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Magdalenian fauna and art.

When the ancestors of present-day man arrived in Europe, one of the innovations they brought with them was artistic expression. From the beginning of the upper Palaeolithic period, some 30,000 years ago, coinciding with the final millennia of the Wurm Glacial Stage, man began to leave evidence of his ability to fashion symbols or images of the environment around him, although the Magdalenian period, which represents the culmination of Palaeolithic art, dates back to between 19,000 and 11,000 years ago, and, geographically, is almost exclusively confined to a relatively small area of south-west Europe.

The humans of the Upper Palaeolithic culture were hunting peoples, who produced characteristic artifacts (small-sized flint tools and all manner of implements, in particular harpoon tips and needles, making considerable use of reindeer bones and antlers), while at the same time regional and chronological variations can be noted. Shells and perforated stones--perhaps for personal adornment--marked with lines arranged in a sequence, or in a more or less regular order, represent the oldest expressions of plastic art. The earliest traces left by man, in several caves in Europe, can be dated back to as early as the beginnings of the Aurignacian culture, some 27,000 years ago: there were black and white outlines of human hands, drawings of geometric figures or outlines of animals drawn in the soft clay with a finger or stick, the edges of which were sometimes highlighted with a kind of pigment, and engravings in the rock of geometric or zoomorphic figures, which were also often highlighted by pigmentation. At the same time, a wide range of objects, from propellers to needles, including what appear to be buttons and maces, were decorated by their users with engravings, embossments and small sculptures, which were, increasingly, images of animals. Also belonging to this period of between 27,000 and 20,000 years ago are the small female figures known as "Venuses," often sculpted from reindeer antler or mammoth ivory, and whose sexual features are exaggeratedly enlarged, while the rest of the body is executed in a more schematic fashion (there are no facial characteristics, and the arms are mere outlines, often resting on enormous breasts, etc.). These have been discovered in many parts of Europe, from the Garonne (the Lespugue venus) to the Don (the Borodino and Kostenki-Borshevo venuses).

The paintings, engravings, reliefs, and sculptures left by Magdalenian man in dozens of caves in the Cantabrian Mountains, the Pyrenees, and in some of the neighboring areas, are truly astonishing. For the Magdalenian hunters did not confine themselves, as their forefathers had, to making utilitarian tools to enable them to fulfil their most basic needs, such as finding food, defending themselves from pillagers, and protecting themselves from the hostile cold in a Europe in the throes of the last great glacial period. They were also responsible for works of artistic expression, which strike us as impressive even today, despite the fact that their culture was so different, that many millennia separate us from them, and we find it difficult to grasp the full significance of the paintings, engravings and sculptures in the caves or of the small objects that they sculpted and decorated, so characteristic of their culture.

It would appear that the Magdalenian hunters lived, during a period from 16,500 to 11,000 years ago, in a relatively limited area of western Europe, which included the length of the Atlantic seaboard free of ice at that time--the area from the Iberian Peninsula as far as Belgium and the south of Great Britain--, and in the hinterland extending from the Mediterranean coast of the Iberian Peninsula and of Occitania, to the Elbe basin. Caves with paintings are most densely concentrated in the area extending from Asturias, in the north of the Iberian Peninsula, to Perigord, in the west of Occitania, and from the old canton of Foix at the source of the Garonne in France. Further east, other hunting peoples of what was probably a Magdalenian-like culture hunted mainly mammoths, and built huts in the middle of the frozen steppes with the bones and skins of these animals. To the south of the Urals, in the Shulgan-Tash cave (better known by its Russian name, the Kapova cave), on the right bank of the river Belaya, at Bashkiriya, 3,107 mi (5,000 km) from the nearest western European cave, other humans, who were more or less contemporaries of the Magdalenians, also left evidence of artistic expression.

The fame of Magdalenian art is mainly due to the painted figures of animals, which are almost all extinct today. These images are often so realistic, drawn in such detail and so faithfully portrayed, that it is extremely easy to identify the species depicted: bison in Altamira, horses and bulls in Las Caux, deer, mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, reindeer, goats and even birds in several caves. Magdalenian man has left us evidence of the fauna, which he himself helped to wipe out, completing the work of Neanderthal man before him, and adding to the effects of the climatic changes of the final glacial stage on animals that had adapted to habitats, only to see them progressively change until they were completely transformed. The mammoth, which for millennia had suffered the attacks of Neanderthal hunters, and had been driven north by the climatic changes, is only depicted in one Iberian cave (at Castillo, in Cantabria, where it has been possible to date positively two Magdalenian paintings to 13,060 [+ or -] 200 and 12,910 [+ or -] 180). Even so, objects of mammoth ivory and remains of this animal appear up until almost the beginning of the Neolithic period in more northerly locations, such as the open-air site at Gonnersdorf, near Koblenz, in the Rhineland. Here, mammoth remains have been found, dating 11,00012,000 years ago as well as engravings in slate of the animal, which became extinct in Eurasia some 10,000 years ago (the most recent remains, found at Kunda, in Estonia, date back to 9,780 [+ or -] 260 years ago). At Shulgan-Tash there also appear various drawings of mammoths, together with horses and woolly rhinoceroses.

It is curious to observe that the reindeer is not among the animals most featured in Magdalenian wall paintings, since it was clearly an important natural resource for the Magdalenian culture; as well as its meat, use was made of its bones and antlers, and probably of its skin as well, and thus it appears to be the animal that was most hunted and sought after by Magdalenian man. For this reason, the initial interpretation of the cave paintings by Henri Breuil (1887-1961), who suggested that they represented an invocation of a magic or religious nature, made in order to secure a successful hunt, is by and large rejected today, and even though this theory is not ruled out, it is more widely thought that it could be linked with a facet of the social structure of the peoples, among whom this form of artistic expression developed. Today, although it has not become totally extinct, the reindeer lives in regions that are markedly different from those it used to cohabit with Magdalenian hunters, since during the glacial periods the northern regions, where it now lives, were occupied by the Arctic polar cap.

More frequently drawings have been found of other large herbivores, which were abundant in Europe at that time, but which are now rare or already extinct, such as bison (only to be found today as a few populations in Poland and Byelorussia, and in zoos), horses (apart from domesticated horses, only a few groups of these survive in Mongolia), bulls (of which only domesticated breeds survive), and deer (it would appear that the giant deer Megaloceros giganteus, which is probably the animal depicted by the Magdalenian painters, became extinct during the Middle Ages in Ireland, where it had taken final refuge). Occasionally woolly rhinoceroses appear in the Magdalenian paintings (these probably became extinct between 14,000 and 12,000 years ago, although some sources believe that a few remaining groups survived in the Ukraine and in south Russia up until 3,000 years ago), and, more rarely, carnivores such as bears and felines are found. Very occasionally there are images of birds and fish.

In contrast with the faithful and detailed portrayal of the animal figures, human figures appear much less frequently, and are treated in a much more schematic fashion by Magdalenian painters: examples are the black and white outlines of hands, engravings of human heads, and the so-called "sorcerer" of the Lo Tuc d'Audobert cave, in the old canton of Foix. These drawings depicting human subjects never reach the degree of expressiveness achieved by the famous venuses that preceded them.
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Publication:Encyclopedia of the Biosphere
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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