A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Despite the title of his lavish and informative book, Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Humankind (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003; $45), archaeologist Randall White dislikes the word "art" when applied to the paintings, engravings, sculptures, and adornments that hunting-and-gathering humans have created since the Upper Paleolithic. Maintaining that art as we define it would have had no meaning for these early people, White prefers the weighty term "representation."
By whatever name, this imaginative capacity to create marks a watershed in human evolution that enabled our species to survive and succeed in new environments around the world. Through "visual thinking," humans could reconfigure nature in their own terms and fashion individual or social identities and shared systems of belief.
Even a brief perusal of the more than 200 objects depicted in Prehistoric Art underscores White's conviction that, whether on a cave wall or from a lump of clay, these were indeed "meaningful objects shaped by human hands." His survey of 40,000 years of symbolic imagery and ornamentation of preagricultural peoples describes the enormous diversity and distinctive features of prehistoric art from six continents. An ambitious undertaking, given that more than 50,000 such objects exist from Europe alone.
White succeeds in appealing to both general readers and those who know their Gravettians from Magdalenians. Among the crisp color photographs are the bulls of Altamira, the rhinos of Chauvet, and the terra-cotta menagerie from Dolni Vestonice. Less familiar figures also appear, such as a colorful array of female statuettes from Grimaldi, Italy, and 43,000-year-old pierced bear and fox teeth from Bacho Kiro, Bulgaria. White specializes in beads and other personal ornaments made of lustrous materials--ivory, shell, and teeth--so they receive a good deal of attention.
At times stiffly academic, White's writing can also evoke a sensation ("the smell of humid limestone confronted by the smoldering, sizzling juniper wick of a fat-burning lamp") that places the reader at the moment of artistic creation.
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