The Prehistory of Autism

Penny Spikins and Barry Wright

Rounded Globe


Preface – what terms to use?

Anybody who uses the term ‘autism’ is faced with the challenge that autism is a highly variable condition which affects people in different ways. For some people with autism, their autism is a severe impairment, a condition which brings severe challenges and affects many areas of their life. To not acknowledge their difficulties would be to fail to engage with the challenges they face and even to risk depriving such people of the evident justification for much needed help. For many people, however, autism can present challenges in some contexts but also advantages in others. For such people to term their autism a disability seems mistaken; for them there are good arguments for seeing autism as simply a difference, bringing both advantages and disadvantages, or strengths and weaknesses as with any other difference.

The very varied nature of autism means that no term or even approach will be entirely appropriate for everyone whom autism affects. Many might find that our discussion of the talents and special skills associated with autism and how these might have contributed to human success validates their own feeling of their own important talents and skills. However, others might feel that this sets unrealistic expectations that they should have an area of particular contribution and downplays the difficulties which they face. Equally, for some our discussion of how disabilities in general were treated in prehistory is important to better understand how autism that brings clear impairments might have been integrated into communities, for many any association of autism with clear impairments in function is problematic as their autism is best seen as simply a difference in mind rather than a condition requiring support. We like to think that any reader will take from this book that which is particularly pertinent and valuable to them.

We argue that viewing autism as necessarily a disability prevents us from understanding the contribution that individuals with autism have made to our human communities. Viewing autism as a difference is much more constructive; but this in no way negates the challenges which autism may bring.

In this ebook, we will juggle differing perspectives on autism, and generally use the term autism to refer to a wide ranging and complex spectrum.


Are our images and ideas of our human evolutionary past flawed?

We love simple stories, with a single hero to relate to. Human evolution has traditionally been presented very much as this kind of simple story (Landau 1993). Our narratives of human evolution tell us about the heroic rise and success of one type of person, whilst our reconstructions of the distant past almost always depict one ideal type – young men, in perfect health, who show no signs of difference or vulnerability. We know evolution was a complex process, with many branching trees, but we prefer to see a single type of person evolving, following a single evolutionary progression from past to present (figure i.1).

Figure i.1. Human evolution: the story of just one mind and one type of person?.

Of course, when we pause to think about it we know such images of the distant past cannot be wholly representative. Physical differences, vulnerabilities and disabilities are everywhere in our anatomical record, and cognitive differences, vulnerabilities and disabilities were likely also widespread. Moreover, as many as half the population at any one time were sub-adult, many were elderly, and, unsurprisingly, half of our ancestors were women. Perhaps even more fundamentally, our ancestral environments were not ones in which anyone survived alone or went through life without depending on others. Coping with individual vulnerability through mutual dependence structured how people survived. In our modern, western and industrialised societies we tend to think of ourselves as independent individuals, and we impose that on our past; however, we evolved as communities. We rarely consider the potential significance of the diversity and difference which must have existed in our evolutionary past.

When we consider how diverse and interdependent past societies must have been we can’t help but wonder if diversity itself might have been important in some way in our evolutionary success. Different people bring different skills and talents and might find different solutions to problems which threaten survival, and it isn’t difficult to see that any prehistoric group with a range of varied talents might fare better than one where everyone is similar. More than this, whilst we so often focus on one ‘typical’ person when we consider our evolutionary story, perhaps the relationships between people may be more significant (Spikins, Wright, and Hodgson 2016)?

Here we will consider precisely these questions, focusing particularly on the unique contribution made by individuals with autism.

Considering the evolutionary context of autism is certainly a challenge. Unlike many other conditions, which we can trace back into the past through physical evidence, autism leaves no direct anatomical signs. This means that we must rely on subtle and indirect evidence to understand autism in the distant past. However, unlike many of the conditions for which we find evidence in the past, autism is not clearly a disability or disorder. Autism is sometimes associated with intellectual disabilities and can be severely disabling, and for some individuals the attribution of disability (unhelpful though such a concept can be) is vital to their accessing the support that they need. To understand the role of such individuals in the past we need to understand how past societies coped with individuals who needed considerable support. However, for many people autism seems far more of a difference than a disability, bringing with it both deficits and skills. Such individuals today contribute to society in many ways. Common sense suggests that such individuals might have played an important role in the distant past, but is there any evidence that that was indeed the case? And what might autism have contributed to human evolutionary success?

The question of the role of autism in our shared evolutionary history is not only significant in our understanding of the past but also important today. As autism touches the lives of almost all of us, either personally or through friends or family, diagnosed or undiagnosed it seems valuable to explore this question more deeply.

We start our discussion in chapter one by considering the archaeological evidence. It has been argued that some elements of the archaeological record of the distant past, in particular European Ice Age art, reflect traits of autism. Archaeology, however, has been rather slow to wonder whether there is any evidence for a role for individuals with autism in the societies of the distant past, and whatever hints have emerged of a possible influence of autism have tended to be ignored. In this first chapter, we consider what conclusions, if any, we can draw directly from the archaeological evidence.

In chapter two we consider the characteristics of autism in more detail, looking at recent research into the differences which the condition brings and the balance of skills and weaknesses. We consider how autistic talents and traits of autism might have lent themselves to particular roles in the distant past, and put forward a new way of looking at autism.

In chapter three we consider the far distant evolutionary past, from the split between those species who became human ancestors and our nearest relatives, chimpanzees. We look at how disabilities might have been treated in far distant societies, and how the inclusion of vulnerabilities likely developed in human societies through time.

In chapter four we consider key characteristics of hunting and gathering societies emerging from 100,000 years ago which might have allowed particular roles for individuals with autism to emerge. We use analogies with modern hunting and gathering societies as well as archaeological evidence to consider what life may have been like for individuals with autism in hunting and gathering societies of the distant past.

In chapter five we reflect on the potential significance of autism to human evolutionary success, and on explanations for the possible traits of autism in European Ice Age art discussed in chapter one.

We conclude by reflecting on a new story of human origins.

We argue that autism, and the diversity of cognition of which autism is a part, was significant to human evolutionary success. The significance of traits of autism became particularly apparent after 100,000 years ago alongside three major changes in human society and adaptation: changes in population structure, the colonisation of increasingly difficult habitats and, most importantly, the emergence of collaborative morality. Traits of autism in Upper Palaeolithic art may represent something more fundamental than simply the possible presence of individuals with autism.

By considering the past we argue for a new view of autism today, one in which we recognise that, as human societies, not only do individuals with autism need communities but communities need individuals with autism.

We reflect that writing a new story of human origins, in which diversity in general and autistic diversity in particular, play a major role is not necessarily an easy task... but it is surely a particularly important one.


Landau, M. 1993. Narratives of Human Evolution. Yale University Press.

Spikins, P. A., Wright, B and Hodgson, D. 2016 in press. “Are There Alternative Adaptive Strategies to Human pro-Sociality? The Role of Collaborative Morality in the Emergence of Personality Variation and Autistic Traits.” Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture

CHAPTER ONE: Traits of autism and the archaeology of the Palaeolithic

What possible evidence can there be of autism in the distant past?

We shall see in chapter three that physical vulnerabilities are widespread in the far distant past. Many individuals living with injuries or impairments, even those severe enough to render them immobile, were looked after by their communities. Differences and efforts to accommodate them are part of the human story.

However, there is no physical evidence of individuals with autism as the condition leaves no trace on human bones. If we are to look for the influence of autism on distant societies we must, therefore, turn our gaze to the material culture of such societies.

In this chapter we consider the archaeological evidence, particularly cave art produced in the Ice Age, which has been interpreted as evidence of the presence of autism. Ice Age art is associated with what is seen as a flowering of European cultural sophistication, and with autism conventionally seen as a disorder, attempts to connect it with Ice Age art have been contentious. Nevertheless, characteristics of this art do seem similar to some of the characteristics of art made by talented individuals with autism. Does that mean that the art was produced by individuals with autism? We shall see that the question is rather more complex. Art is part of everyday life in the Ice Age, and traits of autism are found not only in cave art but also in such realms as portable art and technology. Yet this material record speaks of far more than traits of autism. Indeed, much of the art and material culture doesn’t show such traits, and there may be other explanations for the similarities. There is no unambiguous evidence of the work of an individual who must have had autism.

This does not mean that there is nothing to learn about autism from Upper Palaeolithic art. In fact, such art may tell us something more fundamental than simply whether or not individuals with autism left their mark on the material record. In order to understand so-called traits of autism and what they might mean about autism in the distant past however we find that we will, however, need to delve a little deeper into both autism and past hunter-gatherer societies.

Ice Age Art: The question of autism in Prehistory emerges

Several authors have linked features of European Ice Age art to autism, so such art is an obvious starting point for any exploration of the potential archaeological evidence for the influence of autism in our distant past. However, suggestions of a relationship between autism and Ice Age art have been deeply contentious. When we understand the historical background to the discovery of Ice Age art this is perhaps not surprising. For various reasons Ice Age art seems to carry a significance which goes beyond what it tells us about past communities and into what we feel signifies key characteristics of national identities and even humanity itself. Only when we understand this background does the intensity of the debate about art and autism fall into place.

Ice Age art in historical and political context

European Ice Age art, dating to far distant periods, from around 30,000 to around 10,000 years ago, is deeply evocative. Most people have heard of the great painted caves of southwest Europe, of exciting discoveries of past masterpieces in evocative locations which seem to capture the human spirit. Standing deep in a dark cave, seeing art made by someone twenty or thirty thousand years ago that seems to have been made only yesterday, is a deeply moving experience. Moreover, these artists were clearly talented, depicting horses or bison or lions with a realism which lies well beyond most people’s artistic ability. In fact, the experience of encountering Ice Age art is so moving, so deeply emotional, that the art is often taken to symbolise something profound about how people communicate and its emergence and flourishing is taken as marking a significant transition towards what feels like humanity in the story of our origins.

The clear talent expressed in Ice Age art has been problematic from its first discovery. In fact some of the earliest finds were felt to be too sophisticated to have been made by ‘primitive’ prehistoric peoples and lay unrecognised for years. Finely made engravings of animals on bone plaquettes were found in France from as early as the 1860s, for example, but their authenticity remained in question. Doubts also remained for some time after engravings of extinct animals, such as the mammoth on a bone found by Édouard Lartet in the rock shelter of La Madeleine in the Dordogne in 1864 (figure 1.1), were discovered. Moreover the discovery of the dramatic frieze of bison at Altamira by Marceino Sainz de Sautola in 1895 (figure 1.2 and figure 1.3) wasn’t believed to be genuine until the early twentieth century.

Figure 1.1. Engraving of a mammoth on a bone found in excavations at La Madeleine, France in 1864.

Figure 1.2. The ceiling at Altamira, discovered in 1895.

Figure 1.3. Detail of depiction of a bison at Altamira.

Once accepted as genuine, however, the sophistication of Ice Age art was re-interpreted as heralding the arrival of something momentous. In effect, if such sophisticated art was genuinely ancient, then the people who made it must have been culturally sophisticated. Thus, for example, a recent exhibition of Ice Age portable art at the British Museum was subtitled ‘the arrival of the modern mind’ (Cook 2012) and comparisons were drawn between Ice Age art and the most famous examples of European modern art.

Reconstructions of these caves for tourist visits have become huge commercial concerns. Ice Age art seems entwined with ideas that move beyond an interest in the Palaeolithic period and take their meaning from concepts of some imagined unique European cultural sophistication. More stylised art, even if equally old, such as the art made by indigenous populations in Australia, receives far less attention.

Ice Age art and autism – a contentious combination

Because of what Ice Age art means to us today, there could hardly have been a more contentious idea than associating the realism, skill and sophistication seen in Ice Age art with autism: something which has been depicted as a disorder. Yet this is exactly what the philosopher Nicolas Humphrey did in 1988 when he noted something remarkable, namely that many of the characteristics seen in European Ice Age art matched characteristics seen in art produced by talented artists with autism (Humphrey 1998). Like the drawings of Nadia, a talented, but largely non verbal autistic artist, depictions of animals made by people in the Ice Age were exceptionally accurate and detailed, even though clearly drawn from memory. Like Nadia’s work, Ice Age art also focused on components of animals rather than whole forms, as well as being unconcerned by the superimposition or layering of depictions on top of each other (figure 2.2).

Horse depictions at Chauvet CaveHorses drawn by Nadia
Horse depictions at Lascaux CaveHorses drawn by Nadia

Figure 1.4. Nicolas Humphrey compared depictions of horses from Chauvet Cave (upper left) and Lascaux Cave (lower left) with drawings made by Nadia, a talented child with severe autism (right, at 3 years 5 months).

Unsurprisingly when Humphrey pointed out that Nadia’s exceptionally talented drawings shared features with Upper Palaeolithic art he created something of a stir.

It seemed clear that Nadia’s autism influenced her remarkable ability to see details in the world, to remember them and to reproduce them in ways that made her an extraordinarily talented artist who drew in a particular way. Some Palaeolithic art might then share something with autism that might explain the similarities.

Today we can see that the characteristics of Nadia’s art related to key features of her autism: a focus on parts rather than wholes derived from poor central coherence (a particular focus on details rather than the overall pattern), superimposition of forms related to ease in separating different forms though skills in identifying embedded figures, and accurate depiction from memory related to remarkable memory skills – all characteristics that can be connected to the type of perception associated with autistic minds (which we consider in more detail in the next chapter).

Humphrey particularly emphasised, however, that Nadia’s art seemed to have some relationship to her lack of verbal ability. As a child Nadia lacked all but the most simple verbal language. Her expertise in accurate visual representation was interpreted as related to this lack of language. Unencumbered by social categories imposed on what she drew, she drew an image, almost like a photograph, of what lay before her as she remembered it in all its detail (figure 1.5). As Lorna Selfe (1977) noted, children of a similar age without autism perceive, remember and draw an ‘ideal’ stylised horse (see figure 1.6) focusing on what they know a ‘horse’ implies (such as being an animal with four legs). Moreover, as soon as Nadia’s verbal skills began to develop she lost her artistic skills, producing instead drawings more typical of a child of her age. The implication seemed to be that, unencumbered by the imposition of linguistic and social categories, Nadia could see and remember things directly and accurately.

Figure 1.5. Horse and rider completed at approximately 5 years 6 months by Nadia Chomyn.

Figure 1.6. Drawing of a horse by Chloe, a girl of around the same age without autism.

Humphrey did not interpret Ice Age art as produced by individuals with autism. This was entirely reasonable as, given the ubiquity of the art, with over three hundred painted caves and an even greater body of art in the form of portable plaquettes, and the very low population sizes occupying Europe at the time, there was simply an insufficient number of individuals with any rare condition, autism included, to conceivably produce all the art. Rather he focused his explanation of the similarities not on Nadia’s autism itself but on her lack of language. He interpreted the similarities he had noted as potential evidence that the symbolic and linguistic capacities of European Upper Palaeolithic populations were limited. Thus Humphrey argued that such populations lacked language, or more specifically, they lacked a language with names for things other than and beyond human social relationships (so, for example, that they had no name for bison).

It was to the assertion that Upper Palaeolithic populations lacked full language that most responses to Humphrey’s paper were addressed, and perhaps rightly so. The populations that occupied Europe during the last Ice Age were cognitively and biologically fully modern humans, like ourselves, descendants by and large from populations leaving Africa after 100,000 years ago. The idea that such effectively ‘modern’ populations might not have a full capacity for language seemed rather outlandish.

Debate therefore focused more on language than on autism. Nevertheless, a discussion of autism and Ice Age art began to be aired. Alongside others, Paul Bahn, one of the leading international expert on Palaeolithic art, did not accept any necessary link between exceptional talent in art (autistic or otherwise) and a lack of verbal ability. He noted (after Treffert 1989) that the abilities of other talented autistic artists today are unaffected by their verbal abilities. It is certainly the case that similar skills based on a perceptual bias towards precision, an interest in superimposition and extremely accurate rendition from memory are evident in the art of other gifted autistic artists, such as Peter Myers (Myers, Baron-Cohen, and Wheelwright 2004) and Stephen Wiltshire (Wiltshire and Casson 1987; Wiltshire 1989; Wiltshire 1991). Wiltshire, for example, can draw to scale and in perspective in quick succession a view of all of New York after a 20-minute helicopter ride. Neither of these artists suffered any linguistic deficits as adults. Indeed, the loss of special skills is an exception rather than the rule in the case of artists with autism (Treffert 2009). Bahn even acknowledged that there are likely to have been individuals with autism in the Palaeolithic and, moreover, that the similarities which Humphrey outlined between features of European Upper Palaeolithic art and the art made by talented autistic artists required further quantification. Nevertheless, autism was far less of a focus in these discussions than Humphrey’s suggestions of a limited verbal ability in Ice Age artists.

