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Vanished! The Surprising Things Missing From Ancient Art

When you look back across the history of art, things go missing. Interesting things.

For example, it seems ancient people didn’t have a word to describe the color of the sky. The “b” word—blue? They didn’t use it. That’s the argument, anyway.

A couple of years ago, one of my colleagues at Radiolab (a podcast/broadcast I co-host) found an essay by, of all people, William Gladstone, a British prime minister back in the 1860s, ’80s, and ’90s. Gladstone was a Homer-philiac. He loved Homer’s tales, read them voraciously, and, for reasons now obscure, he got curious about the poet’s use of color words. Looking through the Iliad, then through the Odyssey, Gladstone jotted down every instance of Homer using a color to describe, well, anything; and to his surprise, while he found lots of blacks and whites and some reds, yellows, and greens, when it came to blue—it was nowhere to be found.

In Homer, skies aren’t blue, seas aren’t blue (they’re wine-dark), and nobody seems to have had blue eyes, not even the immortals. When Tim Howard, our reporter, showed us Gladstone’s essay, we thought we’d better double-check. We found a well-known linguist and scholar of ancient texts, Guy Deutscher, who told us in the broadcast, “Gladstone’s right …”

Guy Deutscher: There is just no word that describes the color blue in Homer’s poems.
Jad Abumrad (my co-host): He does not use the color blue at all?
GD: No blue.
JA: Not even once?
GD: Nope.

Then it got stranger. Howard turned up a philologist, Lazarus Geiger, who’d looked through ancient Chinese texts, South Asia’s Vedic poems, old Icelandic sagas, and the Western Bible and found, again, that across the ancient classics there is no—or barely any—use of blue.

Why No Blue?

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Yes, why? The Radiolab show (you can listen to the whole episode here) explored different theories, but the one that seemed most plausible was that the most blue-y thing of all—the sky—was so present, so matter-of-factly always there, that ancient people just didn’t pay it much attention. Of course, they looked at the sky all the time, but they looked in a oh-hum-that-again kind of way and so felt no need to distinguish it from other things and so took it in without giving it its own descriptive color and place. Ubiquity made it invisible.

It wasn’t until much later, when blue paints were invented (which happened in Egypt), that “blue” became a descriptor—when you could buy or sell it.

The Newest Missing Thing

That was our guess. And now—ta-da—I’ve got another one, a second thing that ancients saw all the time but failed to describe. And this one is even more basic.

I’m talking about plants.

Take a look, a long rambling look, at the cave paintings that Paleolithic artists drew as far back as 40,000 years ago. There are hundreds of them, in Spain, in France, all over the world. What do you see?

There are, says Richard Mabey in his new book, The Cabaret of Plants, “galloping horses and rippling bison,” reindeer, cattle, the occasional rhino—animals you might eat, animals you might chase, or simply admire, maybe even worship …

Photographs by: Arterra Picture Library, Alamy; Dave G. Houser, Corbis; Chris Howes, incamerastock, Corbis; Arterra Picture Library, Alamy; Yannick Tylle, Corbis
Photographs by: Arterra Picture Library, Alamy; Dave G. Houser, Corbis; Chris Howes, incamerastock, Corbis; Arterra Picture Library, Alamy; Yannick Tylle, Corbis

But here’s what there’s not: While all these animals lived on plains or in forests and ate plants, Mabey found no convincing image of grass, no landscape imagery showing a deer nuzzling a leafy thing, pecking at a bush. Leafy things don’t appear in Paleolithic art. Nor do bushes. Nor trees. Mabey has a friend, biologist and painter Tony Hopkins, who’s spent 20 years sketching rock art all over the world, and, writes Mabey, he “has seen no truly ancient representation of plants.” Cave art stays plant free “until 5,000 years after the end of the Paleolithic era, and the simultaneous beginnings of agriculture in the Middle East.” Again, when it’s in commerce, it pops into view.

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

A Non-Business Explanation?

Perhaps, says Hopkins, the ancients found animals more vivid, more “alive.” (After all, animals follow the same birth, coupling, reproduction, and death arc that we do. Plants have a more mysterious narrative, maybe not worth fetishizing?)

