Thursday, October 26, 2006

Cosquer Revisited - ASU lecture

On Tuesday night, Jean Clottes presented a talk entitled "Cosquer Revisited" at Arizona State University. The event was organized by Elisabeth Culley and Peter Welsh of the Deer Valley Rock Art Center, and sponsored by the newly formed School of Human Evolution and Social Change, which is my academic unit at ASU. It was a great, very enjoyable talk. Clottes is a lively and engaging speaker, he is intimately familiar with all the recent discoveries, and the topic of Paleolithic cave art always makes for intereting and visually gripping presentations.

In addition to detailing ongoing work at Cosquer, Clottes discussed findings at Cussac (which contains a slew of human burials of Gravettian age) and Chauvet, as well as another, unnamed and recently discovered Gravettian-age painted cave. All this will be published in time, but it sure was very nice to get a glimpse of ongoing research and recent discoveries. Beyond detailing the kinds of paintings and engraving found at the site, he also argued that men, women and children all can be shown to have contributed to the creation of the wonderful art preserved at the site, thanks to an anlysis of Cosquer's hand stencils and prints.

Perhaps the most controversial and stimulating aspect of the Cosquer talk was that in which Clottes discussed the intentional scraping off of sections of the cave wall and intentional breaking of stalagmites. Similar behaviors have allegedly been documented in some North American caves where prehistoric people intentionally collected calcium carbonate that was subsequently ground into powder for human consumption for its medicinal properties. I'd never heard about this, and am not familiar at all with this literature. But, if it can be shown that the Cosquer artists did the same thing, that would constitue, to the best of my knowledge, the earliest documented instance of the collection of pharmacopeia in the archaeological record. Clottes clearly mentioned that this was just a tentalizing working hypothesis at the moment, but since none of the wall scrapings or broken stalagmite sections were recovered in the cave, it does appear that this material was intentionally taken away from the site. Fascinating stuff.

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