Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Portrait of the Cave Artists

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Portrait of the Cave Artists

Article excerpt


THE MIND IN THE CAVE: Consciousness and the Origins of Art by David Lewis-Williams (Thames and Hudson, [pound]18.95)

ABOUT 35,000 years ago, there was a major flowering of artistic expression in the caves of Old Stone Age Europe. So remarkable was this watershed in prehistory that it has become known as "The Creative Explosion". But what triggered this burst of human creativity and what sustained it for the next 25,000 years, until the Ice Age ended? These are the issues addressed in David Lewis-Williams's challenging book The Mind in the Cave.

Once this cave art had been accepted as the work of the ancient Cro-Magnon people of Europe, following fierce arguments about its authenticity, serious debate followed about its meaning. The art mainly consisted of representations of Ice Age animals, dominated by bison, horse, aurochs (wild cattle) and deer, but there were also rarer, less elaborate, depictions of people, and patterned or abstract designs. Lewis-Williams begins his book by providing an intellectual background for the discovery and reception of the cave art, coming as it did alongside the impact of early Darwinian thinking.

He then describes some of the crucial early finds and the arguments they provoked, and begins to examine the various explanations for the art advanced so far. These include "art for art's sake", totemism and hunting magic, and Marxist and structuralist theories, leading on to the idea that the components of the art were patterned like a code, and were symbolic of such things as maleness, femaleness, conflict and death.

The author shows how each of these models were rejected in turn, leading to an explanatory void. In the rest of the book, he ambitiously attempts to fill that void. In a short review it is difficult to do justice to the breadth of his approach, but it uses the content of the art itself, the archaeological record prior to its appearance (both from the Neanderthals of Europe and ancestral modern humans from Africa), evolutionary psychology and neuropsychology, and most critically for his arguments, the evidence of shamanism in contemporary huntergatherers.

The word shaman derives from the Tungus language of central Asia, and these are individuals (popularly called "witchdoctors") who supposedly possess special powers giving them access to the spirit world through altered states of consciousness. These altered states may be generated by hallucinogenic plants (eg, in the Shoshoni of Wyoming), or by trances induced through pain, deprivation or (in the San of Southern Africa) repetitive rhythmic chanting and dance.

Once in the spirit world, shamans may feel they can fly, travel underground or through water, and they encounter normal or mythical animals, strange landscapes, ancestors or gods. …

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