What the caves
are trying to tell us

Whatever they once said to their authors, they scream their message of no message across the millennia to us now.

What the caves are trying to tell us

Whatever they once said to their authors, they scream their message of no message across the millennia to us now.

Every so often, I get the urge to drag someone into a cave, and show them something unspeakable.

The urge grabs me suddenly — in the middle of a conversation, for instance, when someone airily remarks that humans are just naturally competitive, or starts talking about social dynamics in terms of mate selection and maximum utility, or sometimes when they just say that words have meanings. I feel it when I read about diets or workouts that are supposed to replicate the diets and experiences of healthy peak-performance prehistoric humanity. I felt it most of all a few weeks ago, reading a blithe little jab in the now-infamous Google memo, in which the subsequently fired engineer James Damore remarks of the gender differences that apparently make women unable to properly use the computer that “they’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective.” To the cave, take him to the cave. Grab Damore by the scruff of his awful crew-neck white T-shirt, pull his twitching dangling body up the scrub and rocks of some remote hillside, and into the cave.

Plenty of caves would do, but let’s take him to the Cueva de la Pileta in Andalucia, Spain. There, we’ll push him into one of its huge, damp, cool cathedral-halls of fractured rock, where the darkness and the vastness of empty space seem to press themselves tightly against your skin, close and clawed and ancient. We know that there were people here, some 20,000 years ago. They left their millstones and their axe-heads; they left walls blackened with soot from fires that went out eons ago, leaving traces across a chasm of time that could swallow up the entirety of recorded history four times over. They left the bodies of their dead. And they left marks on the walls. The people who lived in this cave 20,000 years ago, people who lived lives it’s impossible for us to even imagine, are still trying to talk to us.

Most people are aware of the fantastic animal paintings that our stone age ancestors made — the herds of flowing bison, the horses that rear up in shimmering patterns across slabs of solid rock, the creatures overlapping each other in fluid cacophonies without ground lines or settings until they look less like representations of objects within our world and more like the snorting stinking chaos of the infinite. The Cueva de la Pileta has plenty of these; it’s noted for its masterly depiction of a large, snub-nosed, angry-looking fish. But I want to draw my prisoner’s attention to something else. Surrounding the fish, overlapping it at points, are patterns. These patterns, and ones like them, recur across the cave, and they’re echoed in other caves across Europe and across the world. Lines, curves, hashes, boxes. More complex pectiform shapes, combs with one extended tooth, branching combs that can start to look like Chinese characters or even human shapes, oscillating in the dark somewhere between abstraction and image.

Is this writing? Is it language? Clearly it has to mean or do something; these enigmas must have been put there for some kind of a reason. Were our ancestors just playing, with a child’s hesitancy, at the perilous game of turning bits of pigment into an abstract form beyond space and time? Or had they, long before we realized, found a way to make dead objects speak? This is what I’ll ask James Damore, pressing his face into the cold rock, shouting with an increased frenzy that echoes shrilly in the sacred dome, spittle flying in mad rage as I scream. You think you’re smart, do you? Then what does this mean?

Somehow, without anyone intending it to, the idea that we do know what these cave symbols mean has permeated modern society. It’s there in a whole vast complex of normative judgments: when we talk about the diets and lifestyles that are natural and good, when we complain that mobile phones and social media are perilously rewiring our brains, when we vaguely condemn technology in general for drawing us away from our original (and implicitly Paleolithic) human nature, when we mention human nature at all. It’s the idea that we can meaningfully relate our world to that of our Stone Age ancestors, as if we knew anything whatsoever about what kind of world they lived in. This is an incredible violence against that lost universe, a place grander and stranger than we could possibly imagine. But most violent of all is the discipline Damore off-handedly mentioned in his sexist Google screed, evolutionary psychology.

“Evopsych,” as it’s referred to, is no longer particularly popular in the fields of biology or psychology, but as the Google memo shows, it still has an instinctive zombielike following among the kind of people it was always destined for: engineers, software developers, unthinkingly reactionary science-fetishists, tech pedants of every stripe — people, in other words, who would never think to worship a picture of a horse or wonder what made people draw strange figures on the holy rock. It’s easy to see why. Evopsych combines every unscientific pop-science trope that makes people feel smart for believing in bullshit: a fetishism of geneticism and evolutionary processes, a refusal of diachronicity, and a dogmatic insistence on the cosmological principle that blankets the universe and its past in crushing sameness.

