Posted by: Johan Normark | November 18, 2011

The Palaeolithic image created representational thinking

Neuroarchaeology is an important part of my future project that I am trying to outline. Part of that project will deal with Maya iconography from a non-representational perspective. Maya iconography is typically interpreted from a representational perspective, i.e. Mayanists seek the symbolic meaning behind various depicted scenes, objects, etc.

Horses at Lascaux

Lambros Malafouris has written extensively on neuroarchaeology and in an article from 2007 he discusses the way representative thinking may have emerged during the Palaeolithic. It is often argued that the striking naturalism of the Palaeolithic cave art demanded a socially accepted set of mental images before people made them. However, Malafouris questions the tendency of seeing these drawings as something similar to linguistic signs and part of a greater symbolic system. One does not need a fully equipped representational mental engine to produce these images. What one need is “acute perceptual training and sensorimotor co-ordination of an unprecedented type” (p 293). He flips the argument around. Instead of explaining how the brain may have changed in order for the image to emerge, it is rather the image that changed the brain.

Malafouris gives us three examples of how contemporary people do not treat images as representations. Young children can identify the pictorial content of an image but not necessarily understand the relation between the image and the world. Only around the age of 18 months of age do they begin to treat pictured objects as other than itself, to treat pictures symbolically, as objects of communication rather than action. Further, people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) who sometimes have no language and an ability to think conceptually may still have graphic skills like those seen in cave art. Drawings of this quality are never produced by untrained artists unless they are autistic. Finally, we also have Alfred Gell’s study that shows that images are not just interpreted but they can be used to abduct agency.

When a problem becomes meaningful a material sign has already emerged. For example, our fingers do not stand for numbers, they rather bring forth the concept of numbers “by making visible and tangible the manipulation of their properties” (p 295). It is such a bringing forth enacting that characterizes the Palaeolithic image. The images brought forth a new process of acting and thinking. Seeing and perceiving is a form of active engagement in the world instead of representations of the world.

Hence, the Palaeolithic image was a continuous prosthetic part of visual perception probing into the world. It is an extension of the brain. It is part of a new cognitive strategy lacking in earlier human beings. These requirements did not differ from ordinary object recognition and therefore no new hard-wired cognitive requirements were needed. The Palaeolithic image allowed the eye to slowly become the privileged interface of human perceiving rather than the former tactile thinking of tool-making.

Malafouris concludes that “the principal role of early imagery in the context of human cognitive evolution was to provide a scaffolding device that enabled human perception to become aware of itself” (p 299).

Malafouris, Lambros (2007). Before and beyond representation: Towards an enactive conception of the Palaeolithic image. In Image and Imagination: A Global History of Figurative Representation. C. Renfrew & I. Morley (eds). McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research: Cambridge, pp. 289-302.


  1. Very interesting: “Hence, the Palaeolithic image was a continuous prosthetic part of visual perception probing into the world. It is an extension of the brain.” Yes. I’m reminded of the notion that ancient rock art is the result of shamanistic visions, as though the rock was a screen onto which the brain projected the vision. Cf. James L. Pearson (2002). Shamanism and the Ancient Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Archaeology.AltaMira Press.

  2. I have not read that book but once the term “shaman” appears I become suspicious as the term has been popularized by the writings of armchair researcher Mircea Eliade. Elidean shamans have been proposed for the Maya area as well but that has turned out to be wrong in many ways. However, people probably still took hallucinogenic substances so that part may still be valid.

    • As I recall, the argument doesn’t depend on much beyond having (drug-induced) visions. Interestingly, some of the argument is about the non-representational aspects of the art, which resembles geometric patterns that seem inherent in the visual system.


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