AR97. 30 September 2006.
Copyright © 2006 by Kevin Sharpe and Leslie Van Gelder. All rights reserved.
To appear in American Journal of Theology and Philosophy.


human uniqueness and upper paleolithic ‘art’:
An Archaeologist’s Reaction to Wentzel van Huyssteen’s Gifford Lectures




Kevin Sharpe

Graduate College, Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, Ohio
Harris Manchester College, Oxford University, Oxford
 10 Shirelake Close, Oxford OX1 1SN, United Kingdom


Leslie Van Gelder

Walden University, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
10 Shirelake Close, Oxford OX1 1SN, United Kingdom


Wentzel van Huyssteen’s Gifford Lectures, published as Alone in the World? Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology, attempt to rehabilitate the theological idea of imago Dei and depend for this on showing, among several other things, that religion formed an essential part of human life in the Upper Paleolithic. He tries to achieve this by enumerating David Lewis-Williams’ shamanic hypothesis, according to which the Paleolithic cave ‘art’ of southwestern Europe evidences the activities of shamans. We supply evidence from our own research in Rouffignac and Gargas caves, two sites van Huyssteen refers to in support of his thesis, that, along with other challenges with his presentation, suggest the unlikelihood of a shamanic explanation.


Finger flutings, Gargas Cave, hand stencils, human uniqueness, David Lewis-Williams, prehistoric art, Rouffignac Cave, shamanism, Wentzel van Huyssteen.


The Shamanic Hypothesis. 3

The Study of Finger Flutings. 4

Rouffignac Cave. 6

Tectiforms. 6

The Desbordes Panel of Chamber A1. 7

Anthropomorphs. 10

Paleolithic Writing?. 10

Intention and Meaning. 10

Gargas Cave. 10

Flutings. 10

Hand Prints. 10

Larger Context 10

Conclusions. 10

Acknowledgements. 10

References. 10

Wentzel van Huyssteen’s Gifford Lectures, published as Alone in the World? Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology (2006), attempt to rehabilitate the theological idea of imago Dei and depend for this on showing, among several other things, that religion formed an essential part of human life in the Upper Paleolithic. Barbara Chaapel writes from an interview with van Huyssteen:

‘The paintings are the oldest symbols of human imagination,’ van Huyssteen says, ‘and they certainly had some religious and mythological meaning. They tell us about who our direct ancestors were, what they thought, and what they could do. They tell us about imagination, about creativity, about consciousness, about the Creator’ (2004: 15).

Van Huyssteen elaborates:

The most spectacular evidence of symbolic behavior in humans – and some of the earliest – can be found in the Paleolithic cave art in southwestern France and the Basque Country in northern Spain….As such, the Upper Paleolithic holds an all-important and intriguing key to the naturalness of the evolution of religion, to the creditability of the earliest forms of religious faith, and to what it means for Homo sapiens to be spiritually embodied beings (2006: xvii).

As Heidi Campbell reports (2004), ‘According to van Huyssteen, cave paintings illustrate that early humans were not only aware of their place in the created order, but also attempted to relay some kind of religious undertones.’

Van Huyssteen unfortunately does not – or at least David Lewis-Williams, the key source for his ideas about the meaning of the Paleolithic ‘art,’ does not – establish this thesis beyond saying it forms a speculative hypothesis or a good story.

The Shamanic Hypothesis

Van Huysteen sums up Lewis-Williams’ hypothesis with the following passages:

Some of  the images [in the Paleolithic ‘art’ of southwestern Europe] could actually be expressions of minds in states of hallucination, and thus a sure sign of shamanistic art.

Entry into a cave may…have been seen as virtually the same thing as entry into a deep trance via the vortex…[that draws] people into the third and deepest stage of trance….The hallucinations induced by entry into and isolation in a cave probably combined with the images already on the walls to create a rich and animated spiritual realm. It also resonates well with the fact that the shamanistic cosmos is always tiered, i.e., organized into three levels: the level of everyday life, the realm above, and the realm below….More than simple, decorative pictures, these paintings were gateways to the spirit world, panoramas that, in their trance experience, shamans could enter and with which their own projected mental imagery could mingle in three animated dimensions….

The walls, ceilings, and floors of the caves were in some way very significant; they were in fact little more than a thin membrane above the creatures and happenings of the underworld (2006: 205, 208-210).

The shamanic hypothesis follows in the grand tradition of interpreting the cave ‘art’ in southwestern Europe by impugning religious meanings and intentions to the Upper Paleolithic creators of the ‘art.’ (Note that, along with many others, we use quotation marks around the word ‘art’ because, while the corpus of such artifacts contains some artistic images, not all of it obviously appears as such and its creators may not have intended it all as art.) The key pioneer of the discovery, recording, and interpretation of prehistoric ‘art’ in southwestern Europe was Henri Breuil (whose name is misspelled in van Huyssteen’s text [2006: 173] and does not appear in the index, despite Breuil’s prime importance; the apparent lack of scholarly research in the archaeological field is a recurring hindrance to van Huyssteen’s case). Breuil, like his prominent successor, André Glory, was a Roman Catholic priest (Broderick 1965: 48) (the Jesuit, archaeologist-theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin adds to the point), and it therefore seems natural that they, when confronted by the majesty of the ‘art’ and the awe-inspiring nature of its antiquity, read religious meaning and intention into it. They similarly approached the caves containing it by naming places ‘sanctuaries,’ ‘cathedrals,’ ‘chapels,’ and the like. They started a tradition that reflects the cultural ethos of late nineteenth and much of the twentieth century France and Spain, and strongly continues today; a cursory glance at web sites about prehistoric art or much new age literature convinces. Lewis-Williams fits firmly into it. The ‘art’ feels romantic and mysterious. The religious interpretation now arises automatically. It makes a good story. And it does not require the current speculators to dirty themselves in caves.

