Signs of Consciousness:
Speculations on the Psychology of Paleolithic Graphics
Paleolithic Graphic Images:
Based the evidence accumulated over the
last two hundred years, we can conclude that graphic activity appears to have
begun sometime prior to 33,000 BP during the last Ice Age (Würm), in the
Upper Paleolithic Period (Aurignacian through Magdelenian in Europe) and
reached its apogee during the Solutrean-Magdelanian cultures (22,00-10,500).
The evidence consists of images carved, scratched, etched, pecked out, and/or
painted on stone, bone, ivory, horn, and antler. Portable, or mobiliary
graphics appears to be somewhat more widespread than parietal graphics (cave
art) found in rock shelters ("abri"), shallow recesses, and
occasionally, deep within caves, especially in the
The approach taken in this argument is to avoid postulating the possession of capacities by the graphists for which there is little or questionable evidence other than thick interpretation of the images themselves. Rather than assuming cognitive symbolic abilities and cultural traditions that might plausibly have found "expression" in graphics I invert this argument and conjecture that symbolic activities and cultural traditions, myths, and rituals were, in part, a result of the production of images. These images, I argue, preceded and produced the very notion of representation itself. This argument I characterize as a multiple factor theory comprising a componential theory of perception, behavioral strategies for positive identification of ambiguous images, a specialized form of sequential and hierarchical control of fine-motor hand-eye coordination emerging from developments in tool construction that led to a "mastering of the trace," and issues entailed in the sharing and transmission of technology.
Some time between 30,000 and 40,000 thousand years ago modern humans began creating the first deliberate "signs" ever created on earth - perhaps in the universe. These signs were something other than simple traces of motor activities (e.g. footprints) or the results and residues of instrumental labor (e.g., tool marks). They were marks left as signs carrying meaning for those who left them and, subsequently, for we who find them now. These signs appeared in the Late Paleolithic in relative abundance, rather suddenly, in great variety, and often reflecting great skill. A remarkable number of signs and techniques for producing appeared almost simultaneously. These include crude scratches and colored blotches, complex enigmatic signs and, above all, figurative art of surpassing beauty. They are placed on stone, bone, antler, horn, ivory, clay in small, portable (mobiliary) sculpture and etching and, most spectacularly, as murals (Parietal Art) on the walls of rock shelters and deep in caves. How did those early humans manage this and why did they bother? What was so different about these people whose own recent ancestors were either unable or disinclined to create such signs?
It seems a safe assumption that the paintings of bison, horses, aurochs, and other large animals on the walls and ceilings of deep caves were not drawn from life, but from imagination. And what is imagination?
Why did these changes take place? There are certainly some good concrete arguments against such changes. There are, for example, numerous constraints on big brains and big heads. Brains are metabolically costly and large heads are incompatible with biomechanics of upright stance, most particularly because of the birthing problem created by big heads passing through a birth canal the structure of which is very much constrained by the upright stance. Moreover, arguments in favor of large brains tend to be rather vague, arguing that more brain power is somehow an unqualified good. The assumption appears to be that more neural cells mean better problem solving and memory. This argument seems reasonable (but see Cosmides and Tooby, 1997) as far as it goes but it does not go far enough. If increased problem solving and memory inevitably lead to greater fitness one would think that we would have many more competitors in the big brain business. One way to begin to overcome such vagueness is to consider not simply the overall increase in size but also the specific structural changes and their possibly equally specific functions in generating (yet again) very specific behavioral capacities. One strategy for overcoming vagueness is to consider the biological fitness-conferring uses to which these skills and capacities were put.
