October 25, 2010

The Rise of Mythic Consciousness

Posted in Language and Myth tagged , , , at 11:14 pm by Jeremy

This chapter from my book, Towards a Democracy of Consciousness, investigates the rise of the mythic and religious form of consciousness in human evolution, beginning with the first symbolic expressions around 70,000-40,000 years ago.  It examines recent anthropological interpretations of the cognitive drivers of religion, and proposes a way to understand these drivers within the context of the “patterning instinct” of the prefrontal cortex (pfc).  The chapter goes to explain the rise of the “external pfc,” the powerful set of symbolic structures created by cultural traditions, expressed in tangible symbolic forms that Merlin Donald has called “external symbolic storage.”  The overwhelming power of the external pfc is contrasted with our individual minds, showing how we are all “ensnared in an inescapable web” of other people’s symbols, in the memorable words of Terrence Deacon.


Chapter 4: The Rise of Mythic Consciousness

The Great Leap Forward

In  September 1940, in Lascaux, France, four boys entered a cave their dog had discovered some days earlier, and stumbled upon what turned out to be the most dramatic spectacle of Paleolithic cave art in the world.  The cave, along with several hundred others scattered around Europe, contains over six hundred magnificent paintings of aurochs (the wild ancestor of domestic cattle), horses and deer, some as big as fifteen feet long.  More astonishing than the size and number of paintings, though, is their breathtaking sophistication and beauty.  This is no mere “primitive” or “prototype” art, but an expression of the power and mystery of the natural world that awes us today as much as the greatest art of more recent times.[1]

Aurochs from Lascaux cave" a powerful expression of the mystery of the natural world

In this chapter, we’ll see how these early flowerings of the new mythic consciousness relate to the rise of homo sapiens, and examine the implications for how our early human ancestors began to seek meaning in their world.  We’ll place these developments in their historical context as one of the most important stages in all of human history, and investigate how it both originated from the pfc’s evolved functions and fuelled the rise of the pfc’s power within human consciousness ever since.

Female figurine from Hohle Fels Cave

The cave paintings of Lascaux have been dated to approximately seventeen thousand years ago which means that, ancient as they are, they’re actually part of a tradition that had already been flourishing in Europe for over fifteen thousand years.  In recent times, a cave site named Hohle Fels in southwestern Germany has been yielding a slew of magnificent carved ivory specimens, dating as far back as thirty-five thousand years ago, including a figurine of a bird, a “Venus” figure with huge breasts and carefully carved genitalia, three “lion-men” with human bodies and lion heads, and the world’s earliest known musical instrument: a bone flute complete with well-spaced holes.[2] These beautiful objects are constructed with just as much aesthetic sophistication as the Lascaux paintings, powerfully demonstrating, in the words of one archaeologist, that “instead of a gradual evolution of skills, the first modern humans in Europe were in fact astonishingly precocious artists.”[3]

Lion man from Hohle Fehls Cave

When you look at these intense expressions of artistic vision, it’s easy to understand what archaeologists mean when they say this was the time that humans achieved “cultural modernity.”[4] We may not understand what the precise symbolic significance was of the Venus or the Lion-man, but there’s no doubt that they held symbolic meaning to their makers.  This revolution in symbolic thought didn’t just occur in these carvings, but in virtually every aspect of “the entire amazing behavioral panoply that characterizes symbolic Homo sapiens worldwide today.”[5] For the first time, humans were “finely sewing garments using tiny eyed bone needles;” they were “baking ceramic figures in simple but remarkably effective kilns,” using complex tools with multiple components and devising “elaborate notation systems.” They were engaging in long-distance trade, utilizing storage facilities, and organizing their homes just like we do today, with different spaces for kitchens, sleeping areas, and eating.[6] This is why, in the view of archaeologist Paul Mellars, “to describe the Upper Paleolithic revolution in Europe as … an explosion in explicitly symbolic behavior and expression is in no sense an exaggeration.”[7] Or in the words of Peter Conard, the archaeologist responsible for many of the stunning findings at Hohle Fels, this is the “point in human evolution when people became like us.”[8]

It’s an impressive moment in human history.  However, some archaeologists have recently had the temerity to look past the great accomplishments achieved in that period and ask “why didn’t it happen sooner?”  Why did it take so long for symbolic thinking to really get going?  It’s generally agreed that humans were anatomically modern by about 150,000 years ago or earlier.  And as you’ll recall from the previous chapter, even the proponents of the “late and sudden” emergence of language, Noble and Davidson, argue that it emerged sometime between 100,000 and 70,000 years ago.[9] So what were our ancestors doing for fifty thousand or so years before they finally began acting in ways that we can call culturally modern?  “Why the long delay,” asks Merlin Donald, “before this cultural potential was realized?”[10] This rather awkward question was first framed by archaeologist Colin Renfrew who referred to it as the “sapient paradox.”[11]*


[1] Bahn, P. (2007).  Cave Art: A Guide to the Decorated Ice Age Caves of Europe. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd.  See also Lewis-Williams, D. (2002). The Mind In the Cave, London: Thames & Hudson, 55.

[2] Sinclair, A. (2003). “Art of the ancients.” Nature, 426(18/25 December 2003), 774-5; Mellars, P. (2009). “Origins of the female image.” Nature, 459(14 May 2009), 176-177; Conard, N. J. (2009). “A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany.” Nature, 459(14 May 2009), 248-252; Adler, D. S. (2009). “The earliest musical tradition.” Nature, 460(6 August 2009), 695-696.

[3] Sinclair, A., op. cit.

[4] Conard, N. J. (2010). “Cultural modernity: Consensus or conundrum?” PNAS, 107(17), 7621-7622.

[5] Tattersall, I. (2008). “An Evolutionary Framework for the Acquisition of Symbolic Cognition by Homo sapiens.” Comparative Cognition & Behavior Reviews, 3, 99-114.

[6] Tattersall, op. cit.; Mellars, P. (2005). “The Impossible Coincidence. A Single-Species Model for the Origins of Modern Human Behavior in Europe.” Evolutionary Anthropology, 14(1), 12-27; Bar-Yosef, O. (2002). “The Upper Paleolithic Revolution.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 2002(31), 363-93.

[7] Mellars (2005), op. cit.

[8] Conard, op. cit.

[9] See Chapter 3, page 37.

[10] Donald, M. (2008). “The sapient paradox: can cognitive neuroscience solve it?” Brain(December 2, 2008).

[11] Renfrew, C. (2007). Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind, New York: Modern Library: Random House.  Renfrew’s original framing of the question dealt not just with the time-lag between anatomical modernity and the Upper Paleolithic revolution, but also the ensuing time-lag until the rise of agriculture, some thirty thousand years later.

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