It works like this. You start with a vague stereotype about the failings of other people that you’d like to lend some scientific heft — to take Damore’s example, the idea that “women generally have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men.” You note that this behaviour is not particularly useful in an environment where just about everybody has to feign interest in some kind of tedious nonsense just so they can feed themselves; it’s not, in evolutionary parlance, an adaptive trait. But humans are no longer biologically evolving; if people are behaving in this way, it must be because these traits evolved to be advantageous in what’s called the “Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness:” an assumed, theoretical environment of pure biological utility which is supposed to have existed in the Pleistocene, the hunter-gatherer era stretching from two and a half million years ago to just ten thousand years short of the present, the age that produced those strange markings in the caves of Europe. This environment, it’s assumed, was exactly the same for everyone, and those primitive plains still haunt our perceptions today. If women aren’t making as much money programming Google gadgets to collect data on every aspect of our lives, it must be because evolution once gave men the skills needed to throw a stick at a reindeer, while women were stuck with the traits for childrearing and patience.

In scientific terms, this is bullshit. None of its accounts are testable or disprovable; evopsych is, for all its pretensions to rationality, a collection of just-so stories. The evolutionary psychologist never does much to empirically establish what life in the Pleistocene was actually like (the founding text of the discipline, Donald Symons’ 1979 book The Evolution of Human Sexuality, mostly just cites research on behavior in present-day male and female homosexuals). You just assume that everything there is utterly transparent and immediately surrenders its inner meaning. Eventually, we’ll end up with an evolutionary-psychological account of why some people don’t like evolutionary psychology, based on the advantages proto-constructivist ideologies might have offered a sniffing half-ape fifty thousand years ago. Why is pink associated with girls and blue with boys? Ignore the fact that as recently as the 1920s the gender-color identification went the other way around; it’s because women evolved to spot pink-colored berries in the forest, and men evolved to hunt between the open plain and the wide blue sky. Why is there still a gender wage gap? It’s not the fault of our own society; it’s the fault of the Stone Age. Like Freudianism, it accounts for the problems of the present by locating their origin in the voiceless past: prehistory for evopsych, the tiny personal Pleistocenes of infancy for psychoanalysis. But unlike Freudianism, the narratives of evolutionary psychology are utterly lifeless and entirely tedious, with absolutely nothing to teach us.

What emerges is a bizarre and etiolated vision of prehistory, in which Paleolithic men and women behave like bourgeois 1950s Americans — the caveman bringing home the woolly-mammoth bacon, the cavewoman cleaning out the fire pit. Honey, I got a promotion at the flint-knapping factory. Sonny-boy wants to study shamanism at Lascaux University, but I think he should get real and major in lithic reduction. Our daughter slaps too much charcoal pigment on her eyes, we don’t want her to give those local cave-teens the wrong idea.

The values of contemporary capitalism are drawn out into a suffocating eternity: it was always like this, and it always will be; the Flintstones and the Jetsons were, after all, basically the same people. But meanwhile those strange shapes and patterns on the cave walls still glimmer, beckoning us in — if we knew how to understand them — to a world impossibly different to our own.

What did prehistoric art mean? What world did it come from? Theorists and academics have mostly given up on the practice of interpreting cave paintings; most are now resigned to the fact that we’ll simply never know. They prefer to answer the easier questions of when and how our ancestors produced these tableaux of moving animals, rather than why.

But the why is seductive; for decades, accounts have been as numberless as the animals themselves. The early hypothesis of the nineteenth century, that these animal pictures were just mindless decoration, an instinctive mimesis of the natural world, or ‘art for art’s sake,’ has been abandoned. After all, it’s only very recently, and mostly in the context of commodity capitalism, that people have ever thought that you can make decorations with no meaning beyond the blank and monstrous idea that they look nice. After all, what constitutes “nice?” In the middle of the 20th century there was a brief explosion in structuralist explanations — the archaeologist André Leroi-Gourhan, for instance, suggested in 1968 that bison represented a feminine nature and horses a masculine one, and that their arrangement in cave systems formed a map of prehistoric gender relations adhering to a universal blueprint. As more caves were discovered, it quickly became clear that they did not.

