Skip to content

Amir D. Aczel – The Cave and the Cathedral

October 20, 2009

124. The Cave and the Cathedral: How a Real-Life Indiana Jones and a Renegade Scholar Decoded the Ancient Art of Man by Amir D. Aczel (2009)

Length: 242 pages

Genre: Non-Fiction; Archaeology

Started: 12 October 2009
Finished: 15 October 2009

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? I saw the title on my library’s “new books” RSS feed and thought it sounded interesting.

Fiction fans know the
real story of the cave art.
Ayla painted it!

Summary: The prehistoric cave paintings of Western Europe are one of the most enduring mysteries of archeology and paleoanthropology. Painted between 32,000 and 12,000 years ago, the painted animals and symbols are extraordinary – representative not only of symbolic thought in our ancestors, but also of deep dedication – for they are most frequently in deep, nearly inaccessible reaches of caves – surely a daunting prospect for a Cro-Magnon artist lacking modern high-powered flashlights. Furthermore, while each cave varies slightly in its content, the style is remarkably similar, even though two caves may be separated by 20,000 years and half a continent. Many explanations for the purpose of the paintings have been put forward over the years, and in the book, Aczel discusses the merits of several of these hypotheses, but ultimately acknowledges that we can never truly know what these early artists were thinking, and that the caves can only give us the smallest glimpse into the mindset of early man.

Review: I really enjoyed the first half of this book. In it, Aczel describes the various painted caves, and gives a very good overview of the type and variety of its art, as well as a very good impression of its grandeur and wonder – which is especially nice for those of us who have never been fortunate enough to see a painted cave. I do wish there had been more photographs (there *are* 16 color plates in the center), for as well as Aczel tries to describe them, something is always lost in translating pictures to words. Plus, having the pictures as diagrams in the text would have been helpful for times when I was trying to compare his text to actual pictures, and couldn’t make the two match (for instance, he says that one of the spotted horses in the cave at Peche Merle has a red fish on its back, which I am just not seeing at all.) But, overall, I learned a lot about the cave paintings, and since that was my main purpose in reading the book, that at least was a success.

Where it broke down for me is when Aczel started getting into the various interpretations of what the cave art means. Aczel is a man with a point of view. I get that it’s impossible not to have an opinion about the cave paintings; this is not impartial journalistic non-fiction, and there is one interpretation of the cave paintings that he thinks is right, so he structured his book accordingly. However, I didn’t feel like he made his case especially convincingly, often dismissing other theories and theorists out of hand, without fully dismantling their arguments. (He seemed to have a particular bone to pick with Jean Clottes, another scholar of prehistory.) For instance, he dismisses the idea that the paintings were a form of hunting magic because very few of the animals are depicted as wounded. Personally, I think this shows a lack of imagination as to how the hunting magic may have worked; the relative lack of paintings of the most common prey species (reindeer and ibex) is a much more damning argument.

The theory he does favor suggests that the paintings are a representation of a worldview that focused on duality, particularly of sexual duality, with paintings of bison (female) being frequently paired with paintings of horses (male), and with these animals being accompanied by various signs and symbols that have also been classified as male or female. While I have no real opinion on the validity of this or any other theory (not being an archaeological expert), Aczel certainly seems to be more lenient about the weaknesses of his pet theory than he is for any other, and as such, his argument was never entirely convincing.

For example, compare these sets of quotes – one about a theory he’s trying to disprove, and one about the theory he likes:

“There seems to be a deep inner structure to Paleolithic parietal art that is unlikely – in my estimation – to have occurred as the result of a shaman’s requirements.” (p. 151, about the idea that the cave art was part of some religious/shamanic ritual… after a chapter where he goes to Alaska to ask some Inuit peoples about their native art)


“But, of course, we must avoid making any comparisons or implications based on living societies. And we should only interpret ideas very cautiously and propose theories that can be scientifically supported.” (p. 174)

“Numbers can be arranged in so many possible ways, and there is also the risk that people in search of certain patterns discard or ignore bones or rocks that bear other numbers of markings, leaving them with only the specially selected ones that they think provide evidence for whatever theory they want to prove. […] There is even a mathematical theorem (Furstenberg’s Theorem) that specifies conditions under which any pattern whatsoever can be found in a large-enough collection of possibilities.” (p. 165-6, discussing a theory that some symbols were arranged in groups of 29, making them either astronomical (lunar), or concerned with fertility (menstrual), or both.)


