Any book challenging Established Truths deserves a place in your library. This exquisite example closely and vividly investigates the world of Western European rock art. Not an "art critic's" analysis, Lewis-Williams explains the roots of this enigmatic form of human expression. In so doing, he offers new insights into the idea of "spiritual realms" and the formulation of religions. With research delving in areas ignored or forgotten, the author demonstrates why our views of our Paleolithic forebears needs revision. Of foremost importance is the need to shed the notion of "primitive" as a quality attributed to our ancestors. The cave artists were "modern" humans in every sense of the term.
Lewis-Williams opens his study with a review of the first overturning of how we view humanity's track. Cave art had been found as early as the 17th Century, but the discoverers had no idea of the stretch of time those pictures had crossed. Not until the great insight of Charles Darwin, relying on Lyell's vast idea of an ancient earth, did it become possible to view cave art as remnants of prehistoric human life. The technology that could accurately date these pictures pushed the date of their creation back thousands of years. New finds set human artistic expression to more than 75 thousand years ago.
Lewis-Williams contends that these artefacts are the result of a sharp change in human intellect. About 75 thousand years ago, in various places at different times, the human consciousness experienced an elaboration. The immediate environment no longer was the limit of experience. Humans added what is known as "higher order" consciousness to the "primary consciousness" that allowed us, along with most other animals, to survive. Now, the more developed brain could achieve new levels of thought - "altered states of consciousness" in the author's term. Under certain conditions, the brain might even be imaging itself. Without any means of understanding the images they seemed to be "seeing", Paleolithic humans interpreted these visions as representing a "spirit" world. That world might be "above" in the skies or "below" in the earth. Caves acted as the perfect intermediate place to try to comprehend and react to these phenomena. The more tactile of these "vision-seers" would use the cave walls to depict their visions. Ultimately, the rocks became viewed as a "membrane" between the real and spiritual worlds. The spirits, or "gods" could now be portrayed visibly and even communicated with.
Lewis-Williams meticulously details how many of the paintings and symbols were rendered. The harsh glare of modern electrical lights, he reminds us, obscure the shifting and apparent "movement" that would be observed by people bearing the flickering oil lamps and torches into the caves. That "reality" gave the images greater impact on the artists and viewers as they worked and communed with the spirit world. No universal pattern emerges from these cave "studios", the author makes clear. Some may have allowed a large gathering to participate, either in the creation of images or in supplementary rituals. Others clearly allowed but one or a few attendees due to the restricted nature of the passages or the rooms containing the graphics. These are not, he says, the renderings of a Paleolithic leisure class, but working images vital to the population concerned. Some may have been strictly local, while others served wide-spread communities at various times and circumstances.
With many excellent renderings of cave art images, some in colour, to enhance the text, Lewis-Williams presents a logically developed and well-substantiated scenario. He stops his analysis at what can be seen and inferred from what we know of Paleolithic people. Yet, if you wonder what would drive people into the deep and darkened recesses of a hillside cave, just walk into the nearest cathedral or even small community church. These are dark, quiet places, severing the visitor from the travails and pressures of daily living. Communing with spirits is the raison d'etre of such temples. Are they the modern expression of the forces that drove our Paleolithic ancestors? [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]