The Mind in the Cave

Consciousness and the Origins of Art

David Lewis-Williams

I went through an intense period of obsession with prehistoric rock art when I lived in Leeds and began exploring the nearby moors. The abstract engravings that pepper the landscape there, dominated by "cup-and-ring" motifs, became an intriguing, ever-unfolding combination of a Rorschach for my personal myths, and a bridge between these inner dramas and many very real spiritual traditions. I think, to be frank, that part of their appeal for me was the fact that they were often neglected in favour of the more immediately impressive "representational" rock paintings that adorned—among other places—the deep caves of western Europe.

Gradually, I realised that my own ideas about the origins of these petroglyphs were converging with a controversial current in academic theory, one that sought to relate "abstract" and "representational" prehistoric art. Reading Lewis-Williams’ excellent 1981 perspective on Southern African San rock art, Believing and Seeing, led to an article summarising some aspects of San beliefs, mostly looking at their intimate relationship to the eland (a type of antelope). Then I met Thomas Dowson, who studied with Lewis-Williams in South Africa, and co-authored a landmark article in 1988 which applied some of their insights into South African art to European cave art from the Upper Palaeolithic (about 35-10,000 years ago). Their theory in a nutshell: Due to hard-wired neurophysiology, various stages of altered states reveal similar geometric shapes to all humans, similar experiences of vortex-like tunnels, sometimes followed by a similar level of immersion in a wholly ‘other’ visionary realm of hallucinations. And these shared human perceptions can be used as tools to gain a better understanding of at least some archaic art.

Naturally, the theory has been highly controversial. After meeting and befriending some of Dowson’s MA students when they came up to Yorkshire to study the engravings around Ilkley Moor, I was compelled to chip in on their behalf when they were the subjects of a veiled, rather hysterical attack from Paul Bahn, who said that the "band wagon" of interpreting rock art in terms of shamanic altered states had sometimes caused him to "wake up screaming"!

I tried to remain calm in my responses, and for now I’ll try to hold judgement on Bahn’s position until I check out his recent book. The whole affair seems now to be one of those sorry back-and-forths of misinterpretation and personal/professional bile that academia often tries to pretend it’s immune to, but which sometimes infect it as surely as it infects internet mailing lists.

It’s understandable, then, that The Mind in the Cave is frequently defensive. Lewis-Williams carries his theories with the confidence of decades of study, but you can be sure that every time he suggests that social groups in the Upper Palaeolithic practised a form of shamanism, he’s quick to stress he doesn’t mean all social groups; every time he suggests altered states were involved, he emphasises that this needn’t involve hallucinogenic plants. Some people will no doubt still infer a single-minded obsession with envisioning all archaic humans stuffing themselves with mushrooms. Bahn’s recent book is titled Desperately Seeking Trance Plants, and its blurb says it calls for "more complex, more multi-faceted approaches" to prehistory. My argument from 1998 still, I feel, rings true:

Not every study of rock art has to deal with every possibility; people are, by and large, astute enough to blend singular perspectives into the wider picture. And when one hugely important area of interpretation is lacking in the field, there is space for some specific focus on it, to fully drag it into the interpretative spectrum.

Lewis-Williams begins with a wonderful device for bringing home the real import of our awareness of human prehistory: three "Time Bytes" that take three cave art locations, and depict human interactions with them through the ages. First, an early human venturing into a narrow passage, filled with trepidation and awe as he encounters his tribe’s depictions of human-animal hybrids deep in the side of a mountain, lit by a flickering tallow lamp. Then, a 17th century visitor to another cave, paying scant attention to the odd drawings on the walls as he carves his name and the date into the rock. Finally, a group of friends in 1994, searching for cave art in France, stumble into what came to be known as the Chauvet Cave—and quickly come to feel that they were "disturbing" the spirits of the prehistoric artists who created what surrounded them.

The author’s point—which has never struck me with such immediacy before—is that up until relatively recently (i.e. the "Darwinian Revolution"), our culture as a whole generally saw humans as having popped into existence a few thousand or so years ago. Evolutionary theory made us like Rachel in Blade Runner, but in reverse: as she becomes aware that she had no real childhood, that she was created as an adult, we realised that we did have a past—a deep one at that. The catastrophic blow this dealt to orthodox Christianity still reverberates, like a delusional patient refusing to acknowledge—or at best, having trouble with—their bewildering history, even as it bubbles up. It’s worth bearing the true weight of this revelation in mind; it certainly makes me a little more tolerant of our collective squabbles about prehistory (Creationism notwithstanding!).

