Just two weeks ago, the National Academy of Science published a paper confirming the dates of ancient cave bear paintings at Chauvet Pont D’Arc Cave in southern France. Some of the paintings were dated 37,000 years old, making them the oldest in the world (link). Hundreds of cave bears hibernated and died in this cave as well, and scratched and rubbed up against the walls, even on the paintings. People and bears lived cheek by jowl, but probably not at the same exact time within the cavern’s narrow confines.
What was the nature of the ancients’ relationship with bears? What can we learn from them that might help us navigate the complexities of the present times? If people could coexist for many thousands of years with a bear that was a third larger than the present day grizzly bear (not to mention other massive carnivores like cave lions and giant cave hyenas), what are the lessons?
Chauvet Gives Up Its Secrets
Spelunkers discovered Chauvet in 1994 almost by happenstance, yet what a treasure-trove it was. Chauvet is an extensive limestone cave system with paintings of hundreds of animals, representing 13 species, including bears, reindeer, rhinoceroses, bison, lions, owls, and mammoths (link). Scientists believe that after the cave was sealed off by landslide, no human foot had stepped inside for an astonishing 27,000 years. But in the cave were footprints: on the floor, a child’s, many thousands of years old, looking as if the stroll were taken yesterday.
The cave also contained the skeletons of some 150 cave bears, including a skull that had been deposited on a big rock in the middle of a chamber, as well as two bear humerus bones that had been stuck forcibly into the ground. A plausible scenario is that after hibernating bears died in the cave, people rearranged the bones.
Called “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” by Werner Herzog in a film about Chauvet (link), the cave was occupied in two periods: Aurignacian (37,000-33,500 years ago) and Gravettian (31,000-28,000), yet the two cultures are thought to be totally unrelated.
Years ago, I went to the Altamira Cave in Spain (more than 15,000 years old), where, because of the fragility of the charcoal paintings and its popularity, managers had closed the cave off and recreated it nearby in rolling grasslands -- perfect habitat for bison and horses. At first, I felt crowded, claustrophobic, then the cave passage opened up to a cathedral-like room with sensational bison painted across the ceiling, suspended as if in a vacuum (or a dream). I imagined the artists as ancient Michaelangelos, shamen of the caves, birthing animals from their dreams and painting them by pine pitch torches on the living rock.
They Have Invented Everything
Nothing about the quality of the paintings at Altamira or Chauvet is primitive. Upon seeing the similarly ancient cave paintings at Lascaux, Pablo Picasso is reported to have remarked: “They have invented everything.” Perspective was not supposed to have been perfected until the Athenian Golden Age. The craft of pointillism until the Impressionist era. Animation until Walt Disney -- but here, with the aid of torchlight and shadow flickering against overhanging cave walls, you have the effect of thundering herds of bison.
Here, four times as long as all recorded history, in Altimira, Cosquer, Pech Merle, Chauvet and many other sites, masters had perfected their art. What is especially astonishing is that the quality and consistency of the painting tradition lasted for many, many thousands of years.
The masters at Chauvet nailed the essence of the bear too. If you ask a scientist what defines a cave or grizzly bear, they will say “the shoulder”. This is the prominent joint for digging roots and excavating mammoth or bison carrion, which they did in spades. That is what the artists emphasized – the shoulders, and faces too, another distinguishing feature.
Paintings were not the entirety of the craft the ancients left behind, there were sculptures too. In the Montespan Cave, a headless clay figure of a bear was discovered, around 20,000 years old. Between its paws lay a real bear skull. On its body were thirty or so deep circular holes, trace marks of spears or arrows. It appears that a bear skin had once been used to attach the head to the body. The Count Begouen, who discovered the bear observed: “We may assume that we found the skull at the spot where it had lain ever since the last ceremony.”
An image of a bear being stabbed, perhaps dramatizing what happened to the sculpted figure, is painted on the cave wall in Trois Freres. A thick stream of blood is flowing from the bear’s muzzle, and its body is dotted with small circles and ovals to represent the stones which have struck it. Spears appear to have wounded it too, one penetrating its lung, resulting in a stream of blood gushing from its snout and muzzle.
What is the Violence Towards Bears About?
The paintings at Chauvet showed no violence towards bears, but other caves did, some dating back to Neanderthal times (maybe 50,000 years, perhaps even 70,000 years ago), where the artwork shows people laying traps for bears and even possibly sacrificing them. The caves include Petershohle and Drachenshole (Germany), Salzenshohle (Austria) and Teutelshohle (Switzerland). The evidence is still hotly debated about what was done by man and what could have happened naturally, but some, including authorities Paul Shepard and Barry Sanders, authors of The Sacred Paw, argue that bears are perhaps the focus of the oldest known religious practices in the world.
So what is the violence about? Fear, competition, or something else?
Anywhere you mix up big predators and people, you find fear. It is only natural. And people and bears were surely competing to some extent for food and space, even good caves.
But that, I think is a small part of what was going on. Here is where I rely on the old stories, the ones that followed bears from Europe through Asia and North America. These stories invite us to see the violence focused on bears as a religious ritual or practice rather than as some supernatural hunting aid, and, in that regard, unlike what we see in the paintings focused on game animals such as bison and deer.
Bear meat does not appear to have been a staple for most traditional peoples, nor were bears anywhere near as common as the large herbivores that were clearly the dietary mainstay. Yes, boreal cultures did specialize in hunting black bears in dens, but hunting of grizzly bears was far less common. (And Indians peoples today mostly abhor hunting grizzly bears who they see as relatives).