The Study of Finger Flutings

Our claims are more unusual in what they say and in the work that stands behind them. We base them on a great deal of in-the-mud research, not armchair speculation. We examine, re-examine, re-re-examine particular panels of the ‘art’ and try to discern what the making of these artifacts can tell. This work remains in progress and we have as yet published only a small slice of it (Sharpe 2004; Sharpe and Lacombe 1999; Sharpe, Lacombe, and Fawbert 1998; 2002; Sharpe and Van Gelder 2004; To Appear 1-4; In Prep.). The investigation requires several more life times of work using the methods we are developing.

We will first present our techniques then some of our results, returning to van Huyssteen’s text and Lewis-William’s hypothesis at various points. Our question asks if the shamanic hypothesis is as cut-and-dried or as strong as van Huyssteen surmises.

Our object of study comprises the finger flutings (lines made with fingers on soft surfaces) found in the prehistoric ‘art’ caves. They occur in many sites and in some of them (for example, Rouffignac Cave) the square area of them considerably dominates the coverage of other drawn or painted artifacts. In some cave chambers, they occur with fluted, engraved, drawn, or painted images of animals, lying over, under, and within them but, in other chambers, the only artifacts are these ‘enigmatique’ lines, as the French would say. Some of the flutings form repeating designs, but most do not appear to.

Two primary decisions and activities dominate our method. First, we do not assume or overly speculate as to what the flutings mean. We note that, when investigators make such assumptions, they tend to see in the lines what they think is there and to ignore or explain away what does not fit their interpretation. Second, as noted above, we repeatedly examine the markings in situ. Because of the frequently tangled nature of their appearance, their deterioration over time, the trouble sometimes of separating them from the natural surface of the cave wall, and the difficulty often of seeing them in their fullness (they can usually only be seen in shadow and we rely on our lighting in the pitch black of the caves’ interior), we need continually to visit with a panel of flutings to see what is really there.

Before proceeding further, however, we need to establish why we consider line flutings when van Huyssteen focuses on the paintings and drawings of figures. We do this because, in some caves, the same people made both the figures and the line flutings, and studying flutings leads to information about the ‘artists.’ We also do this because flutings and drawn or painted images may, in some or many cases, have arisen from the same (social) context and therefore might provide information about the content of the ‘art.’

Our techniques are simple. We sort out such matters as:

1.      which finger lines one hand in one movement made (we call this a ‘unit’);

2.      which lines overlay which (this gives the temporal order of their creation);

3.      the width of the lines made with the three central fingers held together (this helps determine the fluter’s age and the individual who made them [see below for more explanation of these]);

4.      the heights of fingers 2 and 4 relative to finger 3 at the beginning of a fluting (this helps determine the fluter’s gender);

5.      whether the fluter used fingers 1 (the thumb) or 5 (the pinky) (the presence of either of these will tell what hand did the fluting, and each of them is distinctive);

6.      the stretch of the fluter vertically or horizontally (which tells of the fluter’s height); and

7.      the existence of build up at the ends of flutings (which may tell something of the speed and pressure of the fluter’s movements).

We record the data we obtain directly into a computer by writing with an electronic pen on a digital photo of the flutings imported into PhotoShop.

From the data, we can frequently obtain the following information:

1.      Whether the fluter was a young child or someone older (from the three-finger widths); studies have shown, for instance, children aged five or under probably made flutings of three-finger widths of 30 millimeters or less (Sharpe and Van Gelder To Appear 3).

2.      An indication of the gender of the fluter (from the relative heights of finger 2 to finger 4); studies have shown that 2F/4F < 1 suggests a male and 2F/4F ≥ 1 suggests a female (Sharpe and Van Gelder To Appear 2).

3.      The number of individuals who fluted (from the three-finger width and finger profile; experiments have shown that the widths of the three central fingers held close together vary on average 0.5 millimeters with different pressures and media).

4.      Which fluter fluted which flutings, including (sometimes, depending how many fingers the fluter used) the fluted images.

5.      The handedness of the fluter (if the fluter usually fluted with a particular hand).

6.      The height of the fluter (arm stretch vertically or horizontally suggests this). And

7.      Something about the character of the fluter (for example, from whether the flutings of this person usually show pressure and forcefulness).

Armed with this methodology, we study the flutings in two caves that van Huyssteen counts as important in his argument: those of Gargas and Rouffignac in France (Gargas lies in the southwest, in the Pyrenees, and Rouffignac about 300 km due north, in the Dordogne). Our preliminary results suggest that three people fluted much of Gargas, a child (perhaps a boy), a woman, and a man. About eight or nine people fluted (and probably decorated) Rouffignac, including one baby, two young children, and 5 or 6 others including both males and females, at least one of whom was an older juvenile or adolescent.

The following sections will continue to summarize some of the findings so far.

Rouffignac Cave


Van Huyssteen writes (2006: 186) of tectiforms: ‘mysterious signs and symbols…painted or engraved on cave walls.’ He speaks (2006: 205) of the presence of these ‘geometric patterns’ as ‘one of the great enigmas of Upper Paleolithic art,’ scattered as are ‘among the realistic images of animals.’ ‘Although the mystery of their meaning remains unsolved,’ he adds (2006: 186), ‘their intriguing presence is playing an increasingly important role in new shamanistic interpretations of some of the Paleolithic “art.”’ Figure 1 pictures one of the most obvious of the 14 tectiforms in Rouffignac (Plassard and Plassard 2000: 93). Its creator was a man we call Mr. 45 because his 3-fingered fluting is around 45 millimeters wide; he may also be an assertive or aggressive individual because many of his flutings in the cave have build-up at the ends of them; no one else’s does.

Figure 1. A tectiform from Rouffignac Cave.

Provisionally (these results require further checking) we have found that each tectiform was made by one individual (many by the young children and the adolescent), each person’s tectiform has the same structure, and tectiforms made by different people differ in their structure (for example, whether they include a base, or the number of arms on the left or the right).

