Universal Visions: Neuroscience and Recurrent Characteristics of World Palaeoart

01st December 2009

Ben Watson

PhD, Centre for Classics and Archaeology, University of Melbourne, March 2009

Palaeoart includes a diverse range of art-like manifestations, predominantly comprising rock art and portable art objects, dating from the Pleistocene right through to the Holocene. A fascinating aspect of palaeoart is that striking commonalities or parallels may be observed worldwide. These parallels include a range of recurrent abstract-geometric motifs and patterns, figurative subjects and themes. Similarities in the ways in which this content is executed may also be found. Despite various attempts, these commonalities have not yet been adequately explained. Positioned within a structuralist framework, this thesis considers recent breakthroughs in neuroscience as a means of understanding them. Specifically, it examines the role of human perceptual-neurophysiological universals in governing palaeoart production, and argues for a basis of artistic parallels in aspects of the evolved neurobiology shared by all normal humans. The rock art of hunter-gatherer societies constitutes more than 90% of known prehistoric art, and the scope of the study is limited to palaeoart attributed to pre-European contact, pre-literate hunter-gatherer societies. The temporal scope of the study varies with the evidence discussed.

The approach taken is partly informed by recent studies that have used neuroimaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to reveal brain activation patterns associated with the perception of different types of visual stimuli. It is further informed by a wide range of additional neuroscientific and perceptual experimentation data relevant to palaeoart imagery. The value of considering human universals as a means of answering the questions how and why the same forms recur in palaeoart around the world is addressed. The approach provides a sound alternative to simplistic interpretations such as cultural diffusion based solely on visual resemblances between the arts of widely separated regions. The examination of palaeoart in light of neuroscientific data has major implications, ultimately revealing underlying reasons for the production of certain types of imagery. Abstract-geometric motifs and patterns, animals and parts of animals, and the human body and its parts are all shown to have special roles in visual information processing. It is found that shared aspects of the human nervous system influence conscious and unconscious preferences and decisions made in the process of creating graphic imagery, and that this has given rise to cross-cultural similarities in palaeoart. Recurrent forms in palaeoart are shown to be precisely those visual stimuli that are particularly powerful triggers of neural activity and correspond with prominent areas of the visual brain. These forms of visual imagery stimulate inherent neural mechanisms that have developed during human evolution specifically for the analysis of biologically significant aspects of the visual world. Palaeoart can thus be regarded as a kind of neuro-perceptual mirror demonstrating attributes and principles characteristic of human beings.

Ben Watson
Universal Visions: Neuroscience and Recurrent Characteristics of World Palaeoart
December 2009
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Thesis Abstracts
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