“Sometimes this coupling [of a horse and a bison] was easily discerned, and at other times one had to look around – but it was always there. In some cases, the secondary animals intervened and masked this pattern, but once you knew what to look for, you could always find it.” (p. 191)

I also think the subtitle is overblown – the “real-life Indiana Jones” was a French abbé named Henri Breuil, who became the first real expert on paleolithic art; the “renegade scholar” is André Leroi-Gourhan, who I’m certain is highly intelligent, although I’m not sure that having a new interpretation of existing data really qualifies one as a “renegade”. Finally, I think the mystery of the cave art is far from “decoded”… multiple (mostly untestable) explanations for the paintings still exist, and perhaps that’s for the best; I’m okay with leaving human history with a little bit of a sense of mystery and wonder. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If you’re interested in the topic and are looking for a readable source of basic information, this book will suit your needs quite well. If you’re looking for a balanced or well-argued examination of competing interpretations and theories… not so much.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: One of the greatest mysteries of the human experience on Earth – if not the greatest mystery of all – is the appearance, around 32,000 years ago, of magnificent paintings, drawings, and engravings of animals inside deep and often almost inaccessible recesses of large Ice Age caverns in France and Spain (and a small number of cases in southern Italy).

Cover Thoughts: I like the shadowy cave paintings at the top, but the light shining through the cave opening isn’t very obvious – they could have found a clearer picture.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 94: “Next to it lies a man, face up with spread arms. His fingers are birdlike (there are four of them), and his face is that of a bird. Next to him, on a pole stuck in the ground, is a bird whose face resembles that of the man. The man is ithyphallic.” – Having the penis erect; used when discussing graphic and sculptural representations. (I figured as much from context, but had never heard the term before.)
  • p. 99: “The wide “tectiform” signs he interpreted as perhaps representing traps, because he was convinced that success in the hunt was a key reason that prehistoric man had created the art of the caves.” – having the shape of a roof or dwelling.
  • p. 125-6: “As Broderick described it, “There are animals, eland, oryx, springbox, an antelope with man’s arms and legs, an oryx with human hindquarters, a hartebeest with human hindlegs, a man with a crocodile’s head, a white man disguised as a baboon; there are twenty-eight human figures, including the crocodile-man, musicians, and others, steatopygous women; the procession is led by two youth who, like the crocodile-man, are infibulated.” – to stitch the fold of skin that covers the head of the penis. (My, I’m just learning all kinds of naughty words today, aren’t I?)
13 Comments leave one →
  1. October 20, 2009 8:22 am

    I have a feeling most of this book would be way over my head. Thanks for the review.

    • October 20, 2009 8:59 am

      bermudaonion – I think you’d probably be fine – it’s written for the layperson, and a good thing, too… most of my “knowledge” of early human history does come from Jean Auel’s books. :)

  2. October 20, 2009 9:00 am

    I feel frustrated when an author/scholar makes a case for something that doesn’t hang together. I always think – dude, if I noticed this is a bad argument, your fellow scholars will definitely notice, and then they’ll all laugh at you at the scholars party! :P

    • October 21, 2009 2:19 pm

      Jenny – I think he’d have a rough time at the scholars’ party anyways, given the way he was dismissing other people’s theories right and left.

  3. October 21, 2009 11:56 am

    It’s funny, but I had originally thought by glancing at the cover that this was a fiction book. Of course it didn’t take long while reading your review to figure out that this is non-fiction.

    I haven’t ever really had a deep interest in cave paintings, but if I ever do then I may take a look at this book.

    • October 21, 2009 2:20 pm

      Alyce – I wouldn’t say that I had a huge pre-existing interest in cave paintings beforehand, but now I’m left with a really, really strong desire to see a painted cave.

  4. October 21, 2009 2:11 pm

    Hmm, interesting! I was taken in by the title, but from the review I think this would be too academic-ish for me. I like my nonfiction to have story and momentum, and it seem like this one loses that a little bit as the theories are being discussed.

    • October 21, 2009 2:22 pm

      Kim – The book is mostly organized by discussing the caves in the order they were discovered, with the new theories each generated inserted at the proper time, but there were a lot of tangents that made the whole feel kind of choppy, yeah.

  5. October 21, 2009 2:49 pm

    I think I am going to give this a try. Must go see if my library has it!

    • October 22, 2009 12:34 pm

      Kailana – It’s a pretty new book, I think, so your library might not have it (yet), but if you get your hands on a copy, I hope you find it interesting!

  6. October 21, 2009 9:50 pm

    Thanks Fyrefly – I think I’d like the first part and might have to skip his personal interpretation of what cave paintings “mean”. This is what used to bug me about cultural anthropology, big egos! It is going on my list.

    • October 22, 2009 12:35 pm

      Gavin – I think the egos are even worse when it comes to prehistoric anthropology, since there’s no way to ever definitively say what’s right or wrong.


  1. Amir D. Aczel – Finding Zero | Fyrefly's Book Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: