In A Modern World Can We Learn From Cave Paintings?


The ‘dumb Neanderthal myth’ is continually debunked. With the discovery of prehistoric art galleries on rocks worldwide we see how our extinct human cousins appreciated beauty and life. Advancement in understanding Palaeolithic Europeans and their accomplishments and communications – especially as seen through cave paintings – has opened our eyes to a people that were creative and adventurous. Is there anything that we can learn in our modern lives based on an understanding of cave painting? In particular, what can cave paintings teach us about communication and community?

Painting a picture of community

What message about community do some of the oldest cave paintings have for us today? We can learn from the oldest cave paintings in Spain and recent discoveries in America, that date back 6,000 yearsDiscovering ancient cave images that depict acts of service, celebration or community involvement allude to an understanding of humanity. Today, such things are paramount to our health and well-being. Upper Paleolithic humans understood the importance of community involvement. Today, nine out of ten people report getting a profound ‘emotional high’ from participating in activities that build community cohesion.

The importance of the Magura Cave

The Magura Cave in Bulgaria shows a great example of community. The depiction dating back over 8,000 years, shows women and men engaged in what is thought to be a festival. In the cave art, the community is capturing what is important to them – hunting to provide for the community and a fertility dance. To this day, coming together for important life events is essential human behaviour. The Magura Cave in particular is still a place for the community to gather for music concerts and other events.

Using art to communicate

Cave paintings illustrate the human need to communicate. This communication takes its form in leaving a mark for the future- to help guide, or communicate something so important that it needs a permanent representation. That is why the Altamira Cave in Spain is of major importance. Believed to be over 35,000 years old it mainly depicts bison. It goes beyond what you may have seen in ancient cave art. Instead, with these artworks the creators took into account the rock formations so that they could communicate the viscosity of the animal. The artist used the protruding rocks to exaggerate the features of animals and make them appear as though they were three dimensional. This experimentation shows an understanding of how to communicate effectively using visual prompts.

Pride and persuasion in cave paintings

Effective communication is particularly important when symbolism is used. The human beings ability to communicate symbolically has long been linked with our ‘humanness’.  Modern studies on how the brain responds to stimulus shows that humans have a powerful response when an image is distorted. In the Altamira Cave bisons are distorted according to the meat that they offer. Almost like an image in a butcher shop window that advertises the best organic meat available. This shows us that pride and persuasion were big parts of communication when cave painting.

We should not underestimate the importance of visual communication and how it shapes what we see as important. We can question the images we are presented with and endeavour to understand what they represent to us as a community member. Representing our lives via a set of symbols is nothing new. The hashtag movement, children under 12 ‘dabbing’ and a blue thumbs up for liking a youtube clip are all ways that we communicate today. Imagine what people will make of that in 35,000 years!

Death by Plastic Ingestion Is Increasing Among Sea Creatures

by Megan Ray Nichols 

Research suggests that around eight million metric tons of plastic finds its way into the oceans each year — enough to fill five plastic bags for every foot of coastline on the planet.

This plastic has a more significant impact than just being unsightly though. It’s killing growing numbers of marine creatures. One of the most comprehensive studies of the issue to date, conducted by researchers at Plymouth University, found that documented cases of floating debris affected as many as 700 different species, with plastic making up 92 percent of cases they studied.

How Plastic Affects Marine Life

The plastic that ends up in the ocean impacts sea creatures in a variety of ways. One of the most harmful is plastic ingestion. A wide range of sea creatures eat plastic, either by happenstance or because they mistake it for food.

Research into the impacts of plastic ingestion is ongoing, but both anecdotal and scientific evidence show that it can be extremely harmful. In the worst cases, it can lead to death. It could also have impacts on things such as animals’ metabolism and reproduction.

Impacts All Animals

Plastic ingestion can harm all sorts of marine creatures from the largest to the smallest.

A sperm whale recently washed up onto the coast of Spain. The 33-foot-long whale had more than 65 pounds of plastic in its stomach. It could not expel the plastic, so its digestive became infected.

Research has recently confirmed that anchovies are also eating plastic debris. The debris they ingest is known as microplastic that’s less than five millimeters in length and is made up of partially broken down pieces of plastic.

This doesn’t only affect anchovies though. When larger fish eat the anchovies, they also ingest the plastic. This pattern continues up the food chain and could even eventually make its way to humans.

Surface to Lowest Depths

Plastics also impact creatures from the ocean’s surface down to some of its lowest depths. Turtles tend to eat debris floating near the surface with a translucent appearance, such as bags or balloons. This may be because it looks similar to jellyfish. Seabirds also eat plastic, likely because it collects algae and takes on a smell that’s similar to the food these birds eat.

Researchers have also found microplastics at deep ocean depths. One way it can get there involves tiny ocean invertebrates called larvaceans. The plastic ends up in their fecal pellets, which sink quickly into the deep ocean.

Ingestion isn’t the only way that plastic debris harms marine life either. It can also entangle them and cause damage to their habitats.

Ongoing Projects

The growing amount of research and publicized events, such as the death of the sperm whale off the coast of Spain, has inspired various projects that aim to clean up the oceans.

The sperm whale incident led local officials to launch a public awareness campaign of the plastics issue that included 11 beach cleanup events and 19 public forums. Similar events and campaigns are going on around the world.

Several technological solutions are also making headlines. One of the most promising ideas came from an 18-year-old from the Netherlands named Boyan Slat. He founded an organization called the Ocean Cleanup in 2013 based on a passive plastic collection system.