A likely inference from them, if the above results stand up to repeated checking, is that each follows a culturally defined general form, but that each is peculiar to the fluter who made it. Perhaps, therefore, they depict something like a name or a signature. This notational interpretation makes sense of the flutings, but does not go as far as the shamanic symbolic understanding of Lewis-Williams and hence Van Huyssteen. In themselves, the tectiforms in Rouffignac Cave do not support the shamanic symbolic interpretation.

The Desbordes Panel of Chamber A1

One of the most famous fluted surfaces in the world and one of the most extensive in Europe is what we call the Desbordes Panel, found in Chamber A1 of Rouffignac Cave and about 150 square meters in area (see Figure 2). Most of these flutings were made by children aged two to five, who needed holding up to touch the ceiling (at the time of the fluting, the floor of the cave was probably at much the same level relative to the ceiling as now, too high for a young child to touch). Those holding the fluters walked around because some of the flutings extend several meters (Sharpe and Van Gelder 2004; To Appear 1; To Appear 3).

Figure 2. A small portion of the fluted Desbordes Panel in Chamber A1, Rouffignac Cave.

Several attempts at interpretations follow, all of which we can rule out (see also Glasberg 2005 for other suggestive but unfounded ideas about the meaning of flutings in the Desbordes Panel of Rouffignac Cave).

The fluters were shamans trying to get close to the spirit world. Lewis-Williams writes:

Upper Paleolithic evidence suggests that parts of the caves, especially the deep passages and small, hidden diverticules, were places where visionary quests took place….In their various stages of altered states, questers sought, by sight and touch, in the folds and cracks of the rock face visions of powerful animals….

Such beliefs and rituals also account for…the various ways in which the walls of numerous Upper Paleolithic caverns were touched and otherwise treated. In some sites,…finger-flutings cover most of the walls and parts of the ceilings to a considerable height….If…Upper Paleolithic people believed that the spirit world lay behind the thin, membranous walls of the underground chambers and passages, the evidence for this and much otherwise incomprehensible behavior can be understood….In a variety of ways, people touched, respected, painted, and otherwise ritually treated the cave walls because of what existed behind their surfaces (2002: 208-209).

This hypothesis suggests exploration for several observable consequences:

·         Fluters would poke their fingers into the walls trying to get as far as possible through the membrane toward the sacred, perhaps even into it. On the other hand, the Desbordes Panel shows no finger holes produced by doing this.

·         Fluters would remove the cave wall surface because they considered it sacred and wanted to house it specially, or because they wanted to decorate their bodies with it and so associate themselves with the sacred. However, the Desbordes Panel shows no evidence that the fluters gouged out the surface as in extraction. Fluting is an inefficient means of obtaining quantities of the medium.

·         As Lewis-Williams writes in the first paragraph of the above quote, fluter shamans would favor low places with closed-in ceilings. However, the fluters did not touch the most ‘favorable’ portions of the alcoves at the lower end of the fluted subchamber of Chamber A1.

·         Young children aged two to five were probably not shamans.

With reference to flutings in other chambers of Rouffignac Cave:

·         The fluters might feel little concern about the form of the fluting they used because the action of touching really concerned them. However, fluters of some panels showed considerable interest in the form of fluting they used. Some panels in Rouffignac show an ordering and structure (for example, the Goursolle Panel in Chamber E; Sharpe and Van Gelder  To Appear 2).

·         The shamanic hypothesis and its emphasis on touch does not make sense of careful clay relayering over flutings, as in the Goursolle Panel.

·         Further, if the shamans held their trances in the cave in the dark, how could they then create fire to see so they could flute the ceiling (or draw animals), or exit the cave?

Another related shamanic interpretation is that flutings such as those of the Desbordes Panel represent entoptic forms. ‘In the first, or “lightest,” stage [of trance],’ writes van Huyssteen (2006: 245), ‘people may experience geometric visual percepts that include dots, grids, zigzags, and meandering lines.’

Several entoptic forms (as Lewis-Williams and T. A. Dowson’s [1988] chart depict) appear in the Desbordes Panel fluted (circles; grids; parallel straight, curved, and undulating lines). However, Lewis-Williams and Dowson’s chart does not list many shapes in the panel (for instance: 2+2 flutings; heart-shaped parallel lines; meters-long parallel lines with a bend; shapes like the second supposed ‘anthropomorph’ discussed below). Furthermore, many shapes in the chart and its examples do not appear in the panel (arcs; arrows; branchings; claviforms; dashes; dots; lines radiating from one point; spirals; triangles). A modern mundane setting highlights the force of this argument. Many characters on an English computer keyboard are entoptic forms (for example, #, //, O, U, >>), many are not (for example, Y, B, %, &, @), and the keyboard does not include many shapes in the entoptic chart and its examples. If the Desbordes Panel fluters intended to depict entoptic forms, then the same logic implies incorrectly that we also intend, by writing the words on this page, to depict entoptic forms.

Many books, maps, and guides of Rouffignac Cave call the Desbordes Panel the ‘ceiling of serpents’ or ‘serpentines’ because most of the cave’s researchers have seen snakes on the ceiling (following Breuil’s paradigm where Upper Paleolithic drawings depict animals or symbols). Claude Barrière (1982) systematically attempts to reveal the depicted snakes and finds six. Take, for example, the ‘snake’ that Barrière (1982: 91) calls ‘Serpent 164’ (see Figures 3-5). Its ‘head’ (on the left) appears to have an open ‘mouth’ with its ‘tongue’ extended. Closer examination shows that the image comprises several flutings that meld into the other flutings in the vicinity. The top of the ‘head’ comprises two lines, one of which undulates to cross the body near the end of the ‘tail.’ The lack of single-minded action from concept-‘snake’ to flutings-that-depict-a-snake casts doubt on its snake intention. Further, seen from the right, the ‘snake’ looks like a person sitting down, head turned around, and tongue extended; being on the ceiling means no preferred angle for viewing it exists. The other ‘snakes’ fall to similar analyses. Close inspection of the flutings that comprise the ‘snakes’ shows they do not in fact depict snakes.



