Ancient cave art paints a picture of human empathy

Posted on 20 April 2015

Prehistoric life wasn’t all hunting, killing and eating, says Dr Penny Spikins

20-04-2015 Spikins Empathy

As a child, Dr Penny Spikins visited the Rouffignac Caves in France where she gazed in wonder at the beautifully crafted images of mammoths, bison and horses created on the rough limestone walls over 15,000 years ago by Stone Age artists.

Fast forward a few years, and Dr Spikins, now a senior lecturer in our Department of Archaeology, continues to explore that childhood fascination in research that examines how the sensitivity and creative passion displayed in ancient art may offer clues to the development of our emotional intelligence today.

Her studies cast our early forebears in a new, more sympathetic light, holding up the beautiful cave art as evidence that perhaps prehistoric existence was about more than simply hunting, killing and eating. Anyone who could create the art found on the walls at Rouffignac must have a softer, more emphatic side, she argues.

Artistic expression

“How could people desperate for survival, living such harsh and brutal lives, be capable not only of fine artistic expression but also of capturing in a few strokes a sense of connection between two beings?

“How could the sense of tenderness and humanity I felt looking at this image  be in keeping with what I had been told about the world that it came from?” says Dr Spikins in her latest book How Compassion Made us Human.

She suggests that the sensitivity sketched out in our ancient art would also have found expression in the way our forebears cared for the sick, infirm and the elderly. Evidence of this care goes back a long way - perhaps our distant past wasn’t all about survival of the fittest.

She highlights examples of sites containing human remains with evidence of illness or injury that would have required on-going care and attention.

As far back as 1.5 million years ago, a female skeleton discovered in Kenya had bone abnormalities caused by excessive Vitamin A. This condition would have caused muscle wasting and impaired consciousness. Someone must have cared for her for several weeks before she died.

Several thousand years ago, a man buried in a Neolithic site in Vietnam suffered paralysis from the waist down. He also had a neck deformity which probably made it difficult to eat. To survive, he would require constant care and feeding.

A relationship based on trust

“These conditions were being accommodated with a small amount of help from others in order to survive – that care would have required the development of a genuine relationship based on trust.”

Alongside evidence of compassion for the ill and the injured, she highlights compelling evidence to show early humans were also prepared to embrace those who had had different ways of thinking, as well as those were physically vulnerable.

Dr Spikins argues that with the rise of our own species, we begin to see subtle signs of conditions such as autism – a theme she explored with Professor Barry Wright from our Department of Health Sciences in a recent public lecture in the University’s Research in Focus series.

“Again looking at some early cave art, we can see incredible levels of detail and in some cases we can see evidence of images superimposed on each other with great anatomical accuracy. Some animals are embedded and hidden by other parts of the composition.

“Many archaeologists think this is interesting, but I began to wonder if this went beyond ‘interesting’. Some people with autism have a remarkable ability to draw exactly what they have seen with astounding accuracy. They also tend to focus on details rather than wholes.

“We can’t say with absolute certainty that an artefact has been made by someone with autism. What we do see is the sudden appearance of highly standardised, precise, finely made forms. It’s not so much that the person who did this art was autistic as much as the style may have been influenced by people with autistic traits.”

Different minds

Dr Spikins thinks there were clear benefits for early humans to nurture and respect people with ‘different minds’ in their communities . They may for instance have influenced the development of early maps, calendrical systems and tools, particularly during the Ice Age when our ancestors required more technological innovation and systems to survive. It may be that in ancient hard times, autistic traits had more influence.

Increasing amounts of genetic evidence suggest autism has a long evolutionary origin but, she explains, what we are lacking is the archaeological perspective that might set out in evolutionary terms what that meant to society.

“Archaeological evidence suggests that altruism and tolerance bring long-term evolutionary benefits. And that has resonance today. If we don’t include people who have different ways of thinking then we don’t benefit from what they can bring.”

The text of this article is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence, and first published online here.