Creative Arts


November 14, 2014 Cave paintings and the brain

This article is part of a series called Science by Compass.

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You might expect that our ancient human ancestors first started painting the same way that young children do. Maybe they would start out with things they have seen before – like everyday objects and pets, and eventually move on to subject matter more abstract and imaginative. Or maybe it’s something a little more mysterious.

Some of the oldest cave paintings ever found are located in France and Spain, and just this year equally old paintings were discovered on an island in Indonesia. These prehistoric artworks have been dated back to a whopping 40,000 years ago – that’s about how long ago it is believed that humans first made it to the shores of Australia, back when there were still giant kangaroos and other megafauna hopping around.

Many of these early cave paintings, discovered in completely different parts of the world, share a remarkable and bizarre similarity. They all contain strange dots and lines which don’t seem to be drawings of things from the daily life of a hunter-gatherer, but rather more abstract patterns painted over the top of other images.

If these ancient ancestors of ours were all isolated from one another, why would they have all started painting these strange and yet similar images around the same time in history? And what was it about these weird patterns that inspired early humans to pick up a paintbrush for the very first time?

One archaeologist and cave painting enthusiast, David Lewis-Williams, came up with a creative solution to the mystery of these images. Williams thought that maybe the geometric patterns and shapes that popped up in these cave paintings were actually people trying to paint the patterns they saw while in hallucinatory trance states. These are the kinds of colours and shapes you might see while you’re just drifting off to sleep, or if you rub your eyelids for long enough.

If our ancestors all shared the same biological makeup, then they would have experienced the same kinds of visual phenomena during altered states of consciousness, even if they lived on opposite sides of the world from one another. What this means is that humans have a biological predisposition to “see” certain things while we are not fully conscious, and that these kinds of patterns are somehow ‘hard-wired’ into our brains.

Some scientists have even argued that these patterns are visual representations of the networks and cell structures that our brains are made up of.

Many different cultures have incorporated trance and altered states into their religious rituals, believing them to be glimpses or ways of communicating with the spirit realm. Perhaps these early humans also placed special spiritual significance on these altered states of consciousness, or at least thought they were exciting enough to warrant the invention of painting!

Rather than being inspired by the animals they hunted or the berries they thought were tastiest, maybe prehistoric people got painting for the first time to try and represent supernatural realms they believed they were communing with while they were experiencing trance states.

Or maybe not! Whatever the answer, the paintings sure are beautiful.

This article is part of a series called Science by Compass.

Read the series >

Sophia Harris
is a graduate of the photomedia program at the Sydney College of the Arts.