Figures 3-5. Barrière’s Serpent 164 (66 centimeters long): photograph, drawing from the photograph of the most likely interpreted snake figure, and the analysis of the units involved in the figure showing their full extent. All units are single flutings. The ‘eye’ is natural.

Another older interpretation, this time from Louis-René Nougier and Romain Robert (1958), sees human faces in the ceiling. Figure 6 provides an example. Admittedly, the ‘anthropomorhic’ images do look like distorted human faces, and once people see a face in something, they tend always to see it there. Why, though, should the ‘face’ pictured here depict a bulb sprouting or a piece of fruit (Figure 6 from the right)? As with the ‘snake,’ no preferred angle for viewing these images eixists. It therefore seems inappropriate to say that the Paleolithic fluter(s) intentionally drew faces on the ceiling. Nougier and Robert observed the fluted ceiling through the eyes of a paradigm that tries to see animals, humans, and familiar shapes, and that forces the lines into images within such categories, but that scholars must now leave behind.

Figure 6. Nougier and Robert’s (1958: op. p. 102) second anthropomorph.


Another supposed human portrayal in Rouffignac Cave depicts ‘Adam and Eve’ (Plassard 1999: 58). Two young children plus an adolescent – who, the flutings suggest, alone as a trio reconnoitered much of the end chambers of the cave (several kilometers) – probably drew these two figures. They also (very poorly) drew tectiforms, animals such as mammoths, and otherwise fluted the walls and ceilings. Perhaps, with as much talent they showed as with their mammoths, the youngsters drew their parents in the image now called ‘Adam and Eve.’ No evidence suggests they were drawing a primordial couple parallel to what the Hebraic biblical tradition calls Adam and Eve.

Yet another anthropomorph supposedly pictures God (‘the Great Being’) looking out on ‘his’ creation, the menagerie of animals drawn in manganese dioxide on the ‘Great Ceiling.’ This is too comical to take seriously, but a reputable researcher announced it in a respected journal as recently as 1966 (Nougier 1966; see also Plassard 1999: 8).

This lesson needs taking to the interpretations placed on the ‘bird man’ and ‘wounded man’ figures from Lascaux, Cougnac, and Pech Merle caves, which van Huyssteen thinks (2006: 252-256) probably depict shamans and hence reinforce the Lewis-Williams’ shamanic hypothesis. Earlier interpretations called them sorcerers (for example, Méroc and Mazet 1977), which, like the ‘Adam and Eve,’ ‘Great Being,’ and Lewis-Williams’ interpretations, lie in the paradigm of religious meaning-making, even with a paucity of evidence. Much closer and noninterpretative attention needs giving to the artifacts themselves before calling them shamans or sorcerers. Perhaps children made them in play. Were the ‘spears’ drawn before or after the human and animal figures?

A Charlie Brown cartoon shows him lying on a grassy hill staring at the clouds. He sees a doggy and a horsey. To recognize the figure in Lascaux as a bird-headed man does not mean the original ‘artist’ meant it, with shamanic input, to represent a bird-headed man.

Paleolithic Writing?

The above results from Rouffignac Cave about the tectiforms, the number of fluters, and ‘Adam and Eve’ are provisional, pending follow-up collaborative investigations. Another suggestive but provisional result comes from a wall in the cave that, like that of Mr. 45’s tectiform, van Huyssteen passed while on an electric train on his way in and out of the cave to the ‘Great Ceiling.’ Here are three panels of vertical lines, each several meters long. We analyzed one of them into the order of each unit taken from one side, and the number of fingers used to flute that unit (see Figure 7). (A unit comprises the flutings left by one sweep of a hand.) Graphing this information in the manner that Zipf’s Law from communication theory suggests gives a slope of negative 1, precisely what the law requires for intelligent social communication (Nadis 2003).

Figure 7. The panel of flutings provisionally analyzed using Zipf’s Law.

In other words, if this provisional result holds up, the panels of vertical fluted lines are a form of writing (albeit probably unsophisticated) or notation. The investigation carried out suggests that one of the grammatical structures of this fluted writing consists of the number of fingers used in each unit. Even if this provisional result holds up, it only confirms intelligence, language, and notation, but not symbol.

Intention and Meaning

The above conclusions come from work we have done in Rouffignac Cave over several years. We try not to speculate from our armchairs. Rather than proposing some grand narrative, we try to individualize the fluters by seeking information about each of them.

Future work will entail moving from the fluters of lines, to the fluters (by finger width) of animals, and then to the drawers of animals (by style of the animals drawn with crayon). We have already carried out the first stage provisionally and the second looks promising. If and when we achieve all three stages, we should be able to say who (age range, gender, and so on) drew what picture, tectiform, and unit of lines. Those who previously ignored flutings because they considered them too primitive or devoid of useful information, or because they had no adequate techniques for approaching them, should now be convinced, if our project succeeds, that the study of flutings adds to the knowledge of the ‘artists,’ and even about those who drew that animal images.

All of the Paleolithic flutings, engravings, and drawings in Rouffignac were probably completed in a couple of days by eight or nine people – in other words, we agree with the assessment of Jean Plassard (van Huyssteen 2006: 185). The ‘artists’ were probably not all that afraid of the dark (why would they be since they lived outside in the open?) since they allowed three of their number – including two young children – to wander into the far reaches of the cave. The three wandered down the (inappropriately named) ‘Via Sacra’ to return to the adults (who were drawing their animals), dragging their fingers along the wall and mingling theirs with the adults’ marks. (This behavior perhaps reflects behavioral patterns that modern children share with their Rouffignac counterparts and which may signify the same nowadays as then, namely at least a tactile sensation and a statement of being there. Van Huyssteen’s predilection might appreciate this since he wants to attribute meanings and behaviors to the makers of the patterns and symbols in prehistoric ‘art’ similar or parallel to what they invoke or represent in us.) One of these young children (Miss 28) liked to sit on the shoulders of an adult; we know this because she has marked in several of the cave’s chambers on the wall above the adult marks – and very clear of them. The modern parent might say: ‘Yes, you can draw here, but don’t mark Daddy’s tax return!’ If they were just trying to touch the membrane that separated them from the otherworld, why would the adults prohibit the youngster from marking there? This suggests that the visual appearance of some of line flutings meant something important to the adults, but not necessarily sacredness.

