Monday, July 15, 2013

Origins of Paleolithic Art

Prehistoric cave paintings across the continents have similar geometric patterns not because early humans were learning to draw like Paleolithic pre-schoolers, but because they were high on drugs, and their brains—like ours—have a biological predisposition to "see" certain patterns, especially during consciousness altering states.

This thesis—that humanity’s earliest artists were not just reeling due to mind-altering activities, but deliberately sought those elevated states and gave greater meaning to those common visions—is the contention of a  new paper by an international research team. Researchers Tom Froese, Alexander Woodward and Takashi Ikegami from Tokyo recently published a comprehensive study of over 40,000 years worth of cave paintings and found some pretty telling patterns. The spiral-like and labyrinthine designs that pop up in paintings from locations that are thousands of miles away from each other didn't just pop up by coincidence. Since these patterns are consistent with those that many humans see after taking hallucinogenic drugs, the scientists think that ancient cavemen had more in common than previously thought.

Specifically known as "Turing instabilities," these hallucinations are common after ingesting a number of different plants with psychoactive properties. The patterns resemble "neural patterns" that mimic the structural makeup of the brain and are as meaningful as those that initially experienced them perceived them to be. "'When these visual patterns are seen during altered states of consciousness they are directly experienced as highly charged with significance," the researchers suggest. "In other words, the patterns are directly perceived as somehow meaningful and thereby offer themselves as salient motifs for use in rituals."

The Froese et. al. thesis intriguingly explores the “biologically embodied mind,” which they contend gave rise to similarities in Paleolithic art across the continents dating back 40,000 years, and can also be seen in the body painting patterns dating back even further, according to recent archeological discoveries.

At its core, this theory challenges the long-held notion that the earliest art and artists were merely trying to draw the external world. Instead, it sees cave art as a deliberate mix of rituals inducing altered states for participants, coupled with brain chemistry that elicits certain visual patterns for humanity’s early chroniclers.

“The prevalence of certain geometric patterns in the symbolic material culture of many prehistoric cultures, starting shortly after the emergence of our biological species and continuing in some indigenous cultures until today, is explained in terms of the characteristic contents of biologically determined hallucinatory experience,” the researchers hypothesize. 

Of course, you can’t just posit that cave painters were doing prehistoric drugs without raising a few questions, such as why they gravitated—and kept gravitating—to the same kinds of shapes? The scientists start by citing decades-old research exploring drug use in indigenous cultures that suggest some hallucinations are induced by the brain seeing “neural” patterns—literally the cellular structure of brains.

“Researchers also generally claim that the geometric hallucinations experienced by the subject are mental representations of these neural patterns,” they write. “However, while these neural models are capable of reproducing some of the geometric patterns that are found in prehistoric art and non-ordinary visual experiences, their range remains severely limited.”

So brain biology plays a role, but it’s not enough to account for ancient pop art taste and trends! The brain might be generating the same kinds of patterns, but the early artist-shamans went further. Like many consciousness-exploring humans today, apparently they not only liked what they saw and created rituals to inspire their art, but they also believed that what they saw was more special than than the grind of their daily lives. 

“We speculate that the self-sustaining dynamics may account for why these geometric hallucinations were experienced as more significant than other phenomena, and that at the same time their underlying neural dynamics may have served to mediate and facilitate a form of imaginary sense-making that is not bound to immediate surroundings,” the scientists say. 

Translated, that knotty sentence comes down to this: The cave painters had rituals that involved taking drugs (undoubtedly plants) that they consumed in a frenzy to get to this creative state. This behavior and the same results were noted by 1960s-era academics studying the effects of peyote, a hallucinogenic cactus found in North America.  

“The non-ordinary visual experiences were often characterized by similar kinds of abstract geometric patterns, which he classified into four categories of form constants: (1) gratings, lattices, fretworks, filigrees, honeycombs, and checkerboards; (2) cobwebs; (3) tunnels and funnels, alleys, cones, vessels; and (4) spirals,” they write, citing peyote research. “Intriguingly, these form constants turned out to resemble many of the abstract motifs that are often associated with prehistoric art from around the world, including Paleolithic cave art in Europe."

This isn't the first time we've heard that hallucinogenic drugs may have played a role in early cave paintings—though it's the most scientifically rigorous evidence yet. A couple of years ago, a 6,000-year-old cave painting in Spain ignited a small buzz after scientist identified what appeared to be images of psychedelic mushrooms in one of the murals. This finding was consistent with earlier hypotheses drawn from similar paintings that suggested cavemen knew about the special powers some plants possessed and possibly used those plants to inspire some of the earliest works of art known to man.

But again, the scientific rigor of this latest study is what's crucial here. Not only did they connect known patterns from ancient cave paintings to modern day research on hallucinations, but they also mapped the projected hallucinations to particular regions of the brain that would've been active after taking such drugs. The study is based on the founding notions of neurophenomenology, which is the study of the relationship between brain functioning and human experience. While we can't exactly do a brain scan of what's inside these 10,000 year old heads, we can find a common link between the images that came out of those heads 10,000 years ago and images that we still see in art produced under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. Those paintings teach us a lot about humanity through the ages. They teach us not only that we've always loved art, but that we've always loved drugs, too. [Adaptive Behavior via Daily Mail]


Neanderthal said...

The origins of art go back at least 3 million years, but the oldest cave paintings are only about 40 thousand years old. Obviously it would be odd to think that man suddenly became good at art 40000 years ago.

Timothy said...
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