In 1994, three French speleologists, investigating a draught blowing from a cleft in a rock at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in the Ardèche, cleared their way into a cave entrance concealed by a rock fall for 25,000 years. What they found there is still considered to be a supreme aesthetic achievement of early art – 400 depictions of lions, horses, reindeer, musk oxen, rhinos, bears, ibex, bison, panther, aurochs and one small, engraved long-eared owl turning her head in the 270-degree rotation common to fixed-eyed, bendy-necked owls everywhere.
The high levels of radon and the carbon dioxide inside the Chauvet Caves, which may have induced hallucinatory states of mind in the painters, make them unsafe to be in for more than brief periods and only very limited access is given to archaeologists, scientists and artists. Among the latter were John Berger and Werner Herzog, both of whom made films of their visits: Berger’s Dans le silence de la grotte Chauvet and Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. In both films the narrations are quiet, almost reverential in the total silence of that immense and eerie space of glittering calcite, of stalactites and folded rock.
Herzog describes the cave as ‘the greatest discovery in human culture’, seeing the careful siting of the images and masterful use of the surfaces in their interplay with lines and light and shadow as ‘proto cinema’, beyond the static in the subtlety of their fluid movement.
For Berger, the cave manifests the human relationship with other species. He reflects on how different this relationship was for the people who created this place of beauty, born into a world where animals were supreme and the vastly more numerous ‘keepers of the world’. He records the respect and pleasure with which he believed the animals are depicted and considers the skill comparable with the work of Fra Lippo Lippi, Velázquez or Brâncuși: ‘Apparently,’ he says, ‘art did not begin clumsily. The eyes and hands of the first painters were as fine as any that came later. There was grace from the start.’
Over the long years of our emergence in the world, we’ve formulated ideas and developed narratives about how we appeared, evolved, how we might have crept slowly from the microbial soup of sea, how we might have dropped from the sky as the fabric of stars raised or fallen, how we might have begun as luminaries, actors or hapless fall guys in the machinations of others.
In many of these stories, other species are represented as neither antagonist nor prey but as gods, creators, or as intermediaries between the divine and human worlds, or as mortal figures who possess immortal powers. They may be instigators, shape-shifters, innovators, creators who play easily with our dull-witted species.
There are many types of creation myth – the near-ubiquitous flood story, or the ‘fall-of-the-sky’ story, the ‘out of chaos’ and ‘earth-diver’ story, all telling of differing ways of the world’s beginning. There are those that interweave the lives of humans, animals and birds with a cast of characters as beguiling in name and activity as the most ebullient superhero. In the creation accounts of the Tsimshian people in the Pacific Northwest we encounter ‘The One Who Walks All Over the Sky’ and his brother ‘Walking About Early’. Both appear together with their sister ‘Support of Sun’. There’s brilliant, resourceful Anansi of the Akan, a figure of moral import who has expanded beyond his origins in Ghana to become emblematic throughout Africa and the Caribbean in the form of a spider, a trickster, son of the sky god, Nyame, and Asase Ye, the earth goddess. Coyote, an almost ubiquitous figure in Native American accounts, is both hero and anti-hero, the embodiment of opposites, above all a survivor. These are qualities shared by the greatest creation myth character of all, Raven.
A few years ago, the American Public Broadcasting Service showed a short film as part of a series on corvid intelligence. Filmed in Scandinavia in the deep snow of winter, it documents the bewilderment of a fisherman whose ice-fishing catch is stolen repeatedly. As he sets his fishing line over the hole he’s cut in the ice, he’s being closely watched by a nearby raven who, as soon as he leaves, flies down to retrieve his line, pulling it up with her beak, securing it with a foot until she lands the fish. The moment when the fisherman returns to find the raven in possession of his fish is salutary and very funny as he rages ineffectually at the bird’s swift lift off with a large trout in her beak. In this short scene is every explanation of why ravens form such a large part in the creation narratives of many cultures, appearing in every mythology, or every one originating in a place where corvids are common, Scandinavia, the Baltics and Hungary, the territories of Celtic tradition, although most stories come from the cultures of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, from the Haida and Tlingit, Kwakwaka’wakw, Koyukon, Salishan, Nisga’a and Tsimshian peoples – ‘How Raven Steals the Light’, ‘How Raven Frees the Light’, ‘How Raven Gets Caught in a Lie’, ‘How Raven Invents Fire’, ‘How Raven Loses his Beak’, ‘How Raven Makes the World’. It’s clear that these stories have long constituted a basis for the teaching of social laws and moral behaviour.