What did these Paleolithic people intend or mean with their drawings and flutings? Perhaps it poured with rain for a couple of days and a small group out for the seasonal hunting explored the cave behind the rock shelter in which they were camping. Does this sufficiently explain the genesis of the Rouffignac ‘art’? Like modern visitors, these people left their marks with their names. They wrote on the walls. For their young children, they indulged the sensation of fluting (finger painting), having found the most suitable spot in the cave for this (the Desbordes Panel). They enjoyed drawing. As probably on just about all they possessed and the places they encamped, they drew the images their culture encouraged them to draw. And they drew well, suggesting they had ample time to draw and express themselves wherever they were. (This story emphasizes the social dictates of how and what the people drew: think of the pictures from several hundred years ago where custom dictated the representation of biblical scenes.)

Van Huyssteen (2006: 184-185) asks, regarding the drawings on the ‘Great Ceiling’ in Rouffignac and the relative lowness of the ceiling there: ‘If the artists could not see their work, who could? And what was the most important feature of the prehistoric imagery: the act of painting itself, or the end product and its visual attraction, however constrained?’ We can suggest an answer. It is not, as Van Huyssteen would like his readers to think, that ‘they drew because they needed to express the shamanic images in their minds,’ but because they enjoyed drawing and this smooth and firm ceiling offered a great place to draw. Perhaps these people ‘only’ intended to spend time enjoying themselves.

The advocate of shamanism or religious ritual might reply that this story does not explain all the drawings in the cave. Several animals have undulating lines drawn down them and many if not most have a series of dots or short gashes in their middles (see Figure 8). In response, we suggest that these markings may notate or symbolize some information about the figure or the ‘artist’ (like a signature at the bottom).

Figure 8. A mammoth with undulating flutings and short gashes, Rouffignac Cave. Note the relatively poorly drawn mammoth at the bottom: a child’s drawing perhaps?

Note that, though he follows the usual sources for his information (e.g., Plassard  1999), the date of 13,000 years B.P. van Huyssteen gives (2006: 184) for the ‘art’ work in Rouffignac may be inaccurate. For one thing, no one has yet applied an absolute dating technique (such as C14) on the ‘art,’ so the method used derives from the development of artistic styles, especially as Breuil interpreted this (1952). The much older absolute dating of ‘art’ in Chauvet Cave of around  32,000 years (Clottes 2003: 32), though it stylistically should fall into a much more recent age bracket, throws this dating technique into doubt. One might also ask if the animals depicted in Rouffignac (including ice age mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, and cave bears) still lived in the area 13,000 years ago, after the ice age had finished in that part of Europe. Further, we have found instances in Rouffignac where a cave bear has slashed across human flutings and drawings, meaning the bears were around during or after the humans used the cave, as well as before, but the bears were probably extinct at least in this region of France by 13,000 years ago. The ‘art’ in Rouffignac more likely dates from 20-27,000 years ago.

Gargas Cave


The lower half of Gargas Cave falls into three sections. The one closest to the cave entrance contains the numerous (over 250; Barrière 1984: 516) hand stencils that van Huyssteen uses (van Huyssteen 2006: 230, 251-252) as a significant indicator of Upper Paleolithic ritual or shamanic practice in the caves. The middle section contains innumerable finger flutings (being in soft clay, as opposed to the harder surface of the first section of the cave), and the third is a sequence of three small chambers in which a great number of animal and other forms are engraved.

As mentioned above, three individuals appear to have made almost all of the flutings in the middle section: a young child (perhaps a boy), a woman, and a man (see Figure 9). The child, held by the woman at least sometimes on her right hip, ran his fingers over much of the available soft ceilings, joined in many places by the fingers of the woman (see Figure 10). The man occasionally joined their efforts, the three together covering over 400 square meters of the ceiling and walls in a tangled maze of lines. The man also drew several panels of large semicircles and circles, some of which have lasted well while others have almost disappeared (see Figure 11). He was left-handed and about 180 centimeters tall. In at least two places, he jumped, leaving his reaching finger impressions behind (see Figure 12). A number of poor renditions of animals, probably bison, occur (see Figure 13), drawn mostly with one finger and probably by the man. The shapes of these animals repeat in the engravings in the third section of the cave, suggesting that perhaps he also engraved there.

Figure 9. Finger flutings scrawling over the ceiling of Gargas Cave.

Figure 10. Flutings made by a woman (on left) and a child (on right).

Figure 11. Flutings made by a man in the central portion of Gargas Cave.

Figure 12. ‘Junping marks’ above the flutings in Figure 11.

Figure 13. A ‘bison’ fluted in the central portion of Gargas Cave.

One small panel of very thin lines perplexed us for a while because they are too small for even babies’ fingers and yet show a great deal of control (see Figure 14). The impression of scratches down the edge of some of the lines led us to realize that a fluter made them probably with a finger drawn sideways.

Figure 14. Very narrow flutings in the central portion of Gargas Cave.

Figure 15. A structured and partially obliterated fluted panel in the central portion of Gargas Cave.

One panel still challenges us (see Figure 15). It comprises, on the right, a structured pattern; a careful look to the left of the figure poses interesting questions. Lines protrude around the edges of the otherwise apparently unmarked clay – in fact, most of this left hand side appears smeared, someone having intentionally obliterated the lines that had been fluted there. For several reasons, the smearing appears ancient; could the fluter have not wanted anyone to see this segment of the work?

