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Review Feature: A review of The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art by David Lewis-Williams. London: Thames & Hudson, 2002. ISBN 0-500-05117-8 hardback £18.95 & US$29.95; 320 pp., 66 figs., 29 colour plates

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 November 2003

David Lewis-Williams
Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Private Bag 3, WITS 2050, South Africa;
E. Thomas Lawson
Western Michigan University, 222 Moore Hall, Kalamazoo, MI 49008, USA;
Knut Helskog
Tromso University Museum, 9037 Tromso, Norway;
David S. Whitley
ICOMOS-CAR, 447 Third Street, Fillmore CA 93015, USA;
Paul Mellars
University of Cambridge, Department of Archaeology, Downing Street, Cambridge, CB2 3DZ, UK


David Lewis-Williams is well-known in rock-art circles as the author of a series of articles drawing on ethnographic material and shamanism (notably connected with the San rock art of southern Africa) to gain new insights into the Palaeolithic cave art of western Europe. Some 15 years ago, with Thomas Dowson, he proposed that Palaeolithic art owed its inspiration at least in part to trance experiences (altered states of consciousness) associated with shamanistic practices. Since that article appeared, the shamanistic hypothesis has both been widely adopted and developed in the study of different rock-art traditions, and has become the subject of lively and sometimes heated controversy. In the present volume, Lewis-Williams takes the argument further, and combines the shamanistic hypothesis with an interpretation of the development of human consciousness. He thus enters another contentious area of archaeological debate, seeking to understand west European cave art in the context of (and as a marker of) the new intellectual capacities of anatomically modern humans. Radiocarbon dates for the earliest west European cave art now place it contemporary with the demise of the Neanderthals around 30,000 years ago, and cave art, along with carved or decorated portable items, appears to announce the arrival and denote the success of modern humans in this region. Lewis-Williams argues that such cave art would have been beyond the capabilities of Neanderthals, and that this kind of artistic ability is unique to anatomically modern humans. Furthermore, he concludes that the development of the new ability cannot have been the product of hundreds of thousands of years of gradual hominid evolution, but must have arisen much more abruptly, within the novel neurological structure of anatomically modern humans. The Mind in the Cave is thus the product of two hypotheses, both of them contentious — the shamanistic interpretation of west European Upper Palaeolithic cave art, and the cognitive separation of modern humans and Neanderthals. But is it as simple as that? Was cave art the hallmark of a new cognitive ability and social consciousness that were beyond the reach of previous hominids? And is shamanism an outgrowth of the hard-wired structure of the modern human brain? We begin this Review Feature with a brief summary by David Lewis-Williams of the book's principal arguments. There follows a series of comments addressing both the meaning of the west European cave art, and its wider relevance for the understanding of the Neanderthal/modern human transition.

Review Feature
2003 The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research

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