RE: rock art

From: Vincent Campbell (
Date: Fri 07 Mar 2003 - 13:05:07 GMT

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    Lovely stuff, the kind of things that makes the list worthwhile, thanks Bill.


    > ----------
    > From: William Benzon
    > Reply To:
    > Sent: Wednesday, March 5, 2003 6:22 PM
    > To:
    > Subject: rock art
    > 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
    > art1s 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 areas-much 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 Barre1s 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 Barre1s and Pearson1s, 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 isn1t interested in symbolism or ritual. He1s
    > 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 Wilson1s
    > 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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