One fascinating but (sadly) probably false theory, a schema out of a Borges story put forward by the “jurist, sailor and archaeologist autodidact” Hans Bornefeld in 1994, suggests that the paintings might themselves be a phonetic writing system. Based on fairly speculative paleolinguistics, he reconstructs the stone-age names for horses and bison as “uma” and “to,” respectively. (The word for a horse is an “uma” in Japanese, a “mo-rin” in Mongolian, a “ma-ra’ in Old German, and so on.) Assuming a consonant-based language, an image of two overlapping animals could, depending on their placement, read “timi,” “tema,” “tamo,” “tama,” or “tuma.” Using his method, Bornefeld managed to translate an entire wall from the Lascaux cave complex, a stampede of horses, bison, and deer, as “The sun will eclipse soon unless you sacrifice the prince consort to the goddess of the moon.”

Within the mainstream, many theorists quietly assume that the caves served some kind of religious or proto-religious function. Their location deep in the bowels of the earth might have brought to mind some connection with a shamanic underworld or spirit realm where the animal-gods move in eternal masses. Some elements of French cave paintings — a rhino’s echoing horn, a bison with eight galloping legs — suggest that under flickering firelight and quite possibly hallucinogenic drugs, these images would have appeared to move on the walls, or even speak. On the other hand, they might have been a form of hunting-magic. Sometimes animals are shown wounded or bristling with spears; these gods were also food. There’s a powerful magic in representation, the gift of creating the world in simulation, the ability to turn charcoal and ochre into something that is also a real horse: might it have had an effect on the horse itself? If you draw horses, do horses appear? The horse can not represent itself in images — but then neither, for a long time, could humans. There are very few depictions of human beings in cave art. Those that do appear are either depicted with animal heads — as the philosopher and anthropologist Georges Bataille observed in 1955, the first human announcing himself to eternity “effaced the aspects of the world of which his face is the sign” — or as scrawny stick-figures, far less human than those charging, screaming, startlingly real animals.

But we can’t know if the caves were themselves particularly sacred spaces. It’s possible that Paleolithic rock art was concentrated entirely in caves, but it might also be true that caves, sheltered from the outside world, are simply where these images survived. It could be that the people of the Pleistocene made their entire world into a gallery, that animals charged across every rock-face, that wherever the tremendous herds of Ice Age beasts roamed, they were surrounded on all sides by echoes and images of themselves, in a world where image and object had not yet torn themselves apart.

Most philosophical approaches, unavoidably, end up falling into a consideration not of what prehistoric art meant when it was created, but what it must now mean for us, gazing at it from far in the future. There’s a general inability to see these works as anything other than an origin, an incomplete form of what would eventually reach maturity with contemporary society; it can sound eerily like some of the same pathologies that give us evopsych. Hegel never lived to see the discovery of European cave paintings, but their existence can be quite easily incorporated into the argument of his Aesthetics. The Oxford philosopher Michael Inwood, in his introduction to the book, does just that. With art, humanity enters the realm of ideals and universals: the cave painter “does not attempt to chase or eat the bison he has made, but contemplates it and offers it for the contemplation of others… As an artist, he is not concerned with this or that particular bison, but with the bison in general or the bison as a universal.”

But for Hegel, art is only an inaugural stage: to progress, you have to get past the bison in general and start thinking about generality in general; you have to graduate from art and become a philosopher. Bataille, writing after the 1940 discovery of the cave complex at Lascaux, writes that “the earliest prehistoric art surely marks the passage from animal to man.” Not just that: they’re a dramatisation of that passage, the first crisis of a humanity newly separated from the natural world. In his 1964 essay Eye and Mind, the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes them as an “inarticulate cry.” More recently, the mathematician and ontologist Alain Badiou strikes a Hegelian tone in his 2006 Logics of Worlds: the first person to paint an image of a horse inaugurated the idea of Horseness, the same ideas with which we think today — they “initiated what abides, or what we abide within.”