It’s hard—very hard—to believe that for so many, many centuries, nobody drew a plant on a cave wall. This seems too long a vacancy. So in the spirit of proving a law by an exception, Mabey offers us a single image: a possible plant, carved on a bone.

This carving was found in a cave in the Gironde region of France. It dates back to 15,000 B.C. It is, he says, “a convincing picture of a specific, potentially identifiable flower.”

Photograph by Lysiane Gauthier, Mairie de Bordeaux/Musee d'Aquitaine, Bordeaux
Photograph by Lysiane Gauthier, Mairie de Bordeaux/Musee d’Aquitaine, Bordeaux

Hmmm. I’m looking at this thing, and I’m trying to see what Mabey sees: Those four possible blossoms poking off of stems on the right … Let’s show this again, closer in:

Detail of Photograph by Lysiane Gauthier, Mairie de Bordeaux/Musee d'Aquitaine, Bordeaux
Detail of Photograph by Lysiane Gauthier, Mairie de Bordeaux/Musee d’Aquitaine, Bordeaux

Those, he says, may be “a passable impression of a sprig of bilberry or crowberry.” Four blossoms, facing left, then right, then left, then right again. I guess I can see them as flowers. For a little while, anyway. But if I blink, they can morph into sleepy birds with their mouths open. So I’m not sure this is a “convincing picture” of a plant. And neither is Mabey. He admits that he can re-see them as “birds’ heads and necks.”

So here’s a puzzlement. Our ancient ancestors—who ate berries and fruits; who gathered grass to make bedding; who watched animals foraging; who gazed at forests, at meadows, at mountains; who gathered at least as much as they hunted—for some reason chose not to celebrate the true source of their livelihood.

What hunters hunted went up on their sacred walls. What gatherers gathered stayed … what? Out of mind? Uninteresting? Or, like blue, so ubiquitous that no one bothered to notice them?

What a very curious omission.

73 thoughts on “Vanished! The Surprising Things Missing From Ancient Art

  1. I really enjoyed this post, yet the whole time I was reading it I kept wondering what it is that we see today that we never describe. lol

    1. Each other. We look at each other through technology but not truly at each other anymore. This is what we see and ignore now. It’s a frightening actuality to make cognitive perception of. I teach all day everyday and my students loo at a computer screen the whole time. I’m literally there in front of them talking to them but they don’t see me they see me. It’s quite worrying how digital we have all become. When they do engage it’s like they haven’t done it for years and their rusty at it.
      Life in the 21st or should we really be saying the 22nd century. Food for thought.

      1. I agree. I am trying to write a book, and it is so easy to describe everything but the people. We don’t look at each other any more.

    1. Good question. Of course there are colors that our eyes simply cannot perceive–and other animals can–like ultraviolet. It seems impossible to imagine some color we’ve never seen. What else would there be? But it’s quite possible, isn’t it, that had eyes not evolved as humans’ have but with other color receptors, what we’d see would be different? I have noticed that from one person to another, a shade of green can be seen as blue and vice versa; just individual variation, I guess.
      Fascinating topic!

      1. Your comment reminded me of a special FOX had on the universe. They were talking about the visible light spectrum. As an example of how limited our eyes truly are, they compared the total light spectrum with a roll of film that stretched 3,000 miles across the United States. The light spectrum we were able to perceive was the equivalent of a single frame of that film. Thanks for reminding me of that little factoid. By the way, as I stated elsewhere, this comment section is quite impressive. My view of humanity and our supposed intelligence had become quite pessimistic after years of reading nothing but drivel in comment sections (and articles!). This is truly refreshing.

  2. Maybe the lack of plants has to do with who did the hunting and drawing. The men may have done the artwork and because they were likely the ones to go out and hunt they may have seen the animals as a more important thing, something worth drawing, more than the plants that the women gathered.

    1. I would like to take your thought one step further. All of those animals moved in and through their locale. The plants were just there. Just as we tend to see the balloons in the Macy’s parade and don’t register the buildings that provide a backdrop, so might they have considered the plant life as just the background.

      1. I think you’r right, the important thing from animals, is that they move as their name say. Animals are happenings, they could be there and then disappear. That what is showed in the painted caves. Animals popup from the walls, and with the ambiance, the lights of oil lamps, it was due to make a great impression, viewers never forgot.

