Friday, March 5, 2010

Shadow Stories of Plato's Cave

The beauty of interdisciplinarity is that one's field becomes whatever one knows and one's research becomes whatever one does not know. More often than not, what little one knows serves mainly to point to wonderful new areas unknown. Or, as they were once infamously phrased--"the unknown unknowns." Teaching a class about storytelling from an evolutionary perspective this spring has opened whole new areas of those previously "unknown unknowns." Despite a long interest in the evolution of language and of symbolic culture, I don't think it ever occurred to me before this term that it is a complete mystery to all of us when the telling of stories actually began. Now that I think about this particular mystery daily, I find the world once again transformed by a new question. Genetic evidence for modern human origins (currently pointing toward somewhere in eastern or southern Africa perhaps a couple of hundred thousand years ago, see Tischkoff et. al. in Science, April '09, The Genetic Structure and History of Africans and African-Americans), plus archaeological evidence for ornament and symbols as far back as the South African Middle Stone Age, and the ambiguous evidences from linguistics, genetics, archaeology, neurology, and so forth for much earlier use of language and control of fire, perhaps rooted well before our emergence as this particular species of Homo, all begin to rearrange themselves as fuzzy pointers to when people might have first begun that quintessential and universal human activity, telling tales, short or tall, around the common campfire.

Recently, Genevieve Von Petzinger, a graduate student at the University of Victoria in BC, made a sensation in the fields of archaeology, anthropology, and rock art scholarship when she documented a comprehensive pattern to the simpler cave "signs" found among the famous Upper Paleolithic rock art sites of France, such as Chauvet cave. (For a laudably readable news article on her work, see The New Scientist cover story in Feb '09, The Writing on the Cave Wall.) While the really spectacular paintings on those caves have received by far the most attention, Von Petzinger focused on the dull little dots, squiggles, half-moons, and hand-stencils found scattered around the beautiful depictions of aurochs and horses. Turns out that there's a pattern to those squiggles, a pattern that echoes, with variations, the basic repertoire of rock art squiggles found around the world.

What do those squiggles mean? What stories did they once help tell? Down in Canyonlands, Sarah Jeffreys has been documenting and studying the layers of rock art left by indigenous Americans. Lo and behold, many of the same simple patterns reappear. Is there an innate fondness for certain fragmentary geometries, dots, lines, and so forth, shared by humans without knowing what they share? Do the stories connecting those dots have much or little in common? If much, is it because of the common psychology of humans everywhere, or were some fragments from tens of thousands of years ago still living as glowing narrative embers carried around the planet by far-flung foragers? Any discipline at all might bring some new perspective to bear, some new way of seeing the evidence all around us.


  1. A beautiful first sentence, and it makes new sense of some of my own impulses.

    So, a common psychology a la Jung's collective unconscious, or are we talking somethings else here?

    Glowing narrative embers carried around the planet -- doesn't that possibility still return to the question of psychology, to why the forms would appeal to people everywhere?

  2. Thanks for the compliment re the first sentence. As far as a common psychology, I'm thinking certainly so, at a minimum, albeit more a la Pinker than Jung. The tantalizing question is whether the appeal of the forms is _only_ due to a species-specific psychology or whether the forms serve a common or similar functional purpose, especially a perhaps narrative purpose.

  3. So this morning I'm wondering about the content of the stories told by the dots. What is Sarah and what are others thinking they say?

    As I see it, stories of all kinds are the way we make sense of our world and our selves. Even in a postmodern world / especially in a postmodern world, we tell stories.I've been thinking myself just what we expect from narratives.

    The "postmodern" main character of Peter Handke's "Short Letter, Long Farewell" (Peter would never use the word postmodern) travels across the US and in St. Louis sees John Ford's "The Young Mr. Lincoln" and finds in the obviously mythical, obviously filmic, obviously untrue story, exactly the truth he has been looking for.

    Yesterday in our Wanderlust class, we talked about the songlines of Australian aborigines (in the context of Bruce Chatwin's amazing book "Songlines") and about how important to us all Greek and Hebrew and and other stories are -- even series of dots, I take it.