With art, humanity enters the realm of ideals and universals.

But did the creators of these paintings know that they were at the beginning of something? The Paleolithic era was long, 200,000-odd years encompassing nine-tenths of the history of our species; for even longer than that, all of humanity lived in the stone age. In some European caves, stylistically identical animals appear next to each other, drawn five thousand years apart. But it must also have been rich. There are only a few ways to live in a society based on commodity-production and the state; there are infinite ways to live outside it. (See, for instance, contemporary so-called “primitive” societies, with their extraordinary diversity of approaches to myth, magic, kinship, life, and art.) Cave art could have any number of meanings and uses, all of them invisible to us as we scrabble through the dirt for a unifying explanation. This world wasn’t in its infancy; it was already complete. Why would those paintings speak to us, in the way that they might have spoken to the prehistoric shamans? We’re only a historical excrescence, a brief wave foaming on the surface of that fathomless ocean of time. Looking at cave paintings, we can’t decode their significances, only feel the gulf between history and prehistory opening up somewhere deep in the belly. But those other symbols — the lines and hashes; the glyphs, pectiform, tectiform, scalariform, aviform — are different. We’re not just offloading all our societal detritus onto the distant past: it has a voice. These might be communications, messages for someone who does not yet know. Messages, in other words, destined for us.

Academic archaeologists, who have reputations to protect, try to avoid using what the University of Victoria’s April Nowell — a leading researcher in prehistoric symbols — has called “the ‘L’ and ‘W�� words,” language and writing. Cranks and prophets, online and off, have their own economies to subsist within, and use them freely: yes this is language, yes this is writing, tens of thousands of years before it was supposed to have been invented in Mesopotamia. Specialists will note that patterns of symbols are often repeated; they’ll use linguistic analysis software to process their frequencies and concatenations. Others point out that the same repertoire of geometric shapes found in European caves appears across the world, in the petroglyphs of the Western U.S., in the Blombos Cave of South Africa and the Leang Timpuseng Cave of Indonesia, in the markings of the distant ancestors of the Australian Aborigines — and, often, in places that had no writing at all when they made contact with European and Asian civilizations, thousands of years later. The birth of writing is always associated with magic, gods, and spirits: maybe the shamanism of the Paleolithic really worked; maybe these symbols were part of a global communications system that used the eternity of abstraction and the immortality of animal souls to bring all of humanity together, whispering across the underworld in a stone-age cybernetics.

It might be something else. There will be no Rosetta stone for these markings; we’ll never get to read the same text in ordinary language. What they mean might not be expressible in language at all. They might, however, still be writing. In a brilliant, haunting, baffling passage from Writing and Difference, Derrida considers whether something like writing might inhere in dreams. Dreams come full of mysterious symbols to be decoded and interpreted; images that seem to emerge from a lost and buried world. The experience of dreaming is that of encountering an unknown and unknowable text. The ancient Egyptians, he notes, believed that God “had made man a gift of writing just as He inspired dreams. Interpreters, like dreams themselves, then only had to draw on the curiological or tropological storehouse… The hieroglyphic code itself served as a Traumbuch [encyclopedia of dream-interpretation].” But, as Freud argued, dreams resist any system of fixed cryptographic analysis. If language is a common system of understanding, they are not language.

For Derrida writing is the act of leaving tracks and traces, rather than something that necessarily mimics speech; cutting a path through the woods is a kind of writing, as are signals cracking their way through the brain. Dreams offer a glimpse of this kind of writing, one Derrida describes in one of his most poetic and mysterious sentences. “Not a writing which simply transcribes, a stony echo of muted words, but a lithography before words: metaphonetic, non-linguistic, alogical.” Paleolithic symbols are the same. A lithography before words: something painted in marks on the stone, something that communicates not one or another specific meaning, but the ultimate irrelevancy of meaning itself. Whatever they once said to their authors, they scream their message of no message across the millennia to us now. I am not a word. I am not to be understood. And this world is full of things which are not to be understood, if only you knew how to read them.

Sam Kriss is a writer. Illustration by Katherine Lam.