Whilst the specific and immediate responses to Humphrey’s argument became mired in debates about language, the relationship between such art and traits of autism in general did not go unnoticed. A second paper in the same year by Julia Kellman (1998) independently compared Ice Age art – specifically at Chauvet Cave – with the art of a precocious autistic artist, in this case Jamie, aged 7. Like Nadia, Jamie had spontaneously begun to draw with extraordinary accuracy at a very young age. Jamie’s subjects were objects or architecture, and occasionally people. Kellman also recognised many similar features in Jamie’s art and that in the European Upper Palaeolithic – not only an outstanding observational skill, but also use of perspective, foreshortening and a primary concern with vigorous outline to which colour and hue are secondary. Kellman related these features not to any lack of language but to ways of seeing associated with autism. She drew on the insights of a scientist with autism, Temple Grandin, of her highly visual memory, and her tendency, in her words, to ‘think in pictures’ which allows her to design engineering solutions for problems in abattoir design. Grandin explains:

when I do an equipment simulation in my imagination or work on an engineering problem, it is like seeing a videotape in my mind, I can view it from any angle, placing myself above or below the equipment and rotating it at the same time... I create new images all the time by taking many little part of images I have in the video library in my imagination and piecing them together. I have video memories of every item I have ever worked with. (Grandin 1995, 21; quoted in Kellman 1998, 126).

Significantly for Kellman, the similarities between both art forms are explained by a similarity of attention to the initial visual experience, the shared significance of visual memory, and the importance of accurately and precisely capturing a specific visual experience which might link talented artists with autism to the artists of prehistory.

Debate slowly developed. At a presentation at the Lisbon autism conference in 2003, Paul Tréhin (2003) noted the same similarities in both forms of art as had Humphrey, but now suggested that talented artists with autism or traits of autism might have spurred on the art, with imitators reproducing the same style. Our first author, Penny, later re-ignited the debate with a paper on the potential influence of different cognitive styles on human evolutionary resilience, with autism explored as an important example (Spikins 2009). Autism, she suggested, might have provided important skills which helped evolutionary success. Penny interpreted the traits of autism seen in Upper Palaeolithic art as due to the influence of individuals with autism.

Some Upper Palaeolithic art does clearly show traits comparable with art made by individuals with autism, such as a focus on parts rather than wholes, overlapping forms (also known as embedded figures), a notable realism and attention to precise detail. The right hand panel of engravings (nearly 3m in length) at Les Trois Frères, for example (figure 1.7), is a good illustration of the kind of complex overlapping forms that we often see in the art produced by individuals with autism.

Figure 1.7. Panel of engravings at the right hand wall of the sanctuary at Les Trois Frères, France, showing complex overlapping animal forms.

The general academic response to date, however, has been that there must be some other explanation than any relationship to autism.

Counter-arguments: explanations other than autism?

Few people agreed that there might be some relationship between autism and Ice Age art. Counter-arguments were put forward by Pickard et al. (2011) and Bednarik (2013). Pickard et al. argued that autism is a disorder, associated with social deficits which would prevent individuals from making a contribution to society without modern medical and educational support. In short, they felt that people with autism couldn’t have been supported by communities in the past, and even if such individuals appeared sporadically they would not be influential or make a contribution. Bednarik (2013) further argued that the incorporation of vulnerable members of society occurred too late to have influenced Palaeolithic art. Pickard et al. (2011) discounted the influence of autism on Upper Palaeolithic art, attributing the similarities to the influence of psychotropic drugs, whilst Bednarik (2013) ascribed the same traits to sensory deprivation and trance.

Should we discard apparent similarities between the art of talented individuals with autism and that of the European Ice Age as merely coincidence?

We argue that there is something significant to explain about the relationship between the art of talented individuals with autism and Ice Age art.

As regards available support and contribution, as we shall see in chapter three the support available to individuals with autism and their integration is likely to have been much greater than Pickard et al. (2011) argue. Prehistoric communities were clearly remarkably willing to support those in need. Moreover, the kind of support that allows individuals with autism to fit into modern society is not likely to have been relevant or needed in societies in the past, where many of the demands which create anxieties and challenges for individuals with autism are likely to have been absent.

As regards explaining traits of autism in art through psychotropic drugs or trance states, these alternative explanations are difficult to support. Psychotropic drugs have attracted attention as an explanation for enhanced visual perception. Humphrey, for example, notes that mescaline has been linked to a kind of perceptual innocence and intensity of visual experience (Humphrey 2002). However, neither psychotropic drugs nor trance states provide adequate explanations for the exceptional talent and realism seen in Upper Palaeolithic art. Talented artists need to be aware of details when they see them (that is, when encountering animals) and not just for a few minutes in a cave, and they also need to be in a state of mind in which they are able to draw and paint accurately (and not just feel a certain intensity of visual experience). Neither psychotopic drugs nor trance states induced by sensory deprivation induce exceptional abilities or a capacity to accurately depict what has been seen (Tréhin 2003). Indeed, the act (or ‘craft’) of the drawing or painting itself is not really the key point about exceptionally talented artists; what seems to really matter is (as noted by Kellman) that they perceive and remember details in a unique way – the act of depiction being an extension of these thoughts rather than a skill ‘in the moment’.

However there are several reasons why equating traits of autism in art with individuals with autism as the creators of such art would be overly simplistic.

Firstly, it is easy to exaggerate the similarities between European Upper Palaeolithic art and that of talented individuals with autism. Art made by individuals with autism is often highly realistic. However images of horses at Lascaux cave (figure 1.8), for example, have exaggerated – rather than realistically drawn – features, with small heads and feet and extended stomachs, and whole animals, rather than parts are depicted (figure 1.9). Furthermore, much of the art is far from a representation of what has been seen – there are many enigmatic symbols and even invented creatures (such as the ‘unicorn’ at Lascaux) or combinations of people and animals (such as the bird headed man in the Lascaux shaft scene). Many artists with autism do draw images which are composites of different beings or fantastical figures but a focus on accurate depiction of a visual experience is more typical. Moreover in many caves there is relatively little superimposition of forms (figure 1.9).

Figure 1.8. Painting of a horse at Lascaux which doesn’t show a focus on parts, nor superimposition of forms, nor accurate rendition (the horse’s head and legs are reduced in size and the stomach enlarged).

Figure 1.9. Bison from the cave of La Covaciella, Spain, each animal is depicted as a single form without superimposition, and with exaggerated – rather than realistic – features.

There may be other explanations which lie beyond autism for some of the similarities. Many cases of superimposition reflect a lack of available or suitable cave wall for drawing, for example. In the case of portable art or engravings in caves, superposition of forms may simply reflect that engraved lines from previous depictions have become dull and are no longer visible, whilst new lines appear bright and are easily seen. Perhaps most significantly, in some cases depictions have been created with several heads or legs to give a deliberate cinematic effect under the flickering lights of lamps or torches, and so reflect a deliberate intention to convey motion rather than a focus on part or a superimposition of forms. This rather clever deliberate style of animation has been called a ‘pre-echo’ of cinema (Azéma and Rivère 2012). The lions painted at Chauvet Cave (figure 1.10), or the swimming stags at Lascaux (figure 1.11), may show the repetition of overlapping forms seen in Nadia’s art because they were deliberately drawn in this way to give a sensation of seeing a moving animal under the flickering light of the cave.

Clearly we need to understand more about the context of Ice Age art to better understand the relationship to traits of autism.

Figure 1.10. Frieze of lions at Chauvet cave, which may have been drawn to give an impression of movement under flickering light.

Figure 1.11. Swimming stags at Lascaux Cave, which may represent either several individual stags or a single stag in motion.

The bigger picture – setting cave art in context

A better understanding of the big picture, the wider context of art and of society in the Ice Age, may help make sense of the issues.

One of the most obvious hindrances to our understanding is that we tend to draw inappropriate parallels between Ice Age depictions and our understanding of ‘art’ today. For people in modern western societies, ‘art’ is something which stands outside society, created by individuals who we see as possessing some unique and unusual ability. Art is something which we visit in museums, and which is bought and sold, and artists themselves often cultivate this air of having a mysterious ability which is unavailable to others. We tend to see art as the product of ‘genius’ (even though for most artists their ‘talent’ is 99% hard work, learning and practice). The level of skill seen in Ice Age art, standing in contrast to our perception of stone age society, seems to demand an explanation in terms of exceptional talent (autistic or otherwise). Indeed, Ice Age art is often discussed in isolation from the archaeology of the period, as if it is so separate from society that we need not even refer to the people who made it in order to understand the art. As a result, we end up focusing on a supposed link between what seems to us ‘high art’ and artists as individuals separated from society.

Archaeological evidence suggests that in the Palaeolithic, artistic depiction of animals was very much part of everyday life, rather than an act removed from the everyday or created by individuals outside of society. Cave art has drawn our attention, as the art found in caves is unique for the conditions of preservation found in these locations, with the pigments and colours surviving to today in the unique conditions found deep in caves. However, cave art is only the tip of the iceberg of Ice Age art. The walls of rock shelters where people lived were often decorated with art, of which only the engraved lines remain today, and their possessions were typically highly decorated. We see sophisticated art on animal ribs (figure 1.12) on pebbles (figure 1.13) and on all kinds of functional objects (such as spear throwers, figure 1.14, or chisels, figure 1.15). Depicting animals in a detailed and highly realistic way seems very much part of how these populations engaged with the world around them, and the separation between art and society which we see today seems then not to have existed.

Figure 1.12. Reindeer engraved on a rib from the site of Courbet, Southern France.

Figure 1.13. Bison drawn on water worn pebble from the site of Montrastruc, southern France.

Figure 1.14. Spear-thrower shaped as a mammoth, from the site of Montrastruc, France.

Figure 1.15. Decorated antler chisel from the site of Courbet Cave, southern France.

More than this, there is good evidence that artistic skill was typically learnt, rather than being the work of ‘natural genius’, and children may have begun to draw at an early age. At Rouffignac Cave we find finger tracings made by children, and in some cases adults lifted the children so that they could draw in higher places (Sharpe and Van Gelder 2004; Van Gelder and Sharpe 2009), and there is evidence of children creating art in other caves (Sharpe and Van Gelder 2006; Guthrie 2005; Bednarik 2008). Also, only the ‘best’ (as we see it) art reaches the public gaze today. Much of the actual art is rather less sophisticated than that which we are used to seeing, which implies that many of the artists had spent time learning to draw (rather than having an immediate talent). We know that some of the lithic technology of the period reflects a lifetime of practice (Sinclair 2015), and the same may be true of the art, going some way to explaining the extraordinary skill of some Ice Age artists.

As we have seen, rather than being something highly unusual and exceptional and outside of normal social relationships, Ice Age art is found everywhere, and largely involved everyone. We may think of art as something produced by exceptional geniuses, who are isolated from society, and often think of talented individuals with autism in the same terms. However, art in the Ice Age was very much part of society.

Consequently, any explanation for characteristics of the art which seem similar to art drawn by modern day individuals with autism needs to come from within communities, and to be drawn from the usual rather than the exceptional.

When we consider the bigger picture, however, we also see that traits of autism are not limited to cave art, or even just to art. Other interesting features are evident in Ice Age portable art, which has received much less attention than cave art. This portable art illustrates certain similarities with an autistic vision which is also evident in cave art (such as a superimposition of forms, sometimes very cleverly integrated on the same piece of bone or rock). However, there are also other novel features of particular interest which are not seen in cave art. The ‘Palaeolithic map’ from Abauntz Cave in northern Spain, for example, is remarkable (Utrilla et al. 2009). This small plaquette depicts the local landscape around the cave, showing rivers, mountains and the locations of different game animals. It shows an ability to manipulate our experience of the world as a three dimensional model seen from a different angle which is reminiscent of the art of Stephen Wiltshire. Other artefacts show calendrical or astronomical notation recording natural cycles in a way which is reminiscent of both the remarkable abilities to analyse physical systems seen in autism, and a drive to record them (Baron-Cohen 2009). Perhaps the most remarkable of all these objects is the Abri Blanchard plaquette, (figure 1.16), which shows the phases of the moon and its position in the sky. Creating this plaquette must have involved setting up a coordinate system and recording the position and shape of the moon every night. Records of predictable patterns are frequently a source of comfort to individuals with autism (Goodchild 2010).

Figure 1.16. The Abri Blanchard plaquette, showing the phases of the moon and its position in the sky.

Though it is in the cave art of Ice Age Europe that an autistic vision has been discussed, these developments also have a wider context of a range of new types of artefacts in even earlier periods that remain to be explained.

Other artefacts which provide evidence of a remarkably analytical view of the world appear at an earlier date outside Europe, following the emergence of our species in Africa around 150,000 years ago. Whilst we can’t relate new, more analytical, experimental and standardised technologies to autism per se, there were clearly social changes taking place which encouraged new ways of seeing the world and new types of technological adaptation. In southernmost south Africa, for example, we see the use of complex compound adhesives appearing around 70,000 years ago. These adhesives, used to fix stone points to their hafts, reflect a complex understanding of how different substances react together which probably derived from experimentation (Wadley, Hodgskiss, and Grant 2009). We also see the appearance of other new technology, such as a standardised heat treatment of flint raw materials (Brown et al. 2009) and the new appearance of tiny and highly standardised microlithic technology (figure 1.17) (Henshilwood and Dubreuil 2011; Igreja and Porraz 2013/9), as well as other developments, such as innovative methods of hunting (Spikins 2009) and the development of poisons (d’Errico et al. 2012). These developments appear, but then disappear again in the archaeological record, reflecting a cultural capacity to analyse, invent, design and focus on minute details which seems not always to be expressed. As we shall see in the next chapter, a natural ‘intuitive physics’, a concern with detail, an understanding of systems, and a drive to understand natural systems are characteristics commonly associated with autism (Baron-Cohen 2009).

Figure 1.17. Microliths, tiny and highly standardised bladelets with backed edges, come into the archaeological record after 100,000 years ago. They rely on highly precise flint working and are designed to create maintainable weapons, with each microlith a replaceable point on a long shaft.

It would be far-fetched to imagine that it was individuals with autism who created most of the corpus of Ice Age art, or invented hunting technology, maps or calendrical systems. However these elements of material culture reflect something of an autistic vision and talent. A convincing explanation for the relationship between some features of Ice Age art and other material culture (both that found in cave and that of everyday life) with autistic vision and understanding has yet to be articulated.

Clearly precision and a perception and rendition of detail were skills which were held in high esteem in some past societies.

A final twist to the mystery

The relationship between Ice Age art and traits of autism is clearly not straightforward, but neither is it easy to dismiss as mere coincidence.

In 2015 we added an interesting twist to the question. We set up an exhibition and talk on some of our research, including that on Upper Palaeolithic art. As part of the exhibition we brought along replicas of plaquettes from Montrastruc Cave, France, studied by Andy Needham as part of his PhD, which, like many items of portable art, shows many overlapping images which can be very difficult to decipher. Andy has studied the line order of the art and relationship between each of the images in detail.

Figure 1.18. Plaquette number 662 from Montrastruc. The original is very difficult to decipher; however, this illustration showing the different horses in different orientations engraved on the plaquette is highlighted in black to make them easier to identify.

Many people in the audience had autism. Whereas to most people the fine lines on this stone were simply curving squiggles, these audience members found it easy to ‘see’ different animals cleverly arranged around the plaquettes. On the one hand this is not surprising: as we shall see in the next chapter, an ability to see ‘embedded figures’ (hidden shapes) is one of the enhanced skills associated with autism. On the other hand, this is quite remarkable, as it implies that some individuals with autism have an immediate understanding of some Palaeolithic art – almost an affinity – which art specialists may take a lifetime to ‘get an eye for’.

