Cross-Modality Information Transfer: A Hypothesis about the Relationship among Prehistoric Cave Paintings, Symbolic Thinking, and the Emergence of Language
Early modern humans developed mental capabilities that were immeasurably greater than those of nonhuman primates. We see this in the rapid innovation in tool making, the development of complex language, and the creation of sophisticated art forms, none of which we find in our closest relatives. While we can readily observe the results of this high-order cognitive capacity, it is difficult to see how it could have developed. We take up the topic of cave art and archeoacoustics, particularly the discovery that cave art is often closely connected to the acoustic properties of the cave chambers in which it is found. Apparently, early modern humans were able to detect the way sound reverberated in these chambers, and they painted artwork on surfaces that were acoustic “hot spots,” i.e., suitable for generating echoes. We argue that cave art is a form of cross-modality information transfer, in which acoustic signals are transformed into symbolic visual representations. This form of information transfer across modalities is an instance of how the symbolic mind of early modern humans was taking shape into concrete, externalized language. We also suggest that the earliest rock art found in Africa may constitute one of the first fossilized proxies for the expression of full-fledged human linguistic behavior.