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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5 thoughts on “Were cave paintings an early language?

  1. “If humans were talking at so far back, why didn’t they leave any signs of language?”

    I’m not that sure that the existence of language necessarily implies that signs of it would be immediately produced… specially at such an early stage…
    I recently read “The Decipherment of Linear B” from John Chadwick and I was struck by how limited were the usages of writing back in prehistoric Greece. All the deciphered tablets, both from the Minoan Crete island (at Knossos palace) and from the several places in Greek mainland (Pylos, Thebes and Mycenae) were they were unearthed, had merely administrative purposes, and were mostly inventories of goods. And this was already a very complex culture, with religion, well established hierarchys, palaces, trade… etc. Yet, they dind’t feel the need to use writing to express any sort of ideas that they had. Maybe this isn’t a good example given that this is a discussion about something so much further back in time… but it did amaze me at how different the relation between oral communication and written stuff can be from our present times. I realize now that maybe this isn’t really a good example at all because you were not so much talking about language / writing but more about communication / language and cues that language was already happening.
    What I want to say is that even though we have all the reasons to believe ice age people were already talking to each other and developing language, I don’t see how the cave paintings would be the perfect place to look for that development, because they seem to be so embedded in the visual paradigm that necessarily preceded language. I could write a little bit more of what I understand by this “visual paradigm”, but I’m really interested in this language stuff so I’m just gonna skip that for now.
    Maybe it would be useful to distinguish language as communication and language as the foundation of sign. The difference being that several animals besides humans communicate, but only humans can use the language brought about by the need to communicate things that aren’t always present. In that sense, practices like burials places would be more significant as a cue that elaborate language was already taking place, in the sense that the attention payed to the bodies of a deceased close one would imply this paradox of presence / absence that language allows for the first time to take place in the human mind. For me, cave paintings remain much more connected to a visual relation with the world, mainly because of the realism of the animals depicted. In fact, when language becomes much more dominating, visual representations change dramatically and you have all this stylized symbolic figures. When it comes to make sense out of the geometrical signs painted inside paleolithic caves, contemporary to the realistic depiction of animals, the abstract patters and the hand prints, I really feel like the interpretation that they come from hallucinatory related stuff (like we were discussing in your other post) makes much more sense… again, all this is highly speculative… and I my self am no specialist in these matters… cave paintings are so very fascinating to me because I am a painter myself.
    To get back to my initial observation, that I wasn’t so sure that the existence of language necessarily implies that signs of it would be immediately produced… I would like to correct it in the sense that maybe they would, but not in the shape of something already so similar to our current understanding of what language would look like if translated to something visual (therefore, my initial mistake in jumping right away for the subject of writing). And that sign of the existence of language, as I wrote above, seems to me much more likely to be found in the attention given to the body of the beloved deceased, because it expresses the same paradox of language, that is so very significant. Once you have something present and absent at the same time, like words and like the corpse of a loved one (that isnt’s there any more but, in a way, it sill IS, otherwise it wouldn’t be payed any attention to), once you have this present / absent reunion in the same thing brough about by language, you can also start having some sort of concept of time regarding the past, and so on… This is an idea that was put forward my mentor at the university during one of his classes… I am still digesting it.. so I’m not sure I expressed it in the clearest way possible…

    • These are issues about which I don’t have great understanding. They are mysteries that gets one wondering about the origins of our humanity. I’m only someone who likes to read all the time.

      “What I want to say is that even though we have all the reasons to believe ice age people were already talking to each other and developing language, I don’t see how the cave paintings would be the perfect place to look for that development, because they seem to be so embedded in the visual paradigm that necessarily preceded language.”

      That is a useful point to keep in mind. There is no reason that, prior to a visual language system, there would be any clear sign of language. In discussing ancient oral cultures, we are forced to rely on the texts where those oral traditions were written down and hence stopped being entirely oral traditions. The early memory systems used in place of visual language systems aren’t the type of items to survive over time, such as patterns of beads, knots, etc.

      Also, there is Lynne Kelly’s book, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies. She discusses the Australian Aborigines. They not only have language but rather complex language involving amazing mnemonic practices allowing them to maintain and pass on vast amounts of knowledge. But if the Aborigines had been wiped out before their culture was studied, there would have been little evidence to piece together what kind of language they had and how it operated.

      “Maybe it would be useful to distinguish language as communication and language as the foundation of sign. The difference being that several animals besides humans communicate, but only humans can use the language brought about by the need to communicate things that aren’t always present. In that sense, practices like burials places would be more significant as a cue that elaborate language was already taking place, in the sense that the attention payed to the bodies of a deceased close one would imply this paradox of presence / absence that language allows for the first time to take place in the human mind.”

      It also depends on what you mean by ‘present’. Are visual and auditory hallucinations present?

      If ancient people heard their dead loved ones speaking and so took great care in burying their bodies, what does it mean that language requires an absence? In many ancient cultures, to invoke something through language was to make it present. The dualism of presence and absence was less absolute.

      If language is to be assumed to have existed with the earliest humans, why couldn’t bicameralism also have existed? But if there was a language that was both pre-conscious and pre-bicameral, how would it have functioned and been experienced? What is the most fundamental relationship between the language, speaking, and hearing?

  2. Well… I really have to think this through again… regarding the cave paintings… I was just now thinking that they also express some sort of interaction between present and absent stuff, in the sense that they evoke an animal that actually isn’t there at all. Maybe the difference in both instances have to due with distance, in the sense that the vision of the animals inside the cave, if the paintings originated in some trance state like we were discussing, would feel much more present and alive and likely to be taken as the real thing… while with the corpse of a loved one that is being buried there is something unmistakably lost. The distance between the sign and whatever the sign stands for… I don’t know, I’m really thinking and writing at the same time right now.

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