Nicholas Humphrey, author and expert on the evolution of consciousness, wrote a paper several years ago comparing the cave art at Chauvet Cave with work produced by Nadia, an autistic child who lived in England, who was not able to employ verbal language as a small child. Drawings that she did when she was very young (in some cases only 3 years old) have similarities with the cave art that are undeniable–the naturalism of individual animals (their portrayal is not stereotyped or iconized,) use of linear contours, the overlapping of forms, an overemphasis on salient parts (like feet and faces,) among others.
Humphrey disagrees with the contention of many scholars that cave art reveals a capacity for symbolic thought and sophisticated visual representation. His position is quite different:
The paintings and engravings must surely strike anyone as wondrous. Still, I draw attention here to evidence that suggests that the miracle they represent may not be at all of a kind most people think. Indeed this evidence suggests the very opposite: that the makers of these works of art may actually have had distinctly pre-modern minds, have been little given to symbolic thought, have no great interest in communication and have been essentially self-taught and untrained. Cave art, so far from being the sign of a new order of mentality, may perhaps better be thought the swan-song of the old.
With so little evidence to build on, experts will continue to disagree on the nature of some of the most startlingly beautiful art ever made. Lines are being drawn regarding the claim that the art is a shamanic, out of body expression, and another theory posits that the cave art was painted by women. Juxtaposing Nadia’s early drawings with representative cave art is a powerful visual case for Humphrey’s assertions, one that is strengthened by the fact that Nadia’s artistic proclivities disappeared when she learned to talk and was able to converse with others.
The paper, Cave Art, Autism, and the Evolution of the Human Mind is full of images and can be downloaded as a PDF file if you are interested by going to Cogprints.
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