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Dan McCaslin

The Allure of Ancient Rock Art

The Mind in the Cave


Ancient rock art has fascinated observers, an interest that reaches from Herodotus describing the awesome pyramids (ginormous petroglyphs) in 450 BCE to guys like me who search our San Rafael Wilderness backcountry, reverentially peering into Chumash rock shelters.

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Dan McCaslin

The fragile art survives in the open air mainly because modern viewers know not to touch the cave walls or paintings and to never use flash photography. Many can be enjoyed and pondered over through Campbell Grant’s seminal book Rock Paintings of the Chumash. If you should be lucky enough to run across some of the distinctive paintings, it is a best practice to stay back from the rock shelter at first, cool down, remove packs and extra gear, and then quietly absorb the whole area and not simply the miracle of a tiny red triangle or anthropomorphic humanoid.

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Dan McCaslin

Renowned anthropologist David Lewis-Williams (The Mind in the Cave) believes that the original designs and symbols for rock art came from inside the painter’s own cranium via naturally firing entoptic phenomena, otherwise known as visual hallucinations. Neurologist Oliver Sacks has shown that almost all of us have experienced frequent intense hallucinations, or visual percepts. But as the scientific worldview dominated after the 1500s, most Western humans learned to discount or conceal these illusions. It’s likely that the Chumash shamans considered these images to be divine messages from other worlds.

Whether from Chauvet Cave in France with its 40,000-year-old paintings, painted illustrations by the San tribe on rocks in Africa, or at the more recent California rock shelters with largely geometric designs, these astonishing, symbolic images strike deeply into our inner eye even today. The gallery of entoptic shapes and visual hallucinations depicted on the walls of rock shelters in Santa Barbara’s backcountry can include coronas, ladders, checkerboards, chevrons, and zig-zags, as well as zoomorphic fantasy beings. There are also pictures of ticks, snakes, centipedes, and water striders. Very few designs are recognizably human, but plenty are intriguing zoomorphic quasi-humanoid figures.

In viewing the local paintings, thought to be less than 2,000 years old, we can contemplate the inexplicable fact that rock art spontaneously began long ago in several places on our planet — not only at Chauvet and Lascaux caves in Paleolithic Europe, but recent discoveries in Indonesian caves date to ca. 38,000 BP. Anthropologists and art historians focus on the gripping query: Why did representational art begin at all?

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Dan McCaslin

Ancestors of modern man could dream and remember the images visualized during sleep. Unless readers wish to believe “the gods” inspired these animistic images in human minds, certainly a respectable religious position, we can fall back on Lewis-Williams’s neurological contention that these designs originated within the brain’s own circumscribed cranium: “There is a spatial relationship between the retina and the visual cortex … following the ingestion of psychotropic substances, the pattern in the cortex is perceived as a visual percept. In other words, people in this condition are seeing the structure of their own brains.”

Let’s imagine a Chumash Homo sapiens has fallen into a dreamlike state — perhaps exhausted or starving, but safely in a cave, rhythmic tapping or drumming going on, awakening with a gripping image in her mind of a chevron or concentric red rings. With the relevant technology at hand — a soap plant fiber brush and red, white, and black pigments, and our artist daubs the symbol on a wall nearby. According to some Chumash beliefs, this potent symbol affords the shaman (male or female) magical access to the crucial shaman’s cache inside the rock or boulder. After donning her regalia, she can fly, go underwater or move underground, and travel with her animal helper in order to heal tribal members.

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Dan McCaslin

Lewis-Williams contends there are no religious “revelations” — these earliest artists painted their recollected dream hallucinations on the walls. Be this as it may, I remain fascinated by the similarities between many of these visual representations across widely separated Paleolithic societies in Stone Age Chumash sites and Paleolithic societies in France, Germany, South Africa, and Indonesia. In four decades of searching around, I’ve run across sites with three or four red triangles and others with an amazing panorama of overlain images like those at the famous Santa Barbara’s famous Painted Cave site.

The excellent Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History website discusses Chumash rock art, and notes that the compelling images “may represent mythic figures, natural phenomena, or abstract concepts.” We may not know what these abstractions on the walls mean, yet we still search them out.



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