The system floats and moves with the currents the same way that plastic debris does. A drift anchor keeps the system moving slower than the plastic, however, which enables it to catch it in its solid screen. The organization estimates that it could reduce the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by 50 percent in just five years with full deployment. It expects to deploy its first system in mid-2018.

How You Can Help

You don’t necessarily have to be a scientist, engineer, inventor or public official to help protect marine animals from the harm caused by eating plastic.

Perhaps the most effective thing you can do is simply use less disposable plastics. If you do use some disposable plastic, ensure that it gets recycled or reuse it.

Another way to help is to find volunteer activities or participate in cleanup events. Even spreading the word about the plastics issue can also have a profound effect.


Awesome ‘Possum

Today I received a copy of Awesome ‘Possom volume 3 in my mail from Angela Boyle, a natural science illustrator and cartoonist who has curated and edited the fourth volume of Awesome ‘Possum. Before I had laid my hands on the book, I had imagined it to be a few-pages-long book that I would sit down and devour in the evening. Boy I was wrong. When I opened my mailbox, I was pleasantly surprised by a 400 page beast of a book. I flipped a few pages and was blown by thinking about the amount of cumulative effort and coordination that must have gone in realizing this book.

Excited, I sat down and started reading every word from the cover and beyond. Not having ever read an illustrated book, I had judged them to be the books for children. I was too old to enjoy them I had thought. When I sent the pictures of the book to my friends, “Aww that’s such a sweet children’s book” is what I got from these other engineers too. I think this is a disease we engineers have, assuming cartoons = children.

Not having experienced something like this, if that’s you, let me tell you, you should get a volume of Awesome ‘Possum to get rid of that delusion. It is indeed a fantastic book for children of all ages. But it is equally good, if not better, for adults! Adults would definitely extract a lot of great experience and knowledge out of it. That is exactly what I told my friends too.

First of course was a beautiful introduction by Ursula Vernon who has a peculiar hobby of taking pictures of moths, and does it despite being a not-so-great photographer or etymologist. With these hobbies in her life she has managed to do big things which I think will touch you better if you read the actual introduction yourself. Maybe, this book right here was a gateway to my own peculiar hobby I thought, and turned the page.

Being an engineer I honestly do now know a lot about animals. A few general things and when I manage to dig few obscure facts, I get excited, do more research and often write about them on my blog here. My point is that the natural world is inherently very fascinating. If you think it is not, you have not known a lot about it.

Awesome ‘Possom was a perfect exposure of the natural world for me. It talks to me about things like, how I should be thankful for little known scientists like Philip Henry Gosse, Anna Thynne and Jeanne Willepreux Power because of whom we are able to decorate our homes with glass boxes (aquariums) with little alien worlds in them. Or things like how rolling bees in sugar could sometimes be a better way to do a mite count and figure if the mite infection is above the threshold to proceed with a treatment. Because alcohol kills the bees.

I noticed a stark difference in the illustration style of each comic and conveniently found the name of the cartoonist or natural science illustrator on top of every page of that chapter. The works of these talented people from across the North America and the world, compiled into this book, refresh you with a diverse subject matter and illustration style every few minutes. And this is just the volume 3 I’m talking about. Then there’s 1, 2 and 4 which is up on kickstarter right now. Volume 4 includes cover art by Eisner-nominated Tillie Walden, creator of Spinning (First Second, 2017) and a foreword by Jon Chad, creator of Volcanoes: Fire and Life (First Second, 2016). I for sure am going to read all of them. In my free time I have been exploring the amazing works of various artists mentioned on this kickstarter page.


Say, Elise Smorczewski for example. She grew up on a farm that fostered a lifelong fascination with animals of all kinds. And Spratty, a cartoonist living near Philadelphia with their various human companions, two snakes, and two cats. They think reptiles are great. More importantly they have had first hand experiences and deep insights to share from their own experiences. Also, they are a wonderfully reliable to get your science facts from!

Chicken Scratch, by Elise Smorcsewski

I have been finding that the snippets of wisdom I get out of illustrations actually stick as if I someone had told me about them. That’s because everything is so visual and is delivered in a way that is easy to digest. You do not get this out of reading dense textbooks. Especially true for people like me who are not directly involved in natural sciences research. We are not great at extracting knowledge out of reference texts without a significant amount of experience in that particularly narrow field. Just within the first few pages I had extracted enough things to delve deeper into and to write about them on my blog. I will be doing that as I go.

I know that the book / scholar world thrives on criticism. That’s not me. i get my style from reading people like Maria Popova of Brain Pickings who believes in book recommendations rather than book reviews. I want to do that. I do not deem myself capable to criticize the work that I myself am not capable of producing. The only thing I see is the endless value in the thousands of human-hours spent in producing carefully curated work for me.

Rattle snakes have infrared detectors on them. How is that not cool, especially for a person who works with infrared spectra on a daily basis.  I realize the importance of having specialized detectors for getting the right information at the right wavelength range. And that reminds me of how a son and dad open up the rattle of a rattle snake in their youtube video to see how it works. And who would have known that rattle snakes also are great parents. The rattle snake illustrations making it easier for me to understand actual rattle snake research also inspires me to look for, or think about making illustrated research papers for the layman to understand my own field! This source of inspiration does not stop for hundreds of pages.

Do not forget to go explore the kickstarter to help the artists get their fair share for their hard work.