In the mind’s eye: cognitive science and the riddle of cave art

Eveline Seghers- PhD stu­dent in the Department of Art, Music and Theatre Studies, Ghent University

In his 2002 book The Mind in the Cave, the archae­olo­gist David Lewis-Williams remarked that ‘art’ is a concept that every­one assumes they grasp, “until asked to define” it (2002: 41). This inev­it­ably clouds our insights into its ori­gins. While most research­ers tend to agree that pari­et­al and port­able imagery from the Upper Palaeolithic con­sti­tute the earli­est known art in human his­tory, there is very little con­ver­gence on its func­tion, if any, for our ancest­ors. One fairly pop­u­lar view con­sists in describ­ing cave paint­ings and small objects as instances of reli­gious prac­tices and beliefs, although opin­ions still dif­fer as to which links there may have been between Prehistoric art and reli­gion. While Lewis-Williams (2002) thinks cave paint­ings are the out­comes of sham­an­ist­ic hal­lu­cin­a­tions, the explan­a­tion of ‘hunt­ing magic’ also remains widely cited (for a dis­cus­sion, see Bahn and Vertut, 1997). More sec­u­lar inter­pret­a­tions have been pro­posed by authors such as the archae­olo­gist John Halverson, who endorsed an art for art’s sake explan­a­tion, and the archae­olo­gist R. Dale Guthrie, who sug­gests that the cave paint­ings may have been made by teens with grafitti-like intent, rather than by skilled artists with sym­bol­ic pur­poses, as is often assumed (Guthrie, 2005; Halverson, 1987). As such, fig­ur­at­ive art, impress­ive as it appears to us, may not be a sym­bol­ic break­through after all (Currie 2011).

Few authors have invest­ig­ated the ori­gins of fig­ur­at­ive art from the obvi­ous, yet sur­pris­ingly under­ex­plored per­spect­ive of the human mind and cog­nit­ive sci­ence. Although devel­op­ment­al stages in the mind are some­times inferred from fig­ur­at­ive and abstract cave paint­ings and port­able art — the pro­posed link between fig­ur­at­ive imagery and sym­bol­ic cog­ni­tion for example — cog­nit­ive, and by exten­sion neur­os­cientif­ic frame­works are rarely sys­tem­at­ic­ally applied to inter­pret the record at our dis­pos­al. A not­able excep­tion to this is Steven Mithen’s cog­nit­ive fluid­ity approach, which provides both a hypo­thes­is con­cern­ing both the evol­u­tion of cog­ni­tion and the emer­gence of com­plex human cul­ture (1996). The gen­er­al reluct­ance to approach cave art from a cog­nit­ive per­spect­ive may be partly due to the fact that brains do not fos­sil­ize, which means we can merely study the remain­ing fossil cra­nia. This poses a num­ber of meth­od­o­lo­gic­al chal­lenges to research­ers, who are left won­der­ing about the men­tal lives and the beha­viour of our ancest­ors without the elab­or­ate toolkit of present-day cog­nit­ive psy­cho­lo­gists, and the obvi­ous absence of study sub­jects whose beha­viour we are try­ing to assess.

Despite these chal­lenges, many research­ers have come up with cre­at­ive approaches to address our lack of actu­al ances­tral brains and beha­viour to exam­ine. By mak­ing endocasts — mod­elled recon­struc­tions of Prehistoric brains based on skulls avail­able in palaeo­anthro­po­lo­gic­al record — it becomes pos­sible to estim­ate the size and sur­face struc­ture of the brain. Another meth­od involves mak­ing com­par­at­ive ana­lyses of over­all brain volume and the volume of par­tic­u­lar areas in extant prim­ate spe­cies, to then make infer­ences about the brain struc­tures of our ancest­ors. Admittedly, such meth­ods leave a great deal to be estim­ated when it comes to the actu­al intern­al organ­iz­a­tion of ances­tral brains as, for example, pre­cise volumes asso­ci­ated with par­tic­u­lar neur­al func­tions can­not be derived from endocasts or com­par­is­ons of extant prim­ate brains. To rem­edy this, a new meth­od was recently developed that involves a com­par­at­ive ana­lys­is of the visu­al sys­tem — both eye and orbit size and the visu­al cor­tex — of Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Humans, enabling infer­ences about how the brains of these two spe­cies may have been intern­ally organ­ized and how they may have differed, in turn spark­ing new insights into mat­ters such as their socio-cognitive abil­it­ies and their beha­vi­our­al rep­er­toires (Pearce, Stringer and Dunbar, 2013).

