The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art

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Mobile art is found in deposits in rock shelters, some of which are at the entrances to deep caves in which there is wall art, as well as in the depths of the caves. Since its discovery, cave art has been a topic of intense speculation and debate. Why did people penetrate the caves to make images of horses, bison, aurochs, woolly mammoths, and so forth?

What functions did the images and the caves serve? What did the images "mean"? Was it for the purpose of hunting magic? Or was the art simply art pour Part? Method and Theory Behind these questions lie more general methodological and theoretical issues: is it, in principle, possible to know what people who lived so long ago believed?

Their myths, rituals and beliefs have not been preserved; we have only their enigmatic images. If it is difficult to know what living people believe about their own art, can we ever find out what Upper Paleolithic people believed about theirs? Faced with these fundamental epistemological questions, researchers divide into two camps.

On the one hand, there are professional pessimists. They claim that, in principle, we can never know, and they make their living by attempting to demolish the work of others. They point out, rightly, that all the nineteenth and twentieth century hunter-gatherers were or are not living Upper Paleolithic fossils who can readily answer our questions.

On the other hand, there are researchers who believe that we can find out something — no one argues for everything — about Upper Paleolithic beliefs and art. But it will not be easy. Even the most optimistic researchers recognize that the theoretical and methodological problems need to be addressed directly and explicitly. Unless those problems are solved, hypotheses will remain unassessable guesses; anyone's guess will have to remain as good as anyone else's.

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In the last decade a new approach to the problem has been essayed. It is posited on the generally uncontested proposition that, because Upper Paleolithic people were Homo sapiens sapiens, they had the same nervous system as everyone in the world today, whether residual hunter-gatherers or industrialists. Here, it is argued, is a link with the Upper Paleolithic, not the only link but at least a starting point: there is a neurological bridge between us and that remote period Lewis-Williams and Dowson ; Lewis-Williams Altered States of Consciousness The human nervous system generates consciousness, an extremely difficult state to define.

It also generates altered states of consciousness that are easier though not much to define, even if only in relation to an intuitively understood "normal consciousness. Add "dreaming" to this list, and the experience by at least some Upper Paleolithic people of altered states becomes indisputable.

THE MIND IN THE CAVE: Consciousness and the Origins of Art

Altered states of consciousness are part of being human, part of a "package deal" for a review of research on altered states see Siegel and West What Upper Paleolithic people made of their altered states is another question altogether. The ways in which altered states are experienced and interpreted are not "given" or universal. In understanding this point it is useful to think of consciousness as a spectrum. At one end is "normal" or "alert" consciousness. This grades into day- dreaming, deep reveries, dreaming, "light" trance states, and, at the far end, "deep" trances in which subjects are not aware of their surroundings at all, but are part of a fully hallucinatory realm with its own rules of causality and transformation.

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That is the way that many Westerners think of it. But the spectrum is divided up by each society or subculture in its own way. What passes for madness in one community may be esteemed as divine revelation in another. What is a vision to some people is, to others, hallucination. The definitions of variously distinguished altered states are therefore socially situated. But there is more to it. The definition of altered states is also implicated in the negotiation of social statuses and political power. Visions of the future may earn a person admiration in some societies, but they will hamper rather than facilitate election to Congress.

Because altered states are part of being human, all people have to come to terms with them in one way or another.

So too, it must have been during the Upper Paleolithic. Were those people hyper-rationalists who dismissed all altered states as aberrations? Or were they like all known hunter-gatherers and, of course, others as well who place high value on certain precisely defined altered states? Indeed, the ubiquity of cross- culturally very similar altered states among hunter-gatherers points to the high antiquity of the form of ritualized altered states that we call shamanism.


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The Shamanic Cosmos We now consider two features of altered states of consciousness that contribute to these cross-cultural similarities Lewis-Williams First, as people go into altered states, they often experience sensations of attenuation, rising up and flying. As images appear before them, they believe that they are entering a spiritual realm set in or above the sky.

The sensation of flight, naturally enough, suggests transformation into a bird, and, with changes in perspective, they look down onto the level of daily life. Birds are, of course, closely associated with shamans in many cultures. Secondly, as people move towards the "far" end of the spectrum, they experience and are drawn into a vortex.

