While some prehistoric sites - notably the painted caves at Lascaux in France and at Altamira in northern Spain - are familiar, many more such places are almost unknown. In fact, remains left by prehistoric men and women are far more numerous and have been found over a much greater territory - including Eurasia, Africa, Australia and the Americas - than most people are aware. These remains include paintings and engravings in caves and rock shelters, but also decorated tools, weapons, statuettes, personal ornaments and even musical instruments made of stone, ivory, antler, shell, bone and fired clay. In "Prehistoric Art", anthropologist Randall White presents a global survey, starting with the first explosion of imagery that occurred approximately 40,000 years ago but also including the creations of essentially "prehistoric" peoples living as recently as the early 20th century. Drawing on up-to-date research, White places these discoveries in context and discusses possible uses and meanings for the objects and images.
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Randall White, a distinguished authority on Ice Age art and technology, directs the Institute for Ice Age Studies at New York University, where he is a professor of anthropology. His fieldwork has taken him to a wide range of prehistoric sites throughout the world, and he is currently the director of an excavation of the 35,000-year old settlement at Abri Castanet in the Dordogne Valley in France. The author of numerous books and articles on prehistoric life, and a frequent consultant to Time, Newsweek, Natural History, and other magazines, Professor White was also the organizer of the landmark 1986 exhibition Dark, Caves, Bright Visions: Life in Ice Age Europe, one of the most heavily attended exhibitions ever held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He lives in New York City and Montignac, France.From Scientific American:
About 40,000 years ago the first Homo sapiens--the Cro-Magnons--began to trickle into Europe, displacing the resident Neanderthals in the process. The contrast between the records of their lives that these very different hominids left behind could hardly be more striking. For no extinct human species, not even the large-brained Homo neanderthalensis, has bequeathed us evidence of a complex symbolic existence, based on the extraordinary cognitive capacities that distinguish us from all other living species today. In contrast, the lives of the Cro-Magnons were drenched in symbolism. Well over 30,000 years ago these early people were creating astonishing art on the walls of caves. They crafted subtle and beautiful carvings and engravings and kept records by incising intricate notations on bone plaques. They made music on bone flutes, and if they did this, they surely sang and danced as well. They ornamented their bodies and buried their dead with elaborate grave goods, presumably to serve them in an afterlife. Technologically, a cascade of innovations included nets, textiles and ropes, even the first ceramics. In short, those Cro-Magnons were us: members of a species whose relationship with the rest of the world was totally unprecedented in the entire history of life. For a couple of decades now, New York University archaeologist Randy White has been a leading investigator of how the expression of the unique human capacity unfolded in Europe during the two dozen millennia that followed the arrival of the Cro-Magnons. In this thoughtful and very beautiful book, White concentrates on the most dazzling part of this record, the part that embraces what we would call art--and that includes some of the most powerful ever made. But he is careful to point out that "art" is very much a Western concept and that for its creators, what looks to us like art probably had implications vastly different from those we impute in our own society to art and decoration. For while nobody could doubt that Cro-Magnon symbolic production somehow reflected these people's conceptions of their place in the natural world, the Cro-Magnons were hunters and gatherers, with a perceived relationship to nature that must have been radically different from our own. For this reason, White eschews the elaborate explanations that so many authors feel somehow obliged to bring to the interpretation of prehistoric art and hews to the facts. He begins with a brief history of the discovery and interpretation of Cro-Magnon art, as prelude to a largely chronological account of the evidence for symbolic expression in Europe and parts of northern Asia between about 40,000 and 10,000 years ago. In these sections, White mostly avoids stylistic analysis in favor of a focus on techniques, but he manages to address, if usually briefly, most of the major questions that Cro-Magnon art elicits. As perhaps befits a work that grew out of a university survey course, this volume extends beyond mainly European Ice Age art to consider prehistoric symbolic and representational traditions (some earlier, others quite recent) in Africa, southern and western Asia, Australia, and the Americas. Each of these regional groupings is treated separately, and White wisely refrains from drawing close parallels between different regional traditions. Of course, including all these diverse traditions between the covers of a single book might be taken to imply a unity that contradicts White's insistence on the unique cultural roots and referents of each one of them. But the fact that all are the products of hunting-gathering peoples serves very usefully to remind us of the vast range of iconographies and aesthetics available even to noncomplex human societies. What White's spectacularly illustrated book does most clearly, then, is to bring home the astonishing diversity and intricacy of the representational traditions that the extraordinary human symbolic spirit has from the beginning produced worldwide, even in the absence of complex social and economic structures. The remarkable human cognitive capacity that early art reflects appeared quite recently, perhaps less than 100,000 years ago. And that appearance set our species on a course of accelerating technological change and elaboration that may yet run out of our control. But White shows that although our economic lives have changed out of recognition in that time, the potential that underwrites our modern lifestyles and achievements was there from the very start. Deep down, human beings haven't changed one whit since prehistoric times.
Ian Tattersall is a curator of physical anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. His most recent book is The Monkey in the Mirror (Harcourt, 2002).
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