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Palaeolithic images and the Great Auk.

In this final contribution on the identification of the birds painted in the Palaeolithic Grotte Cosquer as Great Auks, it is noticed that the birds need to be seen within a Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer's view of the world, which is not the same as that of a modern natural historian or taxonomist.

D'Errico, writing on the avian forms in the Grotte Cosquer (1994a; 1994b) presents the thesis that they represent Great Auks; he quotes one of us correctly as saying that the birds in the engraved panel from El Pendo (Cantabria, Spain) look like 19th-century illustrations of the extinct Great Auk, Pinguinus impennis (Eastham 1968). Because of the similarity, we had not questioned Breuil's 1912 remarks on the El Pendo engravings (later in Breuil 1952: 348) in calling one of the birds a pingouin, is a name we knew was usually but not always translated as Garefowl or Great Auk; and the bones of Great Auks are known from chronologically compatible Upper Palaeolithic levels. Now we are no longer sure that the ambiguity d'Errico detects behind the name pingouin is a fault. Whatever the intentions of the Palaeolithic draughtsman, we have no reason to suppose that the characteristics represented in the picture were chosen to signify a certain Species, as defined by modem zoologists. Palaeolithic categories had no cause to follow our Linnaean rules.

Auks as a family were demonstrably of economic significance to Upper Palaeolithic communities within foraging distance of sea-cliffs. We found the distinctive Great Auk bones in Wurm I levels at Gibraltar, and in late-glacial levels at Nerja, Malaga (Eastham 1986) and Urtiaga, Guipuzcoa (Spain) (unpublished), and numerous finds are reported in the literature (Casoli et al. 1985). We have also found Guillemot, Black Guillemot, Puffin and Little Auk. At Inch da Damph, near Loch Assynt, Scotland (unpublished), a glacial site excavated in the 1920s, all the species were found together.

Great Auks - `larger than a goose' (Grieve 1885), bearing great quantities of valuable fat as well as flesh and feathers, and thoroughly colonial - were easy to cull in such numbers as finally to exterminate the species. El Pendo is within 14 km, or 2 1/2 hours' walk, of sea-cliffs which dominate deep inshore waters with abundant cold-current fish: a likely Great Auk habitat.

The other type of bird to which the French name pingouin refers, the Southern Ocean penguins, does not pass through equatorial latitudes today. That ambiguity in the French word reminds us that there is no simple match between the creatures painted on Palaeolithic cave-walls and the species represented in bones. Caprid bones are absent from Upper Palaeolithic sites around the Gironde estuary, but animals with ibex-like horns appear on the walls of Pair non Pair (Delpech 1993); mammoth and rhinoceros, absent from the middens, appear on the walls of Ardeche caves (Combier et al. 1958; Chauvet et al. 1995).

The Eurasian Bittern, Botaurus stellaris, is suggested by McDonald (1994: 853-4; figure 3) as the subject of the El Pendo engraving. Like the other Ardeidae, it does not appear to have been of economic or other significance to western European Palaeolithic peoples. Part of a Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax, mandible may have been found in Middle Palaeolithic levels at Lazaret, Nice (Mourer-Chauvire 1975). and a Grey Heron, Ardea cinerea, femur was found by one us among bones from Magdalenian levels at Dufaure (Eastham in press). Their absence from El Pendo - and other French and Spanish Palaeolithic sites - is not surprising, although birds might have been taken from the marismas of the now-canalized Rio de la Mina, 2-3 km from El Pendo. An adult Bittern, weight 1-2 kg, carries little flesh, less fat, and no feathers of special form or colour. Solitary and territorial, it could not be killed repeatedly or in the mass. Identifications for the Palaeolithic, again, need to notice these concerns, as well as the form of the creature known to the modern enthusiast bird-watcher.

The Atlantic cormorants, Phalacracorax carbo and P. aristotelis, and the Gannet, Sula basssanus, also fit characteristics seen in the El Pendo birds, though none appears so frequently in midden deposits as the Great Auk: we have seven finds of cormorants and five of Gannet from Upper Palaeolithic sites. The cormorants, living in small groups and weighing only 2-3 kg, are the less profitable, and only mentioned here because Barandiaran's drawing (1980; reproduced as McDonald 1994: figure 6) shows a head shape which conveys the impression of the crest of a Shag, P. aristotelis. Gannet, 2.5-3.5 kg and nesting in colonies, have been taken for oil and are still taken for food, as gugas on the nest and as adults when satiated from feeding.

The palaeontological evidence increases the possibility the El Pendo and perhaps also the Cosquer images were drawn after colonies of auks or perhaps gannets near the caves, but it does not confirm that they were.

The El Pendo images, lightly engraved, are difficult to see. Moving a light-source around reveals a large number of engraved lines - many more than can be seen with it in the position illuminating the figure traced first by Breuil in 1908. Wrapping his tracing paper round the rock-surface, Breuil flattened out and reduced the drawing for publication; it is almost impossible to match his lines with those seen by later draughtsmen or by ourselves. We think we discerned many more birds engraved on the cave wall than we were able to plot in our drawing, or are reproduced by either Breuil or Barandiaran - some standing, others horizontal, two opposed beak-to-beak in a fashion frequently seen among birds nesting in colonies.

