What We Talked About Then

I thought I would put together a few comments/notes from the series of talks at Five Years the other week, these follow on specifically from Chris Knight’s presentation on the origins of language and why chimps can’t talk.

The initial premise that Knight put forward, following on from Chomsky, is that although chimpanzees and other animals that exhibit high levels of communication this cannot be seen as language in the sense that it is non-symbolic. A chimp cannot lie, all their communication is real, they do not say ‘I am angry’ or conversely dissemble ‘no I am not angry’ because the chimp vocalisation of anger is the embodiment of anger. We still of course carry these vocal communications with us from our evolutionary past in various forms; laughing, crying, screaming etc. However humans have developed a low cost version that can be communicated without so greater emotional expenditure and crucially carried over space and time – language.

So far so straight forward. The next stage is obviously where did this low cost communication method come from? It is not exhibited by our nearest living genetic neighbours and is unproven in Neanderthals(1), Knight suggests that it is tied to a wider symbolic order – i.e. that it developed concurrently and inseparably with wider culture. The thing here is that humanity exists at the same time in two contradictory universes, that of the world that is – the real world of objects – and in a shared illusion of a symbolic order that we use to over lay and comprehend the real, and we are really bad at separating the reality from the symbolic.

(I will now go off from following Chris Knight’s presentation and onto my own thoughts some of which come from the discussion afterwards).

Two side thoughts: I don’t know how and if this relates to the Real and Symbolic within Lacanian psychology, but it does remind me of Bataille’s Theory of Religion and the idea that ‘the animal world is that of immanence and immediacy'(2) and it is the subconscious(?) knowledge of that lack of immanence within humanity that leads to the creation of religion. Both Lacan and Bataille were attendees at Kojéve’s lectures on Hegel more on this later possibly.

Although we physically exist in both real and symbolic universes we exist cognitively entirely within the symbolic, where we find art, religion, morality, economics, love and all those things that are referred to as ‘human nature’, as in ‘you can’t change human nature’. This symbolic order is however real and true, for given values of real and true(3). Things within the symbolic universe exist – love makes the world go round, and the same is said of money, yet money is a late arrival within the symbolic order, arising from the requirement to pay someone to protect your crops. There are certain aspects of the symbolic order that are remarkably durable and universal; love is probably one, fairness another, some form of higher purpose a third. Other aspects seem to be universal; the Godhead, the Imperium, the Party but end up being transient, their collapse leading to a sense of cognitive dissonance that can only be filled with a major readjustment of reality, or death.

I was thinking on all this when, the other day, I watched The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) – Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, which is about the Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche region of France. This Palaeolithic site contains some of the oldest examples of European cave painting from between 35 and 30 thousand years before present, a time, prior to the last ice age, when Europe was home to a wide variety of mega-fauna; mammoths, woolly rhino, giant deer and the like. And genetically modern humans shared the landscape with Neanderthals.

As I was watching the film I was struck by the lack of phantasmatic representation within the images on the cave walls; although there was undoubtedly a spiritual dimension to the depiction of animals within the cave (attested to by the cave bear skull set upon a rock plinth and the almost pathological lack of day-to-day finds(4)) it was a representation of the world-as-it-is, there were no dragons, griffins or minotaurs. Could it be that the spirituality that the hunters who made these drawing possessed required no representations of the immaterial, in a world of superabundance there was no need to look to a beyond for anything other than a continuation of the current state of affairs? We do not need angels only aurochs.

The other aspect of this is the drawings as that bit of the symbolic order that carries over space and time; they are fully formed examples of humanity that we can still understand after such a gulf of history. Our history from the first recorded author, the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna (pre 2250 BCE) until now, fits entirely within the carbon dating of the first drawing in Chauvet Cave to the last. One of my favourite moments in the film is when the experimental archaeologist Wulf Hein, dressed in furs as might have been warn by the artists of Chauvet, demonstrates that, on a replica of a palaeolithic flute constructed in a pentatonic scale, you can play the Star Spangled Banner.

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neanderthal_behavior
(2) Bataille G. Theory of Religion, 1989, Zone Books p.23
(3) Is this where the Lacanian Real comes in? Cf. Zizek, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006) when discussing Neo’s choice in The Matrix ‘I want a third pill. […] a pill that would enable me to perceive, not the reality behind the illusion, but the reality in illusion itself.’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8sFqfbrsZbw
(4) Ritual is hinted at with some of the red ochre markings but the full picture might be provided by mechanisms unrecoverable by archaeology in this context, e.g. psychotropics or imitative body art (see Coulson and Staurset in Radical Anthropology vol. 5 (pp.12-17) for evidence of Mesolithic body painting from Botswana. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence…


One response to “What We Talked About Then

  1. AND THEN……”Monsters” appear, part human, part beast!
    known as therianthropes. Memories from driving ford Mondeo
    “Richard Leakey’s book Origin’s Reconsidered.”
    (Pages 328-335)

    I thought this text may be of interest particularly in relation to abstract imagery in the paleolithic, I had this text abridged on a tape and used to listen to it in the car, remembered the part about halucinating. Leakey Mentions the appearance of a lozenge on the tape though. But this is interesting because it seems to indicate an incredible developed symbolic world at this time.

