The wonders of women in rock art

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Wonders of Rock Art - Lascaux Cave and Africa
Wonders of Rock Art – Lascaux Cave and Africa

If you think the Wonders of Rock Art: Lascaux Cave and Africa exhibition at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre is all about men and animals, think again. There is a wonderful and unexpected feminine twist to this story.

Women, it seems, played a huge role in creating ancient cave- and rock-art masterpieces. Isn’t this an intriguing idea as Women’s Day approaches and we celebrate all things feminine?

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Sci-Bono Discovery Centre certainly thinks so, and this Women’s Day, 9 August, all women (and baby girls, little girls and teenage girls) get into the exhibition for free!

For decades people have imagined that cave and rock art was created exclusively by men. Not so, it seems. A study by the Pennsylvania State University* to determine the sex of the painters all those years ago came to a different conclusion. The focus of the study centred around eight caves sites in France and Spain. By studying handprints in cave art, archaeologists have determined that many European cave artists were female!

It’s difficult to say whether the Lascaux artists were men or women. Not knowing for sure adds to the mystique and wonder of the cave art that’s on show in downtown Johannesburg until the end of September.

On exhibition alongside the ancient French Lascaux cave masterpieces is a collection of South African rock art. Were these ancient and priceless South African treasures created by women or men? And does it matter?

“Our modern gender stereotypes have been, and continue to be, imposed on how we think about the past,” says Dr Tammy Hodgskiss, curator at the Wits University Origins Centre that’s co-exhibiting the African rock art alongside the Lascaux masterpieces at Sci-Bono.

“However,” she adds, “research points to much of our South African San rock art having been painted by shamans.”

Shamans were the Palaeolithic world’s spiritual healers and leaders. They had enormous influence and were believed to have direct access to worlds beyond the physical one. Most of the shamans in South African communities appear to have been men, Dr Hodgskiss says, and it’s fair to assume that most of South Africa’s rock artists were men, too.

But, she points out, South African rock art depicts both men and women. This tells us that women and men played equally important roles in communities, in spiritual life and in the all-important trance that shamans entered into during trance dance rituals.

The intrigue and the attraction of the exhibition is precisely that there remains so much mystery around the artwork, says Dr More Chakane, CEO at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre. “The Lascaux exhibition, on show for us to examine and marvel over today, is an awe-inspiring piece of work that leaves us wondering about many, many things. While we may never know the answers to our questions, the work stands – and will always stand – as a testament to the genius and creativity of humanity.”

Come and experience the paintings first-hand at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Newtown and decide for yourself. Sci-Bono collaborated with the Embassy of France in South Africa and the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS) to bring to South Africa true-to-nature replicas of the painted cave walls of Lascaux, alongside prehistoric South African rock art.

For more information, please visit http://www.sci-bono.co.za/lascaux.html and follow #LascauxInAfrica and #DawnOfArt on Twitter.

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