Some Structural Changes and their Functions: The POT appears to be an area in which information from each of three lobes (e.g., somatosensory-visual-auditory) may become integrated into amodal circuits. Broca's area appears to be important for controlling motor sequencing, especially for speech, in modern humans. Broca's area is connected to the POT by the arcuate fasciculis. Damage to Broca's area has long been known to produce production deficits in language. These considerations might be taken to suggest that Homo habilis was possessed of language and that the subsequent evolution of these areas and the consequent growth in brain size were a result of selection pressures on language development and communication (see Dunbar, 1992), for an interesting example of this line of reasoning). The issue of language capacities of pre-modern hominids is extremely controversial. Direct evidence one way or the other is completely lacking. There are, however, alternate interpretations of the evidence that are preferred by many researchers (such as Wilkins and Wakefield). This alternative focuses on the increasing skills required for cultural activities such as tool-making and tool use. The development of successive lithic techniques led to an ever expanding set of niches for tool using cultures to occupy (See Schick and Toth, 1993, for an interesting discussion of analogies between hominid tools and features of animal anatomy and the niches they open up.). These changes in Lithic (Stone) Technology provide some evidence compatible with increasing sensory integration potentially afforded by developments of the POT and of the coordination of these with frontal lobe development supporting more intricate motor sequencing. Consider some of the characteristics of Paleolithic ( = Old Stone Age) stone tools and their changing character over a period of 2.4 million years of so.
Throughout the Paleolithic, over time, stone tools provide evidence of increasing:
In addition, by the Late Paleolithic, tool making was very hierarchically organized, employing specialized stone knapping techniques such as: pressure flaking, indirect percussion, and soft hammer techniques that require considerable perceptual, judgmental, and planning skills as well as fine motor coordination. Moreover, stone tools were also being used to make secondary tools further increasing the complexity and temporal demands of forward planning. There is a fairly regular development of such techniques throughout the Paleolithic as there is of the brain. As noted above these developments are also correlated with potential niche exploitation.
Examples of many of these changes may be seen in Figure 5: Lithic Technology, in which some examples of the stone artifacts from each of the four classifications in Figure 3 above. A rough sense of the development of lithic technology from the following highlights. Oldowan tools are made from large pebbles with a small number of blows producing a small amount of rough cutting edge from a relatively large amount of material. Acheulian tools, by comparison, have more cutting edge and are more extensively worked. Mousterian tools are made from more carefully selected material, from flakes struck from a core, and further refined (retouched) by pressure flaking. Aurignacian - Magdelanian stone tools are generally made from numerous slender blanks removed from carefully prepared cores by difficult to master techniques such as soft hammer or indirect percussion techniques. These blanks were then sorted and reworked to provide a great variety of cutting tools, some of which are subsequently employed to create secondary tools. All of the forgoing developments imply increasing visualization, manipulation of internal images, and bringing of fine motor control under the guidance of these images. This implies access to, and integration of, information from somatosensory (Parietal), visual (Occipital), and perhaps auditory (Temporal) modalities.
In contrast to non-human primates, the successive forms of the genus Homo have left evidence of increasing ability to voluntarily shape and modify instrumental actions. These activities would have required increasing amodal modeling integrated in POT areas and organized by Broca's Area. This would be functional for visual-spatial-manual coordination not only in tool making but also for using tools, for such activities as: aimed throwing (e.g., Calvin, 1992), searching and digging tubers, and, certainly by the late Paleolithic, sewing. Also likely important for all of this is the ability of autocueing (Donald, 1991), that is, the voluntary retrieval of stored memories. Working with these memories would require the development of cognitive devices such as the visual-spatial sketchpad and the articulatory loop (Baddeley, 1986) for manipulating images and possibly sharing them. In summary, the interaction of brain development and the evolutionary pressures for amodal modeling, intersensory integration, and fine motor coordination linked to centres for amodal modeling have produced human cognition.
By the Late Paleolithic, it is these cognitive skills and capacities that would have prepared Homo Sapiens to transcend internal cognitive mechanisms and invent external working memory. Such external memory devices might be viewed as external visual-spatial-manual sketchpads and generally known as pictures, ideographs, and phonetic symbols. For a detailed consideration of the relative advantages of such exograms (As Merlin Donald calls them) over engrams (internal memory structures) see Donald's Discussion at the end of his précis (or a local version of his summary Table). These advantages have to do with things such as the flexibility, capacity, and permanence of the records. Other advantages of working with exograms include the ability to employ external senses, such as vision and audition in the analysis of imaginative productions that otherwise have no access to external senses. (This is, after all, a primary distinction between imagination and perception.) The first ever of these externalized imaginative constructions appear as small portable artifacts of material such as stone, bone, and ivory and on the walls and ceilings of caves and rock shelters in the Late Paleolithic.
