Cave Art Reconsidered

Painted images from Chauvet Cave

Horses drawn by Nadia at 3 years, 5 months

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.

8 Comment

  1. Elatia Harris says:

    I remember the case of Nadia from an article in the NYR over 30 years ago. She learned only minimally to talk and function in the everyday world, so that it seemed at the time that her wonderful, strange and isolating gift was traded in merely for orthodox sub-normalcy — a better fit into the mainstream population of special needs children. What an allegory of what happens through miseducation to almost all child artists: they grow, they are integrated into society, they have “art class,” and their inner reach is destroyed.

    If you ask me, an analysis of the pigments used in cave painting suggests society then was organized for it and valued it. In those days caves and peaks were sanctuaries — you could find a nice saffron wash on stones at a peak shrine. If the pre-modern mind at work on cave walls was sufficiently sophisticated to concentrate on color and material and craft, that makes a bad fit with Humphrey’s rather romantic theory.

  2. The painters of caves obviously could think around the problem of how to make coloured mineral pigments adhere to the surface of rock walls; there fore they had had to experiment with binders, fats, pitch, sap or some other substence. This to me indicates a fairly sophisticated level of thinking, of noting characteristics of the materials they were surrounded by and utilising them purposively.
    In making art, one tends to supress verbal noise and distraction, or the naming and labelling of what one does. it is this ability to operate at a non-verbal level that tends to yield results of uncanny semblances and remarkable observations. In some sense, when visual artists are in the mode of working they tend to work in “autistic” mode, I know that I tend to do this myself. it would be an interesting topic of discussion and study to find out if this were the case? G

  3. Elatia,
    The crux of Humphrey’s argument does not hinge on the sophistication of the materials used or the value placed on the art by the culture that produced it.

    There is no question these people knew what they were doing. For example, charcoal was never employed (even though it was readily available) because–we assume–it lacks permanence. And the similarities of the cave art found throughout the region speak to a larger scope of intentionality than one-off expression.

    Humphrey’s claims are more along the lines of those posited by Leonard Shlain in “The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image.” Recent explorations into the peculiar (and relatively unexplored) relationship between language and image continue to expose unexpected cusps in these mental processes. Humphrey is questioning assumptions held by his colleagues regarding symbolic and conceptual thought derived from looking at the cave art. And that is a separate issue from sophisticated materials or aesthetic technique.

    In the end, what can we ever really know about the cultural context of the work? I will never forget the steely French guide, a freshly-minted PhD in archeaology, who took us on a thorough tour of the Font de Gaume cave in Les Eyzies. When I asked about Marija Gimbutas’ controversial revisionist views on the culture of Old Europe, this hard edged scholar snapped my head off with her terse response: “We will NEVER know what these people believed. Don’t waste my time on these conjectures!” You can see I didn’t take her advice. I just can’t help but wonder, and sometimes out loud.

  4. G,
    I agree with you, there is a shift in the mind when we are really are in the visual “zone.” What amazes me about this whole Nadia thing is that she was only 3 years old when she drew these extraordinarily complex images that are so suggestive of cave art. I had 3 children whose childhood art was fabulous (and many pieces are still hanging, framed, in my home) but I never saw imaging of this type come out of any of them. Not to say Nadia is the only one who has produced work like this, but her output during her pre-language period is truly striking.

  5. Elatia Harris says:

    I think what an art historian — or someone else familiar with conventions in worldwide art — would be writing about is “Modes of Representation in Cave Art.” The conventions used by the cave painters — overlapping masses that appear transparent in places, for instance, which can mess with our ideas about picture space and the cognition of the painter — are used also in much later Bronze Age painting in the Mediterranean Basin, and in Native American painting of only a couple of centuries ago — profile views of riders on horseback where you see through the horse’s body to the rider’s leg on the other side, for example. What all “these people may have believed” is that they had found a way to depict the recession of forms into deep space — as we believe we have done for the last 500+ years, with Albertian perspective. But the Chinese had solved that same problem to their utter satisfaction by the mid-13th century, with a theory-based system that we can appreciate, but that leaves us unsold. A classical Chinese painter, in turn, would have found — and did find — Western perspective horribly limiting, all about how something appears from one unchanging point of view: very unrefreshing, very unexpanding to the mind’s eye and to the spirit. A mode of representation, so-called, is about the difference between what you the artist definitely know to be there and how you have consistently chosen to show it. The gap between the two is one of the thrilling things about studying art, if only because one day someone will see the shape of that gap in our art — someone who is not us — and think, “That’s how they saw it, then. But that’s certainly not the way it is.” Maybe they’ll be smart enough to recognize that they’re looking at our limitations through the lens of their own, and that the resulting conclusions are interesting merely, not definitive. I do think the Humphreys hypothesis is interesting, but I also think it’s kind of about her. Whereas cave painting will be enormous and unfathomable and pretty impervious to such as Humphreys until — to misquote Franz Wright — the stars once again have no name.

  6. E,
    Geat comments, and certainly a sensible view. You don’t address the third rail of the verbal/visual DMZ that both Humphrey and Slain are attempting to sort out however. I would be interested to know how you would map your “modes of representation” onto that set of issues (or vice versa.) Unrelated, or relevant?

  7. Elatia Harris says:

    Looking at a society organized enough for craftsmen (or artists, since it isn’t odd for an artist to be responsible for the making of pigment) to create reasonably sophisticated pigment, intended to be both various and lasting — boy, if only they knew! — where, probably, artists were grappling with how to represent the recession of objects — the most beautiful and powerful objects they saw — in space, for us to somehow believe that the actual artist was cognitively very different from others in that coherent society — was not neurotypical, that is — is to romanticize that artist figure without warrant. If what you have is a hammer, then the whole world looks like a nail, and it just seems to me that Humphreys and Slain are overreaching with their particular hammer. They are romanticizing autism too, like lots of researchers into it do. Am I still missing the big question? How do they suppose the rest of society was back then? Pre-verbal along with the artist? Any time you have art, a coherent society is implied, and this implies communication of a fairly organized nature. I don’t see how this would have failed to be the case 50,000 years ago.

  8. E,
    I can’t speak authoritatively on Schlain’s view of these larger issues since it has been several years since I read his book. I have not read other works by Humphrey so I can’t offer his expertise either. What I can speak to is the very compelling set of issues around the trade offs that appear to exist between a cultural’s “visual” orientation versus a “verbal” one (in quotes since those terms are code for a larger set of issues like linear vs nonlinear modes of thought, arborization of information vs a rhizomatic model, etc.)

    My view is that Schlain and Humphrey aren’t romanticizing autism so much as fixating on it as the most accessible subject for the study of what is not Western, not “us.” Certainly my earlier postings regarding the haptic orientiation of Australian Aboriginal culture and/or the metonymic qualities of Indian thought as described by Ramanujan also address this topic from other contexts.

    Both S and H are questioning what happens when a culture becomes so language-dominant that other skill sets get squeezed out or lost altogether. There are lots of variations on this theme. For example, Aboriginals are not verbal language-dominant. That does not mean they will produce cave art like Chauvet. It means that when they do engage in visual expression, that engagement happens outside of linearity and deductive structure. That is the only way I know how to explain why Aboriginal paintings can be an aerial map of the land, a story told with symbols, a visual re-enactment of the past, an embodiment of their sacred ancestors as well as a number of valences of meaning I cannot even comprehend–and all at the same time. While many artists operating in the Western world would like to be able to achieve that multidimensionality in their work (I would certainly like to be able to do so,) it would be an individual achievement that runs counter to the current of Western cultural tradition. In the Aboriginal example, the cultural flow enhances and supports that goal.

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