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Clayton Eshleman

The work that follows is from Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld (Wesleyan University Press, 2003), a compendium of Eshleman’s thirty-year project to wrest a primal poetics from the Ice Age cave art of southwestern Europe. Eliot Weinberger writes of this: "As a result of his literal and imaginative explorations of the painted and gouged caves, Eshleman has constructed a myth, perhaps the first compelling post-Darwinian myth: that the Paleolithic represents the ‘crisis’ of the human ‘separating out’ of the animal, the original birth and original fall of man. From that moment, human history spins out: from the repression of the animal within to the current extinction of the animals without: the inversion from matriarchy to patriarchy, and the denial of the feminine; the transformation of the fecund underworld into the Hell of suffering; and the rising of Hell, in the twentieth century, to the surface of the earth: Dachau, Hiroshima. The poet’s journey is an archetypal scenario of descent and rebirth: he has traveled to the origin of humanness to reach the millennium, end and beginning."


It is impossible to know today when something that we would recognize as narrative began to occur in human life. It is possible that it came about as a result of the invention of nightlife (social life at night–as well as caves transformed by image-making into underworlds), on the basis of the institution of fire. According to Louis Leakey, "before that, like birds or baboons, with the fall of darkness we sought our perch. Our daytime lives were pragmatic, absorbed with the echoes of survival. The leisure of the evening was for the human being a new ecological niche. There was the security of the shelter or cave, and the social focus of the fire that fascinates us yet today. Here talk became a pleasure, not a necessity. The day’s adventure of the hunt could be told and retold, while children listened and learned. Memories were enhanced, myths began to take form."

When we look for evidence of the seeds of narrative, we come upon Neanderthal burying his dead in ochre-lined pits, on pine boughs and covered with wild flowers at around 60,000 B.P. By tying the corpse up so that it looked as if it were being buried in foetal position, Neanderthal may have been sensing the earth as both womb and tomb. He also may have been trying to prevent the formation of a ghost, for the tied-up corpses were sometimes covered with heavy slabs. The only marks Neanderthal made were small cup-shaped gouges on the undersides of burial slabs or on rocks, and while such gougings are evocative of concave female space, they also may be no more "narrative" than a two-year-old chipping at the wall with a pencil, simple to act on matter, to affect the outside.

It is not until around 35,000 B.P. that we find evidence for the beginning of the liberation of the autonomous imagination. Much of this evidence comes from southwestern France and northern Spain, and was done by our direct ancestors, the Cro-Magnon people–consisting of finger doodling in soft clay, incised weapons and tools, sculpture, engravings, and paintings in rock shelters or caves. While cup-shaped gouges, engraved vulvas, and vague animal parts are at one of the Upper Paleolithic spectrum, at the other end we find large, polychromatic frescos of astutely perceived animals, involving shading, perspective, outlining, and movement.

I believe that what we call image-making and, consequently, art, was the result of the crisis of the separation of the hominid from the animal to the distinct but related classifications of the human and the animal. What resulted in image-making when and where it did probably has much to do with Ice Age condition–a considerable dependence on animals for survival (through Cro-Magnon seldom depicted red deer, his main food source), as well as the effect of severe and prolonged cold on a body that originally evolved under temperate and even tropical conditions. Seemingly suddenly, at around 32,000 B.P. these people began to put the animalness they were losing (or really, had lost), yet were utterly dependent upon, onto the cave walls–often in the depths of caves they did not live in, in barely reachable places. Consciousness, as I am thinking of it here, seems to be the upswing of a "fall" from the seamless animal web, in which a certain amount of sexual energy was transformed into fantasy energy, and the loss partially and hauntingly compensated for by dreaming and imagining–processes not directly related to survival.


The first images of which we have record appear to be crudely gouged vulvas and possibly phalluses mixed with vague animal indications, as well as thousands of seemingly nonreferential meandering lines, dots, and other signs, alone or in various formations. While we now know that sophisticated techniques were invented at very early dates, and that monolithic linear theory of aesthetic development can account for regional differences occurring over a 25,000 year time span in a land mass ranging from southern Spain to Siberia, it appears that the human image emerged as if sighted as a potential in these labyrinths of lines and body parts, often in one of these image situations:

1. The potential human appears to be a satirized, bestialized, phantasmal hominid with no clear sender. Such terms indicate that with a few exceptions, man throughout the Upper Paleolithic did not recognize himself, in comparison to the fleshed-out details of his animal renderings.