Clearly aiming at the interested layperson, Lewis-Williams goes on to summarise the entire history of the study of Palaeolithic cave art, from tentative 19th century pioneers, through to 20th century Marxist and Structuralist theoreticians—right up to the recent debate on shamanism and altered states.

Along the way, it becomes clear that a key current in approaching this art has been contextualisation vs. abstraction. Contextualisation seems to have become more and more of a priority, especially in theories related to ethnography, where researchers are keen to maintain respect for specific cultural situations. (How much this has to do with rational methodology, and how much it relates to collective compensation for the West riding roughshod over global cultural diversity in the last 500 years, is a moot point.) Unfortunately for the study of prehistoric art, "context" has all but vanished. Its meagre traces are left to be mined with astonishing ingenuity by technicians such as radiocarbon daters. As for generating less mundane information, the power (and inevitability) of abstraction remains clear:

Structuring, making something coherent out of the chaos of the natural world, is the essence of being human.

Lewis-Williams, p. 51

Structuralism, as a discipline, is seen as having gone a bit too far. Its rigorous abstraction of cultural and mythological elements, at least in its interpretations of prehistoric art, "foundered on empirical grounds" (p. 64). In other words, they started mistaking their map for the territory. Academic studies retreated towards measurable, less theoretical realms of study. Two things struck me here:

  1. If the retreat from theoretical abstraction in the wake of the rejection of structuralism was as drastic as Lewis-Williams says it was, it seems to me to resemble someone who finds themselves lost after following a certain map, and despairingly abandons cartography itself, instead of revising map-making practices. On the next page, Lewis-Williams chimed in: "Unfortunately, the entire structuralist position was discarded along with many of its valid principles. The baby went out with the bathwater before it could grow into maturity." (p. 65)
  2. If we accept that abstraction—mental cartography—is a core part of being human, a lack of such models for prehistoric art would presumably either wither any attention paid to it, or result in an uncritical, probably unconscious, set of assumptions moving in to fill the vacuum. I would say that any plausible model that challenges our own culture’s conception of "art" is better than no model here, as "no model"—just over-cautious generalisations—would really mean "unconscious assumptions".

The best approach, it seems, is to understand how both contextualisation and abstraction interact to help us build more and more accurate pictures of the world, past or present. Or, as I phrased it a while ago with regard to a similarly false dichotomy:

Difference and Similarity [in the comparative study of cultures] are related and complementary; each draws meaning from the other.

There are certainly problems in delineating potential similarities between present-day hunter-gatherer tribal cultures and prehistory, though Lewis-Williams seems to be clear and cautious enough in "setting the scene" for his parallels (with South African and North American rock art and ethnography). On this point, I think it’s wise to keep in mind the vast gulf that the agricultural and industrial revolutions places between us and both present-day "primitives" and prehistoric cultures. There will always be people condescending enough to assume that proponents of this viewpoint believe that both these broad groupings are somehow removed from the historical process, unchanging and set on a pedestal. Or that there is some implication that technologically primitive means culturally primitive. Lewis-Williams does his best to placate his opponents, clearly sensed in the wings, and manages to make valuable inferences from ethnography without trivialising the problems involved in such an approach.

Ultimately, the model that Lewis-Williams presents involves the neural structures of Homo sapiens developing the capacity for memory to the point where visionary experiences—which he accepts may have been accessible to the ill-fated Homo neanderthalis—became socialisable. They could be shared, and grew to form collective points of social reference. Specifically, he argues, they initiated social divisions that had never been seen before: divisions based on inner experience, not outer characteristics such as sex or strength. The main starting point for this theory is the way the shapes of the decorated caves imply certain social divisions quite forcefully. In the famed Lascaux, for instance, the large cavern at the entrance contains vast depictions of aurochs, one around 18ft in length. It is thought that some form of basic platform would have to have been constructed to achieve these images—clearly, in this part of the cave, a small group, at least, were involved in the image-making, and more of the community may have been involved in attendant rituals.

