Jun 20, 2014
Reproduced above are images of two engraved pendants made of reindeer bone, from prehistoric sites in France.
Both objects are attributed to the Magdalenian culture, which subsisted in the Franco-Cantabrian ‘refugium’ during the last glacial period, between 17,000 and 12,000 uncalibrated radiocarbon years ago. The item to the right is dated more specifically to the chronological stage Magdalenian IV, 13,500 uncalibrated radiocarbon years ago, at the onset of the Oldest Dryas cold period.
The object to the left, first published in 1900, sports three superimposed sets of concentric rings below a vertical bar with nine symmetrical pairs of ‘branches’, crowned by another set of concentrics. The French priest and archaeologist Henri Édouard Prosper Breuil (1877-1961), an early expert on late Ice Age art, was tempted to interpret the upper part of the image, ‘a sort of scaliform sign’, as a tree:
‘If a stylised tree must be found here, one might see here a representation of a fir with drooping branches, but it is more than problematic …’
The artefact on the right, first brought to attention in 1907, is decorated with a stack of dot-in-circles, along with some spirals, lozenges and ‘rakes’.
This type of art is typical for the Magdalenian period. Several dozen batons, carved out of reindeer antler, are richly decorated with spirals, encircled dots and other geometric designs. Most of these were found in the Late Upper Palaeolithic caves of the Pyrenees, but one striking example of a ‘ladder’ surfaced in the Hamburg culture of Poggenwisch (northern Germany), an offshoot of the Magdalenian complex.
At a loss to identify plausible corresponding morphologies in the natural world, archaeologists are forced to label the imagery ‘symbolic’, even if the referent of the symbolism is elusive. What if some of these designs were representational after all?
The delicate compositions of swirls and rings on this Ice Age art resemble nothing so much as the fine discrete structure produced in highly energetic plasma instabilities. The cylindrical presentation on the reindeer sticks is particularly suggestive of the so-called plasma z-pinch. Plasma physicist Anthony Peratt demonstrated that the sausage instability in a pinched plasma filament will often result in a stack of some nine toroids, with complex ‘geometric’ patterns forming in-between each pair. Rings, perhaps enclosing dots, are exactly what the toroids would often look like. With increasing electrical current, the configuration transforms into a ladder- or tree-like form, with prominent annular or bell-shaped plasma structures at its top and bottom.
The earth’s atmosphere is home to distinct displays of plasma activity, such as lightning and the aurora, but thankfully high-energy-density formations do not ordinarily occur. This could have been different in ages past. At times of geomagnetic reversals and excursions, the earth’s magnetic field experiences a momentary collapse – fleeting in geological terms, but lasting decades to a few millennia. As the dipole field goes into abeyance, the polar aurora assumes global proportions and the deeper penetration of solar wind plasma will result in more intense auroral light than the familiar variety. Thomas Gold showed that, under such magnetospheric breakdown conditions, the electrical current which normally flows horizontally through the ionosphere will short-circuit through the earth’s surface. This will inexorably lead to lightning-like atmospheric z-pinches.
The Magdalenian artists responsible for the decorated sticks lived during the Gothenburg geomagnetic excursion. As early as 1976, the American space physicist George Siscoe explained some motifs in Upper Palaeolithic cave art as contemporaneous low-latitude aurorae, though aurorae of the usual, quiescent kind. Art suggestive of intense plasma is never seen prior to the Magdalenian age and also appears parietally at about the same time, in the form of cave paintings and petroglyphs. It seems reasonable to suppose that the Gothenburg excursion facilitated extraordinary atmospheric plasma exhibits, which galvanised a revolution in prehistoric art. The image from Saint-Marcel may have been a naturalistic rendition of the plasma and symbolic of a ‘cosmic tree’ at the same time. If so, it will be one of the very oldest representations of an axis mundi as a sacred tree, a motif which survived in mythology for millennia afterwards.
Rens Van Der Sluijs
Books by Rens Van Der Sluijs:
Traditional Cosmology: The Global Mythology of Cosmic Creation and Destruction