The art of caves finally deciphered? “The parameters converge towards an original myth, that of primordial emergence”

Interpretation of cave art has been an obsession since the 19th century.e century. It is also that of the anthropologist, mythologist and prehistorian Jean-Loïc Le Quellec who, unlike researchers of past centuries, has digital technologies to study the first myths of humanity.

Author of some forty books, including one critical dictionary of mythology (with Bernard Sergent, CNRS Editions, 2017) and Before us the deluge! Humanity and its myths (Return, 2021), this emeritus research director at the CNRS is in particular a specialist in the rock art of the Sahara. It is from a mythological starting point that this member of the Institute of African Worlds interprets parietal art. His latest book, The original cave, Art, myths and first humanities (La Découverte, 888 pages, 35 euros) is presented as a sum summarizing all the literature written on the subject. He tries to overcome it with a new thesis.

What enigma did you seek to elucidate in this massive work, which marks the culmination of your research on mythology and parietal art?

A question about the nature of the mythology that could have motivated cave art had been running through my mind since the Critical Dictionary of Mythology. This art is a fascinating branch of prehistoric art, which also includes outdoor rock art (made on rocks) and portable art (on supports that can be moved, such as statuettes).

The so-called “parietal” art, practiced on the walls of caves, first responds to much more enigmatic issues, since its practice involves immense dangers and difficulties: you have to sink deep into cavities by bending and while crawling, at the risk of slipping into chasms, then drawing with very little light. A question tormented me: why bother to draw in a cave when you can do it elsewhere?

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What did these Paleolithic artists represent?

In total, there are about 20,000 images in the caves. Parietal art is made up of two categories: half of these drawings whose meaning escapes us (like lines and dots) are qualified as “signs” ; another half consists of identifiable images. Among the latter, the vast majority represent animals, which are most often cattle and horses. For the rest, there are also drawings relating to human representations, such as hands and vulvae. On the other hand, whole sections of reality are absent, in particular plants and landscapes.

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The art of caves finally deciphered? “The parameters converge towards an original myth, that of primordial emergence”