The author posits a fascinating explanation for the origin of art and the creation of images by early mankind: the evolution of the human mind. He theorizes that the people of the Upper Paleolithic harnessed altered states of consciousness to fashion their society and used imagery as a means of establishing and defining social relationships. Cro-Magnon man had a more advanced neurological system and order of consciousness than the Neanderthals, and experienced shamanic trances and vivid mental imagery. It was important for them to paint these images on cave walls that served as a membrane between the everyday world and the realm of the spirit.
Hallucinations were instrumental in personal advancement and the development of society. He refers to the pioneering psychologist William James who already in 1902 pointed out the different states of consciousness and to Colin Martindale who identified the following different states: Waking, realistic fantasy, autistic fantasy, reverie, hypnagogic and dreaming. The sense of absolute unitary being (transcendence/ecstasy) is generated by a spillover between neural circuits in the brain caused by factors like meditation, rhythmic stimulus, fasting etc. The essential elements of the religious experience are thus wired into the brain.
Two case studies are used in support of this theory: South African San rock art and North American rock art. Chapter 8 is especially fascinating since it offers possible solutions to certain puzzles of cave art, like the mixture of representational and geometric imagery. The author believes that the trail of images from the cave entrance to the dark, almost inaccessible recesses represents a connecting link beween the two elements of an "above/below" binary opposition. Physical entry into the caves reflected the entry into the mental vortex that leads to the hallucinations of the deep trance state. In other words, the trail from the conscious mind to the deep recesses of the subconscious.
This book provides much food for thought about our earliest ancestors and about the evolution of consciousness. Graham Hancock's absorbing work Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind was written in defense of Lewis-Williams' theory. In addition I recommend William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience, R M Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness, Rupert Sheldrake's Chaos, Creativity and Cosmic Consciousness plus Stone Age Soundtracks: The Acoustic Archaeology of Ancient Sites by Paul Devereux as companion reading to Lewis-Williams' fascinating text. The book includes many figures and 97 illustrations of which 27 are in colour.
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]
on 11 June 2003
Over the last decade or so David Lewis-Williams and his colleagues at Witwatersrand University have revolutionized the study of rock-art, not only in their native Africa, but also in Europe and elsewhere.
His most fruitful work has been in demonstrating that first, Southern African San 'bushman' painting, and more recently the Old Stone Age cave art of South-West Europe is a product of and also a record of 'shamanic' visionary experience. The key to his arguments has been the integral and repeated presence within the art of 'entoptic' geometric images, that is images derived in trance from the optical nervous system.
These ideas have been controversial, but increasingly today, archaeologists accept them.
Now, in The Mind in the Cave Profssor Lewis-Williams goes further, developing a comprehensive theory to explain the palaeolithic cave paintings of France and Spain. What was once seen as a kind of timeless garden of Eden - if a chilly one, as the paintings were made during the last Ice Ages - has become in his hands a place of real history, of social conflict, one in which however dimly the presence of real individuals, whose individual motivations can be glimpsed, however dimly.
This is archaeology at its best: excitingly argued, breathtaking in its scope. It would be churlish to say too much here about the details - much more fun to find out yourself, by reading the book. Superlative!
on 28 March 2005
I couldn't understand why a book ostensibly about cave art and anthropology was getting such rave reviews in the general reading sections of the book press. Throughout 2002, newspapers and literary magazines across the world were giving five stars and must read reviews to Lewis Williams' study of the prehistoric mind.
That was before I read it. To call The Mind in the Cave a book about anthropology is a bit like calling Gibbons' Decline and Fall a book about the Romans. This is one of those rare books one comes across that one knows will forever remain amongst the nine or ten best books one will ever read.
The Mind in the Cave is a work of genius that convincingly binds the threads and fragments linking prehistoric rock art across the continents. Lewis Williams' expertise on South African and Botswanan rock paintings and the shamans who created them allows him insights into the Magdalenian creators of the rock art in southwest Europe unreachable by previous commentators. His theories are being discussed with great excitement by the curators at prehistoric cave sites such as Lascaux. Anyone with the remotest interest in anthropology, history, art or religion should read this book.
on 13 May 2007
This is a cautious, well-balanced book, with some lovely pictures, that argues convincingly that paleolithic cave art resulted from altered states of consciousness and shamanistic practices.
Having accepted that premise, I didn't find much more. The author is careful not to commit himself or even to speculate very much. Why these particular animals? Why so few and far less realistic human figures? How did the artists reach such a remarkble level of ease and proficiency - are the cruder designs from an earlier period? Why did paople stop producing the art - was it the coming of agriculture?
Admittedly, these questions and many others are difficult to answer, but a bit more of an effort would have been appreciated.
And what about the mind outside the cave? What was the landscape like at that time - a barren polar plateau or lush deciduous trees - a harsh or easy life?
Hundreds of questions spring to mind, but this book is very narrowly focused.
on 29 December 2007
In the Mind in The Cave, David Lewis-Williams explains his theories on the origin of art and the evolution of the human mind. Lewis-Williams begins by exploring the varying levels of consciousness, modules of the mind and the brain patterns as we sleep and dream. This forms a fascinating backdrop to the rest of the book as he delves deeper into two case studies, one focusing on South African San Rock Art and the other on North American Rock Art. He deduces from the evidence that is available, that shamanic trances produced 'altered states of consciousness' which formed the visions that have been painted, and in some cases, carved during the Upper Paleolithic period. He theorises that these images served as a 'membrane' between real life and the spirit realm, and therefore proved to be extremely influential in the development of the cave communities. Lewis-Williams then explores the concept of the wider community within the Upper Paleolithic period and the subject of conflict within these communities. However, I did feel that Lewis-Williams focuses so intently on the notion of Shamanism and 'altered states of consciousness' that the book does not have a broad enough outlook on the other potential theories of the origins of art throughout the Paleolithic period.
