An ethno-(pre-)historical approach

by Nold Egenter

For Mrs. Joyce Engel-Cowpers

The history of the human dwelling, the house and the settlement has not been written yet. The reason for this is the fragmentary archaeological findings, and this in turn has two further qualifications: On the one hand, most of the remains of huts and houses have disappeared through time, destroyed by erosion and later human ways of using the land. And on the other hand archaeological research turned to so called 'settlement archaeology' only about one generation ago. (Jens Luening 1989)

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Introduction: A thought experiment

Imagine you were in a cave somewhere and that you happened to discover a drawing on a rock such as the one shown in Figure 1. Without doubt, you would consider it to represent a real tree. Imagine further that by some sudden time warp you returned to prehistorical times and took a photograph of the object that the person who made the rock drawing had in his/her mind, or even perhaps before his/her eyes. You would unhesitatingly take it for a real tree (Fig. 2). If we further imagine that you could take a closer look at that tree, you would make a surprising discovery: it is an artificial tree (Fig. 3). Only a close external examination and a probing of its inner structure would reveal the truth: it is an artifact, made up of twigs, that looks like a tree. Mimicry? Trompe-l'oeil? Not at all: it is a holy tree. A deity is believed to live temporarily in it. Today, in Japan, it is still constructed annually at the same place and in the same form as an element of a very ancient institution, the Shinto cult of the clan or village deity (ujigami). In an earlier ethnographical and japanological study (Egenter 1981), I described in detail the circumstances surrounding the ritualistic construction of this artificial tree and raised a rather puzzling question in regard to the evolution of human perception and representation of the environment: could the artificial tree be the prototypical model used to perceive and represent the natural tree? More generally, to what extent did artifacts mediate prehistoric visual representations?

Fig. 1 ; Fig. 2 ; Fig. 3

Indeed, what has been briefly outlined here in our thought-experiment is valid not only for tree-forms - which, incidentally, appear to be extremely rare in rock art according to the current interpretation of the data. It may apply to other, seemingly natural forms alluding more or less clearly to certain animals and human figures. All the drawings in Figure 4, which are reproduced from illustrations and photographs from Japanese folklore literature, show territorial markers of local communities in Japan. Primarily of abstract geometrical form, these technogenetic (bundling stalks) markers were transformed by secondary processes -that is to say, by accumulation of new cultural elements - into plant-, animal-, or human-like form, or even into secondary topo-, cosmo-, or technomorphous types. This paper tries to use this ethnographic material for the interpretation of palaeolithic and neolithic petroglyphs and pictographs.

Fig.4ab ; Fig.4cd ; Fig.4ef ; Fig.4gh ; Fig.4ij ; Fig.4kl ; Fig.4m ; Fig.4n

Problems of interpretation of prehistoric representations

The objects represented in the form of petroglyphs and pictographs can be divided roughly into two categories: (1) objects which are more or less clearly identifiable because they are anthropomorphous, zoo-morphous, or bio-morphous in general; topomorphous (mountain, valley, 'map'); cosmomorphous (sun, moon, stars); technomorphous (tool, weapon, boat); and (2) objects which are not clearly identifiable because they are purely geometrical or relatively amorphous.

There is another set of qualities which aesthetically characterises rock art representations. It extends from naturalistic, realistically proportioned art works to more or less stylized types, and finally to designs which are highly abstract, showing geometric forms which can no longer be identified as representing objects (Fig. 5). In the current archaeological literature, it is generally assumed that naturalistic representations are primary and that the prototypes of the painter were natural or instrumental forms. The conditions of 'style' are usually taken for granted and barely discussed. Purely geometric forms, if not otherwise identified, are interpreted in the frame of abstractly conceived Euclidian geometry.


Anyone intending to discuss rock art in a world-wide context must necessarily refer to a theoretical framework of world-wide validity. Conventionally, this framework consists of three elements. First there is the formal expression - that is to say, the rather naive opinion that formal units indicate a direct relation with some natural or cultural object. This relation, it is believed, can still be identified today. The second element deals with the question of the meaning of such formal units in themselves or in the context of other forms. The third element concerns the purpose, the function, the social or human conditions that produced such forms. Interpretation in general is based on the concepts established by various other disciplines, such as history of religion, history of art, economic anthropology, etc.

One of the main problems of interpretation stems from the fact that we know very little about the material conditions of prehistoric societies. Archaeology presents us merely with what was durable, the 'remains'. Consequently, analogies with known ethnological conditions have been increasingly used for the interpretation of prehistorical data (e.g., Narr 1973); but, particularly with regard to rock paintings, the analogies do not seem to be sufficient. The ethnographic study of semantic architecture might provide some clues for the reinterpretation of rock art morphology.

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