As our relationship with other species evolved, so did the way we represented them. Portrayals of animals altered in form, in expression and in the materials used, as developing cultures employed media beyond the limited materials of early art – ochre, charcoal, shell, ivory, horn and bone – and, with the development of metallurgy, added bronze and iron, gold and silver. Ceramic cultures developed in China as early as 20,000 years ago and 12,000 years ago in Japan and in parts of Europe, where vases, drinking vessels and statuettes began to be decorated with zoomorphic representations of cows, goats, deer and hedgehogs.
Stones too were worked, sculpted, engraved, often depicting the lives of humans and animals together. Around 9,000 years ago in the Sahara at Dabous, in what is now Niger, two large giraffe petroglyphs were carved, the largest 6.35 metres long, as well as other animals: lions, ostrich, antelope and rhino. In China 6,000 years ago jade carving began with carefully polished and incised tools and axe heads; the culture of Liangzhu produced finely crafted figures of birds, fish and dragons. In the settlement of Çatalhüyük, in modern-day Turkey, a place now regarded as a significant transitional stage between the nomadic and the settled ways of life, paintings and reliefs of animals and birds – among them bulls, vultures and leopards, some incorporating animal teeth and horns – were found dating from 7500 bce, together with remarkable hunting scenes which seemed to portray and suggest complex relationships between human and animal, both domesticated and wild.
Memory and voice carried the words until writing developed in Sumeria around 3000 bce. In a stern political and social system that controlled the lives of the Sumerian peasantry, the cuneiform system of writing was the fortunate by-product of the Sumerian accountants’ art, expanded from the system of counters used to tally goods. After millennia of ochre and lines, shadowy handprints or faceted points of stone, writing moved humanity into a new phase with the recording of our deeds and thoughts, marking our lasting, individual presence on earth.
Alongside the monumental artwork of Sumeria, Babylon and Assyria, animals appeared on more domestic and personal items – drinking vessels, ornaments, jewellery, sash pendants and finials, belt hooks and bracelets. Cylinder seals too, those part amulet, part jewellery, part identity cards of ancient society widespread throughout the region of the Fertile Crescent, depicted gazelles, lions, snakes and other creatures, real and fabulous, made from lapis lazuli, faience, carnelian or amethyst. It is the apparent sympathy between human maker and beast in the small artefacts that beguiles, when there’s no grand political gesture to be made, no self-aggrandising, no co-option of the symbolic powers of other species. The respect and humour with which the makers of the objects drew inspiration from the natural world is apparent in the details: the small, 6,000-year-old, boggle-eyed Egyptian predynastic elephant amulet; the 5,000-year-old Yangshao eagles with the anxious eyes; the 2,500-year-old Palaeo-Eskimo Dorset culture carved that ivory fish, polar bears and seals.
I reach out to pick up the small Victorian clockwork finch of soft brown plush who stands on the bottle of ink on my desk. He’s just one of the representations of other creatures which surround me, no different from those ancient artefacts in the reasons I appreciate them: the celadon cow with the broken horn, the cot-toy dove, the finch, the Christmas-tree decoration white fox with his red felt scarf, symbols of memory, appreciation, love.
The complex boundaries between human and animal worlds, temporal and spiritual, of Egypt are woven into the depictions of divine power shown through ibis or baboon, cat or crocodile, hawk or goose. The exquisite scenes of the life of the Nile from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun in Thebes, now in the British Museum, show creatures in such detail that they fly and stalk and swim: the marmalade cat lurking in the reeds with the bird in his claws, the geese collected into a basket, the wagtails, hoopoes and quails in flight, the tiger butterflies, the hares, fish, gazelles, all so perfect and abundant that they’re suffused by the illusion of sound, the whirring of wings and the calls and cries of birdsong, the lap of water in reed beds, the heavy hum of insects in scented air. Dreamscape and vision, the frescoes portray life and afterlife, the representation of impossible earthly perfection in the garden of a wealthy Egyptian in this life and the next, resonant with associations of paradise – the word derived from the paradeisos, parādaiĵah, pardes of Greek, Persian and Hebrew – the sacred in life on Earth or beyond, in a garden of Eden, a garden of animals, a divine and heavenly orchard.
We’ve always been entwined in life and in death with other creatures, although often too much time has elapsed to be able to interpret with any certainty what some of these symbols and artefacts mean. They still lie in the darkness of caves and graves, our older selves living on in what we drew and what we left, in how we died and how we were buried, in the testimony of our secrets, enmities, cruelties and terrible griefs, the kinds which reveal the similarities and differences of our all too human state. They’re still there in our ornaments and grave goods, often the remains and parts of other creatures – pendants made from bird bones, necklaces of shells and teeth, the bones of sheep, rabbits and fish, the wing bone of a golden eagle, the skeleton of a white-tailed eagle, the leg bones of a goose, used as decoration or amulet, possessions, totemic symbols or offerings to the unknowns of a possible future life.