Spread the love

Cave Paintings & Tsunamis- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Cave Paintings & Tsunamis- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Cave Paintings & Tsunamis


Of time and space and art and information.

This post is short because Bruce was out of town, surfing kayaks at the end of the Earth, Hobuck Beach in the Makah Reservation at the far northwestern corner of the Lower 48 states of the US. Not a paddle was dipped into the water because of spitting rain and crumbly surf, but a friendship of many decades was joyously renewed.

Last week’s post discussed the power of turning a fleeting experience into permanence by immortalizing it artistically.

On a brief road trip we had seen two different phenomena, one natural and one human-made, vast fields of flowers and vast fields of LED spheres that looked like flowers.

The visit to the Makah Reservation inspired numerous thoughts on creativity and persistence. Due to a geological event, artifacts that normally do not survive centuries because of their fragile and organic nature were able to be preserved and eventually displayed in a museum.

This happened because of an undersea catastrophe that took place about a hundred miles offshore: The Cascadia subduction zone. This is a place where two tectonic plates collide, very occasionally moving in a big way. Indeed, up to sixty feet of motion at once along a boundary 1000 km long.  

This produces earthquakes of magnitude 9 and immense tsunamis, but “only” 43 times in the last 10,000 years.


Tsunami warning signs in area


A Pompeii-Like Calamity


About five hundred years ago, an earthquake plus tsunami buried a Makah village under anaerobic (low oxygen) mud, many feet deep, much in the manner that Pompeii was buried by volcanic ash.

By the way, we’re overdue for another one.

The lack of oxygen in the mudflow preserved clothing, blankets, baskets, and other normally short-lived items for centuries until they were excavated and discovered about 30 years ago.

They were stabilized by replacing mud and seawater with a plastic compound that protected the objects from oxidation.

These were items for daily use, but artistic imagery was literally woven into them.

There was no boundary between art and function.


Makah woven basket


Art Was There First


The power of making the transitory persistent extends beyond art, but art was there first.

Cave paintings, one of our favorite subjects, are at least 30,000 years old and possibly a lot more.

Using methods of storing information for purposes other than artistic date back to a mere 3100 BC. In the Sumerian city of Uruk, (now in modern-day Iraq) a man named Kushim issued a receipt in a Mesopotamian warehouse for a delivery of barley.


Sumerian cuneiform barley receipt tablet


Mathematics and information storage were “co-created” in the service of trade. Since trade involves bringing things from disparate locations, whether by foot or more modern means, it requires time.

So the functioning of trade requires record-keeping that can transcend time.


Mathematics & Art


Early information storage was closer to art five millennia ago than it is now. That first receipt for barley was immortalized on a tablet of baked clay, closer to a kind of bas-relief sculpture than a spreadsheet.

Mathematics initially developed as a standardized way of keeping track of commerce, as written about in The Nature and Growth of Modern Mathematics by Edna Kramer, one of my favorite technical books written for laypeople because it never talks down to the audience.

In the age of the Web, we tend not to think that information can be lost, but this book is out of print.


Clay tablets can be broken, but bits can also vanish.


Sociological changes came on the heels of mathematics and record-keeping, manifesting themselves in the creation of a new social class of skilled record-keepers and a devaluation of people with mere “knowledge” who didn’t possess record manipulation skills.

Even Plato opined that record keeping had a negative effect on memory.





For every new revelation, something is also lost.


Betting On Art


The current debate is about AI:  What will it do to thought and memory and analysis and perhaps even creativity? Will it upend current sociology with exaltations and debasements? 

The mathematical philosopher (my words) Nassim Taleb, in is book Antifragile, discussed the issue of where one should place one’s resources and confidences. As an extension of what is known as “Bayesian statistics,” named after the 18th century cleric Thomas Bayes, he said in effect, “In the absence of information, bet on what’s been around the longest.” 

That would be Art. The cave paintings say so.


Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain


With love from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


P.S. If you’d like to explore biting into your canvas with expressive mark making, pair this reading with my self directed course: Activating The Canvas. Go HERE to find out more. 

P.P.S. Book News

Get your ebook copy of this award winning book 





Get all 3 books. Pair your explorations in your art studio with our Art of the Possible Book Series!















Spread the love