The Development of Symbolic Thought as Demonstrated Through Rock Art


The purpose of this paper is to synthesize evidence from varying research papers and books to argue that rock art is the best indicator of the development of symbolic thought as represented in the form of culture in modern Homo sapiens. This evidence includes the intentional manufacturing of pigments and their creative uses, the ways in which the environment was selected and manipulated to serve their purposes, and signs of shamanism.


The study of human evolution is a fascinating subject fraught with lineages of ancestral hominin relatives throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe. These evolutionary titans stand out in textbooks and media because of their contribution to our increasing understanding of the physical adaptations which lead to modern humans to such a degree that human evolution could be considered common knowledge. Our early ancestors entered into the world of tool use and upright posturing eventually evolving into the big brained, gracile browed species known as Homo sapiens. These physical adaptations are no small feat in the history of humanity and have earned their time in the academic and pop culture spotlight as the remains rediscovered leave behind a physical story written in fossils about how we came to be.

However, it is imperative to our understanding the story of us to gain a holistic view of who our ancestors were, far beyond their physical design, such as the cognitive changes necessary for early hominins to develop tool use and, eventually, culture. While cranial capacities help us infer the size of gray matter likely present in a specimen’s brain and thus conjecture their levels of cognitive ability, the challenge with pre-history is just that, it encompasses an enormous amount of time that existed before we, as a species, began writing down our story. It is then the exhilarating task of the anthropologist to suss out the cognitive abilities of these ancestors based on the evidence available and develop a story of the advancement of their cognitive adaptations. Just as there were adaptations to transition hominins from quadrupedal to bipedal, so, too, are there adaptations to transition our ancestors to a point of multi-tiered cognitive thought which separated them from their animal counterparts contributing a piece of the answer to the philosophical question of what makes us human.

Sometime in the recent evolutionary history of Homo sapiens, between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago, humans developed the mental capacity for symbolic thought which lead to the existence of culture.[1] It is this change that demonstrates not only an understanding of the world around us, but our own individualized interpretations of that world and our place within it. This comes in the form of being able to use symbols to communicate ideas and instructions. These symbols are typically “something visual, auditory, or tactile that stands for something with which the symbol has no necessary link”[2] and often communicated in the form of metaphor and analogy. We use this cognitive ability every day as the foundation of our language, social interactions, and creative thought.

Symbolic thought permits humans the ability to find meaning in everything and understand that other humans have their own independent thoughts and interpretations of the world as well. These “levels of intentionality”[3] are reflected in a social group’s understanding of each other and themselves presented in the form of “I know” and “I know that you know” to “I know that you know that we know” and so forth.[4] While most animals can only reach the first level of intentionality, humans are able to reach five, our closest relative, chimps, only being able to reach level two, with a possibility of level three.[5] “These levels of intentionality are essential to the storytelling that is crucial for passing on culture…”[6] between generations and within a society.

Culture, then, becomes comprised of social agreements and expressions represented in the form of logic, language, religion, science, and art[7] giving rise to the artist. Rock art serves as the best manifestation of the development of culture in Homo sapiens as it encapsulates an understanding of pigment creation and use, spiritual consciousness, and the abstract relationships they held with their environment.

Manufacturing of Pigments and Their Uses

Art requires the manipulation of the environment to create something wholly new and original. “Some of the earliest evidence of ‘symbolic’ behavior comes in the form of pigment…”[8] from South Africa at least 70,000 years ago as carvings in chunks of red ochre.[9] The advent of the self-adornment of beads and body paint also made an appearance near that time, though they do not last long as a population crush occurs about 5,000 years later. However, the pre-historic art scene truly heats up in Europe about 40,000 years ago when Paleolithic rock art makes its debut.

The three main pigments used in Paleolithic rock art in Western Europe were red, black, and yellow as can be seen in Figure 1 which were created from the alteration of different minerals dependent on the location and time of occupation of the society responsible for creating the art.[10] Black pigment was the result of charcoal, soot, or manganese oxide whereas yellow pigment came from goethite.[11] When the yellow goethite was heated, it transitioned the mineral into hematite which created the red pigment.[12]

Figure 1 – Lascaux cave where the three pigments typically found in Paleolithic rock art: black, yellow, and red.

