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The Magic Origin of Prehistoric Art*

  • Count Bégouen

The authenticity of the prehistoric paintings of the caves of Altamira has now been fully recognized for about thirty years, and with the many similar discoveries which have been made in France and Spain an entirely new light has been thrown on the mentality of prehistoric men. We must henceforth acknowledge that they possessed artistic tastes and a well developed aesthetic sense. No longer may we think of them as savages, solely concerned with the most material needs of daily life, but rather as men endowed with well-developed intellect and capable of considering things over and above the mere material side of the struggle for existence.

The discovery of skeletons, obviously buried with care, and surrounded with tools and ornaments, had already proved to us that respect was paid to the dead, and that there was a belief in an after-life. But with the discovery of works of art a fresh avenue of knowledge was opened up before us.

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1 A very important fact, and one which has considerable bearing on the magic theory, was the discovery in the course of the last fifteen years of some absolutely unknown caves. Furthermore these discoveries were made by prehistorians. I refer to the opening up in 1912 and 1914 of the neighbouring caverns of the Tuc d’Audoubert and of the Trois Frères at Montesquieu Avantès (Ariège), the cave at Montespan (Haute Garonne) in 1924 by my pupil Norbert Casteret, and in the same year the cave at Cabrerets (Lot) by the AbbC Lemozi.

As we knew that we were the first human beings to enter these galleries since prehistoric times, we realized the necessity of having regard to every minute detail, and the special importance of first observations. We proceeded with that caution, attention and pious regard that can only come with long practice in prehistoric research. By this means we were able to preserve untouched many unique features such as the impress of human hands and feet, besides a variety of mysterious objects ; little heaps of stalactites, rolls and twists of clay, etc., many small details of which we do not know the exact meaning ; and if they are in no way artistic they have some magic signification whose meaning the study of ethnography with its useful analogies may help us to guess, and in the course of comparison we may draw some useful inferences

* Translated by Miss Sylvia Seeley, of the Canadian School of Prehistory in France.

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  • ISSN: 0003-598X
  • EISSN: 1745-1744
  • URL: /core/journals/antiquity
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