        We have to think that plants never made emotions to the hearts of paleo men, as animals did. Life is moving on, there is energy that show itself in the move of animals. The mysterious energy of life, wich is the thing first worshipped by men in all countries.

    2. Recent research suggests that most prehistoric artists were women. Maybe they were honoring the men with paintings of their hunts?

    3. I was thinking along those lines also. The walls showed trophies perhaps, or helped with the telling of a story that a hunter wanted to tell.

      Also, they were the ones that normally had more times on their hands to even draw on the wall. The gathers, didn’t just gather. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m sure they had to treat hides, dry meats and other ‘domestic’ things.

      Maybe if a gather got to paint on the wall it would be a little bit different. Maybe.

    4. Indeed! I’ve always assumed that it was men who did the drawings, since the subjects are all about hunting. I’ll bet if the women had been encouraged to draw, they would have drawn different things.

  3. Most ancient writings were concerned with events, not descriptions, so detailing colours was not a high priority. Homer had a smallish set of stock-descriptions, inherited from the Greek epic tradition, including his famous wine-dark seas, but we know he had problems with his sight so his own lack of mentions of blue may be connected to that. But the Mesopotamian epic Inanna’s descent into the Underworld, which is easily as old as Homer, if not much more so, provides an unusual description of the goddess Inanna dressing, and here we hear of her wearing a lapis lazuli necklace, and taking up a rod made of lapis lazuli. And lapis lazuli is blue. So maybe there are other mentions of blue out there, but ‘hidden’ because the poets concerned used terms for things which were blue, and not the word blue itself. As to the lack of plants in Ice Age art, the artists (male or female – we have no idea) tended only to paint animals which they hunted, and this was probably because they revered them, or believed that ancestral spirits inhabited them (or that they actually were ancestral spirits). In general, they tended to ignore almost everything else – mammals who were predators, birds, insects, landscapes – so it was not just plants they tended not to paint.
    Anthony Adolph, author of In Search Of Our Ancient Ancestors (which includes chapters on Ice Age art).


        1. This is rather going off the original point, but besides the occasional lion, you may see wolves (there is one in Font de Gaume, which is close to Combarelles, referred to above) and I also know of a wolverine, which was found engraved on a bone pendant in Les Eyzies. But discussing predators in Ice Age art is about as useful as focusing a discussion of English landscape painting on the occasional appearance of radishes: the overwhelming focus was on herbivores, and if we are ever to understand what the paintings mean it is on they that we must focus. I have discussed this in my book In Search of Our Ancient Ancestors, as far as I could, and I would also refer readers to David Lewis-Williams’s excellent ‘The Mind in the Cave’ (Thames and Hudson, 2004). One interesting point to make is that, whilst our ancestors usually painted creatures which they could hunt, they did not necessarily depict the creatures that they actually did hunt. For instance, on p. 122 of my book I make the point that, in the Grotte de Niaux in the Pyrenees, ‘bison and ponies are depicted in most numbers, yet the people there ate mainly ptarmigan, ibex, reindeer, fish
          and shellfish brought a long way from the sea’.

  4. Animals were spiritual then, plants became spiritual when you could smoke them, drink them, or bake them in brownies… see all the “plants” painted on vans, t-shirts, etc in the 1960 & 1970s…!

  5. The answer is obvious to anyone that hunts. There is no thrill in picking berries. There is quite a thrill in the hunt, especially when hungry. It is a life and death saga where each kill becomes a vivid memory and campfire lesson that is told time and time again. Primevil artists saved it for eternity.

    1. Thinking about JamesSmace and Scott Hanlon —
      What might we be not noticing in our world? It’s a fascinating question. Ed Wilson, the great Harvard ant-man, thinks we have ceased to notice the little things that surround us, that run underfoot or buzz about. “Common knowledge of the world-dominant invertebrates, the little things that run the natural world, has dwindled to almost nothing. The working vocabulary of the average person comprises “cockroaches, mosquitoes, ants, termites, butterflies, moths, bedbugs, ticks, crabs, shrimp, lobsters and earthworms”, and few other itsy bitsy critters that bother us personally– like flies. “The millions of species that support the living world and utlimately our own survival have beeen reduced to ‘critters’ and ‘bugs’,” he writes. We can’t name what’s eating our leaves. We don’t know what’s peeping up at us from the forest floor. We have no idea what lives on our beaches. We live alone, surrounded by invisible neighbors. We’ve stopped paying attention. We should, he thinks, and quoting Paul, from his first letter to the Corinthians, be looking and drawing and imagining “Things beyond our seeing, things beyond our hearing, things beyond our imagining, all prepared by God for those who love him.”

