The Vandal in the Catherdral, Part I

Everything is connected, yet everything remains a mystery because consciousness is incapable of understanding itself. So in almost anything we want to talk about (understand) that has to do with the mind, we must use metaphors.

I am fascinated by primitive art, specifically the earliest known examples of human-created two-dimensional art: cave art. I think I came to this place of appreciation by becoming tattooed.

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My interest in tattoo art and practice was arrived at first by chance, then intuitively. In 1985, I accompanied my friend, Stephen, when he got his first tattoo at the historically significant Lyle Tuttle Tattoo Studio in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco. (I don’t recall the name of the studio.) I had never considered being tattooed before this unless you count the few times I scratched shapes and patterns, and one time the name of my girlfriend, in my arm. Technically, that was scarification, not tattooing, though they’re certainly related.

I was also an early adopter of multiple ear piercings. I did my first piercing at home with ice and a needle in 1975. Then, a year later, I shocked the customers at the small-town grocery store I worked in by having both of my ears pierced, which was practically inconceivable for a “normal” man to do. By 1985 I had multiple piercings in both ears, but tattooing wasn’t on my radar.

I referred to the Tuttle studio as historic because he was a pioneer and key figure in the ensuing tattoo renaissance that preceded the mainstreaming of what once was considered an outsider practice. His studio was also a tattoo museum, and my introduction to tattoo as an ancient and universal cultural art and practice.

Stephen was getting a dragon tattoo on his forearm, and I remember it taking a long time. So, to stave off my boredom, I explored the museum and became intrigued enough to get a small tattoo on my back. Very small. The size of a quarter. There are a couple of humorous details about this tattoo experience, but I want to talk about something else here. All of this was a prelude to mentioning another tattoo I got six or seven years later.

I’m a voracious reader interested in culture, archeology, and anthropology, so by around 1992, I had read a lot about the origins of tattooing. One book I had was about the earliest known examples of tattooing, including reproductions of the tattoos found on a Siberian mummy from 2,500 years ago. She’s known as the Altai Ice Maiden, and her body was well enough preserved that several of her tattoos were intact, looking very much now as they would have when she was alive.

crude black and white drawing of a stylized horse wearing an elaborate headdress

How incredible is that? 2,500 yearTwo thousand five hundred, some random person got a tattoo on her arm that is still visible today. I copied the design, took it to another somewhat historic studio, Timeless Tattoo, and replicated it on the same arm and in an approximate position as the Ice Maiden. It’s a simple black tattoo outline of a horse with an elaborate headdress. It’s one of my favorites.

In my research of tattoo history, I discovered rock art, petroglyphs, pictograms, and cave art. I love copying these ancient designs and incorporating them into my digital art. Through these images, I feel a visceral connection to early humans. In addition, it thrills me to think about perpetuating a thread of cultural continuity through working with and promoting ancient art.

This brings me to the topic of this essay. I’m reading The Mind in the Cave by David Lewis-Williams. I’m about a third into it, so I have yet to get to the details of his primary thesis, but I know where he’s going.

Anthropologically speaking, it is commonly understood that something unique and startling occurred in our evolutionary transition from 45,000 to 35,000 years ago, and a sudden and widespread boom in the practice of cave art indicates it.

The thing about cave art that distinguishes it from all other early forms of artistic development is its unlikeliness. Many of the caves, mainly the most extravagantly preserved and significant, are very deep and not easily accessible. To enter these caves and navigate through small crevices and narrow tunnels in which even the smaller humans of the time would have to crouch to reach the deeper recesses is very difficult. Not only that, but the depths are utterly oblivious to lighting. Hand-held torches were required. Materials had to be carried in. Cave art was not an incidental or merely ornamental undertaking. There must have been some profound motivations for creating these earliest occurrences of representational art. What could they have been?

Lewis-William’s theory has to do with the evolution of consciousness, intelligence, and the discovery and use of hallucinogenic substances. As I said, I’m not there yet in the book, but I know it’s coming. What prompted this essay is something he discusses about intelligence and the differences between Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens’ intelligence.

In chapter four, Lewis-Williams introduces the theory of another archaeologist, Steven Mithen. Modern humans have what is considered generalized intelligence, but early humans had what is called modular intelligence. Human brains function modularly in that specific brain regions have different functions, but we also can use the other modules in tandem or concurrently. Like chewing gum and walking at the same time.

Mithen proposes that early Homo Sapiens did not have general intelligence, that their brain functions were distinctly apart from each other, and their intelligence was limited modularly. Like this:

The four mental modules:

  • social intelligence
  • technical intelligence
  • natural history intelligence, and
  • linguistic intelligence

For instance, anatomically archaic people (who did not have generalized intelligence) could learn multi-stage procedures for making stone artifacts (technical intelligence), but this degree of complexity could not spill over into elaborate kinds of social relations (social intelligence). Indeed, he argues that there was little interaction, or accessibility, between intelligence modules prior to the Transition. The minds of archaic people were like Swiss army knives: they comprised a set of gadgets each dedicated to a specific task.