The implication is that Upper Palaeolithic art shows not only a relationship to traits of autism in how it was produced, but also in how it can be deciphered.

We could not help but wonder if there is a deeper and more important story – one in which European Ice Age art was simply the tip of the iceberg.

To unpick that story, we need to understand the skills and deficits which autism brings, as well as understanding past hunter-gatherer communities and the ways they may have integrated autistic individuals.


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CHAPTER TWO: New perspectives on autism

In chapter one, we noted that traits of autism in certain archaeological evidence from distant periods in our evolutionary history are difficult to explain. We also noted that it has been argued that if autism is a ‘disorder’ it could not have been supported in past societies (Pickard et al. 2011) and, moreover, individuals with autism would not have been able to make a social contribution.

Depicting autism as a disorder encourages negative thinking about individuals with autism. It seems more appropriate to understand autism as a difference, bringing with it both strengths and well as weaknesses. From this perspective, the skills and talents associated with autism may have played a significant role in the survival of past communities.

We start by considering the association between autism and ‘disorder’, ‘disability’ and ‘difference’. We then look at recent research suggesting that autism is best seen as a cognitive difference reflecting an element of natural human variation, and bringing with it differences in perception which lead not only to weaknesses but also to a range of talents and skills. There may be advantages to a certain ‘turning away’ from complex social and emotional understanding. We propose a new definition of autism which might help us to understand the role of individuals with autism in society.

Disability, disorder, difference and autism

Autism is sometimes a disability. For some people, autism brings with it a need for extensive support, and maintaining their status as an individual with a disability is important to accessing the support and services which they require (Jaarsma and Welin 2012).

Autism was certainly a disability for the earliest diagnosed cases of autism. These earliest identified individuals were instances of by far the most debilitating cases of the condition – children who could not relate to those around them, often suffering congenital defects or brain trauma, and thus presenting also a range of other conditions. In effect, a selection bias was operating, with only the most disabled being identified as autistic. Individuals who stood out because of intellectual disability or other conditions as well as autism were more likely to be identified with the condition. Thus in the 1970s the mean IQ of individuals diagnosed with autism was only 60 (Hollin 2014). We now know that there is no necessary relationship between autism and IQ – and individuals with autism can have any IQ across the full possible range. The current World Health Organisation definitions do not require any specific IQ level or cut off in the diagnosis of autism. However, because for much of the twentieth century the term autism described clearly disabled individuals with notable intellectual impairments, there has been a lasting effect on public perceptions of the term. Even today people with autism may be seen as ‘extreme others’, outside society (Murray 2008).

Autism associated with intellectual disability is not the most typical form of the condition. In fact, it seems to be associated with particular genetic conditions – de novo (spontaneously occurring) mutations – which make up only 30% of cases of autism (Lossifov et al. 2014; Ronemus et al. 2014). This spontaneously occurring autism seems to be an integral part of the human genome, associated with its capacity to adapt, and shared with other apes (Marques-Bonet and Eichler 2009; Dumas et al. 2012; Gualtieri 2014). In other words, autism is likely to have been part of human evolution from the very start.

The more common form of autism, however, is not associated with intellectual disability (Lossifov et al. 2014; Ronemus et al. 2014). Autism without intellectual disability (often referred to as Asperger Syndrome) does not necessarily require specific accommodations or support (Baron-Cohen 2000). Indeed the condition is highly heritable, occurring frequently in certain professions such as physicists, engineers and mathematicians (Baron-Cohen et al. 1998), for whom we can infer that some level of traits of autism may be an advantage (Baron-Cohen 2012, Ruzich, Allison, Chakrabarti, et al. 2015). Indee the neurodiversity movement argue that autism should no longer be considered a ‘disorder’ (or disability) but instead part of natural human variation (Baker 2006; Fenton and Krahn 2009; Jaarsma and Welin 2012; Kapp et al. 2013; Runswick-Cole 2014).

A social model of disability suggests that society and the environmental constraints established by society for its majority members are the things that disable people who are different from that majority (Jaarsma & Welin, 2012).

We shall see in chapter three that even where autism presents a clear disability, individuals with autism are likely to have been supported and cared for in human societies in the distant past. In chapter four, however, we turn to considering how individuals with autism without any intellectual impairment may have developed certain roles and contributions.

A change in understanding

Clearly what autism implies and how it is used diagnostically has undergone a radical transformation since people were first diagnosed with the condition in the 1940s (Matson and Kozlowski 2011; Evans 2013).

Autism is no longer a rare or necessarily disabling condition. Indeed there was something of an ‘epidemic’ of autism in the 1990s (Eyal 2010), after which autism has come to be seen as occurring in at least 1% of the population (Baird et al. 2006; Baron-Cohen, Scott, et al. 2009). This awareness of greater prevalence is due to extended diagnostic criteria, improved training of professionals, better recognition of traits of autism, and reduced stigma in many societies.

An earlier conception of autism as necessarily an asocial condition, implying that individuals with autism are somehow outside of normal social relationships, has also changed.

Psychological perspectives have revealed that most adults on the autism spectrum often have an understanding of others which is far more complex than was previously assumed. Particularly in the case of those with autism without intellectual impairment (or Asperger syndrome) this social understanding is typically fully good enough to manage in most social situations. Research has often focused on such individuals (although many might more typically today be described more generally as having an autism spectrum condition). Individuals diagnosed with Asperger syndrome (sometimes referred to in the research as High Functioning Autism) have been found to be much more socially integrated than had once been assumed. They use their intelligence to interpret the world around them and interact with the world using a range of strategies.

One example concerns the relationship between autism and what has been termed ‘theory of mind’ (ToM). Our ToM describes our abilities to infer the beliefs and motivations of others, and if we have several ‘orders’ of ToM we can make interpretations not just about the beliefs of one person but about what one person believes about another (or what they believe about another besides). Contrary to the idea that individuals on the autism spectrum have no theory of the mind’s abilities, individuals with Asperger syndrome who were tested tended to pass theory of mind tests (only clearly failing at the level of second order theory of mind, i.e. ‘Y believes that X believes this’; Baron-Cohen 1989). Whilst others may develop a fluid intuitive theory of mind, such individuals may base their understanding of how people feel and behave on the basis of patterns and rules instead. However, this works well enough in most situations.

Most individuals with autism are now likely to be within society, and fully able to follow social rules, even if tending to do so analytically rather than intuitively (Baron-Cohen 2006). In western society, most young people with autism attend mainstream educational institutions, albeit with additional support. Indeed, one is typically unaware from casual acquaintance that someone with autism without marked intellectual impairment is cognitively different in any way, and individuals with autism can have high levels of role and function in society (Howlin 2000), particularly in spheres such as engineering, mathematics, physics, information technology and law (Rodman 2003; Fitzgerald 2004; Fitzgerald and O’Brien 2007). Many argue that significant historical figures in science had autism (Fitzgerald 2004; Fitzgerald and O’Brien 2007), and it isn’t difficult to imagine their influence in the much more distant past. Contrary to portrayals of isolated individuals, research into individuals with Asperger syndrome has illustrated that they typically form partnerships and have children (Baron-Cohen et al. 1998; Lau and Peterson 2011).

Rather than seeing autism as associated with being asocial, anthropological perspectives stress that autism should be seen as a condition of being differently social (Ochs and Solomon 2010; Grinker 2010), that is to say, fully social people but social in subtly different ways. Individuals with autism tend to be selective about the way that they socialise (Bauminger et al. 2008). They often prefer different styles of social engagement, such as, for example, a focus on discussions of scientific and analytical perspectives with colleagues or specific shared interests with friends. Moreover, they often use material culture or technology to communicate mathematical or scientific concepts (Ochs and Solomon 2010; Grinker 2010) rather than face-to-face sharing of narratives or emotional displays (Fitzgerald and O’Brien 2007; Baron-Cohen 2012). However, individuals with autism have friends, and contribute to society, often being highly valued.

What we think of as being social or even sociable can be biased by expectations from the majority. Hollin calls into question the highly specified construction of ‘social’ as elaborate skills in immediate one-to-one interpersonal understanding of motivations, as individuals with autism would not be disadvantaged under many broader constructions of the term (Hollin 2014). Chown (2014) further observes that people with neurotypical minds have as much difficulty understanding an autistic mind as vice versa, which further confounds any simple inference about a lack of social understanding. The majority of people in society may value empathy skills and ask why people without autism don’t like to discuss emotions, but an autistic sociality may be equally as valid, with autistic people equally puzzled by why others lack a logical, organized approach to life. If sociality depends on skills in imagining beliefs about the beliefs of others then individuals with autism have a relative weakness, but under the rather broader concept of simply doing things with other people and being part of a society or community and making a contribution to society autistic autism are as social as others. Thus in all except an unusually specific version of ‘social’ and ‘society’, in which individuals must fully empathise with other’s emotions to contribute socially, those with autism are fully social.

Clearly, people with autism should be reappraised in terms of their position within, rather than outside, society. This new way of considering the autistic mind also begs the question: what was the place of such an interesting mind within human origins?

Autism as cognitive difference

A focus on underlying cognition, rather than behaviour allows us to more fully appreciate the inter-relationship between autistic and ‘neurotypical’ minds, and also to appreciate that some so called autistic behaviours are culturally specific, defined as a problem only from certain viewpoints, or exacerbated by modern conditions.

Autism spectrum conditions were traditionally characterised in behavioural terms as a series of impairments affecting social and emotional behaviours (such as difficulties in engaging in chit-chat or in working cooperatively), communication (such as a literal understanding of language), imagination and flexibility (such as difficulties with empathy, or coping with change) as well as restricted repetitive patterns of behaviour and intense preoccupations. A primary focus on restrictions on behaviour, however, depends on cultural ideas of ‘normal’, focuses on the negative elements and also obscures underlying cognitive features. Although there is considerable variation within the term ‘autism’, it is several key cognitive elements – rather than behaviours – which unite individuals with autism and explain why the same term can cover individuals with such a range of abilities. Instead of a suite of ‘abnormal’ social behaviours, autism is best seen as a cognitive condition related to a greater extreme of functioning of certain areas of the brain at the expense of others and which affects perception, understanding and interpretation to varying extents. Neurological differences have been revealed in neuroimaging studies, and include differences in certain types of cortical underconnectivity (Courchesne and Pierce 2005; Just et al. 2007; Minshew and Williams 2007; Just et al. 2012).

Autism affects perception and understanding. For example, autism affects how people see the world, as individuals with autism share a focus on detail, such that perceiving the whole, or ‘seeing the wood for the trees’ is more challenging (Happé and Frith 2006). It also affects focus and understanding. Individuals with autism perceive the natural and social world in analytical terms, as systems, rules and patterns to analyse rather than relying on empathising or intuitive means of interpretation (Baron-Cohen 2009; Brosnan et al. 2014).

Being at the cognitive extreme of attention to detail, and to perception and understanding of rules and systems, brings both benefits and challenges. Though often exceptional at understanding predictable patterns, and driven towards understanding lawful patterns or ‘truths’ about the world, those with autism can also be ‘disabled’ by systems whose changes do not follow laws (Baron-Cohen 2008). Understanding physics depends on understanding systems and rules and this is a realm in which individuals with autism often excel, whereas understanding complex emotional interactions depends on intuition, with individuals with autism typically finding these realms more much challenging.

Temple Grandin notes, for example:

During the last couple of years I have become more aware of a kind of electricity that goes on between people. I have observed that when several people are together and having a good time their speech and laughter follow a rhythm. They will all laugh together then talk quietly until the next laughing cycle. I have always had a hard time fitting in with this rhythm, and I usually interrupt conversations without realising my mistake. The problem is that I can’t follow the rhythm. (Grandin 1995, 91)

Whilst Temple’s scientific talents are highly valued, she finds intuitive emotional situations difficult to understand given their lack of rules or patterns.

Individuals on the autism spectrum vary greatly in their social functioning. However, the common cognitive basis for the condition explains why a fascination with detail and systems leads us to find at one end of a spectrum of functioning a child with a notable disability and low IQ sitting for many hours watching an object spin or arranging objects by size, while at the other end, now the more common manifestation, we find a brilliant engineer, whose high IQ, analytical mind and unique focus leads to great insight and contributions.

The abilities of individuals diagnosed with autism can also change considerably during their lifetime even though their cognitive style remains the same. Temple Grandin, for example, was judged severely disabled by her condition as a child. She didn’t talk until she was three and a half, struggled with her emotions, tended to scream and lose her temper and was diagnosed with autism. As an adult, however, Grandin functions fully in society, she is a regular contributor to scientific journals, has published many books, and is a strong advocate of the importance of a supportive environment for enabling individuals with autism to thrive. Her case also illustrates that despite the strong association of autism with males, many women also have autism. Women with autism clearly also make a significant social contribution, often drawing on their strengths in subtly culturally defined ways (Gould and Ashton-Smith 2011).

Focusing on cognition (rather than behaviour) removes many of our cultural impositions. However, there are clearly elements of a cultural imposition at play in identifying the point on the spectrum at which ‘neurotypical’ becomes ‘autistic’. This is so even when we focus on cognitive terms and on which particular selected traits constitute disorder rather than unusual focus or talent. Who we include within the term autism is affected by where we place a threshold along a continuum of traits related to cognitive characteristics which is also influenced by prevalent attitudes.

Cognitive difference, autism and natural human variation

Rather than seeing autism as a disorder many now argue that it is more constructive to see autism as part of normal human variation – lying at the extreme minds in terms of both a perception of detail and focus on rules and systems. If this is the case we would expect, at least for our own species (emerging after 150,000 years ago), that individuals with autism were present everywhere in small numbers in the distant past. Their presence and influence might explain the traits seen in archaeological evidence in chapter one.

What evidence is there to support this view?

Firstly, autism is influenced by many genes, creating no particular ‘cut-off’ point (Robinson et al. 2016) but rather a continuous variation in human populations. This suggests that autism should be seen as a dimension rather than a disorder (Plomin, Haworth, and Davis 2009), and moreover is not a simple single condition. It isn’t difficult to see that the ‘special interests’ of those diagnosed with autism may be regarded as the more extreme end on a continuum of interests regarded as ‘hobbies’ (Caldwell-Harris and Jordan 2014).

Secondly, traits of autism are normally distributed, with those with autism merely lying at an extreme. The threshold between autism and what is considered ‘normal’ sits on a continuum of strengths and difficulties in social and communication related behaviour (Skuse et al. 2009; Constantino and Todd 2003) and is as much a component of human population structure as height, with similar continuous variation found cross culturally (Wakabayashi et al. 2007). Above a certain point along the cognitive continuum captured and simplified from several elements by the Social Communication Disorders Checklist (Skuse et al. 2009) or the Social Responsiveness Scale (Constantino and Todd 2003) or the Autism Quotient or AQ (Baron-Cohen et al. 2001) one may be considered to be sufficiently far along the spectrum of cognitive difference to be autistic.

As part of a project at York we took a sample of 557 students from York University, assessed as part of the ‘Lost in Translation: Autism and material culture’ project. We can see their typical continuous variation in AQ scores for example (figure 2.1), a distribution which is also seen in samples of over 6,000 people across the population as a whole (Ruzich, Allison, Smith, et al. 2015).

Figure 2.1. AQ scores of 557 randomly selected undergraduate students at York University, showing autism cut off point.

In some subject areas, particularly those where these interests and skills are most valued, there are greater numbers of individuals with autism. Thus in a study of 454 science and technology students at Cambridge University, Baron-Cohen (2001) found that 4.6% scored in the range suggestive of an autistic spectrum condition according to the Autism Quotient, with 80% of those meeting objective diagnostic criteria.

Baron-Cohen notes that the individuals in the Cambridge study who were in the range associated with an autism spectrum condition did not register discontent or suffering. He notes:

None of those meeting criteria complained of any current unhappiness. Indeed, many of them reported that within a university setting their desire not to be sociable, together with their desire to pursue their narrow or repetitive interests (typically mathematics and computing) was not considered odd, and was even valued… (Baron-Cohen et al. 2001, 12)

Autism can clearly be associated with compensatory advantages that can be valued in certain contexts.

Could these advantages have played a role in the distant past?

Advantages of autism in certain contexts?

Autism certainly brings difficulties and disadvantages. Life can be challenging for people with the condition, who may find large groups of people or emotionally charged situations difficult and stressful, and have anxieties relating to change (Goodchild 2010). Families and friends may find a lack of complex emotional understanding difficult, and parents of children with autism often need additional support (Rodman 2003).

