San Francisco, CA – Ancient cave drawings can be found all over the world. From remote islands in Indonesia to prehistoric cave dwellings in South America. But not all cave drawings are made equal and recent research demonstrates that there are marked differences between the intent, quality and functionality of the cave drawings depending on the region.
There’s no denying that European languages dominate globally. Whether it’s for global commerce or simply for global communication, it wasn’t just colonization that spread white European languages, but their ease of use and ability to be accepted and assimilated by the indigenous populations.
Experts now say that ancient cave drawings may hold clues on the origins of language. Prehistoric people created artwork in “acoustic hotspots” to enhance sounds that went along with their pictures and these “hotspots” differed markedly based on geographical region.
A report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) details the theory that cave art led to language development and may explain why white European languages have stood the test of time more so than other indigenous languages. The authors of the report think that art made in acoustically enhanced caves may have influenced the development of early European communication. They believe images found in these caves might have come well before languages. Specifically, they think the ancient artwork located in caves with good acoustics might have inspired humans to develop the vocal communication that exists today.
The MIT team that worked on the new analysis said that taking a look in the depths of ancient caves can provide modern humans with answers about where languages stemmed from and why the acoustic quality, which allows for echoes, of European caves may have given early white Europeans a head start in the development of language. According to the report,
“These illustrations can be found in places among caves that are harder to access and deep inside, which indicates 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.”
This intersection of drawing and sound is referred to as “cross-modality information transfer,” which is the convergence of visual art and auditory information.
The report’s authors said this intersection,
“Allowed early humans to enhance their ability to convey symbolic thinking.”
The mixture of images and sounds is a characteristic of language today, as are its ability to create infinite new sentences and its symbolic aspect.
One of the authors, a linguist from MIT named Shigeru Miyagawa, commented,
“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.”
His theory implies that the creation of cave art was not necessarily a leisure activity. Rather, it had a conventional purpose, allowing humans to communicate clearly. The report details the possibility that humans’ symbolic minds developed thanks to cave art. Miyagawa added,
“I think it’s very clear that these artists were talking to one another. It’s a communal effort.”
The report went on,
“Our species is estimated to be about 200,000 years old. Human language is often considered to be at least 100,000 years old.”
“There’s this idea that language doesn’t fossilize, and it’s true, but maybe in these (cave drawings), we can see some of the beginnings of homo sapiens as symbolic beings.”
But not all cave art is equal. The most famous cave art is found in Europe in what is today Spain and France. The cave art found in Europe is far more advanced than anything found elsewhere, with a great variety of hoofed animals featuring in the cave art, suggesting that the acoustic properties of the animals may have been utilized by these prehistoric white Europeans to convey sound communication through the acoustic activity of animals.
According to Miyagawa,
“Cave art may be everywhere – every major continent inhabited by homo sapiens has cave art. But because we now have the ability to compare that cave art, we can make distinctions between the quality and intent behind that cave art.”
“You find cave art in Europe, in the Middle East, in Asia, everywhere – but you don’t find the same prevalent languages everywhere. Some languages just lend themselves to better transmission and ease of use and the success of European languages may be due to their superior acoustic quality.”
“We used to think that colonization alone may have provided the reason for that, but it’s possible that that acoustic superiority may have been developed a long time ago.”
The report hints that future research on the topic is needed to distill the exact relationship between cave art and the prevalence and widespread usage of modern European languages. According to the report,
“Regarding the cave art itself, that could mean further scrutiny of the syntax of the visual representations.”
Miyagawa summarized the next steps of the needed research, saying,
“We’ve got to look at the context.”
He explained that he has seen “a lot of language” in the famed Lascaux cave art found in France. Additionally, the timeline of cave art works that researchers are familiar with needs to be reevaluated upon the discovery of other works. This could have broad implications for the supposed timeline of human development and would add to the growing body of evidence that humans may have first evolved from Europe and not Africa as previously thought. According to the report,
“At a minimum, a further consideration of cave art as part of our cognitive development may reduce our tendency to regard art in terms of our own experience, in which it probably plays a more strictly decorative role for more people.”
“If we start to see the utility of these cave drawings in the broader timeline, an argument could be made that we’ve been looking at the wrong places for the origin of species.”
Miyagawa stressed that central to his theory is the far-reaching purpose art serves.
“If this is on the right track, it’s quite possible that cross-modality transfer helped develop a symbolic mind.”
“Art is not just something that is marginal to our culture, but central to the formation of our cognitive abilities.”
Whereas African cave art may have been intended to have been more decorative in nature, European cave art, due to where it was found tended to have been more utilitarian. African cave art often appears in exposed environments, whereas European cave art almost exclusively is found deep within cave structures, suggesting that the acoustic value of the surrounding cave structure may have had a vital role to play in the development of language.