Symbolic leadership and the significance of the discovery of the Sulawesi cave paintings

The discovery of the cave paintings in a remote region of Indonesia seems likely to change our understanding the origins of artistic creativity

According to a BBC report [October 8th, 2014]

Australian and Indonesian scientists have dated layers of stalactite-like growths that have formed over coloured outlines of human hands.

Early artists made them by carefully blowing paint around hands that were pressed tightly against the cave walls and ceilings. The oldest is at least 40,000 years old. There are also human figures, and pictures of wild hoofed animals that are found only on the island.

Art and the ability to think of abstract concepts is what distinguishes our species from other animals – capabilities that also led us to use fire, develop the wheel and come up with the other technologies that have made our kind so successful.

The dating of the art in Sulawesi will mean that ideas about when and where this pivotal moment in our evolution occurred will now have to be revised.

The co-creation of art and culture

Symbolic representation through art seems to have been around as long as the formation of early cultures. It is not unreasonable to develop the [‘social constructionist’] view that culture and symbolic communication co-evolved.

New Yorker columnist Adam Gopnik picks up on a related theory, that creative art of the type found in cave paintings was the consequence of a feminization of early cultures: Ape-woman started creating art and the social skills of cooperation while Ape-man developed hunting and gathering skills with greater emphasis on competition and conflict. It occured to me that the artistic Ape-woman was herself engaging in a competitive survival tactic for winning kudos through her displays of creativity.]

Gopnik is quick to concede that any theory of the origins of art needs to come with as health warning.

The fallacy of the single cause of culture does not become less fallacious when it’s set farther back in time. Symbolic communication, even in its higher form as art, is always a tide ebbing and flowing, rather than an event that just arrives.

The capacity to communicate symbolically

These ideas suggest that the capacity to communicate in symbols is an ancient skill that contributed to the survival and success of our species.

It remains vital as there is a need for more visionary leadership to help us protect our world from the unintended consequences of our technological interventions.

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