Were cave paintings an early language?

Elizabeth Dodd, from In the Mind’s Eye, discussed Julian Jayne’s theory of bicameralism. She thinks it falls short, in particular because of new data about early human development.

That is a fair criticism for any older book that is inherently limited to what was available at the time it was written. In the past few decades, a ton of new info has become available, both through archaeology and translated texts.

Rather than Jaynes, she prefers another theorist (Kindle Locations 350-355):

Besides, I’m more convinced by another scholar, Robbins Burling, who points out that the growth of the brain began two million years ago, from 6oo cubic centimeters to modern humans’ mans’ doubled capacity of at least 1,200 cubic centimeters-in in culinary measurement, we have today about two and a half cups of brain in the curved bowl of our skull. As he notes, from its Australopithecine beginnings the hominid brain had very nearly reached our own modern size long before the archaeological logical record reflects great innovations in tool production. Our changing brains weren’t littering the landscape with evidence of flourishing technological innovation. So what were we doing with those bigger, more complex neural capacities? Talking, ing, he says. Our brains grew as both natural and sexual selection tion guided our species toward ever increasing capacities for language-both comprehension and speech.

I had a thought about language. Genevieve von Petzinger studied the earliest cave paintings and claims to have found a common set of geometric designs, 32 of them to be precise. She speculates that they were used to communicate basic common meanings.

I’m not sure it would have been quite as complex as something like hobo symbols. It could have been much simpler, along the lines of how prairie dogs give names to things in their immediate environment, including individual people who visit regularly.

What prairie dogs have is a basic set of nouns and that is it, as far as we know. Other animals like whales will call each other by name. Plus, there are animals like dogs that can understand simple commands. Even my cats can comprehend the emotion behind my words and, if you’re persistent enough, cats can be taught to respond to simple commands as well.

Is this complex enough to be called language? Is language more than merely naming a few things or responding to simple commands?

Petzinger points out that the ancient symbols weren’t an alphabet or anything along those lines. She also doesn’t think they were abstract symbols. Most likely, they represented concrete things in the world and maybe used as basic counting marks. If these people had language, one might expect these symbols to already be developing some of the qualities of an alphabet or of abstraction. But it appears to be extremely concrete, maybe with some limited narrative elements.

These cave paintings are from the ice age and the period following. The oldest are from around 40,000 years ago. That is far cry from the couple million years ago that Robbins Burling is talking about. If humans were talking at so far back, why didn’t they leave any signs of language? As for the rock paintings, Dodd thinks they do demonstrate language mastery (Kindle Locations 363-365):

By the Upper Paleolithic, when we finally see the great painted caves and sculpted figurines of the Aurignacian culture and those that followed, the artwork suggests a level of mythic and symbolic thinking that could not have been possible without out language. The images, I feel certain, point to narrative, and one cannot tell stories with only a rudimentary lexicon.

Maybe… or maybe not. It’s highly speculative. But, if so, the narrative would be key. Is narrative the tipping point for the formation of actual language? Narrative would be the foundation for verbs, beyond the mere naming of nouns. It would also indicate incipient complex thought based on awareness of temporality and possibly causality (Kindle Locations 355-359):

“Perhaps language confirms, rather than creates, a view of the world,” he reasons. Syntax often reflects an iconic understanding standing of the relation among agents and goals (often through grammatical subjects and objects); our ability to perceive patterns and to “read” or “hear” the world precedes our induction into any specific language form. “We seem to understand the world around us as a collection of objects that act on each other in all sorts ofways,” he says. “If our minds were constructed so as to let us interpret the world in this way, that would be quite enough to account for the structure of our sentences.”

What kind of consciousness, mentality, or worldview would that indicate?

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