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The Five Names of Beatrice Kaye…(Part Three): Cave Art and the Sixth Name That Wasn’t To Be…

January 2, 2019

Ceiling at Altamira Cave, northern Spain

“After Altamira, all is decadence”…a quote attributed to Pablo Picasso after leaving the cave in northern Spain with its wondrous cave paintings…

1. Finding Altamira

Last night looking for something to watch on tv we stumbled upon a film “Finding Altamira,starring Antonio Banderas. Altamira, I knew the name of that place in northern Spain. It was where, in the late 19th century, in 1879, Maria, daughter of one Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, looked up at the ceiling of a cave on the Sautuola property and noticed a series of paintings. Her father was a skilled amateur archeologist and deeply committed secularist. A decent film, it portrayed the history of the discovery of the Altamira cave art accurately enough. The film triggered long ago memories.

Although I’ve not been to Altamira, in 1960 on a family trip to Europe, I visited to another famous cave with prehistoric paintings, Lascaux. It had been discovered a couple of decades after the Altamira cave paintings and helped legitimize the former, which had been declared a modern forgery.  Decades later, discussions of cave art, based on Altamira and Lascaux, was a recurring theme in my teaching over half a century. Long after I visited Lascaux – I came to an understanding of its profound implications for what it means to be human. It also gives insights into the projectory of human evolution, that “we,” humanity, have had the same mental, spiritual potential for probably 50,000 years or more; these so-called “cave men” were our equals intellectually and physically. There is no artificial division between “them” – Cromagnon, the paleolithic cave artists – and “us” – modern humanity. “We” are one and the same, even if some 19th century archeologists failed to appreciate the fact, blinded as they were by their own prejudices of the day. When one speaks of the “psychic unity” (or any other kind) of humanity…it goes back to Altamira and Lascaux and somewhat beyond.

Modern dating techniques indicate the Altamira cave paintings were created over a long period, the first ones done as early as 35,000 years ago, the most recent 11,000 years old. The cave shows no evidence of habitation – ie, that people actually lived in the cave – but more than likely was used for “special” or spiritual purposes. This is speculation, but based upon facts and the trajectory of human evolution.

We know know that human evolution of our line, the hominids, extends back now some seven million years. The fossil record reveals that technology and brain size evolved at a snail’s pace over most of that time. Then, some 60,000 years a series of developments emerged simultaneously. Our tools became much more diverse and sophisticated; our geographic distribution and our population exploded. We became expert hunter-gatherers. None of this was possible without the expansion of linguistic and abstract thinking abilities. There are more indicators that emerge during this period; among them, cames art and music. Combined, it is nothing less than “a creative explosion,’ one in which cave and rock art play an increasingly key role, not just in Spain and France but globally.

The art depicted at Altamira, of a very high quality, consisted of a herd of steppe bison, two horses, a large doe and probably a boar. It includes much that is “photographic” – ie easily recognizable today, although other pieces seem to be symbolic whose meaning is lost in history. Some 30 years later, it would be recognized as some of the finest paleolithic art ever produced, “the Sistine Chapel of prehistory;” it has been designated as UNESCO world heritage site.

Although Sautuola’s claims that the Altamira cave art was created by Paleolithic artists would eventually be verified, the initial reaction of the archeological community was that it was fraudulent art, completely modern and created by Sautuola as a cheap money-making venture to attract tourists. The main reason  for this accusation: the art was too professional, too subtly done technically and not “primitive enough”. The argument went that paleolithic painting of such quality and magnificence could not be done by earlier varieties of humanity. It was declared that paleolithic hunter-gatherers did not have the mental and spiritual capacities of modern humanity. The Altamira art itself was not simply “discredited” at the time, it was savaged, as was Sautuola’s reputation, who died discredited as a charlatan.

In 1902 a similar cave discovered by four young French boys skipping school was discovered in the area of the French village of Les Eyzies, in the Dordogne Valley of southern France. A dog chasing a ball into a hole led the boys to the discovery. Once inside the cave, they lit a match, looked up at the ceiling and discovered a Paleolithic art gallery. There were several other discoveries at around that time. The opposition to the Altamira art began to crumble. The some 38 years later, another set of boys playing hooky from school discovered another cave with wall paintings. This one was second to none –  the spectacular cave art of Lascaux – to which that of Altamira is an equal. On its walls were more than 600 paintings on its walls. The authenticity of the Lascaux art was soon verified, and gave credence to the legitimacy of Altamira art. It was “the real thing” – genuine paleolithic art.

Sautuola’s crucifixion by archeologists of the day is portrayed accurately enough in the film as is the local hostility of church authorities. A Wikipedia note comments that the Vatican did not formally condemn Sautuola’s research as heretical which is true enough. The pope might not have made any such statements, however, the local church authorities objected loudly. They interpreted Sautuola’s hypothesis as yet another Darwinian attack on Scripture.

The earlier “experts” had been quite wrong; it turns out that Cromagnon man – as the makers of the both Lascaux and Altamira art are referred to – is no different mentally, spiritually and physically than humanity today. Indeed, they are us and we are they. It was this prejudice – to demean early humanity, to argue Cromagnon was somehow intellectually inferior to us – that blinded archeologists like Gabriel de Mortillet and Emile Cartailhac from understanding the importance of Altamira cave paintings. Throughout the 20th century, cave art of the highest quality has been discovered the world over. A great concentration exists in and around the Dordogne Valley where Lascaux is located, but there is literally no continent that does not have its cave art and/or pictograph tradition. It is part and parcel of what makes us human.