However, does autism itself confer particular advantages? And could having individuals with autism within society foster certain important skills and specialisations?

Recent research has illustrated that special talents, as well as skills in technical and social realms are common in autism.

Talents in autism

Whilst talents or ‘savant’ skills used to be considered rare, it has become clear they are actually remarkably common. Superior abilities in identifying embedded figures (figure 1.4) and in block design (three-dimensional technological design) had been recognised since the 1980s (Shah and Frith 1983; Shah and Frith 1993), but recent years have seen our understanding of the ‘talents’ in autism expand significantly.

Figure 2.2. Example of an embedded figures test – individuals with autism find it easier to identify the figure on the left within the right on the right than do neurotypical controls.

The proportion of individuals with autism possessing savant skills have been increasingly recognised as research methods improve. In 1978, Rimland conducted a postal survey with parents of autistic children, which concluded that around 10% of autistic children had savant skills, over half of these having several special skills (Rimland 1978; Rimland and Fein 1988). More recently, however, Howlin et al. (2009) concluded that unusual skills are found in at least a third of individuals with autism, with the most common exceptional skills found in realms such as block design and object assembly. Most recently, Meilleur et al. (2015) studied over two hundred and fifty individuals (including adults) and concluded that the figure is even higher, with the prevalence of Special Isolated Skills (SIS) put at 62.5%.

Savant talents are found in several different realms. In the study of Howlin et al., of the 137 randomly selected individuals with autism, savant skills included computational (listed as ‘easily able to multiply two numbers in the millions together in head; can tell the elevation of both the Sun and the Moon at any time on any date without reference to any book’), calendrical (‘could tell people what day of the week their birthday would occur and what day of the week they were born on’), memory ( ‘a few years ago, he was bought a book which was read to him; this year we read it to him again after over a year – if we stopped he would finish the rest of the sentence quite accurately’), visuospatial (‘successful in painting portraits of friends, friends’ children and selling them’) and musical (‘has perfect pitch and is able to identify chords in pieces of music with ease’), with some showing savant skills in several of these domains (Howlin et al. 2009). The exceptional abilities of five of those studied (four relating to maths and one relating to visuospatial ability) were particularly useful to them as their source of employment. Special skills, such as lightning multiplication, identification of prime numbers, calendar calculation, perfect-perspective drawing, absolute pitch, instant reproduction of newly heard music and extraordinary memory of facts, are far more common amongst individuals with autism than in any other group examined to date (Treffert 2009).

Technological Realms

Research suggests that a cognitive focus common to autism is the driving force for certain talents. A cognitive bias towards fine detail is a central element, with individuals developing a high degree of motivation around specific topics. Happé and Vital (2009), for example, demonstrate a close relationship between a perceptual focus on detail and exceptional talents. Moreover, a certain mind-blindness coupled with restricted self-awareness limiting social focus or concern with other’s views removes distractions and reputation related inhibitors. Happé and Vital note: ‘The combination of detail focus as starting engine and reduced mentalizing as “fuel” may give a special flavour, independence and true originality to talent in ASC that is hard to find in other groups’ ( Happé and Vital 2009, 1373). Baron-Cohen et al. (2009) further argue that alongside a hypersensitivity to detail, the trait of hyper-systemising, a notable drive to understand complex patterns, also drives the widespread expression of talents in autism.

Individuals with autism as a group, irrespective of savant skills, are now known to also display enhanced abilities in a wide range of realms. As well as previously researched skills in identifying embedded figures and in block design, individuals with autism as a whole have enhanced skills in areas such as mathematics (Luculano et al. 2014), music, with better memory for pitch, and with absolute pitch being more common (Heaton 2009), visual perception, such as perceiving detail (Smith and Milne 2009) as well as heightened touch (Baron-Cohen, Ashwin, et al. 2009) and olfactory sensitivity (Lane et al. 2010).

What is also evident is that the cognitive traits associated with individuals with autism are disadvantageous or advantageous compared to the norm dependant on context. Finding a figure hidden in a mass of confusing lines will tend to be easier for someone with autism than someone who is neurotypical, as we saw in chapter one with the complex lines in an Ice Age art plaquette. However, culture and context dictate whether this is a respected, valued or useful trait, or indeed whether it is even noticed at all.

Distinctive skills can be seen as complementary to the cognitive processing of those who are neurotypical. For example, at only eighteen months of age, children with autism will prefer to look at geometric shapes, which they are drawn to, and are driven to understand. This turning away from the social is seen as a social deficit, and indeed individuals with autism do face social challenges, such as finding it harder to correctly identify complex facial expressions (Tanaka et al. 2012). However, a focus away from the social and towards objects is evidently related to enhanced technological focus and skills.

The thinking style of autism is also an advantage when trying to understand complex physical systems, and those who are neurotypical have to learn to overcome our intuition and think more in the style of autism in order to develop such understanding. Indeed, most of us have considerable experience of how intuition is a hindrance in understanding physical systems (Brosnan et al. 2014). As a simple example, it makes intuitive sense that the earth should be flat, or that the sun should revolve around the earth, and modern cosmological understanding begins with overcoming intuition; far easier for autistic people for whom intuition was never a barrier to understanding. Up against the cognitive limits of our evolved minds, such as in dealing with concepts like infinity, those with autism are at an advantage. Many of our scientific insights depend on strictly following analytical thinking rather than common sense, with individuals with autism particularly gifted in what Baron-Cohen terms ‘folk physics’ (Baron-Cohen 2000).

A focus on objects may also create subtle differences in engagements in other ways. Words with emotional connotations are processed differently by individuals with autism. For example, significant differences were found between responses to the words ‘hug’ and ‘adore’. Neurotypical individuals respond in terms of a self-referential and emotional response whilst individuals with autism respond neurologically to the physical (impersonal semantic abstract-physical) properties of these words (Just et al. 2014). However, no differences were found between individuals with autism and neurotypical individuals in terms of responses to words related to tools or buildings (Shinkareva et al. 2008). In some contexts, such as discussions about physical objects, autism doesn’t necessarily have an impact, whilst in other contexts, which require a more in depth emotional understanding, it does. This finding may explain why objects often provide a bridge between autistic and neurotypical ways of seeing the world, and provide a shared means of communication (Solomon 2010). It may not be too fanciful to suggest that the emergence of certain objects, like the maps and calendrical systems we saw in chapter one, was influenced by autistic ways of perceiving the world, and moreover that such objects may have played a role in providing a link between different minds.

Even in small populations, individuals with autism within Upper Palaeolithic societies would contribute a unique focus on detail and unhindered analytical capacity, which may have been a source of significant skills. Indeed, Happé and Frith argue that given the advantages that an extreme cognitive focus on detail can generate, the persistence of such individuals within the gene pool ‘is not hard to explain’ (Happé and Frith 2006, 16).

Social Realms

It is within the social realm that the disadvantages of an autistic mind are most usually drawn into focus. Certainly individuals with autism are typically poorer at interpreting complex emotions and often find large groups or intense social occasions challenging. An in depth understanding of other’s minds and intimate engagement with motivations is a particularly successful strategy in intimate relationships, providing a means of building up high levels of trust and of give and take (Spikins 2015). Deficits in complex social understanding bring certain disadvantages – we know that the frequencies of neural activity do not light up in the same way in the brain when people with Asperger syndrome view emotions on faces when compared to age, gender, IQ matched controls (Wright et al. 2012) and understanding of complex emotions are affected.

However, as outlined above, social deficits depend on context, with individuals with autism being part of societies and not (as often presented) asocial. An understanding of other’s minds based on rules and experience is usually sufficient to get along in most social settings, and certainly to form friendships, develop close relationships and to be part of communities. Moreover, it is clear that the drive to greater levels of empathising in human evolution can be seen as part of a complex balance in which alternative strategies to social relationships can emerge (Devaine, Hollard, and Daunizeau 2014). In other words, empathy is not always the advantage it might appear (Spikins, Wright and Hodgson, 2016).

An intimate and complex understanding of other’s thoughts and feelings can be costly. We fully understand others’ minds only by emotionally placing ourselves in their shoes (Decety et al. 2012), thus mentalising comes at a cost, and the higher theory of mind abilities it brings are not always advantageous (Devaine, Hollard, and Daunizeau 2014). Higher levels of empathising have been suggested to be associated with greater risk of psychosis (Brosnan et al. 2010) and schizophrenia (Nettle 2006). Perspective taking is also associated with reduced abilities to resist authoritarian controls (Bègue et al. 2015). Moreover, whilst perspective taking improves collaboration where it exists, it adds ‘fuel to the fire’ in competitive contexts, where it becomes ‘do unto others as you think they will try to do unto you’ (Pierce et al. 2013).

Mentalising can also generate other problems. Those who are neurotypical, for example, are so driven to identify motivations and feelings that they also see them in objects and shapes. When playing a turn-taking game with shapes on a screen they will feel left out and hurt and ashamed if the shapes appear to exclude them from taking a turn (Eisenberger, Lieberman, and Williams 2003). Neurotypical individuals will also tend to see and respond to apparent feelings in material objects, particularly those which look ‘cute’, and are driven to look after such objects (Spikins 2015) even though such efforts might be better spent on living things. ‘Failing’ to be driven to infer and react to the imagined mental states of objects is certainly an advantage in many cases.

Paradoxically, not reacting to the mental states of others can sometimes be a useful trait. We are often taught to overcome our intuition, training our brain in a more logical, routine style, such as when being trained to respond to wounded individuals in a crisis by being analytical, rather than responding to emotional cues. Individuals with autism are typically described as responding much more logically and appropriately to crisis (Rodman 2003). Individuals with autism may also frequently be whistle blowers on cheating or corruption, being less concerned about their reputation with others and more concerned about principles. Their greater adherence to social and moral rules may play an important role in establishing controls on social instability as lower levels of empathy are also associated with higher degrees of fairness and concern with justice (Batson et al. 1995), explaining why individuals with Asperger syndrome or High Functioning Autism tend to be drawn to, amongst other careers, that of law (Rodman 2003). In a Palaeolithic context we could imagine how individuals who are concerned with rules could be important in negotiating relationships between groups.

Understanding the role of autism in the evolutionary past clearly demands that we move past viewing autism as necessarily always a disadvantage.

One way to do so may be to re-think autism, and even its diagnosis, in terms of a balance of strengths and weaknesses.

Autism: A strengths and weaknesses model?

Autism has been described as a disability which can severely impact upon quality of life as defined by neurotypical standards (Lee et al. 2008). Indeed, autism is defined as a collection of deficits in the latest DSM5 American Medical Association criteria (see list 1), American Psychiatric Association (2013).

List 1 – American Psychiatric Association Criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorders

Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by:

However, whilst autism is proposed as a series of deficits, as we have argued above there is considerable research evidence to suggest autism comes with a number of strengths. As we have seen, these include enhanced understanding in areas such as mathematics, chemistry, engineering and computing, and enhanced perception of visual details, touch, smell and musical pitch. Special isolated skills or talents are often present and are more common than previously thought. Moreover, people with autism may stand up for right and law even when it is not in their personal interests.

The prevailing cultural view of autism is a negative one. However, this may have much to do with a lack of understanding of the strengths which autism brings. Moreover, perceptions about how to measure a good quality of life (Jaarsma and Welin 2013) and how people who are ‘social’ are expected to behave influence perceptions around autism. For example, some of the quality of life questions asked in diagnosis inquire into abilities to participate in organised activities. Autistic people would only rarely have encountered any large group in the distant past, and today may avoid organised activities and large groups of people but may nonetheless be very productive and happy. These are cultural, and neurotypically defined assumptions about what good quality of life looks like. Many people with Asperger syndrome perceive themselves as happy and productive and as different but not necessarily disabled (Baron-Cohen 2000).

From this perspective one could just as easily write the definitions of autism in a different, less stigmatising way. For example, they might look like this (see list 2):

List 2 - An alternative set of criteria for autism spectrum disorder

Differences in social communication compared with neuro-typical people such as:

Comparing these two conflicting models it is not difficult to see how the former may not seem to be adaptive from an evolutionary perspective, but the latter could be – providing an important complement to neurotypical skills.

To better understand the potential role of autism in the distant past we will consider the contexts in which the talents associated with autism might have made an important contribution to hunter-gatherer societies. Before considering the role of strengths, however, we will in the next chapter consider the capacity of early human societies to support individuals with vulnerabilities or weaknesses. Both the support available for weaknesses and roles and appreciation of strengths play a role in the evolutionary role of individuals with autism.


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CHAPTER THREE: Autism and earliest human origins

Their strengths and deficits do not deny them humanity but, rather, shape their humanity.

(Grinker 2010, 173)

We saw in chapter one that many assume that individuals with autism were either not present in human societies in the distant past or, if they were, were unable to have influence or make any contribution. In chapter two, however, we saw that the skills and talents possessed by individuals with autism, and the role of such individuals in society today, argue that autism might be part of natural human variation and that autism may have played a role in human evolutionary history.

There is no direct evidence for autism from human remains. However, by considering the treatment of individuals with weaknesses or differences and the nature of social relationships along the human evolutionary journey we can begin to build up a picture of the involvement of difference and diversity in what makes us human.

We saw in chapter two that for some people autism, particularly when associated with intellectual disabilities, is a disabling condition, requiring extensive support. However, for many, if not most, their autism is best seen as a difference bringing with it weaknesses and challenges but also particular compensatory strengths. These individuals might sometimes need support in some contexts, but at other times contribute valued skills and talents.

In this chapter we consider what support and accommodation might have been available for weaknesses and disabilities which required support in the distant evolutionary past. We shall see that from the time of our last common ancestor with chimpanzees, living around 6-8 million years ago, early human societies developed along their own unique path. The extent of support which might have been available for any vulnerability is likely to have developed slowly through time, alongside the social and cognitive abilities to appreciate the autistic talents we saw in chapter two, and the social means to support particular roles.

We follow in the next chapter by considering where autistic differences and the autistic extreme of personality variation might have been acknowledged and appreciated, and when and how individuals with autism could have been able to hold particular valued roles within communities and contribute to human evolutionary success.

Ape ancestors, 6-8 million years ago

Genetic research argues that autism occurs right at the very start of the human evolutionary story, at least 8 million years ago. Genes for autism appear to be part of the evolvability of the ape and human genome, or its capacity to adapt (Gualtieri 2014), present due to other cognitive advantages which autism confers and which mitigate the costs (Marques-Bonet and Eichler 2009). For example, DUF120 domain dosage appears to be a primary factor in evolutionary brain expansion in higher primates, coding for neural stem cells and cortical volume (Dumas et al. 2012) but also correlating linearly with the three primary symptoms of autism (Davis et al. 2014). Genes for autism may even pre-date the emergence of apes, with autistic behaviour having been associated with genetic markers for autism in macaques (Yoshida et al. 2016) further confirming the long evolutionary history of autism.

How would individuals with autism have been treated in ancestral ape societies?

Our best evidence comes from comparative studies of our nearest relatives, chimpanzees, as well as other apes and primates. Although chimpanzees have evolved since the far distant past communities of our last shared ancestor (from which both humans and chimpanzees evolved), living around 6-8 million years ago, they provide us with the best source of possible analogies for such societies.

Nurturance and care in apes

Maternal bonds are strong amongst apes. We can be certain, therefore, that ancestral ape mothers will have had the ‘hard wiring’ to care for the vulnerable in the form of strong maternal instincts to look after offspring. Ape mothers (though not fathers) devote many years to caring for dependant offspring (and chimpanzees, for example, take around nine years to reach adulthood).

Figure 3.1. Bonds between our mothers in our nearest living relatives (chimpanzees) and their infants are strong, and mothers go to great length to nurture and support their young.

Even an infant that is less socially engaged or less socially responsive nonetheless stands a good chance of being cared for by its mother in an ape society. An example comes from the case of a chimpanzee mother in the Mahale mountains who carefully cared for her infant with Down’s Syndrome (Matsumoto et al. 2016). The mother, Christina, occasionally helped by her older infant, cared for the severely disabled baby, walking on three legs so that she could support the baby underneath her, and breast feeding for longer than usual. Christina seemed able to accommodate the differences which resulted from her baby’s disability. She learnt to carry her differently, didn’t let others carry her (which might have been dangerous if they didn’t know how) and held her in a particular way so that she could breastfed. The others in the group didn’t show any negative reactions to the infant. The disabled chimp lived for 23 months; however, she was never seen eating plant foods or walking, probably struggling to survive as soon as she needed to eat solid foods.

