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David Lewis-Williams


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2004).

The cave art of Altamira, in the Spanish province of Santander, was discovered at the end of the nineteenth century and controversy about its significance, and that of other cave art discovered subsequently, has continued ever since. In fact, work of this kind had been encountered much earlier, for some French explorers had entered the cave system at Niaux, in the Pyrenees, as early as 1660. One of them inscribed his name and the date less than a metre away from striking images, yet neither he nor anyone else at the time seems to have taken much notice of them. This indicates as vividly as possible how our understanding of human antiquity has changed in the intervening centuries. I visited Niaux myself in the course of a cycling tour in the Pyrenees some years ago, and I can testify to the extraordinary impact that the site makes on a modern visitor.

The cave art of the upper palaeolithic presents numerous puzzles. For sheer brilliance of execution it is the equal of anything that has been produced subsequently, as the illustrations in this book make abundantly clear. But why did the artists often penetrate so far—up to a kilometre in some cases—into the most inaccessible parts of the caves in order to carry out their work? Why did they sometimes inscribe one image on top of another? Why did they choose certain animals to draw and not others? Why are there so few representations of humans, and those often with added animal-like features? Why, at Niaux, are there marks on the images that look like crudely drawn arrows? Questions such as these arise continually, and all of them centre on two basic puzzles: why were the images made, and what do they tell us about the minds of the people who made them?

Most observers have taken the existence of this art to indicate that upper palaeolithic people had minds very much like our own and certainly possessed advanced language, though there are a few dissenters, notably Julian Jaynes and Nicholas Humphrey. But the meaning of the art remains elusive. Initially it was often ascribed simply to the "artistic impulse", "art for art's sake". This idea is less popular now and we are commonly told that the images were made for totemic reasons or as "sympathetic magic" to help in hunting. Lewis-Williams has little time for such theories, however, and puts forward instead a complex analysis based not only on extensive first-hand acquaintance with the cave art itself but also on evidence from recent rock art in Africa and North America. The result is a much richer discussion of this fascinating question than most other writers have offered hitherto.

The people who made the cave images were essentially modern humans, anatomically exactly like us. Until about 30,000 years ago, however, they shared their habitat with another species of human, the Neanderthals. As far as we know the Neanderthals, though their brains were as large as or even larger than ours, did not make any complex form of art. Lewis-Williams believes that this indicates that they possessed a different form of consciousness and probably a less complex language, and he suggests that, at least to start with, the modern humans developed their art (including body painting as well as cave art) in order to emphasize their distinctness from their "less advanced" neighbours. Once started on this route they continued down it, long after the last Neanderthals had disappeared.

Although Lewis-Williams cautions against simplistic extrapolations from recent art to the upper palaeolithic, he does think that there are important clues to be found. Drawing in part on extensive unpublished material he produces much evidence to support his claim that recent art was shamanistic and concerned with the depiction of visions and bodily sensations experienced in altered states of consciousness. It is difficult to dissent from this view, so thoroughly does he make his case. The next stage in the argument, which consists in applying this insight to the upper palaeolithic material, is inevitably more speculative. But Lewis-Williams claims that it is not essential for every step in the discussion to be correct provided most of it is. He uses the analogy of a cable compared with a chain: if one link in a chain breaks the chain fails, but a cable, being made up of multiple strands, can withstand the breakage of a few strands without losing its integrity.

Central to Lewis-Williams's position is the view of cave art as a social activity. He considers a number of different caves in detail, particularly the great site at Lascaux, and shows how they can be regarded as making up a kind of theatre in which a society could have staged its ceremonial events. It is a little as if we were looking at a mediaeval cathedral without any knowledge of Christianity: we could not know anything of the ideology that had inspired its construction but we might speculate fairly accurately about the function of its different areas.

The function of cave art seems to have been, in the broadest sense, religious. As such, the tradition it started has continued right down to our own time; we still have religion in plenty. In a postscript to his study Lewis-Williams offers his thoughts on what this means for us. The capacity for transcendental experience seems to be wired into our brains, as it was not in the Neanderthal brain. From this has come much great art. It has also produced the potentially disastrous conviction that God speaks to us, telling us how to conduct our own lives and how other people should conduct theirs. We should not yield to that delusion.

Shamanism and visions of a bizarre spiritual realm may have worked in hunter-gatherer communities and even have produced great art: it does not follow that they will work in the present-day world or that we should believe in personal spirit animal guides and subterranean worlds. We can catch our breath when we walk into the Hall of the Bulls [at Lascaux] without wishing to recognize and submit to the religious beliefs and regimen that produced them.
This is an important book that should not be missed by anyone with an interest in the origins of human consciousness.

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%T The Mind In The Cave
%A Lewis-William, David
%I Thames & Hudson
%C London
%D 2004
%G ISBN 0500284652
%P 320 pp
%K palaeontology
%O illustrated
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