Further in, however, the tunnels narrow to form spaces that only individual could have accessed. Altered states aside, the "shaman" as a budding individualist is clearly a viable model for envisioning the creators of these hard-to-reach images. Of course, Lewis-Williams makes much of the fact that these remote works are frequently riddled with the kind of elements—lines, dots, curious depictions of death, human and animal—that could indicate shamanic visionary experiences of hallucinated geometries and initiatory rites of passage. There are fascinating discussions of specific aspects of altered states in relation to the art in various sites, embracing aural and somatic as well as visual hallucinations. Some points furrow the brow, but some trigger uncanny resonances across many aspects of human experience.

A good few aspects of Lewis-Williams’ thinking annoyed me, though. Despite the impression given by opponents, he’s a staunch rationalist, something that never seems to be such a great qualification for truly getting under the skin of cultures who crawled into dark tunnels to paint bison. In his brief epilogue, he makes it clear that while neuroscience enables him to make some inferences about archaic humans from modern laboratory studies of altered states, he’s not overly enamoured of such states:

If these neurobiologists are correct, and they have a persuasive case, the fundamental dichotomy in human behaviour and experience that I noted in the Preface—rational and non-rational beliefs and action—will not go away in the foreseeable future. A prisoner who escapes from Socrates’ cave encounters disbelief on his return. We are still a species in transition.

(p. 291 – my emphasis)

Presumably, then, he looks forward to a future when we have either evolved or engineered ourselves past these troubling hallucinatory experiences. For Lewis-Williams, "the content of dreams . . . is not significant." Dreams and visions are epiphenomena of neurology, to be made sense of by cultural constructions. Studying these constructions, and the supposedly meaningless experiential detritus of biology that necessitate them, is his concern. It is, of course, too much to ask that salaried academics entertain the notion that there are meanings beyond culture, which are adapted according to local tastes. To him, culture is meaning, and "meaning" that can’t be socialised via language is no meaning at all. There is profound truth in this, and going beyond it is certainly a can of worms that I don’t expect any book such as this to open; but my experiences argue against it as an absolute position, and I predict that the issue will not fade away as we march towards some purely "rational" future.

I also took issue with his view of Neanderthals. The depiction of interactions between them and modern humans seems flawed.

Neanderthals were able to borrow only certain activities [chiefly stone technologies and maybe basic ornaments] from their new Homo sapiens neighbours not because they were hopelessly bemired in animality and stupidity but because they lacked a particular kind of consciousness. They could entertain a mental picture of the present and, by learned processes, sense the presence of danger or reward. But they were locked into what Gerald Edleman calls ‘the remembered present’ . . .

(p. 285)

It’s the casual association of "animality" and "stupidity" that struck me. Would such an association have come so easily to the people who held animals in such esteem (I would stop short of "worship", as it’s such a loaded word) that they painted these awe-inspiring images of them, and so very few images of humans? It seems like a reasonable ethnographic inference to say that like most hunter-gatherers of recent times, they probably deeply respected these animals, whether as opponents in the struggle for survival, as creatures to whom they were indebted for providing meat, or more abstractly as powerful forces in the spiritual life of nature. Of course, such inferences are a key part of Lewis-Williams’ own argument, so it’s curious that it’s neglected here. Perhaps Neanderthals were viewed by early humans as being somehow more in touch with this potent realm, and their lack of distinctly "human" characteristics was seen as a source of wonder, even envy. Maybe we borrowed some things from them, near the end, much as the modern West is now learning a great deal from the more technologically primitive cultures it has all but eradicated. This is only a possibility, of course; it’s just that its complete omission from Lewis-Williams’ theorising betrays a hidden current of bias towards the modern project of rationalism that may be distorting some aspects of his vision.

In any case, what is clear is that, beyond any for-and-against squabbles about the possible range of the "shamanic hypothesis", there are hugely valuable perspectives here that will continue to inform open-minded research into archaic art. Opponents of the hypothesis are certainly valuable as hard, abrasive tools for honing the argument down; but reach for this book first as an excellent introduction to current thinking about altered states, prehistory, and the origins of art.

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