Study of Parietal Art Origin

Based on Lewis-Williams’ book The Mind in the Cave

Beatriz Alegre Infante


1 Introduction 

David Lewis-Williams’ book The Mind in the Cave tries to answer questions related to the origin and role of parietal art in the Upper Paleolithic. Throughout his work, the difference between the dichotomies of brain versus mind and intelligence versus consciousness is discussed, which ultimately leads to the formulation of the hypothesis that the Paleolithic man viewed, through altered states of consciousness, an imagetic universe built in its own brain, purposefully inducing these altered states of consciousness to give rise to the first images. 


2 The artistic process and its connection with parietal images 

Lewis-Williams mentions the artistic process as a social activity, not merely individualistic. To better discuss the art in the Upper Paleolithic, we must leave aside any kind of connotations we have already attributed to ‘art’. We cannot examine what happened 35,000 years ago if we set the Western Culture’s art as the mental framework. For example, the idea that art is made to be exhibited and viewed by others is counterposed by the caverns and caves where we can find the parietal images. 

The oldest paintings date back to the time when Homo sapiens and Neanderthals inhabited the earth together for about 10,000 years. This period between the Middle and the Upper Paleolithic is called the Transition. However, the Neanderthal species never acquired the capacity to create images; they had a different type of consciousness, neither superior nor inferior, just ‘primary’ as described by the doctor and biologist Gerald Edelman. This means they had the capacity to be conscious of the present, but not of the past and future; they could dream but were not able to remember the dream. On the other hand, the Homo sapiens already possessed an ‘elaborate’ consciousness, as an addition to the primary. This information will help us understand how the first images were created. The Neanderthal man could replicate the art of the Homo Sapiens man but never create it by himself. 

André Leroi-Gourhan mentions that the Paleolithic man already had the same brain and mind as the Western man of the present. After coming from Africa to Europe and passing through the Middle East, traces of symbolic activities were  found and assigned to the Homo sapiens during the Transition. Among these activities were the following: the creation of rock technology beyond its purely functional applications in order to identify the identity of the group; bodily adornments; elaborate burial ceremonies; modern language; and the creation of images. 

Art was not spontaneously invented, nor was it the final link in a chain of phenomena, yet it was an inevitable outcome of the evolution of aesthetic sense. “It is important to notice that human creativity and symbolism was linked to social diversity and change, not to stable, history-less societies. Change stimulates; homeostasis anaesthestizes.” The brain and the shift of social dynamics in the Upper Paleolithic approximately 35,000 to 45,000 years ago can provide us with a reason for the creation of parietal art. To proceed with this study, it is fundamental to keep a mental framework that encompasses the whole human experience, to achieve a better understanding of the prehistoric man.


3 Altered States of Consciousness 

As stated by the author, art and the capacity to understand it are more dependent on the types of mental imagery and the capacity to manipulate mental images than on intelligence. We have to grasp that the emphasis on intelligence has marginalized the importance and magnitude of human consciousness and behaviour. What we consider, in today’s society, as a normal state of consciousness is built upon a social context that is founded on neurology. We should not remove other states of consciousness from the equation, and Colin Martindale, a psychology professor, claims that we must explore these altered states as well as normal states of consciousness. Thus, we can describe the six states that Martindale identifies between the awakening and the sleeping: 1) Waking and problem-oriented thought; 2) Realistic Fantasy; 3) Autistic Fantasy; 4) Reverie; 5) Hypnagogic (falling asleep states); 6) Dreaming. 

All of these states are directly intertwined with the brain, hence every modern man can experience them. An altered state of consciousness is reached when there are hallucinations, an ‘extremely vivid hypnagogic state’, that can be not only visual but also related to the other senses. This state can be induced and accentuated through a variety of external factors, such as sensorial deprivation, prolonged drumming sounds, visual stimulations, the consumption of psychotropic substances, among others. It is pivotal to note that ‘altered states of consciousness (ASC) carry enormous cultural baggage. We must keep in mind that the mental imagery we experience during an altered state of consciousness derives purely from memory, and is therefore specific to each culture and time. In the same way the Paleolithic man dreamt of a bison, a priest would hallucinate with, for example, God. 