    No description of Lascaux is complete without the story of the Shaft. Just off the Apse, halfway along the passageway toward the Chamber of Felines, is a twenty-foot-deep hole, wide enough for one person to be in comfortably, but little more. A metal ladder is the way down, and a flashlight beam illuminates the scene. Among the sparkling yellow and white calcite crystals on the wall, a great black bison is poised for attack, its forelegs taut as a spring, its tail lashing. The animal appears to be desperately wounded, with what looks like a barbed spear across its body. Its entrails spill to the ground. A man has fallen in front of the bison, not a figure crafted with the fidelity of the other images in Lascaux, but a stickman with no life, wearing what might be a bird mask. Nearby, what looks like a bird on the end of a staff, perhaps a spear thrower, and a rhinoceros. All painted in black, and about as enigmatic as anything in Lascaux.

    The most obvious interpretation of the scene in the Shaft is that it is connected with hunting magic, perhaps the re-enactment of a hunting accident. But the most obvious explanation may not be the correct one, for three pairs of dots separate the rhinoceros from the rest of the scene. Simple in themselves, and perhaps without import, the dots are just one example of an element in Lascaux art, and in all cave art, that I have not yet mentioned. This is the profusion of nonrepresentational, geometric patterns. In addition to dots, there are grids and chevrons, curves and zigzags, and more. Many kinds of patterns are to be found, sometimes superimposed on animal images, sometimes separate from them. The coincidence of these geometric motifs with representational images is one of the most puzzling aspects of Upper Paleolithic art.

    For the Abbe Breuil, these geometric patterns, or signs, as they are called, were part of hunting paraphernalia traps, snares, even weapons. Leroi-Gourhan included them in his structural duality. Dots and strokes were male signs, he said; ovals, triangles, and quadrangles were females signs. Just recently a South African archeologist, David Lewis-Williams, has suggested that neither interpretation is correct. They are, he says, images plucked from a mind in the state of hallucination, a sure sign of shamanistic art. His argument is based on a study of San art, in southern Africa, and a neuropsychological model that may be basic to much human image making in hunter-gatherer societies, including those of the Upper Paleolithic.

    When Lewis-Williams began studying San art four decades ago, it was generally interpreted as representing simple, schematic images of everyday San life. Recently he realized that the images were not realistic in that sense but instead were shamanistic art, which has a different kind of reality, the reality of another world. The key insight here has to do with the trance-induced hallucination that shamans experience during their rituals.

    Having made the link between the art, the shamans, and hallucination, Lewis-Williams resorted to the neuropsychological literature, seeking clues to that connection. “There were reports of visual hallucination, very precise descriptions,” he says. “The research shows that in early stages you see geometric forms, such as grids, zigzags, dots, spirals, and curves.” These images, six different kinds in all, are shimmering, incandescent, mercurial- and powerful. Called entoptic images-which means “within vision”-these phenomena are products of the basic neural architecture of the human brain. “Because they derive from the human nervous system, all people who enter certain altered states of consciousness, no matter what their cultural background, are liable to perceive them,” says Lewis-Williams.

    In a deeper state of hallucination, stage two, people try to make sense of these images. The results are dependent on an individual’s culture and present concern. A series of curves may be depicted as hills if the subject is thinking about the country-side, for example, or waves on the sea if he has thoughts of sailing. San shamans frequently manipulate series of curves into images of honeycombs, since bees are a potent symbol of supernatural power that these people harness when entering a trance.

    People who pass from stage two hallucination to stage three often experience a sensation of a vortex or rotating tunnel around them, and soon have hallucinations filled with iconic images, not just signs. “While Western subjects hallucinate airplanes, motorcars, dogs, and other animals familiar to them,” says Lewis-Williams, describing laboratory experiments, “San shamans hallucinate antelope, felines, and circumstances, though bizarre and terrifying, derived ultimately from San life.” In this final stage, subjects come to “inhabit rather than merely witness a truly bizarre hallucinatory world.” It is here that “monsters” appear, part human, part beast, known as therianthropes.

    Having established this three-stage neuropsychological model, Lewis-Williams, together with his colleague Thomas Dowson, turned again to San art to see how it might fit. “The first thing we found was that all six entoptic signs are in San art,” recalls Lewis-Williams. “This encouraged us to believe that the model was valid, because we knew that shamanism was important in San life.” Indeed, there was good ethnographic evidence that San art was shamanistic art. In addition, Lewis-Williams once met an old woman, probably the last survivor of the southern San, whose father had been a shaman. “She demonstrated how dancers seeking power turned to face the paintings on the wall of the rock shelter and how some placed their hands on the paintings of eland to gain power,” he says.