2. Woman, less often depicted on cave walls than man, is, unlike man, carved into free-standing miniature sculpture, the so-called "Venus" statuettes. Many are small enough to fit in the hand, and many, but not all, are also footless and faceless (or in Willendorf’s case, the face is covered with an entwined rope, which begins at the vertex and winds in spirals around the whole head). Many are obese, with a thick mid-lower body girdle of buttocks, stomach, and breasts. The so-called "shameless Venus" appears to never have had a head.

3. Man begins to appear as a dancing, elfin intruder in engraved assemblies of wandering lines and realistic animals. While the anatomy indicates a masculine human being, he is either part animal, or garbed in animal, a camouflaged piece of shattered hominid/animal mosaic. At 15,000 B.P. man appears as a small, insistent wedge, relative to weather and fauna a mere fleck, but a fleck with a point, a foreign element capable of running a fracture through the whole log, so to speak, at a certain depth of insertion with the grain.

In nearly every case, the human figure is masked (or headless) and appears to be moving (dancing behind or before animals, or bending over in file)–or, as in the case of the "Venus" statuettes, has been tapered as if to be fixable in the ground (several were discovered in such a position). Two narrative prototypes may be gleaned here:

--the masked, dancing shaman as Coyote or Shiva, the trickster/transformational hero of myths all over the world, constantly in stasis-defying motion, in contrast to

--the fixed matriarchal figure of "The Great Goddess" or "Cosmic Mother," who will become the central figure of Mesolithic and Neolithic visions of the womb that is the tomb, the contrapuntal rhythm of spring and autumn, where the natural and the human are as strands of one cycle twisted upon itself.

Cro-Magnon’s main cave wall obsession was with big herbivores, such as bison, horses, mammoths, ibexes, megaloceroses, and rhinoceroses. Bears and lions were much less depicted. These animals were initially sketched (generally in black manganese or charcoal), then sometimes painted in, as if they had been hung on the wall separately, with no relation to each other. Occasionally the animals seem to interact, for example one sniffing another’s sex, or a male nuzzling a female. There is one considerable exception to what I say here–the Lascaux Shaft "scene"–and I turn to it in a moment.


Upper Paleolithic space appears to be multidirectional, not only a world of broken interrelation where everything is in association, but also a world that is not partitioned from its material by a frame or some other boundary device. Since there seems to be no evidence for distinguishing sacred space from secular space in Upper Paleolithic imagination, it makes sense to me that some paintings were retraced, participated in again and again by people who were probably in no way related to the original painter.

One could almost say that there is no evidence in Upper Paleolithic art space of the distinctions we make between an exterior and an interior. It seems to be neither inside anything nor outside anything. On the other hand, a sense of boundary appears to be emerging within painted or engraved areas. I imagine an Upper Paleolithic frieze as a kind of whirlpool within which the flotsam and inside/outside are spinning toward me. If so, of what does this "wreckage" consist? In following out the metaphor, I come again to the animal/hominid separation as a catastrophe in the ocean of life, the ramifications of which we have hardly begun to investigate. Inside and outside, in this view, could be seen as the "shipwreck" of an inter-related life vessel.

Once we have crossing lines, a sense of the vertical and the horizontal seems incipient. S. Giedion writes:

Each of us carries to his brain a kind of secret balance which impels us unconsciously to weigh everything we see in relation to horizontal and vertical–to the rectangular. This ranges from the composition of a painting to our everyday habits. We feel slightly uneasy when our knife and fork are not laid out straight beside our plate or when the writing paper on our desk is not parallel to the blotter. But this is not the only possible conception of order. A conception not dependent upon the vertical occurs in primeval art… All directions were of equal importance… The multiformity of surfaces, with an infinite freedom or direction and perpetual chance, is at the root of all primeval art.

Giedion is perceptive here, but there are implications that freedom and chance were already being restricted. While there is no definite ground line upon which animals and humans are presented (or figures within a landscape setting), there are indications, at Lascaux, for example, the verticality/horizontality and the right angle are operative. The Rotunda at Lascaux is divided horizontally between an upper white calcite-covered level and a lower tannish limestone level. The calcite is more attractive and absorbent for painting than the limestone, so Cro-Magnon painted the animals on it. The tope of the limestone, right under many animals, running like a band throughout the Rotunda and the Axial Gallery, thus functions as a ground line. In the Axial Gallery, below the stag with fantastic antlers, there is a row of dots ending in, or beginning with, the outline of a rectangle (see cover art). In a number of other caves, there are tectiforms and brace-shaped signs, all of which involve right angles and rectangular shapes. While it is probably true that the right angle does not become a "conception of order" in the Upper Paleolithic–as it will in Egyptian representation–it is not absent.