The motivation to nurture a baby who was less socially engaged or disabled in other ways is likely to have existed even as far back as many millions of years ago. However, in non-human great apes, it is mothers who shoulder almost all the infant care. This effectively places a limit on the extent of disability, vulnerability or weakness that can be supported, and mothers single-handedly caring for severely disabled infants often show signs of stress (Matsumoto et al. 2016).

An ancestral ape with autism who reached adulthood would not necessarily have been excluded from ancestral ape society. A study of Japanese macaques, for example, showed that there was no social selection against disability, with physically disabled macaques treated equally (Turner et al. 2014). However, there is no evidence of support or accommodation for disability. Turner showed that disabled macaques have to manage on their own, which means that they have less time for socialising and fewer allies. This is significant as allies are important to survival. We know that injuries lower the ‘rank’ of chimpanzees and their previous allies often abandon them: the rank of the Tai forest chimpanzee Jomeo was substantially reduced when he injured his foot, for example (Boesch 1992), and the Gombe forest chimpanzee Faben was reduced to a lower rank, submissive to his younger brother Faben, after he could no longer use his arm (Goodall 1986).

Social astuteness matters for apes who live in large social groups. Common and pygmy chimpanzees (bonobos) have a strict dominance hierarchy, and social deficits carry notable disadvantages in this hierarchy. It is evident that social life revolves around particular alliances, and there are strict ranks of dominance, with one’s allies and one’s rank dependant on one’s social skills as well as physical power. Life can be intensely political, as individuals compete for their place, and vie to form the strongest alliances (de Waal 1998). Although rare in bonobos, violence within groups of common chimpanzees is common, particularly against low ranking individuals (Wrangham, Wilson, and Muller 2006), who have much lower reproductive success than those of high rank. Moreover, when attacked by a chimpanzee of higher rank chimpanzee take out their aggression on those of lower rank (Boehm 2011), and within group aggression can be lethal (Kaburu, Inoue, and Newton-Fisher 2013). Chimpanzees can also be cunningly manipulative for their own ends and there is little commitment to others – they readily discard allies who lose rank (Gilby et al. 2014). Even amongst more peaceful bonobos, social and emotional astuteness is a key determinant of alliances and rank (Clay and de Waal 2013). Understanding all the complexities of social relationships is likely to have been significant in determining the social and reproductive success of any ancestral ape.

In a fascinating study of personality variation and traits of autism in chimpanzees, Marrus et al. argue that chimpanzee groups have a similar personality variation in social responsiveness (a trait lowered in autism) as human populations (Marrus et al. 2011). Chimpanzees who were less socially adept than others were clearly present and survived within the group as adults. However, these chimpanzees were consistently lower ranking (Faughn et al. 2015). The equivalent of autism in chimpanzees is clearly not the same condition as in humans. Apart from any other consideration, researchers found compensatory technical skills in terms of engagement and manipulation of objects (Marrus et al. 2011). However, the study at least gives us some insight into both the presence and the social effect of autism in our most distant ancestors.

Though adults with an ancestral version of autism would receive no accommodation or support and are likely to have been lower ranking, they may still have had some cultural influence. Hobaiter and Byrne, for example, found that several able bodied chimpanzees copied the unique back scratching technique of a severely disabled chimpanzee who had near paralysis in both hands, clearly being influenced to emulate him (Hobaiter and Byrne 2010). Autism in communities many millions of years ago is likely to have been a disability with little compensatory advantages, nor any significant contribution to evolutionary success, but nonetheless one which might be nurtured in infants and have some potential cultural significance.

Early hominins from 3 million years onwards

Over the following millennia as ancestral apes evolved their social characteristics were to change profoundly.

Though there is very limited archaeological evidence available for this period we do know that whilst other apes retreated to stable forested environments during periods of increasing aridity around five million years ago, human ancestors, called hominins, moved into new niches in more open environments. Making a success of a life which was more in the open was a key evolutionary change, and one which also demanded a change in how social relationships worked.

A major change in evolutionary pressures came from predation. More open environments put hominins into the reach of entirely new and dangerous predators, against which these small bodied and defenceless creatures were easy prey. We know, for example, that australopithecines, early ancestors of humans living around 3 million years ago, were often eaten by carnivores. The crania of an australopithecine found at Swartkrans cave in South Africa, for example, is punch marked with tooth holes from a leopard (Pickering et al. 2004). Since leopards don’t scavenge for food, the small hominin must have been leopard kill. The Taung child, a famous cranium from Taung cave in south Africa, is likely to have been killed by eagles (Berger and McGraw 2007). Hominins from Olduvai Gorge in Kenya showed signs of having been killed by crocodiles (Njau and Blumenschine 2006). Clearly predation was a key selection pressure on these groups.

In response to their dangerous environment hominins had to work together to survive, to find food and to protect their vulnerable offspring. The collaborative potential in ancestral apes would have been under pressure to intensify to meet these pressures. Hominins probably threw stones together as a defence against carnivores, for example (Rose and Marshall 1996). This was also probably the time when humans collaborated to raise young, with other mothers as well as fathers likely to be involved in raising and protecting offspring (Blaffer Hrdy 2008; Hrdy 2011). Collaborative parenting meant that supporting offspring with more demanding needs became feasible. We also find stone tools being produced at sites in east Africa from at least 3.3 million years ago (Harmand et al. 2015), opening up a new niche for scavenging carnivore kills for bone marrow and scraps of meat and for technology to become important in subsistence.

The scene was set for more fundamental changes in society.

Early humans from 1.5 million years ago

The collaboration which is widely seen as the key to early human success – allowing a vulnerable ape to move into new ecological niches – comes ever more clearly into view in the archaeological evidence surviving from around one and a half million years ago.

Some of the earliest evidence for collaborative hunting appears from around one and a half million years onwards (Domínguez-Rodrigo et al. 2014). Hominins may have often collaborated to scare predators from existing carcasses and scavenge the remains themselves. However, species such as Homo erectus left animal bones and stone tools at sites such as BK and FLK Zinj at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, which illustrate that they were able to hunt small, medium and large size animals such as hippopotamus and early forms of giraffe and cattle. Active hunting of game, and we assume, sharing the results of that hunting, put early humans at risk from the hunted animals themselves as well as in direct competition with carnivores, and increased pressure on abilities to work together.

A greater dependence on meat also implied that stone tools, used to butcher carcasses, were essential to survival. There is no evidence that anyone specialised in making stone tools (and we don’t even know if handaxes were made by everyone, just by males or even just by females). However, for the first time stone tools such as handaxes conformed to a particular design, and became not only more efficient but also more difficult to produce, therefore most likely involving a period of learning. Stone tools could also become a means of displaying valued technical skills as well as demonstrating patience and focus (Spikins 2012). An aptitude for working with objects, a strong sense of patience and an ability to focus became an advantage, as did having an understanding of animal behaviour.

Figure 3.2. This handaxe, from Olduvai Gorge, dating to 1.2 million years old, illustrates an increasing technological skill and attention to aesthetics and symmetry in stone tools.

Both the social and the technical elements of human cognition were under pressure to become more complex.

Human evolutionary success certainly depended on social skills. The ability to collaborate with others became increasingly important; both inspiring trust in others (Spikins 2012) and knowing who to trust became important skills (Nowak and Sigmund 2005; Rand and Nowak 2013). There were also pressures to be increasingly empathetic, responding to the needs of not only infants but also kin and other group members (Decety et al. 2012) and to have higher levels of theory of mind and understanding of others’ feelings and motivations (Shultz, Nelson, and Dunbar 2012; Gamble, Gowlett, and Dunbar 2011). Commitments and collaboration became a key to survival (Nesse 2001).

However, evolutionary success also depended on technology. Tools became more essential to survival, and increasingly complex over time. The earliest tool forms were simply made of easily produced flakes, for example; however, after 1.8 million years ago, handaxes demanded an understanding of process and symmetry (Stout et al. 2008). In later periods the control of fire became important (Roebroeks and Villa 2011), as did hafting tools, and ultimately multi-component tools allowed survival in extreme environments.

An increased component of meat in the diet was important in providing the protein for brain expansion in response to pressures to be more sophisticated in both social and technical ways. After around 2 million years ago we see marked increases in brain size.

Figure 3.3. Homo erectus, with a larger body form, increased brain size and more complex technology appeared around 1.8 million years ago.

Significant changes were taking place in how societies worked together to survive. For the first time we see vulnerable adults being supported and cared for. The earliest evidence for possible support of a vulnerable adult comes from the Dmanisi mandible in Georgia, an almost ‘toothless’ hominin that many argue must have been provided food by others around 1.8 million years ago (Lordkipanidze et al. 2005). This interpretation has been contested, however, with others arguing that the individual might nonetheless have been able to fend for himself. More convincing is the find of a young female dating to around 1.6 million years ago who suffered from crippling and eventually terminal hypervitaminosis (Walker, Zimmerman and Leakey 1982). This female lived long enough, suffering extreme pain and probable loss of consciousness, for the disease to show in her bones. It is undeniable that she must have been given food and water and protected from predators whilst she was ill by others in her group. There were clearly motivations to both include and to support those who were vulnerable.

Figure 3.4. A ‘toothless’ crania from Dmanisi in Georgia, dating to 1.8 million years ago, has been argued to be evidence of food provisioning of those who were vulnerable.

Figure 3.5. A layer of bone in the femur of a female dated to 1.6 million years ago illustrates that she had severe hypervitaminosis and must have been looked after for several weeks before her death.

Support for those who needed it was very unlikely to be a conscious choice or strategy. More probably, stronger bonds and attachments developed through selection for those more willing and motivated the support of others with vulnerabilities, as this provided the ‘give and take’ which allowed survival. Humans had already demonstrated capacities for long term commitment to adults well beyond those seen in other primates.

Whiten and Erdal (2012) argue that several significant new social elements were emerging. Food sharing allowed vulnerable individuals, such as pregnant or nursing females, to be supported. From the ranked hierarchies with constant competition for status and physical power seen in other social primates, this period may have seen the origins of much more egalitarian societies, driving the economic benefits and long term ‘give and take’ of collaboration. These can perhaps be seen as the first steps towards communities made up of different individuals working together for the benefit of the group and supporting each other when needed.

From half a million years ago and the emergence of early communities

Diversity becomes much more clearly in evidence from half a million years ago.

Reconstructions of humans from our distant past always show a group of young strong (typically male) individuals, who are remarkably similar to each other, brandishing spears and looking invulnerable. However, by half a million years ago the archaeological record tells a different story. Many individuals in each human group must have suffered from temporary or more permanent weaknesses or vulnerabilities which needed accommodation and few people fitted the concept of ‘normal’ which we impose on our past.

Our best example of variation within human groups comes from the site of Sima de los Huesos, Atapuerca, northern Spain dating to around 450,000 years ago. Life hunting and gathering was evidently harsh for these populations, with injuries common. However, social support clearly kept injured or vulnerable individuals within the group. At this site 28 individuals have been deposited in a mortuary pit, some of the earliest evidence of funerary activity. Of these, several suffered from conditions which required support and accommodation. A child of around five to eight years old suffered from craniosyntosis and a torsioning of the crania which may have led to mental disability, yet was clearly looked after with as much care as any other child (Gracia et al. 2009). One elderly man had a disfigured pelvis and must have walked with difficulty, at the very least needing a stick. Another man was deaf (Bonmatí et al. 2010). All three had been supported within the group. Communities were clearly both willing and able to support differences which required individual accommodation.

By the time of later archaic humans such as Neanderthals, social support for vulnerabilities was clearly widespread. One individual from Shanidar Cave, for example, suffered from a withered arm, damaged leg and probably blindness in one eye and is likely to have been dependant on others for his survival. However, he was cared for, probably through shared collaborative care, for around ten to fifteen years (Trinkaus and Zimmerman 1982). Others with marked injuries and disabilities, such as individuals from La Ferrassie and La Chapelle aux Saints, were also clearly carefully looked after (Tilley 2015a; 2015b). Care for vulnerability was widespread (Spikins, Rutherford and Needham 2010; Spikins 2015).

Figure 3.6. Care and support was widespread by the time of archaic humans such as Neanderthals.

Figure 3.7. The arm bones of the Shanidar Neanderthal illustrate his disability, which was supported by the rest of his group for 10-15 years.

Many find the extent of care seen in archaic humans difficult to understand. Surely it would have been economically more efficient to abandon the vulnerable?

It is clear that selective pressures created early humans that cared deeply about each other, and strong bonds will have motivated care and support. Nevertheless, the extent of collaboration and willingness to take risks on behalf of others which allowed early humans to survive and be successful was likely to have only been possible with the right social and emotional climate. Even today we only naturally become altruistic adults if we grow up in an environment of care and support (Gilbert 2005; Mikulincer and Shaver 2010). Abandoning the vulnerable was probably not only unthinkable for archaic humans in a moral or emotional sense, but also deeply damaging to the social environment and culture of unquestioning support within which sharing and collaboration existed.

Whilst there is nothing visible on human bones to provide direct evidence of autism in prehistory, in the context of the widespread care seen in archaic humans we would have to find a special explanation for why the challenges which autism brought were not supported.

Did autism bring advantages in such societies? We don’t know when in an evolutionary sense human societies became sufficiently complex to support not merely individuals with autism but a collaborative integration between different types of mind and different cognitive skills. There is little evidence for craft or technological specialisation before the emergence of our own species, for example. The particular skills of individuals with autism might have been supported and integrated, bringing particular advantages in the far distant past of archaic species. However, it is after 100,000 years ago, sometime after the emergence of our own species, that it becomes easier to see roles for individuals with autism (Spikins, Wright and Hodgson 2016).

To understand the world of the hunter-gatherer societies that developed after this date, and the potential role of autism within it, we will consider in the next chapter both the archaeological record of this period and analogies with modern hunting and gathering populations.


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CHAPTER FOUR: 100,000 years ago onwards – autism and prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies

I feel sure that my way of being is only a disability of context, that what have been labelled symptoms of autism in the context of my culture are inherited gifts of insight and action

(Prince 2010, 62)

It isn’t difficult to see that there would have been advantages to integrating cognitive diversity within past hunter-gatherer societies and providing roles for individuals with autism, as well as challenges to be met. We can easily imagine that collaborative groups supporting cognitive specialisation might begin to be an advantage. Some individuals might be focused on being technological specialists, or developing other object focused or rule based realms, and others on fostering social cohesion or developing other intuitive social realms, with different niches creating the cognitive differences we see today. Moreover, any group with different specialists within it might be better placed to respond to challenges and changes than ones where everyone has to carry out the same roles.

Several rather unique social characteristics of modern small scale hunter-gatherers might seem to provide opportunities for this type of complementary balance to be supported, and for individuals with autism to thrive and find important roles in balance and collaboration with neurotypical skills.

Whilst the social characteristics which could support cognitive diversity as a basis for society may have extended deeper into the evolutionary past, we can be most confident that they developed after 100,000 years ago. From around 100,000 years ago the structure of populations began to change, with increasing population density, greater mobility between groups and the development of large scale networks of alliances. As a result, autism individuals with autism would be seen more frequently given increased population overall in any region, special talents could garner a certain prestige amongst a wide connected region and opportunities could arise for contribution to large scale collaboration through the development and imposition of rules operating between groups.

From this time, human groups also increasingly colonise regions with harsher and more variable environments, such as high latitude cold environments, spreading eventually throughout the globe. Complex technology becomes essential to survival in these contexts and roles for technological specialists can develop.

Most importantly, it is after this time that we begin to see the clearest evidence for well-defined communal ethics and collaborative morality, protecting individuals from bullying or exploitation, driving possibilities for sharing of differing skills and talents and ensuring support for weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Collaborative ethics provide the basis for a relationship between communities and autism in which individuals with autism need communities, and communities need individuals with autism.