Overall, I found this to be a fascinating, thought provoking read on our earliest ancestors and the evolution of consciousness and the human mind.
on 3 July 2005
This is an excellent book, which by careful sleuthing, reveals a staggering amount of what pre-history cave art tells us about our forefathers.
There are, however, two "yeah, but"s. The first is relatively trivial. Lewis-Williams suggests it is a conceptual leap to make 2D drawings from 3D life, yet he never discusses the most obvious thing in regard to this - shadows. The world of 2D shadows from 3D life is everywhere, and surely gave inspiration to early painters.
The second is larger and broader. Much is made of "altered states of consciousness" which inspire the art, and the similarities in cultures across the world. Lewis-Williams suggest these are effectively delusions of the mind and the origins of spiritual experiences, which is a highly logical deduction. It is merely a shame, therefore, that he appears not to entertain an equally obvious alternate deduction - that the altered states themselves are not "delusions" but are universal experiences that speak of spiritual realities.
There is no evidence here for - or against - the reality of a spirit world, but the casual reader may not be aware of this fact. Nevertheless, the book is an excellent, stimulating read that provokes thought in all but the most cloth-headed.
on 23 September 2014
Already a classic work in modern anthropology. One of the most involving and most fascinating books about human prehistory ever written. The discovery of prof. Williams in the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa led him to produce one of the most comprehensive and convincing explanations of the misterious paintings of the Upper Paleolithic in the French and Spanish caves. What a insight into our earliest ancestors lifes! A must read.
on 5 September 2012
I probably would be more likely to go for 3.5 stars if that were a choice, but if I must choose 4 is better than 3.
David Lewis-Williams is an erudite scholar and an articulate, if not compelling, writer. His thinking spreads more broad than dives deep, it seems to me, very much a part of the current cultural ethos of biological reductionism. The topic is so good and he is obviously so well-researched that this book is still a good read for those interested in such things. It is noteworthy that none other than the great French scholar of cave art, Jean Clottes, calls this work "a genuine masterpiece" (on the cover), but I suspect he is referring to Lewis-Williams' bold new approach to rather well-known and widely accepted suggestion for the origins of these incredible prehistoric cave paintings. I refer to shamanism, which explanation goes at least as far back as Leroi-Gourhan and was certainly well supported in the theoretic works of Joseph Campbell. The fact of these cave paintings alone is enough to make for great reading (though this is not a browseworthy picture book since the reproductions are small and mainly there to support his argument), and the addition of explaining by way of Shamanistic vision activity should make it even more compelling. However, visions are not the thrust of Lewis-Williams' main argument for shamanism. He basically sees evidence in the prehistoric art for an ongoing competition for power and position amongst various shamans. This seems confusing since the paintings strike one as visionary as one would imagine a shaman's flight into other worlds would be, but this confusion lessens when we realize Lewis-Williams isn't buying into any of that sacred journey or even Jungian collective unconscious stuff. He sees humanity as driven by that ever-present selfish gene, which manifests itself in political struggles even in prehistoric times. Some people like shamans, according to the author, were privileged; in their need to maintain predominance and oppress the masses, they had to demonstrate their great power by orchestrating (not necessarily doing them on their own) better cave paintings (including painting over those of the opposition). That such a biological reduction becomes the ultimate explanation for Lewis-Williams is made clear in his long and rather boring final section attempting to apply recent neuroscientific imaging studies to these prehistoric minds, without any good reason for doing so, if you ask me. Brains do not explain minds, and minds are a cultural phenomenon. Now that I read my own words, I'm going back to 3 stars.
on 24 February 2013
David Lewis-Williams reports his studies of contemporary beliefs and rituals in the context of the local rock art of southern Africa and North America, and extrapolates from his observations to European cave art, concluding that the European cave paintings were theatrical settings for the rituals of trance-driven shamanic practitioners.The real shamans of Siberia (where the term shaman originated), however, rarely used trance, and Lewis-Williams' and Thomas Dowson's earlier 'three stages of trance' argument (in their paper "The Signs of All Times") was contested by Helvenston & Bahn in "Testing the 'three stages of trance' model", and repudiated in the strongest terms by Robert G. Bednarik in "Neuropsychology and Shamanism in Rock Art", who said of Lewis-Williams and Dawson's work:
"...a table dealing entirely with Australian art is implied to relate to European art, and a typographical error distorts the date of the source (1984); on p. 213, I am listed with several others as having suggested that shamanism existed in the Upper Palaeolithic, when in fact I had never even used the word "shamanism" in print and would not dream of mooting such a notion... "
This archaeological 'New Age woo-woo' misconceives Palaeolithic artists as drugged-up visionaries, portrayed as our modern Western construction (mostly based on Mircea Eliade's 1964 work, 'Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy') of the concept of 'shamans' defines them: wearing costumes that we have dreamed up for them, performing frenetic dances that we have imagined.