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INSIDE THE NEOLITHIC MIND: Consciousness, Cosmos And The Realm Of The Gods

By David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce, published by Thames & Hudson at £18.95. Hbk. 320pp. ISBN: 0-500-051380. (Reviewed by David Taylor)

In 1988, David Lewis-Williams of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, launched one of archaeology's longest-running controversies when he proposed that the vivid cave paintings of Upper Paleolithic Europe were produced by shamans whose consciousness had been altered by drugs or self-induced trances. The debate over his theory still dominates discussions of prehistoric art and to some extent has found a sympathetic ear with readers of magazines such as this. Lewis-Williams has staunchly defended his ideas, most notably in The Mind in the Cave, which was also reviewed in White Dragon. He returns to this controversial subject in this new book, coauthored with his colleague David Pearce. They argue that the shamanistic religious world also dominated the lives of the first farmers of the Near East and Europe. In this Neolithic period, however, "access to spirit realms was no longer through caves ... but through structures built above ground." The book is certain to generate controversy among experts of the period, and many will question how well the archaeological record supports the shamanism hypothesis.
This book is extremely well written, and is illustrated with descriptions of recent findings from Çatalhöyük and Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, and Jordan's 'Ain Ghazal, and a powerfully evocative stone-by-stone tour of the megalithic tombs of Neolithic Ireland such as Newgrange.

Fascinating accounts of visions experienced by shamans from the Tukano of South America and the San of southern Africa, vividly illustrate the universal power of such altered states.

Most archaeologists agree that spiritual beliefs had a role in Neolithic societies, and some say the way humans viewed their exterior and interior worlds also dramatically changed. What is controversial is the idea that when the residents of densely populated Çatalhöyük entered their mud-brick houses down ladders in the roofs, they also descended into a spirit realm, or that hearths dug into the floors at 'Ain Ghazal symbolize a transformation by fire rather than being a way to cook dinner. This will be controversal to mainstream archaeologists but perhaps not to neo-pagans and antiquarians who will have read much along similar lines in this and other magazines.

The authors may find more sympathy for the parallels they see between the geometric patterns sometimes engraved in megalithic monuments and those found in the rock art produced by the San or the prehistoric Coso in California. Other archaeologists have also noted these parallels, and there is little doubt that megaliths were centers for ritualistic activities. At the very least, Lewis-Williams and Pearce can be assured that their foray into the Neolithic mind will not be ignored.