Max Raphael, structuralism, shamanism and Upper Palaeolithic art

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Hopping about through millennia in this rather schematic text, I want to take a brief look at the question of "structuralism" raised by Jens in his text and particularly in relation to the Upper Palaeolithic art of Europe. Jens makes a brief mention of structuralism and a couple of mentions of Claude Levi-Strauss, his work on myths in the Americas and how the name "structuralism" is given to his work. I can't comment on anything written by Christophe Darmangeat because I haven't read any of his stuff. But I do want to comment on structuralism, its basis, the much-ignored Max Raphael and prehistoric art.

I've read some stuff by Levi-Strauss and didn't find it easy to understand what he was saying. That could be due to my limitations but the anthropologist, David Lewis-Williams writes of him (2002) as being similar to Verlaine's dictum "pas de couleur, rien que la nuance" ("no colour, nothing but nuance"), and describes his America's opus on myths as "intimidating". Edmund Leach, the social anthropologist, wrote that Levi-Strauss was "difficult to understand... combin(ing) baffling complexity with overwhelming erudition" and suggested that his work was something of a confidence trick. Levi-Strauss is called a marxist in a way that a lot of people are called "marxist", that is, they are not marxist at all. After the war he was appointed the French cultural attaché to the US and returned to France in 1948. I don't think that there's any doubt that he made a contribution to the history of structuralism and while we owe a debt to his great works, it does seem that one can conclude whatever one wants from them.

Structuralism looks to be based on the works of the Italian scholar Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) who put forward the radical idea that the world is shaped by and in the shape of the mind and therefore there must be a universal language of the mind. During the period of rapid European expansion, Vico challenged the idea that the peoples met were "primitive" or had different minds from Europeans and insisted that their myths and stories of the past were "poetic" and metaphorical. He was roundly ignored of course and the idea of "primitive" minds, "primitive" art, etc., continues to this day (I briefly used the term myself during my "primitive period" - but I'm alright now). The notion of structure (with a small "s") was further developed by the Swiss Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) who, amazingly, didn't write a book but whose ideas are known from the notes amassed and kept by his students! Saussure dealt with language and its construction and, in line with the ideas of Vico, we can see how these eventually affected "explanations" around prehistoric art. Structualism thus examines phenomena, language, art, etc., at a given time. Levi-Strauss's structuralism is played out mainly on myths and is based on binary oppositions and mediation that make up a unifying thread, a hidden logic that runs through all human thought: up/down; male/female; culture/nature; life/death, etc., and the relations between them. For Levi-Strauss "the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction (impossible if the contradiction is real)" and because myth ultimately fails "Thus the myth grows spiral-wise until the intellectual impulse that produced it is exhausted" (Levi-Strauss, 1963). I think that this is quite profound and the Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, Eugene d'Aquili, put a twist on his work and argued that myths are structured in major binary oppositions, one polarity being humankind, the other some supernatural force (David Lewis-Williams, 2002). But Vico, and in line with him, Levi-Strauss, defended the attempts of the global consciousness of the human mind against ideas of "primitivism" and the "savage mind". And Max Raphael also did so and took it further still.

Max Raphael is a long-forgotten and largely ignored structuralist who predates Levi-Strauss. Raphael was also called a "marxist". I don't know what his marxism was but he was a World War One deserter and before World War Two he was incarcerated by the French security forces and on release had to keep one step ahead of the Nazis, finally fleeing to America where he died soon after. Prior to his imprisonment in France he met with Rodin, Matisse and Picasso in Paris. Just like in the west, Raphael's work was ignored in the "socialist countries". I think that Raphael was greatly affected by the conflict of World War Two and this was a weight that bore on his analysis of prehistoric art a bit too much, in that he saw all the elements of capitalism and class struggle in Upper Palaeolithic society. However, I think that his analyses were going in the right direction and I agree with his description of the Upper Palaeolithic peoples, which he called "history-making people par excellence" (David Lewis-Williams, 2002). For Raphael, their art tells us nothing about the methods of production, tools, hunting techniques, etc., but it does tell of a social struggle through a structured code. He wrote one book, Prehistoric Cave Paintings, (1945), in which he insisted on the unity and structure of the various compositions from the caves that he had visited and studied in the Dordogne region of France. This was a revolutionary analysis against previous "specialists" who insisted that this art could only be addressed each in isolation from the other and which progressed from a crude to a higher form. It was, the experts said, the first primitive attempts to paint, it was "art for art's sake", "totemism", "hunting magic" - all of which it was not (in the main). Raphael made binary oppositions between whole "compositions" that underlay the construction of this art: bison/horses for example and saw order when others only remarked on the disorder of the art. These could be male/female contradictions, conflicts or oppositions, life against death, universal human meanings. Others took his work up and did some good stuff; Annette Laming-Emperaire (who didn't mention him) and Andre Leroi-Gourhan (who, despite good work, eventually applied his analyses schematically, applying it to one painting at a time for example, which failed miserably). But Laming-Emperaire particularly followed him in important areas, with the following taken from Lewis-Williams above:

  • "questions the value of ethnographic parallels;
  • argues that the difficulty of access to many subterranean images pointed to 'sacred' intentions;
  • rejects any form of totemism;
  • proposes that the mentality of Palaeolithic man was far more complex than is generally supposed; and
  • argues that the images should be studied as planned compositions not as scatters of individual pictures painted 'one at a time according to the needs of the hunt'.

