WHO WAS CRO-MAGNON?

Cro-Magnon Man was identical to a modern man. He has a sharp intelligence, a great
technical control and undeniable artistic talents. But what can we say about his heart and his
spirit? Did he has possibility to express his feelings with regard to nature? Do his paintings
reflect other aspirations than his extraordinary artistic sensitivity? Do they testify about his
beliefs in hereafter? Did he honour through them mystical capacities? Did they had for him a
magic capacity? Did he practise a religion? In any case, what is sure, it is that Cro-Magnon
Man knew how to reach a determining stage for the intellectual humanity development:
control of the symbols.

The symbols are the reflection of mental and spiritual aspirations of human beings:
alphabets, words, numbers, calendars, pictures, cathedrals are as many symbols
transcending simple and pure reality. The headdress in reindeer antlers of a Cro-Magnon
chief, such is wearing the shaman or the wizard of the Three Brothers Cave (Ariège, France)
and the mitre of a bishop, are as many distinction and rank symbols. All kinds of ceremonies
and rituals are symbolic systems, no matters if they are political, religious or magic; candles
on an altar that we are nowadays burning in churches and grease lamps which lighted
paintings in a cave, are taking part in the same way to the symbolic representation.

Caves are themselves quite naturally magic. Who can't feel into a prehistoric cave, mystery
surrounds walls and ceilings and into its dark and threatening recesses? At the light of a
grease lamp, the scene becomes animated with fantastic forms and shades. Each cave has its
own atmosphere, it doesn’t matter if it is about an exiguous room as in Altamira’s painted
ceiling gallery, in the Combarelles’s long corridors or cavities and diverticula curiously
intimate in Font-de-Gaume. Almost all have deep sanctuaries that were the theatre for some
ceremony. Some of these cavities are almost inaccessible. It was thus thought that, during
Prehistory, these recesses or these deep caves had acted as crowned places.

Some archaeologists put forth the assumption that these hidden sanctuaries had been selected
to practise primitive rites of initiation. It may be possible that neophytes had to thread along
obscure and wet tunnels, terrified by the idea to be mislaid, perhaps weakened by a long diet,
before finally being able to see at the weak gleam of their lamps some animal figure or some
magic painting. Although no proof of these rites, during Prehistory, was found, the oldest
historical documents testify that primitive people practised similar ceremonies in same
impressive places. Consequently, it makes to believe that as sharp spirit had been Cro-
Magnon Men, always living under the influence of nature, unceasingly prone to frights and
imaginary or real vicissitudes, they used their caves for ritual practices.

One of the most seizing places which could be used for ceremonies of initiation is in the
Pyrenees mountains; in this site, two adjacent caves are used both by the small Volp torrent.
These two caves are on the property of the count Henri Bégoüen, archaeologist teaching at the
faculty of Toulouse. The count had three sons. These children played a crucial part in this
discovery. Indeed, they had intended to say that this torrent led to a maze of underground
rooms and corridors. One day of summer 1912, they penetrated into by a fault where Volp
was thrown and, on an handmade raft with gasoline cans, started to explore the cave.

They were let slip along the meanders of the torrent and led to a vast obscure gallery where
they left their raft on a small gravel beach. Then, with lanterns, they penetrated into a 20
meters long passage, for finally reaching a cavity where a pond was. This room was thereafter
called “ The Married Room” because its white lace of stalactites and stalagmites. Arrived at
the bottom of this room, they climbed along a stiff 12 meters slope and were let slip along the
stalactites to enter into a tunnel that they followed on several hundred meters. Progressing
with difficulty along a diverticulum under a very low ceiling, they reached another cavity
strewn with fossil bones of bear of the caves and, finally, arrived at the bottom of the cave,
entered into a circular room. It is there that they discovered two great bisons modelled in
clay, of approximately 0,60 m length, fixed on a rock repercussion.

