Comparative Guts

5000–3000 BCE

Hunter Fishers of Norway

Charlotte Damm

Dept. of Archaeology, History, Religious Studies and Theology, Arctic University of Norway

In northern Scandinavia a subsistence based on hunting and fishing persisted long after farming and domesticated animals were introduced in Central Europe and the southernmost parts of Scandinavia. In Norway this foraging population predominantly lived in coastal regions were fishing and sealing made up a major part of their diet, although hunting of particularly deer (red deer, elk, reindeer) and other terrestrial mammals was also pursued. Their tools were made of various types of stone, but the soft reddish sandstone usually referred to as slate was used extensively for both knives, arrowheads and spearpoints.

It is generally assumed that these hunter-fishers had an animistic world view, where animals and other beings had spirits like humans, and where significant forces could reside also in natural features such as rapids, northern lights etc. There are also indications that according to their worldview non-human beings might reside in other parallel worlds such as in water, inside cliffs and in the sky, and that some beings, possibly also humans, were able to travel between such worlds. There is overall a particular interest in outer appearance, perhaps linked to the understanding that beings may transform through makeshifts, with for example humans taking on the hide of animals.

While some rock art is known from earlier periods (9000-5000 BCE) there is a particularly rich rock art record from about 5000 BC onwards. The motifs focus on large mammals, in particular deer, but in some areas also bear or marine mammals. Hunting scenes with bow and arrow or spears are common in some areas.

The earliest images are often large, sometimes even natural sized, and portray the animals through an outline, with just ears or antlers added. While some images in the later phases are also quite large (Figs. 1 and 5), the size typically decreases while more details are added, and the motifs become more stylized (Figs. 3 and 4)

Guts in northern rock art
Human figures in the northern rock art are nearly always simple stick figures with just lines for torso, arms and legs. In the few cases where human figures are more elaborate, details do not appear to correspond to guts of any kind, although occasionally they could represent human skeletons showing rib cases. In contrast to this animal figures often show more details and internal patterning, also beyond what may be required to identify the species. In some cases, these indicate external markings such as hide colour, thus identifying age, sex, and even individual animals (Skandfer 2021). It has also been argued that the patterning could be linked to a totemic organisation, with different patterns for different clans or regions, springing from a cultural concern not with outer appearance and relations between species, but with internal human sociality (Fuglestvedt 2018). Markings indicating guts are rare. The most common feature is the so-called lifeline, a line running from the mouth of the animal to a shape in the front part of the torso (Fig. 1 and 4). In an animistic world view, where humans and animals may travel between different worlds it is often one of several souls which make these travels. The lifeline could indicate the existence of such an extra soul or lifeforce in master spirits, which in northern indigenous groups are typically bears or deer. While the emphasis is on external features and outer appearance, esophagus, stomachs and intestines occur in some case (Fig. 2, fig. 3 and fig. 4). In a very few cases more extensive anatomical details are suggested (Fig. 5). The hunters would certainly be familiar with the guts of elk and reindeer, but since the anatomy is not correct in all details and only certain parts are included, we must assume that the selected organs have cultural significance. Several scholars stress the ambiguity often found in the images. Such ambiguity may also pertain to the porpoise with either guts or lifeline. Concern with the stomachs of the deer may point to an interest in the differences between ungulates and humans, but depictions of heart, stomach (with contents?) and intestines could also point to the practice of haruspicy, taking omens from animal entrails.

Fuglestvedt, I. 2018. Rock Art and the Wild mind. Visual Imagery in Mesolithic Norway. London, Routledge.

Skandfer, M. 2021. The Appreciation of Reindeer: Rock Carvings and Sami Reindeer Knowledge. I Gjerde, J.M. & Arntzen, M.S. (red.) Perspectives on differences in Rock Art. Sheffield, Equinox, s. 113-128

Tansem, K. & Storemyr, P. 2021. Red-coated rocks on the sea-shore: The esthetics and geology of prehistoric rock art in Alta, Arctic Norway. Geoarchaeology 36(2), 314-334.