She took up his shift into symbolic meanings and argued his position that juxtapositions and superimpositions were part of deliberately planned compositions. The recurrence of themes, the predomination of certain species (they're not generally the diet, and "hunting magic" is not the issue here), the position in the caves all have to be taken into account. Raphael rejected ethnographic analogies and puts forward the idea that these paintings and engravings of beasts were not seen as animals but images with a pre-existing shared value and suggested that the images of parietal (cave wall) and portable art (carved objects) were representative of an already existing experience and vocabulary. One that McBreaty and Brooks above say was put together in Africa some time before; this was a "gradual assemblage of the modern human adaption". Expressed in this cave art there is a repertoire of certain animals and figures, an inherent meaning to these structures before the images were made; felines are an important part, as are animal "spirit-helpers" who accomplished different and difficult tasks and also "composite", altered beasts. This is not a sudden "creative explosion" but a flowering of part of a process of clarification. Portable objects and fragments of the animals, teeth, ivory, bone as well as quartz for example, possessed these supernatural powers; and these fragments, which later were pushed into cracks in and around the pictures and engravings on the cave wall, brought these spirits back to life. The entry into the "other world" of the cave and being "pulled" along by the panels of compositions is nowhere better illustrated than Lascaux where one is gradually sucked into an intense vortex of swirling beasts and designs. This is more than religious belief and ritual but a universal envelopment into the tiered cosmos and a consciousness that is fundamental to developing human society. I think that it's important to see these paintings as expressions of pre-existing ideas and this is strengthened by the fact that, in general, portable art, small carvings of animals and anthropomorphic figures, appear at least contemporary with or some time before the cave wall art - one would think that it would be the other way around. These small carved animal figures embodied the ideas of "spirituality" that existed within the peoples and was exemplified within the shamanisms. But I'm moving away from Raphael.

For him, there's no one single imposed structure to this art but an area of struggle is strongly suggested. One can only be stunned by the obvious beauty of these carvings, engravings and paintings. But these are not the expressions of idyllic contentment and the caves are the living theatres par excellence for the unfolding dramas that they depict. There are chains being rattled here, there is some sort of an unsatisfactory situation being expressed that has to be clarified to some extent by society. The comforting chains of primitive communism were a hindrance that, as Marx said, had to be broken. This cave art is quite possibly the visual expression that had developed over time of the breaking of these chains. I think that primitive communism was a struggle and not an ideal.

Raphael also studied the much underestimated geometric motifs, the "signs" or designs that, while being culturally specific in different areas of the world, contain many similarities. These geometric signs have also been interpreted mechanically in the "primitive mind" framework, which shows, as Vico also suggests, how ethnology can do as much harm as good. In the 1920's, psychologist and neurologist Heinrich Kluver, studied these precepts on subjects under laboratory conditions (Kluver, 1942). Incidentally, in studying the minds of subjects under conditions of altered states of consciousness, Kluver preceded the work of the US military and probably contributed to it. His work determined that these subjects described "motifs" or "signs", similar to those expressed in the Upper Palaeolithic caves and his findings were validated in later works: Horowitz, 1964; Richards, 1971 and Siegal, 1977 (see chapter 9 of Shamanism and the Ancient Mind , by James L. Pearson, 2002). These concepts, or "precepts", studied by Kluver et al, are common in dreams, hypnosis, from the effects of various drugs, some mental conditions, sensory deprivation, "near-death" experiences, and so on. In an effort to tie these signs to "hunting magic" the lined and pointed "signs" have been called "spears" and the occasional red ochre painted expulsions coming from the beast's heads or snouts are supposed to show a wounded or killed animal. But the majority of these animals look very alert, in the best of health in fact, strikingly vibrant or emotive, and the blood-like expulsions from around their snouts is completely reminiscent of the bleeding noses that occur in the shamanistic "trance-dance" first noted in the 1830's by French missionaries on their visit to South Africa (Daumas and Arbosset, 1846, 246/7). Similar nasal haemorrhages have also been noted in shamans dancing themselves into altered states of consciousness (with no drugs involved) among the San groups in Africa. The shaman use their blood as a spirit of potency but everyone, men, women and children, are involved in the dance around the fire and into altered states. American anthropologist Megan Biesele, who spent a lifetime with the Ju'hoansi San and speaks their language fluently, says in Lewis Williams above: "Though dreams may happen at any time, the central religious experience of the Ju'hoan life are consciously, and as a matter of course, approached through the avenue of trance. This trance dance involves everyone in society, those who enter trance and experience the power of the other world directly, and those to whom the benefits of the other world - healing and insight - are brought by the trancers". There are expressions in Upper Palaeolithic cave art of creatures being obviously speared - I've seen them myself in the caves of Cougnac and Peche-Merle in southern France. But these are strange, human-like creatures, once again suggesting expressions of shamanism and altered states of consciousness. Piercing is an element of shaman initiation as well as its expression of being "speared" to die and be re-born. This element was also taken up by Christianity.

