Similarities between a hunting ritual of the Australian aborigines and some upper Paleolithic representations

rituale del canguro
A group of initiates ritually strikes with spears the image of a kangaroo drawn on sand (from Hutchison, 1915). It is a phase of the initiatory ritual of the ceremony “Bora“ of the natives of Eastern Australia, set up with the purpose of initiating the youth to the secrets of masculine society. In these ceremonies the sacred myths of the tribe are told in form of mime show, as a teaching to the youth of traditional beliefs. Archaeologists have often used the materials related to primitive people to give a cultural identity to the archaeological documents brought to light. From the uncritical application of these data a picture emerged in which the prehistoric civilizations from time to time incorporated either the propitiatory hunting rituals of Arctic people; or the cult of bones of Tasmanians or of Amazonian Indians; or a totemic cult of the Australian aborigines. This way of working, which often generated confusion and inaccuracy, can be explained in the semi-true idea that prehistoric civilizations showed “clearly” the same traits of “primitive” contemporary people.

The paintings that the scholars have found in the depth of some caves of Franco-Cantabrian area had a considerable importance for the paleolithic people (from 35,000 to 10,000 years ago) who made them. Not for nothing entering these caves involved serious dangers. The three long tunnels of the Trois Frères cave, for instance, could be reached only by crawling, without ever lifting the head for forty meters, through a narrow passage.


Montespan Cave, Upper Paleolithic (from Breuil). Representation of a bear, pierced by javelin shots. At the time of discovery, next to the image was a bear skull and traces of his skin. Footprints, paws and claws of the cave bear have been preserved around the image. The footprints were arranged in a row around the sculpture. A ritual similar to that performed by the aborigines may have been performed around the sculpture. The image of animals pierced by spears in the vital parts of the body is widespread in many European Paleolithic caves.
3freres orso
Trois Frères, France, Upper Paleolithic (from Anati). Cave bear riddled with blows. The image shows the blood stream coming out of his mouth.

To see these paintings it was necessary to cross underground rivers, surmount crevasses and face many tricky obstacles. The great difficulty for man to penetrate into these underground chambers expresses clearly the aims of the whole procedure, surely not limited to the mere pleasure of enjoying an art work.

For what purpose did these men enter the depths of a cave, where darkness is complete, to create images?   Who could have ever seen those images, besides the artist who made them? Certainly the purpose of their creation is not that of art for art, because access to these images was probably allowed only to a small circle of initiates and only rarely and in particular recurrences to the entire community. Of course, to all these questions the prehistoric art scholar can not yet provide an adequate answer.

André Leroy Gourhan, who was one of the most important scholars of prehistoric thought with Emmanuel Anati, argues that “prehistoric man has left us only fragmentary messages. During a long ritual, he may have deposited a stone and on this he made the offer of a bison liver roasted over a plate of bark painted with ocher.The gestures, the words, the liver, the plate, have disappeared, as for the stone, only a miracle would allow us to distinguish it from the others scattered all around” (A. Leroy-Gourhan, Les Religions de la Préhistoire, 1964).

Tuc D'Odubert Ariége
Tuc D’Odubert, Ariège, France, Upper Paleolithic (from Breuil). Near the bottom of the cave, the bas-relief of two bison was found around which the footprints of about 50 heels of young people between 10 and 15 years are present in the ground. According to V. Nikolsky, the young people were performing the bison dance, taking care not to leave the mark of the toes in clay to imitate the object of the dance, the fingerless bison. Some of the footprints left on the ground lead to a cavity in which there are five columns of clay, probable phallic representations (Nikol’skij).




Autore: Gaudenzio Ragazzi

(English). My name is Gaudenzio Ragazzi, a long time ago I graduated in Philosophy with a master in History of Theater. To realize my thesis on the "origins of dance", a theme that still today boasts only two or three specialized researchers in the world, I became a scholar of Prehistoric Iconography. In the last thirty years I have not been able to escape the responsibilities of life. So, after the death of my father, I led the family artisan company that produces tailored shirts. A few years ago I decided that it was time to resume my studies and complete the research I had started as a young man (that nobody else had yet completed). Good luck Gaudenzio! Mi chiamo Gaudenzio Ragazzi, molto tempo fa ho conseguito la laurea in Filosofia con specializzazione in Storia del Teatro. Sono diventato uno studioso di Iconografia Preistorica per realizzare la mia tesi di laurea sulle "origini della danza", argomento che ancora oggi vanta nel mondo solo due o tre studiosi di una certa levatura. Negli ultimi trent'anni non ho potuto sottrarmi alle responsabilità della vita. Così, dopo la morte di mio padre, ho guidato l'azienda artigiana di famiglia che produce camicie su misura. Alcuni anni fa ho deciso che era arrivato il momento di riprendere i miei studi e di fare da vecchio quello che non ho potuto fare da giovane (e che nessun altro nel frattempo aveva completato). Buon lavoro Gaudenzio !


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