Books : reviews

David Lewis-Williams.
The Mind in the Cave: consciousness and the origin of art.
Thames and Hudson. 2002

David Lewis-Williams, David Pearce.
Inside the Neolithic Mind.
Thames and Hudson. 2005

David Lewis-Williams.
Conceiving God: the cognitive origin and evolution of religion.
Thames and Hudson. 2010

David Lewis-Williams, Sam Challis.
Deciphering Ancient Minds: the mystery of San Bushman rock art.
Thames & Hudson. 2011

How did ancient peoples – those living before written records – think? Were their modes of thought fundamentally different from ours today? Researchers over the years have certainly believed so. Along with the Aborigines of Australia, the indigenous San people of southern Africa – among the last hunter-gatherer societies on Earth - became iconic representatives of all our distant ancestors, and were viewed either as irrational fantasists or childlike, highly spiritual conservationists.

Since the 1960s, a new wave of research among the San and their world-famous rock art has overturned these misconceived ideas. Here, the great authority David Lewis-Williams and his colleague Sam Challis reveal how analysis of the rock paintings and engravings can be made to yield vital insights into San beliefs and ways of thought. This is possible because we possess comprehensive verbatim transcriptions, made in the nineteenth century, of interviews with San people who were shown copies of the art and gave their interpretations of it. Using the analogy of the Rosetta Stone with its parallel texts that enabled decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs, the authors move back and forth between the rock art and the San texts, teasing out the subtle meanings behind both.

The picture that emerges is very different from past analysis: this art is not a naive narrative of daily life but rather is imbued with power and religious depth. As this elegantly written, enlightening book so ably demonstrates, the ‘prehistoric’ mind was in fact as complex and sophisticated as our own.