    2. Picking the wrong berry or mushroom can cause you much pain or even death.

      So I think it would be crucial to recognize the plant species for survival. Being able to draw the good and wrong plants to eat would be very useful to pass the knowledge. we are definetlu missing something from the ancient art. great article and great comments. Thank you!

      1. I had not considered that aspect before, and it seems so obvious once you wrote it. I’ve learned a lot from this article and comment section. Which, is bizarre considering what the internet has devolved into! lol

  6. “… Lazarus Geiger, who’d looked through ancient Chinese texts, South Asia’s Vedic poems, old Icelandic sagas, and the Western Bible and found, again, that across the ancient classics there is no—or barely any—use of blue.”

    I just checked, and there is a word in ancient Hebrew that is often translated as violet or blue. Here is a quote from one of the Hebrew lexicons:

    “Virtually all recent commentators agree that the dyes used by ancient peoples were rather impure and that the uncertainty of the results of dyeing in those days made it almost impossible for them to reproduce colors with any degree of precision. Words like tekelet and ‘argaman (and their Akkadian cognates), therefore, denoted colors that spanned the spectrum from brilliant red through deep purple, and “blue” is simply a conventional translation of tekelet. It may well be that the ancients were more interested in richness darkness, brilliance, and the like than in precision of tint or hue. At any rate, the best and costliest ancient dyes were the blues and violets and purples that were made from the secretions of various mollusks (primarily Murex brandaris and Murex trunculus) that swarm in the coastal waters of the eastern Mediterranean, particuarly near Sidon and Tyre (whence “Tyrian purple”) but also near Elishah (probably Cyprus)… The importance of such dyes to the prosperity of the region is underscored by the likelihood that “Canaan” is a Hurrian word meaning “land of purple”; “Phoenicia” has the same meaning in Greek.”

    I count 49 occurrences of tekelet and 38 occurrences of ‘argaman (usually translated purple) in the Hebrew Bible…

    I tend to think Anthony Adolph’s explanation related to the use of Lapis Lazuli and other objects to denote blue has a lot of merit. But stating that “the artists … tended only to paint animals which they hunted” merely begs the question – why? Why only paint things related to spirits, etc.?

    1. Too often, we attempt to describe the actions of ancient people by attributing their behavior to worship or religion. Perhaps they were simply keeping track of certain animals for future reference.

      “If you are hunting tomorrow morning, keep your eye out for these animals”.

  7. “Howard turned up a philologist, Lazarus Geiger, who’d looked through ancient Chinese texts, South Asia’s Vedic poems, …”

    I’m not sure I buy it. Shiva in Hindu literature is often referred to as Neelakantha, or Blue-throated. There are certainly references to neela-this and neela-that all over Ramayana and Mahabharata.

  8. The pigments used in the existing cave paintings are inorganic material – I think it’s entirely reasonable that paleolithic people were using organic green pigment which has completely decayed and has therefor vanished.

    1. This is sort of what I was thinking. It’s possible that these paintings originally had green hills and blue skies and assorted flora mixed in with the fauna, but these colors were made from pigments that faded, possibly organic pigments as you say.

  9. This caveman noticed that my kind,
    In decorating home cave walls,
    Had no blue or plant art designed,
    And so I heard do it first calls.
    So blue berry picking I chose,
    And squished the berries into paint,
    Then painted blue berries in rows
    On my cave walls with no restraint.
    My buddies did not like my art,
    Said never to do it again.
    Such bad mouth really broke my heart,
    And so I made my cave cave in.

    Blue berry paint and painting – true!
    I call this period of mine – blue!

  10. Farming/gardening was not prevalent at this time in human history………Beast provided not only meat but hides and fur used for clothing…..Bone for hunting or household items……..So it’s not surprising plants were in the cave pictographs..

