As I turned to this new post on spirituality, I wondered how long ago the human ability to imagine beyond the material world began. In rambling around on the Internet, I discovered what is currently the oldest evidence of this capacity in Homo neanderthalensis, not Homo sapiens. Bummer. Oh, well, since most of us have about 3% Neanderthal DNA, we can take some credit.
So what do I mean by the “ability to imagine beyond the material world?” Archaeologists seem to connect this advance with the earliest evidence of ritual burial. This was presumably inspired by love or respect for the departed individual and possibly the question, “Where has he or she gone?” This, in turn, suggests the idea that an aspect of the mind–say the soul–exists beyond the world that we know.
The earliest evidence so far of a probable funeral ritual exists in a Spanish cave where Neanderthals buried a toddler about 40,000 years ago. They marked it with 30 horns of animals including bison and red deer. This must have been a very unusual situation inspired by a remarkable child or one or more spiritually advanced adults because there is no evidence that it became customary.
Perhaps the horns were meant to be protective as the child embarked on a journey beyond life in this dimension. We all know how horns eventually became symbolic of power and virility in crowns and helmets. Present in cave drawings of shamanic headgear, they may also have represented what we would come to know as antennae, the means of communicating with the spirit world.
So if ritual burials represent some of the earliest evidence of the ability to imagine and think symbolically, what other quality also supported our evolution? What about the ability to experience wonder?
THE INSPIRATION OF WONDER
It may have been wonder over the size, beauty, speed, and power of animals that inspired the first cave art. I’m referring primarily to the horse, bear, European bison, mammoth, aurochs, and woolly rhinoceros. But what was the very first image created, as far as we know at the moment? How about a pig? A female pig?
I am referring to a babirusa in cave art on the island of Sulawasi in Indonesia. A technique dating the painting has produced the estimate that it is about 35,400 years old. This makes it the oldest figurative art yet known in the world, older than that in Chauvet Cave in France, which I mentioned in an earlier post.
Writing for the Smithsonian, Jo Marchant claimed this as “the closest link yet to the moment when the human mind, with its unique capacity for imagination and symbolism switched on.” This is what is referred to as a “higher order of consciousness,” and the idea is that figurative art would never have developed in its absence. It is also believed that cave art was a way to communicate advantageously with a spirit world.
HANDS ACROSS TIME
If you look closely at the image of the babirusa above, you will see a number of hand prints. These were created by spraying pigment on a hand pressed to the wall. Such hand prints have appeared in rock art all over the world, including here in New Mexico. At right is a six-fingered hand print chipped into a dark patina at La Cieneguilla, not far from Santa Fe. That image is estimated to be about 1,000 years old, much, much younger than the ones in Sulawesi.
Of course, no one knows what the hand print signified. Perhaps it was a signature or had some mystical significance. When author Marchant first saw the hand print at the top of this post in Sulawesi, she responded as though it represented both an announcement and a greeting: “We are human. We are here.” Her own hand reached out as though to meet it, hovering an inch away, and she discovered that hers was exactly the same size.
It’s fascinating that these hand prints began to appear all over the world–Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, the Americas, and on and on–over thousands of years and in places so distant from one another that any form of contact was unlikely. Their presence further reinforces the possibility that consciousness is connected, though we don’t know exactly how.
And in this moment when there is so much discord around the world, so much intolerance and fear of those who are not “us” in specific terms, this art has special significance. Those open hands reaching across time and space remind us that we are, in fact, all one in a manner of speaking. We are all human, after all, and very different from every other species.
I think we can safely say at this point that humanity has achieved an extraordinarily high order of consciousness, something that should give us pride. However, even at this altitude, a collective danger looms on the horizon. How do we evolve to meet it, to resolve it wisely? Won’t this involve cultivating an even higher order of consciousness? And how do we do this? I don’t know. I’m just wondering.