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Cave Rituals and the Brain's Theatre

From: Theatre Symposium
Volume 21, 2013
pp. 116-136 | 10.1353/tsy.2013.0004

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The term "theatre" comes from the ancient Greek theatron, the "seeing place" for the audience. But theatre in its most basic sense, as the space and activity of a spectator and a performer with reflective awareness between them, extends much further back into prehistory. Such reflective awareness of Self and Other in performance also relates to the theatres of imagination, memories, dreams, and reality representations within the brains of each actor and spectator. This inner theatre extends back to prehistory, too, with brain structures that we have inherited along with evolving rituals of transcendence and reflective performance spaces.

A primal form of theatrical performance and awareness of Self and Other emerged in certain caves thirty-t wo thousand to eleven thousand years ago during the Ice Age (or Upper Paleolithic Period), as evidenced by the art on the cave walls and other artifacts. One of the earliest, with some of the finest art, is shown in Werner Herzog's 2010 3-D documentary film Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It explores prehistoric art in the Chauvet Cave in France, which was discovered in 1994 and has since been off-limits to the public. This essay considers that film and cave, plus details from lesser-known caves in France and Spain, which I visited in June 2011. Such caves offer evidence of a primal form of reflective performance: the evolution of human subjectivity based in, yet moving beyond, primate playfulness through shared emotions, neural filters, and simulations of the Other. How did the selection of specific cave spaces for paintings and engravings on the walls, along with the types of images made, express not only the performances in them but also the birth of a distinct sense of Self, of human character being like and unlike observed animals, using the cave wall as a map and mirror?

Theories of Cave Theatre

In his recent book, Palaeoperformance, and in earlier essays, Yann-Pierre Montelle explores the evidence for many aspects of theatricality in the prehistoric caves of France: not only the paintings, etchings, and carvings on the rock walls but also the various sizes and shapes of caverns; the bone flutes, scrapers, and bullroarers found in them; and the resonant tones produced today by tapping stalactites of different lengths. Prior to Montelle, Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams developed a theory, based on such evidence along with neuroscience research and anthropological comparisons with recent African traditions, that prehistoric cave art shows the recording, display, and ritual use of hallucinatory trance experiences involving animal-spirit guides. Ice Age peoples may have produced cave art through visions that occurred spontaneously in the extreme darkness with its echoing sounds, evoked by the flickering fires of torches and animal-fat lamps, painful treks deep into the earth, loss of oxygen and increase of other gases, and the rock's natural shapes and crevices. Shamanic drugs might also have been involved. The mysterious geometric lines and dots in prehistoric cave art, along with realistic animal figures and hybrid human-animal creatures, correspond to the types and stages of hallucinatory visions that can be evoked today in the laboratory through sensory deprivation or flashing lights. Such hallucinations, though now involving objects in our own cultural context, are also experienced by people with migraines and other disorders. Thus, cave art may reveal two possible manifestations of prehistoric theatre: (1) visionary experiences of geometric, abstract, and supernatural figures from within a human brain projected onto or through the rock surface and (2) shared performances in the cave using the rock art as scenic background, mythic illustrations, or moving characters in the firelight and its shadows.

The types of cave-art spaces also demonstrate various aspects of prehistoric theatre. Some are easily accessible in huge chambers. Others are hundreds of meters inside the earth, requiring crouched walking or crawling through narrow passages. In more accessible chambers, processions and large ritual gatherings may have occurred. But for those with tight corridors deep into the darkness, with slippery surfaces, low ceilings, and sudden cliffs, and with bears, hyenas, and lions potentially present, great courage and painful ordeals were involved for a few individuals—perhaps shamanic leaders putting initiates through transformative nightmares. Montelle relates this...

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