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The Mind in the Cave


Academic year: 2021

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Mind in the Cave Review

David Lewis-Williams

The Mind in the Cave seeks to find the answer of why Upper Palaeolithic art was created, and why. It argues that through altered states of consciousness (ASC) individuals would see universal phenomena in the make-up of their brains, and would induce them to create the very first recorded images.

Art serves social, not merely personal, purposes. In addition, art is a symbolic

representation that must be taken in a society’s cultural framework; for instance, we see a lion as a symbol of strength, and we in turn use this cultural constriction when we view art. Lewis-Williams (p.45) argues that the first to create art were not driven by aesthetics. He further argues that the concept of ‘art’ came after the first images were recorded onto stone. Thomas Kuhn, physicists who became a historian of science, argues that scientific knowledge does not increase gradually but instead makes great leaps and bounds as one theoretical and methodological structure (paradigm) is replaced by another. Two theories dominate on the creation of the first cave art; the first is that it was created for its own sake, the second that it deals with sympathetic magic. A central topic of this book deals with methodology; as well as the problems of

structuralism and the disassociation most anthropologists have with it today. The brain and changing social dynamics of the Upper Paleolithic, about 35,000-45,000 years ago in Western Europe, probably leads to an answer of why cave art was created.

Art was not spontaneously invented, nor was it a final link in a causal chain. (p.73) An aesthetic sense for art was created after the first images were recorded. An aesthetic sense for art was socially constructed, and not inherent in the biological make-up of the brain. Despite the fact that Neanderthals and homo sapiens lived together for a period of 10,000 years in Western


a different, not superior or inferior, kind of consciousness which led to Neanderthal’s imitating homo sapien art instead of creating their own. At the transition of the Middle Paleolithic to the Upper Paleolithic, about 30,000-50,000 years ago, there was something of a cognitive quantum leap which occurred. (p.77) This has to do with the Transition in that suddenly bone, ivory, beads, pendants, bracelets, statuettes, etc. suddenly came onto the archaeological record. Extensive networks of trade were developed, in that shells from the Mediterranean Sea are discovered in caves hundreds of miles away. Neanderthals were only able to mimic, not create on their own, the complexities of ritualistic burial and the symbolic meaning of parietal and non-parietal art. Although some anthropologist list Neanderthals as a species of homo sapiens, and there is even a theory which argues homo sapiens and Neanderthals interbred, the likely scenario of the two separate species co-existing for so long may be explained away. Ezra Zubrow argues that just a 2% difference in mortality rate could have in 30 generations, or 10,000 years, caused homo sapiens to have replaced Neanderthals completely throughout Western Europe. (p.88) Hunting in the Upper Paleolithic was not merely an economic activity to procure subsistence. It was likely associated with the attainment of supernatural power. (p.91) This will have special resonance later on.

Fully modern homo sapien behavior can first be observed in Africa, where the earliest known depiction of an image can be dated to 77,000 years ago. Homo sapiens traveled from Africa, through the Middle East, into Europe. Symbolic activity can be attributed to homo sapiens during the transition from the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic era. These include, A) Refined stone-tool technology that promoted the identity of a certain group, or social band, of homo sapiens B) body decorations which status was attributed to, C) Elaborate burial ceremonies D) Fully modern language, and E) the making of images. (p.101) Neuropsychology is a key link to evidence supporting Lewis-Williams arguments. The ‘cabling’ method of arguments, in which a number of strands of evidence are linked together, and contrasts to the ‘chain’ method of argument in that it allows for missing evidence; the ‘cabling’ method also restricts wild


hypotheses, is the best in determining what epistemological viewpoint to conduct neuropsychological evidence-gathering.