4 Phases of ASC 

Going into more depth on altered states of consciousness, Lewis-Williams describes three phases: 

      4.1 Phase I 

One would have a vision of geometrical shapes (dots, grids, zigzags) in the first stage, which everyone experiences in the same way regardless of their culture. This stage is considered the lightest phase. These shapes sparkle, expand, twitch and unite with each other and are independent of outside light. Lewis-Williams describes this phase as the following:

“It has been found that the patterns of connections between the retina and the striate cortex (known as VI) and of neuronal circuits within the striate cortex determined their geometric form. Simply put, there is a spatial relationship between the retina and the visual cortex: points that are close together on the retina lead to the firing of comparably placed neurons in the cortex. When this process is reversed, as following the ingestion of psychotropic substances, the pattern in the cortex is perceived as a visual percept. In other words, people in this condition are seeing the structure of their own brains.” 

      4.2 Phase II 

In the second stage of the hallucination trajectory, the individual attempts to assign a meaning to the images he is seeing, and gives it the shape of familiar objects in his everyday life. This shape can also be influenced by the individual’s disposition. For example, if he is hungry, he might see an orange, whereas if he is scared, he may even see a bomb. 

      4.3 Phase III 

When entering the third stage, there is a change in the imagery and an added intensity to the visual phenomenon. A lot of people experience a ‘swirling vortex’ or a spinning tunnel that appears to surround them and pull them into the deepness, and this hallucination is often associated with near-death experiences. There is a progressive elimination of external information. The ‘vortex’s contours may sometimes be stamped with images, and there can also be a bright light at the center of the field of vision, inducing a tunnel-like experience (the light at the end of the tunnel). Shamans usually refer to this phase as a transition to the spiritual world. These hallucinations are extremely strong emotional experiences. Images in this phase  constantly change and transform,  and they increase in vividness. People could even experience a fusion of themselves with animals. Individuals cannot distinguish reality from fiction, trusting that what they witnessed is real. These three phases are not necessarily sequential – they can either be skipped or never reached. The anatomically modern man of the Transition had the same nervous system as the present one, hence having access to the full spectrum of human consciousness. They not only experienced it,  but might also categorized and divided it to create their own version of human consciousness. 


5 Shamanism 

This experience and domestication of the ‘trance’ can be associated with forms of shamanism that are common among hunter-gatherer communities. Lewis-Williams says “’shamanism’ usefully points to a human universal. The need to make sense of shifting consciousness – and the way in which this is accomplished, especially, but not always, among hunter-gatherers.”. We can find resemblances between the hunter-gatherer communities of the Upper Paleolithic and the shamanic communities. Such similarities include the perception of altered states of consciousness; the association of visual and somatic experiences with alternative realities, creating the idea of a spiritual world’s existence; and the presence of  people with special abilities, being the only ones with access to these alternative realities. Additionally, not only could shamans contact the spirits and spiritual entities, they could also heal the sick, control the life of animals and alter climate conditions. Shamanism is, therefore, the base of all subsequent religions. 

With all the presented evidence, we can conjecture that the Upper Paleolithic communities would have been considered shamanist communities. 


      5.1 Shamanism in South Africa’s San Culture 

Focusing on the San culture in South Africa the author describes their ‘cosmos’ and ‘spiritual realms’. Their religion is built around the belief of a divided universe, which denotes the existence of a realm above and a realm below ours. This concept is not exclusive to shamanism but is common among many other religions, appearing as Heaven (above) and Hell (below). This belief comes from mental experiences where the individuals interpret their visions as being carried into underworlds or kingdoms of heaven. In other words, feelings of lightness, mitigation or separation from the body can be linked to the spiritual realm above. Sensations related to the ‘vortex’, such as difficulty breathing or sounds in the ear, are associated with the spiritual realm below. 


