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San Spirituality: Roots, Expression, and Social Consequences (African Archaeology Series) Paperback – August 13, 2004
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Pre-order today
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"Archaeology is the study of material culture." "Archaeology is all about stones and bones." These two statements, reiterated while being challenged by Lewis-Williams and Pearce, all too often characterize the results, if not the interests, of much of the research of Africanist archaeology. Too often, we are offered dry recitals of finds, neatly illustrated or described and imbedded in cleverly devised classifications, catalogs of artifacts rather than thoughtful portrayals of the people or events that brought them into being. My words, not theirs, but they are consonant with attitudes that brought forth this book. Over recent years, archaeology has attempted to discern the individual in the archaeological record or the gender of participants in the activities of the silent past. Lewis-Williams and Pearce plumb the psyche of those interviewed when some portion of the past was still retained in memory and use those data to inform the inquiry into the creation of southern African rock paintings.
The urge to classify was understandable in the early years of the discipline, as archaeology strove to determine both its purpose and its methodology, but the past four decades following the introduction of "anthropological archaeology" have obligated us to indulge in a greater introspection with regard to the myriad leavings of the past and our methodologies for reading the archaeological palimpsest in general. Lewis-Williams and Pearce remind us how far we have come in the rediscovery of humankind's psychical ingenuity, and the perception of the worlds beyond its ken, through the investigation of archaeological remains-and how far we have yet to go. In the end, it does come down to artifacts and ingenious ways of comprehending them. Artifacts left us by the past take many forms transcending simple compilations of "stones and bones."
Delving into the workings of a nonliterate culture of distant antiquity is a dicey business. It is dependent on our comprehension of how such cultures articulated their everyday needs, and their comprehension of the world about them, in the material remains found in our excavations. Classifications were one answer, and the presumption of function-mundane or ritual-another. Neither approach was intellectually satisfying, so we looked toward analogous living people for an answer. The suggestion was for an archaeology founded in the theoretic of anthropology, utilizing the findings of ethnologists and their descriptions of how cultures functioned to inspire the interpretation of archaeological residues.
We realize that the gap between past ways of life and their supposedly living representatives is a broad one. Yet, the closest we can approach long-dead cultures is the study of more recent folk engaged in the solution of similar kinds of ecological or social dilemmas. This approach is one suggesting models of behavior based on the eyewitness observations of such folk. Avoiding the pitfalls of simplistic "ethnographic analogy," our authors realize that the most recent San, long in contact with alien cultures and changing social and economic conditions, have long ago ceased to be pristine representatives of "paleolithic man." How, then, can we close with the painters and explore their world?
Lewis-Williams and Pearce set forth on a fascinating excursion into the psychology and religious experience of extant dwellers in the perceptual universe of more modem representatives of the erstwhile for-aging people of South Africa. Only after having determined how this particular group of people expressed their perceptions can we proceed to think how we can use this information to determine some of the attitudes and visual presentations of the past.
Using the ethnographic observations of an earlier generation of investigators, Lewis-Williams and Pearce attempt to reconstruct the world-view of an even earlier coterie of southern African hunter-gatherers. The neuropsychological approach they propose, resting on a solid body of anthropological evidence, provides a bridge for the extrapolation of some ethnography into the deep past.
One of the most impressive and enduring of ancient humankind's leavings is art. Even if they are idle doodlings they are true representations of a world-invisible, as well as material-inhabited by the artists. In this case, we can present the art painted on rock faces scattered about southern Africa, or engraved onto stone, as vivid representations of a people's worldview. It, too, is often treated simply as anartifact to be inventoried, or as an artwork to be admired. Or abstracted into decorations divorced from their cultural context. Nevertheless, the rock art is more than the idle daubing of bored hunters waiting out the passage of game. Thus, an obvious conclusion asks us to determine what it is and how it functioned in the foreign country of the past. Recently, Augustine Holl offered a new perspective on interpreting some of the parietal rock art of the Sahara as instructive narratives associated with boys' initiation camps. The rock paintings of southern Africa appear to be equally instructive, though superficially less concerned with the mundane affairs of maintenance of the group's society or economy than with actions confirming a particular relationship with the super-natural and the role of the charismatic shaman in articulating that association.
This ground-breaking volume detailing the how and why of the San spiritual experience and its expression in their art, and the re-creation of the ancient foragers' worldview, ought to be of interest to not only archaeologists researching this and other aspects of the archaeological palimpsest but also to anthropologists and historians of art searching to understand the neuropsychological wellsprings of human creativity as well as to students of charismatic religious experience.