Paleographics (Stone Age "Art"): Prior to 33,000 B.P.
(Before Present) we see the beginnings of graphic activity. I will use the
term "graphic activity" to designate any activity that results in
the production of visual signs in any medium. This will incorporate what is
generally referred to as "art", such as pictures or figurines, as
well as the production of non-figurative marks that are typically designated
as signs and (often mistakenly, I believe, when applied to Paleolithic marks)
There are two very general classes of graphic activity:
Parietal graphics consist largely of megafauna (large animals: mainly horses, bison, aurochs (wild cattle), mammoths, various species of deer, and goats), a few birds and smaller mammals, enigmatic signs (rectilinear shapes, wedges ("claviforms"), tectiforms (like a roof), dots, lines, strands ("spaghetti"), hand prints. Human figures are rare (except for the so-called "Venus" figurines) and in contrast to some of the animal images, almost always very crudely rendered. Why did Paleolithic people make these graphics? There are several questions implied. What motivated them to bother? Why did they occur when they did and not earlier? What capacities were required? It is on this final question that the present essay is focused.
First, I think they are guided by our manner of perception, which is feature-based. As hominids came to do more internal processing on the visual-manual sketchpad they came to work, I will argue, relatively independently, on certain parts of the images, namely, the most distinctive features. This assumes a capacity for hierarchical organization and nested sequencing – a capacity that was increasingly necessary as tool making and related technologies became increasing complex. Features also became available for new combinations, necessarily so for tool planning, making, and, increasingly, for the training of apprentices in these increasingly demanding tasks. Working for long periods of time on only one component of a tool, or article of clothing or decoration required that one understand the connection of the part to the whole. Parts, or components, of things would come to stand for whole objects as iconic signs.
I will now provide a few samples to try to convince you that Paleographic figurative images are compositions of components that are iconic and occasionally indexical signs by pointing out some stylistic features that suggest that the figurative graphics of the Late Paleolithic are constructions based on basic perceptual elements. The images are not vague abstract symbolic images. The images in question are concrete constructions that emphasize the distinctive features for the identification of the subject matter of the images. I will focus mainly, though not exclusively, on the most common images -- large prey animals. These are understandably objects of intense interest to large game hunters such as the people who created the images.
In Summary, there is a style to Paleolithic graphics that is consistent with the view that they represent the construction of perceptual images that stand individually and collectively as signs of the constructions of which they are components. These images are very different from 1) the Neolithic graphics that followed them, 2) the art of cultures newly introduced to figurative drawing, and 3) children's drawing in modern cultures. All of these later graphic forms tend to be less perceptually based. There is, for example, in all of these subsequent cases, less concern for the details of the shape of the cervico-dorsal line. For later cultures and groups, a straight line often appears to suffice, at least for basic representation. "Here is a line. Call it a back." Often only a very few very stylized features are used semi-iconically, almost symbolically, to stand for the object. In such cases, the image has ceased to be the center of attention. It seems now to serve a supplementary function, perhaps as an aid, a mere illustration, to accompany the telling of a story. The ultimate concern seems more to simply convey the notion that the subject involves a cow (or more likely in Neolithic graphics - a person). Yet it is not the perceptual image of the cow that is important anymore. It is something the cow stands for or something that is happening to the cow. It is being hunted, or tended, or slaughtered, or worshipped. Similarly, the people, much more commonly portrayed in Neolithic than in Paleolithic graphics, are busy hunting, running or dancing. Neolithic and graphics seem to have become increasingly concerned with telling or reminding the viewer of events, stories, legends, and myths. There is no clear evidence, on the other hand, that the earlier Paleolithic graphics were concerned with stories, myths, or anything event-like at all. Paleolithic art appears to have been concerned with the externalized perceptual image and with its components, especially those that were distinctive and diagnostic. They may have learned much from their externalized imagery. Importantly, they may have been able to make more explicit (i.e., conscious) just what differentiated one animal from another. Perhaps because these images were so revelatory they were viewed with much interest and awe, perhaps even something akin worshipful admiration. Perhaps the images gradually came to be associated with something like the religious-magical sensibility the 19th Century prehistorians imagined them to have been. However, in the present view the graphics were not merely an expression of such feelings but something instrumental in the creation of such feelings. It has been conjectured that the large prey animals portrayed in the Paleolithic graphics, being so central to the lives of the graphists, were simply "good to think about." A great discovery of these earlier graphists was that the externalization of their visual-spatial imagery helped them systematically to think about things that were "good to think about."
