember silent movies, but there was a time – just when it became possible to add sound – that certain cinematic luddites asserted that the ‘talkies’ would never take off. Imagine a world in which we’d never heard Richard Burton’s melodic voice, Sean Connery’s gorgeous brogue or Morgan Freeman’s ‘voice of God’. I was just about to exit the exhibition when I noticed a series of screens with headphones, so I took a detour and listened to them. They were mostly about the artists who did the reproductions of the paintings, or other people involved in the exhibition. But the last one I listened to blew me away. French paleoanthropologist Yves Coppens explained how physicist George Charpak, who was to be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1992, suggested an intriguing possibility. Charpak explained that, as the artists engraved into the rock with their sharpened chert tools, their hands would have vibrated, and the vibrations would be transferred to the stone tool. Now remember, sound waves are vibrations, so, Charpak suggested, any sounds in the cave at the time of carving could have been transmitted into the engraved outline – in much the same way as the grooves that will become stamped into a vinyl record are cut into the master. If this is true, we don’t have the technology to play back these ‘recordings’ – at least, not yet – but maybe one day we will. Stranger things have happened. Imagine being able to hear the voice of a Palaeolithic artist who’s been dead for 20,000 years.