Discovering the Mysteries of Prehistory through Visual Texts: Cave Paintings, the Peterborough Petroglyphs, and Writing on Stone Provincial Park in Alberta

Mr. Steel


I. Rock Art Around the World and Canadian Rock Art Specifically


Rock art is generally divided in two categories: carving sites (petroglyphs) and paintings sites (pictographs). Pictographs are paintings that were made by applying red ochre or, less commonly, black, white or yellow dye. Although the majority of the images were traced with the finger, some could be executed with brushes made of animal or vegetal fibres. Petroglyphs are carvings that are incised, abraded or ground by means of stone tools upon cliff walls, boulders and flat bedrock surfaces.

Rock art sites have been discovered throughout all Canada. In fact, pictographs and petroglyphs constitute Canada's oldest and most widespread artistic tradition. Such art is found world-wide, including in the caves of Spain and France, as well as the rock art of Scandinavia, Finland, northeast Asia and Siberia. No foolproof method for the precise dating of rock art has been discovered, other than speculative association with stratified, relatively datable archaeological remains. While the tradition of rock art was no doubt brought into Canada by its earliest occupants during the last ice age, it is most unlikely that examples of great antiquity will ever be found.

Rock art in much of Canada is linked with the search for helping spirits and with shamanism - a widespread religious tradition in which the shaman's major tasks are healing and prophesy, along with the vision quest. Several broad regions of rock art "style areas" have been distinguished, including the Maritimes, the Canadian Shield, the Prairies, British Columbia and the Arctic. Our studies will focus on three areas of inquiry: the prehistoric cave art of Europe, the Peterborough petroglyphs, and Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in southern Alberta.


II. Cave Paintings


i. Transcending History and Discovering the Timeless:

Understanding Cave Art by Finding Your Own Inner Primordial Human Being


In prehistoric times, human beings had many of the same questions as we do today. They would wonder about the meaning of their lives, their suffering, the world around them, the meaning of death, and how everything and everyone is related to each other in the grand scheme of things. Although they had no organized religion, they were nevertheless concerned with spiritual things, as we can see when we examine their ancient paintings.

Imagine how difficult their lives were -- how just surviving from one day to the next was an accomplishment! Then imagine how they still felt the need to crawl deep inside these caves to paint. Put yourself in their position: imagine how you would have to slide into the darkness on your belly over razor-sharp rocks, probably carrying a torch in your mouth that could go out at any moment. Imagine how difficult and dangerous your work in the caves would have been! You would work very hard to paint these incredible pictures all over the walls and ceiling of the caves. Perhaps you would perform rituals afterwards to speak with the spirits? Maybe you had a question to ask them about a war, a famine, a disease, a death, or some other mystery? Why do you think that prehistoric peoples would seek out such underground places to commune with the spirits?

Imagine how quiet it would be inside the caves -- how the only thing you could hear besides dripping water would be your own breath or perhaps your heartbeat. The earth would be like a womb or maybe a grave. Why would these ancient people seek out a secret place that was like being dead or reborn?

Have you ever been deep in the woods or out in a field all by yourself at night and had the feeling that you were not alone? Did you ever feel irrational terror during a peaceful night time walk? Did you ever have the sense that there might be something or someone very near you that you could not name? What do you think about these experiences? When we experience such things are we just being silly or paranoid? Or is there something more to the experience? 

In the flickering light of the caves, the animal pictures would move and dance around you. As a prehistoric person, you might carry a drum or some kind of intoxicant into the cave and use it to enter trance states or to perform spiritual journeys. Perhaps you would chant along with the drum, and the sound of your voice would reverberate off the walls. Imagine how strange the sound of your voice within the walls of the cave would be (since at this early time people didn't have walled houses).

What do you think our ancestors from so long ago were doing in the caves? Why would you go into a painted cave? Why would you put yourself in such great danger of falling down a precipice to your death or of serious injury (Remember: there was no modern medicine at the time!)? What were ancient people looking for in the darkness? Why would they be so interested in the forms of animals?


ii. Historical data and the technology of cave painting


The cave paintings we are looking at during this study were created during the Upper Palaeolithic period (40,000 to 10,000 BC); the earliest known European cave paintings date to Aurignacian, some 32,000 years ago.  The best of these were done by people known as the Magdalenians who flourished in Europe from 18,000 to 10,000 BC. Seen in the depth and total silence of the caves, the Magdalenian images are awesome.

