The Mind In The Cave by David Lewis-Williams

by stephenpalmersf

David Lewis-Williams’ The Mind In The Cave is one of a number of attempts to imagine the psychology and condition of our prehistoric ancestors – and it’s one of the best. Though Steven Mithen’s The Prehistory Of The Mind was an excellent and thought-provoking read, there was running through it an element of speculation that to my mind seemed a step too far. (Admittedly his The Singing Neanderthals was somehow more reasonable…) Steven Pinker’s How The Mind Works meanwhile took the recent plague of computational metaphors of consciousness way too far.

Lewis-Williams on the other hand anchored his speculation more firmly into his research into shamanic cultures and practices. A South African investigator into prehistoric rock art, his early paper The Signs Of All Times: Entoptic Phenomena In Upper Palaeolithic Art courted the same controversy as that outsider imaginer of ancient times Richard Rudgley. But The Mind In The Cave managed to wear its deep research lightly as it told a compelling tale of what we can learn from prehistoric rock art, and how we attempted to learn it.

The author perhaps didn’t intend to explain everything he discovered or observed, but I think he did get very close to that goal. Yet that might have been by accident, given that a second, similarly brilliant volume Inside The Neolithic Mind appeared only three years later. This first book covers methodology, historical attempts to explain rock art, then symbolic, totemic and shamanic meanings, with the latter explanation being the favoured one. Cave walls are asserted as a kind of “membrane” between the physical world and the spiritual one universally imagined in past human cultures, with associated art explained as a variety of shamanic spirituality related to neuronal optical activity.


It is a brave man who ventures into the world of the prehistoric mind, given that no stone or metal tools directly mark our cognitive evolution, no buildings, post-holes or other marks in the soil give away the evolution of consciousness, and nothing can be said with certainty about rock art. But I do think we can nonetheless – by using the evidence of present day hunter-gatherer societies not least, as Lewis-Williams does – reasonably describe a lot about the development of the human mind from rock art. Many other authors have done so. In The Mind In The Cave, David Lewis-Williams made one of the most significant contributions to that difficult task. I don’t think he, or indeed anybody, will get all the details correct – how could we? – but the man deserves massive kudos for his ambition and his brilliance. Maybe it’s more likely that the art itself was reason enough for it to be brought into existence rather than any shamanic one-upmanship. Creativity, after all, is a self-sustaining human activity.

An outstanding book.

Mind in the Cave