Filtered for glimpses of almost-humans from prehistory

09.32, Wednesday 22 Jun 2022


Cave art may be inaccessible to today’s brain.

A recent article argued that superior visual perception was necessary for the creation of Paleolithic cave paintings because of the level of correct anatomical details and accurate depictions of high-speed leg positions of animals in motion, considering that the works were accomplished far removed from the actual animals and with crude tools. The article uncovered and outlined current evidence for an association between visual thinkers (some diagnosed within the Autism Spectrum Disorder) and a relatively high percentage of archaic genes, of which some are associated with perception and cognition. Moreover, within this group are some savants who can quickly and accurately scan what they see and reproduce it artistically in extraordinary detail. One example is reproducing the correct number and relative size of windows from a brief exposure to a city scene. However, the linguistic abilities of visual thinkers may be impaired, which suggests a negative correlation between visual perception/memory and language.

The argument in the paper is that pre-human primates (a) are sometimes superior to humans in dealing with visual sequences, but (b) have brain areas more directly connected to visual processing than humans. They deal with a flood of visual information – versus humans, which abstract and discard.

The paper goes on to suggest that language emerged relatively recently… and the emergence of language may be associated with the reduced brain size in Homo sapiens that started about 50,000 years ago and more markedly 10,000 years ago.

(I hadn’t realised that there was such an observed brain size reduction occurring so recently. The early known city is only 9,000 years ago! Radical changes in the nature of consciousness in the recent shallows of prehistory – more recent, even, than the source events of the earliest myths.)

We suggest that an effect of this loss in brain size was the reduction of neuronal signaling and/or pathways related to raw perception and vision in particular. Visual perception relies on informational highways that may provide so much information that it can be overwhelming for other brain functions, such as retrieving knowledge appropriate to the situation or imagining something that is not present in the here and now. We hypothesize that the loss in brain volume is mainly linked to reduced perception of detail in space and time. We are no longer able to perceive how many hooves of a running horse touch the ground, as the cave artists of Chauvet may have seen with ease.

After the Upper Palaeolithic (50,000 to 10,000 years ago) we no longer find evidence for elaborate realistic cave paintings (although we find iconic and symbolic cave paintings after this period).


Johansson, C., & Folgerø, P. O. (2022). Is Reduced Visual Processing the Price of Language? Brain Sciences, 12(6), 771


Guide to Machine Elves and Other DMT Entities.

Self-transforming machines elves: a term coined by the ethnobotanist, philosopher, and writer Terence McKenna to describe some of the entities that are encountered in a DMT trip. They’ve come to be known by many names, including “clockwork elves”, “DMT elves”, “fractal elves”, and “tykes”.


During my own experiences smoking synthesized DMT in Berkeley, I had had the impression of bursting into a space inhabited by merry elfin, self-transforming, machine creatures. Dozens of these friendly fractal entities, looking like self-dribbling Faberge eggs on the rebound, had surrounded me and tried to teach me the lost language of true poetry.

Meetings are common:

Philip Mayer collected and analyzed 340 DMT trip reports in 2005. Mayer found that 66% of them (226) referenced independently-existing entities that interact in an intelligent and intentional manner.


My trip to the dentist in which I discovered the secret of the universe (2020). Alas it turns out this a common effect of nitrous.


Charles Bonnet syndrome, in which the sufferer experiences characteristic hallucinations of gnomes and fairy lands: The first cluster consisted of hallucinations of extended landscape scenes and small figures in costumes with hats; the second, hallucinations of grotesque, disembodied and distorted faces with prominent eyes and teeth.

(As previously discussed (2004), along with Homo floresiensi, the mythical hobbit human in Indonesia, 18,000 years ago.)


Santhouse, A & Howard, R & ffytche, D. (2000). Visual hallucinatory syndromes and the anatomy of the visual brain. Brain: a journal of neurology. 123(10). 2055-64.


Orcs are an ancient memory of Neanderthals?

Newsletter Contemplations on the Tree of Woe unpacks the (fringe science) book Them and Us: How Neanderthal Predation Created Modern Humans (Amazon) by Danny Vendramini.

Neanderthals were apex predators. Analysis of isotopes of bone collage has shown that Neanderthal diet was 97% meat. …

Neanderthals were cannibals. …

They weighed 25% more. They were so heavily muscled that their skeletons had to develop extra thick bones.

Neanderthal teeth were twice as large as human teeth. …

Neanderthal skulls had extremely large eye sockets, suggesting very large eyes. That, in turn, suggests that Neanderthals were nocturnal.

Also: big snouts suggesting scent-hunting, and no language.


Nocturnal carnivorous almost-humans; coexisting with and physically resembling us, but whereas we are slighter and abstractly smarter, they are brutal purpose-built hunters, terrifying us in the night with their superhuman senses and utter inability to speak – and yet artists of the highest calibre, producing (maybe?) delicate and highly detailed visual representations, a capability astoundingly beyond us, as automatically as a beaver makes its dam or a spider weaves its web.

Living with future GPT-3s and DALL-Es, given robot bodies, will be like living with Neanderthals. Entities capable of destroying humanity, these AIs living alongside us, and of inhuman impossible creativity too, with nothing behind the eyes.


The Silurian hypothesis: if there were an industrial civilisation in Earth’s deep history, could we tell?

For example, our human industrial civilisation will leave a signal.

When we burn fossil fuels, we’re releasing carbon back into the atmosphere that was once part of living tissues. This ancient carbon is depleted in one of that element’s three naturally occurring varieties, or isotopes. The more fossil fuels we burn, the more the balance of these carbon isotopes shifts.

Chemical analysis of ancient rocks, in the far future, will reveal this isotopic shift in the Anthropocene layer – the geological layer associated with human industrial civilisation.

(Temperature increases also create this shift.)

AND SO, looking back:

Fifty-six million years ago, Earth passed through the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). During the PETM, the planet’s average temperature climbed as high as 15 degrees Fahrenheit above what we experience today. It was a world almost without ice, as typical summer temperatures at the poles reached close to a balmy 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Looking at the isotopic record from the PETM, scientists see both carbon and oxygen isotope ratios spiking in exactly the way we expect to see in the Anthropocene record. There are also other events like the PETM in Earth’s history that show traces like our hypothetical Anthropocene signal. These include an event a few million years after the PETM dubbed the Eocene Layers of Mysterious Origin, and massive events in the Cretaceous that left the ocean without oxygen for many millennia (or even longer).

What went down, 9 million years after the dinosaurs? Perhaps we’ll find their traces elsewhere, in orbit around Jupiter or something.

Article by Adam Frank, who also authored the original Silurian Hypothesis paper.


Schmidt, G. A., & Frank, A. (2019). The Silurian hypothesis: would it be possible to detect an industrial civilization in the geological record? International Journal of Astrobiology, 18(2), 142-150.


Denise Wilton on the “uncanny valley”, the feeling of finding almost-humans almost unbearable creepy:

Was it because we’ve lived through all this before, and got it wrong once already? We’re just living in a never-ending experiment that we’d write about as sci-fi but is actually just real life and the robots are going to take over? The uncanny valley is just a muscle memory from the last time we failed as a species.


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