July, 1960 – Robbie, Sarabelle, Laurie and Beatrice Prince at the entrance to the original Lascaux Cave. Laurie looks particularly excited to be there, neither Sarabelle or our mother are smiling either. It seems the only one happy to be there was me.

2. The Personal Connection

What is the connection between the Cromagnon art and “the five names of Beatrice Kaye?” Admittedly, it is a bit of a stretch; she refused to embrace “Greenberger as a sixth name . Frank Greenberger, of German Catholic origin, one of my father’s two childhood friends, wished very much that she had. After my parents were divorced (1959), Frank Greenberger, a retired army intelligence officer in World War II who worked in an insurance company after the war, courted my mother. My parents’ divorce and the courtship broke the friendship between Herb Prince and Frank Greenberger.

After a  years courting that included the trip described below, Frank Greenberger and  Beatrice Prince went their separate ways. When asked about it decades later,  she explained that she liked and respected Frank Greenberger, that he was a very decent, thoughtful and highly educated man. However, there was “no chemistry,” no spark in the relationship; she walked away from it, though not before Greenberger, referred to in our family as “Uncle Frank,”, took Beatrice Prince and her three children, Robbie (me – aged 16), Sarabelle (aged 13) and Laurie (aged 9) on a tour of Europe in the summer of 1960. Remembering it nearly sixty years later, I realize it was an extraordinary tour that only someone well-versed and well-traveled could have organized. He paid all  expenses.

Memories of that trip that stayed have remained vivid; they became integrated into my half century of teaching and a part of who I am today. For this I acknowledge Frank Greenberger’s contribution to my development even thoguh the courtship was a failure.  My mother good have done worse; In fact she did. For a sixteen year old boy who couldn’t figure very much about life – personal or beyond – the trip was a watershed, the significance of which I only understood a half century later.

Among the memories of that summer were two places, both in the south of France: Oradour-sur-Glane and the original Lascaux cave in the Dordogne Valley with its art gallery of cave paintings.

Oradour and Lascaux

We visited a village in south central France, Oradour, whose populace was entirely wiped out by the Nazis, for no known reason. There, on July 10, 1944,  a mere month after the Allied Normandy landings, Der Fuhrer Regiment of the 2nd Waffen-SS Panzer Division Das Reich (3rd Company of the 1st Battalion of the 4th Regiment Der Führer of the 2nd SS-Panzer Division (Das Reich) entered Oradour and slaughtered 642 men, women and children. After the war France turned Oradour into a national monument , calling the place the Martyr village of Oradour-sur-Glane. Everything remains as it was at the time of the massacre.

This was my first exposure to the horrors of war up close.

While I knew that Jews were a central target of Nazi terror, I didn’t know that there were millions of others who also did not escape the horrors of that war, among them the French. Oradour opened my eyes to the extent of Nazi oppression. LaterI learned the fate of Slavic peoples – Poles, Yugoslavs, Ukrainians, Russians along with the privations of the people of Belgium, the Netherlands – essentially the entire European continent and much of North Africa.  Oradour helped me put it an overall perspective. My life long interest in studying World War II including my current reading of Philip Kerr’s wonderful (if depressing) novels is a result of having spent a few hours at Oradour.

Like Altamira, the Lascaux cave art is celebrated internationally.  At the time we visited, it was possible to visit the actual site and  we did. Soon thereafter it was closed to public viewing. After it was discovered that the flood of visitors had brought  bacteria and mold that infected the art work. The paintings were treated with antibiotics which froze the deterioration process. A “replica Lascaux” was created by French engineers not far from the original site,  which is opened for the public. The same happened at Altamira although when it closed to public viewing, although its replica was created a distance away in Madrid.

By 1960 there was no question that the Altamira and Lascaux cave art was legitimate,  created by humanity earlier in the evolution of our species. Technically advanced dating methods, Carbon-14 dating, as well as other means had verified the authenticity of the art. Dramatic sites such as the Chauvet Cave, also in southern France, are now added to the list as is a wealth of rock art sites from the American Southwest.(1)

Nearly thirty years on, in  the summer of 1989, I visited “replica Lascaux”  along with more than a dozen other actual cave art sites in France’s Dordogne Valley. But it was that first visit to Lascaux in 1960 with Frank Greenberger courting Beatrice Prince that captured my imagination and provoked a lifelong interest in cave art. I didn’t understand what it was that I was looking at.

The art itself was, to my untrained eye, high quality. But the context was confusing. So much of it  no sense to me. Why art deep in caves? Who would come see it? Why would artists – for the most part, lying on their backs because the space was too small in which to stand –  made such breathtaking images that  few people could or would see? Why such extraordinary time, and effort by people who were, in their day, professionals in such obscure places?

I have spent a good deal of time trying to address these questions, the answers to which took much of my life to get some kind of handle on – even if Beatrice Prince didn’t become Beatrice Greenberger.


Part 1, 2


Wild Horse Rock Art Site – Utah. My photo but the photo credit goes to Carol Patterson for taking us there.

1. Nancy and I visited a number of these sites with former colleague, Anthropologist Carol Patterson, an expert on Southwestern rock art.


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