Visual psychology and the origins of modern human art

Ground-breaking research by the University of Durham, UK, explores the origins of art through the way humans see; as published in the Spring 2022 issue of Archaeology Worldwideclick here to read the FULL feature (issue 6).

After around 40,000 years ago, our Homo sapiens ancestors began to create figurative art, drawing, engraving, and painting large herbivores, including horses, deer, bison and mammoths onto cave walls, tools, and other portable objects. But why did they do this? Why did they choose certain rock surfaces, or depict animals in profile or sometimes only partially? These are just some of the questions being explored by archaeologist Prof. Paul Pettitt, psychologist Prof. Bob Kentridge, and their Durham team.


We have all seen animals in clouds, or faces in a slice of toast, and we have all been spoked by shadows. And this, according to the team, may hold the key to understanding the origins of human figurative art.


Imagine you are in a dim cave with only a flickering tallow lamp to light your way. As the light and shadows dance around you, is quite likely that you will imagine seeing glimpses of things that are important to you. This is called ‘pareidolia’. At the height of the last Ice Age, Palaeolithic people in Europe depended on the large herbivores for their survival – bison, horses, mammoths, reindeer, et al, loomed large in their lives and their minds. Pareidolia is a product of the way the brain has evolved, to make quick sense of suggestions of threatening or valuable things: better to over-interpret and be wrong, than to be eaten or to starve.


But were cave depictions stimulated by pareidolia? The researchers wanted to test this hypothesis. If they were right, then the cave walls should affect modern viewers in the same way as our ancestors, given that we share their ‘suggestible’ visual system. For example, if a Palaeolithic artist painted a horse on a natural contour that evoked (in their mind) the shape of a horse’s back, then ‘all’ the researchers had to do was to erase the art and track the eyes of modern participants to see if they pareidolically saw the same thing as the Palaeolithic artist.


How to scrub out ancient art and test modern eyes? The answer: modern computer technology. The team recreated digital 3D models of Spanish caves using high-res computer photogrammetry. A participant would then explore the caves in Virtual Reality, armed with a virtual flickering torch for illumination. The team asked them about what they saw, or imagined what they saw, and also tracked the participants’ eye movements from inside the VR headset, to build up a detailed picture of what they saw, and what was attracting their attention. The results were satisfying, with modern participants often directing their gaze to the same locations – even when they were just viewing a bare wall. Moreover, the findings fitted with the results of the team’s next study.


Palaeolithic artists could be minimalists when depicting animals: a few lines to bring out the curve of a back or a striking muzzle. The team hypothesised that the parts of an animal shown in an incomplete depiction corresponded to parts of the animal that were most helpful for identification when seen in the far distance. Theis too was tested with modern viewers. A computer programme presented participants with a view of a tiny part of an animal and then asked them to identify it. After running the experiment hundreds of times, the researchers found that the bits of animals of most use (e.g. a side view of the head) were the bits of the animal that tended to be stylistically exaggerated in Palaeolithic art.


By using computational models of visual processing in the brain, the team is unravelling how our evolutionary past guided the nature of our earliest complex art. This is an extraordinary project that is set to change the way we see the past. Read the full feature here.


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Image: What do you see? Do you quickly see the bison, even if you may never have seen such an animal in real life before? Then, look closely... do faces emerge too? Ice Age bison painting (replica) from the Cave of Altamira, Spain.

Credit: Museo de Altamira D. Rodriguez