I imagine cave paintings as ancient virtual reality

11.51, Monday 11 Jul 2022

To get into the caves of Niaux, in the south of France, you drive to the foothills of the Pyrenees, buy a ticket - it’s open to tourists - and then wait for your turn to go through the metal doors which function as an airlock. I visited a few years ago.

We walked through a series of dark tunnels and caverns for about 20 minutes, a kilometre. The mountain hangs overhead and so I think about the hundreds of metres of solid rock, upwards, before reaching even the ground again. The centre of the mountain is a realm impenetrable and unimaginable. Take the remotest, loneliest place on the surface of the Earth: I could at least in theory reach that spot. No such access to the world of rock.

At the end of the tunnels there is cave art 13,000 years old.

Along the way there’s a cartoon sketch of a deer. Here it is. It’s so contemporary, so alive. The deer is bright-eyes and smiling. I felt so connected over so many thousands of years.

The final cave is decorated with bison, in their twos and threes, these small groups covering the rock face all around.

It’s beautiful.

Although the bison are sketched in the sparest of lines, they’re not caricatures, they’re accurately draw and brought to life by the shadows cast by the light and the uneven surface, and the rock which is also unevenly coloured, red and brown and black.

With a fire in the middle, the shadows of people would have mixed with the drawings and the shadowy landscape.

At the time this felt to me like a kind of reverse hologram.

The 2D drawing would imply a 3D presence in the space - invisible yet there none-the-less, the bison is right next to you, it has to be if, like my shadow it is cast on the wall.

Suddenly in my imagination the cave felt crowded, real people and implied bison, all together, moving in and out of the shadows, honestly all of us at an equivalent level of visibility, who is to say what is real, the bison on the distant plane visible too - drawings on a cave or a distant herd at dusk, it’s all the same.

Virtual reality.

Rock is a medium.

I’ve been reading recently about the work of archeologist David Lewis-Williams:

although in Western thought rock is the most solid and stable of substances, for the Bushmen [in southern Africa] it is a veil on to which images of the spirit world are projected. Paintings are tracings of these projections, which makes the eland on the cave wall a rendering of an even more real eland in the spirit world on the other side of the rock face.

Some can cross between worlds:

The task of the shaman is to pierce the veil, contacting the spirits and bringing back to the everyday human world vital information.

The shaman:

Bleeding from the nose and displaying particular postures, such as a throwing back of the arms, indicate to others in the cave that the shaman is moving between worlds.

Based on cave art in France that resemble shaman images by the Bushmen, Lewis-Williams puts forward that the underlying belief systems are the same.

Lewis-Williams also argues that the rock face for French Palacolithic people was seen as a membrane, with the animals existing, perhaps in more perfect forms, in a world on the other side of the rock. Evidence for this comes in instances when natural cracks in the rock are used to help to provide the shape of an animal; also, as we have seen, the interest in pushing bone and other materials into rock cracks may be an attempt to commune with the spirit world on the far side.

Strong caveat: For many, Lewis-Williams takes a number of steps too far.

SEE ALSO: Computer screens??

We’ve never quite got a handle on what a computer is…

  • a “soft” interface or infinitely permeable appliance or tool
  • a prosthetic extension to the body or mind
  • a container, something with a world “inside” - anyone else play Little Computer People on the Commodore 64?
  • Gibson’s cyberspace, a world which can be visited by us, whether that’s the metaverse or virtual reality, a video game, a simulation, or something lo-fi like the blogosphere
  • a tool to let us project across real space; a thing that enables telepresence
  • a non-human agent in itself
  • a medium.

I won’t get into definitions. Except to say:

The image of shamans twisted at the rocky cave-wall interface, travelling in the realm beyond the membrane, reminds me of nothing so much as, well, me, hunched over my smartphone, unnaturally contorted to jab with my thumbs, an overwhelming feeling of being elsewhere, the screen a veil and on the other side a world that I can visit but can never stay in, my eyes blind to the physical room and others here.

What I DON’T mean to say is that that Zoom is a form of astral projection.

Nor do I wish to suggest that there was a now-lost industrial society in prehistory, the shamanic elite making use of full-bodied user interfaces to search the Upper Palaeolithic equivalent of Wikipedia, data carried not on the fibre optics of today’s internet but via telluric currents, faint and discernible only deep underground far away from the Sun, recording and bringing back vital knowledge about bison movements and weather and so on - and gossiping with other shamans thousands of miles away on Rockfacebook or whatever.

(Though how else would you describe computers to a society ten thousand years distant?)

INSTEAD my point (I think) is that it’s not so absurd to think about cave art as a kind of virtual reality. Just as we understand VR today: it’s real and breathtaking often too, but also we know it’s not really real, but also there is the willing suspension of disbelief. Us humans are sophisticated, happily self-contradictory participants and always have been.

More posts tagged:

If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it by email or on social media. Here’s the link. Thanks, —Matt.