This framing explains one of the mysteries of, and significant differences between, Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens. Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens co-existed for millennia, yet their evolutionary fates diverged, with Neanderthals dying off and Sapiens continuing to evolve. There is also little evidence that the Neanderthal was significantly influenced or changed by their exposure to Sapiens. The cultural commonalities are limited to elementary overlapping of technical intelligence, meaning using tools. I’m oversimplifying here because this isn’t the exciting part.

What made me drop the book in mid-sentence to open my text editor and start writing was what came next:

Mithen invokes a second beguiling metaphor, that of a cathedral (Fig. 24). The central nave represents general intelligence. Ranged around the nave are four chapels, each dedicated to one of the four mental modules. Prior to the Transition, there was little or no traffic between the chapels, though the possible linking power of rudimentary language in the Middle Palacolithic should be taken into account. Then, at the Transition, there was a wave of vandalism that led to the demolition of the walls between the individual chapels and between them and the nave. This demolition allowed the transfer of intelligence from chapel to chapel and the enlargement of the central nave of general intelligence.

black and white schematic diagram illustrating the cathedral described in the above paragraph

The Transition referenced here is the mystery of what might have spurred the sudden onset of the prolific and widespread introduction of two-dimensional art throughout Europe cultures, which occurred concurrently with the divergence of the evolutionary fates of Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens.

I knew before buying the book that the central thesis would have to do with hallucinogenics and rituals. The intrinsic difficulties of discovering, navigating, and ultimately adorning the walls of deep underground caverns (cathedrals) are primary to their existence and significance. What suddenly occurred wasn’t merely the introduction or evolution of art but of the general intelligence of humans.

To illustrate an extension of this point, The vandal that directed the destruction was thoroughly modern language. The metaphor of language breaking down walls may be especially appropriate because, as researchers such as Chomsky and Bickerton have argued, the emergence of fully modern language must have been fairly sudden and not a gradation of barely discernible steps (though when this happened and what its immediate effects were remain to be determined).

This isn’t my first exposure to the idea that hallucinogenics contributed to the evolution of human intelligence, perhaps the contributing factor. Terrence McKenna (and others) popularized this notion a few decades ago. I’ve also read about the evolution of language and intelligence. I’m not surprised by what I’m reading. 

My ‘aha’ moment this afternoon happened when I read the above cathedral analogy. This analogy about the catalyst for, and the resulting evolutionary shift of, Homo Sapiens’ intelligence mirrors my evolution as a survivor of childhood sexual victimization.

As many other instances of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse I may have experienced within my biological family, that day, the day the older boy put a knife to my throat and assaulted me in that abandoned chicken coop, was a fundamental cause of my decades-long struggle with mental illness (Complex-PTSD). What happened to me wasn’t exactly lost. I have always remembered it but only in pieces. Here’s how my memory worked:

One day, I remember the place. Mind says, don’t think about it. On another day, I remember running. Mind says, don’t think about it. Another day, another sliver: I cried for help. Don’t think about it. A jack-knife. Don’t think about it. A flash of white underpants. Don’t! There are more pieces, but you get the gist.

My brother Frankie’s suicide, a quarter-century later, was another critical event. We had returned to Atlanta from his memorial service a few days earlier. I was lying on my bed in the afternoon, resting. Pam was in the backyard cottage visiting with friends. Then, one by one, the slivers began appearing. The place. The running and crying out. The jack-knife. The flash of white underpants. Frankie was there. Frankie was there!

In a previous essay, I talked about Frankie’s unfathomable and infuriating letter to me, which came a few years before his death. I had written to my parents to tell them I was in therapy dealing with the effects of their shitty parenting, and I wanted no contact from them for a while. Ethel shared the letter with Frankie, who responded with a long, rambling, hand-written letter about how miserable he was. How much he hated himself. How he’s been a phony his whole life, and if anyone found out who he really was, they would hate him. I was furious, but more than that, I had no idea why he would dump this on me when he knew I was struggling.

I angrily shredded the letter and threw the pieces away. I didn’t responded, not even to acknowledge that I had received it. We never saw each other or spoke again. It was only after his suicide that I understood that the letter was, at least in part, a confession and an apology.

(If you’re coming to this story anew, you need to know that Frankie was not the older boy who assaulted me. What I finally remembered, and what he very obliquely alluded to in his letter, was that he was present for the assault. His failure was that, as the older brother, he didn’t protect me from his friends.)

I am not saying that Frankie’s suicide was a result of anything that happened between us, as children or adults. All of my siblings were abused and traumatized by our parents, and probably by Verna, my father’s mother. I’m aware of one, possibly two, other suicide attempts among us. I know that Frankie also struggled with mental illness his entire life. The day of my sexual assault, however it came to be, was just one of many emotional and psychic assaults that happened to us all.

We had been very close as children. Then we weren’t. I don’t remember if he turned away from me or me from him. More likely, it was mutual. It was a gulf that was never bridged.

That day I first put it all together, I was still left with a mystery. I remembered everything until the moment that jack-knife was held to my throat. At that moment, it seemed as if I had blacked out. The memory stops abruptly. The following 12 years of therapy were about exploring that day—that single moment. I hated not knowing what came next, so I kept trying to get it…

Coming in Part II: Paranoia Will Destroy Ya (Unless It Doesn’t); The Stages of a Ritual; The Cave in the Mind

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