The Rock Art Network
The Rock Art Network
The Rock Art Network
Bradshaw Foundation - Latest News
Cave art & the origin of language
Wednesday 04 December 2019

An article by Peter Dizikes on news.mit.edu - The writing on the wall - reports on the link between ancient cave art and the origin of language.

When and where did humans develop language? An MIT professor suggests we look deep inside caves. Some specific features of cave art may provide clues about how our symbolic, multifaceted language capabilities evolved, according to a new paper co-authored by MIT linguist Shigeru Miyagawa.

cave paintings origin of language
Bison from Niaux Cave

A key to this idea is that cave art is often located in acoustic 'hot spots' where sound echoes strongly. Those drawings are located in deeper, harder-to-access parts of caves, indicating that acoustics was a principal reason for the placement of drawings within caves. The drawings, in turn, may represent the sounds that early humans generated in those spots.

Article continues below
Article continues

In the new paper, this convergence of sound and drawing is referred to as 'cross-modality information transfer', a convergence of auditory information and visual art that, the authors write, “allowed early humans to enhance their ability to convey symbolic thinking.” The combination of sounds and images is one of the things that characterizes human language today, along with its symbolic aspect and its ability to generate infinite new sentences.

cave paintings origin of language
Ibex from Niaux Cave

Miyagawa, a professor of linguistics and the Kochi-Manjiro Professor of Japanese Language and Culture at MIT, explains that “Cave art was part of the package deal in terms of how homo sapiens came to have this very high-level cognitive processing. You have this very concrete cognitive process that converts an acoustic signal into some mental representation and externalizes it as a visual.” Cave artists were thus not just artists. They may have been engaged in a process of communication.

The paper, 'Cross-modality information transfer: A hypothesis about the relationship among prehistoric cave paintings, symbolic thinking, and the emergence of language' is being published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. The authors are Miyagawa; Cora Lesure, a PhD student in MIT’s Department of Linguistics; and Vitor A. Nobrega, a PhD student in linguistics at the University of Sao Paulo, in Brazil.

The advent of language in human history is unclear. Our species is estimated to be about 200,000 years old. Human language is often considered to be at least 100,000 years old. Miyagawa explains that “It’s very difficult to try to understand how human language itself appeared in evolution. We don’t know 99.9999 percent of what was going on back then. There’s this idea that language doesn’t fossilize, and it’s true, but maybe in these artifacts , we can see some of the beginnings of homo sapiens as symbolic beings.”

While the world’s best-known cave art exists in France and Spain, examples of it abound throughout the world. One form of cave art suggestive of symbolic thinking — geometric engravings on pieces of ochre, from the Blombos Cave in southern Africa — has been estimated to be at least 70,000 years old. Such symbolic art indicates a cognitive capacity that humans took with them to the rest of the world.

But what exactly was going on in caves where people made noise and rendered things on walls? Some scholars have suggested that acoustic 'hot spots' in caves were used to make noises that replicate hoofbeats, for instance; some 90 percent of cave drawings involve hoofed animals. These drawings could represent stories or the accumulation of knowledge, or they could have been part of rituals.

In any of these scenarios, Miyagawa suggests, cave art displays properties of language in that “you have action, objects, and modification.” This parallels some of the universal features of human language — verbs, nouns, and adjectives — and Miyagawa suggests that “acoustically based cave art must have had a hand in forming our cognitive symbolic mind.”

The ideas proposed by Miyagawa, Lesure, and Nobrega merely outline a working hypothesis, which is intended to spur additional thinking about language’s origins and point toward new research questions. For Miyagawa, the bottom line is “art is not just something that is marginal to our culture, but central to the formation of our cognitive abilities.”

click here to see more rock art from Niaux

Comment
Cave Painting
Cave art found in Thailand
by Bradshaw Foundation
Thursday 13 August 2020
Testing the DNA of cave art
by Bradshaw Foundation
Friday 19 June 2020
Museo de Altamira opens today
by Bradshaw Foundation
Tuesday 09 June 2020
The Final Passage film FAQs 7
by Bradshaw Foundation
Saturday 06 June 2020
The Final Passage film FAQs 6
by Bradshaw Foundation
Wednesday 03 June 2020
The Final Passage film FAQs 5
by Bradshaw Foundation
Tuesday 02 June 2020
The Final Passage film FAQs 4
by Bradshaw Foundation
Monday 01 June 2020
The Final Passage film FAQs 3
by Bradshaw Foundation
Friday 29 May 2020
The Final Passage film FAQs cont
by Bradshaw Foundation
Wednesday 27 May 2020
The Final Passage FAQs
by Bradshaw Foundation
Tuesday 26 May 2020
Ancient paintings of Finland
by Bradshaw Foundation
Tuesday 19 May 2020
Australia's rock art sites after the bushfires
by Bradshaw Foundation
Wednesday 13 May 2020
The Final Passage
by Bradshaw Foundation
Monday 04 May 2020
Humanity’s earliest symbols
by Bradshaw Foundation
Wednesday 29 April 2020
A History of Art
by Bradshaw Foundation
Monday 20 April 2020
Virtual tour of La Garma cave
by Bradshaw Foundation
Thursday 16 April 2020
Follow the Bradshaw Foundation on social media for news & updates
Follow the Bradshaw Foundation
on social media for news & updates
Follow the Bradshaw Foundation on social media for news & updates
Follow the Bradshaw Foundation
on social media for news & updates
If you have enjoyed visiting this website
please consider adding a link © Bradshaw Foundation
 
 
ROCK ART NETWORK
Rock Art Network Bradshaw Foundation Getty Conservation Institute
The Final Passage
by Rock Art Network
4 May 2020
CAVE PAINTINGS
Cave art found in Thailand
by Bradshaw Foundation
Thursday 13 August 2020
Testing the DNA of cave art
by Bradshaw Foundation
Friday 19 June 2020
Museo de Altamira opens today
by Bradshaw Foundation
Tuesday 09 June 2020
The Final Passage film FAQs 7
by Bradshaw Foundation
Saturday 06 June 2020
The Final Passage film FAQs 6
by Bradshaw Foundation
Wednesday 03 June 2020
The Final Passage film FAQs 5
by Bradshaw Foundation
Tuesday 02 June 2020
The Final Passage film FAQs 4
by Bradshaw Foundation
Monday 01 June 2020
The Final Passage film FAQs 3
by Bradshaw Foundation
Friday 29 May 2020
The Final Passage film FAQs cont
by Bradshaw Foundation
Wednesday 27 May 2020
The Final Passage FAQs
by Bradshaw Foundation
Tuesday 26 May 2020
Ancient paintings of Finland
by Bradshaw Foundation
Tuesday 19 May 2020
Australia's rock art sites after the bushfires
by Bradshaw Foundation
Wednesday 13 May 2020
The Final Passage
by Bradshaw Foundation
Monday 04 May 2020
Humanity’s earliest symbols
by Bradshaw Foundation
Wednesday 29 April 2020
A History of Art
by Bradshaw Foundation
Monday 20 April 2020
Virtual tour of La Garma cave
by Bradshaw Foundation
Thursday 16 April 2020
Bradshaw Foundation Donate Friends
Support our work & become a
Friend of the Foundation
 
 
Bradshaw Foundation Facebook
 
Bradshaw Foundation YouTube
Bradshaw Foundation iShop Shop Store
Bradshaw Foundation iShop Shop Store
Bradshaw Foundation iShop Shop Store