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Book Review: Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit by David S Whitley

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David S Whitley is clearly a man who has moved at the centre of prehistoric archaeology for decades. In Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit he takes us into that world: roughly half of the book is an account of the archaeological debates, quarrels and missteps that have marked the exploration and attempts at explanation of the cave art of prehistoric Europe and associated genres. On that he’s entertaining, anecdotal, and so far as I can tell a faithful guide. (I’m always inclined to trust someone who immediately declares their interests and prejudices, as Whitley regularly does.)

The other half of the book is more of a presentation of a personal thesis: that religion and “modernity” was born with the brain chemistry that also brought the species what we now call bipolar disorder (it used to be called manic depression). It is an interesting idea, although I’m not sure how it might ever be proven.

This insider view of the science of archeology makes one thing clear: anyone who believes that science is marked by the singleminded pursuit of truth, unmarred by politics or personal consideration, knows nothing about the realities. Whitley covers the incredibly petty controversy around the discovery of Chauvet Cave – which as I’ve recorded elsewhere has been magnificently explained by Jean Clottes (with whom Whitley visited the caves).

And he goes at length into the controversy of the open-air Coa petroglyphs in Portugal, threatened by a planned dam and claimed to be Paleololithic by a new, controversial and what was at least to be partially discredited dating technique. Whitley explains the science in detail, which might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it fascinating – and it is essential if the reader is to grasp the cause of the controversy.

He then moves into a subject clearly close to his awn heart: shamanism and its links to rock art. He’s earlier explained the evidence for the Paleolithic art being linked to shamanism – in short that human trance states, whether induced by Kalahari San people (“Bushmen”) by clapping and dancing, by chemical means, or perhaps the experience of the deep caves, goes through three phases:
1. Imagery is dominated by geometric light patterns generated within our optical and neural systems
2. Through more normal mental processes of visual pattern recognition, the pattern is interpreted or construed as a meaningful iconic or figurative image.
3. Full-blown iconic hallucations occur in which a sense of participation develops and an individual may imagine becoming the thing he or she hallucinates.

(This is known as the “neurophysical model”. )

Forms of image that appear to clearly correspond to each of these three stages are found in the cave art of prehistoric Europe, Whitley explains.

He then moves on to the issue of Siberian shamanism, a source of long-term fascination for the Western world. He effectively debunks, to my mind anyway, a suggestion that it is an intact relict of Paleolithic practices, saying that records of neighbouring literate people such as the Han Chinese only go back 2,000 years, while archaeological evidence pushes it back about 4,000. He argues that there is some evidence that New World shamanism had cultural influences on the Old World, but that there’s no evidence of a continuous tradition back to the Paleolithic.

Whitley then goes back to looking for the origins of human belief in the supernatural, and the development of religion. He finds the core of the latter in minimally counterintuitive concepts – which are memorable and particularly susceptible to recall, likely to be remembered and repeated. But they can’t be too far from the everyday: a talking dog is fine, a flying, talking tree is too far out. He finds the former in human’s agency detection device, a hypersensitive aspect of human existence that sees agents that aren’t really there – the dark environment of the cave being particularly effective for that.

Whitley is convinced that although they probably didn’t have organized religion, Neanderthals certainly had supernatural beliefs – it must have been built into their brains. So he arrives at an account of the of religion’s arrival:

Religion – a shared social practice involving spirit belief and religiosity, but not always transcendence – developed first (insofar as we can tell) in western Europe, at least 35,000 years ago. This occurred when certain individuals with (I believe) specific emotional characteristics ‘captured’ the spirit world. By this act, they “created minimally impossible worlds that solve existential problems” – an evolutionary psychologists’ definition of religion.”

As evidence for the “emotional characteristics” claim, he combs written evidence of shamanistic societies and finds many examples of accounts that appear to match modern accounts of 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.

And so he says, they invented “modern” human life – which he identifies with the start of religion. On that I part company with Whitley – why this, rather than art itself, or technology, or methods of social organization?

Still, it is an entertaining journey that Whitley provides, across fascinating terrain of human existence. He might not be – he says himself – a “spirit guide”, but he is an entertaining one.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.