Humans hunted. Humans also painted - so it's quite possible that "hunting magic" was something of a factor here or there, particularly with the ties that humanity has forged with animals. Even very recently the Mundari hunters of the White Nile region of Africa drew their intended prey on the ground before going on the hunt. On their return they poured the blood and hair of the kill on the image of the animal (J. L. Pearson, 2002). But this is not the diet being shown on the cave art of the Upper Palaeolithic where "The types of animal depicted respond to a logic quite different from a culinary one" (Clottes and Lewis-Williams, 1998, 78/79). Nor does it appear to be the case in North American rock art where the diet only appears in a minority of the depictions. In the shaman "trance-dance" the animal spirit is conjured up through an altered state of consciousness, where the dancers become the animal. On the cave walls of France and Spain the animals appear as living spirits of the tiered cosmos. The danger of seeing only "hunting magic" is that it could tie in with the idea that these peoples were merely adaptive, mechanical and primitive creatures1.

Back to the signs, which are much more than primitive expressions of everyday hunter-gatherer life, and which are sometimes superimposed on various beasts: they appear to connect compositions one to the other or form "panels" on their own account, as with dots, spirals and hand-prints. Raphael assigned male/female associations to them: males, lines, phallus, killing, death and feminine, sex, woman, life-giving, which he called "a tragic dualism". These signs are not just confined to the cave walls but to portable art as well where lines, dots, chevrons, etc., are carved on these figures and, again they are mechanically interpreted as being "primitive" expressions of fur or hair. This element of signs also applies to the parietal and portable therio-anthropic creatures. Raphael demonstrated, or tried to demonstrate, the relationship of one to the other of these expressions. My opinion is that these "signs" are the first development of a written language that was generally understood and it would be interesting if it was gender-based. We don't know what was being said here and maybe will never know but the whole complexity of Upper Palaeolithic art in the caves around France and Spain shows an important expression of a social movement and points to some of the contradictions that existed therein.

We talk of "validation", of "scientific validation" and it seems to me that this means different things to different people. But in the field of structuralism and related anthropology and, one must add here the question of belief systems and shamanism (which is not quite the same thing), validation doesn't come much better than the discoveries of Chauvet Cave2, made forty years after Raphael's book, with its compositions, signs, panels, etc., which though found decades after Lascaux (which Raphael studied in depth), pre-dated it by over sixteen thousand years. Chauvet confirmed and validated in spades much of his analysis. Max Raphael deserves more of our attention and Jens must be thanked for raising the issue of structuralism. Along with Lewis Binford's "impoverished" views, there's a certain amount of snobbish mockery from some quarters of palaeontology regarding the length of the Acheulean period and its slow development- over a million years. But the conflict expressed by Upper Palaeolithic cave art itself lasted around 25 millennia, from around 35 to around ten thousand years ago and into the complexities of the Neolithic. In fact this cave art, with, in part, its universal but independently expressed symbolism, persisted long after that as a global phenomenon, particularly with the rock art of the peoples of north America, Australia, the Middle East and elsewhere. Society survived, consolidated and advanced over this period and then moved forward at an accelerated pace. From a million years, hundreds of thousands of years, tens of millennia to an even faster development.

Looking back, for a section on structuralism I haven't structured this very well. There are many differences within shamanist and structuralist expressions, but I also think that there's a profound overlap.


1 This mechanical, adaptive "idea" is supported by Lewis Binford (see above). Binford's once again restrictive approach essentially rules out a human agency of intervention and innovation but sees rather human victims of passive forces beyond their control. He has no time for the early expression of religious activity, beliefs, ritual, aesthetics, etc. As much as Raphael's were validated by them, Binford's views were soundly contradicted by the discoveries of Chauvet and Cosquer in the 1990's, but also, effectively, by the cave art in Altamira in (Spain) 1897, Le Mas D'Azil, La Madelaine, and others in the Dordogne in the 1880's. These all show, in objects and depictions, in discoveries made 50 years before Binford was born, so much more than simple, mindless adaption.

2Recent discoveries at the Abri Castanet site, close to Chauvet in the Ardeche, show zoomorphic figures, but a preponderance of painted and engraved geometric signs. especially female sexual organs. This art is thought to be older than Chauvet, with the US Proceedings of the National Academy for Sciences suggesting they are 37,000 years old. Older paintings, it is suggested, have been found in the Nerja cave of Spain, with further suggestions that these may be painted by Neanderthals. I'm not at all sure about that and much more research is needed into this but the economic crisis means that there's no more cash available for this particular project - among many others.