While the Shaft in Lascaux has received more cursory attention than any other Upper Paleolithic painting site, it has, since the cave’s discovery in 1940, resisted both hunting and shamanistic interpretations. As the final extension of the Passageway and the Apse, the corridor and curved chamber that branch off the central Rotunda, the 16-foot Shaft represents the "bowels" of Lascaux. George Bataille gives an adequate description of the "scene" painted on one of its walls:

Midway down…a narrow platform brings one opposite a rock shelf (below which the Shaft continues to plunge) bearing images, on one side, of a rhinoceros and, on the other, of a bison; between them, falling or supine, is a bird-headed man; below him, a bird poised on an upright stick. The infuriated bison’s hair literally stands on end; it lashes its tail, intestines spill in thick ropes from a gash in its belly. A spear is painted diagonally across the beast’s flank, passing over the place where the wound has been inflicted. The man is naked and ithyphallic: drawn in puerile fashion, he is shown as though just felled by the bison’s two projecting horns; the man’s arms are flung wide and his four-fingered hands are open.

Bataille then quotes the Abbé Breuil, who had written that it is "a painting perhaps commemorating some fatal accident that occurred in the course of a hunt." On the basis of this hunch, Breuil looked for the hunter’s body at the foot of the stone rim above the Shaft, but he found nothing–other than some spears at the bottom of the Shaft itself, which were dated earlier than the paintings in Lascaux.

In response to Breuil, Bataille comments that the bison could not have been disemboweled by the thrust of the spear (which in the painting is clearly broken off at two-thirds of its length), and while this does not prove the man is not a hunter, it does eliminate him as the cause of the bison’s condition. I should add here that since there are no hunting scenes per se in Upper Paleolithic art, all things that look like weapons may be symbolic and relate to magic.

Bataille then quotes from H. Kirchner’s interpretation. According to the latter, it is not at all a question of a hunting accident. The prostrate man is not dead; rather, he is a shaman in the throes of an ecstatic trance. Kirchner, we are told, has drawn on the idea of "a relationship between Lascaux civilization and the Siberian civilization of our own times." A Siberian scene concerning the sacrifice of a cow is cited; posts topped by carved birds mark the road to heaven, to which the shaman will guide the sacrificed animal while he is unconscious (the birds being auxiliary spirits without whom the shaman could not undertake his aerial journey).

This interpretation might account for the man’s erection (and it also supports S. Giedion’s argument that "this bird man is in fact standing upright at the moment of supreme exaltation"), but as Bataille points out, Kirchner’s theory overlooks the bison and its wound: "that is to say, it is probably that, in a sacrifice, a bison would be disemboweled? And has not Kirchner’s theory forced him to view the rhinoceros as independent of the rest of the scene? However, if one inspects the actual Scene at Lascaux, one quickly discovers the group’s unity and similarity in treatment."

The interpretations of other writers seem to be based on fantasies concerning shamanistic rites. Andreas Lommel claims the scene is a battle between shamans,"a fight in which only one of the contestants has assumed the shape of an animal." Weston LaBarre suggests that a bird shaman has come to grief in the underground world of a reindeer shaman. François Bordes proposes that a bird-totem hunter was killed by a bison, and a man of the rhinoceros totem painted this picture of revenge: disembowelment by a rhinoceros. William Irwin Thompson states that the bison is "the Great Goddess coming to the shaman in the power vision that sets him apart from ordinary men."

While I have not been in the Shaft, I have visited Lascaux three times. On my last visit, the guide, Jacques Marsal (one of the original discoverers of the cave, who has dedicated his life to its preservation), mentioned that carbon monoxide accumulates in the Shaft because there is no air circulation. Marsal suggested a dead man may have been depicted there because the gas might have made it a lethal area.

Let’s turn back to the "scene" and reevaluate what is depicted. None of the cited interpretations take into consideration the six black dots apparently issuing from the rhinoceros’s anus–not depicted as falling, as literal dung would, but as floating toward, or in alignment with, the bird on a stick who appears to be watching the dots, and thus on a narrative level connecting the right-hand side of the "scene" to the left-hand part. The rhinoceros’s tail, turned backward, seems to be in acute contrast with the bison’s tail, flipped forward. Is it possible that these two animals signify contrasting aspects of a single image?

