Rock Art: Just another sign of mental impairment?

There’s an amusing story on BBC from Australia about wallabies being the explanation for crop circles. In the opium farms of Tasmania, wallabies who jump through the fences and eat the poppy end up getting “as high as a kite and going around in circles”, resulting in the familiar crop circles that we love to attribute to beings from outer space. Amusing as it sounds, crop circles, like rock art, can be classified as a type of landscape art, and the narcotic antics of these marsupials show us one possibility behind the rock art left by ancient peoples.

Wallaby
photo credit: Wm Jas

Ancient cavemen getting high, drawing on walls? Something related to this idea was explored by Lewis-Williams and Dowson about 20 years ago when he proposed that some rock art forms may be derived from of entoptic phenomena that one envisions when hallucinating. The idea is that when humans hallucinate, they experience visual phenomena such as dots, lines and zigzags that constantly move or change into one form or another. Since the hallucinations are a function of the human nervous system, the experiencing of entoptic phenomena is a universal experience rather than a cultural one – a model can be constructed to explain how humans can construct images when experiencing an altered of consciousness.

This Neuropsychological Model, as it has come to be called, unfolds in a series of three stages, firstly with the experiencing of entoptic forms, followed by the mind trying to make sense of the entoptic forms by transforming them into more familiar forms (this is where cultural specifivity comes in, where a bunch of zigzags can turn into a zebra for one person and a lightning bolt for another), and then finally these iconic forms themselves start undergoing drastic changes themselves, such as becoming more vivid or the clichéd vortex effect. The workability of the model was then applied to examples of rock art around the world, including the prehistoric art in Europe as well as in the relatively more recent South African San, looking for art that would occur in these three stages.

Lewis-Williams and Dowson’s ideas were quite novel and still generate some discussion today over the role altered states of consciousness could have played in the production of rock art, since hallucinations are quite easily induced. Of course there have been quite a few valid criticisms about the model, such as the universality of the entoptic forms across time, and that the model still doesn’t explain the meaning behind the rock art, but provides a really plausible explanation for how they might have originated. And there’s been renewed interest in the role of shamanism, and in particular the role of trance, in the production of rock art, which in itself may not be universal.

But the point about shamanism is why the story of the trippin’ wallabies is so intriguing. While ‘shamanism’ implies some sort of agency, that the entering into an altered state of consciousness via narcotics (where and if applicable) is a deliberate act, could some rock art have been produced accidentally through the same means? Another possibility for non-deliberate agency in the creation of rock art could be mental illness, as seen in this early 20th century engravings on the wall of a dementia praecox sufferer.

I’m quite sure getting stoned was probably not a factor behind the rock art at the site I’m investigating, at least it would be highly unlikely they were stoned like the wallabies. But it would be an interesting line of inquiry to look into ethnographic examples of narcotic use or inducing an altered state of consciousness among traditional peoples in Southeast Asia, to see if such a possibility could exist in the region.

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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