Changing Population Structure

Both genetic evidence and increasing numbers of archaeological sites suggest that modern human groups leaving Africa after 100,000 years ago lived at higher population densities than the archaic species which they replaced (Bocquet-Appel and Degioanni 2013; Churchill 2014; Sánchez-Quinto and Lalueza-Fox 2015). In Europe, for example, Paul Mellars argues that societies in Ice Age Europe lived at ten times the population density of the archaic humans, Neanderthals, living before them (Mellars and French 2011). Changes in population were at least in part due to a more gracile body form, with moderns being less robust, requiring less energy per individual and so being able to live in larger groups. But such larger groups imply a more probable presence of individuals with traits of autism in any group.

Intergroup alliances also began to emerge. While archaic groups seem to have been relatively isolated (Ríos et al. 2015; Prüfer et al. 2014), modern human social structures involved a great deal of connection and movement between different groups (Apicella et al. 2012). Moreover, artefacts began to move along networks of exchange, which suggest large scale regional identity (Vanhaeren and d’Errico 2006; White 2007). In such contexts it becomes possible for exceptional talents, such as those sometimes associated with autism, to lead to regional levels of influence and respect. Moreover, intergroup alliances are often governed by strict rules, which opens up opportunities for trusted individuals to apply such rules with fairness.

Colonisation of new and more challenging environments

The spread of human populations into new and more risky and variable environments after 100,000 years ago demanded a certain technological complexity which will have added significant value to experimental and technological talents. For example, the spread of humans into Australia around 60,000 years ago demanded sophisticated use of boat technology, while the occupation of cold northern environments would only have been possible with well-tailored clothing and highly engineered hunting weapons. Traits of autism might not only have been increasingly valued through this expansion but conceivably also facilitated it.

Figure 4.1. The spread of human populations after 100,000 years ago.

Collaborative Ethics

Perhaps the most significant element with regard to the inclusion of individuals with autism comes from collaborative ethics (Spikins, Wright and Hodgson 2016).

Modern mobile hunter-gatherers are in no way relics of the past, and each is distinctive. Nonetheless, the observations made by anthropologists about their way of life can give us some important insights into how social inclusion and integration may have worked in ancient societies appearing after 100,000 years ago. Both their unique ethics (of inclusion, sharing and equality) and approaches to firm pro-social rules (encouraging inclusion through appropriate behaviour and of punishing dominance or exploitation) provide a basis for integration and potentially more opportunities for roles for individuals with autism. These ethics may be a key role in integration, not only of autism, but of other differences, and of any vulnerabilities.

An ethic of sharing, not only resources but time, effort and valued skills, as well as that of making moral judgements on the basis of social motivations and of clear pro-social rules, are particularly significant.

An ethic of sharing and mutual support

A dominant ethic of widespread sharing and mutual support has been noted as a key feature of small scale hunter-gatherer societies from the earliest observations by anthropologists (Kelly 2013). People from western industrialised societies, with an ethic of independence and individuality may find it difficult to truly understand the mutual interdependence and willing support in small scale hunter-gatherer societies. Yet this interdependence has been a key feature in human success. Collaboration and sharing are essential to collaborative hunting, and mutual independence allows any individual to weather hard times or illness, be supported through pregnancy and childcare, or cared for after injury such that all benefit from mutual help (Spikins, Rutherford and Needham 2010; Spikins 2015a).

Sharing and mutual support in hunter-gatherers goes well beyond the levels seen in modern industrialised societies, and is not only related to practical elements of life such as food, time, knowledge, effort and skills but also a more deep-seated way of relating to others.

In practical terms, food is shared widely (Jaeggi and Gurven 2013), and ethnographic evidence illustrates that such widespread sharing evens out periods of plenty and scarcity (Dyble et al. 2016). Polly Weissner has studied sharing amongst the Jo’huansi (San bushmen of the Kalahari): between July 1996 and January 1997 a group of eight families of Jo’huansi at Xamsa ate 297 meals – of these meals, 197 were provided by others, or included contributions from others (Wiessner 2002). Sharing even works between groups across large scale landscapes. The same Jo’huansi develop distant friendships through gift giving, and at a time of famine in /Xai/xai, for example, distant exchange partners supported half of the population, who only survived because of this unconditional help (Wiessner 2002). Skills and knowledge are also shared widely within and between camps, helping to support survival through difficult environmental conditions and allowing innovations to spread (Dyble et al. 2016). Sharing of possessions, food, skills and knowledge is not simply a social tendency (which some individuals with autism might find challenging) but an outcome of firmly applied rules.

Sharing is also documented amongst hunter-gatherers of the last 100,000 years, for whom we have only an archaeological record. Large scale alliances begin to emerge around 80,000 years ago (Bouzouggar et al. 2007) and sharing was clearly part of the key to the survival of communities moving into Europe around 40,000 years ago and enduring throughout the Ice Age. The widespread exchange of non-functional gifts across Europe supports the interpretation that sharing and mutual support across groups was widespread (Vanhaeren et al. 2004; Vanhaeren and d’Errico 2006). Moreover, we can see evidence of sharing within groups at sites with detailed archaeological evidence for how faunal remains or stone tools are moved between hearths such as at Pincevent and Verberie in the Magdalenian of northern France (Zubrow, Audouze and Enloe 2010).

In moral terms, a sharing ethic and what has been termed collaborative morality (Tomasello and Vaish 2013; Spikins, Wright and Hodgson 2016) is a way of being for hunter-gatherers. Generosity and being willing to support others pays off amongst such small scale groups where everyone’s actions and motivations towards others are remembered, and it matters to be seen as caring about others. For example, amongst the Ache of Paraguay those hunters who most willingly and generously give their meat away are most willingly looked after when ill, injured or elderly (Gurven et al. 2000). Unlike our societies, which focus on individual autonomy, in small scale hunter-gatherer contexts episodic or contextual vulnerabilities and dependencies are part of life. Hunters amongst the Ache are too ill or injured to hunt a third of the time, for example (Gurven et al. 2000). A sharing ethic allows for a high level of give and take which plays out in different ways and which buffers individual shortfalls, illnesses or vulnerabilities.

Anthropologists argue that sharing and mutual independence amongst hunter-gatherers is so fundamental to their existence that, unlike people in modern western societies, hunter-gatherers don’t see themselves as bounded individuals in the same way as people in western industrialised societies view themselves predominantly as part of a wider interdependent whole (De Castro 2007).

Sharing and inclusion

An ethic of mutual sharing and support also supports inclusion of differences.

A good example comes from the Baka of Cameroon. Amongst the Baka, those with physical disabilities are accommodated within society. Those who are wheelchair bound do what they can to collect food. However, their lack of mobility also allows them to develop other skills, including the occupation of a certain social position – with their houses becoming a nexus of social interaction both within and between groups (Toda 2013). Though less able to contribute to society in one way, they contribute in another.

In archaeological contexts, individuals with physical disabilities typically receive special treatment in burial in Ice Age Europe (Formicola 2007), which suggests that in such societies, like the Baka, difference (in this case physical) opened up avenues to making a unique and respected contribution. An individual with dwarfism at Romito in Italy, for example, received an unusual and elaborate burial beneath cave art, with an older woman (who many suspect was his mother) (Tilley 2015). Isotope studies have shown that this individual received the same food as others in the group (Craig et al. 2010).

With no concept of disorder or disability within hunter-gatherer societies, the integration of individuals with autism makes them difficult to identify in anthropological accounts Nonetheless, such individuals are there if we look carefully. Piers Vitebsky provides an interesting example amongst Siberian reindeer herders. Though strictly herders rather than hunter-gatherers, these reindeer peoples show many similar traits, including the inclusion and respect according to one’s abilities demonstrated by small scale hunter-gatherers. He describes an individual who would today, we suspect, have been diagnosed with autism, and who made a unique and valued contribution specific to his skills:

Camp 10 also contained the men of the Nikitin family. The extraordinary old grandfather had a detailed knowledge of the parentage, medical history and moods of each one of the 2,600 animals in the herd. He was more comfortable in the company of reindeer than of humans, and always pitched his tent some way from everyone else and cooked for himself. His son worked in the herd and had been joined for the summer by his own teenage sons, Zhenya and young Sergei. (Vitebsky 2005, 133)

Other examples of technical skills leading to positions of respect are found amongst many groups. Amongst the Selk’nam of Tierra del Fuego, for example, respect could be earned in several different ways, including being a specialist cormorant hunter, or a skilled craftsperson (Lucas Bridges 1948; Gusinde 1982). A skilled cormorant hunter amongst the Selk’nam was also known as something of a recluse (Lucas Bridges 1948). Hunting skills are often held in high esteem and such skills can translate into reproductive advantage, with the best hunters being preferred husbands amongst the Hadza (Smith 2004; Marlowe 2004).

Skills can even be influential across a region. Amongst the Baka, for example, young men travel great distances to learn from an acknowledged expert, such as a basket maker. For a population of 250-300 Baka over a large region, Hewlett and Hewlett (2013) show that 16 individuals were identified as key craft innovators. These specialists attracted novices who would travel great distances to learn from them (Hewlett 2013).

It isn’t difficult to imagine that some highly skilled craftspeople, particularly focused on their craft and developing new innovative methods, be that in stone tool manufacture or other technical realms, might often show traits of autism.

Craft specialists, social roles and traits of autism

Craft specialists can be accorded particular respect and influence when their valued skills are needed for survival, and social roles also open up for those concerned with rules and fairness as intergroup collaboration is needed for survival.

Colonisation of harsh and risky environments depends on well functioning technology, with those who can produce this accorded a certain respect. Highly complex and reliable technology is essential in northern cold latitudes, for example. The Inuit provide a good illustration, with many different types of technology being highly complex. Different types of boats are designed for different conditions. The kayak (figure 4.1) is designed to be buoyant and easy to right, and we can also see a float used with a harpoon to track sea mammals after they have been speared. The umiak, in contrast, is designed for carrying people and goods (figure 4.2). Sleds are carefully designed and packed (figure 4.3) and dogs are used for transport, hunting, carrying loads and defence. Clothing is also finely made and designed to withstand extreme cold, whilst goggles (figure 4.4) are designed to guard against snow blindness.

Figure 4.2. Photograph of an Inuit man with a kayak, by Edward Augustus Inglefield, in 1854.

Figure 4.3. Eskimos in larger boat or .umiak, Grantley Harbor, Alaska, ca. 1904

Figure 4.4. Traditional qamutik (sled), Cape Dorset.

Figure 4.5. Inuit goggles, made of caribou antler and caribou sinew.

Since the Inuit depend on precisely made and reliable technology for survival, great value is placed on skills such as innovation, precision and perseverance, which are needed to produce their complex equipment. These same skills are highlighted and respected in their storytelling and in their art, such as through innovative designs, and patience and attention to detail in soapstone carving (Graburn 1976). Unsurprisingly, those who possess such skills earn respect not only as they express their talent in technology but also in everyday life.

In an archaeological context we see the same kind of perseverance and attention to detail in Ice Age technology, perhaps unsurprisingly given the similarly cold and inhospitable environments in which precisely made technology is essential for survival. Finely made Solutrean points take up to eleven hours to produce, for example, and illustrate patience, precision, and a commitment to many hours of practice (Sinclair 1995). Lithic technology is so specialised, and the requirements of learning so time-consuming, that it seems likely that there were specialised roles, that is to say, individuals who were supported by others to specialise in their craft (Sinclair 2015). Particular techniques in art, such as the style in which horse heads and nostrils are depicted or particular ways of carving ibex, also illustrate that art was often taught and learnt, and art specialists are also likely to have existed.

Intergroup alliances are often essential for survival in harsh environments and the rules that govern these can be complex. Those for dividing meat from intergroup collaborative seal hunts amongst the Netsilik Inuit described by Asen Balicki are one example (Balicki 1970, 133). The hunter keeps the flippers, but depends on future hunts to provide him with meat, with the seal meat and blubber divided in 14 ways by specifically complex defined rules and relationships. Unbiased imposition of rules, and the capacity to be a temporary authority without attempting to dominate others, are important. Amongst the Yamana of Tierra del Fuego, a particular fair minded individual will be trusted with enforcing rules and appropriate behaviours when many groups come together during important rituals such as the Chiexaus ceremony (figure 4.5), allowing harmony to be maintained (McEwan, Borrero, and Prieto 2014). This individual will be accorded authority for the duration of the ceremony. In such circumstances, clear and logical thinking, a concern for fairness, and absence of favouritism are particularly important.

Figure 4.6. A group of initiates at the inter-group Chiexaus ceremony of the Yamana, photographed in 1922.

Negotiations with other groups can demand a certain attitude, and the Jo’huansi select their least sensitive and most firm minded individuals for such negotiations (Lee 1979).

Roles for individuals with traits of autism

It isn’t difficult to see particular roles for which individuals with traits of autism might have specifically attuned competences and skills which could be valued in any hunter-gatherer society, nor how their particular skills might have been influential to others. Much in the same way that we saw in chapter two how the talents of individuals with autism make significant contributions to realms such as science, engineering and law, such individuals could also have made contributions in the distant past, and also have had families and children. We saw in chapter two that autistic talents include realms of abilities significant to survival in the past; for example, attention to visual details – important in hunting, elevated skills in sound and touch detection – important in hunting and finding food, unique relationships with animals – important in both hunting and other animal relationships, such as domestication of wolves, and enhanced understanding of physics and chemistry – important in technology creation. Individuals with traits of autism may also have an important role to play in establishing and supporting social rules, particularly where collaborations between different groups are concerned: in such instances, strict rules of behaviour are important in avoiding conflict, and trusted, fair minded individuals are often given the authority to impose rules.

As we saw in chapter two, autism is highly variable moreover, every autistic individual is different. The roles in society and relationships to others of any autistic individual would depend on their own intellect, abilities, talents, and personalities. Moreover, different hunter-gatherer cultures would place differing values on differing traits of autism, from being supported and tolerated to esteemed and valued. It isn’t difficult to see, nonetheless, that in many contexts technological traits may have been particularly significant in survival. The level of inventiveness, engineering skill, patience, focus, and attention to detail contributed by those at the autistic extreme of personality variation may even have been part of what allowed colonisation of high latitudes, where complex technology is a requirement for survival. The same skills may also have played a role in global sea-faring, which in many cases demanded well-made and designed boats and also occurred after 100,000 years ago. In other environments and cultural contexts other traits, such as a focus on fairness and equality, might be more highly regarded. Some traits could be valued whilst others might be tolerated within a climate of give and take.

We can see that over a broad scale, integrating complementary autistic and neurotypical skills would make societies more adaptable and resilient to changes. Once roles develop, whether based on social or technological traits, societies would become as much dependant on traits of autism for survival as individuals with autism are to the support of their communities.

Moral judgements based on motivations

In addition to an ethic of sharing, bringing with it the possibility of contributing valued skills or taking up particular roles, the means of moral judgement seen in small scale hunter-gatherers also promotes inclusion of individuals with autism in broader ways.

We saw in the last chapter that social astuteness is a key to success in non-human apes, with chimpanzees with more traits of autism tending to have a lower social ranking (and so less reproductive success) than others. It may sometimes be an advantage to be socially astute in hunter-gatherer communities; however, rather than primarily social astuteness it is clear from ethnographic accounts that one’s motivations are the key factor which is subjected to moral judgements from others. In this, the key factor is to be motivated by the common good, and a positive moral judgement is what determines success (Boehm 2012). Indeed, being manipulative or cunning is likely to lead to reprimands, punishment and a loss of influence among the ‘moral majority’ (Wiessner 2005; Boehm et al. 1993). In such a situation, rather than always an advantage, a complex understanding of others’ emotions can become costly (Devaine, Hollard, and Daunizeau 2014). One of the main causes of violence in small scale hunter-gatherers is over what is seen as ‘cheating’, in jealousies, sexual rivalries and infidelity, for example (Boehm et al. 1993; Boehm 2012). Advantages open up for those with a less complex and less involved model of others’ minds.

In effect, a focus on one’s motivations and intentions in terms of moral judgements and respect from others levels the playing field for individuals with autism.,

Clear applied pro-social rules

The key social rules in hunter-gatherer societies, to share and to work together, are not complex or difficult to understand; but they are firmly enforced through collaborative effort, driven by a willingness to work hard at maintaining harmony and a clear awareness of the societies which are being created. Tolerance, firm sanctions against bullying or exploitation and firm guidance on social behaviour support individuals who are different and allow them to thrive.


