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Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Humankind Hardcover – June 1, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

With academic subheadings like "Powers of Observation and the Space-Time Continuum," this is a comprehensive overview of prehistoric art, not a casual coffee-table book. White, director of the nonprofit Institute for Ice Age Studies, is a New York University anthropologist, and he offers a history of global excavations, the art and the peoples who made it, while also exploring the meanings of the symbols and the social system in which they were crafted. One of his stated goals with this effort is to "illustrate how a modern Western notion of `art' impedes an understanding of the emergence and adaptive value of the earliest representations in any given region." But 226 full-color illustrations give plenty of opportunity for simply marveling: a pointillist bison; face-to-face woolly mammoths in simple black lines; a 26,000-year-old ivory carving of a human skull. The result is a book that provides a journey as real as it is symbolic, demonstrating the evolutionary power of imagery.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Scientific American

About 40,000 years ago the first Homo sapiens--the Cro-Magnons--began to trickle into Europe, displacing the resident Neanderthals in the process. The contrast between the records of their lives that these very different hominids left behind could hardly be more striking. For no extinct human species, not even the large-brained Homo neanderthalensis, has bequeathed us evidence of a complex symbolic existence, based on the extraordinary cognitive capacities that distinguish us from all other living species today. In contrast, the lives of the Cro-Magnons were drenched in symbolism. Well over 30,000 years ago these early people were creating astonishing art on the walls of caves. They crafted subtle and beautiful carvings and engravings and kept records by incising intricate notations on bone plaques. They made music on bone flutes, and if they did this, they surely sang and danced as well. They ornamented their bodies and buried their dead with elaborate grave goods, presumably to serve them in an afterlife. Technologically, a cascade of innovations included nets, textiles and ropes, even the first ceramics. In short, those Cro-Magnons were us: members of a species whose relationship with the rest of the world was totally unprecedented in the entire history of life. For a couple of decades now, New York University archaeologist Randy White has been a leading investigator of how the expression of the unique human capacity unfolded in Europe during the two dozen millennia that followed the arrival of the Cro-Magnons. In this thoughtful and very beautiful book, White concentrates on the most dazzling part of this record, the part that embraces what we would call art--and that includes some of the most powerful ever made. But he is careful to point out that "art" is very much a Western concept and that for its creators, what looks to us like art probably had implications vastly different from those we impute in our own society to art and decoration. For while nobody could doubt that Cro-Magnon symbolic production somehow reflected these people's conceptions of their place in the natural world, the Cro-Magnons were hunters and gatherers, with a perceived relationship to nature that must have been radically different from our own. For this reason, White eschews the elaborate explanations that so many authors feel somehow obliged to bring to the interpretation of prehistoric art and hews to the facts. He begins with a brief history of the discovery and interpretation of Cro-Magnon art, as prelude to a largely chronological account of the evidence for symbolic expression in Europe and parts of northern Asia between about 40,000 and 10,000 years ago. In these sections, White mostly avoids stylistic analysis in favor of a focus on techniques, but he manages to address, if usually briefly, most of the major questions that Cro-Magnon art elicits. As perhaps befits a work that grew out of a university survey course, this volume extends beyond mainly European Ice Age art to consider prehistoric symbolic and representational traditions (some earlier, others quite recent) in Africa, southern and western Asia, Australia, and the Americas. Each of these regional groupings is treated separately, and White wisely refrains from drawing close parallels between different regional traditions. Of course, including all these diverse traditions between the covers of a single book might be taken to imply a unity that contradicts White's insistence on the unique cultural roots and referents of each one of them. But the fact that all are the products of hunting-gathering peoples serves very usefully to remind us of the vast range of iconographies and aesthetics available even to noncomplex human societies. What White's spectacularly illustrated book does most clearly, then, is to bring home the astonishing diversity and intricacy of the representational traditions that the extraordinary human symbolic spirit has from the beginning produced worldwide, even in the absence of complex social and economic structures. The remarkable human cognitive capacity that early art reflects appeared quite recently, perhaps less than 100,000 years ago. And that appearance set our species on a course of accelerating technological change and elaboration that may yet run out of our control. But White shows that although our economic lives have changed out of recognition in that time, the potential that underwrites our modern lifestyles and achievements was there from the very start. Deep down, human beings haven't changed one whit since prehistoric times.

Ian Tattersall is a curator of physical anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. His most recent book is The Monkey in the Mirror (Harcourt, 2002).

