Cave Art, Autism, and Religion

The title of today’s post may appear to be an unlikely combination, but given yesterday’s post about autism and religion, I thought it would be worthwhile to review Nicholas Humphrey’s classic article, “Cave Art, Autism, and the Evolution of the Human Mind.”  As should be apparent, my title borrows from Humphrey.

When Humphrey published this article in 1998, he was responding to a line of argument that is still widely accepted today.  The argument revolves around what most anthropologists consider to be the “cultural explosion” which marked the transition from the Middle to Upper Paleolithic approximately 40,000 years ago.  It was during this time that new and sophisticated types of stone/bone tools begin to appear, people began producing anthropomorphic figurines, and most famously — they began painting cave walls in Europe.  For those not familiar with this transition, you can find a nice summary here.

What caused this apparently dramatic change in technology and behavior?  There are several explanations, all of which revolve around the idea that an evolutionary change in the brain resulted in the “modern mind.”  This mind would have been fully symbolic and linguistically fluent.

Some anthropologists, such as Richard Klein at Stanford, contend that the critical change involved a point mutation to the FOXP2 gene, which finally enabled language as we know it today.  Others, such as the archaeologist Steven Mithen, argue that the critical change involved neural connectivity.

In The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science, Mithen contends that before the Upper Paleolithic transition, the brain-mind was divided into various modules which were not capable of communicating with one another.  According to Mithen, a mutation (or series of mutations) enabled the cross-module communication which is characteristic of the modern mind.  This, in turn, caused the cultural lift-off approximately 40,000 years ago.

Humphrey, always suspicious of “just so” stories of human evolution, suggests that this evidence can be interpreted differently.  He contends that the cave art which supposedly is the product of fully modern minds — capable of abstract symbolic thinking — may indicate that these were pre-modern minds.  The starting point for his analysis is the remarkable art-work produced by an autistic child named Nadia, who at the age of 3 began drawing figures that are eerily evocative of the paleolithic art found on the walls of Chauvet Cave in France.  Here are the famous Chauvet horses:

And here are the horses drawn by Nadia when she was 3.5 years old:

Humphrey suggests that the similarities in style, execution, and subject matter are not accidental, and that the artist(s) at Chauvet may have had minds that functioned similarly to Nadia’s.  If this is the case, it means that something akin to autism was the pre-modern form of mind, and the transition to “modern mind” did not occur until approximately 15,000 years ago.

This is a provocative argument, and a salutary one for theorists of religion who tell a story of humans evolving religion for adaptive reasons during the course of the Paleolithic.  If Humphrey is right, the cognitive architecture required for supernatural-religious thinking is of much more recent origin and would not have evolved for adaptive reasons.  It would also mean that this cave art was not created by shamans who were experiencing altered states of consciousness.

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