The only factor in favour of reading the El Pendo engravings as Great Auks is their large size. The relative dimensions of the shapes and of the space available for observers create the impression of birds as large as or larger than, say, the Gannets nesting on Grassholm when one is amongst them on the rock; they are much larger than auks appear to be, seen either from the sea below or from the cliff-top above nesting ledges at Skomer or Skokholm.

The balance is swayed the other way, against an unequivocal reading, by the fact that many Upper Palaeolithic animal representations are indeterminate, with the attributes of more than one species conflated into one image. The Pindal fish refers to at least two distinct species (Leroi-Gourhan 1968: 523), one Pech Merle image has characteristics of four species (Lorblanchet 1989) and there are similar oddities elsewhere (Clottes 1989; 1990). This can only happen if the characteristics by which we designate species are unimportant or ignored by the draughtsman.

A drawing - and to some extent a photograph (since selection is involved in both) - reproduces what is perceived and what is wanted in the depiction. The images hint at Upper Palaeolithic forms of classification. At Les Trois Freres, Max Begouen, Michel Bouillon and ourselves discussed the two birds with a chick that could be snowy owls and are clearly predators of some sort. The depiction of these birds shows both eyes, fitting a pattern in which human beings and predators are shown on cave walls with two eyes, while food species have to make do with one. Hunters would probably have classified according to their expectations of behaviour and reward, grouping together animals which happened to migrate along the same paths, breed in the same location or produce a particular essential resource.

It is not appropriate to be precise in identifying Palaeolithic images. An identification of the El Pendo and Cosquer panels as auks or as seabirds nesting colonially is more reasonable than assigning them more narrowly to Pinguinus impennis - even though the excavated middens show that more Great Auk were taken by Palaeolithic hunters than any other species the drawings might represent.


Barandiaran, J. 1980. Los grabados parietales, in J. Gonzalez Echegaray (ed.), El yacimento de la cueva de `El Pendo' (excavaciones 1953-57), Bibliotheca Praehistorica Hispana 17:257-61. Breuil, H. 1952. Four hundred centuries of cave art. Montignac. Casoli, P.F. & G.S. Aldo. 1985. L'alca impenne Alca impennis del Pleistocene d'Italia, Atti 3 [degrees] Convegno Italiono di Ornitologia: 251-4. Chauvet, J.M., E. Brunel-Deschamps & C. Hillaire. 1995. La Grotte Chauvet. Paris: Editions du Seuil. Clottes, J. 1989. The identification of human and animal figugres in European Palaeolithic art, in Morphy (ed.): 21-56. 1990. The parietal art of the Late Magdalenian, Antiquity 64: 527-48. Combier, J., E. Drouot & P. Huchard. 1958. Les grottes solutreennes a gravures parietales du canyon inferieur de l'Ardeche, Memoires de la Societe Preshistozique Francaise 5: 61-117. Delpech, F. 1993. Les faunes du Paleolithique superieur dans le Sud-Ouest de la France. Paris: CNRS. D'Errico, F. 1994a. The birds of Grotte Cosquer, Antiquity 68: 38-47, 856-58. 1994b. Birds of Cosquer Cave, the Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis) and its significance during the Upper Palaeolithic, Rockart Research 11: 45-57. Eastham, A. 1968. The avifauna of Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar, Bulletin of the Institute of Archaeology 7: 37-42. 1986. The birds of the Cuevade Nerja, in F. Jorda Pardo (ed.), La prehistoria de la Cueva de Nerja (Malaga): Paleolitico superior y Epipaleolitico. Trabajos sobre la Cueva de Nerja 1: 109-27. Malaga: Patronato de la Cueva de Nerja. In press. Les oiseaux, in L. Straus (ed.), Abri Defaure. Paris: Societe Prehistorique Francaise. Grieve, S. 1885. The Great Auk, or Garefowl Alca impennis, its history, archaeology and remains. London: Thomas C. Jack. Leroi-Gourhan, A. 1968. The art of prehistolic man in western Europe. London: Thames & Hudson. Lorblanchet, M. 1989. From man to animal and sign in Palaeolithic art, in Morphy (ed.): 109-43. McDonald, J.F. 1994. Identifying Great Auks and other birds in the Palaeolithic art of western Europe: a reply to d'Errico, Antiquity 68: 850-58. Morphy, H. (ed.). 1989. Animals into art. London: Unwin Hyman. Mourer-Chauvire, 1975. Les oiseaux du Pleistocbne Moyen et Superieur de France. Lyons: Laboratoires de Geologie de la Faculte des Sciences de Lyon. Document 64.
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Author:Eastham, Anne; Eastham, Michael
Date:Dec 1, 1995
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