Descartes devolved his mind-body separation from a series of dream involving lucid thoughts, not rationalism. (p.105) More commonly today, Descartes’ cognito is seen to be outdated and no longer widely accepted. Likewise, the epistemological framework in which to approach the problem of consciousness and prehistoric homo sapiens is often debatable;

however, a framework which encompasses the entirety of the human experience is necessary in order to best understand prehistoric man. Traditional western values emphasizes intelligence as the supreme form of consciousness, (p.121) undoubtedly having been influenced by Plato and the other Greek philosophers. Western views have suppressed certain forms of consciousness and have regarded them as irrational or pathological, hence eliminating them from investigation. Irrational states of mind must be considered in the archaeological record, as Colin Martindale, a cognitive psychologist, explains:

We need to explore altered states of consciousness as well as normal, waking

consciousness. We need to understand the ‘irrational’ thought of the poet as well as the rational thought of the [laboratory] subject solving a logical problem…..We need to investigate the historical evolution of ideas in the real world as well as how concepts are formed in laboratory situations. Finally, since people are not computers, we must ask how emotional and motivational factors affect cognition. (p.122)

For instance, the Western notion of consciousness can be explained in the color spectrum. Isaac Newton attached seven colors to the spectrum; other cultures, such as the Ibo recognize fewer colors in the spectrum. Martindale proposes six stages to the spectrum of consciousness. They are, 1) waking, problem-oriented thought 2) realistic fantasy 3) autistic fantasy 4) reverie 5) hypnagogic states 6) dreaming. Our spectrum of consciousness changes throughout the day; for instance, our normal waking day comprises of cycles between 90-120 minutes of moving from


outward directed attention to inward-directed states. (p.124) These inward states are seen by Western societies as being pathological or are ignored all together. Inward-directed states are achieved through the aforementioned techniques of sensory-deprivation, rhythmic drumming or visual stimulation, hunger/sleep deprivation, etc. An altered state of consciousness is achieved when hallucinations are achieved in any of the five (six) senses. All these mental states, and altered states, are hard-wired into the brain. Likewise, the experience of an altered state of consciousness must be taken in a through a social and cultural lens derived from memory-hence, an Amerindian may have hallucinations of bison, whereas a medieval monk may have

hallucinations of Jesus.

Lewis-Williams argues for 3 stages along the intensified spectrum of consciousness. In the first, geometric visual phenomena such as grids, lattices, zigzags, dots, lines are seen. Since these geometric phenomena are hard-wired into the brain, people across cultures see them. (p.126) These geometric phenomena are also known as ‘entoptic’ phenomena. Hallucinations differ from phosphenes and form constants in that hallucinations include imagery of culturally specific items. Lewis-Williams says, “It has been found that the patterns of connections between the retina and the striate cortex (known as VI) and of neuronal circuits within the striate cortex determined their geometric form. Simply put, there is a spatial relationship between the retina and the visual cortex: points that are close together on the retina lead to the firing of comparably placed neurons in the cortex. When this process in reversed, as following the ingestion of

psychotropic substances, the pattern in the cortex is perceived as a visual percept. In other words, people in this condition are seeing the structure of their own brains.” (p.127) In Stage 2 of the intensified trajectory, subjects try to make sense of and interpret the entoptic phenomena by putting them into culturally-specific iconic forms. For instance, if a subject is hungry, he may interpret the entoptic phenomena as being food related. In Stage 3, intense visual phenomena occur; often a vortex is experienced. These tunnel-hallucinations are often associated with the near-death experience. Shamans typically see this vortex as a tunnel or a cave leading to the underworld. (p.129) Stage 3 phenomena are often associated with highly emotionally charged


experiences. Important to note, it is often the case where one stage is skipped and the next one achieved; likewise the stages may overlap. These three stages are not sequential.

