Keri Hulme's tidal tracks

Apr 10, 2014

I love walking tidelines. My footprints are evanescent — there at low tide, gone the next tide. Such is the life of footprints. Mostly.

I learned as a child that there were fossilised footprints in Aotearoa New Zealand — birds (especially moa) and crustaceans mainly.

Because I love my feet (broad and sturdy Polynesian, with perfect toes), I’ve never worn tight footwear, have  gone frequently barefoot even after childhood, worn work boots when working physically, and only once had a foot accident: some drunken idiot at an Ōkarito beach party stood on my bare right foot and broke a metatarsal. Fortunately, arthritis hasn’t affected that bone, so I still enjoy my favourite physical exercise.

Because I love my feet — I was fascinated to learn that there were fossilised footprints of hominins and humans. In Africa (as you would expect) and Europe mainly, but also Australia (and, I expect, China and Papua Niu Gini will soon also produce some).

The Laetoli Trail is probably the best known.

This a set of footprints made by 2 hominids (Australopithecus afarensis) in wet volcanic ash in Tanzania about 3.6 MILLION years ago. The hominids were distant predecessors of our kind of human, but the footprints are recognisably human-like…

Tracks of children — and hand stencils and imprints — have been found relatively often in European cave systems. Also, they and the adults made artistic swirls and grooved patterns called finger flutings. Many of these works are found quite deep in the cave systems, where it is dark… but! We have found evidence of small bowl-like lamps, and experiments have shown that melted animal fat burns with a clear flame…

An excellent book, which has photographs of many such discoveries, is Paul Bahn’s Journey Through The Ice Age (your library may have a copy, or you may be lucky enough to find a second hand copy as I did.) And another exciting resource/entertainment is the 3D film, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which shows the magnificent art works of Chauvet cave, discovered in the 1990s. The art of the sea-locked cave system of Cosquer was also discovered recently.

The sheer power of the art in Chauvet takes my breath away… these are artists using ground ochres, charcoal, and dried earths, mixed into impastos with animal fat. We don’t know, again, why they drew — initially food animals, and later beasts of prey, but Chauvet in France is full of the latter as the ceilings of Altamira in Spain are full of the former but hypotheses and speculation have run rife since the Abbe Breuil’s time. We realise there are meanings but 30–35,000 years ago is a long time ago; the world and we have changed a lot…

Modern human breath causes damage to the great art works, and the spores we bring in don’t help preserve what has existed already for 30–35,000 years.

Chauvet is now locked down.

Children, including toddlers, also featured in the 20,000 year old site at Lake Mungo, Australia. There were adults around, including a large man carrying an animal. These tracks only became known to science because Aboriginal people revealed their existence to the late-comers. They also interpreted the footprints and pointed out the tail drag marks of the animal the large man carried.

I’ve fantasised that one day tracks of the tipuna may be found here. It’d be a frabjulous day eh!

While children and other people clearly were familiar with the great art-work caves, they don’t appear to have lived in them for any length of time. There are evidences of fires, and of food being consumed (there is a well-known salmon frame that was tossed over someone’s shoulder and found intact on a high wall ledge many thousand years later) but no signs of long-term occupation.

There are relics that have been construed as showing there was a cave-bear cult at some stage. A skull from that species was found on its own clay platform, and had holes (from slender spears it was thought*) around it. Certainly the finger-flutings that are relatively common in some areas may have been made in imitation of bear scratches on the walls. Though why is a matter we can only guess at-

There are numerous predatory animals depicted, lions included, but very very few drawings or engravings that are unambiguously of human beings. There is a drawing which has been construed as a portrait; there are several sketches of human sexual organs.

As there is a theory that a high proportion of the artists were adolescent males, it is a wonder there are not more…

And no modern human has unequivocally worked out why the  various animals are ordered, as they certainly are ordered. (If you want to follow up that question, Hahn is a good place to start.)

Art is a track of the human mind. It is the only long-lasting one we have yet invented but, like most tracks, it requires interpretation. And the further we get from the creators of the works, the more conjecture comes into play, and the less likely we are to be able to read what we see…*the slender spear holes turned out to be kids poking their fingers into the then-soft clay!