In the mind’s eye: Cognitive Science and the Riddle of Cave Art

17 December 2015 | Eveline Seghers (Ghent University)

In his 2002 book The Mind in the Cave, the archaeologist David Lewis-Williams remarked that ‘art’ is a concept that everyone assumes they grasp, “until asked to define” it (2002: 41). This inevitably clouds our insights into its origins. 

While most researchers tend to agree that parietal and portable imagery from the Upper Palaeolithic constitute the earliest known art in human history, there is very little convergence on its function, if any, for our ancestors. One fairly popular view consists in describing cave paintings and small objects as instances of religious practices and beliefs, although opinions still differ as to which links there may have been between Prehistoric art and religion. While Lewis-Williams (2002) thinks cave paintings are the outcomes of shamanistic hallucinations, the explanation of ‘hunting magic’ also remains widely cited (for a discussion, see Bahn and Vertut, 1997). 

More secular interpretations have been proposed by authors such as the archaeologist John Halverson, who endorsed an art for art’s sake explanation, and the archaeologist R. Dale Guthrie, who suggests that the cave paintings may have been made by teens with grafitti-like intent, rather than by skilled artists with symbolic purposes, as is often assumed (Guthrie, 2005; Halverson, 1987). As such, figurative art, impressive as it appears to us, may not be a symbolic breakthrough after all (Currie 2011).

Few authors have investigated the origins of figurative art from the obvious, yet surprisingly underexplored perspective of the human mind and cognitive science. Although developmental stages in the mind are sometimes inferred from figurative and abstract cave paintings and portable art — the proposed link between figurative imagery and symbolic cognition for example — cognitive, and by extension neuroscientific frameworks are rarely systematically applied to interpret the record at our disposal. 

A notable exception to this is Steven Mithen’s cognitive fluidity approach, which provides both a hypothesis concerning both the evolution of cognition and the emergence of complex human culture (1996). The general reluctance to approach cave art from a cognitive perspective may be partly due to the fact that brains do not fossilize, which means we can merely study the remaining fossil crania. 

This poses a number of methodological challenges to researchers, who are left wondering about the mental lives and the behaviour of our ancestors without the elaborate toolkit of present-day cognitive psychologists, and the obvious absence of study subjects whose behaviour we are trying to assess.

Despite these challenges, many researchers have come up with creative approaches to address our lack of actual ancestral brains and behaviour to examine. By making endocasts — modelled reconstructions of Prehistoric brains based on skulls available in paleoanthropological record — it becomes possible to estimate the size and surface structure of the brain. 

Another method involves making comparative analyses of overall brain volume and the volume of particular areas in extant primate species, to then make inferences about the brain structures of our ancestors. Admittedly, such methods leave a great deal to be estimated when it comes to the actual internal organisation of ancestral brains as, for example, precise volumes associated with particular neural functions cannot be derived from endocasts or comparisons of extant primate brains. 

To remedy this, a new method was recently developed that involves a comparative analysis of the visual system — both eye and orbit size and the visual cortex — of Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Humans, enabling inferences about how the brains of these two species may have been internally organized and how they may have differed, in turn sparking new insights into matters such as their socio-cognitive abilities and their behavioural repertoires (Pearce, Stringer and Dunbar, 2013).

But what does cognitive science in itself contribute to our understanding of Prehistoric art? Assuming that the goal of investigating the latter through the lens of the former is not too ambitious for the aforementioned methodological reasons, how can we apply research from present-day cognitive science to questions concerning the emergence and function of culture? 

Are we necessarily confined to archaeological and anthropological methods such as those mentioned above in order to then formulate hypotheses about the cognitive machinery present in our ancestors’ brains, or can we perhaps also apply insights from cognitive science more directly? Many researchers will agree that we can. 

The field of cognitive archaeology, notably developed and endorsed by authors such as Colin Renfrew, Steven Mithen, Thomas Wynn and Frederick Coolidge, undertaking investigations of the archaeological record with the help of the conceptual and methodological toolbox of cognitive science, investigating subjects as far apart as the evolution of consciousness and its role in artefact production, linguistic evolution in relation to tool manufacturing, mental modularity and the convergence of cognitive domains in the realm of art, the capacity of working memory in the creation of visual representations, and the cognitive nature of innovation and its reflection in the emergence of artefacts (eg Coolidge and Wynn 2009; de Beaune, Coolidge and Wynn, 2009; Mithen, 1996; Renfrew and Zubrow, 1994). 

In addition, neuroscience has proven to be a loyal companion to the field, resulting in new lines of research that can be referred to, collectively, as ‘neuroarchaeology’ (eg Malafouris 2013).

In a talk given at the inaugural iCog conference, we investigated an interesting case study at the intersection of Prehistoric archaeology and cognitive science. In 1998, the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey suggested that we may have been wrong to see figurative cave art as evidence of the breakthrough of fully modern cognition; something that others have described as the ultimate exponent and first unequivocal evidence of our ability to think symbolically. 