While the raised bison hair does suggest aggression, the animal is hardly charging or writhing, but appears to be stoically rigid, in striking contrast to the bolting, leaping and trotting animals which swarm the Rotunda and Axial Gallery. The bison’s front hooves are in geometrical alignment with its down drawn head aligned, eye to eye, with the man’s bird mask. Might there be a composition- al motif to which bison and man are being subordinated? Upper Paleolithic art has been so dominated by "the hunting hypotheses" and antithetical shaman fantasies that compositional layout has hardly been considered.

Going back to Bataille for a moment: I do not find a "gash" as the source of the spilling intestines (but do want to acknowledge his observation that the spear is laid across the bison, not plunged into or through it). The intestines, according to Leroi-Gourhan, are "given the shape of concentric ovals." Because of this they may be one of the many variations of images of the vulva, which in Upper Paleolithic art can be demonstrated to manifest itself, according to Leroi-Gourhan, as triangles, rectangles, claviforms, and ovals.

Once we begin to notice female aspects of the bison, we may be struck by the fact that the bison and the bird-headed man are, compositionally, sides of a triangle standing on its apex. The horizontal side is the flattened out bison hump and back. The left diagonal is the man’s rigid body underlined by his right arm, the head and back of the stick bird and the short, hooked object (in hunter interpretations referred to as a spear-thrower; in shamanic interpretations, no discussed). The right diagonal is made by what has been referred to as a spear. If one reads the spilled intestines as a vulva image, then the spear can be seen as a phallus. Leroi-Gourhan has offered his own evidence for an Upper Paleolithic system of gender pairing. His comments on signs on a bison at Bernifal may be relevant to the Shaft "scene":

When we consider the variants of the "arrow" and of the "wound marks," we become aware that these graphic markings can be assimilated to variant forms of the male and female signs. In other words, it is highly probable that Paleolithic men were expressing something like "spear is to penis" as "wound is to vulva." To be fully persuaded of this, it is enough to see that the bison in the central panel at Bernifal is marked on its side, not with a "wound" and "ar- rows," but with an oval vulva in double outline and two pairs of short strokes."
Here I might add that the so-called intestines in the Shaft "scene" could be described in the same words.

Thus if we think of the "intestines" as a variation of the vulva image, and keep in mind the triangular framing, the right-hand aspect of the "scene," compositionally, is a small oval vulva tangential to a large triangular one, with each diagonal of the triangle–the ithyphallic man and the spear/phallus–clearly male. While such a reading does not reduce the painting to abstract or merely geometrical "gender" art, it does interfuse the surface male shaman/hunting ambiguities with strongly feminine rudiments.

The female triangle that I have coaxed out is not a fluke; it is implied in a number of cave frescoes, in particular, the Altamira ceiling and the Chamber of the Little Bison in Font-de-Gaume. The imaged vulva is possibly the oldest and most enduring force in creative expression. It first appears with certainty before 30,000 B.P. in Aurignacian bas-relief rock shelter sculpture, and spreads forward through history as the Delta, Holy Door, Yoni Yantra, Virgin-Mother-Crone trinity, etc.

If we allow an ambiguity of interpretation in the right diagonal and do not insist on a literal spear identification, it is possible to locate it in a slightly different but possibly relevant context: There are numerous depictions of headless or masked figures of women, in profile, with protruding buttocks, slightly leaning forward, as if dancing or exposing their buttocks (the Losotho of South Africa still perform such a dance on the occasion of a girl’s menarche).

Most such figures in Upper Paleolithic art are marked or "signed," with a forceful gouge that traverses the body downward from the rump. Such a line neatly converts a rump-in-profile into a vulva viewed from the front. Such a gouge may suggest sexual maturity, availability, and/or fertility. If we now go back to the Shaft "scene," we can see how, in this context, the "spear" turns the bison’s rump into a kind of vulva seen upside down.

