Can Your Bear Dance?
Study shows French prehistoric paintings ‘oldest and most elaborate’
"Remarkably, agreeing with the radiocarbon dates of the human and animal occupancy, this study confirms that the Chauvet cave paintings are the oldest and the most elaborate ever discovered, challenging our current
knowledge of human cognitive evolution”, said the study.
Those folks did not think of bears as “happy” creatures, but the extinct cave bear was more than twice the size of our bears. Strangely, there are no synonyms for bear in English— not counting the Latin, Ursa--the best we can do is growler, brute and other descriptive words. The word bear came from Proto-Germanic, but it’s meaning was “brown” or “shining”, “honey eater”, “shaggy coat.” In many cultures, bear, like coyote, was taboo to speak, so other names were made up.
Taboos involving bears are widespread. I collected a dozen of them from the Navajos—including “don’t step on a bear track” and “don’t put your shoes on the wrong feet”. Zunis are forbidden to kill bears, but members of a certain medicine group may do it. Of course none will eat bear meat, which is really delicious.
In general most societies have given bears a wide birth because of the threat they are. But for reasons I can’t find, they were tamed and forced to dance for people in the dim past. Their training has been described as “unimaginable cruelty”. In Nepal the last dancing sloth bear was only recued in July of this year. Many eastern European countries only stopped recently and in Pakistan the practice continues.
I think the underlying reason for dancing bears came out of fear. If you can make a ferocious animal perform for people, then you might be able to control all forms of danger and evil. The same thing is part of the appeal of lion tamers and dancing elephants. Control in a world that has never seemed to have much of it.
I remember seeing an old print that hung in a friend’s home, showing two young bears dancing. There was also a print of a huge stag, and one showing dogs playing poker. I thought they were humorous but not significant in any way. A much less funny print from 1620 shows a handler with his two bears. They don’t look happy at all.
I was only recently educated on the subject when I tried to find the origin of the Zuni carved dancing bears, originated by Claudia Peina. Now her half-brother and a few others are making them. But when I started looking I discovered some Artic tribes have been carving dancing bears for a long time and they keep pushing the envelope. They are the ones who give life to the dancing bear, believing it is joyous, and brings happiness, prosperity, and good things to the people. I believe they have it right.