The paintings of bears being killed seem to be not about food or fear, but about empowering people and the mystery of rebirth. Stories depict the bear as the master of the mountains and the woods. The bear represents renewal and the cycles of the seasons through its ability to enter the deathlike state of hibernation and yet be reborn the following spring -- many thousands of years before Christ.
The names given bears by the ancients were honorifics: “uncle”, “old man of the woods”, “grandmother”, “honorable one”. Indeed the names are hugely diverse, sometimes euphemistic, for fear of offending the ever-attentive bears who are, after all, somewhat touchy relatives capable of understanding everything humans say. And such was the case for a bear cult that spanned the circumpolar regions of the Northern Hemisphere.
The Circumpolar Bear Cult
In fact, the Bear Cult has been documented from Finland to Labrador. At the heart is a story about a human marrying a bear, often involving a woman, but it can be the other way around (link). No matter what the exact arrangement, in ancient and contemporary traditional cultures alike, the bear is a relative, a healer, a guide.
To the tribes of Siberia, such as the Ostyak, Samoyed, and Tungus, when a bear dies, its soul leaves and the bear’s spirit is capable of harming a person who has done it wrong, or said bad things about it, for bears can both read thoughts and understand speech. (Wyoming Governor Matt Mead beware). If a person kills a bear, great care must be taken to ritualistically dispose of all the bones down to each metacarpal and phalanges. Otherwise the bear’s soul will never rest. As recently as the 1860’s, Russian ethnographer M. A. Czaplicka reported seeing sacks of bear bones hung in trees and on wooden scaffolds in her meanderings in along Siberia’s Amur River.
Some cultures, such as the Ainu in Japan, went as far as raising cubs to adulthood for the purpose of sacrifice, with women suckling them. The bear is treated with great kindness – like a member of the family -- fattened up, and then ritualistically wounded (not unlike in the Trois Freres painting). It is then killed and eaten with elaborate taboos, particularly regarding women. The bear’s sacrifice is critical to the renewal and health of the culture. Interestingly, the day of the bear’s sacrifice is also the day of special spiritual access to dead ancestors.
The bear: a mediator between the worlds, able to walk between life and death. An animal who looks and behaves so much like us – walking on hind legs, eating many of the same foods, females reknowned as fierce, nurturing mothers. Smart, resourceful, funny, loving. A mirror on ourselves.
I have been thinking about our relationship with bears for a long time, which bring me to…
Dreaming with Cheney: Having Fun (at the Vice President’s Expense) to Make a Point about Bear Relationships
Here is how I described the relationship between people and bears in a play I wrote years ago called “Dreaming with Cheney”, about a grizzly bear who invades Dick Cheney’s dream life, told from the standpoint of a Momma bear: “You see, our lives have been tangled around each other since the beginning. We have pursued each other, eaten and been eaten by each other, married each other, taught each other how to make a living -- even shared the same caves, in Neolithic times anyway. And you know, that “birth” and “breath” share the same roots as the word “bear”. But you have been forgetting our history over the last 400 years anyway, and the stories too are dying as we die off. Grandmother, she fears the coming of a winter, a long, long one, with no spring or new life, if we cannot keep the stories alive.”
This was a one bear play, and I got to play the role of that bear. Performing it was fun and Cheney’s antics allowed me to update the jokes regularly. But ultimately the problem I faced was Cheney the person, who was, well, both evil and immovable. And for me, Cheney symbolizes more broadly what we and the planet are up against: greed, brutality, and dishonesty.
In desperation, the Momma Bear (me) took Cheney in a dream to – where else? An ancient cave, where she introduced him to her grandmother (a shaman), who shared old stories of the connections of bears and people -- which of course, Cheney did not understand.
Another problem I faced in the play was that I could not eat him.
The only way I could figure to end the play was to turn to the audience and ask them to engage in the process of dreaming a new world into being, as the ancients had done with stories of relationships to animals and each other. Of course from the Momma Bear’s perspective, that dream had to include a larger connected ecosystems and more compassion and tolerance.
But we have a long way to go to make that dream a reality in the face of a rising tide of development and mounting grizzly bear mortality. Who will help make that dream a reality? Who are the new shamen? Where is the new bear culture?
Today’s Bear Culture?
If there is a modern bear culture, you will find it along the roadsides in Jackson Wyoming or Yellowstone Park during the summer. The modern day cave painters are armed with smart phones and long camera lenses rather than pitch torches, but perhaps share a similar hunger: to capture the mystery and the power of the great bear.
But we should not forget that the traditional bear culture is alive and well too, even undergoing something of a resurgence in connection with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s push to remove Endangered Species Act protections for Yellowstone’s grizzly bears: 50 tribes are standing up for grizzly bears and opposing the federal government’s move to strip protections and allow a trophy hunt. Killing a grizzly bear for the purpose of putting its head on a wall is an anathema to the tribes.
But violence for sake of violence and self-gratification is all too commonplace in our society today. Think Cheney. Its roots, I think are in our alienation from the natural world and even ourselves. Ever since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, more of us have lived in cities, away from animals and the rhythm of the seasons. We have gotten used to cruelty in all its forms. The bear is no longer our teacher -- money and bureaucratic systems, with their inherent perverse incentives, have become poor substitutes. We have created a system where the Cheneys of the world can flourish.
Still, Chauvet serves as an important reminder of old stories and an ancient past, when we were able to celebrate a world of wild animals that could sometimes kills us. We can imagine walking with torches into the silence, seeing the flickering shadows and silhouettes of bears and mammoths in a space that has the feel of a womb and an altar.