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Blood and Art Speak Across the Centuries

Jeff Ell SmallSpain recently reopened the Altamira Cave to the public. You might not recognize the cave by name but you’ve undoubtedly seen photos of it in a textbook or news story. It’s the cave where the most iconic images of prehistoric art were discovered. Stunning paintings of ancient animals and human hands in elegant lines and deep hues.

The kind of art modern people didn’t think primitives were capable of.

The cave has been called the “Sistine Chapel of paleolithic art.” The cave’s roof was turned into a stone canvas where our hunting and gathering ancestors blended color on their palettes and got in touch with their creative side. They signed their work by blowing a slurry of ochre pigment out of their mouths and over their hands. The result was a negative image of their hand outlined in red. Prehistoric semaphore waving across time: the sign language of the soul we still understand.

I was here…I created this…hope you like it…don’t forget me.

It’s curious that the art depicts the big game prey of the ancients. I don’t usually think of hunters as the artistic types. I rather imagine them squatting around smoky fires passing gas and poking the ends of their spears into the ribs of the guys who liked to draw pretty things on the wall.

So much for stereotypes.

But it all makes sense. Growing fruits and vegetables just doesn’t get the creative juices pumping as fast as chasing down a dangerous animal and killing it with a stone tipped weapon. It’s hard to imagine an ancient farmer sidling up to a rocky crag to etch a picture of some great rutabagas he grew last season, and I’m pretty sure there aren’t any Paleolithic murals of asparagus.

Hunting. The killing of animals and the spilling of blood was the thing that stirred the hearts of those artists.

They say artists don’t become famous until they die, and of course the artist hunters at Altamira had no way of knowing that their way of life was doomed. Their gene pool was destined to be absorbed by those who learned to cultivate the land. Hunter-gathers are at a fatal disadvantage to farmers. Sure, they won their share of the battles by terrorizing hapless farmers with their superior warrior skills, but in the end they always lose the war to the guys with the steady food supply.

Plows and houses push aside arrows and teepees every time.

The struggle between the meat people and the vegetable people started at the dawn of time. Cain the farmer killed Abel the rancher. I think the universal assumption would be that Cain would have been the murderer. The rough and tumble rancher and butcherer of animals seems like a more likely culprit than his organic gardening brother.

But it was Abel who remembered it was animal skins and not fig leaves that covered their parents’ loins when they got evicted from the garden, so it was farmer Cain who spilled the innocent blood into soil.

Which brings us back to the Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo’s frescos on that ceiling in Rome depict the Biblical account of God and man. The most iconic image at the center of his masterpiece is the finger of God almost touching the finger of Adam. It seems as if painting hands on ceilings is a big deal in the human experience.

My suspicion is that the first modern humans who explored the cave did something very archeologically incorrect. I bet they pressed their hands against the handprints on the ceiling. Just like the ancient artist wanted them to.

The empty space outlined in red inviting the visitor to touch the space they left behind. If I were left unsupervised I know I’d be tempted to see how my hand fit. I’d reach up and touch the stone like a prisoner and his woman touch. Souls separated by the shatterproof glass of time.

Make no mistake about it, the ancient artists could have outlined their hands in other colors.

They chose red because humanity has always known that blood is a big deal.

It’s thicker than water.

We donate it to save lives.

Jews and Muslims are forbidden to eat it.

Christians ceremonially drink it and sing about its power.

Jeff Ell is pretty good at catching, killing, picking, and growing things to eat. He regularly finds bemusement in the outdoors and enjoys telling his stories to anyone who will listen. Jeff’s the author of Ruth Uncensored, blogs at pastorjeffell.com. and can be contacted via Facebook or smoke signal.

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