Homo sapiens became anatomically modern to today’s people about 100,000-150,000 years ago. Therefore, Upper Paleolithic peoples had the same nervous system that we modern humans do. They had full access to the spectrum of consciousness that we do; furthermore, what is defined as ‘madness’ is valued in one society and scorned in another; it is a culturally defined term. Peoples of the Upper Paleolithic must have divided the experience of the spectrum of consciousness in their own culturally specific way in which it made sense from their frame of reference. (p.131) Lewis-Williams argues that ‘shamanism’ is a human universal-shamans of the Upper Paleolithic typically have these features in common; they experience altered states of consciousness involving a tiered (lower, upper, middle world) universe; people with special skills or predispositions are shamans; the behavior of the central nervous system creates the illusion of dissociation from one’s body; in addition shamans are believed to contact spirits and supernatural realms, heal the sick, control animals, change the weather; in addition, shamans are seen to have supernatural potency and use animal-helpers to assist in their quests in supernatural realms. (p.134) Indeed, shamanism is the predecessor to all religious experience. Weston La Barre sums it up best when he says, ‘[A]ll the dissociative “altered states of consciousness” – hallucination, trance, possession, vision, sensory deprivation, and especially the REM-state dream - apart from their cultural contexts and symbolic content, are essentially the same psychic states found everywhere among mankind;…shamanism or direct contact with the supernatural in these states…is the de facto source of all revelation, and ultimately of all religions.’ (p.135)

The concept of a tiered universe is seen not only in shamanistic societies, but in other religions as well. The concept of heaven and hell, heaven above and hell below, mirror the tiered universe. Heaven is always above and associated with the masculine, while Hell is below and associated with the feminine. The concept of an Underworld (hell) which is so universal, has its origin in an ASC which becomes part of ‘socially transmitted culture so that even those who have never experienced the far end of the intensified trajectory accept the beliefs.’ (p.145)


Likewise, the sensation of vertigo created by an ASC can be associated with sensations of being underwater. Weightlessness, dissociation (directly associated with flight) and attenuation are related to the ‘spirit world above’, while experiencing a vortex, difficulty in breathing, and sound in the ears is directly related to the ‘spirit realm below’; i.e. the Underworld. (p.145) The

experiences are universal due to the way in which the nervous system operates in electro-chemically ASC. The precise ways in which these experiences are rationalized are culturally specific; for instance, some peoples speak of entering caves, following the roots of trees, or going down into an animal burrow. (p.146) The sensation of being underground or underwater is the most fundamental, obvious, and logical explanation created by the nervous system in altered states. Lewis-Williams states that “an ‘introcosm’ is projected onto the material world to create a cosmology.” (p.146) Similarly, the sensation of flying and viewing one’s own body from above as a function of the central nervous system. Shamanistic flight is widely recorded as being underground journeys. The sensation of the Heavens, achieved through shamanic flight, of the Underworld, as demonstrated through the sensation of traveling through a vortex (cave), is part of the nervous system and hence a built-in experience of the full spectrum of human


San rock art exhibits all this phenomena. The shaman probably did not record the painted images while in a trance; physically, this would have been a great challenge to someone in an ASC. Nor were shamans the only ones who created cave art. But it was the shaman who recreated or perhaps relived their experience into the supernatural realm while in an ordinary state of consciousness. (p.149) Geometric patterns and other entoptic phenomena are common amongst San engravings, more so than in paintings. As far as their navicular images are concerned, the images are often construed as beehives. Since ASC involves all the senses, a ‘humming’ sound is often heard while one enters an ASC. This humming sound is interpreted by culture; among the San, it was the bee and the navicular was the beehive, which bees in South Africa create their honeycombs to look like. Among Amazonian tribes, the autistic hallucinations were interpreted as being frogs, crickets and cicadas. (p.153) Lewis-Williams developed André


