Cave paintings and the human spirit : the origin of creativity and belief

by David S. Whitley

Book, 2009



Call number

GN803 .W495


Publisher Unknown


The magnificent prehistoric art discovered in caves throughout France and Spain raises many questions about early human culture. What do these superbly rendered paintings of horses, bison, and enigmatic human figures and symbols mean? How can we explain the sudden flourishing of artistic creativity at such a high level? And in what ways does this artwork reflect the underlying belief system, worldview, and life of the people who created it? In this fascinating discussion of ancient art and religion, Dr. David S. Whitley--one of the world's leading experts on cave paintings--guides the reader in an exploration of these intriguing questions, while sharing his firsthand experiences in visiting these exquisite, breathtaking sites. To grasp what drove these ancient artists to create these masterpieces, and to understand the origin of myth and religion, as Whitley explains, is to appreciate what makes us human. Moreover, he broadens our understanding of the genesis of creativity and myth by proposing a radically new and original theory that weds two seemingly warring camps from separate disciplines. On the one hand, archaeologists specializing in prehistoric cave paintings have argued that the visionary rituals of shamans led to the creation of this expressive art. They consider shamanism to be the earliest known form of religion. By contrast, evolutionary psychologists view the emergence of religious beliefs as a normal expression of the human mind. In their eyes, the wild and ecstatic trances of shamans were a form of aberrant behavior. Far from being typical representatives of ancient religion, shamans were exceptions to the normal rule of early religion. Whitley resolves the controversy by interweaving the archaeological evidence with the latest findings of cutting-edge neuroscience. He thereby rewrites our understanding of shamanism and its connection with artistic creativity, myth, and religion. Combining a colorful narrative describing Whitley's personal explorations at key archaeological sites with robust scientific research, Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit makes for engrossing reading. It provides a profound and poignant perspective on what it means to be human.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member keylawk
David S Whitley has investigated prehistoric archaeological sites for decades, and is intimately familiar with the writings of other scientists in the field. In Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit he takes us into these investigations, admitting his own inclinations, but inviting our own disagreements -- as he recounts the many disputes over the archeological evidence. This book looks at how to explain the cave art of prehistoric Europe.

The author also uses the archeology to lead to an investigation of shamanism, which is clearly linked to rock art. The Paleolithic art is now widely accepted to have been created by humans in trance states. For example, the Kalahari San people induce trances by clapping and dancing, and the cave floor studies now show that dances were performed in the caves, and many of the vast chambers are acoustically resonant, and many have elaborate echoing iterations. Trance can also be induced by chemical means, and the fibers of hemp have been found, as well as the abundance of amanita muscaria and other mushrooms at the entrances of the caves.

The projected experience of the deep caves, suggests three phases:
1. Imagery -- created by light patterns and phosphenes within our optical and neural systems, with shadow, reflection, beams, and even pure imagination.
2. Pattern recognition - even referential and metaphoric, with interpretation and ideation around iconic or figurative images.
3. Hallucination - with individual projection within the "participatory" experience. An individual imagines/ or becomes the thing he or she hallucinates.
(the “neurophysical model”. )

Scientists have found art which correspond to each of these stages in the cave art of prehistoric Europe, as documented by Whitley. He also finds corroboration drawn from Siberian shamanism. Whitley also ventilates the extent of whether modern shamanism as practiced is an intact relic of Paleolithic practices. For example, the literate Han Chinese culture only goes back 2,000 years, while archaeological evidence pushes shamanism back about 4,000 in that same region. There is some evidence that New World shamanism had cultural influences on the Old World, but there is no direct evidence of a continuous tradition back to the Paleolithic, anywhere.

Whitley looks for the origins of human belief in the supernatural, and the development of religion. He notes that some ideas are "counterintuitive", while most are rational choices between competing explanations for inexplicable mysteries. Some explanations are more memorable than others, and may be more likely to be remembered and recounted if the recitation is rewarded in some way. However, skepticism and mundane experience, seems to police the margins: For example, a talking dog may seem possible, but there are few if any persistent stories of flying and talking trees. Whitley honors the human agency of detection, the a hypersensitive aspect of human existence that sees what is not real. The dark environment of the cave being particularly effective for the emergence of the unseen, and the fraud, which is at the heart of religion.

Whitley finds no evidence that Neanderthals or Cro-Magnons had organized religion. The cave artists did not depict gods, God, or any forms of worship. However, he suggests that the people had supernatural beliefs – perhaps built into their brains, along with "consciousness". They had the ability to craft objects of no immediate utility, to make art, and to dance. And here he finds the arrival of Religion – a shared social practice involving spirit belief. We find clear evidence of "sanctity" or religiosity, developing in the pre-Ice Age caves of western Europe, at least 35,000 years ago.

Whitley does not spare us the "fact" that the “emotional characteristics” of the priests in many shamanistic and religious societies reflect and match what are now called bipolar disorder. He also identifies a strong correlation between artistic creativity and mood disorders – with artists having rates of about 10 times higher than the general population.

The brilliant insight Whitley offers us to appreciate concerning the cave paintings is that they show how the artists invented “modern” human life. While he links the art to the origins of religion -- a leap some of us may not care to make -- it is certainly true that the art reflects modern intelligence emerging -- literally from the caves.
… (more)



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