Inside the Neolithic Mind. David Lewis-Williams and David
Pearce. 320 pp. Thames and Hudson, 2005. $34.95.
The greatest prehistoric monuments in western Europe, including
among many others the megaliths at Stonehenge, Avebury and Carnac,
were erected between 7,000 and 4,000 years ago, during the
Neolithic. The religions and minds that inspired the building of
these monuments have always intrigued thoughtful people, and there
is no shortage of diverse theories that purport to explain why they
were built. The latest contribution in the quest to understand such
motivations is Inside the Neolithic Mind, by David
Lewis-Williams and David Pearce. This is the sequel to
Lewis-Williams's previous tour de force, The Mind in the
Cave, which dealt with Paleolithic ritual, shamans, altered
states of consciousness and art. Those topics are taken up again in
Inside the Neolithic Mind but are given a new context:
the earliest Neolithic sanctuaries in the Near East (including
Çatalhöyük, ‘Ain Ghazal and Göbekli
Tepe, among others), which date to 10,000 years ago, and the
aforementioned West European megaliths.
This is a very enjoyable book on Neolithic religion. The authors
pepper the pages with fascinating vignettes on archaeological
discovery and the history of human thought and consciousness (for
example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's ideas about human nature and the
innate religious notions of people are touched on). These asides
render many parts of the book eminently readable. However, I must
emphasize at the outset that the authors sometimes endorse cognitive
interpretations that are quite different from the more economic and
practical interpretations that I generally favor. Nevertheless, I
fully concur with their basic premise that the physical structure of
the human mind creates specific kinds of images (or ways of viewing
the world) under altered states of consciousness and that it is
individual cultures that determine what aspects (if any) of the
altered states and their associated images to recognize.
Lewis-Williams has been developing and refining this approach over
the past two decades. However, Lewis-Williams and Pearce break some
new ground in this volume, with mixed success. I find it completely
plausible, for example, that the nonfigurative patterns (dots,
zigzags, vortices and others) that occur as motifs in art and on
monuments are images that people in a sensory-deprived (or otherwise
altered) state of mind see when their eyes are closed—effects
of the central nervous system. It is also plausible that
Neolithic artists were influenced by feeling they were being drawn
into a vortex when changing from one state of consciousness to
another, as has been frequently reported by people who have had
near-death experiences. But Lewis-Williams and Pearce are less
convincing when they try to relate the conception of the world as a
tiered cosmos (featuring an upper world, a middle earth and a lower
world) to the neural structure of the brain. Although I agree
entirely that the tiered-cosmos concept is extremely widespread,
especially in less complex societies, and was almost assuredly part
of the Neolithic worldview, the reasons for the concept being so
common are not entirely clear, especially from a neurological perspective.
I also agree that altered states of consciousness (and manipulations
of them by political elites) were central characteristics of
Neolithic religion. The arguments that certain Neolithic tombs
constituted models of the cosmos, with their passageways and vaulted
chambers serving as symbolic vortices or portals between the common
world, the underworld and the celestial world, all seem reasonable
and are well supported by their architecture, art and burial
remains. Like a number of other researchers, I endorse the notion
that ancient people associated their elite dead with the Sun (after
appropriate rituals and expensive sacrifices), which is well
exemplified ethnographically today by groups such as the Torajans of
Sulawesi. The role that Lewis-Williams and Pearce postulate for the
Earth, the Sun and the Moon and their relation to the dead in
Neolithic cosmology seems entirely reasonable. These are some of the
new and very useful contributions of Inside the Neolithic
Interspersed with these relatively solid foundations are a number of
more speculative indulgences such as typify much of English
archaeology. The suggestions for what the motifs at
Çatalhöyük symbolize are especially striking: Women
are associated with danger and the wild, men are subjugators of the
wild, female motifs give birth to shamans, images of female
genitalia represent "spiritual transcosmological travel,"
headless bodies have a figurative shamanistic meaning rather than
the more obvious one, and Çatalhöyük was settled
not for practical subsistence or trade reasons but because animals
in the vicinity had "supernatural potency." The authors
also speculate that the horizontal lines on stone basins at Knowth
(in Ireland) represented tiers in the cosmos. Speculations do, of
course, have a place in the development of theories, and all these
more fanciful suggestions may, in due time, turn out to be true. But
at this point they must be labeled for what they are.
In addition to these cloudy issues, the use of terms such as
consciousness contracts and social contracts
(borrowed from Rousseau) to explain aspects of Neolithic art and
monuments serves more to obfuscate than to clarify. Also, readers
would have benefited from a more extended discussion of how the
authors' analysis of West European megaliths relates back to their
analysis of Near Eastern Neolithic sanctuaries.
I agree fully with Lewis-Williams and Pearce that Neolithic elites,
to justify their power, attempted to control access to inhabitants
of the supernatural realm (whether ancestors, solar deities or
potent animals). But I find it disturbing that the authors promote
such supernatural control as the major basis for sociopolitical
complexity in prehistoric societies. Early in the book, the elites
are portrayed as creating cults for their own ends, reserving for
themselves the right or the ability to engage in spirit travel and
contact, and claiming that for them to undertake these tasks, costly
sacrifices on the part of others were necessary.
This is all probably true. The problem is to determine how aspiring
elites got other members of the community to buy into these cults
and claims. By the middle of the book, Lewis-Williams and Pearce
endorse Jacques Cauvin's view that it was a change in cognitive
values and symbols that precipitated the Neolithic revolution. They
provide a new twist both to theories about shamans and to those
about the domestication of animals when they suggest that
domestication is the result of competition between shamans to show
their power over animals. By the end of the book, Lewis-Williams and
Pearce are saying that "it was religious experience that gave
people the power to command the construction of megalithic monuments
and to sacrifice animals and very probably human beings in order to
keep the cosmos in good order." They further state that
"people formulate beliefs that, independently of their
environment, lead to social, political, architectural and artistic
change." The authors argue that monuments and art define,
reproduce and manipulate asymmetrical power relationships.
Lewis-Williams had not developed such arguments to this extreme in
his previous books and articles.
These are provocative views for materialists, and at this point I
must demur. If changes in belief systems really were the underlying
cause of socioeconomic inequality, domestication, megalithic
building and political complexity, why didn't these changes come
about long before the beginning of the Neolithic? And why did they
take place only in the most productive environments of the time? How
did some people convince others to adopt what were transparently
self-serving ideologies? It seems to me that the issues of
domestication and the emergence of socioeconomic complexity are
poorly served by cognitively based explanations. As I have attempted
to demonstrate in my own research, aspiring elites really use a wide
range of strategies to acquire power and promote their
self-interests. Controlling access to purportedly powerful
supernatural entities is only one strategy among many, some of which
are much more materially potent prime movers.
I have a few other theoretical quibbles. And other readers might
find that some of the jargon becomes needlessly technical in places.
But this book is nevertheless approachable by the educated public.
Many excellent illustrations and photographs bring the main points
alive. Although readers may take issue with some suggestions, there
is much to agree with. Lewis-Williams and Pearce offer valuable new
insights and a wealth of things to think about.
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