Paleolithic artists used different methods to manufacture their paints including mixing the base minerals with an extender mineral such as “clay, calcite, quartz, bone, talc, potassium feldspar, etc.”[13] in order to the make the pigment of the paint go further in application without losing its color as well as utilizing a binder such as water or animal fat to assist the mineral in sticking to the rock wall surface.[14] Oil based paints typically preserve better which could have been one of the motivating factors in the creation of these paints. Although manganese oxide deposits that showed evidence of prehistoric use were present in the Ekain cave in Spain potentially implying that the community responsible for the art used this deposit because it was conveniently located rather than intentionally obtained, elemental analyses proved that the manganese oxide based pigment used in the art of that cave came from a different source and included mixtures of quartz and iron oxides not found within the cave.[15] In some cave art locations, evidence of designated pigment manufacturing sites have been found such as the remnants of red pigment located outside of central France’s Arcy-sur-Cure site where the living space would have been in that area.[16]

The preparation of these pigments varied greatly not only between sites, but also within them and throughout time. For example, the Arcy-sur-Cure cave site included charcoal drawings made without an extender coupled with red pigmented drawings that used clay as an extender[17] while in the Lascaux site, the Scéne du Puits (Figure 2) shows a “lack of homogeneity due to the presence of the rhinoceros”[18] and the content of the rhinoceros’ pigment led researchers to believe that the images were created at different times using a different paint “pot.”[19] In some cases, it was observed that charcoal was used for drawing while manganese oxide was more often used to paint.[20]

Figure 2 – Scéne du Puits, France

Furthermore, Paleolithic artists utilized different tools to create the images and effects they were looking for by either using a brush, “crayons” such as those found at Lascaux, or a hollow tube in which pigment was blown in order to create a cloudy, soft edge. The hollow tube and brush techniques can be seen in Figure 2 on the rhinoceros on the left of the panel and the bison on the right. The rhinoceros was created using the hollow tube method in which the black pigment was blown through the tube to make the outline of the rhinoceros as well as on the back and underbelly of the bison. A brush was used to apply the black pigment throughout the remainder of the panel. These manufacturing and application methods are indicative of artists intentionally harvesting the correct minerals needed for their pigments and changing the consistency of the paints to create texture or provide better coverage.[21]

Spiritual Consciousness

Shamans, like artists, are able to interpret the world around them and produce symbolic expressions of that world to those within their community. Rock art can serve as a physical representation of spiritual beliefs and shamanistic interpretations. David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson developed the neuropsychological (N-P)model in the 1980s based on clinical and ethnographic data that showed that modern human brains reacted in the same defined set of ways to altered states of consciousness (ASC) as a way to understand the origin of rock art.[22] It is important to point out here that ASC includes dreaming which occurs during natural sleep as well as hallucinations incited by the use of psychotropic drugs or other ASC inducing methods. Though no two experiences of ASC are alike, according to the N-P model, there are three common stages that an individual may enter while they experience ASC. They will first see a variation of “seven common entoptic patterns” which include “dots, circles, and flecks; concentrics and spirals; parallel lines and ticks; zigzags; meanders; and nested curves.”[23] The next stage builds upon the first in which the entoptic patterns develop into what the individual would view as “iconic images that are personally or culturally important”[24] such as animals. The third and final stage moves them beyond the known world and into the “other side” which, as described by modern shamans, represents life after death.[25] This final stage is important to note because it implies that our ancestors had a theory of an afterlife. “Rock art suggests that the artists who drew bison, lions, and mammoths on cave walls lived in a world that was not simply one of food, shelters, and reproduction, but one also of spirits, ancestors, and ‘other worlds.’”[26] Not all three stages are required in order for the N-P model to be valid. There is typically a combination of the three experienced by the individual and represented in the art that follows.[27] In Upper Paleolithic rock art panels, stage three is often recognizable in which a combination of “entoptic forms, construals, and transformations and combinations of representational and entoptic imagery.”[28]

The N-P model uses clinical data to indicate that a rock art panel was inspired by a trance-like state although the subject matter across cultures may be different, the “formal characteristics of the arts should be similar.”[29] An example of art depicting all three of the N-P model symbols can be seen the petroglyph rock art of Coso Range in eastern California in Figure 3.

Figure 3 – Coso Range, eastern California. Petroglyphs representing entoptic patterns, iconic images, and the seven principles of perception.