Stone Age peoples did not live in caves, except occasionally in cave mouths or natural rock shelters. All the major sites which we know of were special places, not human habitations. Cave art often portrays human hands, as well as large numbers of animals in different activities, including various species that are now extinct, and a few that were extinct even at the time they were painted; geometric figures and signs are also depicted. Humans are portrayed, but such instances are rare.

The earliest and most rudimentary images are finger drawings in soft clay on the rock surface, suggesting that the artist may have been following the example of claw marks made by animals. Then came engraving, by far the commonest method, using flakes of sharp flint and in some cases stone picks. Different types of rocks and rock formations were used to give variety, add colour and produce depth, so that some of these engravings are akin to sculptural low reliefs. Fine engraving is rare and late. Clay engraving on the cave floors has usually been obliterated by the feet of modern visitors, but some good examples survive. Finally, and most impressively, we get painting. The first colours were red, iron oxide (hematite, a form of red ochre) and black (manganese dioxide), though black from juniper or pine carbons has also been discovered. White from kaolin or mica was used occasionally. The only other colours available to Magdalenian painters were yellow and brown.

Great ingenuity was displayed by these prehistoric artists. At the Lascaux cave, for instance, pestles and mortars have been found in which the various colours were mixed. One master employed a human skull. Cave water and the calcium it contained were used as mixers, and vegetable and animal oils as binders. The artists had primitive crayons and they applied the paint with brush tools, though none has survived. All kinds of devices and implements were used to aid in their art. Important lines were preceded by dots, which were then joined up. Sometimes paint was sprayed. Stencils were used. Blow pipes made from bird bones served as tubes for applying paint. By these means, the more experienced Magdalenian painters were able to produce polychrome (multi-coloured) art. It is likely that art was the first of the human professions.

Cave art at its best was difficult, dangerous, and taxing. One of the great challenges of cave painting in prehistoric times was that it required artificial lighting. Some Palaeolithic lamps have survived, but less than one third of them were found inside caves. The conjecture, therefore, is that artists usually worked by torchlight. Both lamps and torches consume animal fats in large quantities.

A second difficulty faced by such artists was the need for platforms and scaffolding, whose existence at Lascaux, for instance, is betrayed by sockets cut into the walls. It is conjectured that paints were mixed by artist assistants, and these paints had to be used quickly before they dried; lamps and torches had to be constantly tended so that they wouldn’t go out.



iii. Why risk life and limb in dark, treacherous places to paint pictures?

What were these deliberately engineered and carefully contrived works of art designed to convey? What was the purpose of Magdalenian and Palaeolithic art? The evidence suggests that they were not merely decorations of living areas, since the caves in which they have been found do not have signs of ongoing habitation. Also, they are often in areas of caves that are not easily accessed.

Some people suppose that paintings were simply the evening doodles of hunters, with no systematic purpose. But then who would risk life and limb, crawling into dark and deep places in great jeopardy just to “doodle”? Others theorize that such art may have been a way of communicating with other people. But why then would these paintings be placed in such remote, solitary places away from ordinary human society and contact?

Still others ascribe a utilitarian purpose to this sort of art: namely, they suppose that the paintings were used to teach prehistoric people how to hunt. For instance, Henri Breuil interpreted the paintings as hunting magic, meant to increase the number of animals. As there are some clay sculptures that seem to have been the targets of spears, and so this interpretation may partly be true, but it does not explain the pictures of predators such as the lion or the bear. If the art was designed to teach the science of hunting, why did it include creatures already extinct or others that were never hunted? And why did it not include specific hunting scenes?

Non-utilitarian theorists see the art as shamanistic, magical, or religious. Such is the view espoused by David Lewis-Williams, who bases his suppositions on ethnographic studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. He believes that the paintings were made by Cro-Magnon shamans. The shaman would retreat into the darkness of the caves, enter into a trance state and then paint images of their visions, perhaps with some notion of drawing power out of the cave walls themselves. This interpretation goes some way toward explaining the remoteness of some of the paintings (which often occur in deep or small caves) and the variety of subject matter (from prey animals to predators and human hand-prints). However, others object to this view on the grounds that, if the paintings are religious or sacrificial in nature, how come there are no sacrifices depicted? Humans, almost always the central point of early religious art, scarcely figure at all. With one possible exception, cave art shows no priest or sorcerer or witch doctor. There is nothing that could be termed a ceremony.

