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Friday, April 20, 2012

Lascaux Cave: Deciphering the Chinese Horse


The species of animal that captured my attention in the Lascaux cave was the Third Chinese Horse. Judging from the anatomical positioning of the limbs and the contours of the mane and thigh region, I am positive that the animal can be contributed to the equine family. However, I do not believe this animal in an ordinary horse, but possibly a wild hybrid or zebra. The problem is that zebras evolved in Africa and they are typically not the type of species roaming around France. Furthermore, the website designates this species as a Chinese Horse. I grew up with horses and my extensive knowledge of the species leads me to believe that this creature did not evolve in China. The Chinese Horse is more of a myth associated with the Samurai than an actual breed. There are Chinese horses like the Mongolian ponies, which have a likeness to the Third Chinese Horse painting at Lascaux cave, but the evolutionary time frame is completely inaccurate.

The Third Chinese Horse is located in the Axial Gallery on the right wall and is included with the Panel of Chinese Horses. The panel is located to the right of the Panel of the Falling Cow and The Red Panel. There are three Chinese Horses in total, one red cow facing left with the First Chinese Horse posterior to its rump, and another red cow appears to be upside down, located overhead the Third and Second Chinese Horses. Oddly, the Black Stag, which appears to be a reindeer, seems out of place with its curling antlers and coloration. There are also eleven dots below the finished stag, which are clearly some type of ideogram. There are twelve months in a year, but on the eleventh month, some type of ceremony or hunt must have taken place.

The Axial Gallery is inaccessible to individuals unless they know exactly where particular panels are located. The people who created the panel on the right wall must have realized this, which indicates that the scene was meant to represent a religious ceremony or a type of hunting magic. The horse is nestled behind another prehistoric equine and they are both facing the right direction. A red cow is facing left and appears to be in stride, as well as the Black Stag, that appears to be trotting. All the animals depicted in this panel have several characteristics in common. They are all quadrupeds, mammals with hooves, vegetarian, and they all require a certain amount of speed to escape predators, with the exception of the cow. The red cow is an interesting addition to this panel. Indians considered the red cow to be sacred and historically used its excrements for ritual purification. This is similar to the Hebrew Bible, which describes the ashes of a “red heifer” being used for purification (Hebrew Bible Num. 19:2). This animal may have been used in the same context during the Paleolithic.

The Third Chinese Horse does exhibit some remarkable contours as far as coloration and muscle exposure. There are thick yellow and black stripes, which reach from the back to the withers. There is also a dark coloration from the loins to the stifle and some spotting on the thighs, rump, and gaskin. This is not typical of the breed standard rumored to exist over 17,000 years ago, however DNA evidence is now suggesting otherwise. Several professors from the University of York have analyzed horse remains from several species originating in Europe and Asia. The gene that codes for the spotted horse was present over 35,000 years ago. Furthermore, the colors we see in Lascaux including the black and bay colors are clearly representative of the prehistoric species that existed during the completion of these paintings (Swift, 2011). The Third Chinese Horse is a realistic portrayal of the spotted equine during the Paleolithic period but there are some proportions on the spotted equine that are represented abstractly, or rather inaccurately, including the barrel. The barrel of a spotted horse tapers off near the elbow of the horse, and in the Lascaux cave depiction the barrel is tapered near the stifle. Every spotted horse is different of course, but anatomically this is how spotted horses appear today, and most likely appeared during the Paleolithic.

Moreover, the tail is decoratively braided high on the croup and there appears to be a tail bandage located posterior to the mid-thigh, leading me to believe this may have been an Arabian or Stallion. These horse breeds typically have tails, which reach higher on the croup, thus allowing for more flexibility in hairstyles and decorations, so the bandage makes sense in that aspect. The Romans, Greeks, and Native Americans applied tail bandages on long trips and during cavalry wars to prevent the tail from snagging on weapons. It also allowed the horse to stay cool on long marches during the hotter months.

The Third Chinese Horse is facing in the right direction. Its ears are pointed in one direction and its tail is down. This is extremely significant behavior. Horse’s ears always point in the direction in which they are paying attention to. It is not unusual for a horse to have one ear facing back and one facing forwards because their eyes allow them to look in two different locals. The Third Chinese Horse in looking forward and appears to be escaping an attack. There are two feathered arrows painted on the wall, only a few inches away from plunging into the animal. Consequently, it could represent a horse being used to trample another animal during a hunting party. We see this with Native Americans during Buffalo hunts, yet the horses do have riders, and they are more so used to coral the buffalo. The Chinese Horse is clearly a representation of power over another species using agility and intelligence.

The Upper Paleolithic peoples who painted in the Lascaux cave had a common ideology about hunting magic or religion. The culture was engrossed in ritual symbolism, and by creating some of these symbolic images, they believed that what they drew on the walls was the result of their endeavors, and not what they hoped would happen. It was a prediction in a sense, made true by writing it down and drawing it out. At Altamira in Spain, the bulls are strategically painted on the contours of the wall, making it seem like the bulls are alive. We see these parallels in artistic expression in The Great Hall of Bulls at Lascaux. The idea behind this, and the reason why only some Upper Paleolithic peoples painted on cave walls, is because there was a shared culture between them. This act of expression may not have permeated to other cultures, and if it did, their shared knowledge allowed them to produce artwork using different materials. This artwork may or may not have survived, which explains why we do not have archaeological evidence to prove geographical diffusion of particular styles of art.

It is clear to me, after viewing the cave art in Lascaux that people during the Upper Paleolithic moved about and spread out over the geographical landscape in caves, outside shelters, as well as open-air camps. The environment was exploited in various ways during the Upper Paleolithic because the amount of resources available to some cultures was vast. We find many examples of cave paintings in both France and Spain because the Upper Paleolithic people who made them chose to go underground, possibly to make them inaccessible to others. In China, Europe, and Africa, the paintings may have just disappeared, especially if they were susceptible to earth’s elements. Moreover, other cultures may have been invested more time in portable art, which has yet to be discovered.  

Take a virtual tour of Lascaux cave


5 Comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm scratching my head a bit... when was it that horses were domesticated?
I'm probably misunderstanding your blog, or what I [thought] I knew about the horse domestication time line.
Just a thought...

Lauren Axelrod said...

Are we discussing domestication here? Not exactly. These are not domesticated horses on the walls, at least that's what the consensus seems to be. The article is not about domestication though, it's about the representation of the animal as it relates to hunting magic and ritual.

Samual@taxi cab service said...

Well don't know much about it, but it was quite interesting to read this article. thanks for sharing

Anonymous said...

Still head scratching...
maybe more so since I'm confused now as to how one could manage to "decoratively braid high on the croup..." and apply "...a tail bandage..." to a wild horse? If the horse[s] depicted are not domesticated then wouldn't the references to "Romans, Greeks, and Native Americans" utilizing tail bandages on their horses be sort of like 'comparing apples & oranges'?
I think I'm just out of my league here...

Lauren Axelrod said...

I was scratching my head too, trust me. I think that it is possible that these hunters were using some sort of tie back on the horses, if they were in fact using them to hunt other animals. But again, that still doesn't make sense. Why? the horses were often the hunted, and the hunter, or the animal used to run them down so to speak, was the red bovine or bull. I think my ultimate question is where and when did horse ornamentation and hairstyles evolve? and did the Romans, Greeks, and NA model their styles on an ancient tradition?

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