Ningxia Int'l Conf. on Rock Art                                                               Yinchuan, 2-7 September 2000

Rock Art and the emergence
of rational thinking


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dubal  (at)
Virtual Laboratory for Archaeometry


The messages carried by some enigmatic Rock Art human figures are interpreted as the emergence of rational thinking. The connivance between Deregowski's typical contour of such complex figures and their components suggests how the human mind valorises graphical reminders. The similar connivance found in contemporary Chinese word-plays as well as in some ancient "rebus-like" dreams, is reviewed. While messages are known in this case, their analogy might help to decipher pre-historical messages.



As a physicist I like to dig for the milestones along the sinuous path that leads from magical to causal thinking. At NEWS95, I suggested that this transition was coupled to the late acknowledgement of the role of paternity in procreation. Rock art scenes which depict the act of pairing are therefore of prime interest in investigating the intellectual process that leads toward the discovery of "primal causality".


Engraving vs. thinking

For the building up of "Homo sapiens collective memory", permanent reminder - such as Rock engravings - must have been instrumental. The switch to the "recording of the mental activities" represents a corner stone in the emergence of formal languages: only then, rational thinking could have its roots. But at a price: our mind found itself captive of this very language which structures it. This is particularly easy to notice in the absence of censorship, such as in the case in our dreams.

Rock art has a very special feature: in addition to its artistic value, it often conveys messages.

1st degree messages, with "purely magical" meaning (e.g.: plead for a copious hunting), seem to be the rule in Palaeolithic rock art. This does not mean that this Rock art represents what was seen in an altered state of consciousness. In the absence of the concept of causality, magical thinking was the only mental process available !

2nd degree messages, with elements of abstraction and complexity, began to appear in late Neolithic rock art. The ability to formulate such multi-layered messages, which we refer to as "rebus-like", represents an important step toward rational thinking.

Expressing complexity

As Shakespeare's heirs, we possess a doublet of forenames, able to evoke an entire landscape of feelings, i.e.: "Romeo & Juliet". But classical Chinese poetry, with its blocks of duly selected sinograms, might well be the richest repository of multi-layered messages. A word-play from Hô Chi Minh's Prison Diary illustrates well this point:

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A 1st degree reading is: "Take away the sign for man from the sign for prison. Add to it the sign for probability, that makes the word nation", while a 2nd degree reading is: "People who come out of prison can build up the country".

Ancient Chinese dreams recorded in the "Yùxiájì", which were kindly provided to me by Tang Huisheng from the Qinhai Archaeological Institute, made me acquainted to another remarkable "application of Chinese characters". What I called "Sooth dreaming on Chinese Characters" shows how one picture can operate as the support of complex thinking. In the unconscious, "convention-free" state of dreaming, the "graphical support", has, usually, no ties with the etymology of the sinogram. The only relevant quantities are the graphical components. For example, the character chu :

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which means "going out", and etymologically derives from "one foot towards the outdoor", looks like the sinogram "mountain", shan:

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written twice (vertically) ! The dream  "Mèng bèn èr shàn zhào" deals precisely with
"two mountains" meaning "going out".

The highly stylised sinogram used for a mountain, might be seen as a typical example of what Jan Deregowski from the Department of Aberdeen Psychology Department, has called the typical contour. In his contribution to NEWS96 entitled "A man is a difficult beast to draw: the neglected determinant in Rock Art", Deregowski introduced his innovative concept for the study of rock art engravings. He relates the disproportionately low rate of appearance of the human figure in Rock art to its intrinsic complexity. The engraving of the "Spear man" in Listleby (Bohusland, Sweden) illustrates at best, what was, at the time, the most significant profile of a human being:

The twisted "Spear Man" of Listleby   (Photo : Monique LARREY)

For the face, ears and eyes are selected, i.e. added on each sides, while nose and mouth are absent.   The arms are featureless, but the left hand is held flat.  The trunk is facing us, while genitals are represented sideways.   The calves of the legs are seen sideways and exhibit the muscles of a good runner.  The soles meanwhile left their "foot prints".


Toward the discovery of primal causality

If the human figure is difficult to draw, so is the depiction of pairing. In addition, the "mental barriers" against paradigmatic changes associated to the discovery of "primal causality" must indeed have been paramount. It is therefore no surprise that Rock art pairing scenes look like "rebus" to us.


Foppe di Nadro
(tactigraphy: L.D)









Napwé Brangra
(photo: M.Larrey)

Here, we present here two - geographically opposed - pairing scenes located at N46°01'/ E10°21' (Foppe di Nadro) and S21°06'28.9" / E165°16'58.9" (Napwé Brangra). On the last one, the "insular wrapping" of the protagonists seems to be a characteristic of proto-kanak Rock art. From Italy to New Caledonia, the position of the male is inverted. The characteristic profile of the camunian woman exhibits the belly, the breasts sideways, round head without face, arms and legs with crude extremities. For the proto-kanak woman, only the head with face, vulva and the belly are represented.

On the Kanaky East coast, the two "cerebral wavy fluxes" radiating from both heads might, metaphorically, represent the union of river Napwé Brangra with the Nérihouen (or, considering the proximity, the union of the Nérihouen and the Nèûnè into the Nimbaye). The mating scene, of the Brangra couple, is drawn separately on the right. The "wavy fluxes" are pointing toward the "blow-up" of the mating scene and then merge into a single wavy flux.

The "cerebral fluxes" of the camunian couple are pointing toward a "paddle", and it might represent the junction of two rivers (Figna and Oglio) into a pound. Alternatively, the above discussed proto-kanak rebus-like depiction invites one to consider the paddle as mating organs.

Such representations of mating scenes, though far from rationality, might have been instrumental to the discovery of "primal causality" by making the problem of sexuality "public".