  11. I’m confused: “It wasn’t until much later, when blue paints were invented (which happened in Egypt), that ‘blue’ became a descriptor—when you could buy or sell it.” Ancient Egypt pre-dates Homer by centuries. The argument makes no sense.

    I would guess, especially in ancient paintings, a lack of blue had more to do with a lack of pigment. I watch the Rose Bowl Parade every year. By rule, the floats must be covered in 100% organic materials. As a result, the main colors you see are brown, green, yellow, red, red, and purple.

  12. Fascinating!! Makes you wonder what they will think about us when they find bits & pieces of our Facebook & instagram accounts.

  13. My own thought would be that the animals are being “called up” to be available for the next hunt, perhaps or thanked for their sacrifice. Plants almost always where they’re supposed to be.

  14. I read a theory that in the time of Homer, our vision had not evolved to see the color blue and that was why it is missing from our past. Perhaps, we will someday see ultra-violet.

  15. I would say that just like no color was assigned to the sky, because it just “was” and so encompassing. I’m thinking that plants were just included in words for earth, ground, etc that when they were not omitted, but just understood when earth, ground, etc was mentioned

  16. I actually think its got something to do with the hunting and the gathering they did in a way that women gathered and man did the hunting. Maybe they thought that what the women did was not worth craving into cave walls. We know what they thought about women in the iron age so.. And I think the men only saw the plants as a thing that women make use of.

  17. I think there are numerous depictions of yams and other plants in Ancient Australian Aboriginal cave art. Worth investigating why this is so different to Europe. Some traditions even have/had plants as totems from my understanding.
    Maybe the diversity of plants, the expertse in processing and sustenance during tougher times contributed to their value. Also I assume they where important for recording history accurately and teaching upcoming generations.

  18. This is a rather startling omission! And it’s weirdly out of character. Humans LOVE flowers. Possibly I’m biased, as I’m a florist and an artist,but I find it unlikely nobody in thousands of years ever represented some plants in their artwork. Flowers have amazing colors, textures, and forms and we adore that about them. Beauty appreciation can’t be solely a product of civilization….can it? Isn’t there some evidence they buried their dead with flowers, and painted themselves or tattooed using pigments from plants? They were surely an important enough thing to get noticed. How can any artist resist drawing something so beautiful? It must be some other reason, perhaps that the cave drawings were ritualistic, for pre-hunt or post-hunt magic or somehow to capture the spirit of the animal, and plants weren’t needed to be represented. Maybe images of flowers and plants were reserved for decorative uses, much like now, when we wear them as jewelry, decorate our homes with them, and paint them on our clothes. Such fragile materials that were likely choices for this, like wood, leather, woven fibers (if weaving was a thing then) and even bone may not have survived to this era. Ah, well. I guess we need more artifacts, or a time machine, to find out why! Great article! It really got me thinking!

    1. Celeste – Historical Egypt lasted a long time. Cleopatra, for example, lived almost in Jesus’s time. When I say blue appeared there, I don’t mean on the first day of the first dynasty. It came later.

  19. The lack of plants in paleolithic art kind of puts the kibosh on people who insist that our ancestors were vegetarians.

  20. Could it be possible that blue was considered under the umbrella of a different colour (green for instance)? In the same way as ‘orange’ was considered as red until relatively recently, or how we tend to describe multiple different colours (from magenta to violet) as ‘purple’.

  21. Does anybody know what the egg shaped thing in the giraffe picture is on the left hand side? Looks a bit strange for a piece of cave art.

  22. Maybe you don’t need to draw plants. If I want to represent a plant on my wall, I just go pick some branches or flower and adorn my room. Just try to hang an animal on your wall. Takes a whole lot of work and if you don’t do it right it smells pretty bad.

    Is the blue thing like orange, which used to be just a variant of red? Maybe people just referred to blue as a variation of green or something.

  23. Interesting article. What looks like a representation of a plant etched in the bone found in the Gironde area of France resembles the orchid Cephalanthera longifolia, especially when the flowers are yet to fully open. The picture could depict a deer foraging for plants.

