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The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art Hardcover – November 17, 2002

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In attempting to discern how Paleolithic Homo sapiens "became human and in the process began to make art," Lewis-Williams, an emeritus art historian at a Johannesburg university, focuses on the glorious but mysterious cave painting of western Europe, made between 45,000 and 10,000 years ago. Lewis-Williams has two main hypotheses: the first contends that mankind could only engage in image-making upon developing "fully modern consciousness," or an ability to process mental images in a variety of manners. The second argument insists that cave painting was a byproduct of religious belief and helped maintain a society with strict class distinctions. Recent research findings in the fields of archeology, anthropology and neuropsychology, among other social and physical sciences, bear upon the elaboration of these two ideas in the first two thirds of the book, while the final third details the author's interpretations of the animal and geometric imagery found in such sites as France's Lascaux and Gabillou caves. Having presented the science supporting his views of prehistoric images, Lewis-Williams is particularly winning as he subtly reveals his devotion to the art and people he attempts to explain. He is sensitive to those who "saw real things, real spirit animals and beings, real transformations" on cave walls. While writing about our forebears of tens of millennia ago, the scholar rightly suggests important similarities between the functions of art in the Paleolithic and current eras. Now, as then, he argues, images maintain spiritual power; art can still have a direct impact on social relations, leading to unity or division.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

For the last 30 years, Lewis-Williams (Rock Art Research Inst., Univ. of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg) has written books and articles about rock art produced by the San (Bushmen) of South Africa and the Cro-Magnon of Upper Paleolithic Europe. This recent work, mainly focused on wall and ceiling art in French and Spanish caves, recalls The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves, which he coauthored with Jean Clottes. That book was considered an important contribution to the field, if not the last word on the subject. That assessment applies here as well, but for the current volume Lewis-Williams has brought in more scholarly methodology and up-to-date research to develop his premise that some of the paintings were produced by shamans who aimed to "fix" on the underworld "membrane" of the cave walls what they experienced in states of altered consciousness. He discusses the development of various theories, past and present, about rock art, Paleolithic peoples, shamanism in hunter-gatherer societies, neurology, and higher-order consciousness. This insightful work could fit in a number of categories-art, archaeology, anthropology, history, early religion, psychology-and is recommended for both academic and public libraries.
Anne Marie Lane, Univ. of Wyoming, Laramie Munhall, Edgar. Greuze the Draftsman.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Thames & Hudson (November 17, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0500051178
  • ISBN-13: 978-0500051177
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #69,291 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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4.2 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

56 of 58 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on February 5, 2006
Format: Hardcover
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.
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63 of 70 people found the following review helpful By Peter Uys HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on February 15, 2003
Format: Hardcover
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.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful By G. Joy Robins on June 29, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
David Lewis-Williams has developed a unique insight into the early modern humans that painted the caves of Europe. He reasons that being modern anatomically, the function of their minds that were dependent on brain anatomy must also have been comparable to ours. He makes an excellent case that what we call "altered states of consciousness" were used by ancient shamans to access the spirit world and to interpret it to others in their culture. It is not the real world that is illustrated on the cave walls, but visions and halucinations obtained in various levels of trance. All members of the community could relate to those visions because of common experiences like dreams. For the shamans, this was a source of personal and political power and signaled a stratification of society. The author's ideas are communicated persuasively and interestingly. He makes us think without ever becoming ponderous.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Rodulf on December 25, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
For someone such as myself, having little scientific training but very interested in understanding our long ago ancestors, this book is awesome. Do I agree with everything in it? No, of course. But the basic premise, that most cave art was produced by people undergoing hallucinations, would seem to me beyond debate. We will never know the exact reasons for these paintings but we can be sure of the universal mind states that produced them.
The hostility that I'm addressing seems to be focused on the image on page 140, a San rock art piece. The San people are recognized as some of the most non-violent on Earth. Their culture, and harsh lifestyle, result in very little interpersonal violence. The image in question is seen by Lewis-Williams as a dance scene. Some of you see a violent attack. We can never know, absolutely, what this scene depicts. But I don't see this having any bearing on the core issue of the book. The San people have been persecuted mercilessly by other Black Africans for at least a thousand years. Surely at some point even a basically non-violent people will throw a spear in self-defense. Does this affect the basic investigation of Lewis-Williams into trance-state art? I don't see how, other than to show that anyone, entranced or not, can get pissed off enough to stick a spear in your gut. And, since the San see disease as arrows, darts, etc. sticking into a victims body, there is at least an argument that that is indeed what is depicted here.
In any event, if you are seeking a psychological/spiritual contact with our European ancestors and want to understand how they may have thought and produced such art, then this is a very good book to study. If you are seeking to emulate these mind states, as I am, it is invaluable.
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