The fluters of most of the middle section of Gargas appear to have fluted for the tactile, aesthetic, or even humorous sensation. Very few of the marks show any order and, where they do (apart from the half-smeared panel), they make sense as the marking of something peculiar to that individual. None of this requires the shamanic interpretation, nor does any evidence appear that fluters made this as part of a ritual. Perhaps this section of Gargas offers another example of a rainy day in the Paleolithic when a young child and his parents needed entertaining and distracting.

Hand Prints

Van Huyssteen rightly points to the special character of the hand prints in the first section of the cave. He writes (2006: 209), with hyperbole: ‘the potency-filled paint created some sort of bond between the person, the rock veil, and the spirit world that seethed beneath it.’ They represent, he mentions in another place (2006: 230, quoting Clottes and Lewis-Williams), shamanic ‘touchings of the other world,’ having more to do with the touching ‘than with actual image making’ (2006: 251).

The stencilers appear, however, to have found the particular image of the hand in Gargas important because many of the prints (the hands of many different people) show only the lower part of one or several fingers (see Figure 16). The stencilers printed their hands, therefore, not principally for feeling the cave walls and therefore not for the shamanic touching ‘of the other world,’ but because they found the resultant hand representations important. To entertain the shamanic hypothesis and its suggestion that the intention behind hand prints was to touch the rock surface, a reasonable and supportable explanation needs producing as to why folded fingers. Van Huyssteen’s pointing to Gargas as evidence of attempts to touch the other world mirrors André Leroi-Gourhan’s earlier and often quoted derivation of an analytical schema onto the handprints, one that follows his general approach to understanding the cave ‘art’ but which in this case ignores many of the handprints (Barrière 1977; Leroi-Gourhan 1967).

Figure 16. A hand print in Gargas Cave.

Van Huyssteen fails to mention that, for most of the last hundred years, scholars considered the hands mutilated. Speculation has listed how the ‘artists’ lost their fingers: by frost bite, accident, disease, intention (Barrière 1976; 1977; Leroi-Gourhan 1967; Lorblanchet 1980; Tardos 1987)? Was this a ritualistic mutilation? Archaeologists found slivers of bone from the Paleolithic lodged in a crack next to a hand print (Clottes, Valladas, and Cachier, 1992); this may help a ritualistic interpretation. Then it occurred to someone that hunter-gatherers would find it hard to survive if so many members of the group had finger flanges missing. Stencilers could have produced the same visual affect if they had blown colorant onto their hands with some of their fingers folded down (Broderick 1963: 283; Lorblanchet 1980).

Why would people want to depict their hands with some of their fingers folded down? Speculators could easily run to the ritual or shamanic explanation again, but does the evidence available require this strong an interpretation? As with the flutings, might entertainment or even humor offer an adequate explanation? It may well feel fun to fold some fingers down and create impressions on the walls. This way of interpreting the handprints requires acceptable universal human qualities (the need for entertainment; humor) but not such conceptually heavy human activities as ritual, religion, or shamanism. The bone in the wall could be the remains of a snack: the hand stenciler needed to eat and playfully stuck the bone from the repast into a crack in the wall. Another artifact on the walls of Gargas supports the humor interpretation: a series of five little images looking like giraffes moving along the wall result from the stenciling of probably a thumb or double-jointed finger (see Figure 17).

Figure 17. Stencils of probably a thumb or double-jointed finger. Gargas Cave.

The shamanic interpretation for Gargas requires more evidence from the ‘art’ or other artifacts than has been provided, or else the simpler explanation of entertainment should prevail.

Larger Context

If further evidence does not emerge, interpreters can only uphold the shamanic interpretation if they want to push it for some reason outside of the integrity of the prehistoric ‘art.’ This way well hold for van Huyssteen. He wants to find evidence for religion in the Paleolithic past and so has latched onto the shamanic interpretation. He asks (2006: 165) whether Lewis-Williams’ ‘theories that want to link at least some of the prehistoric imagery to shamanism, and thus possibly to the origins of religion, are in any way justified or plausible’? The answer is no, at least not for Rouffignac and Gargas caves. Tantalizing but, for lack of convincing evidence, no. Like van Huyssteen, we too would welcome hard evidence for religious behavior but, so far, it does not appear in the Paleolithic ‘art’ of these caves.

Note the linking of at least ‘some of the prehistoric imagery to shamanism’ (van Huyssteen 2006: 165; emphasis added). In how much of the ‘art’ does van Huyssteen think clear evidence exists for shamanism? The way he presents Gargas and Rouffignac caves suggests he thinks evidence exists in them. Later, he drops this and refers to Lewis-Williams and Jean Clottes (the former’s collaborator in Europe) who say ‘only certain caves suggest ritual practices and beliefs (Grotte Niaux and Lascaux), and that certain mysterious signs and enigmatic painted figures…very strongly suggest shamanism’ (van Huyssteen 2006: 211; emphasis added). (Van Huyssteen refers [2006: 251] to the ‘deep and remote parts in the caves of Lascaux, Altamira, and the salon noir in Niaux’ as able to produce the shamanic experience, but the dominant ‘art’ in Lascaux occurs near the entrance, and that in Altamira occurs in the rock shelter before the entrance to the cave proper.) What does van Huyssteen really include in his list?

·         The latter signs and figures Clottes and Lewis-Williams refer to include, van Huyssteen says, the ‘sorcerer’ in Trois Frères Cave and the scene of the bison and the ‘bird-headed man’ in Lascaux Cave. When he provides ‘outstanding examples of prehistoric imagery’ that exemplify the ‘profound role of shamanism,’ however, van Huyssteen (2006: 251) edits Lewis-Williams and Clottes’ list by excluding Niaux and including only the second but not the first of the ‘signs’ and figures. This presumably means that the judgment of Lewis-Williams and Clottes, as van Huyssteen filters it, derives from only on the ‘bird-headed man’ in Lascaux.

To give the benefit of the doubt, expand Lewis-Williams and Clottes’ list by including van Huysteen’s three categories of ‘outstanding examples.’

