By Richard W. Wise
Author: The Dawning: 31,000 BC
The brain's prefrontal cortex houses what are called executive functions, including reasoning, planning, and communicating—a precondition for the creation of images. Thus, thanks in part to cave art, we know that the Homo Sapiens who peopled the late Paleolithic had conceptual skills. In short, they were very much like us.
Some scholars have attempted to draw an artificial line between history, the period following the advent of writing, and what is termed prehistory. The latter has been portrayed as either a primitive Eden or Hell on earth, depending upon whether one follows the basic assumptions of the 16th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes—remember: nasty, brutal, and short—or the speculations on Natural Man by the 18th-century French philosophe Jean Jacques Rousseau.
As I stated in Part I, much of the study of history has been devoted to elitist, authoritarian regimes simply because they had the power to centralize wealth and coerce their citizens into constructing monuments that have survived into modern times. They also controlled what entered the written record.
I don't mean to imply that authoritarianism was the single governmental model of prehistory. In a new book, The Dawn of Everything (2021), anthropologist David Graeber and archeologist David Wengrow take a refreshing new look at political prehistory. They suggest that history was not the sole playground of kings, priests, and bloody conquerors which has been the traditional focus of both disciplines.
Removing the blinders and carefully reevaluating what we have learned from archeology and anthropology suggests that various unusual forms of government evolved some more democratic than the conventional view of written history suggests.
In some cultures, there may have been discussions and meetings to determine the where and when of things, but then a band hunting a cave lion couldn't afford the time to debate. Thus, there were two forms, before and after. Once the hunt was over, the band reverted to a more democratic model.
It seems perfectly logical to remove the red line and take what we know of human nature as expressed through written history and apply that to prehistory. What, after all, is the basis for the line? Rousseau believed it to be private property. Though he held private property to be a sacred right, he also wrote that it was one of those attributes of civilization that it was the basis for the corruption of the Noble Savage which eventually made a slave of him.
Let's start with leadership. Bring half a dozen boys or girls into a group, and a leader will soon arise. If it's a pickup basketball game, there are likely to be two, one on each team. Conflict? Two tribal parties stalking the same auroch herd encounter each other on the open taiga; conflict is likely. Conflict and war do seem to define us as a species.
What does all this have to do with cave art, and does cave art provide any clues to the question of the development of types of government in prehistoric times? Good question and one I will attempt to answer.