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Archeologists have tried to come up with the meaning of Paleolithic art with different analogies being used to explain these arts. Some argue that the signs in Paleolithic arts are religious signs. Others argue that these signs are images of huts, traps and shrines that characterized most people in the Paleolithic period. However, the major debated issues on the interpretation of Paleolithic art are whether they can be interpreted. Lewis-Williams and Dowson in their article, The Signs of All Times: Entoptic Phenomena in Upper Palaeolithic Art argues that it is possible to interpret Paleolithic art. On the other hand, Conkey, in her article, Images without Words: The Construction of Prehistoric Imaginaries for Definitions of Us believes that these images are incomprehensible.
Lewis-Williams and Dowson argues that Paleolithic art can be understood by studying the mental imagery used in their construction. The authors explain that the mammals, which are inclusive of humans, hallucinate and hallucination is a part of the mammalian nervous system. During hallucinations, mammals experience “non-real visual precepts.” Since first humans that existed long ago such as Australopithecus also hallucinated, their art can be explained. The authors argue that the reason why we don’t understand early human imagery is because of the differences in cultural expectations, which play a huge role in informing imagery.
According to the same author, another thing that points to the fact that Paleolithic art can be interpreted is because of the early human mental imagery is similar to the mental imagery created under certain circumstances. Most researchers in the 19th century called these images ‘visual dusts’. However, some modern researchers have come into conclusions that these are not mere dusts. At these altered states, the images formed are recurring elements even if they are complex. In most cases, these images are grids, spirals, dots and zigzags that seem not to make sense. However, the images, which are obtained from the human nervous system, are perceived by all humans who enter some altered state meaning that they are characteristic of all humans.
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Some of these altered states include electric stimulation and this is similar to the fire light, which could have stimulated their production among the Paleolithic humans. Other stimulants are psychoactive drugs, which also generate similar visual images. This, according to the authors is equal to feelings of fatigue, migraine, auditory driving, sensory deprivation and hyperventilation, which are some of the reasons that could have led to the production of these images in the past by the Paleolithic humans. Although the researchers come into this argument, they agree that researchers still have to conduct more studies in order to determine whether these images are related to certain generation circumstances.
While this is the argument by Lewis-Williams and Dowson, Conkey believes that they are “‘jumbled’ beyond comprehension, if ‘comprehension’ of our sort was ever even intended”. The author argues that most people call these images cave art, but the fact is some of us have rejected this generalization. In this case, she means that these are not cave art. One of the reasons why it is hard to understand anything from these images is because most of them are unfinished, according to Conkey. Some of these images, according to the same researcher, are hand prints and this is true because of their repetitiveness and their similarity with images from different places and time.
The author argues that visual evidence, which was used in understanding these images have been questioned for quite some time now. In addition, because of the change of humans to the modern, there is little chance that these images will be interpreted. In addition, the fact that some of these images seem as if they were art for the sake makes it even harder for the interpretation of these images.
The author also argues that the time that has been used to bring some meanings to these images shows that they cannot be interpreted. In addition, past studies concentrated in the time the images were created instead of concentrating on the meaning of the images. This led to loss of time in their comprehension through detailed study.
The method of interpretation used by many could also hinder the interpretation of these artworks according to Conkey. These images also do not have accompanying texts and do not have any direct genealogies. In addition, the difference in context and cultural change can play a big factor in the interpretation of these images. What inspired them remains unclear and is conflicting with the history of the human experience meaning that it is hard to understand them because of the differences in the human experience.
There has also been shifting roles among humans and it is impossible to use images in explaining these shifting roles. The images also lack status in terms of time and space and this makes them even harder to interpret. More so, accessing these images for their study is not a simple thing. Their reproduction for study is also limited and this makes them hard to disseminate them to different specialists in order to be studied.
Conkey also argues that most of these images do not have an exact date. Some date 1200 years ago while others date 25,000 years ago. Because of this, it is almost impossible to place them in one time context to study and understand them.
The presumptions that follows these arts also hinders others from understanding them. For example, there is an assumption that some of them are culturally meaningful and this has kept people from taking the symbols seriously and also studying them with the same seriousness. In most cases, the images are often associated with this spiritual world and with such associations, most people are not willing to study them.
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