Some people believe that the most likely reason why these societies devoted so much attention and resources to cave art, over so long a period, is that they found satisfaction in it. It gave them entertainment, fun, excitement, sensual and spiritual relief, and added to their knowledge. In a long age that moved forward with excruciating slowness and in which few perceptible gains were made in a whole lifetime, the development of art was proof that life did not stand still.

Cave art encouraged discussion and storytelling; it may have recorded accounts of exploits and the history of the community. It played a creative role not merely in general education but more specifically in the development of sophisticated language, being capable of communicating thoughts on an ever-widening range of subjects. It is likely too that cave art promoted the birth of a religious spirit. Perhaps there is nothing in these art works as such to suggest religious purpose. But the conditions in which they were viewed, flickering torches bringing to life these fine representations with their deep colours out of the surrounding darkness, induced a sense of wonder and reverence. Thus cave art was thought provoking, and the thoughts it provoked provided the impetus for men and women to consider deeper questions about the meaning of their own lives, the universe, and the divine. Precisely because of its non-material, metaphysical qualities, art became the father of religion.

III. The Peterborough Petroglyphs


After being lost for centuries, the Peterborough Petroglyphs was rediscovered by historian Charles Kingam in 1924. The limestone at Peterborough is generally believed to have been carved by the Algonkian people between 900 and 1400 AD. Today, the First Nations people of Ontario call the carvings Kinomagewapkong, meaning "the rocks that teach." The petroglyphs found in Peterborough, Ontario consist of more than 900 individual images that are carved into a slab of crystalline limestone 180 feet (55 m) long and 100 feet (30 m) wide. About 300 of these are discipherable shapes, including humans, shamans, animals, solar symbols, geometric shapes and boats. Interestingly, the boat drawings among the petroglyphs do not resemble the traditional boat of the Native Americans. One solar boat — a stylized shaman vessel with a long mast surmounted by the sun — is typical of petroglyphs found in northern Russia and Scandinavia. A fissure in the rock is thought to have been revered as the entrance to the underworld or the symbolic womb of the Earth Mother.

The petroglyphs were first thoroughly recorded in 1967 and 1968 by Joan Vastokas of the University of Toronto and Ron Vastokas of Trent University in Peterborough. Their book, Sacred Art of the Algonkians, is considered by rock art scholars the most definitive study and interpretation to date. According to the Learning Centre aboriginal tour guides and teachers at the site, while the glyphs are important they are not the primary spiritual significance that make this site sacred. The rock site itself is a sacred place, and is even today a place of pilgrimage for pious Ojibwa people in the neighbourhood.


 IV. Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, Alberta


Áísínai’pi in southern Alberta is one of the most important spiritual sites for the Niitsítapi or Blackfoot People. The Niitsítapi associate spirit powers with the weathered hoodoos and cliffs of the valley and with the nearby Kátoyissiksi (Sweetgrass Hills). Áísínai’pi, known in English as Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, contains the largest concentration of rock art images on the Great Plains. These images are an expression of the meeting of this spirit world with the physical world of the Niitsítapi.

Despite the lack of rock surfaces on the Prairies, petroglyphs and pictographs are an important prehistoric art form of southern Saskatchewan and Alberta. Many pictographs have been found on isolated boulders and rocky outcrops along the foothills near Calgary. At Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in southern Alberta, there is an extensive series of small-scale petroglyphs incised on the sandstone bluffs of the Milk River. They depict spiritual icons such as Thunderbird or shaman figures. Some narratives have also been illustrated: this is the case of a complex, four-metre long battle scene showing a camp circle, mounted warriors, tipis, guns, and shot. The petroglyphs sometimes show evidence of contact with Europeans, since horses, men bearing guns, and wheeled carts are found.

There is evidence that the Milk River Valley was inhabited by native people as long ago as 9000 years. Native tribes such as the Blackfoot probably created much of the rock carvings (petroglyphs) and paintings (pictographs). Other native groups such as the Shoshone also travelled through the valley and may have also created some of the art. These carvings and paintings tell not only of the lives and journeys of those who created them, but also of the spirits they found here. The towering cliffs and hoodoos had a powerful impact on the native visitors, who believed these were the homes of powerful spirits. The shelter of the coulees and the abundance of game and berries made the area that is now the park an excellent location for these nomadic people to stop on their seasonal migrations. While the greatest use of the area was made by those in transit, there is some evidence, including tipi rings and a medicine wheel, that there was some permanent settlement here.