Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Cave painting

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So Ridley Scott was (sort of) right: Planet Earth's earliest artists might not have been human.

We're moving back into the caves, lately, it seems. From Prometheus to Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, stories extrapolating narratives from ancient cave paintings abound. We're after our origins and art is going to take us there, I guess.

But these are grand narratives. More than figuring out whichever brand of homo painted these things, I'm interested in the individual artists. Because an entire species didn't make those handprints, a single person -- or sub-person -- did.

Here's my favourite moment in Herzog's documentary, cued up for your viewing pleasure.

Making a handprint is such an individualistic act, a literal stamping of one's existence into physicality. There's an "I was here" narcissism in the gesture, sure, but also (and with the hindsight of more than three dozen millennia), such an acknowledgment -- even resistance -- of mortality, especially if this artist belonged to a race that went extinct.

I love that certain pieces in the Chauvet Caves can be attributed to the same artist by his or her wonky pinky finger. This imbues each print with something essentially humanistic -- regardless that its creator might not have been human -- and makes them, for me at least, much more compelling than the admittedly beautiful portraits of animals in the other caves. (Never mind that whoever did the handprints seems kinda avant-garde in comparison, or at least more sophisticated in his primitivism -- a caveman Basquiat, maybe.)

The New Scientist piece suggests the handprints "mark places of veneration, or possibly signposts," serving as supernatural, shamanistic totems. But what if this was just some guy or girl asserting his or her own existence in the world? Might we not share this instinct with our ancestors (or parallel species) -- that is, that the artistic drive could well be something innate within all of us, an attempt to prove we exist and forge a record of ourselves, if not our times?

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Pasha Malla

Pasha Malla’s first collection of short stories, The Withdrawal Method, a Globe and Mail and National Post book of the year, won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and the Trillum Book Award and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize and longlisted for the Giller Prize. His latest book, People Park, is forthcoming from Anansi in July 2012.

Go to Pasha Malla’s Author Page