Given the location of the Shaft "scene"–in Lascaux’s lowest level, part of a cul-de-sac filled with noxious if not lethal gas–we might expect such a "scene" to relate to the lower body. I have mentioned earlier the ways in which the animals’ tails contrast, and that rhinoceros and bison may reflect contrasting aspects of a single image. I would now like to suggest that the female-signed bison complex is identified with fecundity, while the rhinoceros, less storied, more naturalistic, with no prominent sexual identification that I can see, is identified with fecality, and that the two together are a kind of diptych, or synthesis of eroticisms (an amphimixis, to borrow Sandor Ferenczi’s coined word from his book, Thalassa). The implication of the "scene" is that permeating magic and hunting, creation and destruction, fecundity and death–potentially all dualisms–is a shuttle, or Double Gate, ground in genital contrariety (or genital opposition, when retention is stressed at the expense of reception, or vice versa).

Linking the "panels" of this diptych are the stick bird and the black dots, or seed turds, whose relationship seems to be corroborated elsewhere. Bird and animal excrement are joined ecologically, and humanly, in at least a half dozen spear-throwers, whose carved deer are depicted, in Leroi-Gourhan’s words, "with an enormous sausage of excrement issuing from their posterior orifice, with two birds at the end of the sausage, tenderly kissing."

The failure of earlier scholars to consider, let alone integrate into their interpretations what appears to be the rhinoceros’s excrement is part of the tragic limitation if Western Christian civilization. Focused on a raised and broken man on a cross, we have lost the perspective offered by a triangle balanced on its apex, a poised life-gate, as it were, pointing down to and cathecting an underworld, which might make us comedically earthy rather than apocalyptically heaven-obsessed.

If Cro-Magnon imaginative space is multidirectional unbroken interrelation without frame of sacred/secular distinction, perhaps the experience displayed in such space is too. Maybe it is time to stop saying that the man in the Shaft is either supine/dreaming or supine dead or standing in exultation. Maybe the experience concretized here is all of those things at once, with the further implication that he is but a strut in female fecundity, and that his phallus/spear is the yang power in feminine yin suppleness, a kind of visionary resiliency felt in all realms. In this extended sense, the significance of the Shaft "scene" is not a Rashomon-like situation-tragedy in which "truth" is a never completely interlocking mosaic of contrasting viewpoints, but a significance in which all the associated surfacings fuse into an image capable of bearing the inconsistencies and contradictions that have sapped the power of the interpretational views–

Fecality wants to be born–

the fecal nature of the soul offers its berries to this bird

who will pick life

from 6 rhinoceros turds, not

off the ground, but as semaphoric pairs

in the depths of Lascaux’s


at the end of 15,000 years of image we are

gathered here, much more than we now

suspect, by black manganese turds containing

the seeds of narrative, or the berries which

like that bird we must take in our mouths and chew

to mourn a coalescence, a congruity of all we touch,

distilling from it the fundamental substance of the soul–

look, already our torso is a slack empty loop,

a kind of lariat falling nowhere, at the top of which

is the bird head we’ve desperately put on to stop

conformity to ourselves–already we are a mask

atop a watery loop of rope, heartless, organless,

but not sexless, for look, like a gash in motion

our penis is out, without terminal,

night-bathing, pronged up as if it could

match the uterine hunger of Who is that

hovering above? Looked at

through a star shower of centuries it may be Madam Death,

her forehead buried in her chest, under

her filthy black beard, lashing her tail as if she could fit

on us, with her uterine loops sounding

like bells under water the labyrinth of our already

organless dream–or is she another like us,

got up in trance, the soul of smallpox, or mange,

or the soul of our itch

to merge with a dug and forestall

the unfolding of this tight bud in which

raised rhino tail is pressed to little bird cheek

inside of which is my head my whole stiff body

a lance against which womb and colon are one mass,

thus kangaroo sac in which fluid

I am giving off is the fluid I am taking in, my eyes

half-filled green windows, a rolling

sea in the brine emptiness of this Shaft

now rotating rhino to bird to man, as the heart

tinkers with forever in the chance of putting out

while drawing in an intestinal body hard as a diamond,

spirits hurling lances through my body asleep

at the bottom of this Shaft, remaking my body,

giving me vixen power to insert stones into others,

freeing me from having only wind to pierce, woman to

pierce, bison to wear and that is why

I am talking to you this way, Shaft, remaking my body,

in which I hurtle both ways, and in that friction

to generate narrative, to make the bison teach me how to dance

their slow, swaying dance through which the shadows of

myself begin to emerge, I pin them to signs, to the paths

I am lost between, umbilical hoses, to make this substance,

this showing Emerge, monster to stop

the cascade of separating ends, yet weaving the separations,

splitting the very ends I am mourning never having

been born, to die in the belly of my mother


but for my fetal jungle.