The breathtakingly beautiful art created deep inside the caves of western Europe has the power to dazzle even the most jaded observers.
Emerging from the narrow underground passages into the chambers of caves such as Lascaux, Chauvet, and Altamira, visitors are confronted with symbols, patterns, and depictions of bison, woolly mammoths, ibexes, and other animals.
Since its discovery, cave art has provoked great curiosity about why it appeared when and where it did, how it was made, and what it meant to the communities that created it. David Lewis-Williams proposes that the explanation for this lies in the evolution of the human mind. Cro-Magnons, unlike the Neanderthals, possessed a more advanced neurological makeup that enabled them to experience shamanistic trances and vivid mental imagery. It became important for people to "fix," or paint, these images on cave walls, which they perceived as the membrane between their world and the spirit world from which the visions came. Over time, new social distinctions developed as individuals exploited their hallucinations for personal advancement, and the first truly modern society emerged.
Illuminating glimpses into the ancient mind are skillfully interwoven here with the still-evolving story of modern-day cave discoveries and research. The Mind in the Cave is a superb piece of detective work, casting light on the darkest mysteries of our earliest ancestors while strengthening our wonder at their aesthetic achievements.
In attempting to discern how Paleolithic Homo sapiens "became human and in the process began to make art," Lewis-Williams, an emeritus art historian at a Johannesburg university, focuses on the glorious but mysterious cave painting of western Europe, made between 45,000 and 10,000 years ago. Lewis-Williams has two main hypotheses: the first contends that mankind could only engage in image-making upon developing "fully modern consciousness," or an ability to process mental images in a variety of manners. The second argument insists that cave painting was a byproduct of religious belief and helped maintain a society with strict class distinctions. Recent research findings in the fields of archeology, anthropology and neuropsychology, among other social and physical sciences, bear upon the elaboration of these two ideas in the first two thirds of the book, while the final third details the author's interpretations of the animal and geometric imagery found in such sites as France's Lascaux and Gabillou caves. Having presented the science supporting his views of prehistoric images, Lewis-Williams is particularly winning as he subtly reveals his devotion to the art and people he attempts to explain. He is sensitive to those who "saw real things, real spirit animals and beings, real transformations" on cave walls. While writing about our forebears of tens of millennia ago, the scholar rightly suggests important similarities between the functions of art in the Paleolithic and current eras. Now, as then, he argues, images maintain spiritual power; art can still have a direct impact on social relations, leading to unity or division.