La Chapelle-aux-Saints and the distorted interpretative framework of Paleolithic Art

aggsbach quina scraper briveThis is a Quina scraper (7×3,5 cm) found near Brive in the 19th century. Similar instruments are known from the nearby Neanderthal burial site from a limestone cave called „Bouffia Bonneval” at La Chapelle-aux-Saints (Département Corrèze, Limousin, France). Lithic artifacts from Bouffia Bonneval from an excavation (1906 to 1908)  clearly indicate a Charentian Mousterian (Quina type). Another lithic series collected on the slopes facing the site shows the presence of a Mousterian with Bifaces as well as a later Neolithic occupation. The human remains were first studied by Marcellin Boule, whose reconstruction of Neanderthal anatomy was based on la Chapelle-aux-Saints material. Boule biased both the scientific community and the public opinion towards the perceptions of Neanderthals as ape-like idiots. But Chapelle-aux-Saints was also important in the controversy among Archaeologists if early men were capable for religious thinking.

In France a fierce battle between the clericals and anticlericals were among the most significant political events of the last three decades of the nineteenth century prior to the 1905 official separation of church and state. The anticlericals who gained much influence during the third Repubic, were organized in several societies, for example within the Anthropological society ( Broca, Mortillet). The anticlericals were socialists, evolutionsist (allthough more Lamarckists than inspired by Darwin) and materialists and pretty dogmatic in their views. The leading archaeologist Gabriel de Mortillet and his anthropological collegues were omnipresent in the discourse about the Prehistoric times. In Mortillets view early man had no religious sentiments at all. Religion as an instrument of oppression emerged only during the Neolithic (“Robenausien”).

After Mortillets dead in 1898 the situation changed. Religious scientists, like the Abbe Breuil and the brothers Bouyssonie entered the field and made substantial contributions in Paleolithic studies. A dense and international network of catholic scientists emerged. A. and J. Bouyssonie, and L. Bardon detected the Neanderthal burial at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in 1908 and the Abbe Breuil was involved in the rehabilitation of Paleolithic art around Les Eyzies and finally at Altamira around the turn of the 20th century. As a man of field work he also corrected the biased views of Mortillet about the succession of upper Paleolithic technocomplexes, by proving that the Aurignacian was an important entity and, if present, was always intercalated between the Mousterian and Solutrian at several important sites.

Were these catholic priests Modernist? Modernism is the name given to the doctrinal and disciplin­ary crisis in the Roman Catholic Church in the early years of the twentieth century, a crisis that was created by the efforts of certain Roman Catholic intellectuals to reconcile Catholic faith with modern rationality. In 1907 Pope Pius X condemned as heretical these Modernist efforts to bring the Roman Catholic Church in line with modern thought.

Although Breuil and other catholic Prehistorians may have been inspired by the “modernistic” approach, they avoided conflicts with the Catholic Church, by strictly separating the Catholic dogma from their scientific work. They surely helped to overcome the one-dimensional reference frame of unilinear evolutionary Materialism. On the other hand the magico-religious interpretations about Paleolithic art they put forward were equally one-dimensional and unfortunately dominated the scientific discourse during most of the 20th century. Even today almost everyone seems to think for sure, that Paleolithic art always represents religious thinking.

After a short structuralistic episode (Leroi-Gourhan and Laming-Emperaire) in the interpretation of Stone Age art and an even shorter poststructuralistic discourse a new master narrative was proposed by David Lewis-Williams, a South African archeologist : Shamanism is suggested to be the key for the understanding of Paleolithic art over a time period of 20000 years and even beyond. This hypothesis proved to be enormously successful.

Lewis-Williams suggests, based mainly on historical records made by persons non trained in Anthropology, that Rock art in South Africa has been always  associated with the trance experiences of shamans. According to David Lewis-Williams:

  • Shamanism is widespread among hunter-gatherers and was widespread during the Paleolithic, too.
  • a shaman had an important role as a religious specialist in Paleolithic societies by being a mediator between the real world and the world of the spirits.
  • The use of psychomimetic drugs for religious and magical purposes at different times and places all around the world has long been known from the ethnographic literature (for example: Schultes & Hofmann 1979).
  • Upper Paleolithic people were Homo sapiens like us and therefore had a nervous system identical to ours. Some of them (shamans) have known altered states of consciousness in their various forms including hallucinations.
  • Ergo: Paleolithic art was created by Shamans during altered states of consciousness

As already discussed in an earlier post, the concept of shamanism in the Paleolithic is highly problematic ( A closer look shows that most of Williams suggestions are based on analogies. Analogies are double-edged swords: They can foster understanding, but they can also lead to serious misconceptions. Here some arguments against Lewis-Williams simple view:

  • The handful theriomorphic figures in Paleolithic art are far from proving the idea of shamanistic rituals.
  • Footsteps of children in some French caves do not prove any suggestions about initiation rites
  • Ethnographic observations from South Africa cannot be taken as an interpretative framework for unknown ideologies of Paleolithic Europe
  • Geometric figures and other abstract signs in Paleolithic art are not really an unequivocal proof of shamanistic hallucinations under drugs

I could offer much more examples. Sadly enough, it seems that the popular shamanic theory is simply the return of Breuil’s naïve and selective ethnological thoughts as farce.


Suggested Reading: Silvia Tomaskova is one of the most productive scientists dealing with the ideological  conceptions and misconceptions of Paleolithic archaeology.

Silvia Tomaskova: From a materialist ethic to the spirit of prehistory.” Bender, C. and A. Taves (eds.) What Matters: Ethnographies of Value in a (Not So) Secular Age.

An very interesting and comprehensive book about “shamanism” by the same author: Wayward Shamans (at your personal bookstore).

Always an interesting source:

New excavations at Bouffia Bonneval support the hypothesis of an intentional burial. In addition, the discovery of skeletal elements belonging to the original La Chapelle aux Saints 1 individual, two additional young Neanderthals, and a second adult Neanderthal were found  in the Bouffia Bonneval!


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About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome!

About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University.

Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.

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One Response to La Chapelle-aux-Saints and the distorted interpretative framework of Paleolithic Art

  1. Craig Riedl says:

    I quite agree that hunting magic and so forth is too often associated with artifacts, petroglyphs and cave paintings. For example the many split willow stick figures of deer and sheep found in the dry caves of southwestern north America. These little animal figures are easily made and could have just been children’s toys rather than magic for the hunt. Figures made from clay as well as corn cobs could be just as easily toys as magic tailsmans. Certainly many of petroglyphs found around the southwestern United States appear to be just animals and insects pecked into the rock surfaces by individuals with no apparent ritualistic purpose other than to indicate ‘I was here’.. Are the ugly and the wonderful graffiti paintings on the walls of buildings done by shamans?

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