Images are not the only hallucination experienced during ASC. Often, physical sensations will accompany a trance-like state. Common experiences include the manifestations of the sensation of death; fighting or aggressive impulses; magical flight or feelings of floating on air; heavy limbs creating the feeling swimming or drowning; heightened sexual reactions resulting in arousal; and bodily transformation such as the feeling of the head growing horns or the back growing wings.[30] The Coso Range provides more great examples of petroglyphs representing these physical manifestations of a trance-state as seen in Figure 4.

Figure 4 – “Hunter and Sheep” petroglyph of Sheep Canyon in the Coso Range, California.

While clinical data helps identify the origin of some rock art panels, other independent data, including ethnographic, are necessary in deciphering the meaning of that art including understanding the physical manifestations of ASC. For example, the petroglyph in Figure 4 was originally thought to depict a hunter using a big horn sheep headdress as a disguise, but the input of ethnographic data suggests that such a headdress would be impractical for hunting purposes due to weight. Rather, it is more likely that this panel is a depiction of an individual’s physical response to a trance-like state in which they experienced a bodily transformation that included the growth of the horns of a big horn sheep.[31]

Abstract Relationship with Their Environment:

In caves, canyons, and boulder filled terrains, rock art across the globe is linked to the echoes which bounce of their walls or the amplification and muffling of sounds both natural and human-made. The intentionality of the art linked with acoustics in such areas such as Horseshoe Canyon in Utah, Deer Valley in Arizona, Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico have been quantified through Steve Waller’s sound reflectance experiments.[32] The sound he used in his experiments was of the equivalent decibel level as that of the sound of clapping or the chipping away at stone as would be common of stone toll manufacture.[33] Waller’s studies showed that there was consistent coupling of rock art with echoes and no rock art where echoes did not exist.[34] Waller was even able to locate new rock art sites using this method based on the acoustics. Ethnographic insight to the intention behind acoustics-based rock art is provided by the legends of local first nations tribes of the areas. These legends include the Navajo Night Chant, Hopi creation myths, and the Acoma’s territory origin story, all of which involve the use of echoes to find their way.[35]

Anthropologist David Lewis-Williams theorizes that Upper Paleolithic artists selected caves for their depth and trance-inducing properties as ways to connect with the spiritual world. Often when in sensory depraving locations, hallucinations can follow allowing the thoughts and familiar images of everyday life to come to the forefront of an individual’s mind and become altered. These states can induce physical reactions as well where it feels as if these mental images are alive and standing in the cave with the individual. This can result in the utilization of cave structures as part of the artwork created such as a stalagmite being identified as the hindleg of a bison and then artistically outlined as such as that found at the Castillo site or a hole looking similar to that of the front view of a deer’s head resulting in an artist drawing antlers in their appropriate place as shown in Figure 5located in the Niaux cave.[36]

Figure 5 – Deer antlers drawn around a hole in the cave at Niaux Cave in the Salon Noir.

Images such as those found at Chauvet Cave in France or Lascaux are depicted in such a way as to reflect the canvas of the subterranean realm, even at the mouth of the cave where those who may not have access to the deeper passages of the cave could still verify the existence of the spirit world. The “passages and chambers were therefore places that afforded close contact with, even penetration of, a spiritual,”[37] domain. These caves then serve as an entry portal to the “other side” in which members of the society could “empirically verify it [the spiritual world] by entering the caves and seeing for themselves the ‘fixed’ visions of the spirit-animals that empowered the shamans of the community and also by experiencing visions, perhaps in those same underground spaces.”[38] This is evidenced by the location of the art found within these caves where some is located at the mouth of the cave where light is abundant as well as deep within the cave in dark locations where torches would be required in order to see anything.[39]

These representations of the spiritual world also show evidence of adaptability in which artwork is altered and, in some cases, struck out completely over time by different artists as the social and spiritual worlds collided within communities and change was necessary.[40]


The intentional manufacturing of pigments, their various application methods, and the exclusive use of certain pigments and their conservation show a grounded understanding in basic chemistry and logic. Rock art depicting shamanistic activity and abstract interpretations of their environments demonstrates the ability to interpret and communicate not only the reality they lived in, but also altered, other worldly plains evoking a reasoning of an afterlife. These behaviors prove the existence of a cognitive ability capable of not only multi-component procedures, but also memory, symbolic interpretation and communication, and communal organization of beliefs. Without the ability to recognize symbols and find meaning in everything, this remarkable art could not exist. Symbolic thought was required to make such a connection and the art itself acts as evidence of that ability being present in our Homo sapiens ancestors.

