When four French schoolbys stumbled over the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux in 1940, they brought to light one of mankind’s oldest and best kept art treasures. One youngster was so enthralled, and so impressed by their significance that he became guide and guardian of the cave until his death in 1989.
The paintings have been dated to between 15,000 – 25,000 years BC, and were done at a time when the primary colours of red and yellow were visible to the human eye. Yes, for a time, certainly as far back as 100,000 years BC, man perceived only one primary colour – red – and it was only much later that yellow pigments became noticed and used in art. Green pigments, too, would have been in plentiful supply, and were every bit as long lasting as the reds and yellows, but did not appear until much later in our history.
Language also mirrors the evolution of man’s highly developed colour sense: the colour blue – while perceived and used in art by the Egyptians by around 3000 BC – did not appear in Greek and other Western civilisations until later, showing that evolution can vary between societies.
In the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita and the Zend Avesta the word blue is never mentioned once, while red and gold crop up frequently. In the original Bible, the sky and heaven are mentioned more than 430 times, but no mention is ever made of its most striking and obvious feature – its brilliant colour. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were composed in a part of the world where the sky is bluest of all, and so striking that even modern tourists often stand transfixed on the airport tarmac, hardly able to take in its depth and brilliance – but in all those hundreds of pages its stunning colour is never mentioned once, by the most poetic man of their time!
Many scholars still puzzle over this as they are unable to appreciate that evolution cannot happen all at once; a recent BBC show suggested blue was never named by earlier societies because it was out of reach. And yet the obvious implications of Democritus’ reference to the “tri coloured rainbow” (red, yellow and orange) or Homer’s “wine dark sea” are never explained.
Remember people from earlier eras, even if limited by tools and perception, were as inventive and observant as we are today: consider these beautifully observed caricatures from France’s La Marche caves, dated at around 14,000 years ago: bandanas, hats, and an amusing view of an older man are recorded with considerable skill:
The dilemma of the modern scientist is that they simply try to fit ancient eyes into a modern perspective: the sun, moon, stars and even the wind were also out of reach, yet there are names for these in all languages going back as far as research allows. We give names to what is important to us – and the stunning blue of the sky would be all around humanity from birth to death since the dawn of time. The only possible answer is that they named the sky but never the blue of it because to them it was simply a shade of gray, perhaps with a faint hint of red where it turns to purple overhead, being thinnest to our eyes and interfering least between us and the endless expanse of space.
Far from being overlooked, blue later became a highly important colour during the Italian Renaissance: the manufacture of ultramarine, named literally as “beyond the sea” – from Afghanistan – out of lapis lazuli (or “sky stone”) was such an expensive process that it was paid for by the client rather than the artist, and reserved for sacred elements of a picture such as Mary’s clothing.
The history of language explains further: all the words for blue emerged from earlier words for black:
For example, the English “blue” and German “blau” descend from a word that meant black. The Chinese “Hi-u-an”, which now means sky-blue, used to mean black. The word “nil”, which in Persian and Arabic now means blue, is derived from the name Nile, or black river, of which the same word in Latin, Niger, is also a form. (Max Mueller)
As further evidence of continuing evolution, consider that about 1% of people today, mainly women as it happens, are not trichromats – seeing three primary colours – but tetrachromats. This means the chemistry and electrical signalling systems of the retinal cells (so complex is the elctro-chemistry behind this stuff that it took chemists decades to decipher the mechanism of our retina’s existing opsin molecules) as also the processing and perceptual areas of the brain have all evolved in tandem – a staggering achievement considering the interrelated complexity and differentiated construction of all these systems, and that it has to be done imperceptibly while the systems are in use.
What are these colours? We can’t tell what they are, or even be told, because we have no words to describe them. But they would no doubt extend beyond blue and violet into formerly invisible wavelengths, and will become the common property of the future man just as we hold trichromatic vision to be an ordinary occurrence today, though as in all relatively recent evolutionary developments, there are some who lag behind and do not see the full spectrum as we do.
But anyway, about Lascaux. Much mystery has been made about the puzzling symbols which accompany these fabulous – and very large – paintings, for which templates and scaffoldings were required, and stone and bone lamps too. But remember that these painters were, to a large extent, us. They had a similar sense of humour – as their cartoons indicate. They had ingenuity and pride. So here’s the explanation of these puzzling marks, which sometimes repeat themselves and each which clearly cannot be fashioned by adjustments into any other such mark:
They are the signatures of the artists. Who would spend weeks or months on a beautiful work of art, risking their neck with unreliable lights high above the ground, then let someone else collect the credit? Of course, they are the signs of the individual artists. In an example below, the ochre is marked as the work of “M” while the specialist black airbrushing, done via a hollow bone, is signed with a stylised “T” or “H”.
As far as I know, this is the earliest use of a symbolic alphabet and means we might owe the development of written symbols to artists first and foremost. Remember that mental evolution was remarkably slow until recent times: for example I understand that traders used a numeric code by 9,000 BC but the idea of using those numbers alongside images of containers to represent sheep or bags of corn did not appear until 3,000 BC. That’s very very slow.
But this character-based identification is quite common in that society: for example, what good would it be to participate in a hunt in which a dozen or more men armed with bows and arrows could all claim to have shot the crucial arrow or spear? Obviously tips were marked so the warrior could be identified and given credit:
And tools were marked the same way. Here we see a bone lamp marked as in a library card, allowing for multiple owners but ensuring the identity of the current owner was not in any doubt:
The letters and signatures may seem crude to us, but they are bursting with pride and ingenuity. So important was creating art and the identification of artwork to a particular artist that these urges provided the spark for a gigantic leap into the symbolic representation of the human identity. It’s a tradition that has lasted throughout the centuries to this very day. Hats off to these brilliant souls!
One final observation: is it possible crafty old Michelangelo – always fearing the “second death” – the fading from memory of an artist’s works long after his body had pased into oblivion from the “first death” – managed to work a massive, repeating “M” into his Sistine Ceiling?
Knowing artists.. I wouldn’t put it past him!