rock art

From: William Benzon (
Date: Wed 05 Mar 2003 - 18:22:37 GMT

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    on 3/5/03 10:51 AM, Vincent Campbell at wrote:

    > Hi Scott,
    > <I was referring to limitations of using artificats to extrapolate
    > about the
    >> culture from which these artifacts came.>
    > You're absolutely right about this, a very good example being cave
    > paintings where we have found out all sorts of stuff about how they were
    > made, and _hypothesised_about what they were_for_ but no-ones knows for
    > certain. However, we can extrapolate to a reasonable degree certain
    > probable associations. For example, people of that time were hunter
    > gatherers, the vast majority of paintings are of animals, therefore there
    > must be some relationship between those two things. Given the inaccessible
    > places, and very difficult conditions in whihc the paintings were produced
    > (these weren't caves people lived in) it's reasonable to assume that these
    > paintings weren't just idle doodles, but important in some way, perhaps
    > tied to rituals and beliefs asssociated with the hunter gatherer lifestyle.

    I've got an essay-review coming out in the first issue of Evolutionary Psychology. One of the 2 books under review is about rock art:

    James L. Pearson, Shamanism and the Ancient Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Archaeology, AltaMira Press, 2002; ISBN: 0759101558

    Here's what I say about Pearson's book:

    Pearson considers the rock art found at thousands of cave and cliff sites around the world, with some sites having hundreds or thousands of images. What do those images represent, who put them there, and why? If we could travel back in time, we could answer these questions through direct observation. As time travel is impossible, we must get at these questions indirectly, through inference based on things we can observe and processes we do understand.
      Thus Pearson begins his book with a discussion of archaeological method, noting that American archaeologists of the early twentieth century focused on ³locating, excavating, recording, and describing findings at individual sites² (p. 2). We thus have descriptions of the bone fragments, pot shards, weapons and tools, seeds, and so forth found at specific sites. Then the focus shifted toward establishing chronologies for the artifacts and sites, thus giving us the foundation for thinking about regional prehistories. This led to functional interpretations of artifacts in terms of the lifeways of ancient peoples. How did these people live their lives? What did they eat, what were their travel routes, how many lived at a site, and so forth. During the 1960s archaeologists began forging a New Archaeology interested in making demographic and ecological arguments about the forces driving historical change. These thinkers, however, were not interested in rock art. For it could not readily be interpreted in the adaptationist terms they favored.

    Which is not to say that no one had been interested in rock art. On the contrary, many have been fascinated by rock art since the first major discoveries in the caves of Altamira in the late nineteenth century. But it is only relatively recently that the subject has been intellectually respectable. Various approaches were pursed in explicating the art: ³art for artıs sake, totemic, hunting and fertility magic, and modern structuralist theories² (p. 44). André Leroi-Gourhan is the major proponent of structuralist analysis: he treated displays as coherent multi-image compositions rather than as a miscellaneous collection of individual images. He analyzed the distribution of image types and argued that they reflected the mythical universe of people capable of fully human thought. Then, starting in the early 1980s, David Lewis-Williams began arguing that ³the painted motifs referred to the supernatural visions and experiences that medicine men received while in altered states of consciousness² (p. 49). Why would anyone think that?

    There had been quite a bit of research on hallucinations in general, and drug-induced hallucinations in particular, back in the 1960s and 1970s (cf. Siegel and West 1975). One of the observations that emerged from this literature is that hallucinatory ³trips² typically go through three phases. In the first of these phases imagery is dominated by geometric forms of various kinds, such as grids, spirals, and zigzags. The second phase consists of ³culturally meaningful images, perceived as recognizable shapes of people, animals, and monsters² (p. 88). During the third phase image types from the first two phases become blended together.

    The geometric forms of the first and third phases seem to be derived from the inherent computational geometry of the nervous system. You do not, however, have to take psychoactive drugs to see these so-called entopic forms. You can evoke them by closing your eyes and gently applying pressure to your eyeballs. At some point you will begin to see brightly colored patterns which will shimmer and evolve as you maintain pressure. These are the kinds of geometric forms which appear in the first and third phases of trips.

    Geometric forms quite similar to these entopic forms are prominent in rock art in widely separated areas­much of the original analysis was based on images found at sites in South African and the American West. Further, some rock art is known to have been created in historical times and there are references in the ethnographic literature from informants asserting that the images depict dreams (p. 86). While this certainly does not imply that all rock art has a similar origin, it does lend plausibility to the visionary case.

    With this argument in mind, however provisional it may be, let us return to Weston La Barreıs ideas. After having talked about culture shock and sensory deprivation he went on to observe (p. 60): ³The fact that he dreams first forces on man the need to epistemologize.² Our own view of dreams is so thoroughly psychologized that we can easily think of them as just something the mind/brain does. How do dreams appear to people who, lacking the explanatory and theoretical machinery of modern psychology and neuroscience, cannot psychologize them? Why think about dreams at all; why not simply forget about them? What structures and processes must a brain have if it is to remember both dream events and real events, to compare them, note the differences, and wonder about those differences? It seems to me that people lacking the interpretive buffering of this psychologized view of the world might well see dreams as genuine journeys to another realm. When were our ancestors able to do this?

    I suggest that they were so doing at least 30,000 years ago, if not before, for that is the age of the rock art at Chauvet Cave in France (p. 79). To be sure, even if Pearson is correct, carving or painting rock art is not quite the same as talking about dreams as experiences in some other world, but the activities are in the same general domain. Given that the shaman actively induces visions through a combination of song, dance, and drugs, creating rock art would seem to be the more strenuous activity. It is through this activity that the shaman gains access to the dream world, one typically treated as being more real than the mundane world (cf. Pearson p. 108). He seeks active control rather than the mere recall of dreams. This makes the shaman something of a metaphysician. To be sure, he is not a metaphysician in the style of Socrates, Descartes, Wittgenstein, Dennett, or Derrida, but his socially sanctioned ritual activity has a metaphysical dimension. He is the one who has mastered reality and so can travel to other worlds and there gain knowledge to help his tribesmen in the here and now. However they appear to us, shamans function as healers, weather-makers, story-tellers, and historians, and musicians to their own people (cf. Winkelman 1992). We might think of them as specializing in symbolic integrity, for it is their job to maintain the vitality of the symbol system that defines the order of the world.

    This whole story, La Barreıs and Pearsonıs, is conjectural, but the conjectures are about important matters that have yet to attract consensus explanations that are well-argued and documented by appropriate intellectual specialists. For that I reason I think they merit our further attention. By contrast, this story is quite different from the one David Sloan Wilson tells about religion. He isnıt interested in symbolism or ritual. Heıs interested in moral behavior and group formation. From his point of view
    ³religious belief gives an authority to the system that it would not have as a purely secular institution² (p. 130). While he recognizes that all religious system are replete with symbolism, he sees it as a component of the psychological mechanisms through which moral behavior in inculcated in group members. Symbolism is merely instrumental. I do not, however, see that there is any deep conflict between the position that the human brain has a need for order that can be satisfied by religious symbolism and Wilsonıs argument about group behavior. On the contrary, my view might provide a way of explicitly accounting for the authority symbolism affords the moral order.

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