Jonathan Jones on Neanderthal Art


Chapter 12: Richard Dawkins and The Extended Phenotype

While the emergence of the human organism is accounted for, with gaps but with sufficient continuity to be robust, by the archaeological record, the emergence of human material culture is still treated, by paleo-archaeologists as much as by anthropologists and sociologists, as if the process of its coming into existence were so obvious as to need no explanation.

It so happens that, this year (as I write) some seminal cave art was re-dated.  This work, in Maltravieso cave in Spain, consists of stencils of what had since their discovery be taken to be “human” hands, done by blowing pigment against a hand held to the cave wall.  But now dating of calcite deposits over the artwork puts them at around 66ky, before there is any evidence of Homo sapiens in Europe.  This art was apparently the work of Neanderthals.

The art critic of the Guardian captures the moment of this realisation perfectly.  Jonathan Jones is not a paleoanthropologist, and his language reflects what I take to be the common human view of what we are, while his perspicuity makes clear what a transitional moment in the underpinning of that view the discovery of Neanderthal art was.  So I feel that our common view is worth a moment’s more reflection.

He writes:

“the painted hands – not to mention bison, horses and mammoths – found in European caves have come to be seen as the moment when the modern human mind itself is born: the first evidence not just of the intelligence of Homo sapiens but our capacity to imagine and dream, to reflect, in short to possess consciousness. What does it mean if another kind of human species shared those traits? Is there nothing special about us at all?”

Jones is writing about what had been understood since the end of the last century but one as the “first art”.  The oldest, and maybe the most accomplished of this drawing and painting is in Chauvet cave, dated from 37,000 to 33,500 years ago.

His language is reverential and metaphorical.  “The modern human mind itself is born” is a very vague metaphor indeed.  “Born” in natural language suggests a process by which a foetus emerges from the birth canal in a welter of membrane and mucous, but it doesn’t seem that that is the image that Jones is presenting.  It seems to be something more like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, where the naked goddess comes ashore as a woman in her nubile prime.  And this is how “the human mind” was born.  In other words it is a magical moment, nothing like anything that ever actually happened.  And yet Jones is absolutely correct in using this projection of how we think of ourselves.  The soft human foetus/neonate smeared with human matter is not much employed as the earliest in-the-world form of each of us, nor of our collective beauty and grandeur.

But from a reductionist, scientific point of view, while we can stand for minutes on end in the Uffizi in Florence, totally lost and entranced (and, like the first glimpse of the Taj Mahal through the Great Gate, experiencing the thing with your whole organism is a transformative experience for many human beings) we don’t for a moment think The Birth of Venus was a real event, if only because the goddess Venus is an evolved concept, not an actual creature of flesh and ichor or whatever goddesses are made of, but a nexus of information distributed about sculpture, painting, poetry, narrative epic and common speech.  No more can the “modern human mind itself” be understood as anything that actually exists, except as an evolved conceptual object, a nexus of information distributed about literature and philosophy, psychology and anthropology, frequently referred to in natural language, as in “It crossed my mind”, “She has a good mind” “Have you lost [or gone out of your] mind?”.  One can “call to mind” a surprising number of these examples of natural usage, where the mind is an object, a place, a tool or instrument; and always has been, “time out of mind”.

As users of natural language we know perfectly well that there is no actual place or thing, the mind, even though it’s a great big metaphor for a large part of what we feel we are.  And the “modern mind”, if discussed in a scientific way, is even looser than that, a ridiculous fiction with far less dignity than Venus atop her cockle shell.  Jones continues to exemplify this point in the image that finalises the next quote.

“Today, it [the art in Lascaux cave] is at the heart of thinking about human evolution because it seems to illuminate the birth of the complex cathedral of the modern mind.”

He immediately goes on:

“Now that all has to be rethought. “There must be something that’s different about modern humans,” says Stringer. “But it isn’t cave art.”” (Jones, 2018)

This seems to be a seminal moment for Chris Stringer.  He is probably the most renowned physical anthropologist in the world, and his books on the evolution of the human organism are wonderful accounts of his leading-edge research, of the prehistory of hominins, and they are popular and accessible accounts of human evolution.  But he is quite explicitly uninterested in cultural evolution, and given the nature of cultural evolution in academia at the moment he is perhaps correct to be so.  But the result has been that up to now he has rather used the metaphorical language, and thus the thought processes, which the Jonathan Jones article exemplifies.  He leaves Jones, he says, a way back to the common, comfortable delusion.

On the other hand they are not much like Leonardo da Vinci either. “I don’t think there’s any evidence of representational art,” says Stringer. For me, that leaves a massive lifeline for the image of Homo sapiens as a uniquely brilliant creature.

The drawing, painting and sculpture, in wood, bone and ivory, dated to the twenty millennia that started around thirty three thousand BCE, can still Jones says, be “at the heart of thinking about human evolution”.  In fact they never were at the heart of human evolution.  The notion that something miraculous happened at the beginning of the upper Palaeolithic was first dreamt up by an early anthropologist, French and in holy orders, who asserted that art was a gift to man from God, who was, of course, a French Catholic.  This is a diametric negation of evolution.

And Jonathan Jones, to his credit, sees that the game is up.  The “complex cathedral of the modern mind” (Notre Dame or Chartres?) never suddenly sprang into existence, like Botticelli’s Venus, or indeed a gothic cathedral.  Neither, of course, did a gothic cathedral or a painting.  Even an anti-evolutionary would concede that renaissance paintings and ritual spaces developed from a very long line of tradition.  The Chauvet cave art of 37,000 to 33,500 years ago was clearly far too accomplished to be a first-off attempt, and must itself have developed from a long tradition of representation.

And here is Jonathan Jones telling us what is the case:

“But here’s the thing. That Neanderthal hand is the first evidence ever found of another species showing cultural self-consciousness. It’s not so very far from a hand print to a self-portrait to a diary to a novel. This discovery dethrones the modern human mind.”

His language is archaic.  The phrase “showing cultural self-consciousness” is a WEIRD psycho-anthropological trope of extreme nonsensicality which I won’t dwell on, but I think the trope of dethroning is immensely apt.  Bravo Jonathan.  You have done Darwinian evolution a service.

Which is this.  If the idea of the fully modern mind arriving on Earth like Venus on her cockleshell is abject bollocks, what are we to put in its place?



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