Pigment creation and use, spiritual consciousness, and symbolic relationships with a community’s landscape merely scratch the surface in the innumerable ways that rock art produced thousands of years ago reflects the cognitive developments present in Homo sapiens as manifested in the form of culture. However, each are instructive insights into our past and help fill in the plot holes of our story in which the evidence of physical adaptations has reigned supreme. These artists truly were the original rock stars of our species in defining what it means to be human.

References Cited

  1. Chalmin, Emilie, Michel Menu, and Colette Vignaud. “Analysis of Rock Art Painting and Technology of Palaeolithic Painters.” Measurement Science and Technology 14, no. 9 (July 29, 2003): 1590–97.
  2. Clottes, Jean. World Rock Art. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Conservation Institute, 2002.
  3. Kelly, Robert L. The Fifth Beginning: What Six Million Years of Human History Can Tell Us about Our Future. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2019.
  4. Lewis-Williams, David. The Mind in the Cave: the Meaning of Ancient Cave Art. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2002.
  5. Waller, Steven J. “Conservation of Rock Art Acoustics: ‘Unexpected’ Echoes at Petroglyph National Monument.” Rock Art Papers 41, no. 16 (2003): 31–38.
  6. Whitley, David S. Introduction to Rock Art Research. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2011.

Figures Cited

  1.  “Prehistoric Pigments.” RSC Education, October 1, 2015.
  2. Durand, Jennifer. “La Scène Du Puits.”, May 22, 2015.
  3. Bradshaw Foundation. “Cave Art Paintings of Animals in the Niaux Cave France.” Bradshaw Foundation. Accessed March 30, 2020.
  4. Garfinkel, Alan P. “The Rock Art Engravings of the Coso Range.” Bradshaw Foundation. Accessed April 8, 2020.
  5. Garfinkel, Alan P. “The Rock Art Engravings of the Coso Range.” Bradshaw Foundation. Accessed April 8, 2020.

Foot Notes

[1] Robert L. Kelly, The Fifth Beginning: What Six Million Years of Human History Can Tell Us about Our Future (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2019) 36.

[2] Ibid, 37.

[3] Ibid, 40.

[4] Ibid, 41.

[5] Ibid, 41.

[6] Ibid, 41.

[7] Ibid, 48.

[8] Ibid, 49.

[9] Ibid, 49.

[10] Emilie Chalmin, Michel Menu, and Colette Vignaud, “Analysis of Rock Art Painting and Technology of Palaeolithic Painters,” Measurement Science and Technology 14, no. 9 (July 29, 2003): pp. 1590-1597, 1590-1591.

[11] Ibid, 1591.

[12] Ibid, 1591.

[13] Ibid, 1591.

[14] Ibid, 1591.

[15] Ibid, 1595.

[16] Ibid, 1596.

[17] Ibid, 1591.

[18] Ibid, 1595.

[19] Ibid, 1595.

[20] Ibid, 1591.

[21] Ibid, 1591.

[22] David S. Whitley, Introduction to Rock Art Research (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2011). 138.

[23] Ibid, 139.

[24] Ibid, 139.

[25] Robert L. Kelly, The Fifth Beginning: What Six Million Years of Human History Can Tell Us about Our Future (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2019) 51.

[26] Ibid, 52.

[27] David S. Whitley, Introduction to Rock Art Research (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2011). 142.

[28] David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave: the Meaning of Ancient Cave Art (New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2002). 207.

[29] David S. Whitley, Introduction to Rock Art Research (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2011). 142.

[30] Ibid, 145.

[31] Ibid, 146.

[32] Steven J. Waller, “Conservation of Rock Art Acoustics: ‘Unexpected’ Echoes at Petroglyph National Monument,” Rock Art Papers 41, no. 16 (2003): pp. 31-38, 32.

[33] Ibid, 32.

[34] Ibid, 34.

[35] Ibid, 35.

[36] David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave: the Meaning of Ancient Cave Art (New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2002). 211.

[37] Ibid, 210.

[38] Ibid, 210.

[39] Ibid, 209.

[40] Ibid, 210.

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Jaymee is the creative director and writing force behind Beaux Cooper Media. She loves to collaborate with other writers and journalists across the genres. Jaymee lives on the beautiful coast of Rhode Island with her cat, Ada, and dog, Bean.

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