Leroi-Gourhan’s idea of four distinct stages in the social production and use of San art. In stage I, the San shamans (which probably numbered at least half the population) acquired insights into the spiritual realm through the trance dance, special curing rituals, viewing rock art, and dreams. In each of these four insights, a binary opposition can be seen which created, exploited, and upheld social and political divisions; they are between the society: the individual; socially sanctioned visions: unique visions acquired through ASC. The San community sanctioned what parts of the spectrum of consciousness to accept and ignore. San people accept that shamans during a trance dance will commune with the supernatural. Likewise, pulling in the opposite direction, the human brain in an ASC produces unique hallucinations. In all societies most people ignore these unique hallucinations because the individual is seeking intentionally visions that will make them feel part of a social group. (p.157) On the other hand, sometimes these unique hallucinations are presented as specially privileged insights. San shaman-artists were then given the opportunity to manipulate the social fabric to set them above the social parameter. Secondly, San shamans further achieve insights through healing the sick; these shamans special abilities set them apart from others. Thirdly by viewing their own paintings, San shamans could become ‘part of their own experiences in altered states.’ (p.158) Fourthly, shamans achieved images through dreams; often times, a new medicine song may be heard. In stage II, paint was manufactured. The blood of animals was often mixed into the paint, creating images that to the individual, was more than a mere picture. In stage III, one can see that the fine lines of San paintings make it unlikely that all shamans painted them. It remains unknown mostly when and under what circumstances these images were painted. In stage IV, San images performed important cultural roles, but the literature on exactly what this comprised of is lacking. Touching the images was important to the San, as were rock shelters where densely packed groups of images that were formed achieved an almost sacred meaning. To the San, art and physical environment were inseparable. (p.162)

The Chumash of North American Indian tribes share many common themes among the San and other shamanic societies. Its true that in their society, the ‘magic and supernatural play a


prominent role in most of the [Chumash] narratives.’(p.165) The Chumash had a three tier universe, much like that of Judaic-Christianity religion. Among the Shoshone, a power-animal is achieved through vision quests, instead of dreams as in the case of the San. On a vision quest, the person would travel up a mountain and use many methods of altering consciousness to achieve a vision of their power-animal, while sleeping next to geometric and other rock paintings. The Shoshone also had one word, ‘navushieiep’ to describe waking and dream-time. David Whitley that shamanistic North American societies included hallucinations of a) death/killing

b)aggression/fighting c)drowning/going underwater d)flight d)sexual arousal/intercourse e)bodily transformation. (p.173) Interestingly, among south-central California tribes of indigenous groups used the words for bear, grizzly, and shaman interchangeably. (p.174) One sharp contrast between the San and North American groups is that the San are very open about what they experience in the spirit realm, instead of having a veil of secrecy around it. Among the Yokuts and Mono peoples, the shaman and the chief were closely related. One is reminded of the close connection between the monarchy and Papal authority of so much of Western medieval times. The shaman would cast spiritual attacks against the Chief’s enemies. Religion and politics were thus interrelated.

There have been found to be Aurignacian statuettes of shamans entering a deep ASC. (p.202) This supports the idea that shamanistic activities are inherently ingrained in the nervous system. ASC’s also not only offer the notion of the three-tiered universe, but also allow access into it. (p.209) Among Aurignacian caves in France, there are examples of rock art that can only be seen with a tallow (or similar) lamp. The position of the tallow lamp reveals patterns of geometric forms such as zig-zags and grids. It’s important to remember that in an ASC, all of the senses hallucinate. The sense of sound experienced in a hallucination is duplicated among Aurignacian and San people by use of the bull-roarer. The bull-roarer is a instrument used to duplicate the sounds of the gods or spirits. This instrument is likely to be imitating the sounds the shaman hears as he enters a trance. A bull-roarer is a hollow piece of wood, bone, or antler tied to


a rope and swung in the air to produce its sound. The imitation of a similar sound can be found among modern people who ingest mescaline or LSD.(p.226)

In the Upper Palaeolithic cave of Lascoux, a vortex is imitated where one enters the Axial Gallery. This similarly imitates the vortex often experiences in Lewis-William’s Stage 3 of consciousness.(p.256) In the Apse portion of the cave, many of the cave images are of grids, antlers, and other symbols. Groups of converging engraved lines forming into a tunnel are also seen on the walls. In the Nave section, quadrilateral grids can be seen, as in the cave of Gabillou. Perhaps these quadrilateral grids are a entoptic phenomena ascribed to a culture, who ascribed cultural meaning to them. (p.258) As Lewis-Williams maintains, all communities must sanction a spectrum of consciousness in which to operate, and to define what parts play important socio-cultural roles. (p.270) ASC and ‘madness’ are Western concepts which do not reflect the spectrum of consciousness which other societies believe in.


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