There are three questions to which any discussion of early graphics must address itself. The question that has been most frequently asked is that of motivation. Why did these early humans engage in such activity? Motivation has usually been sought within the graphists in the form of some emerging capacities that "expressed" themselves in the graphic productions. A second question that continues to be actively addressed might be characterized as the "How?" question. As late as 1982 Leroi Gourhan could write, "If plenty remains to be discovered about the 'why?' of the symbols, almost everything remains to be said about the 'how?'" The "how?" question, in turn, conceals at least two sets of very different but interrelated questions. One set of questions concerns the techniques of etching, carving, applying pigments, etc. (Vandiver, 1983; Lechtman, 1977; Lorblanchet, 1980, 1991). The second set of questions concerns the perceptual, cognitive and action systems enabling the activity (Davis, 1986, 1987; Halverson, 1987, 1992; Kennedy, 1976).
A critical question that cuts across the previous set of questions and constitutes a challenge for any understanding of the emergence of graphics is that of timing. Why and how did graphic activity arise just when it did and not earlier or later? Failure to address this last question directly tends to lead one into the clever hominid fallacy" (Davidson & Noble, 1989). This is a version of the "and then the magic happened" gambit in which it is implicitly assumed that, at some arbitrary point humans, or their ancestors simply became clever enough to put it all together. Hence in this paper, I address these questions and attempt to show that some progress towards providing a frame for answers may be achieved by a considering a specific historical confluence of perception, action, technology, and communication.
The graphics in question include frequent
images of megafauna including horses, bison, mammoths, wooly rhinoceros,
While there are both temporal and geographical variations there are a number of distinctive features that justify characterizing the graphics as having a particular style. Any theory about the development of graphic activity must address these stylistic features. It is an underlying assumption in the present effort that these characteristics provide significant clues about the how, the why, and the timing of the development of graphic activity. First, outline figures predominate. When animals or other objects are depicted often only the occluding bounds of the object are depicted. Even among solid chromatic images occluding bounds are outlined by scratching, engraving, and application of contrastive coloring. Charcoal sketches have been found under subsequent applications of pigments at Niaux (Clottes, Menu, & Walter, 1990a,b). This characteristic of outlining and the simplicity of the many of the images produce an effect of a cartoon-like economy. The cartoon-like quality is enhanced by another common feature, the use of caricature or exaggeration of distinctive features of the objects depicted.
Paleolithic images of animals are all but
invariably depicted in profile, at least the major components such as head,
neck, torso, and legs are in profile. However, these profiles also frequently
have a "twisted" perspective in which horns, antlers, tusks, feet,
and sometimes ears are presented in perspectives that deviate from over-all
profile presentation in varying degrees. In both mobiliary and parietal
graphics the images and designs often incorporate, modify, or accommodate
natural contours, breaks, and edges in the supporting medium. Graphics,
whether animals or symbols, appear to be executed as discrete, stand-alone,
images and they are so thoroughly componential that even the parts may
frequently stand alone. With rare and questionable exceptions there is a
notable absence of context, either environmental or narrative. These images
do not provide direct evidence that their creators were members of a mythic
culture or that the images were involved in accounts of, or rituals
concerning, hunting, initiation, fertility or derived symbolic activity. (They
do, however, provide considerable evidence for an interest in certain details
of animal anatomy.) That they may have provided, in part, the ground from
which all of these and more emerged is a possibility that will be entertained
at the end of this paper. Certainly graphic activity in the Neolithic in