Inside the Neolithic Mind

David Lewis-Williams

Continuing his exploration of prehistoric consciousness for a non-specialist audience (started in The Mind in the Cave), Lewis-Williams continues being thorough, ground-breaking, highly readable, and—finally—annoyingly rationalist. He begins here by seeing an extension of the “cave consciousness” of the European Palaeolithic in the use of created internal spaces in early Anatolian towns and cities, showing how early constructions expressed the cosmos of their builders—crucially, their sense of the world on the other side of death and within intense trance states, populated by spirits and turned to for knowledge and power.

The most interesting argument in the book is the idea that animal husbandry and agriculture didn’t start as some rationally-motivated aspiration towards better yields—any such benefits were a side-effect. The origins of agriculture, he argues, lie in the shamanic practice of corraling “power animals” (to boost prestige) and the gathering of large groups of people over prolonged periods of time to construct temples (which led to conditions which triggered the cultivation of crops). There is tentative support for the idea that the lives of individuals got worse as a result of agriculture; but the trigger for this shift away from foraging isn’t economic greed, but spiritual greed and irrational religious whims.

As ever, a curious mix of respect for prehistoric peoples—supported by fascinating, solid research—and denigration of the alternative modalities of thought and being they are seen to represent.

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