Skip to main content

Cave Art, Autism, and the Evolution of the Human Mind

  • Nicholas Humphrey (a1)

The emergence of cave art in Europe about 30,000 years ago is widely believed to be evidence that by this time human beings had developed sophisticated capacities for symbolization and communication. However, comparison of the cave art with the drawings made by a young autistic girl, Nadia, reveals surprising similarities in content and style. Nadia, despite her graphic skills, was mentally defective and had virtually no language. I argue in the light of this comparison that the existence of the cave art cannot be the proof which it is usually assumed to be that the humans of the Upper Palaeolithic had essentially ‘modern’ minds.

Hide All
Bégouin R. & Clottes J., 1991. Portable and wall art in the Volp caves, Montesquieu-Avantès, (Ariège). Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 57(1), 6580.
Bloch M., 1985. From cognition to ideology, in Power and Knowledge: Anthropological and Sociological Approaches, ed. Fardon R.. Edinburgh: Scottish University Press, 2148.
Cavalli-Sforza L.L., Menozzi P. & Piazza A., 1994. The History and Geography of Human Genes. Princeton (NJ): Princeton University Press.
Charman T. & Baron-Cohen S., 1993. Drawing development in autism: the intellectual to visual realism shift. British Journal of Developmental Psychology 11, 171–85.
Clottes J., 1996a. Epilogue to Dawn of Art: the Chauvet Cave, by Chauvet J.-M., Deschamps E.B. & Hilaire C.. New York (NY): Harry N. Abrams Inc.
Clottes J., 1996b. Thematic changes in Upper Palaeolithic art: a view from the Grotte Chauvet. Antiquity 70, 276–88.
Darnton R., 1985. The Great Cat Massacre. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Deacon T.W., 1997. The Symbolic Species: the Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York (NY): Norton.
Dennett D., 1992. Consciousness Explained. New York (NY): Little Brown.
Dennett D., 1996. Kinds of Minds. New York (NY): Basic Books.
Dunbar R., 1996. Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press.
Eames K. & Cox M.V., 1994. Visual realism in the drawings of autistic, Down's syndrome and normal children. British Journal of Developmental Psychology 12, 235–9.
Fein D., Lucci D. & Waterhouse L., 1990. Brief report: fragmented drawings in autistic children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 20, 263–9.
Frith U. & Happé F., 1994. Autism: beyond ‘theory of mind’. Cognition 50, 115–32.
Gamble C., 1982. Interaction and alliance in Palaeolithic society. Man 17, 92107.
Golomb C. & Schmeling J., 1996. Drawing development in autistic and mentally retarded children. Visual Arts Research 22, 518.
Gombrich E.H., 1960. Art and Illusion. London: Phaidon.
Gombrich E.H., 1996. The miracle at Chauvet. New York Review of Books 14 (11), 812.
Hadingham E., 1979. Secrets of the Ice Age. New York (NY): Walker.
Happé F., Ehlers S., Fletcher P., Frith U., Johansson M., Gillberg C., Dolan R., Frackowiak R. & Frith C., 1996. Theory of mind in the brain: evidence from a PET scan study of Asperger Syndrome. Neuroreport 8, 197201.
Hermelin B., Pring L. & Heavey L., 1994. Visual and motor functions in graphically gifted savants. Psychological Medicine 24, 673–80.
Humphrey N., 1974. Species and individuals in the perceptual world of monkeys. Perception 3, 105–14.
Keynes J.M., 1947. Newton the man, in Newton Tercentenary Celebrations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2734.
Knight C.D., Power C. & Watts I., 1995. The human symbolic revolution: a Darwinian account. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 5(1), 75114.
Leroi-Gourhan A., 1968. The Art of Prehistoric Man in Western Europe. London: Thames & Hudson.
Leroi-Gourhan A., 1991. Lettre-Préface, in L'Art Pariètal Archaïque en Aquitaine, by B. & Delluc G.. (28e Supplément à Gallia Préhistoire.) Paris: CNRS.
Levi-Strauss C., 1981. The Naked Man. (Introduction to a Science of Mythology 4.) London: Cape.
Lewin R., 1997. Principles of Human Evolution. Malden (MA): Blackwell.
Lewis V. & Boucher J., 1991. Skill, content and generative strategies in autistic children's drawings. British Journal of Developmental Psychology 9, 393416.
Lewis-Williams J.D., 1981. Believing and Seeing. Symbolic Meanings in Southern San Rock Paintings. London: Academic Press.
Lewis-Williams J.D. & Dowson T.A., 1988. The signs of all times: entoptic phenomena in Upper Palaeolithic art. Current Anthropology 24, 201–45.
Marshack A., 1972. The Roots of Civilization: the Cognitive Beginnings of Man's First Art, Symbol and Notation. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Miller G., 1998. How mate choice shaped human nature, in Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, eds. Crawford C. & Krebs D.. Mahwah (NJ): Erlbaum.
Mithen S., 1988. Looking and learning: Upper Palaeolithic art and information gathering. World Archaeology 19, 297327.
Mithen S., 1996. The Prehistory of the Mind. London: Thames & Hudson.
Mithen S., 1998. Report in New Scientist 9 (05), 16.
Mottron L. & Belleville S., 1993. A study of perceptual analysis in a high-level autistic subject with exceptional graphic abilities. Brain and Cognition 23, 279309.
Neumann E., 1971. Art and the Creative Unconscious, trans. Manheim R.. Princeton (NJ): Princeton University Press.
Newson E., 1977. Postscript to Nadia: a Case of Extraordinary Drawing Ability in an Autistic Child, by Selfe L.. London: Academic Press.
Patel T., 1996. Stone Age Picassos. New Scientist 13 07, 33–5.
Power C. & Aiello L.C., 1997. Female protosymbolic strategies, in Women in Human Evolution, ed. Hager L.. New York (NY): London: Routledge.
Pring L., Hermelin B. & Heavey L., 1995. Savants, segments, art and autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 36, 1065–76.
Sacks O., 1995. Prodigies, in An Anthropologist on Mars, ed.??. London: Picador, 179232.
Scott F.J. & Baron-Cohen S., 1996. Imagining real and unreal things: evidence of a dissociation in autism. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 8, 371–82.
Selfe L., 1977. Nadia: a Case of Extraordinary Drawing Ability in an Autistic Child. London: Academic Press.
Selfe L., 1983. Normal and Anomalous Representational Drawing Ability in Children. London: Academic Press.
Selfe L., 1985. Anomalous drawing development: some clinical studies, in Visual Order: the Nature and Development of Pictorial Representation, eds. Freeman N.H. & Cox M.V.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 135–54.
Shah A. & Frith U., 1983. An islet of ability in autistic children: a research note. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 24, 611–20.
Snyder A.W. & Thomas M., 1997. Autistic artists give clues to cognition. Perception 26, 93–6.
Tattersall I., 1998. Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness. New York (NY): Harcourt Brace.
Treffert D., 1989. Extraordinary People: an Exploration of the Savant Syndrome London: Black Swan.
Watts I., 1998. The Origin of Symbolic Culture: the Middle Stone Age of Southern Africa and Khoisan Ethnography. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London, London.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Cambridge Archaeological Journal
  • ISSN: 0959-7743
  • EISSN: 1474-0540
  • URL: /core/journals/cambridge-archaeological-journal
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 1
Total number of PDF views: 174 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 2781 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 22nd November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.