    1. I think Esterubay is my imagined colour, it has hints of whispey mystery, not clearly seen, but sensed, ( more olfactorily sensed.

  24. Now this is very odd: I am looking at a photo of a temple painting of Osiris and he is blue with long neck. Also, I witnessed a statue of Osiris at Seattle Tut exhibit and it still had faded blue paint or coating on it. The Egyptians called him “Ausar” and Assyrians “Asur” or Azure…blue. In fact the very name “Lazarus” is French…”The Blue.” Osiris later was depicted green. But Vishnu is blue too…and both Osiris (under throne) and Vishnu (from navel) have four sons growing from lotus blossom. Sorry…but Mr. Geiger needs etymology lessons.

  25. Under the influence of LSD many years ago I found the sky filled with all sorts of color and also in continuous movement. Very intriguing. My hypotheses is as follows: LSD and similar drugs merely temporarily disconnect a certain phase of learning that children pass through. Depending on the time and culture some things are emphasized and others not. We are trained to see what our families value and to ignore what they deem unworthy of notice. While the LSD effect last we have a certain freedom lost in childhood to see the world anew. Being always in that state would make doing much very difficult as there are so many fascinating things to observe. We are perfectly designed for this planet and then trained for the age we live in. We can not track an animal but we can read road signs and use a GPS. We live in but one of the innumerable worlds on this earth we might live in or have lived in. Artist and deep thinkers realize this and feel less attached to a particular view of things — usually. I suspect we have the capacity to see more colors than we do and which some artists see. I believe blue became of great importance during the Christian era. Heaven being up in the sky.

  26. The women painted on the wall what she wanted for dinner, not salad, that she ate all week long and now she wanted something of substance.

  27. Does anyone know if the ancient Roman of Greek buildings had the color blue on them or if it has ever been discovered? It is my understanding that most of ancient Roman buildings were garishly painted. Such a fascinating topic!

  28. I came back here because there were so many comments in my email about this post and I wanted to learn something else on the subject. What i’ve learned is that we have nothing but conjecture here. This is not a complaint, just an observation. Conjecture is a necessary phase of learning. However, the one comment (again by the author) which noted how we no longer notice insects and the like unless they bother us reminded me of my time spent in the jungles of Panama. I used to lay under bushes for hours at a time (when permissible)and never ran out of interesting new “bugs” to discover on the very same bush.

  29. I find it a bit hard to believe that ancient man did not look up to the skies and day dreamed or cloud watch. This was a thoroughly fascinating post, thank you!

  30. “…different theories, but the one that seemed most plausible was that the most blue-y thing of all—the sky—was so present, so matter-of-factly always there, that ancient people just didn’t pay it much attention”

    however, they would have also had to see black in the night sky, but the author mentions that the ancients did acknowledge black…so the authors logic is flawed

  31. Animals can fight back, plants generally don’t. Therefore plants tend to be thought of as boring. Artists generally don’t like doing boring.

    1. While I am a historian, I am not an art historian. However, I do believe there are a few paintings by well known artists of plants, fruits, and similar boring subjects. However, I do believe you have a point. Whenever I make one of my pathetic attempts at drawing something, it is usually of a person, definitely one of the most dangerous beasts that have ever lived. 🙂

  32. “…while he found lots of blacks and whites and some reds, yellows, and greens, when it came to blue—it was nowhere to be found.” “There is just no word that describes the color blue in Homer’s poems.”

    excerpt from Homer’s Odyssey
    “‘κλῦθι, Ποσείδαον γαιήοχε κυανοχαῖτα,
    εἰ ἐτεόν γε σός εἰμι, πατὴρ δ᾿ ἐμὸς εὔχεαι εἶναι,
    δὸς μὴ Ὀδυσσῆα πτολιπόρθιον οἴκαδ᾿ ἱκέσθαι
    υἱὸν Λαέρτεω, Ἰθάκῃ ἔνι οἰκί᾿ ἔχοντα.
    ἀλλ᾿ εἴ οἱ μοῖρ᾿ ἐστὶ φίλους τ᾿ ἰδέειν καὶ ἱκέσθαι
    οἶκον ἐυκτίμενον καὶ ἑὴν ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν,
    ὀψὲ κακῶς ἔλθοι, ὀλέσας ἄπο πάντας ἑταίρους,
    νηὸς ἐπ᾿ ἀλλοτρίης, εὕροι δ᾿ ἐν πήματα οἴκῳ.’
    «ὣς ἔφατ᾿ εὐχόμενος, τοῦ δ᾿ ἔκλυε κυανοχαίτης.”

