A&O – DEEP – EVOLUTION – Paleolithic art and the Dawn of Consciousness



What can we learn from artifacts? 

 What can we infer about the artist’s state of mind?   Indeed, are we even aware of our own motives for actions?  A leading idea is that we can look into our own minds  (and thereby infer the thoughts of others)  That is, “we ascribe mental states to other persons and how we use the states to explain and predict the actions of those other people.” See: “Theory of Mind”.

Paleolithic art, especially cave art, is amongst the most dramatic of artifacts: what inferences about the “artist’s” state of mind can be supported by what we find?  

Art as it is considered in A&O is for us a unique constellation of cognitive traits that has developmental and adaptive significance.  Our working hypothesis is that art helps us cope with potential challenges to meeting our needs (“stressors”)  as individuals within our lives and as a species considering our evolutionary history.  

We have reviewed examples of how appreciating art, integrating art into our thinking, and creating art can be potent forces in our lives. These experiences can range from routine assimilation of new experiences through dramatic epiphanies. We also believe that every aspect of art (appreciation, integration, expression) is subject to one’s states of mind.  For example, we have seen the changes in expressive art as people have experienced (sometimes unfortunate) changes in the workings of mind. (see A&O notes on cognitive dysfunction) That is, we tend to infer the nature of mental processes from their expression and sometimes we have corroborating evidence of neurologists of psychiatrists.  There is also abundant evidence—objects amenable to scientific study—that informs us about the likely abilities of the ancient or prehistoric organisms, not least our ancestors. BUT, we come to think about how others think by looking into our own minds and imagining how WE would feel “upon the like occasion” (see snip from Hobbes’ Leviathon), a tricky business at best.  


Years ago, I had reason to be at Harvard and took advantage of the rich abundance of museums[2],.  A topic of conversation was how to think of ancient artifacts: as works of art … or as representations of culture. Do we put this in an art museum (e.g., The Sackler) or an anthropology museum (e.g., The Peabody).  The scholars who explore these items have different training, ask different questions, and have different methods to answer questions arising.  Although such conversations can bridge some of these differences, the weight of generations of more-or-less successful study in specific fields is sure to be felt.