For the count’s sons, this adventure had the charm and the mystery of an initiation rite; for the
count who came after to inspect the places, it was no doubt that this cave had been used for
this purpose. On the clay ground of an alcove located close to the gallery with the bisons, the
count and his archaeologists amateurs found about fifty footprints, preserved by a thin calcite
layer. Judging by their small size, they was the footprints of five or six teenagers, old from 13
to 15 years old. Had they been left by some strange young people came to explore the cave?
Perhaps, but on the ground, close to these footprints, the explorers found several clay phalli.
This almost inaccessible recess, located at deepest of the cave, was undoubtedly the theatre of
a worship, a place where the young boys stayed. It couldn’t be astonished for these tribes,
closely depending to survive and dress themselves on these large animals as powerful as the
bisons, that they had been worried about their reproduction.

Two years after the discovery of the gallery with the bisons, the count and his sons undertook
the exploration of the second cave communicating with the first one and which had been
called since, in memory of these three young children, the cave of the Three Brothers (la
grotte des Trois Frères). One more time, they discovered manifest evidence of magic
practices in this deep sanctuary. After having surmounted many obstacles, they crossed a
narrow corridor kept by painted and carved heads of lions, to lead into an alcove in shape of
bell, located very deep.

There, they discovered on the walls a tangle of animal images, drawings woven on the rock
like cobwebs. They looked like a magic kind of zoo. A reindeer female was profiled with the
quarters of a large bison. Supervising the herds, an hybrid, a creature with an human body
with a tail and on his head reindeer antlers, danced and played of an instrument similar to a
flute. This strange character is looking like the diabolic satyrs and the god Pan of Greek
However, the more surprising figure is at the top of the vault. It could be the God of the
Animals supervising his strange herd. Capped with antlers, with his captivating eyes of owl,
his tail of horse, his ears of wolf, his before legs of a bear and, it seems, his feet and his sexual
organs of a man, it is a creature of an extraordinary vitality, a fantastic amalgam of animal and
human forces. One of the masterpieces of the Cro-Magnon Man, whether we often call the
wizard or the shaman.

No work made by Cro-Magnon Man proves that he practised shamanism. However, being
given the presence of figures as ambiguous as this wizard of the Three Brothers Cave,
numbers of archaeologists thank about this possibility. We also know the man/bird of
Lascaux which is, him also, almost inaccessible, because the painting is at the bottom of a
well of 7 meters deep. Paint in sharp colours, his body looks like a French bean, his legs and
his arms as matches. His hands have only four fingers. His head with the nose, are drawn up.
At his sides, strange instruments are represented: a post or a pole surmounted by a bird
(undoubtedly representing a spear thrower), a barbed point close to an enormous roughcast
bison, mortally wounded whose entrails seem to escape from its belly. A few meters further,
is held an enigmatic rhinoceros, with a drawn up tail, and that the tumult leaves apparently

The Abbot Breuil thought that it was about a violent hunting scene, while the man, after
having mortally wounded the bison, would have been killed by the rhinoceros. He made
excavate the well to check if the bones of the hunter were not buried close to the fresco but
did not find anything. Later, some experts interpreted it as a symbolic fight between three
clans whose totemic emblems would have been the bird, the bison and the rhinoceros. Others
thank about an association of masculine and female sex symbols, the spear corresponding to a
sex male symbol and the bison, whose intestines are rolled up in what could be a female
vulva, a female sex symbol. According to the third theory, from now on, commonly allowed,
the man with the head of bird would be a masked shaman participating in some ritual, the
body in fright. In support of this theory, one pointed out that the bird, the same as drawn in
the top of the spear thrower, is often nowadays associated to the shamans in Siberia.

This comparison with Siberia is not deprived of interest. For the current primitive Siberian
people, the shaman is indeed a character of importance: a demiurge, an healer, a wizard.
When he is in fright, he predicts the future using some magic practises. He also exorcizes the
evil out the body of his patients. To a people depending entirely on nature to survive, he
lavishes his knowledge and teaches how to face future.

This way of extrapolating, to imagine the past on the basis of the present, is obviously
contestable. It is on the other hand not doubtful that shamanism have the mystical part of
initiation for a number of hunters/gatherers current tribes. The form in which this shamanism
is practised not only in Siberia, but in South America, in Africa and elsewhere, makes it
possible to consider the way how the prehistoric man faced the forces of which he knew that
the capacity was higher than him.

