Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Cave Art and the Evolution of the Human Mind

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posted on 2021-11-10, 22:11 authored by Gray, Martin Paul

The discovery of cave paintings made by our Upper Paleolithic ancestors in Western Europe was an astonishing find – so astonishing, that they were originally believed to have been fakes. However, as more sites were uncovered, their authenticity was confirmed. But how could these people, who at the time of the discovery were believed to be merely dumb brutes, create such beautiful and naturalistic representations? And an even more difficult question to answer was, why? In this thesis I examine the phenomenon of Paleolithic cave art and what it might be able to tell us about the minds of the Cro-Magnon artists who produced it. I survey the paintings that have so far been discovered, as well as the processes involved in creating them. I also discuss and critique a selection of the many theories that have attempted to explain the motivation behind this radically different type of human behaviour. But due to the lack of hard evidence, none of these theories are ever likely to be fully substantiated. So a more promising line of investigation I take is to appraise the cognitive abilities Cro-Magnons would have needed to produce the paintings – and this then allows me to consider whether cave art was indicating any new cognitive development. I therefore highlight one of the effects that creating cave paintings had: it allowed information from the brain to be stored in the environment. But the manner in which this form of epistemic engineering might enhance human cognition is a hotly debated subject. I examine two theories: the extended mind hypothesis, and the theory of niche construction. In concluding this thesis, I argue that cave art seems more like an example of epistemic niche construction than a constituent of an extended mind.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Master of Arts

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Sterelny, Kim