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2020-11-17 12:48:51   •   ID: 2215

Portable Magdalenian Art in Action: A Lizard from the Franco-Cantabria Border

Figure 1
This is a deeply greenish patinated, 6 cm long, Paleolithic three-dimensional tiny carving, (whole-plastic; en ronde-bosse), probably made of reindeer antler.

It was found during the early 1920ies near the Franco-Cantabrian border and was most probably created during the Magdalenien.

It seems to represent a four legged and long tailed animal, although only two legs are carved. Interestingly the animal shows a humped back. Therefore an alternative interpretation seem to be more reasonable in which the “legs” and the "hump" are the feature of a crawling / meandering motion.

The animals snout is best seen on Figure 2 and 3. The lateralized "eyes" of the stylized figurine were most probably used as an eyelet, probably to be attached to a necklace.

Figure 2
Our animal has an oblong head which is clearly separated from the neck. Its head is looking up as if it is attentive to some danger.

The animals neck and parts of the body are covered by criss-cross ornaments (Figure 3 and 4), while the ornaments on the rounded tail show both a crisscross and hatching pattern.

Our pendant has some similarity with a three dimensional carving coming from M. Maurys excavations of the Middle to Upper Magdalenian strata at Laugerie Basse between 1912 - 1920 (Abri des Marseilles). Several Prehistorians supposed this carving might be a Salamander.

The best depiction auf Maurys findings are shown here on page 62: Laugerie

The first Description of Maury is found in Figure 7, (Maurys Figure 2 in the short publication) at the end of the post.

We personally suggest that the animal of this post displayes a Reptile, most probably a Lizard; perhaps a sand Lizard (Lacerta agilis; in German: Zauneidechse) or Lacerta Vivipara (Common Lizard; Deutsch: Waldeidechse)- anyhow this issue remains open for any serious discussion.

Figure 3
Lacerta agilis is a robust looking, lively and pretty lizard, currently common in the North of Europe. It is a cold-tolerant species which was probably able to survive even in non-Mediterranian glacial refuges like central France (Joger et al. 2010). Today relicts of this species are living in south of Sweden (Berglind 2005).

Essential for the reproduction of sand lizards are the hours of sunshine because they are important for hatching their eggs. It is assumed, that in late Glacial France, the hours of sunshine were longer than today in Sweden.

Lacerta Vivipara (Figure 6) on the other hand is a 'viviparous lizard'- unusual among reptiles as it incubates its eggs inside its body and „gives birth“ to live young rather than laying eggs.

This lizard is nowadays the most common and widespread reptile in Europe and found from the UK over South and Central Europe over the East European plain and even in Siberia. It is cold resistant and found across many habitats, including heathland, moorland, woodland and grassland, where it can be seen basking in sunny spots.

Figure 4
The Magdalenian cave art proves that people thoughtfully and precisely watched their environment and the wild living animals.

Magdalenian cave drawings always show the characteristics of specific species. The same holds true for depictions of Animals of Magdalenian portable art, although partially or complete stylized items are also known.

Our Lizard is not completely sculpted after nature. We suggest, in analogy to other known Paleolithic examples, that the engravings along the animal's body have their own symbolic meaning or were only made for aesthetic reason. About the symbolic significance of geometric patterns during the European Palaeolithic- see: 2046 . We also recommend the Thesis and Book of G Petzinger, published las year.

The deep emotional connection between humans and animals has already been discussed in an earlier post- see: 2194 . Many recent Hunter-gatherers groups conceive animals as “non-human persons” or “other-than-human-persons”. Humans were able to exchange form and identity with Animals and vice-versa.

Anyhow, Reptilians in portable Paleolithic Art are rare and selectively known from the Magdalenian.

According to Bahn we know two tortoises from St Cirq near Les Eyzies in the Dordogne and a Turtle from Mas-d’Azil (Ariège).

Although rare, the Lizards seems to have played a Symbolic and even Cosmological role in the Holocene Rock art in North and East Africa, Australia and the Americans (see attached files).

Figure 5
Social and cultural interactions in southwestern France and northern Spain during the Magdalenian are a well-known feature.

Despite the Aquitaine, Cantabria and the Pyrenees share an overall resemblance in parietal and portable art, the patterns of interconnection are most similar during the Upper Magdalenian, perhaps rising temperatures in the latter period led to a cultural homogenization between the two regions (Rivero and Sauvet 2014).

We will not discuss the Ethnological literature further, because an Ethnological approach in Pleistocene art opens the door to completely subjective and even esoteric interpretations. Anyhow we can be sure that the lizard of this post does not represent a Shaman! A good introduction about tis nasty theme is a Paper: The Tyranny of the Ethnographic record revisited.

We are used to seeing lizards as warmth-loving animals that experienced a hard time under glacial conditions and would have probably not survived. Anyhow, research clearly contradicts to this simple assumption.

Prehistoric Lizards in South Europe are known even during the coldest Phases of the last Glaciation. It is remarkable that Wall lizards in an experimental setting can tolerate cooling to a body temperature of -2,2 to -6,5 degrees Celsius (Claussen et al.2006).

Figure 6
Genetic evidence proved a post-glacial re-colonization of cold adapted Lizards from Southern European refuges to the rest of Europe towards the end of the Ice age (Salvi et al 2013).

Several categories of freeze responsive genes have been identified encoding proteins involved in iron binding, enzymes of antioxidant defense, and serine protease inhibitors (Storey 2005).

These genetic background allowed Lizards to colonize many parts of Prehistoric Europe during the last glaciation and they obviously became a rare, but highly valued object in Pleistocene art.

Text and Figures Figure 1-4 ,7 and Text: Johannes Meller (Archaeology) and Christina Federmann Doebber (Biology).

Figure 5: Wikipedia Commons by Friedrich Böhringer; Barbeitet von Lucas Löffler.

Figure 6: Wikipedia GNU Free Documentation License

Suggested Readings:

Collective: L'Art préhistorique des Pyrénées; 1996: A "must have "- hundred pictures of mail Paleolithic portable art in the Pyrénées!

M Geneste et al.: Grands sites d`art magdalénien: Laugerie-Basse; 2014

P. Paillet: L'art des objets de la préhistoire - Laugerie-Basse et la collection du marquis Paul de Vibraye au Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle; 2014

Figure 7
P Bahn and J Vertut: Journey Through the Ice Age; 2017

A Lawson: Painted Caves: Palaeolithic Rock Art in Western Europe ; 2012

Delluc, Bet al.; (Connaître la préhistoire en Périgord; 1990

Maury, J. and Edmunds E: Laugerie Basse The Excavations of M.J.-A. Le Bel; 1925

The Doors - The Celebration of The Lizard; A live experiment from 1969 with Jim Morrison as the Lizard King!

Resources and images in full resolution: