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Mixed Human-Animal Representations in Palaeolithic Art:An Anthropological Perspective

By Enrico Comba

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Palaeolithic art, particularly cave art, is largely dominated by animal representations, described in a remarkable naturalistic and detailed style. This has led to an interpretation of this art as simply a description of the “natural” environment surrounding prehistoric hunter-gatherers. But a number of images and threedimensional objects are more problematic, because they show not a “realistic” description of natural beings, but hybrid figures in which human and animal characteristics are mingled and interwoven.

Taking into consideration some widespread cultural representations of huntergatherers (especially from the Americas), the scholar is solicited to put into question the usual opposition between a “nature” out there and a “culture”, identified with the world of humans, and consequently the clear boundary line separating humankind from the other animal species. Rather, in the Amerindian mythologies we can find a universal notion of an original undifferentiation between humans and animals: the original condition of both animals and men is not conceived as animality but as humanity. Each species is an envelope concealing an internal human form, visible only to those persons having special powers. The world is a highly transformational one, in which the changing of form and aspect is always possible.

Perhaps these considerations can suggest a more complex and fruitful approach to Palaeolithic art, in which the scholar must be careful not to project on the peoples of the prehistoric past some of the self-evident oppositions derived from our own cultural background, such as nature/culture, human/animal, real/fantastic, and so forth.


Mason N McLary

HABRI Central

Date 2010
Pages 11
Publisher Università di Torino
Location of Publication Turin, Italy
Conference Title IFRAO International Congress
Language English
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal roles
  2. Animals in culture
  3. Art
  4. Culture
  5. Hybrids
  6. Mythology
  7. Nature
  8. Physical environment