But what does cog­nit­ive sci­ence in itself con­trib­ute to our under­stand­ing of Prehistoric art? Assuming that the goal of invest­ig­at­ing the lat­ter through the lens of the former is not too ambi­tious for the afore­men­tioned meth­od­o­lo­gic­al reas­ons, how can we apply research from present-day cog­nit­ive sci­ence to ques­tions con­cern­ing the emer­gence and func­tion of cul­ture? Are we neces­sar­ily con­fined to archae­olo­gic­al and anthro­po­lo­gic­al meth­ods such as those men­tioned above in order to then for­mu­late hypo­theses about the cog­nit­ive machinery present in our ancest­ors’ brains, or can we per­haps also apply insights from cog­nit­ive sci­ence more dir­ectly? Many research­ers will agree that we can. The field of cog­nit­ive archae­ology, not­ably developed and endorsed by authors such as Colin Renfrew, Steven Mithen, Thomas Wynn and Frederick Coolidge, under­tak­ing invest­ig­a­tions of the archae­olo­gic­al record with the help of the con­cep­tu­al and meth­od­o­lo­gic­al tool­box of cog­nit­ive sci­ence, invest­ig­at­ing sub­jects as far apart as the evol­u­tion of con­scious­ness and its role in arte­fact pro­duc­tion, lin­guist­ic evol­u­tion in rela­tion to tool man­u­fac­tur­ing, men­tal mod­u­lar­ity and the con­ver­gence of cog­nit­ive domains in the realm of art, the capa­city of work­ing memory in the cre­ation of visu­al rep­res­ent­a­tions, and the cog­nit­ive nature of innov­a­tion and its reflec­tion in the emer­gence of arte­facts (e.g. Coolidge and Wynn 2009; de Beaune, Coolidge and Wynn, 2009; Mithen, 1996; Renfrew and Zubrow, 1994). In addi­tion, neur­os­cience has proven to be a loy­al com­pan­ion to the field, res­ult­ing in new lines of research that can be referred to, col­lect­ively, as ‘neuroar­chae­ology’ (e.g. Malafouris 2013).

In a talk giv­en at the inaug­ur­al iCog con­fer­ence, we invest­ig­ated an inter­est­ing case study at the inter­sec­tion of Prehistoric archae­ology and cog­nit­ive sci­ence. In 1998, the psy­cho­lo­gist Nicholas Humphrey sug­ges­ted that we may have been wrong to see fig­ur­at­ive cave art as evid­ence of the break­through of fully mod­ern cog­ni­tion; some­thing that oth­ers have described as the ulti­mate expo­nent and first unequi­voc­al evid­ence of our abil­ity to think sym­bol­ic­ally. Perhaps, he argued, cave art is rather “the swan song of the old” (1998: 165), reflect­ing stages of cog­nit­ive evol­u­tion that pre­cede the attain­ment of levels of cog­nit­ive and beha­vi­our­al mod­ern­ity that rival our present minds. Tying research on lan­guage evol­u­tion, the­ory of mind, aut­ism, and the evol­u­tion of social cog­ni­tion togeth­er, Humphrey attemp­ted to pave the way for a new view on cave art. Methodologically, he pro­posed that we might under­stand the devel­op­ment­al tra­ject­or­ies of the human mind at the time of the Upper Palaeolithic trans­ition by study­ing present-day indi­vidu­als with aut­ism spec­trum dis­orders. This sug­ges­tion has eli­cited much con­tro­versy: par­al­lelling a present-day aut­ist­ic child with human ancest­ors who may have been in earli­er devel­op­ment­al phases of cog­nit­ive evol­u­tion was seen as an eth­ic­al issue not jus­ti­fied giv­en the over­all spec­u­lat­ive nature of Humphrey’s hypo­thes­is. As a con­sequence, his ideas did not receive much sup­port among research­ers of Prehistoric cave art. In follow-up research, we there­fore reas­sessed Humphrey’s ori­gin­al hypo­thes­is by tak­ing a fresh per­spect­ive that com­bines a cog­nit­ive anthro­po­lo­gic­al frame­work, focus­sing on the emer­gence of metarep­res­ent­a­tion­al abil­ity, with sound empir­ic­al evid­ence pro­duced by cog­nit­ive psy­cho­lo­gic­al stud­ies on the rela­tion­ship between visu­al imagery and the­ory of mind (e.g. Charman and Baron-Cohen, 1992, 1995; Leslie, 1987; Sperber, 1994). This primary ana­lys­is can also be anchored into oth­er fields of research. By gath­er­ing recent find­ings on, for example, the evol­u­tion of spoken lan­guage and pat­terns of migrat­ory move­ment by our ancest­ors across the globe — ele­ments which turn out to be highly rel­ev­ant when dis­cuss­ing the evol­u­tion of human social cog­ni­tion — it becomes pos­sible to estab­lish a renewed and empirically-founded cog­nit­ive view on cave art, which may provide a start­ing point for oth­er cognitively-based ana­lyses of this subject.

Overall, excit­ing times lie ahead for archae­olo­gists research­ing the emer­gence and nature of cave art. Will cog­nit­ive sci­ence provide us with the ulti­mate key to under­stand­ing art’s ori­gins? Probably not, as a com­plex evol­u­tion­ary occur­rence such as the emer­gence of art, can only be under­stood bet­ter by com­bin­ing insights from a wide vari­ety of rel­ev­ant sci­entif­ic dis­cip­lines. But as cog­nit­ive sci­ent­ists and human­it­ies schol­ars inter­ested in this approach will con­tin­ue to join forces in order to shed light on the nature of Prehistoric art, our know­ledge can only increase, spark­ing new ques­tions and hypo­theses, the bound­ar­ies of which are cur­rently not even in view.



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