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The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists Paperback – October 9, 2007


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

For centuries, people have been going into caves in France and Spain, looking at the 30,000-year-old pictures painted there and asking, "What can they be?" In this lively survey, Curtis, former Texas Monthly editor, makes it clear that while we'll never have a definitive answer, the quest will always be fascinating. He begins by laying out who the painters probably were and what their world was like during the waning days of Neanderthals. Then he dives into the caves and the bitter controversies on the art within, from the war of ideas between Marcelo Sautuola and Emile Cartailhac in the late 19th century to Jean Clottes's and David Lewis-Williams's current, strongly disputed theory that the paintings are related to shamanic quests. Curtis's own speculation is sometimes more arguable than believable, but usually intriguing. He bolsters a slim number of illustrations with concise descriptions that convey his own delight, befuddlement, frustration and awe. At the cave Les Tres-Frères, he is overwhelmed by the images and by being "as close as I would ever be—physically close—to The Truth." For readers who may never visit the caves, Curtis's sensitive narration gives a chance to share that encounter with mystery. 20 b&w illus. and 8-page color insert. (Oct. 13)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"Fascinating. . . . We will be arguing about these glorious creations for many years to come." —The Washington Post Book World"The beauty of the cave art moves Curtis deeply, and his writing preserves that passionate response." —Seattle Times“Curtis is a good storyteller, and he has good stories to tell about eccentrics of all sorts.” —The Christian Science Monitor“A fascinating survey of the rival theories. . . . [Readers will be] swept up in the beauty of the cave paintings and the persuasive pull of his prose.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (October 9, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400078873
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400078875
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #246,963 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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35 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on November 21, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Although the earliest recognised Palaeolithic cave art was found in northern Spain, it is France where the greatest attention has been given to these enigmatic images. Gregory Curtis has visited many of the caves, and the impression he's taken away from those stygian galleries is expressively imparted in this book. Retaining a sense of wonder over time is one sign of a good science writer. Add to that sense a desire to explain both his feelings and the science struggling to understand how and why those graphics came to be and you have the makings of a fine book. Curtis is both expressive and informative in his presentation.

Curtis lines out the history of the Altamira find in northern Spain and the subsequent discoveries in France carefully and clearly. He has a nice feeling for the people who discovered Lascaux, Chauvet and the many other sites. Ancient caves being what they are, hidden by rockfalls, shrubbery or forests, children play a significant role in these accounts. Altamira, he reminds us, was entered by a father and daughter, but the parent sought artefacts on the floor, while the daughter was inquisitive enough to glance at the ceiling: "Look, Papa! Oxen!". Her "Papa", Sr de Sautuola, would prove the first of many to be embroiled in lengthy disputes over his daughter's discovery.

Disputes are the norm in archaeology, and those surrounding cave art may be among the most acrimonious. Altamira's cave paintings were first considered modern fakes and the exchanges grew so heated that de Sautuola was worn to death by the struggle. As more examples of hidden art came into view, a figure rose in France who was beset by problems of his own.
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48 of 54 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on December 22, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
They are among the most familiar paintings in the world, and they are also among the oldest. Within caves that are still being discovered in France and Spain are paintings and engravings on the rocks, some of them 30,000 years old. There are some 350 such caves, a vast amount of art that is simultaneously evocative of an older time and also immediate in its appeal. After touring one of the most famous such caves, Lascaux, Picasso himself was humbled, and said, "We have learned nothing in twelve thousand years." One of the things we have learned, however, is that the paintings are far older than that, and we have learned such facts because of improvements in basic research. In _The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists_ (Knopf), Gregory Curtis has given an overview of much else we know about these strange and beautiful works, and also how much people have speculated about them. There is so much we cannot know about the people who made them that the cave paintings are sort of like a Rorschach test for each era that views them.

One thing that experts in prehistory and art novices alike agree on is that the paintings are impressive and beautiful. Most people are familiar with the animals depicted in the paintings, and overwhelmingly, animals are the subjects the painters favored. It is interesting what they do not show, and it is impossible to say why they didn't think parts of their world should not be commemorated on the walls. They show no stars nor sun nor moon, for instance, but we know that prehistoric people watched the sky closely. They show no landscapes, and the animals float untethered by trees, bushes, or flowers.
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29 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Alex C. Telander on March 10, 2008
Format: Paperback
THE CAVE PAINTERS: PROBING THE MYSTERIES OF THE WORLD'S FIRST ARTISTS BY GREGORY CURTIS: It was a special day when Gregory Curtis was vacationing in France with his family and entered some famous caves. When he gazed upon the unique cave paintings for the first time, this book was born. The Cave Painters is a two-part story: one small part the story of the rise of Cro-Magnon, modern humans, and their painting abilities; the rest the history of those people who first discovered the paintings and how they proved their finds to the world.

In the first chapter, Curtis starts right at the beginning with the first non-ape hominid to evolve and make their way across Africa as a being that would one day be known as human. He then takes the reader on a journey evolving through different generations of the Homo genus up to Cro-Magnon, better known as Homo sapiens. Curtis also discusses the merits of whether the Neanderthals were "wiped out" by the arrival of Cro-Magnon, leaning more towards no, since the population numbers that are being discussed here are in little more than the thousands. These two different groups of people would rarely have had any contact with each other at all. Nevertheless, it is clear that Curtis has gone all out with the research, making sure that it is clear and up to date, and to put forth multiple ideas that are currently supported, and not just the one he supports.

While the reader is left wanting much more in this area, this is sadly where Curtis essentially leaves it, now taking up the history of those special people who discovered the cave paintings of Western Europe. Though in some ways this is just as moving and tumultuous a story as that of the Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals.
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