Stories of the first people, told in the first person

Award-winning photographer Stephen Alvarez gave an insight into his artistic inspiration during a talk at Saïd Business School.

The story goes that when Pablo Picasso visited the prehistoric cave paintings in Altamira, Spain, (or possibly those in Lascaux, France, according to your sources) he said: ‘We have invented nothing new’.

We might imagine that Picasso was referring somewhat ruefully to the similarities of these paintings to his own work. But, as award-winning National Geographic Photographer Stephen Alvarez suggested during a talk at Oxford Saïd on 13 September 2017, there is even more that they can teach us about prehistory, about communication, and about what it means to be human. He described his own experience of the caves in Chauvet, France: ‘I walked in and it was as if time had collapsed. It felt as if the Palaeolithic artist was talking directly to me.’

Alvarez’s interest in the origins of art developed as he was creating a range of exploration stories for National Geographic, from shooting mummies with grave goods at 20 thousand feet in Peru (developing a potentially fatal high-altitude oedema in the process) to exploring remote caves approached through white water rapids in South Africa.

He was fascinated by the fact that real exploration was still possible in the 21st Century – 12 people have walked on the moon, but he and his team have been the only people to stand in some of these caves. Other caves were last visited or inhabited many thousands of years ago. He found that ‘Things that have been left behind began to be more and more important to me. Evidence of man’s passing began to captivate me.’

But the focus on photographing early art – the oldest stories – really started when Alvarez went to see the cave paintings at Lascaux in France with his family. Ironically, he had not originally wanted to go, as he knew that visitors were allowed to visit only the replica caves. However, he found the actual experience stunning: ‘When the lights go up, there is a collective gasp’.

He was astonished by ‘Art so sophisticated that if we had a common language we could share ideas ... I can’t imagine the life of a Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer but the paintings still work. We can see a clear story, even if we do not understand what it is.’ As he continued to seek out and record these very early examples of art, he found himself tracing the history of man’s migration and our relationship with images.

One image that occurs more frequently than any other – and on six of the seven continents – is the ‘negative hand print’, in which paint or pigment is sprayed around a person’s hand as it is held flat against the rock. It is almost the first type of ‘selfie’. This one image, Alvarez said, ‘sums up humanity: it says, “this is me; this place is mine”. This urge to record our presence and the desire to create are innately human.’

But why do we do this? There is no obvious biological reason. Unless, he suggested, we looked at remains found in the Klipgat Caves in South Africa. At the time (about 65,000 to 85,000 years ago) there were only about 10,000 people, and man was by no means the top predator on the planet. ‘Early man lived in small groups in caves a long way apart, co-existing with animals who were stronger, faster, and better organised. Groups of 20 to 30 people are not genetically viable, so we know they would have to get together occasionally’. Was a red ochre block found in the area – the oldest evidence of human engraving – a gift exchanged at one of these meetings? Were early examples of artistic expression used as proof of cooperation, something that strengthened societies and helped give man the edge over animals?

Perhaps there is also a spiritual dimension to creating pictures – it’s a way of making a place our own. Alvarez described driving alone up to Buckhorn Wash, Utah, in order to photograph the large, alien-like figures on the rocks, and getting thoroughly spooked. Even just looking at the 3D images of those figures that have been captured for the Ancient Art Archive can give you a bit of a chill. It may be old art but it retains its power: ‘They are speaking. We are not able to listen to them just yet.’

All these ancient sites are in danger because they are out in the open. They are threatened by climate change, vandalism, accidents, and even, as Alvarez put it, ‘loving them to death’. This last threat is why only a replica of the Lascaux caves is open to the public, and why access to the Chauvet caves is severely limited.

The Ancient Art Archive is therefore a ‘race to save these stories before they disappear.’ The Archive includes photographs which aim to preserve not just what the paintings look like, but their sense of power. Alvarez also showed how 3D modelling was being used to preserve the scientific background. Eventually, he hoped, they would be able to use virtual reality to reproduce what it feels like to stand in front of the paintings, allowing everyone to share what would otherwise be an experience restricted to a very few.

‘Making art is a basic human instinct,’ he said. ‘This is what makes us people. We need to preserve it.’

About Stephen Alvarez:

Stephen Alvarez is an award-winning National Geographic photographer, film maker and explorer who produces global stories about exploration, adventure, culture and archaeology. He has published over a dozen feature stories in National Geographic Magazine.