Fire: Fuel for Arsonists and the Origin of Cave Art

Source: Altamira Muesum, Santillana del Mar, Cantabria (Spain)

The very fire that today clouds the twisted minds of arsonists, like the ones who have set regions of Spain and the U.S. on fire, once was the true source of inspiration for the first artists of humanity.

The wildfires of California and Galicia

I write these lines while I hear the sad news that comes from the two countries I have profound family ties with – Spain and the U.S.  In this case, both countries are united by the fire that has uncontrollably consumed regions of California and Galicia, but also united by something more sinister: the suspicion that part of these wildfires may have been caused by arsonists.  People are fascinated by the vision of fire, the purification element associated with it or, maybe, by the unstoppable desire to see everything engulfed in flames.  This fascination with fire dates back to the times when we first discovered it more than 800,000 years ago.  A fascination that still baffles modern psychiatry.

A mystery of modern psychiatry

Although it may seem hard to believe, according to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), pyromania is only defined as an impulsive-compulsive disorder of unknown etiology.  It is also surprising to read all the exclusion criteria that the DSM establishes for this condition: alcohol consumption, psychosis, psychotic mania, mental retardation, dementia and antisocial personality disorder, organic brain syndrome, vengeance, dementia, political ideas, and economic interests. In other words, anything that might make someone decide to intentionally set something on fire.

Pyromania comes from the Greek words πυρός (fire) and μανία (craziness) and it is a disorder almost exclusive of males whose prevalence in the overall population is one (1) per cent only.  The management of pyromania is based on the administration of psycho-drugs.  Total recovery usually never comes and relapses are common of this condition.  But today I don´t want to talk about the devastating use of fire coming from the twisted mind of arsonists.  Today I want to tell you a story about fire and inspiration.  The story of the first painters of the history of the world.

The origin of cave art

There are two key locations in the history of cave art: the Chauvet cave in France and the Altamira cave in Spain.  The first one was discovered by Jean-Marie Chauvet in 1994 and is over 35,000 years old and the second by Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola some 20,000 years old.  Both caves were discovered by chance and in both caves fire played a major role as the source of light that enabled the painting activity.

Source: Chauvet-Pont d´Arc Museum, Ardèche (France)

Both caves have been closed to the public due to carbon dioxide released from the breathing of millions and millions of visitors that was damaging the paintings.  However, in the summer of 2015 my wife and I were able to visit a replica of the Altamira cave located a few miles away from Santillana del Mar, Cantabria in northern Spain.

It was in Altamira where we learned that it was the hand of the same painter that drew the bodies of all of the animals since the arches outlining the backs of the animals have the exact same dimension.  It was this same painter who used the natural protuberances of the rock to give volume and a 3D appearance to the body of the animals.  Eventually it was this same painter who would walk into the cave every day in absolute solitude to paint the most beautiful buffalos ever painted by the hand of any men.  All this was possible through the use of bone marrow lamps (animal fat), and beeswax.  These prehistoric lamps generated the necessary fire and light the artist needed to give free rein to his imagination. 

The first animated film in history

But the fire that lit up his work was also used for something more than just seeing.  According to Marc Azéma, Professor of Prehistory at the Université de Toulouse, the Paleolithic man soon realized he could use fire and the lights and shadows that the flames generated to leave the impression that the animals could actually move.  According to Azéma, looking at these paintings is witnessing the first movies in human history.

Sequential Animation: The First Palaeolithic Animated Pictures by Marc Azéma

Our visit to Altamira was a life-changing experience.  Personally, I realized that what we are now, we have already been in the past.  The twisted mystery of pyromania that has set parts of Spain and the U.S. on fire languishes when compared to the mysterious genius of the Paleolithic man.  For the modern arsonist, fire is just an open door to a sick desire to see everything devoured by flames.  For the Paleolithic man, the flames and the fire were the key that unlocked the secrets of art, creativity, beauty and life.  In the words of Pablo Picasso, “after Altamira, all is decadence”.

AUTHOR Prof. Jorge C. Berriatúa is the Managing Editor of the ICBMed Bulletin and Co-Founder of ICBMed. He did his B.A. in Linguistics and Masters of Education at the University of La Rioja, Spain, and his Masters of Medical Translation at UNED, Madrid, specializing in medical reporting, translating and teaching.

Jorge C. Berriatúa, M.Ed., MSc in Medical Translation

President & Co-founder, ICBMed

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