Dreaming in dark corners

The Mind in the Cave
April 11, 2003

Steven Mithen hears clapping and singing as cave art comes to life

A little under 20 years ago, I stepped into the darkness of Lascaux Cave and had its wonderful paintings gradually illuminated and lovingly described by my elderly guide in a hushed voice. It was an awesome experience, though I thankfully did not spend half of my allotted time viewing the paintings through a curtain of tears like one prominent American archaeologist cited by David Lewis-Williams in The Mind in the Cave . I saw the paintings as a record of the animals that lived on the late Pleistocene tundras of southwest France, a commentary on everyday hunting and gathering, an expression of a people's absolute dependency on and intense feeling for the reindeer, bison and horse that roamed their Ice Age Serengeti.

So evocative and informed is Lewis-Williams' book that it let me stand in the cave once again - but this time to see the scene in a completely different way. The animals were now the visions of an intoxicated Ice Age shaman: the large painted galleries an "evocation of the neurological vortex" of a mind in an altered state of consciousness, with the shaman's swirling hallucinations portrayed for his community. The lions depicted in nooks and crannies were no longer residents of the tundra but inhabitants of a supernatural world located behind the cave wall; such animals had been depicted by a shaman during a solitary vision quest in the darkest corners of the cave. Clapping and singing, instead of hushed tones now reverberated from wall to wall.

Lewis-Williams' shamanistic interpretation is the centrepiece of his important book on Upper Palaeolithic art. He steers the reader through a brief history of the discovery and many interpretations of this art, dismissing as "facile" those who argue that the art facilitated survival in the Ice Age world, so as firmly to embed its study in hunter-gatherer social dynamics and the nature of human consciousness. It is an impressive study, one that draws heavily on ethnographic data but avoids the risk of imposing inappropriate analogies onto prehistoric life by invoking universal aspects of the human mind.

The roots of this work lie in the author's re-interpretation of South African San rock art during the 1970s. There, he found intimate links between imagery and informants' accounts of their experiences during altered states of consciousness. Hitherto-unexplained paintings of animals and people were recognised as depictions of shamanistic visions. Within a decade, practically every example of hunter-gatherer rock art had been reinterpreted in the same vein by a host of followers as a shamanistic bandwagon rolled around the world and through prehistory. Some of the studies were as excellent as that of Lewis-Williams, notably those by David Whitley, who drew on ethnographic accounts of indigenous North Americans to interpret Californian rock art. Others amounted to little more than guesswork, in which any squiggle was claimed as an entoptic image: a non-iconic hallucination seen in an early stage of altered consciousness.

Lewis-Williams understood that the challenge behind the shamanistic interpretation was the necessity to adopt universal generalisations about the nature of human mentality, especially consciousness. The Mind in the Cave is his most developed statement and has relevance far beyond the Ice Age paintings of southwest Europe. He argues that cognitive archaeologists have paid too much attention to the evolution of intelligence and neglected the many dimensions of human consciousness. Drawing on the work of Gerald Edelman, Lewis-Williams distinguishes between primary and higher-order consciousness, reserving the latter for modern humans. Neanderthals are allotted only primary consciousness and hence a mental capacity too limited to recall dreams, engage in fantasy and escape "congenital aestheism".

The higher-order consciousness of Homo sapiens , Lewis-Williams claims, covers a spectrum: from that of our daily problem-solving activities to that of dreams and fantasy, for which he adopts the term autistic (drawn from work of Colin Martindale), which seems highly inappropriate today given its application to a medical condition rather than its largely forgotten reference to a mind generally absorbed by fantasy.

The condition of humankind then becomes one of how to cope with, and perhaps exploit, "autistic" consciousness, with the possibility of recalling dreams and experiencing visions. Lewis-Williams suggests that it inevitably leads to not only art and religion but also social differentiation, as some individuals claim privileged access to a spirit world. But this social theme, ultimately about conflict and power, is relatively undeveloped in the book, which pays most attention to the origin of image-making itself. He provides an intriguing theory - which I will not give away - that is generally applicable to the quite independent origin of art traditions throughout the world.

The Mind in the Cave is beautifully written and illustrated, essential reading for those with interests in the Upper Palaeolithic, art and human consciousness. The book's great strength is its ability to move from theories of human consciousness and the ethnographic record to the particularities of caves and paintings in southwest France. This includes a detailed study of Gabillou, a much less well-known cave than Lascaux. We are taken into its main chamber and along its tunnels, with the author explaining how the images must be understood in relation to their exact locations and through an appreciation of shamanistic experience.

I do have some reservations about the argument. While shamanism throws light on many aspects of the art, it leaves others firmly in the dark.

Quite why Upper Palaeolithic art began and finished when and where it did, why some animals rather than others dominated the shamanistic visions, and why the depictions were so naturalistic, remain unaddressed. Ultimately, the socially competitive, hallucinogenic hunter-gatherers of the Upper Palaeolithic require placing in their environmental context if a complete understanding of their art is to be gained. There can be no doubt, however, that Lewis-Williams has made a very significant contribution towards attaining that goal.

Steven Mithen is professor of early prehistory, University of Reading.

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

Author - David Lewis-Williams
ISBN - 0 500 05117 8
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £18.95
Pages - 320

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