    “κυανοχαίτης” “κυανός” in greek means blue and Poseidon’s description is blue-hair.

    1. Sorry, but your comment truly is greek to me! I have to admit this is one of the most interesting comment sections I’ve found on the web in a long time. I am beginning to reassess my belief (from countless youtube and similar sites comment sections) that there is no hope for humanity. This article, and all of it’s comments, have all been of an intellectual level that I have not noted in a very long time. Even on this site, which has had some extremely “sketchy” articles and comment sections, this one article has been a very pleasant contradiction of my pessimistic view of humanity. Thanks.

  33. Is it possible that there was something different about how they saw blue? Perhaps less intense, more of a green variant? Or just a shade of white; light and dark. Could we have only recently tweaked a blue perceiving gene?



  35. I remember one of my college professor’s mentioning this about Homer not “seeing blue”.. (Late .I am surprised that this is still a subject of speculation. Interesting to find out just when Blue was first referred to in literature.

  36. Does anybody know what the egg shaped thing in the giraffe picture is on the left hand side? Looks a bit wierd for a piece of cave art.

  37. An extension of the last- the sky is not always blue.
    Grey of varying tones, pink , orange, green if a hurricane is inbound, white in a northern midsummer, deep blue and velvet black.
    And in The Paintbox Sea water reflects all these and the greens of trees along the banks.

  38. Also- I said this before but for some reason it’s not recorded.
    Homer likely had cataracts. Any senior whose had surgery for that will tell you that as well as clarifying vision , your sense of the blue colour is renewed. As the lens yellows you imperceptibly lose blue- like the old early Kodachrome photos. After surgery you cannot stop sky staring in amazement! Very few flowers are actually blue- purple and yellow predominant.

  39. The color issue is an old one and has been looked at by Berlin and Kay and others. George Lakoff has a good summary in his book “Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things.” Basically, different cultures categorize colors differently.Some people don’t distinguish green from blue, for example. If you showed them a blue paint chip and asked them to buy a car of that color for you, they might come back with a green one (or a blue one). It’s not a real distinction for them. Can they learn to distinguish green from blue? Of course, but they don’t. Culture is what you do, not what you can do. What’s the difference between a tree and a bush? Nothing really. It’s a gardener’s distinction. Cut something back to make the other thing stand out. There are no labels in nature. Cultures are sets of distinctions of this sort, and they vary. The biological basis behind these decisions is the same, but we don’t use these capabilities in the same way. Gregory Bateson defined information as”any difference that makes a difference”. Some differences don’t get noticed so they aren’t meaningful.

    In regard to plants in Paleolithic art, I think the argument is correct. The animals are so well drawn, you can often tell the species and subspecies. What passes for plants in paleolithic art are not drawn in this manner. They are symbolic forms and appear to be what Abbe Breuil termed “pine-tree men,” at least in some cases. He was talking about a Tree of Jesse figure with linked human bodies. That is, the growth of plants was used as a metaphor for human reproduction and social relations.(we still use this terminology –family tree, roots, etc.). The American art historian, Carl Schuster, was the first to discover a symbolic system of linked human figures. The links were social links, based on a metaphor with plant life.

  40. The basic problem is that we don’t know why ancient people made cave art. I’m betting that the unknown reason that they made the art is the unknown reason that the art focused on animals. I doubt that they made art for the same reasons we do, or for the reasons many commenters here are assuming – to make beautiful images, to decorate things, to communicate or teach, whatever – but for reasons of their own that we don’t know how to imagine or understand. What if, for instance, painting was a religious or magical act, and they believed that capturing the image of an animal before a hunt would help you capture the real animal? They’d have no need to paint plants to capture them — or seascapes or landscapes or still lives or the other forms of imagery that fit our concepts of visual art either. They’d only paint the animals they wanted to hunt if they believed that a ceremony of painting them was necessary in hunting them.

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