Perhaps, he argued, cave art is rather “the swan song of the old” (1998: 165), reflecting stages of cognitive evolution that precede the attainment of levels of cognitive and behavioural modernity that rival our present minds. 

Tying research on language evolution, theory of mind, autism, and the evolution of social cognition together, Humphrey attempted to pave the way for a new view on cave art. Methodologically, he proposed that we might understand the developmental trajectories of the human mind at the time of the Upper Palaeolithic transition by studying present-day individuals with autism spectrum disorders. This suggestion has elicited much controversy: paralleling a present-day autistic child with human ancestors who may have been in earlier developmental phases of cognitive evolution was seen as an ethical issue not justified given the overall speculative nature of Humphrey’s hypothesis. As a consequence, his ideas did not receive much support among researchers of Prehistoric cave art. 

In follow-up research, we therefore reassessed Humphrey’s original hypothesis by taking a fresh perspective that combines a cognitive anthropological framework, focussing on the emergence of metarepresentational ability, with sound empirical evidence produced by cognitive psychological studies on the relationship between visual imagery and theory of mind (eg Charman and Baron-Cohen, 1992, 1995; Leslie, 1987; Sperber, 1994). This primary analysis can also be anchored into other fields of research. 

By gathering recent findings on, for example, the evolution of spoken language and patterns of migratory movement by our ancestors across the globe — elements which turn out to be highly relevant when discussing the evolution of human social cognition — it becomes possible to establish a renewed and empirically-founded cognitive view on cave art, which may provide a starting point for other cognitively-based analyses of this subject.

Overall, exciting times lie ahead for archaeologists researching the emergence and nature of cave art. Will cognitive science provide us with the ultimate key to understanding art’s origins? Probably not, as a complex evolutionary occurrence such as the emergence of art, can only be understood better by combining insights from a wide variety of relevant scientific disciplines. 

But as cognitive scientists and humanities scholars interested in this approach will continue to join forces in order to shed light on the nature of Prehistoric art, our knowledge can only increase, sparking new questions and hypotheses, the boundaries of which are currently not even in view.


Bahn, P.G. and Vertut, J. (1997) Journey Through the Ice Age, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Charman, T. and Baron-Cohen, S. (1992) ‘Understanding drawings and beliefs: a further test of the metarepresentation theory of autism: a research note’, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 33, pp. 1105–1112.

Charman, T. and Baron-Cohen, S. (1995) ‘Understanding photos, models, and beliefs: a test of the modularity thesis of theory of mind’, Cognitive Development, vol. 10, pp. 287–298.

Coolidge, F.L. and Wynn, T. (2009) The Rise of Homo Sapiens. The Evolution of Modern Thinking, Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.

Currie, G. (2011) ‘The master of the Masek Beds: handaxes, art, and the minds of early humans’, in Schellekens, E. and Goldie, P. (eds.) The Aesthetic Mind. Philosophy and Psychology, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

De Beaune, S.A., Coolidge, F.L. and Wynn, T. (eds.) (2009) Cognitive Archaeology and Human Evolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Guthrie, R.D. (2005) The Nature of Paleolithic Art, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Halverson, J. (1987) ‘Art for art’s sake in the Paleolithic’, Current Anthropology, vol. 28, no. 1, February, pp. 63–71.

Humphrey, N. (1998) ‘Cave art, autism, and the evolution of the human mind’, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 165–191.

Leslie, A.M. (1987) ‘Pretense and representation: the origins of “theory of mind”’, Psychological Review, vol. 94, no. 4, pp. 412–426.

Malafouris, L. (2013) How Things Shape the Mind. A Theory of Material Engagement, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Mithen, S. (1996) The Prehistory of the Mind. A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion, and Science, London: Thames and Hudson.

Lewis-Williams, D. (2002) The Mind in the Cave. Consciousness and the Origins of Art, London: Thames and Hudson.

Pearce, E., Stringer, C. and Dunbar, R.I.M. (2013) ‘New insights into differences in brain organization between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans’, Proceedings of the Royal Society B¸ vol. 280, 20130168.

Renfrew, A.C. and Zubrow, E.B.W. (eds.) (1994) The Ancient Mind: Elements of Cognitive Archaeology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Seghers, E., & Blancke, S. (2013). Metarepresentational ability and the emergence of figurative cave art. Paper presentation at the iCog Inaugural Conference: Interdisciplinarity in Cognitive Science, University of Sheffield, 30 November — 1 December 2013.

Sperber, D. (1994) ‘The modularity of thought and the epidemiology of representations’, in Hirschfeld, L.A. and Gelman, S.A. (eds.) Mapping the Mind. Domain Specificity in Cognition and Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.