6 Origin of the first two-dimensional image 

We know that intelligence is undoubtedly important. However, it is in the understanding of consciousness that we find the connection between art and the concepts of the supernatural and the cosmos. 

The capacity to ‘see’ two-dimensional images is not an inevitable characteristic of human beings, but it is something we learn. Homo sapiens, having an ‘elaborate’ consciousness, could not only dream but also remember and talk about dreams. Dreams and visions are inexorably attracted to both the socialization of ‘being’ and to the concept of being human, which changes with time. 

The reason for the creation of the first images relies partially on this capacity to remember and socialize dreams and visions, and it also relies on specific characteristics of the visual images experienced in the altered states of consciousness. 

Similar to when we press our eye for long enough or stare directly into a bright light and experience a kind of projection of a blur in our visual field, an individual that experiences hallucinations can also  project the images seen onto surfaces once he returns to reality. In Lewis-Williams’ words, “people did not ‘invent’ two-dimensional images; nor did they discover them in natural marks and ‘macaronis’. On the contrary, their world was already invested with two-dimensional images; such images were a product of the functioning of the human nervous system in altered states of consciousness and in the context of the higher-order consciousness,”.

Therefore we conclude that the first two-dimensional images were not two-dimensional representations of tri-dimensional things from our material world as initially thought, but also ‘fixed’ mental images. It is important to highlight that while this justification is given for the origin of parietal images of the Upper Paleolithic, it does not explain all images made afterwards. 

Additional arguments to support this point of view derived from the parietal images of the Upper Paleolithic that have countless common characteristics with the imagery of altered states of consciousness. For instance, parietal images have no connection to nature . Only in a few cases, suggestions of what might have been a groundline are found.  Despite a natural blob on the rocky wall, there are no signs relating to the environment in which real animals live – there are no trees, no rivers, nor grassy fields. Additionally, Upper Paleolithic parietal images present a floating form. These images are situated without attention to size or relative positions between them. These characteristics are exactly what is expected of fixed and projected mental images accumulated throughout time. The mental images hover and float freely, regardless of any natural environment. One can also capture the feeling of floating through the absence of  hooves. 


7 Three-dimensional/mobile artwork 

Upper Paleolithic artwork was not entirely two-dimensional;  evidence exists of mobile three-dimensional art in this period. But what is the reason for the  simultaneous appearance of these artworks? Just as parietal art is justifiable through neurological mechanisms, so is mobile art. The imagery projected during altered states of consciousness is not exclusively seen on two-dimensional surfaces. People in deep ASC can also hallucinate in three dimensions. 

The repertoire of animal motifs had been discussed and established in the hunter-gatherer communities. The species with relevance to them would be shared, communicated, seen in visions and dreamt about. Paleolithic people believed these species had a special virtue, and so fragments of these animals (bones, teeth, etc.) would conduct these properties. By sculpting animal statues in these materials, they would be associating spiritual animal properties to the statue. Certain positions of discovered statues express power and strength, which are characteristics associated with shamans due to the dangers of entering altered states of consciousness. 


8 ‘The Cave in the Mind’ 

Lewis-Williams mentions Socrates’ prisoners  who have always lived enchained in a cave and take the shadows they see on the wall as reality. However, the author uses the allegory to explain something that Socrates was not able to: “in our version of the cave, the light streaming from above catches the prisoners themselves and throws the ‘shadows’ of their minds onto the Wall so that they mingle with the shadows of the external objects to create a multidimensional panorama,”. Just as Socrates’ prisoners’ shadows were reality, so did the ‘shadows’ of the paleolithic man represent their reality in the ‘cave of the mind’. 

We have seen that the Upper Paleolithic man had a modern brain and was able to dream and have visions, as opposed to the Neanderthal man that had the neurologic potential to dream and hallucinate but could not remember it. We have also seen the active presence of shamanism in hunter-gatherer communities. By adding these two factors of antiquity and commonality, it is possible to infer that some forms of shamanism may have been practiced by the hunter-gatherers of the Upper Paleolithic; perhaps not identical to what we find in the shaman communities of today but with similar characteristics. 


