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Love of animals

September 4, 2014

When Helen Macdonald wrote of her childhood indignation at her teacher’s incomprehension as to why prehistoric people drew animals onto the walls of caves at Lascaux, I was with her. I too understand exactly why those people drew animals; why, even longer ago, they drew animals on the Chauvet Cave ( I have some glimmering as to why the first artistic representations known to us are primarily of other species rather than our own; why prehistoric peoples drew, daubed, the forms of wild animals, and not only that, but carved them, hewed them, out of stone, bone, antler. Around eighteen months ago, while I was in the throes of the acoustic analysis my last songbird species, I went to the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum in London ( It had been swimming around my consciousness for some time, but I was trying to suppress my desires to see it because it wasn’t that long since I’d been in London ( and I thought I couldn’t afford either the time or the money to go. Then I read this by Simon Jenkins: It left me with an over-riding thought: I will regret it for the rest of my life if I don’t see this. I can’t not see it. My decision was confirmed a week later when (yes, the Guardian again, how paltry would the world be without it), when I read Kathleen Jamie’s critique ( ) of the same exhibition. I felt well-warned about the minuteness of the exhibits and tried to keep my expectations low. I didn’t succeed. I’m glad I didn’t.

The exhibition occupied 4-5 small rooms. The objects were indeed miniature. These were nomadic people, as migratory as the herds they depended on. Artefacts had to be small, lightly transported. Entering the first room, greeted by John Berger’s quote about art arriving like “a foal that can walk straightaway”, I felt like a poet again. My notebook was out, ready to receive the details like it was ready in the field to note the markings, the attributes of a bird. I meant to write those notes up before now, but here I am now, and better late than never.

Whatever about the physical impressions of the exhibition, nothing had prepared me for the emotion. It was overwhelming, deeply, confusingly powerful. A kind of homecoming. A kind of belonging. Accretions of civilisation fall away; we find ourselves in a space filled with animals. Animals and women. Women of all stages were represented, from young pre-adolescent girls, to matriarchs, veterans of many pregnancies, their gourd-like bodies as replete with wonder as that of the mammoths. Many of the figurines had tiny or absent heads, enormous breasts dominating the swollen bellies: as if they were carved by a pregnant woman herself, from her perspective, staring down at her own body. Indeed, this exhibition was the first place I’ve read where it was suggested that many of the carvings were done by women, and, in a world where mirrors didn’t exist, the distorted representations of pregnant women may indeed reflect that woman’s own point of view; her wonderment, her sense of the enormity of the changes that pregnancy wrought in her body. That exaggeration of the female form makes emotional sense as a reflection of how a woman might feel gazing at her own transformation; particularly, when many of the carvings of young, non-pregnant women showed lithe modern figures, perfectly in proportion. The exhibition suggested that, much in the same way that it was surmised that many of the animal carvings may have been worn by a hunter as a talisman, were touched to invoke the power of the animal, so too the figures of the pregnant women may have been touched to invoke the power of what we might call a goddess, to bring about the safe transition to the other side.

Dotted throughout the millennial-old miniatures and carvings were examples of abstract art from the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, of the human female form, designed, obviously to draw our attention to the similarities across eras. Critics demurred on the success of this comparison, and, while I was impressed with the similarities between, say, a Picasso and a Palaeolithic carving, I too wasn’t sure of the appropriateness. It was as if the curators were pleading a little too much that we recognise the significance of the Palaeolithic art as art; as if Jo Public wouldn’t see the similarity, the importance, by herself. It was pointing too hard. It also often felt like an interruption.

The other thing that struck me was the preponderance not just of human, but of animal female figures. For example, the Zaraysk bison, an adult female striding determinedly, confidently, to the rim of her glass cage, in a body made of ochre-buffed mammoth tusk. Her mouth was open, as if she was calling (to other herd members? A calf?). In that menagerie of miniatures, she was relatively large, and I was inevitably struck by the time somebody had evidently taken, hundreds of hours, to carve her into such perfection that she can still walk through the world millennia after the creatures that inspired her creation have gone under the earth. It also struck me that the somebody who had made her, had chosen her, rather than her more physically impressive male counterpart, to carve. It was as if Landseer had chosen the hind rather than the stag as Monarch of the Glen ( It felt a little strange. It was the carving of that female bison that convinced me of the curators’ argument, that many, if not most, of these exhibits had been fashioned by women, perhaps tethered by pregnancy or maternal obligation to the cave or the fire; spending much of that time carving or whittling. It would explain the virtual village of pregnant women housed mostly in a single glass cabinet at the start of the exhibition. These women needed to ponder the mystery of their own capacity to birth, to bring a new being into the world. Perhaps they also needed to ponder femaleness itself, to reflect on its commonalities across species.

