Review: The Mind in the Cave by David Lewis-Williams

The Mind in the CaveThe Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art [2002] – ★★★

This month is dedicated to the Non-Fiction November Reading Challenge and therefore I am trying to read more non-fiction books. My first non-fiction book of this month is The Mind in the Cave, which I have been meaning to read for years (given that I am interested in anthropology, cave art and in the origin of consciousness). The Mind in the Cave is by David Lewis-Williams, a South African archaeologist known for his research into South African rock art, and, in his book, he describes the most breath-taking cave art from the Upper Palaeolithic Period (examples found in the Cave of the Trois-Frères, France and in the Altamira Cave, Spain), tracing the way people thought about cave art through the ages and trying to theorise why Upper Palaeolithic people made such art and what it represented for them. Although the book is engaging, with interesting case studies and beautiful illustrations, it is also problematic. The Mind in the Cave is chaotic, repetitive, not as insightful as one would have hoped, and centres almost exclusively on shamanism and altered states of consciousness. For me, it was only sporadically informative, and made a very feeble attempt to answer one main question for which I picked the book up in the first place.

Nave Lascaux Cave Art
Bison painting in the Lascaux Cave, France

David Lewis-Williams makes it clear that art (as we define it now) started to appear in caves in the period of “Transition” (the period between 45.000 and 35.000 years ago), and it is during this period that Neanderthals gave way to Homo sapiens in Europe. The author also states that Neanderthals did not use their tools in such a diverse way as Homo sapiens, and did not borrow from Home sapiens such sophisticated rituals as certain burial techniques and image-making in caves. This is because Neanderthals possessed a different (inferior) “consciousness” capability. Thus, early Homo sapiens made art first. All this is fascinating, but I thought that the way the author approached the topic of consciousness and its origin was odd, and it is evident that he is no neuroscientist (or expert in the topic of consciousness). I agree that consciousness is a continuum, and that there are different levels, but, instead of focusing on self-awareness, memory, imagination or abstract thought as elements related to consciousness to explain first art-making, Lewis-Williams talks about dreaming and its recall, which I found to be a strange focus. His musings on dreaming are also surprising. The author provides certain explanations of dreaming as though they are undisputed facts, when, in reality, we still know very little why we dream and cannot say for absolute certain how the process of dreaming takes place inside our heads. Lewis-Williams states categorically that dreaming is the product of a random neurological activity [2002: 123], without providing any evidence of this, and his explanation for dreaming does not take into account the simple fact that dreaming helps our learning or that we find ourselves in a dream sometimes and are capable of controlling it (lucid dreaming).

Lewis-Williams’ other musings are even more surprising. He states that altered states of consciousness can somehow explain cave art, which is an interesting thesis, but he also picks vivid dreaming and hallucinations as vital elements capable of explaining art, being capabilities of the first Homo sapiens (to which I want to reply that my cat undoubtedly has vivid dreams and he would not think of creating pictures of any animals on any walls). In that vein, Lewis-Williams does not attempt to answer the main question of the origin of consciousness with the first appearance of cave art or elaborate on the link between the two (even though he clearly asks numerous times in the book this question – how did human consciousness evolve?). To be fair, he does venture an explanation for the consciousness origin by hinting that it might have evolved through a genetic mutation over a long period of time.

Bison Altamira
Bison painting in the Altamira Cave, Spain

Lewis-Williams’ other statements and examples in the book would have sounded clever if they were not also so obvious and overused. For example, he states “one cannot notice a presentational image in a mass of lines unless one already has a notion of images” [2002: 183], as though no one would have thought of this before, and produces as an example the well-know allegory of the cave as though it is an unheard of allegory, without even stating that it was written by Plato (the only person referred to in the text is Socrates). The author’s other statements are as obscure and self-important-sounding as he undoubtedly wanted them to be – “art-making, if and when it appears, is an active member of a dynamic nexus of interdigitating factors” [2002: 73] (whatever he means by this, he does not clarify), and “art and cosmos united in a mutual statement about the complex nature of reality” [2002: 149]. Other unsupported statements emerge in the book, such as – “body decoration could not have evolved into the making of two-dimensional images of animals on cave walls” [2002: 90], and the chaotic nature of the narrative is evident when one considers that Lewis-Williams jumps frequently in his book from topic to topic, debating altered states of consciousness and why sleep was necessary one minute, and discussing The Iliad and Shakespeare in the next [2002: 190].

The Mind in the Cave’s main problem is summed up in one sentence in Lewis-Williams’ bookthe fascinating issues of consciousness, self-awareness, introspection, insight and foresight… remain, and they are not a destination of our present inquiry and can be circumnavigated” [2002: 105]. I disagree with the author on this point and would say that this inquiry is essential to the topic. Overall, The Mind in the Cave provides a good overview of cave artworks found mainly in France, as well as of speculations as to why ancient people made those artworks (the author brushes off the idea that art may be made for art’s sake). The book contains Lewis-Williams’ social (shamanic) interpretation of the art found in ancient caves, but touches only very briefly and unsatisfactorily on the central question or mystery that is considered to be one of the main ones in science – how consciousness could have began and how cave art may shed some clues that can lead to some explanation.


8 thoughts on “Review: The Mind in the Cave by David Lewis-Williams

  1. Great review. I have long had a fascination with cave art (I have actually posted about it) and I have been meaning to read this book which I have long heard about, but I think I will give it a miss and stick with my Bataille.

    Liked by 1 person

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