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Harry N. Abrams; 1St Edition edition (June 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0810942623
  • ISBN-13: 978-0810942622
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 1 x 11.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #427,868 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

39 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Wyote VINE VOICE on September 22, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I wasn't sure whether this book or "Journey Through the Ice Age" by Paul G. Bahn would be better, so I bought them both.

It turns out that they are both excellent books. Both are loaded with color photographs of artifacts famous and less well-known. Both have scholarly, informative text, considering anthropological and historical contexts, the techniques and materials used by the artists, the history of the study of prehistoric art, and plenty of cautious speculation about the functions the art had to its artists' communities.

They are organized quite differently: Bahn's moves from topic to topic: chapter 7 is on portable art, chapter 8 on rock shelters and cave art, chapter 9 on outdoors art, and so on. But White's book has a regional arrangement: chapter 4 is on Western Europe, chapter 5 is on Central and Eastern Europe and Sibera, chapter 6 is on Africa, the Near East and Anatolia, and so on.

Obviously you can see that White's book has more of a global focus than Bahn's. In fact, Bahn's third chapter deals with prehistoric art outside of Europe; in every other chapter he focuses on European art, especially the caves.

Although Bahn's book devotes a chapter to "Portable Art" such as jewelry and miniature statues (including the famous "Venus figurines"), White's book has a far superior coverage. On the other hand, Bahn has better coverage of interesting issues such as how to reproduce prehistoric art for public enjoyment, dating issues, and forgeries.

If you are primarily interested in European cave art and will be content with a glance at the rest of the world, then Bahn's book is better for you.
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful By "harrowcottage" on September 30, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This is a magnificent looking production, with hundreds of ancient items reproduced in extraordinary quality. The captioning, referencing and graphics are excellent. The reader can follow how representational styles and subjects changed over time, and varied between areas of settlement. And many of the objects -- a lion-headed figure, a smoothly carved woman's head, wall-painted images of a horse in different moods -- are breathtaking and memorable.
What I love about this book, though, is that it has changed the way I think about "art", and how I think about my forebears of 10,000-50,000 years ago. It is a risky error to imagine that people in cultures so remote in time from ours would have painted or chiselled or carved for the same purposes that a modern-day Western artist would. Notions of "art" and "beauty", the purposes to which representational objects are put, vary greatly between cultures, and are bound to have varied hugely over such long periods of time. And these were loooong periods of time: "prehistoric" peoples occupied the world for hundreds of generations before the adoption of agriculture and the many changes it brought, and their habits and beliefs and languages would have changed many times. I will never again think of the ancient peoples of the world as a single, unchanging group.
This is a rigorous, beautiful and unforgettable book.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on August 5, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Sometime around forty thousand years ago, our ancestors began to view Nature from a new perspective. Although Homo sapiens and its ancestors knew Nature well in order to survive, a different visual outlook was in the making. Hunting or scavenging prey or dodging predators kept people aware of other animals. As physical changes made speech possible, there must have been some exchange of observations and ideas. With the new outlook, however, came a change in expression. Graphic images, especially those of large and powerful creatures surrounding them, were painted on rock walls. Those images and the models incorporated into tools and weapons, could be seen by all and became part of the society. Since their first known discovery in 1575, but chiefly in the 19th and 20th centuries, a great deal of interpretation and debate has occurred over their antiquity, what prompted their creation, and what they "mean". White, in this superb global survey of "art before writing", dismisses most of the theories, while placing the artworks in their likely social setting.

Even if the author failed to provide new insights into what prehistoric art might convey, the illustrations make this book something special. The images in this collection make it an outstanding example of the new wave of such studies. While there are books on Altamira, Lascaux, Chauvet and other locations, few, if any, offer the comprehensive prospect of so many sites. White devotes chapters to such scattered locations as Siberia, Anatolia, South Asia and the Americas. Each region has its own varieties of art, spanning a particular time-line and incorporating many traditions.

One point White reiterates often is his dismissal of art being "an invention of European civilization".
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19 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Midwest Book Review on June 12, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey Of Humankind by Ice Age art and technology expert Randall White (Professor of Anthropology, New York University) is an amazingly impressive and informationally detailed survey overview of the paintings, sculptures, pottery, and more, crafted by human beings before times remembered and recorded by the written word. Breathtaking full-color photographs superbly enhanced a thorough, scholarly, fully accessible text describing what is known about sites of prehistoric art worldwide. Prehistoric Art is a work of impeccible scholarship and very highly recommended addition to Art History and Anthropological Studies reference shelves and reading lists.
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