A cartoon of plant art on a cave wall, and you don't know how long it took to persuade the computer to generate it.

The Missing Plants of the Palaeolithic

Prehistoric peoples moved in a world where intimate knowledge of plants would have been vital, so why don’t they appear in European Cave Art?

Archaeologists are used to finding things that are there. Now research by Georgina Walton and colleagues, published in Plants People Planet, shows a mysterious gap in Palaeolithic caves. Their study reveals that plant depictions in European Palaeolithic cave art are incredibly scarce, making up only 0.07% of the 5,786 images identified across 113 European caves. In contrast, animals and abstract symbols appear more frequently, with 53.7% and 43.3%, respectively. The underrepresentation of plants in cave art during the Palaeolithic has also been reported in sites outside Europe.

The Palaeolithic is the oldest part of the Stone Age and covers the period from when humans were becoming human to the period after the thaw of the most recent Ice Age. The time span covered by cave art in Europe is staggering, with possibly the oldest site being in the caves of Maltravieso from 64,000 years ago. This would mean that the artists of Lascaux are closer to us in time than they are to the artists of Maltravieso. Walton and colleagues have examined cave art across this immense expanse of time to ask if it tells us anything about the roots of Plant Awareness Disparity, also known as Plant Blindness when humans look at the natural world and ignore the plants.

The way they did this was by searching a database of European Cave Art. There is one that has over 16,000 images, but that cannot be accessed due to ‘technical challenges’, so the team used a smaller and more out-of-date database that they could access, a limitation they acknowledge in their paper. However, after searching 5,786 images, they found just four with plants, so their results are robust.

Various animals stand on the wall of a cave. It's possible, but far from certain, that they're standing on horizontal plants.
Can you see a plant here? Source: Walton et al. 2023. Image courtesy of Ralph Frenken, Le Parc de la Préhistoire de Tarascon-sur-Ariège

A difficulty is that you then have a discussion section where you have to talk about the lack of evidence, which is emphatically not a fault with Walton and colleagues’ paper. Cave art expert Paul Bahn has said archaeology is not about finding things, it’s about finding things out. But while a negative result is as scientifically valid as a positive result, it’s a lot harder to publish, so there hasn’t been a lot of discussion of the lack of plant art in Palaeolithic caves to build on.

The authors briefly talk about the motives for the art. A common justification is that animals were an economically important part of Palaeolithic life, but Walton and colleagues cite work by Pryor and colleagues that suggests that gathering plants was a more significant source of food than hunting in the Palaeolithic. This is a conclusion supported by other work.

Another factor Walton and colleagues touch on briefly is taphonomy. Taphonomy describes the processes that make the difference between what gets discarded and what gets found. For example, the Stone Age gets its name from the stone tools archaeologists found. They didn’t find a lot of wooden tools from this period because wood rots over a few thousand years. Likewise, we see the rock art that survived in caves but not any art daubed on the outside. If cave interiors have a broad sample of Palaeolithic art, that’s not a problem. But if people painted some things inside and some outside, then the sample is skewed. With rare exceptions, plants don’t appear much in caves, so cave art might be the wrong place for plant art.

Another issue is context. Animals are mobile and can choose to be present or absent at a site. Plants are sessile, with the exception of bananas, they are not known to walk. So painting to encourage them to migrate past a convenient gathering point is probably a waste of time. Instead, if you have reference material, it will have to be mobile so you can take it to the plant – and Walton and colleagues make it clear in a few places in their paper they haven’t considered portable art.

The only place where I think Walton and colleagues have missed something is asking if anything connects the four sites they found with plant art. To be fair, they could reasonably plead that they wanted to keep their sanity. Early archaeological dig reports can be hard to track down, and when you find them, you may find the excavator ignored what you wanted to find out. But the authors named the four sites, which allowed me to search for a common date for the images.

The four sites, dated BP, Before Present, are:

Archaeology isn’t well-funded, and like Botany, taxonomists don’t get the respect they deserve, making it difficult to get funding to create revised and more accurate typologies of material. I find it interesting that you could argue for a narrow timeframe of 17,000 to 15,000 BP for depictions of plants. I doubt anyone will get funding to see if the dating for plant art is as tight as that for many decades.

While Walton and colleagues don’t date the European material, they mention rock art from Kimberley, Australia, which features plant material and even depictions of plant human forms, known as phyto-anthropomorphs. In one of those coincidences that it’s far too easy for me to get carried away by, they cite work that says the Kimberley rock art could be 16,000 years old. More recent research on non-plant images could push those dates back. The botanists probably made a good choice to avoid getting bogged down in dating.

Writing about the lack of plant art in the Palaeolithic has been on my to-do list for a while. I had yet to tackle it because pinning down the absence of botany from the Palaeolithic as a fact is not a simple task. It might be something that ‘everybody knows’ in archaeology, but the history of archaeology is a history of people discovering stuff that ‘everybody knows’ is, in fact, an erroneous assumption.

The only other issue is that I’ve been talking about Palaeolithic art, as though there’s no problem taking a concept like ‘art’ and applying it to the Palaeolithic. Art, as we think about it, is based on modern ideas derived from earlier times, where the goal was to put classical Greece and Rome on a pedestal. The Palaeolithic was a very different time. This paper by Walton and colleagues could be a valuable reference for archaeologists when they want to remind people that working on Palaeolithic art is difficult.

READ THE ARTICLE

Walton, G., Mitchley, J., Reid, G. and Batke, S. (2023) “Absence of botanical European Palaeolithic cave art: What can it tell us about plant awareness disparity?,” Plants, People, Planet. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1002/ppp3.10373.

Alun Salt

Alun (he/him) is the Producer for Botany One. It's his job to keep the server running. He's not a botanist, but started running into them on a regular basis while working on writing modules for an Interdisciplinary Science course and, later, helping teach mathematics to Biologists. His degrees are in archaeology and ancient history.

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  • There is a very simple explanation. Plant foraging, harvesting and preparation was ‘woman’s work’ and women were not allowed to paint. In many Australian groups, even to see men’s painting was punished by death. There is no evidence to suggest that this demarcation was not employed globally in prehistory.

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