Harmony and inclusion depend on both support and tolerance and hunter-gatherer society is often seen as remarkably tolerant. In fact, unusual behaviours are typically of no particular concern. There is no concept of disability, or expectations of how people should be. There are no timescales or deadlines, and appropriate behaviour can take as long as necessary (and we have seen in chapter two that children with autism can take longer to reach emotional milestones). Where disability is severe, adults are often seen as still children and not expected to make any contribution (Kapp 2011).

Protection from exploitation and bullying

Individuals who are sometimes vulnerable or have certain weaknesses also benefit from firm rules, imposed by the group as a whole, to protect everyone from bullying or exploitation. So called ‘third party punishment’ – that anti-social or uncollaborative behaviour is policed by the group and punished regardless of who that behaviour affects – is a key evolutionary development in human societies that we see ubiquitously in modern hunter-gatherers. We saw in the last chapter that chimpanzees take out aggressive attacks from superiors on their inferiors who cannot expect anyone to step in to defend them. However, part and parcel of the intense collaboration and egalitarianism in hunter-gatherer societies is the punishment of bullying or exploitation by those who aren’t involved (Boehm 2011). The result is societies which forcefully defend those who might otherwise have been exploited.

Wiessner (2005) records extensive third party punishment in the Jo’huansi, for example. Generally, the stronger and more confident members of society step in to punish aggression, exploitation, bullying and jealousy, initially through gentle ridicule or harsher criticism, but then through stronger tactics if behaviour isn’t amended. Preventing bullying and exploitation is the concern of everyone. Those who are dominating and manipulative can ultimately even face the most extreme sanctions of being expelled or even assassinated (Boehm et al. 1993; Boehm 2015). Peter Freuchen describes the case of Uvigsakavsik, a murderer amongst the Inuit, who was expelled from the group (Freuchen, Maerker-Branden, and Branden 1931; Boehm 2009; Spikins 2015b).

For individuals with autism, third party punishment removes the disadvantages that a less sophisticated understanding of social relationship brings. With bullying and exploitation not tolerated, there is no requirement to be socially astute – it is enough to make one’s contribution to society to earn respect.

However, individuals with autism also benefit in more subtle ways from the group imposition of firm pro-social rules. Using the example of the Navajo, Steven Kapp (2011) argues that encouraging responsibility (rather than removing autonomy through labels of disability) and encouraging appropriate behaviour in firm ways make small scale hunter-gatherers societies far more supportive places for the integration of individuals with autism.

Firm guidance on social behaviour

One example of the significance of clear guidance and firm rules about pro-social behaviour comes from the need to control anger in order to be socially integrated.

Everyone (neurotypical or autistic) needs to control their anger in order to live harmoniously with others as displays of anger can be upsetting or threatening. However, controlling anger can sometimes be particularly challenging for individuals with autism. We might feel that life with autism might be easier if one were given complete freedom of expression, especially as overcoming emotions such as anger can be so difficult for individuals on the autistic spectrum. However, the testimonies of individuals with autism who have experienced firm guidelines and encouragement to control emotions or behaviour which might be upsetting or damaging to others and have been helped to find ways to make a contribution suggests that this is not the case. For example, Temple Grandin describes the observations of Marina, whose mother expected her to help with chores at home, like making her own bed, even though supporting her to do this and being firm will have been hard work. Marina says:

This has helped me throughout life. It has taught me to have a degree of self-control. I also learnt skills. (Moore and Grandin 2016, 156)

Grandin herself reports that, as a child, if she had a tantrum and lost her temper she was not allowed to watch TV that evening, and though that was difficult, it helped her learn to control her anger. As she notes, most adults with autism are grateful for the ‘loving push’ of parents who are firm about contributing, sharing and behaving in ways that don’t hurt others.

An example of attitudes to displays of angers comes from research by the anthropologist Jean Briggs amongst the Inuit. When snow landed on her typewriter while she was working Jean lost her temper and threw a knife at a pile of fish. This created much concern amongst the Inuit, who saw such behaviour as potentially dangerous, and in their view childlike. She was subsequently ignored, and only accepted again once she could demonstrate an ability to control her anger (Briggs 1970).

Temple Grandin is a strong advocate of clear guidance, and encouraging appropriate and positive behaviour in children and adolescents on the spectrum (and indeed all children) (Moore and Grandin 2016). Such a ‘loving push’ is no easy task for parents in modern society, however. Being supportive and calmly encouraging appropriate behaviour is hard work, difficult for parents or a single parent alone, and far more easily achieved within a hunter-gatherer community which collaborates extensively with childcare (Hrdy 2011) and with collaborative responses to any anti-social behaviour in adults (Boehm 2012).

A conscious awareness of the societies being created

A concern with providing guidance and being firm about behaviours which affect others is driven by a broader understanding and a conscious awareness of the societies that hunter-gatherers create, as illustrated by a quote from a Jo’huansi elder:

When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. (Lee 1979, 246)

These comments display a remarkable wisdom, as well as a willingness to put in the hard work which maintaining egalitarianism and inclusion entails. In a small scale context, to feel that any difference made one better than others would be a damaging attitude, playing into the ranked mentality we inherit from ape ancestors rather than the collaborative egalitarian attitudes typical of hunter-gatherers. Moreover, seeing the world through the eyes of a ranking system, in which one is either better or worse than others is associated with higher rates of depression and anxiety (Gilbert et al. 2009). Such a spirit of equality fits well with an autistic concern for fairness and justice, and with a need to understand the social basis of rules.


The experience of life with autism in past hunter-gatherer societies

The experience of life with autism, whether experienced by the individual as a condition which affects their functioning, asa cognitive difference or elements of both, is likely to have been very different in small scale hunter-gatherer societies. We know that different communities have different effects on the expression of traits of autism, as different cultures also have an influence on the expression of different traits of autism (Matson et al. 2011).

For most individuals with autism, life as a child is mostly likely to have been much easier in small scale hunter-gatherer societies. Many of the particular stressors which affect children with autism in modern society are not a feature of small scale hunter-gatherer societies. There are no sensory stressors, such as bright lights, loud noises or crowds, nor are there demands to meet and socialise with strangers in novel settings. Moreover, hunter-gatherer children typically experience much more tolerant parenting styles than do children in agricultural and later societies (Hewlett and Lamb 2005). Children spend most of their times playing together, and are typically given exceptional freedom, not being expected to make any economic contribution until well into adulthood. Jean Brody, for example, describes how Inuit adults felt that it was not their place to impose times when they should be asleep (Brody 2002). Hunter-gatherer caregivers are more responsive to crying than are those in agricultural societies, and hunter-gatherer infants in turn cry less (Hewlett, Lamb and Leyendecker 2000). Added to which, as we have seen, children have many caregivers, including not only an extended family but most of the group they belong to, and there is thus no one person who might be overwhelmed by challenging behaviour. Expectations of social behaviour are different. Many modern educational supports provided to modern autistic children are geared towards expectations such as sitting at a desk or contributing in class, which are not relevant in such societies.

How would autism feel in such societies? Our culture doesn’t only affect how we behave but also how we feel about ourselves. Living within societies with strict egalitarian ethics and no concept of ‘disability’, individuals with autism will not have felt different or any less valued than others (Kapp 2011). More than this, however, concepts of self are different in small scale hunter-gatherers. Rather than seeing themselves as individuals, people see themselves as part of a wider whole, made up of their relationships to the people around them (Bird-David 1999). In this sense, a hunter-gatherer concept of self is perhaps something more in keeping with the rather less focused concept of self experienced by individuals with autism (Lombardo et al. 2010), contrasting with modern industrialised society’s sharply demarked perception of the self as individual and separate from others (Heinrich et al. 2004). Both in a real sense, and in terms of how they felt, individuals with autism are likely to have been very much part of society.

Suggestions for the role of individuals with autism often focus on such individuals surviving or finding roles in past societies as solitary or notably less social individuals (Reser 2011; Lomelin 2011; Ploeger and Galis 2011). What an understanding of hunter-gatherers makes clear, however, is that no-one survives in such contexts alone, nor as in any way anti-social, and that most individuals with autism would instead be within society. As we saw in chapter two, individuals with autism are better seen as differently social. Integration within hunter-gatherer societies is likely to have been based on this different sociality. We might imagine individuals similar to many famous scientists (Fitzgerald and O’Brien 2007) making contributions to technology or innovation, others contributing to rules and justice, or others living their lives as part of communities in their own way and influencing those around them in less tangible but no less significant ways.

Past and present hunter-gatherer societies and inclusion

Far from the competitive and anarchic places the media often portray, hunter-gatherer societies are highly structured, and their harmony is the product of hard work. Inclusion is an important principle and the social context they create promotes the expression of individual talents and the accommodation of vulnerabilities. It isn’t difficult to see how complementary skills are encouraged and supported.

Unsurprisingly, the support and integration of communities can play a key role in the outcome of individuals with autism today, even in the most severely affected cases. Donvan and Zucker describe the case of Donald Grey Triplett, one of the first individuals diagnosed with autism (Donvan and Zucker 2016). Like Temple Grandin, Donald was seen as a severe case. As a child he focused only on objects, paying little if any attention to people, and his speech was repetitive and made little sense to others (Silberman and Sacks 2015). Thanks to the support of his parents and his community, the small town of Forest in Mississippi, he did not stay in an institution but was supported by his family, went to school and was integrated into a society who are very protective of him. He drives a car, lives independently and travels. He is, of course, still severely affected by autism, but he lives a happy and productive life and those around him have learnt to value and respect him (Donvan and Zucker 2016).

Clearly the lives of individuals with autism are not dictated by their condition but rather reflect the communities of which they are a part.

We have argued that after 100,000 years ago particular elements of human societies developed where traits of autism could be valued and individuals with autism could be supported and protected from exploitation or bullying.

Is there any further evidence that human communities after 100,000 years ago played a key role in the inclusion of autism?

Some evidence comes from genetics. Genetic studies suggestively support the concept of an extended inclusion of autism within populations of our own species emerging around 150,000 years ago. Robert Bednarik (2013) notes that two of the many genes implicated in autism, AUTs2 and CADPs2, are found within the modern human but not Neanderthal genome (Green et al. 2010). Oksenbeg and others argue that AUTS2, in particular, appearing after the split between our own lineage and Neanderthals at around 500,000 years ago, makes a significant contribution to modern autism (Oksenberg et al. 2013). Furthermore, the evolutionary history of other genes and gene sequences support this position. Research has recently shown that DNA flanking 15q13.3 is also associated with autism and found only in the human and not Neanderthal genome (Antonacci et al. 2014) and that uniquely human copy number variations in 16p11.2 associated with autism likely are unique to modern humans and arose in the past 183,000 years (Nuttle et al. 2014). With over 1000 genes implicated in autism, further research is needed to unravel the complex genetics of its evolutionary history (Liu et al. 2014). Nonetheless, the timing of inclusion of these genes thus provides some support for the argument that the social and technological changes emerging after 100,000 years ago and which were described in chapter one could have been influenced by the inclusion of autism within populations.

We can’t go back to the societies of the past, but as we move forward we can learn from a sense of community and of shared humanity that is often lost, and from the significance of inclusion and a willingness to help everyone to contribute in their own way.


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CHAPTER FIVE: Autism needs communities and communities need autism

I think that we can't go around... measuring our goodness by what we don't do. By what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think... we've got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create... and who we include.

(Pierre Henri, in Chocolat, based on the novel by Joanne Harris)


We started this book with a question of whether diversity had been more important in human evolution than we have imagined and whether autistic individuals, sometimes portrayed today as having a disorder, made an important contribution to human evolutionary success.

In chapter one, we considered the debate over explanations for traits of autism in European Ice Age art. As we have seen, many people are unwilling to link Ice Age art, seen as the flowering of humanity, to autism, sometimes portrayed as a disorder. The question of traits of autism in art is more complex than it might appear, however. Upper Palaeolithic art is more ubiquitous than is often assumed and plays a greater role in everyday life. Moreover traits of autism in this art are so widespread and yet so diffuse that they cannot be linked specifically to individuals with autism. Understanding such traits demands a better understanding of both autism itself and the integration of individuals with autism into societies of the distant past.

In chapter two we considered autism itself. Autism is sometimes a condition which severely affects life and for such individuals the term ‘disability’ is usefully retained as a necessary part of accessing social support. For many people on the autism spectrum, however, particularly those with Asperger syndrome, their autism is sometimes a challenge, and sometimes requires accommodation, but also brings certain benefits. We question whether autism should be seen as a disorder, or whether it would be more correct to term it a difference which is part of natural human variation and which brings with it unique skills and talents as well as deficits. We argue for a new definition of autism.

In chapter three we considered the evolutionary context of how disability and vulnerability affected the social lives of individuals from the earliest ancestral ape societies onwards. We saw that a remarkable level of support was available for vulnerabilities, whether short or long term, in the highly cohesive societies emerging from several million years ago. Autism is part of our distant human genetic inheritance and individuals with autism, even if severely affected, are likely to have been included in such societies, influencing those around them.

In chapter four we considered the emergence of hunter-gatherer societies similar to those seen today. We see that various characteristics of such societies will have removed many of the social disadvantages which autism brings, and provided opportunities for individuals with autism to play an important role. In such societies, individuals with autism may have found specialised roles which build on their strengths.

Autism and human evolutionary success

It isn’t difficult, in the light of the talents associated with autism which were highlighted in chapter two, to see how the inclusion of individuals with autism is likely to have influenced technological developments emerging after 100,000 years ago.

Firstly, exceptional skills and a unique focus in mathematics, chemistry and engineering may have contributed to novel and significant technologies appearing after 100,000 years ago, such as heat treatment of flint raw materials (Brown et al. 2009), project point technology (Shea 2006), microlithic and compound technology (Brown et al. 2012), complex adhesives (Wadley, Hodgskiss, and Grant 2009) or poisons (d’Errico et al. 2012).

Secondly, a drive to record complex patterns, and skills in understanding complex natural systems seems an obvious contributor to the development of calendrical systems (Hayden and Villeneuve 2011). Depictions of maps or astronomical calendars draw on talents often expressed by those with autism and may have been influenced by the interests and abilities which come along with traits of autism. We saw in chapter two that many individuals with autism have remarkable visual memory, ability to see the world from above (as in Stephen Wiltshire’s drawings) and both an interest in astronomy and remarkable abilities in calendrical reckoning. Recording natural systems is also comforting for individuals with autism (Goodchild 2010), as well as being potentially useful to a wider community. This doesn’t mean that such objects were necessarily made by individuals with autism, even though they might have been; however, it certainly shows that such traits were valued and respected. Their creation might have been driven by the interests and motivations which are commonly associated with autism. Moreover it isn’t difficult to see how useful such maps and calendars may have become in challenging and risky environments.

The emergence of specific specialised roles, although very unlikely to have been restricted to individuals with autism, nonetheless provided opportunities for such individuals with highly technical minds, well suited to the focus, patience and attention to detail demanded, to have an acknowledged contribution. Such roles are likely to have been particularly in evidence in ecological contexts where technology was essential to survival, such as in high latitudes. It is even possible that colonisation of such latitudes demanded a widening of human personality variation to include greater expression of traits of autism.

Lastly, the emergence of new, connected societies, with long distances links and support networks across large regions, may also have been influenced by the presence of individuals willing to impose the rules which allow co-operation amongst peoples who rarely meet each other. Large scale social networks also begin to appear after around 100,000 years ago (Bouzouggar et al. 2007).

A collaboration between different minds may have been critical to the success of our species. Individuals with autism needed the right communities in order to thrive and for talents to be respected and valued. However, in many cases communities also needed individuals with autism.

Autism and European Ice Age art

What insights can our understanding give us to the question of European Ice Age art which started our discussion in chapter one?

A focus on autism as part of communities rather than as exceptional individuals is a more constructive means to understand traits of autism in Ice Age art. We’ve seen that necessarily associating Ice Age art with exceptional genius is probably misguided. Some cave art undoubtedly shows a marked talent, and is moving and evocative in its realism. However, there is a much greater body of art which is more everyday and also less perfectly executed and so suggestive of a process of learning, such as art seen in domestic contexts, in rock shelters, for example, and on everyday objects such as hunting weapons. Equally, portraying individuals with autism as exceptional geniuses is just as unrepresentative. Of course some individuals with autism are extremely talented artists. However, autism is not a particularly rare condition and individuals with autism are fully part of society, using their particular focus and skills to make their own contributions in an integrated way.