There was a sense of mystery, of sacredness. Even the small crowd of attendees was like a herd of patient, attentive animals gathering at a waterhole; scrutinising the glass cabinets with relentlessly absorbed gaze; pulling back, taking one’s turn, one’s place, moving quietly on when sated. Many of the exhibits portrayed species long-extinct: woolly mammoth; woolly rhinoceros; cave lion; auroch. Others are no longer prevalent in Europe: bison; musk-oxen; wolverine; ibex. Others are since domesticated: horse; reindeer. There, they were still present; all wild . Our ancestors were part of this Palaeolithic Pleistocene landscape. We too were wild, and we were obsessed with animals. We did not love them as pets or domesticates. We loved them as separate peoples sharing the same world. There was no biophilia ( because there was no separation. We carved them, delineated them, hewed them, honed them, buffed them, no doubt touched them, for luck, for guidance in the hunt, for spoor out of danger. Many, in their minuteness, like the many of the figurines of heavily-pregnant women, had little holes pierced in them, were designed, surely, to be worn around the neck.

The objects spanned thousands and thousands of years making the exquisite paintings of Chauvet and Lascaux seem almost modern. The exhibition reached back to about 40,000 years ago, not long after modern humans first became European, an event which was swiftly followed (in geological terms) by the last Ice Age. The ice sheets persisted until about 10,000 years ago. The art spans approximately the same period, and from all parts of Eurasia, Siberia to France, much of it from the Moravian gate, the valley connecting the north European plain to the Danube valley, a bottleneck for migrating animals, much like the Strait of Gibraltar, or Iceland, for migrating birds today. That funnelling acted as a magnet for human hunters then, and collectors today.

I wondered why such artefacts had not come out of Africa. Why did our ancestors there not carve animals with the same unflinching devotion? I have no idea whether or when such carvings came into being in Africa, but there is something sadly ironic in the fact that Europe lost the megafauna that this art celebrates thousands of years ago, while, until about 150 years ago, Africa could bask in a sweltering plenitude of herd and predator. Was it simply that the deep freeze of Europe preserved these things better? Or was it, as also suggested in Cave of Forgotten Dreams (, that the climatic worsening that followed the first Europeans, promoted the production of art? Art famously flourishes in hard times. We have a need to preserve, transform, our perceptions, our experiences. We need, under pressure, to celebrate what we value.

Like Keats’s remark on a stoat “The creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it”, these people caught the purpose, the electric charge of life, in the animals they crooned over. One of the striking things about the exhibition was how it made animal out of animal. Ivory and bone were the favoured materials. Our ancestors must have had superb eyesight for the care of their work, as well as breathtaking vision and memory for the spirit of an animal captured in the poise of a fetlock, the brace of neck, the implied flick of an ear. Abstraction as essence. Clearly these people, like abstract artists or cartoonists, could extract enough to suggest the embodiment: cross-hatching to suggest a mammoth’s shagginess; a sweeping convergence of line to a tusk narrowing to its tip; the squat bulky thrush of a wolverine, carved as a pendant. The delicate pause of a doe at a river’s edge. She is 14,000 years old, of bone, and came from Le Chauffaud Cave, Vienne, in France.

There was leisure, obviously, for the work, whether in the long reverie, the heavy incipience, of pregnancy; or in the seasonal stretch of a northern summer, when daylight itself is plenty; or in the converse of winter, when winter-weak prey meant relatively easy hunting, and long firelit nights when hunting was not possible, left hours to muse and to whittle. It is estimated that it took about 400 hours, for example, to make “Lion man”, one of the few male figures, carved out of ivory using bone, which was found in Stadel Cave in Baden-Wuerttemburg in Germany. Out of Hohle Fels Cave, came the Diving or Flying water bird, aptly made out of swan bone. The wingbone of a Griffin vulture was used to make a flute, a flute that may also feature in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, was carved between 36,000 and 40,000 years ago. From the Vogelherd Cave in Baden-Wuerttemberg, some 36-32,000 years ago, formed out of mammoth tusk, came: horse; cave lion; mammoth; snow leopard; bison. A roll call of the lost and left behind ( Often the figures were rubbed with ochre, charcoal, to give hue and depth. The very material that the sculptures embodied echoed shamanistic transformation: ptarmigan out of reindeer antler; reindeer out of avian bone. There were artefacts, generally of more recent vintage, the shafts, handles, spear-throwers, mostly under 20,000 years old. These too were fashioned into leaping horses, swimming reindeer. One of the findings of unusual and more recently-acquired provenance, for someone, like me, reared Catholic, was a tiny horse found in the cave at Lourdes in France in 1886. The horse itself had hidden there for at least 13,000 years. Like all the carvings, it was a perfect miniature, the defined mane, the inlaid ears, suggesting not just a form, a species, but an individual, a personality.

I overhead one couple murmuring over a carving. “The work”, said he to her. “The love”, she responded. And love it was. We did not despise these animals. We did not use them. We dwelt among them. We admired them. We were one species among many, and, for all our accumulated scientific knowledge, we do not yet know them; we have not mined out their mystery; nor that of our own ancestors. As Henry Beston ( put it: We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.


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