Was The Lack Of Language The Force Of Driving Stone Age Art?

December 09, 1998

THE artistic talents of an autistic girl have inspired a heretical new theory about the mentality of cave artists who painted Europe's Stone Age masterpieces. Instead of representing the first flowering of the modern creative mind, cave art was produced by people with underdeveloped minds, a psychologist claims.

For decades, archaeologists have assumed that cave artists were intelligent and communicative. That view became even more entrenched four years ago after the discovery of the spectacular rock art, dating back 31,000 years, in the Chauvet caves in southeastern France. The fluency and realism of animal figures there seemed to prove that humans had evolved the language and other mental skills required for a sophisticated painting technique.

But Nicholas Humphrey of the New School for Social Research in New York is unconvinced. Following a study of the artistic abilities of an autistic child, he concludes that the cave painters were "not the first artists of the age of symbolism but the last of the innocents" (Cambridge Archaeological Journal, vol 8, p 165).

Humphrey found uncanny similarities between the cave paintings at two sites in France-Chauvet and Lascaux-and the drawings of an autistic girl called Nadia born in Nottingham in 1967. Despite having severe learning difficulties, Nadia drew with startling realism from the age of three.

In the 1970s Lorna Selfe, a British psychologist, wrote a book about Nadia. The drawings of horses, cows and elephants reproduced in the book reminded Humphrey of the horses, bison and mammoths painted by cave artists. Both sets of images are striking in their realism and perspective, he claims. And both capture animals in motion using lines to contour body shapes. Like Nadia, the cave artists often drew animals haphazardly on top of one another-a habit which in Nadia's case may reflect her autism, Humphrey says. Unlike normal children, autistic children often find it easier to focus on details in messy scenes and see camouflaged objects.

Humphrey thinks that artistic talent flowered in both the cave artists and Nadia not in spite of mental deficiencies, but because of them. Nadia's drawing skills seemed to peak between the ages of three and six, when she knew almost no language and seemed blind to conceptual links between objects. To her, an armchair and a deck chair would be two different types of object. Selfe believes that instead of naming and conceptualising objects she saw, filing them under "horse" or "chair" in her memory, Nadia was aware only of the raw visual impression an object created, and this fuelled her art.

When Nadia finally acquired a functional vocabulary around the age of 12, her abilities petered out. Humphrey thinks something similar may have happened to cave artists. He suggests that by 20 000 years ago people had evolved the ability to name and talk about other people, but not about animals, plants and tools. When language finally evolved to include such things, art suffered-witness the stilted and formulaic images that began to appear following the end of the last Ice Age 11 000 years ago, Humphrey says. "The loss of naturalistic painting was the price that had to be paid for the coming of poetry."

So controversial is the theory that the journal publishes it with a barrage of criticisms from experts. Steven Mithen, an archaeologist at the University of Reading, says the main problem is that mental skills such as language are likely to have evolved no later than 100,000 years ago. And he questions whether a mind lacking modern conceptual skills could produce the complex geometric shapes and other abstract images that are often seen in Stone Age art.

Uta Frith, a psychologist at University College London, agrees with Humphrey that it is a mistake to take the cave art as proof that the artists had brains like ours. But she doubts that our ancestors would have gone for hundreds of thousands of years unable to talk about where food is and how to make a tool, given the huge adaptive value of such communication. She adds that many children lack language but very few of them draw like Nadia. A lack of language doesn't automatically produce great art, she says.
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