·         Only the three ‘men’ images (from Lascaux, Cougnac, and Pech Merle caves) probably remain when removing from his list sites whose connection to shamanism one can easily question.

·         Some cultures believed in the existence of humans who were also animals, but which did not practice shamanism (for instance, the Yup’ik Eskimos in southwestern Alaska; see Martin 1999).

These points make van Huyssteen’s conclusion even more doubtful.

He does, however, concede a lot and later requires (2006: 213; emphasis added) only that there exist ‘plausible arguments for the symbolic, or even just tentative religious meaning of some of these paintings.’ The three ‘men’ images may be symbolic or religious (or they may represent figments of someone’s imagination), but this miniscule percentage of the ‘art’ does not support ‘the naturalness and rationality of religious faith as a uniquely human predisposition’ (van Huyssteen 2006: 214). Even Lewis-Williams and Clottes’ list expanded with van Huyssteen’s still comprises only a very small percentage of Paleolithic cave ‘art’ from southwestern Europe, insufficient for the shamanic claims van Huyssteen wants to take from them. To follow his line of reasoning, he needs a sizable percentage of the ‘art’ to originate most probably from shamanism or at least from symbolism or religion.

A book and newspaper article by Graham Hancock (2005a-b) bespeak the vulnerability of van Huyssteen’s reliance on Lewis-Williams and shamanism. Hancock calls upon the same hypotheses of Lewis-Williams as does van Huyssteen to conclude that alien beings communicate with humans through another dimension to the subconscious mind, and that people express these communications with images like those from the Paleolithic caves. Besides issues of the reliability of Lewis-Williams’ hypothesis, the use of it to establish other hypotheses – be they extra-terrestrial communication or the innateness of religion – must proceed with extreme care or else all sorts of gobbledygook may emerge.

The issues with van Huyssteen’s approach do not end there. Apart from a glancing reference to Paul Bahn’s arguments against the shamanic interpretation (van Huyssteen 2006: 211), van Huyssteen ignores the fact that most of the scholarly community that studies such artifacts do not accept this hypothesis as applying to much or most or the Paleolithic cave ‘art’ of southwestern Europe. Robert Layton concludes (2000: 184): ‘The Shamanistic hypothesis is a voracious beast which can all too easily devour the world’s hunter-gatherer rock art.’ Van Huyssteen happily feeds that beast. It appears that he may not have read the relevant bread-and-butter literature of the field, such as the writings of Robert Bednarik, Francesco d’Errico (whom he acknowledges as having met and one of whose publications he refers to), or Michel Lorblanchet; d’Errico only with reticence will call something evidence of symboling and then he requires strong evidence. Has van Huyssteen perused the main journal of the area, Rock Art Research? He appears only to take seriously scholars with whom he already agrees on important matters.

Two other wider issues need consideration. First, why does van Huyssteen focus on the Paleolithic cave ‘art’ of southwestern Europe and not of some other place? He seems enthralled by this repository (and we agree with this feeling), frequently using such qualifiers as ‘remarkable’ (2006: 164). But this attitude is biased and Eurocentric. ‘The number of known cave art sites within a radius of forty kilometers of the town of Mount Gambier [in South Australia] exceeds that of the sites near Les Eyzies (France), the “World Capital of Prehistory”’ (Bednarik 1986: 38). Australia deserves at least as much focus as does Europe.

His and our appreciation of the European ‘art’ largely derives on our coming from European-based cultures. Our appreciation of Australian Aboriginal ‘art’ would be somewhat less, understandably given what our culture defines as good art. After all, we inherited the tradition that the European Paleolithic ‘art’ caves depict. The animals depicted in European prehistoric ‘art’ do not so move Australian Aborigines, immersed in their own tradition – at least so we understand from a visit to Gargas Cave by a group of them. Their tradition of art says that the best art depicts according to their style. Would an Aboriginal agree with van Huyssteen (2006: 182) that ‘the technical, naturalistic, and aesthetic qualities of European Paleolithic images remain almost unique to date’?

In the European ‘art,’ van Huyssteen notices the absence of the natural surroundings to the animal images – the landscape, the sun, or the ground. He also notes (2006: 185; emphasis added): ‘In the great ceiling at Rouffignac, the tips of the horses’ tails are considerably lower than their hooves….This prehistoric imagery was never intended to be merely descriptive.’ His question and issue here assume the Paleolithic ‘artists’ could have drawn and painted with the modern west’s sense of ‘naturalism.’ Is not the modern idea of art (and one might think of photography as the paramount model), however, a result of the Enlightenment and the resultant obsession with objective correspondence with reality? ‘Realism’ (van Huyssteen 2006: 185) or ‘naturalism’ may have meant for Paleolithic Europeans, for Australian Aborigines, and for most pre-modern people, quite different things. Thus, Van Huyssteen’s might not only show a European bias, but also a modern European one.

Another wider matter to raise concerns the supposed ‘creative cultural explosion’ in the European Upper Paleolithic, ‘an abrupt and rather stunning transition,’ as van Huyssteen calls it (2006: 167-168). He rightly cautions against taking this too strongly, preferring to talk about its emerging from given human capacities flourishing in the right conditions. But he continues to use the ‘explosion’ type of language, attractive as it feels. The supposed ‘surge’ may have appeared in Europe, not because it happened there and not in other parts of the world, but from other reasons:

·         The climate change from about 18,000 to 14,000 years ago meant the glaciers that came down as far as today’s Berlin and Manchester, west from the central massif, and north from the Pyrenees retreated, leaving more land for habitation, more game for hunting, and so on (Marshack 1995: 31). In other words, the conditions for human life in Europe greatly improved.

·         Homo sapiens arrived in Europe around 40,000 years ago, probably as a small group of people, and then gradually expanded. (From about 25,000 to 18,000 years ago, the coldest period of the last ice age probably occurred, forcing humans to live probably only on the coast during the winter and able to move inland during the warmer months, following the migrations of animals such as reindeer and bison across the tundra grasslands of southern France [Palmer 2004].) What appears in the artifactual record is the result of that expansion.

