PICTURE: A portion of the famous “Stag Panel” in the so-called Nave of Lascaux includes the heads of four stags, each more than three feet in height, drawn in black lines using manganese—or in the case of the stag at the left in clay. The frieze is from the hillside cave in the Dark Périgord region of France that is usually considered the most outstanding underground sanctuary from prehistoric times.

Photo: Ray Delvert
Religious ideas often seem to develop in interaction with material culture. Looking at Paleolithic art and recognizing that it is unlikely that there is only one meaning to 25,000 years of image making, it is intriguing, nevertheless, to speculate whether these magnificent Ice Age representations of animal forms, rare human figures, and mysterious signs on cave walls may be expressions of religious feelings and notions —and, indeed, may actually shape subsequent emotions and concepts by serving as “tools” for future ritual practice. In light of other interpretations of these masterpieces, for example, theories that they signal a passage from the work world to the play world in a new era of free time and abundance, suggest totemism, reflect magical practices undertaken to bring about such desired ends as a plentiful hunt, fertility, and the destruction of enemies, or express concepts related to the structure and organization of the living world, what evidence, if any, exists that innovations in material cultures may be related to developments in religious ideas and behavior? Can we infer anything from early prehistoric images about a possible link between spiritual progress and human cultural creations? Is the deep cave filled with engravings and paintings a precursor of the shrine and temple? What was the artist thinking as he or she drew? What accounts for the appearance of icons in some early prehistoric societies and not in others? Can studies of early cognition provide clues to the roots of spirituality in the underground chambers of the world? Does the content of mobiliary and parietal art, their archaeological contexts, and ethnological comparisons support a shamanic or other religious interpretation of subterranean picture making? Could the material expressions of the first biologically modern humans affect as well as reflect emerging systems of belief? Or are the productive, functional, and symbolic categories of Paleolithic art makers forever beyond our grasp? Even as experts labor to control the spread of fungi and bacteria in one world-renowned cave, France’s celebrated Lascaux in the southernmost part of the Dordogne, the Périgord Noir, thirteen scientists and theologians gather nearby in the village of Les Eyzies, the “capital of prehistory,” to explore conjectured relationships between innovations in material and spiritual cultures. Their conversation takes place under the aegis of the John Templeton Foundation.

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