ADVERTISEMENT
See Inside August 2006

Paleolithic Juvenilia

Were cave artists sex- and hunting-obsessed teenage boys?

Few images fire the imagination like Paleolithic cave paintings, part of the scant physical record left by humans who lived more than 10,000 years ago. To some scholars, this ancient art represents the handiwork of shamans; others detect traces of initiation rites or trancelike states. A new interpretation offers a more prosaic explanation for cave art: the expression of adolescent boys' preoccupation with hunting and sex.

During the late Paleolithic era, 10,000 to 50,000 years ago, humans roamed a vast steppe covering modern Europe, Asia and North America. These wandering hunters left behind myriad paintings on cave walls and artifacts depicting human figures and the large mammals of the day, including mam-moth, elk, bison and horses. Early interpretations cast the images as religious icons or magical totems, perhaps part of hunting or fertility rituals performed by shamans. Humans definitely produced repetitive, stylized iconography over the past 10,000 years, says R. Dale Guthrie, a paleobiologist emeritus at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. "Paleolithic art isn't like that," he contends. "It was done in a more naturalistic way, [showing] real animals eating, copulating, braying or bellowing, biting." To Guthrie, a hunter and amateur artist himself, cave painters seem more like natural historians than shamans.

This is only a preview. Get the rest of this article now!

Select an option below:

Customer Sign In

*You must have purchased this issue or have a qualifying subscription to access this content


It has been identified that the institution you are trying to access this article from has institutional site license access to Scientific American on nature.com.
Click here to access this article in its entirety through site license access.

Rights & Permissions
Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.
Scientific American Back To School

Back to School Sale!

12 Digital Issues + 4 Years of Archive Access just $19.99

Order Now >

X

Email this Article

X