At the 20th century, among Siberian people, a man becomes a shaman by hereditary
transmission. To be initiated, it is necessary to undergo physical sufferings and to have
prophetic visions. Rare are the observers which could attend ceremonies. The repertory of the
feats of skill, cures, councils and benefits of the shaman was very different from one primitive
company to another, but it always called upon the magic, with the concept of an another
reality. Human beings would certainly not have invented science if in the beginnings they had
not practised the magic, or if they had not wondered about phenomena escaping to his
understanding. The magic, it is art to get anticipated results thanks to various processes, signs
and rites making possible to the magician to dominate the nature forces or the supernatural
one. In a certain direction, the magic is a self-persuasion science. The methods used can seem,
in themselves, absurd; however, they propose solutions in order to obtain some results, a kind
of generating rudimentary methodology of progress. The magic was used as stimulant and
comfort for the prehistoric man because it enabled him to overcome his fear of death, to face
the forces which he could not himself control and to rely on him. For the hunter, a private
individual, it was an additional weapon, almost as essential as his javelin, and whose failure
could be explained only by one error in the way in which the magic had been managed or by
the intervention of an extraterrestrial force.

We do not have obviously any document on the magic ceremonies that Cro-Magnon Man
could practise. However many experts estimate that Palaeolithic Art is a testimony. For them,
paintings, engravings, low-reliefs and figurines are the equivalent of the object of Houshken
which disappeared as by enchantment and are as many symbols closely associated with the
ritual and the supernatural one.

For example, we found handprints in many caves in Spain, Italy and France. Without being
really works of art, these prints testify to the human presence, just like footprints, also found
in some caves (Niaux, Pech Merle caves…). Some are encircled dyes, others drawn on the
wall then painted, others still have only contours, others are made with coated painting palms
applied to the wall (Chauvet Cave). They are called negative hands (if their contour is coated
with painting) or positive hands (if coated painting hand is applied to the wall).

What is their significance? For which reason do are there more left hands than right hands in
certain caves, hands of men, women and children? Made they part of a system of calculation?
Were they used for a census? Some hands have one or several phalanges. Are they about
some ritual mutilations or an arbitrary form of gestural language perhaps being used as
animals symbols? For example, Bochimans in South Africa, are transmitting signals by
gestures to indicate various animals that they see during hunting. Or wouldn't this be a
“medical” language used by healers who practised affixing with hand techniques to relieve

Thus a number of similar assumptions were seriously proposed. Unfortunately, hands do not
speak about themselves. However, we have a strange feeling as soon as we look at them in a
dark cave, in Gargas Cave for example, because the wave of the hand they send to us through
the centuries, is almost as a fleshly link connecting us with our missing ancestors. The hand is
an universal symbol.

We find, mixed with the cave paintings, other supposed magic symbols: “tectiform” signs,
expression coming from the Latin language meaning roof. Perhaps these signs, generally cut
by one or two transverse lines, are looking like kinds of scaffolding and represent the first
constructions built by human beings. But, however, that do they represent? Huts? Tents?
Residences for the spirits? Traps for animals?

There are other signs known as enigmatic signs: "aviforms” signs in the shape of birds wings
(Pech Merle, Cougnac, Le Placard caves), “campaniform” signs in the shape of bell (El
Monte Castillo caves), “claviformes” signs in the shape of bludgeon or perhaps very stylized
woman (Niaux, el Pindal caves), signs looking like kind of butterflies (Chauvet cave),
“barbed” signs, squaring etc. If however, we don’t know their significance, we can notice a
regional membership of these in several caves of the same area.

However, all Prehistorians do not interpret Palaeolithic art only on magic signs. Some,
followers of the Freud theory, in particular the eminent Prehistorian Andre Leroi-
Gourhan, provide an other interpretation: a symbolism of complexes sexual system.

Leroi-Gourhan indexed all cave paintings examples and discovered that a negligible part of
them seemed having been milked with magic of hunting. According to him, Cro-Magnon
Men’s art, on the opposite, would have reflected an intimate conscience about sexual
dimorphism, which sometimes, would have appeared in a very explicit way. Men and women
were represented by symbols, animal figures, objects, etc. that Leroi-Gourhan divided into
two fractions, male and female. The first include the stag, the ibex, the bear and the
rhinoceros and the second the wild bison and all bovidae. As for abstract signs discovered on
almost all cave paintings, Leroi-Gourhan, still faithful to the Freud theory, classified them in
barbed points, signs, sticks for the male symbols and in oval, triangular, rectangular signs for
female symbols. He thus determined which animals and which objects were belonging to
male or female kind by raising the sexual symbols that were associated to them.

