The Loh Down On Science

This theory of how early humans made art will surprise you

Tom Froese, Adapt, Beh., 2013.

Figure 2. A deep pot covered with various spiral patterns [...]. This particular style of vessel, known as Moroiso, was made around 4000 BC by people of the Jomon culture (Kobayashi, 2004, p. 31), a relatively peaceful and non-stratified society of prehistoric Japan (Habu, 2004). (Caption edited from original for brevity.)

Could the Stone Age more accurately be called the Stoner Age?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Paleolithic life could be monotonous! Hunting. Gathering. More hunting. More gathering.

But cavemen also painted!  What’s more: cave art is similar all over the world!  Certain geometric patterns repeat:  Cross hatches, cobwebs, funnels, spirals.

Why the cross-cultural similarity?  Biologists in Japan have an idea.  They reviewed 1960s research on the effects of mescaline.  It's a psychoactive compound used in shamanic rituals.  Users report hallucinating specific patterns:  Cross hatches, cobwebs, funnels, spirals!

See where we're going?  The biologists theorize that Paleolithic artists got high, and saw images that they found really meaningful, man.  Really meaningful.  And painted them.

They say the designs resemble so-called “Turing patterns” from nature.  Think zebra stripes and seashell swirls.  British mathematician Alan Turing proposed the first mechanism for their existence.

That we humans have hallucinated them for so long may provide clues into the origins of human consciousness. 

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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, with 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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