    The eland, a large antelope, is to the San what horse and bison seem to have been to the Upper Paleolithic people, at least in their art. The eland is the most frequently depicted animal in San paintings. It has potency, say the San, and it comes in many forms, many qualities. Perhaps the horse and the bison were sources of potency for the upper Paleolithic people, images that were appealed to and touched when spiritual energy was required.

    The question, in effect, is whether Upper Paleolithic art bears the telltale signs of Lewis-Williams’s three-stage neuropsychological model, and could thus be shamanistic art. “upper Paleolithic art includes many of the geometric signs that fall within the range of entoptic elements determined by laboratory research,” he says. “Sometimes these motifs are placed on animals, but others, like the grids and fragmented grids at Lascaux, are depicted in isolation. In addition, Upper Paleolithic art includes a range of depictions equivalent to stage three hallucinations therianthropes, monsters, and realistic animals.” The neuropsychological model fits Upper Paleolithic art as well as it does San rock art.

    Of the range of images in Upper Paleolithic art, the most arresting are the therianthropes. There are not many of these human-animal figures, but they seize the imagination. The most famous example is the so-called sorcerer in the cave of Trois Freres, in the French Pyrenees. Deep underground, in a cramped cavern, the sorcerer dominates the space. Denis Vialou, who has studied the cave in detail, describes the image “The body is uncertain, but is some kind of large animal. The hind legs are human, until above the knees. The tail is a kind of canid, a wolf or a fox. The front legs are abnormal, with humanlike hands. The face is a bird’s face, odd, with deer’s antlers.” In a manner unusual for Upper Paleolithic images, the sorcerer is staring directly out of the wall, a full-face stare that transfixes the spectator.

    Below the sorcerer are several heavily engraved panels, a riot of animal figures with no apparent order, no pattern. In the midst of all this is another human-animal figure, again with human hind legs. Human hind legs on animals are common in upper Paleolithic art, incidentally, as are hoofs on otherwise human figures. This therianthrope is standing upright, with a bison’s body and the head of a bison, with horns but a somewhat human face. The front legs are odd, in the same way as the sorcerers forelimbs are. This individual is holding what may be a bow or a musical instrument. “Directly in front of this image is an animal,” explains Vialou. “It has reindeer hind legs and rear end, showing female sex prominently displayed, the only one known in upper Paleolithic art. The rest of the body is bison, the head turned, looking back over its shoulder at the first individual. Something special is going on between these two, I’m sure of that.”

    We see something similar in Lascaux. The very first beast in the stampede in the Hall of Bulls is an enigma. Known as the Unicorn-wrongly, because it has two very straight horns-this beast has a swollen body on thick limbs and a head of no known animal. There are six circular markings on the body and the partial outline of a horse. Look at the head again, squint-and the profile snaps into that of a bearded man.

    These therianthropes in Upper Paleolithic paintings were once dismissed as the products of “a primitive mentality [that] failed to establish definitive boundaries between humans and animals.” I do not think so. A more convincing argument is that they represent shamans or hunters dressed in animal skins, sometimes wearing horns or antlers. In the context of shamanistic art, however, they are explained as the outcome of stage three hallucination, something as real for the artist as a horse or a bison.

    For the Kalahari San, the eland is the pathway to the potency of the spirit world, a multifaceted symbol of the people’s cosmos. When a San shaman goes into a trance, he harnesses that power, becomes part of the world beyond, becomes invisible to the singers and dancers around him, and draws images on the rock face. Ask the San who drew the images, and they say the spirits. The shaman is merely an instrument of the spirits. And the rock face is more than a surface for the paint; it is the boundary of this world and the world beyond. Often in San paintings, a line “disappears” down a crack, to emerge elsewhere, having traversed the spirit world. The rock face therefore becomes part of the meaning of it all, and the rock shelter itself assumes a special status, a place of veneration.

    There is no doubt in my mind that the caves and rock faces bearing prehistoric images, in Africa and Europe, were special too. Some of them may have been places where bands aggregated, because of a seasonal abundance of a certain food. In that case, the rituals played out there, fragments of which we see in the paintings, built the mythological importance. Some of them may have assumed the status of an aggregation site because a mythological event occurred there. We can be sure that the entire landscape became imbued with elements of mythology, explanations of a people’s origin and their place in the world.

    Unfortunately, we foreigners are unlikely ever to know the true meaning of the images in the caves and in the rock shelters. Somewhere in Lascaux, I’m convinced, is the entire story of how those Magdalenian people, seventeen thousand years ago, understood their origins. Somewhere-everywhere-in the cave are cryptic messages about how they saw themselves in their world.

    The place is imbued with meaning, but we can’t decipher what is being said. The potency is palpable, but we are culturally blind to its content. In seeking to understand our origins, we come away from a place like Lascaux with a deep conviction of connectedness, and a humility at the power of the human mind….”

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