      8.1 The caves 

Just as charts and texts aim to transmit the same message, so can animals and symbols that we find in caves , since they are experienced together in the imagery of Phase III hallucinations. This is not the only stage depicted in cave paintings of the Upper Paleolithic. We can also observe visual shapes (stage I), ‘construals’ (interpretations on how the individuals would perceive, comprehend and interpret the world around them – stage II), and transformations and representational combinations of visuals shapes (stage III). 

The caves were of great importance; they were considered the virtual entrance to the mental ‘vortex’ that would lead them to the experiences and hallucinations of deep trance. The images embellishing the walls established a path into the unknown. Thus, these underground passages and chambers were places of contact and penetration into the spiritual layer of the cosmos. The spiritual world, as well as the social world, was malleable; the people could interact with it and even, to some extent, shape it. This molding can be assumed as the addition of new images to the ones already existing on the walls or the creation of  new panels along with the existing ones. 

The images were not merely painted on the wall, they were part of the surface, which is a reason we can observe several paintings in which the animal presents the protuberance of the surface as its own physical characteristic. The images were part of the cave itself, as well as part of the spiritual world. The rock wall was considered a membrane between the people and the underground spiritual world, and it is possible to convey a sense of permeability. In other words, there are no barriers between the Upper Paleolithic man and the spiritual world. A wall can either speak to them, accept them or deny them. A shaman can, for instance, send its own spirit to the underground world or internally receive an underground spirit. 

If we examine the topographic formats of the caves through a social perspective, we can identify social areas; the usage of caves was not for individual people alone, but for communities. Taking the example of Gabillou’s cave, we can establish a parallelism between the social divisions and the segments of consciousness spectrum, with the chambers and passages of the caves. Firstly, on the outside of the cave, there would be the entire community in an alert or dreaming state. Then, in the entrance chamber, there would be only an exclusive group who would constitute part of the initiation rituals. Here it was already possible to fully experience the whole spectrum of consciousness. And lastly, in Gabillou’s cave, there is a small dark tunnel resembling the tunnel experienced in visions, where only individuals who were allowed access to the world of spirits would enter to experience their hallucinations. 


9 Conclusion 

In sum, key information to understanding the cave man’s world was presented throughout the text. From the comprehension of the importance of the human consciousness spectrum, to the shaman and its role in the society and the practices of shamanic communities, we can discern that Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherer communities were, in fact, shamanic communities from which their artistic practice was derived. It is worth mentioning that the connection between the mind, image, society and cosmos is of extreme importance when studying parietal art, and quoting Lewis-Williams, “the mind in the cave and the cave in the mind cannot be separated; they are keys to subterranean parietal art.”


10 Bibliography

• Lewis-Williams, David (2002).The mind in the cave. Consciousness and the origins of Art. London: Thames & Hudson
• Clottes, Jean / Lewis-Williams, David (1996). Les chamanes de la préhistoire. Paris: Seuil
• Lewis-Williams, J.D., Dowson, T.A., Bahn, P. G., Bandi, H.G., Bednarik, R.G., Clegg, J., Consens, M., Davis, W., Delluc, B., Delluc, G., Faulstich, P., Halverson, J., Layton, R., Martindale, C., Mirimanov, V., Turner II, C. G., Vastokas, J.M., Winkelman, M., Wylie,
A. (Apr., 1988). Current Anthropology, Vol.29, No.2, pp. 201-245. Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of Wenner-Green Foundation for Anthropological Research.
• Nelson, E., Ciuffo, A., Harding, D., Hobbs, J., McKillop, D. & Herzog, Werner. (2010). Cave of forgotten dreams. Creative Differences; IFC Films Sundance Selects

Note: All the quotes, direct or indirect, have been taken from David Lewis-Williams’ book The Mind in the Cave

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