New Interpretation of Rock Art Symbols

David Lewis-Williams, Professor of Cognitive Archaeology at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, has for decades studied Paleolithic rock art across the world.  His scholarly output has been not only been prodigious, but also provocative.  Because rock art constitutes some of the oldest evidence we have for symbolic thinking, its importance to understanding Paleolithic minds and cultures is obvious.

During the long course of his research, Lewis-Williams noticed that certain symbols regularly appeared in all rock art.  This was an enigma, given that the peoples producing these recurring symbols were isolated from one another in both time and space.  These symbols were not, in other words, the result of cultural diffusion.  Lewis-Williams called these symbols “entoptic forms”:

What could account for this similarity of forms in rock art around the world?  Lewis-Williams argues, with considerable force, that such images are the result of a universal cognitive architecture.

Our brains are constructed in a particular way to process visual images and carry out other sensory related functions.  When we experience altered states of consciousness (which can be attained or induced in many different ways), the mental images we generate are largely the same across time and space.  These images are entoptic forms.  Persons experiencing altered states of consciousness “saw” these images with their minds-eye, and reproduced them in rock art.  Because most people who deliberately seek altered states of consciousness are shamans, Lewis-Williams contends that entoptic forms are related to shamanic practices.  It’s a nice argument, and fairly parsimonious.

With this widely accepted interpretation in mind, it was interesting to read Kate Ravilious’ recent article (“The Writing on the Cave Wall”) over at the New Scientist.  Ravilious reports on a recent study of rock art symbols done by archaeologists at the University of Victoria.  Curiously, the article does not mention Lewis-Williams’ work and asserts:

Few researchers, though, had given any serious thought to the relatively small and inconspicuous marks around the cave paintings. The evidence of humanity’s early creativity, they thought, was clearly in the elaborate drawings.  While some scholars had recorded the presence of cave signs at individual sites, Genevieve von Petzinger, then a student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, was surprised to find that no one had brought all these records together to compare signs from different caves.

This failure to acknowledge Lewis-Williams’ work aside, the new study contains a nice comprehensive chart that includes many symbols that have previously been classified as entoptic forms.  The researchers found this significant:

What emerged was startling: 26 signs, all drawn in the same style, appeared again and again at numerous sites (see illustration). Admittedly, some of the symbols are pretty basic, like straight lines, circles and triangles, but the fact that many of the more complex designs also appeared in several places hinted to von Petzinger and Nowell that they were meaningful – perhaps even the seeds of written communication.

I am not sure why this “startling” or new.  I am also not sure how they can infer from these symbols the possible beginnings of written communication.  That is a fairly large inference that does not seem parsimonious.

Nonetheless, Ravilious’ article is intriguing and I look forward to reading the original research on which her report is based.  Lewis-Williams’ studies of these symbols are largely interpretive (though grounded in neuroscience), whereas this new research uses statistical methods.  It will be interesting to see how the statistics translate.

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