According to the study of two thousand animal figures and some sixty caves, Leroi-Gourhan
pointed out that 90% of the bisons and the wild bovidae symbolizing the woman, the matrix to
some extent, were localised in the central zone of the caves, whereas 70% of the male signs
occupied the entrance of the cave, making function of magic guards. For Leroi-Gourhan, the
cave was a paradigm of the life on earth, a little as the dream of the primitive one, which
enabled him to affirm the balance of nature. He even thought that the ultimate significance of
this symbolism, overflowing the framework of the relationship between male and female
principles, was the reconciliation of all the antagonistic forces, abstract concept similar to
the yin and the yang of Eastern philosophy.

This theory inevitably started a whole wave of criticisms. Hostile criticisms affirmed that he
presupposed that overall concept had chaired decoration of Lascaux and Altamira caves, so
that could to be distributed in manner to balance sexual symbols, whereas all came to prove
that these caves had been randomly decorated, over several years, even several centuries.

The largest obstacle with the comprehension of the images and the signs created by Cro-
Magnon Men was the tendency of some to imagine Palaeolithic art, with all its ramifications,
like a whole. In truth, this art is very diverse: it has many styles and was created in many
places over one period estimated of 30.000 years. It thus seems completely logical that
symbols like enigmatic hands and signs had various significances, according to the periods
and the places. In the same way, over several thousand years, the caves were undoubtedly
assigned to various ends: council rooms, tombs, schools, files rooms, ceremonies rooms,
waking rooms…

Art is not the only testimony of the control how Cro-Magnon Men managed better and better
to dominate their raised frights, their anguishes and mysteries, by their cultural evolution. The
problem of death, its significance, its finality and the fear of its imminence was always
one of the greatest concerns of the human beings, as it was for Cro-Magnon Men.

We know that Neanderthal Men believed in a hereafter before Cro-Magnon Men, since the
discovery in France of the skeleton of a man, buried close to a funerary offering. In addition,
since the discovery of funerary sites in Russia, it appeared clearly that some Cro-Magnon
tribes could bury their dead people with regards that no one had considered before and this,
during ritual ceremonies of an unequalled magnificence. It may be that these refinements
tended to ensure late more pleasant life in hereafter; perhaps they were also symbols intended
to point out the rank of the dead one to impress the alive ones. In both cases, they give us a
new image of the taste for the gesture and the spiritual concerns of Cro-Magnon Men.

These lucky finds were excavated in two great funerary constructions, arranged 23 000 years
ago in an old funerary site, in an area where the ground is constantly cold to approximately
210 km North-East of Moscow. The first excavations, in 1964, made it possible to exhume
two almost complete skeletons belonging to an approximately 55 years old man who had been
buried with a fur clothing sumptuously covered with pearls. Before his burial, the bottom of
his tomb had been tinted with red ochre and, later, his body also powdered with ochre.
Progressively with the putrefaction of the body, this dye had coated the bones of the skeleton
of a scarlet powder.

The archaeologists thought that ochre symbolized the alive people blood unless it was used to
give to the dead one, the appearance to be alive. Under and on the skeleton, we found 1 500
objects of ornament in bone, as bored teeth of blue fox, undoubtedly at the time in a collar,
two dozen bracelets engraved in a tusk of mammoth and ivory pearls threaded by lines on the
skin clothes of the dead one.

The second lucky find, in 1969, was even more spectacular. We found, the skeletons of two
young male children, lying both on their back, the legs tended in opposite direction, head
against head. Thus, they were wide on the same straight line. The younger one had
approximately 7 or 9 years old, the other approximately 5 years old. In addition to their
sumptuously pearls clothing, they had to their sides, weapons as 2,5 m length javelins, worked
in tusks of mammoth and very fine and sharpened points. The two bodies wore bracelets and
rings made in ivory as well as a frontal stringcourse. Long pins planted under their chin had
been used to tighten their clothing around their necks and to maintain them warm. Near, two
sticks of command were also found.

