And yet… Adam Gopnik, at the New Yorker:
… In the midst of such unease, we tend to seek out moments of cheer or just consolation, and suddenly we have found one, in a cave. The cave is in Indonesia—the limestone cave of Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4, on the island of Sulawesi, to be precise—and it was occupied, according to recent findings, more than forty thousand years ago, by early modern humans. Inside it for all that time has been a fourteen-and-a-half-foot-wide image, painted in dark-red pigment, depicting about eight tiny bipedal figures, bearing what look to be spears and ropes, bravely hunting the local wild pigs and buffalo. The discoverers of its antiquity, a team of archeologists at Griffith University, in Australia, including Maxime Aubert, the chief author of an article about the painting in Nature, call it “to our knowledge, currently the oldest pictorial record of storytelling and the earliest figurative artwork in the world.”
The very first storytelling picture! The first narrative, and it tells one of the simplest and most resonant stories we have: a tale of the hunter and the hunted, of small and easily mocked pursuers trying to bring down a scary but vulnerable beast. What’s more, the hunters appear to be what people whose business it is to decipher cave paintings call therianthropes, humans with animal elements, like heads. These eight, then, are the earliest known examples of this mysteriously durable manner of mythical depiction, which runs forward to Egyptian wall paintings and, for that matter, to modern animation. Therianthropes, it seems, reflect the symbolic practice of giving to humans the powers of animals, a shamanistic rite that seems tied to the origins of religion, and here it is, for the first time, a startup.
The detailed resolution of the images in the Nature article is at first disappointing. Though the buffalo, called anoa, are distinct enough, one of the human figures, we’re told, has “a tapering profile that possibly merges into the base of a thick tail and with short, curved limbs splayed out to the side. In our opinion, this part of the body resembles the lower half of a lizard or crocodile. It is thus possible that [the therianthrope] represents a composite of at least three different kinds of animals: a human, an anoa and a quadrupedal reptile.” To this chimerical composite, one might add the trained eye of an Australian archeologist, which seems necessary to ascertain the full effect.
And yet it’s impossible not to feel a shudder of communion with these ancient beings, recounting their hopeful stories of abundance in a time that was, certainly, even more unstable than our own. (We worry daily about the next good leader; they worried daily about the next good meal.) Nor would the storytelling have been the product of a merely male hierarchy of hunting. The patriarchy had little place in caves. A study sponsored by the National Geographic Society in 2013 suggests that three-quarters of the hand stencils found on the walls of dozens of European caves were made by women, and that the paintings alongside them likely were as well. Early man may have thrown the spears, but early woman made the pictures telling how…
I see reviews of the decade about to end and different cultural milestones that defined us but I believe few moments represent the ’10s better than this: a common person taking a complex task in their hands with no skill or preparation delivering a perplexing result for posterity pic.twitter.com/qXdtPvH9ns
— Flavia Dzodan (@redlightvoices) December 20, 2019
Me: I’ll start working out Jan 1st
— like she created the fucking rainbow?? (@Rocioceja_) December 28, 2019
(We have that cat, and I need to know where to get that exercise wheel… also a cage to keep him in it!)