Autistic traits may have been behind accurate cave art of horses and other animals

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Horses depicted in the Chauvet Cave in France. This particular rendering is said to date from 31,000 years ago. Photo: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Horses depicted in the Chauvet Cave in France. This particular rendering is said to date from 31,000 years ago. Photo: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Could shades of autism have been behind a revolution in Ice Age art?

The intriguing possibility is raised by researchers in a fresh study.

They believe autistic traits may have been inherent in the individuals who began adorning caves with accurate depictions of horses, bears, bison and lions in Europe around 30,000 years ago.

The ability to focus on detail, a common trait among people with autism, allowed realism to flourish in Ice Age art, according to researchers at the University of York in England.

Extremely accurate depictions of animals decorate the walls of Ice Age archaeological sites such as Chauvet Cave in southern France.

Why our ice age ancestors created exceptionally realistic art rather than the very simple or stylised art of earlier modern humans has long perplexed researchers.

Many have argued that psychotropic drugs – those that affect a person’s mental state – were behind the detailed illustrations. The popular idea that drugs might make people better at art led to a number of ethically dubious studies in the 1960s in which participants were given art materials and LSD.

The authors of the new study, writing in the journal Open Archaeology, discount that theory, instead arguing that individuals with “detail focus”, a trait linked to autism, kicked off an artistic movement that led to the proliferation of realistic cave drawings across Europe.

“Detail focus is what determines whether you can draw realistically; you need it in order to be a talented realistic artist,” said the paper’s lead author, Dr Penny Spikins, from the university’s Department of Archaeology.

“This trait is found very commonly in people with autism and rarely occurs in people without it.

“We looked at the evidence from studies attempting to identify a link between artistic talent and drug use, and found that drugs can only serve to dis-inhibit individuals with a pre-existing ability.

“The idea that people with a high degree of detail focus, many of which may have had autism, set a trend for extreme realism in ice age art is a more convincing explanation.”

The research adds to a growing body of evidence that people with autistic traits played an important role in human evolution.

Dr Spikins added: “Individuals with this trait – both those who would be diagnosed with autism in the modern day and those that wouldn’t – likely played an important part in human evolution and survival as we colonised Europe.

A drawing of a horse, left, by Nadia, a gifted autistic child artist, and another by a typically developing child of the same age. Photo: Penny Spikins, University of York
A drawing of a horse, left, by Nadia, a gifted autistic child artist, and another by a typically developing child of the same age. Photo: Penny Spikins, University of York

“As well as contributing to early culture, people with the attention to detail needed to paint realistic art would also have had the focus to create complex tools from materials such as bone, rock and wood. These skills became increasingly important in enabling us to adapt to the harsh environments we encountered in Europe.”

The study team said there was little question that many depictions in Upper Palaeolithic art were the work of exceptionally talented artists.

“Rather than influenced by drug use, the similarities between such art and that of talented artists with autism are shown here to be a product of a cognitive condition – local processing bias – which brings with it exceptional abilities to observe and cognitively reconstruct forms.

“Local processing bias is common to those with exceptional talent in realistic depiction whether associated with an autism spectrum condition or not, and is a potentially significant area for future research.

” ‘Autistic traits’ in Upper Palaeolithic art do not necessarily signify the work of an individual with autism.

“However, since local processing bias is common in autism and yet so rare in neurotypical populations, it is inevitable that artists – who we might today characterise as having an autism spectrum condition – played some role in the creation of some of the exceptional art of the period.

“Modern culturally constructed definitions of health or disorder may not be particularly helpful in understanding the creation of Upper Palaeolithic art.

“What is significant is that behind the most powerful and evocative images of the Upper Palaeolithic lay a level of tolerance and understanding which allowed talents to be encouraged and notable cognitive differences to be integrated and valued.”

How Do We Explain ‛Autistic Traits’ in European Upper Palaeolithic Art?
Penny Spikins, Callum Scott, Barry Wright
Open Archaeology 2018; 4: 262–279 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/opar-2018-0016

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

One thought on “Autistic traits may have been behind accurate cave art of horses and other animals

  • May 16, 2018 at 8:19 am
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    I would like to see the raw data on this assumption being made about autism and creative ability materializing in detail. I question the assertion made from an artistic perspective. Artists think with a very different sense of spatial reasoning as compared to others. It is not linear in nature and deals with a great sense of observational talent. Many times artistic individuals do not test well spatially because of this unique thinking ability which can be all over the place. Observational skills are actually taught in art school. It might be that one such creative person set a trend, as opposed to being autistic. This is a big jump to assert. That happens all of the time in the arts and creates periods of expression as seen historically.

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