Nobody can tell if all these offerings were supposed to ensure a rank to the young children in
the hereafter, be used to them as comfort or simply pay homage to the position which their
family occupied on earth. Whatever was the final goal, these objects obviously had a
symbolic significance. For the people who buried them there, these objects had a precise aim,
a goal with enough sufficient importance so that could be devoted material richness. Since,
later generations gave away a good share of their energy and their richness to funeral

An additional proof about cultural evolution of Cro-Magnon men was provided to us in 1962.
This proof that was not a simple and pure archaeology lucky find, call the question if these
old tribes did not use symbols that, much later, will lead to the writing. This discovery was
made by Alexander Marshack who was devoted at the time, with the drafting of a scientific
work on the lunar program of the N.A.S.A. In search of documents likely to inform him on
the origins of the science, he fell by chance on a picture of a small object in bone, 8.000 years
old, having on its sides a whole series of incisions and regularly ordered stripes. Marshack
knew that such symbols were often incised on Upper Palaeolithic bones and rollers. But, this
time, he was struck by the fact that these marks, instead of being decorative or, as it
sometimes was said, possible hunting marks, were perhaps equivalent to some inscription.
Whereas he imagined the 167 annotations related to the bone had perhaps acted as a lunar
calendar for one period of approximate 6 months.

Putting away for later the drafting of his work on space, Marshack studied during four years
under microscope, the hundreds of engraved vestiges dated from the Stone Age. Numbers of
them carried extremely suggestive symbols, but on the objects going back to the Aurignacian
period, i.e. 34.000 years before our era, appeared what seemed to be an abnormally significant
number of complex inscriptions. Marshack focussed all his attention on 30 very well
preserved objects that, as the 8.000 years old bone which had given him the idea, perhaps also
represented, according to him, lunar phases.

Most impressive of these objects was an engraved disc made in a bone of antlers, discovered
in Dordogne. On one of the two faces, the craftsman had drawn a sinuous band composed of
60 perfectly distinct marks. After an examination even thorough this disc, Marshack had the
conviction that it could not be a question of a simple decoration made by a Cro-Magnon Man
in one or two times. The study under the microscope indeed proved that the artist who had
drawn these marks, had changed 24 times of graver, of knapping technique and style of
striking. However, the marks, as pointed out it Marshack, are engraved on a very small
surface. If their author had simply tried to make this disc decorative, it seems that the
engraver would have drawn each mark with the sharpened point of the same tool, striking
material in the same way and exerting there the same pressure. But, as the study under the
microscope proved it, such had not been the case. The engraver could not have so often
changed point; Marshack will thus show some that these inscriptions had been made little by
little, at different periods and with different tools.

This conclusion gave rise to think that the marks corresponded to some inscription conceived
by the craftsman for himself, even the other members of the tribe. Marshack deduced that
each mark was equivalent to one different night and that the sinuous band was a diagrammatic
representation of the various moon quarters over approximately 67 days.

If we look towards South, shortly after the first district, during its period of growth, we see the
moon moving towards East and going up more and more higher in the sky each night until the
seventh night, moment when it reaches its apogee. The eighth day, the moon starts to go down
again in the sky, continuously to progress towards East during fifteen days until the moment
when it will be full. The fifteenth day, we attend to the opposite phenomenon and the moon
starts to be reduced. Each curve of the furrow engraved on the disc would correspond thus
coarsely to the moment of the month when the moon starts to change phase, period of growth
or decrease. By admitting that the interpretation of Marshack was correct, Cro-Magnon Man
would have been able to collect information and to record them with regular intervals.

For some experts, the work of Marshack revolutionized the study of the prehistoric man;
others, always issue serious reserves on his interpretation. In the small museum of Castel
Merle in Dordogne, a copy of this lunar calendar is exposed in a window.

 Nowadays, for any person who wants understand the era of Cro-Magnon Men and Women,
since their beginnings, 40.000 years ago, until the moment of agriculture, work of metals and
construction of the cities, most of the information are insufficient. And, however, all over the
world more the archaeologists, the anthropologists and the prehistorians gather testimonies,
more the men and the women who lived then, are closer to us. In his mind, the human modern
one knows that he shares the same fears, the same aspirations that his old ancestors and tests
the need to get the same guarantees.

Finally, Prehistory is not a period that human beings lived a long time ago. It still lives
in us, it is our collective unconscious.

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