·         Paleolithic people probably painted and drew all over their world: one only needs think of engraved rocks in the Pyrenees (Lorblanchet 1995: 21-24), the remains of painted sculptures in rock shelters (e.g., Cap Blanc), decorated implements and adornments, and so on. Not much has survived, however. The conditions in the limestone caves helped to preserve the ‘art’ work. In other words, local equivalents to this ‘art’ may have existed all over the human globe but, because the conditions in southwestern Europe better suited its preservation, what appears from here in museums and collections represents a large portion of what remains.

·         Southwestern Europe in the late nineteenth and first part of the twentieth centuries had the interest (Darwin’s theory of evolution having romped onto the intellectual stage), wealth, and free personpower to seek out sites, record, and publish them.

·         Van Huyssteen mentions (2006: 178-179) the caves in southwestern Europe as containing some of the oldest prehistoric ‘art’ (and the marked ochre pencil from Blombos Cave in South Africa as the oldest ‘art,’ dating to 77,000 years), but the scholarly and popular literature contains many counterexamples of much older ‘art.’ Whether referencing the 400,000 year-old figurine from Tan-Tan in Moroco – its detailed analysis published in 2003 (Bednarik 2003b) – or the Berekhat Ram figurine dating at 250-280,000 years old (d’Errico and Nowell 2000: 125) (which van Huyssteen references [2006: 199] and a source for which he lists in his bibliography), European Paleolithic ‘art’ probably does not constitute the ‘oldest body of figurative art in the world’ (van Huyssteen 2006: 170). Perhaps it does not even constitute, in the discussion of human uniqueness, the most significant (see Bednarik 2003a).

·         These findings further suggest that Homo sapiens’ ancestor, Homo erectus, also created ‘art,’ putting a dent in human pride but providing an opportunity to extend uniqueness to the human lineage. Van Huyssteen (2006: 176) therefore prematurely pronounces: ‘Remarkably, this species [Homo sapiens], and this species alone, is firmly and unequivocally associated with the habitual and patterned symbolic marking of objects.’ (Note also that the modern human species did not emerge 100,000 years ago, as van Huyssteen says [e.g., 2006: 168], or 125,000 years ago as he writes on another page [2006: 176], but more likely around 180-200,000 years ago. Neither were the Cro-Magnons of the Upper Paleolithic the ‘earliest ancestors’ of modern humans [van Huyssteen 2006: 218].)


Van Huyssteen uses the speculations of Lewis-Williams to say that, most probably, symbolism and shamanic practice lie behind much of the body of prehistoric ‘art’ in southwestern Europe. He writes (2006: 256, 192 and 204): ‘Lewis-Williams has successfully and plausibly argued for linking shamanism directly to some of the most well-known Upper Paleolithic cave paintings….Religious belief is [therefore] one of the earliest special propensities or dispositions that [researchers] are able to detect in the archaeological record of modern humans.’ Religion constituted an important part of the lives of the Paleolithic ancestors of modern people, he continues, and contributes to understanding human uniqueness. Human beings are, by nature, religious beings.

However, flutings in Rouffignac and Gargas caves, artifacts that, by the amount of wall and ceiling space they cover, are the dominant forms of expression in each cave, support simpler and therefore preferable explanations than the symbolic-shamanic one. This includes the tectiforms in Rouffignac and, though not fluted, the stenciled hands in Gargas. Both of these van Huyssteen points to as supporting his thesis. The cave ‘art’ of the European Upper Paleolithic does not constitute, despite what van Huyssteen writes (2006: 220), ‘a reliable window’ through which to glimpse the shamanic and symbolic minds of the prehistoric ancestors of modern humans. That van Huyssteen senses this may reflect his own predispositions, not the reality of the ‘artists.’ In fact, van Huyssteen pursues a circular argument, wanting to find religion in Paleolithic times and pulling heavily on scholars who share the same view, seeing shamanism wherever they look. This does not establish the ‘naturalness and rationality’ (van Huyssteen 2006: 187) of religious belief.

Yes, humans are unique. Notational activity, perhaps even symbolic activity, existed in the European Paleolithic, but persuasively hard evidence has not yet emerged to support ritualistic and religious (including shamanic) activities in the ‘art’ caves. The shamanic hypothesis probably cannot hold strongly for anything but a very small portion of the ‘art’ corpus – and maybe not even for that. The burden of proof lies with supporters of the hypothesis to produce hard evidence that makes their view a more reasonable explanation than simpler hypotheses. Proposers of theories can say what they want, but that does not make what they say most probable.

In response, van Huyssteen might want to call upon the expertise and credentials of Lewis-Williams and Clottes. Lewis-Williams has visited many European sites with Clottes, but has not extensively studied this ‘art’ in itself except as pictured. He may correctly understand the southern Africa San rock art he researched in depth. The French expert, Clottes, importantly supports our work on flutings. On the other hand, he told us that the shamanic hypothesis constitutes only the best story around about the ‘art.’ ‘Bring me a better story,’ he said, ‘and I’ll believe that.’ Our work may lead to a competing story, perhaps not as romantic, but maybe more accurate.


We wish to thank the many people who have helped support this research:

·         Jean and Marie-Odile Plassard, for discussions, their support, and permission to work in Rouffignac Cave.

·         Conservation Régionale de l’Archéologie, Toulouse, and the Mayor and Commune of Aventignan for permission to work in Gargas Cave.

·         Séverine Desbordes, Frédéric Goursolle, and Frédéric Plassard of Rouffignac Cave, and Marie-Paule Abadie and Nicolas Ferrer of Gargas Cave, for discussions and guiding us in their caves.

·         Union Institute and University, for financial support through its faculty research grants.

·         Robert Bednarik, Jean Clottes, Francesco d’Errico, Sandor Gallus,* Michel Lorblanchet, Alexander Marshack,* and Hallam Movius Jr.,* for discussions and support over many years (* now deceased).


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