Making sense of the chronology of paleolithic cave painting from the perspective of material engagement theory

Tom Froese

pp. 91-112

There exists a venerable tradition of interdisciplinary research into the origins and development of Paleolithic cave painting. In recent years this research has begun to be inflected by rapid advances in measurement techniques that are delivering chronological data with unprecedented accuracy. Patterns are emerging from the accumulating evidence whose precise interpretation demands corresponding advances in theory. It seems that cave painting went through several transitions, beginning with the creation of simple lines, dots and disks, followed by hand stencils, then by outlined figures, and finally by naturalistic figures. So far the most systematic evidence comes from Europe, although there are also indications that this sequence could be a universal pattern. The shamanic hypothesis provides a useful theoretical starting point because of its emphasis on the role of performance and phenomenology in the creative process. However, it still tends to reduce this sequence to mere stylistic and thematic changes that were external products of an already fully formed modern mind. Here I show how key insights from semiotics and material engagement theory can advance this explanatory framework to the extent that we become able to postdict the major transitions in the chronology of Paleolithic cave painting. An intriguing implication is that this is at the same time a chronology of cognitive changes, namely from a performative-phenomenological to a reflective-representational mind.

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