The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art

The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art

by David Lewis-Williams
     
 

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The breathtakingly beautiful art created deep inside the caves of western Europe has the power to dazzle even the most jaded observers.

Emerging from the narrow underground passages into the chambers of caves such as Lascaux, Chauvet, and Altamira, visitors are confronted with symbols, patterns, and depictions of bison, woolly mammoths, ibexes, and other

Overview

The breathtakingly beautiful art created deep inside the caves of western Europe has the power to dazzle even the most jaded observers.

Emerging from the narrow underground passages into the chambers of caves such as Lascaux, Chauvet, and Altamira, visitors are confronted with symbols, patterns, and depictions of bison, woolly mammoths, ibexes, and other animals.

Since its discovery, cave art has provoked great curiosity about why it appeared when and where it did, how it was made, and what it meant to the communities that created it. David Lewis-Williams proposes that the explanation for this lies in the evolution of the human mind. Cro-Magnons, unlike the Neanderthals, possessed a more advanced neurological makeup that enabled them to experience shamanistic trances and vivid mental imagery. It became important for people to "fix," or paint, these images on cave walls, which they perceived as the membrane between their world and the spirit world from which the visions came. Over time, new social distinctions developed as individuals exploited their hallucinations for personal advancement, and the first truly modern society emerged.

Illuminating glimpses into the ancient mind are skillfully interwoven here with the still-evolving story of modern-day cave discoveries and research. The Mind in the Cave is a superb piece of detective work, casting light on the darkest mysteries of our earliest ancestors while strengthening our wonder at their aesthetic achievements.

Editorial Reviews

Christopher Chippindale
Lewis-Williams' astonishing study for the first time makes sense of the whole,in a single coherent and integrated account.
William Sheehan
Combines a lifetime of archaeological research with the most recent insights into the workings of the human brain and the nature of consciousness.
Brian M. Fagan
After this brilliant and provocative analysis our perceptions of Stone Age art will never be the same.
The New Yorker
It’s a torture chamber, I think, a too-small casket tilted foot-up and you’re the one inside,” Barbara Hurd writes in Entering the Stone. Hurd, a caver for the past ten years, describes the difficulty of crawling through narrow subterranean passageways, called “flatteners” or “squeezes.” While tourists visit “show caves” like Howe Caverns in upstate New York, Hurd seeks out the more adventurous “wild” caves, and finds herself “trying to memorize escape” from them. In a marble cave in Oregon, she stops to press her hand into a wall of moonmilk, a calcite deposit with a cream-cheese consistency. But cavers are careful to leave the underground environment much as they found it. Despite collapsed rocks, fossilized bones, and the occasional piece of litter, wild caves may be among the cleanest places on earth.

Caves are marvels not only of space but of time; they remind us of the sublime slowness of the geologic clock. In Chauvet Cave, the editor Jean Clottes collects the writings of a team of scientists who are decoding this celebrated system of caverns, discovered in 1994 in southern France. There are photographs of Chauvet’s sweeping limestone landscapes and its etchings of rhinoceroses and lions emerging from rocky lairs. The ancient-art specialist David Lewis-Williams devotes The Mind in the Cave to the connection between such Paleolithic paintings and the evolution of early people. He describes the shock of descending deep underground and finding art work thirtyfive thousand years old: “Muddied and exhausted, the explorer will be gazing at the limitless terra incognita of the human mind.” (Lauren Porcaro)
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. (Dec.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780500770443
Publisher:
Thames & Hudson
Publication date:
04/17/2004
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
320
File size:
6 MB

Meet the Author

David Lewis-Williams is Professor Emeritus and Senior Mentor at the Rock Art Research Institute, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He is the author of The Mind in the Cave, Conceiving God, Inside the Neolithic Mind, and Deciphering Ancient Minds.

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