Ancient Symbols in Rock Art

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John P. Miller
Professor John P. Miller
Montana State University
By Professor John P. Miller in collaboration with Peter Robinson.
Professor John P. Miller of the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience, Montana State University, in association with the Bradshaw Foundation, examines the recurrent geometric motifs of ancient rock art in relation to the anatomical and neurophysiological characteristics of the human visual cortex. This neurophysiological approach will test the 'universality' hypothesis and introduce the concept of 'neuro-aesthetics'.
Ancient cave paintings and rock engravings can be found on every continent. Clearly it was a practice of great importance - not merely 'art for art's sake' - carried out by hunter-gatherer societies. By studying this practice on a global scale, the art reveals similarities in both style and subject. The similarities are evident even though the artists could not have been influenced by one another.
David Lewis-Williams considers the artistic similarities of prehistoric societies separate in time and place: 'Was there an underlying, not easily detected, bedrock of belief that expressed itself in contrasting ways? In geological terms, was there a subterranean chamber of molten rock that rose to the surface in different places to form batholiths, each similar to others in its origin but each shaped by the forces of erosion to display its own hills and valleys? Today, many archaeologists are reluctant to seek generalities of this kind. They prefer to see each society as possessing its own unique culture, that is, the set of beliefs and norms that individuals learn from birth and with which they creatively interact. There is, of course, truth in the concept of the uniqueness of human cultures, but it is by no means the whole story' [D. Lewis-Williams & D. Pearce 2005].
Aborigine Tribes
Aborigine Tribes
San hunter-gatherers
San hunter-gatherers
The whole story may indeed have a very human explanation - one that involves common anatomical and neurophysiological characteristics.
Professor John P. Miller - iLecture
Artistic 'Universals'
The common perception of prehistoric rock art involves depictions of animals. These depictions are largely representational. Whether it is the bulls of Altamira, the 'Chinese' horses of Lascaux, the mammoths of Rouffignac or the rhino and lion paintings at Chauvet, Paleolithic art and animals are tightly intertwined - Palaeolithic art, from beginning to end, is an art of animals. In Europe for example, most of the animals represented are large herbivores, those that the hunter-gatherer societies could see around them and which they hunted.
Horses Cave Art Lascaux Cave
Horse Cave Art from Lascaux Cave
Lions Chauvet Cave Art Paintings
Lions from the Chauvet Cave
Similarities in subject emerge from the existence of these animals in different places and times: the artists were drawing what they were seeing - it was an art of observation, imbued with symbolism perhaps, but observation nonetheless.
Marc Chagall Chauvet Cave Paintings Franz Marc
Marc Chagall Chauvet Cave Paintings Franz Marc
When it comes to similarities in style, however, another question should be asked: are there 'universals' in artistic tendencies? The style of an image is often repeated over time. Now that Chauvet has been discovered and dated, we know that some of the earliest artistic images known to humankind bear a remarkable resemblance to more modern works of art. The freshness and 'modernism' of the Chauvet images can be readily compared with those of Chagall and Marc. A recent exhibition on Ice Age art in London's British Museum juxtaposed works of art from the Ice Age with those of the Twentieth Century. When the paintings of Alta Mira were first discovered in 1879 they were labeled a hoax because of their resemblance to the Impressionist style of painting. And it was Picasso, who on viewing the paintings of Lascaux in 1940, declared "we have discovered nothing". Was he referring to 'universal' artistic tendencies?
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