In relating both Ice Age art and autism to the exceptional we miss what art can tell us about the inclusion of individuals with autism within communities. Rather than who made the art, or even who deciphered the art, we should instead ask what a focus on traits of autism implies about the inclusion of individuals within autism within Ice Age cultures.

As we have seen many traits of autism are important to survival in extreme environments. Rather than exceptional individuals outside societies, individuals with autism integrated within communities provide a focus for such skills to be retained, learnt and applied, and thus expressed in art.

We saw in chapter four that attention to detail was important in creating the type of technology which allowed the Inuit to survive in their harsh environments. Focus on detail, precision and innovation in technology were essential to survival and seen as respected skills by these cultures. These same characteristics are seen in both art and in stone tool technology in Ice Age Europe. An attention to detail, and a remarkable focus, comes naturally to many with autism. However, for those who are neurotypical, individuals with autism can be part of learning these important skills, much as today many engineers have Asperger Syndrome and influence how others understand their precise technical view of the world. Learning and displaying an attention to detail in art is likely to have been part of a cultural respect for these skills (whether in those with autism or those who are neurotypical) in past cultures.

An acute visual perception of what is really there is also vital to subsistence, and typically learnt by hunter-gatherers through experience and the examples of others. Such attention to visual details is especially important in identifying well camouflaged prey at a distance, and in risky environments with no ‘second chances’ at a kill mistakes can cost lives (Bleed 1986). Individuals with autism are more reliant on visual thinking to understand language (Kana et al. 2006) and perceive visual details far more clearly than do those who are ‘neurotypical’ (Mottron et al. 2006; Happé and Frith 2006; Smith and Milne 2009; Meilleur, Jelenic, and Mottron 2015). Whether this is the numbers on lampposts which draw the attention of autistic children (but which the rest of us don’t notice) or the fine details in a scene, having autism means that you tend to see the world somewhat differently. Autistic individuals with autism would have a certain advantage in having a system of visual perception already attuned to identifying animals from fine details, and be able to remember and reproduce these details in art, as well as de-code the details from the art.

What comes naturally to those with autism, seeing the world the way that it is, and representing it as such, can be learnt through training and practice by those without the condition (Cohen and Bennett 1997). In fact, much of modern training in art involves exactly this learning to see the world as it is, against our neurotypical intuition (Edwards 1999). Sacks, for example, describes how Monet’s description of how to draw (having learned to analyse the shapes in what one sees) is similar to the way in which Stephen Wiltshire innately ‘sees’ his world (Sacks 1994). Without such training we tend to draw what we think we see, making heads, hands or feet larger due to our own perceptual focus. As with following careers in analytical science, the plastic mind of the artist becomes a little more autistic and less intuitive in its perceptual focus, in this case on visual images (Kozbelt 2001; Vogt and Magnussen 2007). Only after an artist can ‘see’ the world autistically can they then return to their intuition to introduce deliberate changes to affect the emotional response in the observer. Hunters have to learn to see differently, and that art reflects how people then see the world around them. Hodgson has shown, for example, that that the key identifiable visual elements of game animals, as seen from a distance, are typically those features represented in hunter-gatherer art (Hodgson 2013). The profile views of animals, and often only the head or back, are often shown as that is the way that hunters learn to see the world, which then seems to be reflected in their art. Much as written language changes how we perceive the world (Decety et al. 2012) the influence of autism integrated within society does likewise.

Does this remarkable and accurate visual depiction and interpretation of Ice Age art illustrate that Ice Age populations integrated different ways of seeing the world and in a sense through autism as part of society had learnt to see ‘through autistic eyes’? We would argue that it does.

Figure 5.1. Survival in the Ice Age depended on a remarkable vision, and remarkable skill. The Chauvet lions could have been created by someone with autism, but it is more probable that they were created by someone neurotypical who respected and learnt an autistic vision.

What the art may be telling us about is a respect for autistic vision and inclusion of individuals with autism. What is important is not therefore the individual artist but that art appears to demonstrate to us that people in the Ice Age learnt and respected an autistic way of seeing the world that is then reflected in their art.

Everyone has to make up their own mind about the significance of European Ice Age art to the question of the role of autism in the distant past. We would argue that traits of autism in European art reflect the influence and inspiration of an autistic view, which came about because of the contribution of communities to autism, and of autism to communities.


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Our understanding of autism, particularly in its social context, is still in its early stages. In the future we are likely to see new and important insights into not only autism itself but also how it shapes society. Moreover, further research may contribute a great deal to our understanding of autism in past societies. Direct evidence for autism in prehistory is limited, prompting us to draw from different lines of research to develop our understanding of the deep past of autism – from the study of genetics, of primates, of psychology and neuroscience, of modern hunter-gatherers and of the archaeological record. Even that limited understanding, however, reflecting as it does an early stage in this research, nonetheless argues that it is already time to consider a new story of human origins, one in which autism played an important role.

We have found that autism has been part of the human evolutionary story from the very beginning. We saw in chapter three that we share traits of autism with other apes and even monkeys, and that individuals with autism are likely to have been present even before human ancestors split from the line which led to other apes. Individuals with autism are likely to have been nurtured by their mothers, but only as ancestral societies became more collaborative after around three million years ago would any group support have begun to be available. Whilst human groups place emphasis on social skills, technological skills also become increasingly significant to human survival as evidenced by increased sophistication of stone tools and reliance on meat eating. Roles for individuals with autism, based on the social and technical talents defined in chapter two, may not have appeared until relatively late in human evolution, around 100,000 years ago. However, as we see in chapter four, modern hunter-gatherers provide us with insights into how those who were different may have been included in small scale human societies at this time, and traits of autism help explain several characteristics of the archaeological record which appear after this date, explored in chapters one and chapter five, particularly in high latitude environments.

Our review of the available evidence suggests that autism was a significant element of human adaptation, that insights from the past can inform our understanding of autism within communities and, lastly, that it is time to re-write our story of human origins.

Autism as a significant element to human adaptation

We argue that autism, and the diversity of cognition of which autism is a part, is likely to have become particularly significant to human evolutionary success from at least 100,000 years ago as a result of three major changes in human society and adaptation.

Firstly, and most importantly, collaborative morality brought with it focus on group rather than individual survival, placed the focus on shared judgements of others rather than individual alliances and prompted a shared attention to harmony and inclusion. This social focus allowed individuals with relative weaknesses in area of complex social skills but strengths in compensatory areas to be protected from bullying or exploitation, and supported and included, allowing them to make a significant contribution (Spikins, Wright, and Hodgson 2016).

Secondly changes in population structure allowed roles for individuals with autism to develop. Rising population density, related in part to a more gracile skeletal adaptation, meant that individuals further along the autism spectrum were more likely to be present in any group. Moreover, improved linkages and alliances between groups and higher levels of intergroup mobility allowed those with special skills and talents to gain respect in a wider region. Furthermore, an emphasis on rule based collaboration between groups provided roles for individuals concerned with fairness and rules.

Thirdly the colonisation of increasingly difficult habitats, such as extreme cold and northern latitudes, as well as substantially variable environments, placed an emphasis on complex technological adaptations and innovations, realms within which individuals with autism or individuals with traits of autism could contribute in important ways to survival.

Several authors argue that agricultural societies emerging in Later Prehistory provided particular roles for people with autism (Del Giudice et al. 2010; Charlton and Rosenkranz 2016). This may be the case. However, we would argue that the origins of an inclusion of such individuals in society and their contribution to survival lies far earlier.

Autism within communities

Insights from the past have also lead us to argue for a new model of autism as a balance of skills and weaknesses which contributed an important role in the story of human origins. We argue for a new view, one in which we recognise that not only do individuals with autism needs communities but communities need individuals with autism.

Communities need traits of autism – because autism contributes a unique and valuable way of seeing the world, unique technological talents and focus, and abilities in imposing the rules and fairness that encourage cooperation. And at the same time, individuals with autism need communities – because communities provide support, guidance, complementary talents and a source of respect and appreciation.

A new story of human origins?

Our story of human origins needs to include, rather than exclude, autism. However, writing a new story of human origins about diversity and inclusion is not necessarily easy. Whilst we are all capable of viewing others equally, our ancestral primate minds can tempt us to want to be better, whether we are neurotypical or autistic, or indeed different in any way. Whoever we are, we all too easily fall into the temptation to see the human evolutionary story as the progressive development of our mind and thus past innovations become our inventions in a narrative from which it is difficult to escape. If we are autistic we would like an evolutionary story in which autism plays the leading role, whereas if we are neurotypical we wish evolution to be our story. As we have seen, however, to be human is not to have one particular type of mind, but to be part of a complementary balance between people. Our new story cannot be about one mind or another but about what happens between them.

To understand the role of autism in past communities we also need to stand back from the values and preconceptions of our own society. In our society, with our modern commercial view of the world, we often seem to value people according to their achievements or practical contributions. However, this is not the case in small scale hunter-gatherer societies in contexts in which life is intimate and personal. To see the story of the inclusion of individuals with traits of autism as being merely about their value, talents or skills relevant to survival would be to miss the relevance of autistic diversity to what makes us human. Individuals with autism are likely to have been integrated because those around them cared about inclusion and group harmony, as we have seen from the inclusion of individuals with physical disabilities in chapter three, but moreover valued individuals with traits of autism for who they were.

It is easy to write a new story, but it is far more important for all of us to write a shared story, one which is no longer about one single mind, and which respects the contribution of both autistic and neurotypical ways of thinking. From the foundation on which our past was built it is clear that our future may depend on it.


Charlton, Bruce, and Patrick Rosenkranz. 2016. “Evolution of Empathizing and Systemizing: Empathizing as an Aspect of Social Intelligence, Systemizing as an Evolutionarily Later Consequence of Economic Specialization.” The Winnower April 20th 2016.

Del Giudice, Marco, Romina Angeleri, Adelina Brizio, and Marco R. Elena. 2010. “The Evolution of Autistic-like and Schizotypal Traits: A Sexual Selection Hypothesis.” Frontiers in Psychology 1 (August): 41.

Spikins, Penny, Wright, Barry and Hodgson, Derek. 2016. “Are There Alternative Adaptive Strategies to Human pro-Sociality? The Role of Collaborative Morality in the Emergence of Personality Variation and Autistic Traits.” Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture.

Image Attributions


Figure i.1. Figure 1: Human evolution – the story of just one mind and one type of person?

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Chapter One

Figure 1.1 Engraving of a mammoth on a bone found in excavations at La Madeleine, France in 1864. This is an illustration from the book Kameno doba by Jovan Zujovic (1856-1936), published in Belgrade in 1893. The copyright of this book is expired and this image is in the public domain.

Figure 1.2 The ceiling at Altamira, discovered in 1895. Altamira Museum.

Figure 1.3 Detail of bison at Altamira. Museo de Altamira y D. Rodríguez.

Figure 1.4. Nicolas Humphrey compared depictions of horses from Chauvet Cave (upper left) and Lascaux Cave (lower left) with drawings made by Nadia, a talented child with severe autism (right, at 3 years 5 months). With kind permission of Nicolas Humphrey.

Figure 1.5. Horse and rider completed at approximately 5 years 6 months by Nadia Chomyn.

Figure 1.6. Horse by similar aged girl, Chloe Garcia-Argote Walker.

Figure 1.7 Panel of engravings at the right-hand wall of the sanctuary at Les Trois Freres, France, showing complex overlapping animal forms (from drawing by Abbe Breuil).

Figure 1.8. A horse from Lascaux. Replica in the Brno museum Anthropos. Source Wikimedia Commons.

Figure 1.9. Bison from the cave of La Covaciella, Spain. Bison Panel rupestre pintado con figuras de bisontes en la gruta de La Covaciella, yacimiento arqueológico situado en el concejo asturiano de Cabrales, en la zona de Las Estazadas, España. Réplica por Matilde Múzquiz y Pedro Saura.

Figure 1.10. Frieze of lions at Chauvet cave, which may have been drawn to give an impression of movement under flickering light. This is a replica of the painting from the Brno museum Anthropos.

Figure 1.11. Swimming stags at Lascaux Cave, which may represent either several individual stags or a single stag in motion. BernieTaylor permission as part of Wikimedia Commons.

Figure 1.12. Reindeer engraved on a rib from the site of Courbet, Southern France.

Figure 1.13. Bison drawn on water worn pebble from the site of Montrastruc, southern France. Wikimedia Commons from British Museum Ice Age Art event 2011.

Figure 1.14. Spear-thrower shaped as a mammoth, from the site of Montrastruc, France.

Figure 1.15. Decorated antler chisel from the site of Courbet Cave, southern France.

Figure 1.16. The abri blanchard plaquette, showing the phases of the moon and its position in the sky (authors’ own drawing).

Figure 1.17. Microliths, tiny and highly standardised bladelets with backed edges, come into the archaeological record after 100,000 years ago. They rely on highly precise flint working and are designed to create maintainable weapons, with each microlith a replaceable point on a long shaft. Source: Wikimedia Commons, José-Manuel Benito Álvarez.

Figure 1.18. Plaquette 662 from Montrastruc. Image by Anne Sieveking from British Museum open online catalogue.

Chapter Two

Figure 2.1: AQ scores of 557 randomly selected undergraduate students at York University, showing autism cut off point. With thanks to the Chronic Diseases and Disorders Fund (Wellcome Trust) at the University of York for a grant to pursue the project ‘Lost in Translation: Autism and Material Culture’.

Chapter Three

Figure 3.1. Bonds between our mothers in our nearest living relatives (chimpanzees) and their infants are strong, and mothers go to great length to nurture and support their young. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Figure 3.2. This handaxe, from Olduvai Gorge, dating to 1.2 million years old, illustrates an increasing technological skill and attention to aesthetics and symmetry in stone tools.
Source: Wikimedia Commons, from display in the British Museum.

Figure 3.3. Homo erectus, with a larger body form, increased brain size and more complex technology appeared around 1.8 million years ago. Source: Wikimedia Commons, from reproduction of a Homo erectus female in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

Figure 3.4 A ‘toothless’ crania from Dmanisi in Georgia, dating to 1.8 million years ago, has been argued to be evidence of food provisioning of those who were vulnerable. Source: authors’ own drawing.

Figure 3.5. A layer of bone in the femur of a female dated to 1.6 million years ago illustrates that she had severe hypervitaminosis and must have been looked after for several weeks before her death. Source: authors’ own drawing.

Figure 3.6. Care and support was widespread by the time of archaic humans such as Neanderthals.

Source: Neanderthal reconstruction from Neanderthal museum (Wikimedia Commons).

Figure 3.7. The arm bones of the Shanidar Neanderthal illustrate his disability, which was supported by the rest of his group for 10-15 years. Source: authors’ own illustration.

Chapter Four

Figure 4.1. The spread of human populations after 100,000 years ago, authors’ drawing.

Figure 4.2. Photograph of an Inuit man with a kayak, by Edward Augustus Inglefield, in 1854.

Figure 4.3. An umiak, Grantley Harbor, Alaska, ca. 1904.

Figure 4.4. Traditional qamutik (sled), Cape Dorset.Photograph by Ansgar Walk, source wikimedia commons.

Figure 4.5. Inuit goggles, made of caribou antler and caribou sinew.

Figure 4.6. A group of initiates at the inter-group Chiexaus ceremony of the Yamana, photographed in 1922. Open access image no 48.

Chapter Five

Figure 5.1. Lions painted in the Chauvet Cave. This is a replica of the painting from the Brno museum Anthropos.

About the Authors

Penny Spikins is a Senior Lecturer at the University of York. She is interested in the evolution of cognition and emotions, including differing cognitions, trust and social emotions, and has published numerous papers on these topics as well as a recent book: How Compassion Made Us Human: The Evolutionary Origins of Tenderness, Trust and Morality, Pen and Sword, 2015.

Barry Wright is Professor of Child mental health at Hull York Medical School. He has been a national Health Service consultant for over twenty years. He has published research into autism in journals such as Autism, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, PlosOne and BMJOpen.


Text copyright © 2016 Penny Spikins and Barry Wright

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