On the sides of this vortex there is sometimes a lattice, in the segments of which appear the first iconic images Siegel Feelings of constriction, difficulty in breathing, and of being drawn into the vortex often suggest entrance into a tunnel that leads underground. At the other end of the tunnel is a new realm inhabited by its own beings, spirits, animals, and monsters. All this is wired into the human nervous system. There is a cave in the mind.

In shamanic societies these experiences lead to belief in a chthonic realm, an underworld that shamans have the power to visit. The shamanic cosmos is thus tiered. The realm above and the realm below impinge on daily life, and it is the shamans who, by travelling the axis mundi often thought of as a tree or a hole in the ground are able to mediate the cosmos. During the Upper Paleolithic, we argue, the limestone caves of western Europe were regarded as topographical equivalents to the psychic experience of the vortex and a nether world.

The caves were the entrails of the underworld, and their surfaces — walls, ceilings and floors —were but a thin membrane between those who ventured in and the beings and spirit-animals of the underworld. This is the context of west European cave art, a context created by Figure J. A horse's head painted on a flint interaction between universal nodule. The rest of the animal seems to be neuropsychological experiences and behind the rock wall. Rouffignac, Dordogne, topographically situated caves.

Membranous Rock Many images incorporate features ot the rock surface on which they were placed. Sometimes a small nodule became an animal's eye, sometimes a natural swell of the rock face was taken to delineate the chest or shoulder ot an animal; sometimes the edgeot ashclfbecameadorsal line.


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  • To these naturalfeatures,the artists added lines, thereby transforming the given into the created. Frequently, these images appear to be coming out of the rock wall. At Rouffignac, for instance, i horse's head is painted on the. The n. These and other features of the art suggest that people were searching for animals, by touch as much a.

    Shamans sought to draw animals through this permeable membrane.

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    This interpretation is strengthened by a common char- acteristic of certain hallucinations, again created by the wiring of the human nervous system and therefore universal. Hallucin- ations are often projected onto surfaces such as walls or ceilings. Western subjects liken this experience to a slide or film show: Figure 2. The dorsal line the "screen" Siegel Given is created by shadow. Then, in an attempt to fix, to capture, those visions, we suggest that people searched the surfaces and added marks to re-create their mental images.

    The pictures that they thus made were not 'pictures" in the usual sense of the word, nor were they representations of something else — their visions or, even less likely, "real' animals. Rather, they were visions, fixed forever. Another type of Upper Paleolithic image is immediately clarified. When one's lamp not the electric light now unfortunately installed in some caves is in a specific position the shadows cast across the rock sometimes represent, to the expectant eye, part of an animal, say, the dorsal line of a bison, as in the Niaux cave in the Ariege region in France Figure 2; see Clones , Figure Then only a few deft strokes were needed to add the head, legs and belly.

    If the light is moved, the animal disappears back through the 'membrane. The person has thus mastered the animal: he or she can make it come and go at will. On the other hand, the animal has mastered the person, for, if the person wishes the animal to remain fully visible, he or she must maintain a certain posture, relax and allow the light to move, and the spirit-animal has gone.

    The techniques we have so far described were, we argue, used to coax spint- animals from behind the membrane.

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    Other practices move, ,is it were, in the opposite direction. In Enlene, one of the three Volp caves, for instance, hundreds of very small pieces of bone were thrust into cracks Begouen et al. They are at various levels from the floor and slope in all possible directions. They could not have had some pragmatic function. The teeth and the artifacts must have been taken underground with the express purpose of placing them in the niches.

    In all these cases, people were sending things through to the underworld. Exactly what they were thereby achieving, we do not at present know. A Neuropsychological Model So far we have dealt only with selected aspects of representational images. But there is also a large non-representational, or geometric, component of Upper Paleolithic art.

    These meanders, dots, zigzags and parallel lines have sometimes been considered a separate, ifparallel. Indeed, one ofthe most puzzling features of hunter-gatherer rock art worldwide is the intimate relationship between representational and geometric images. The answer to this enigma is to be found in the wiring ofthe human nervous system and the way in which that system goes deeper and deeper into altered states. What has become known as the neuropsychological model distinguishes three stages of altered consciousness Lewis-Williams and Dowson As people begin to move along the spectrum from alert consciousness to light altered consciousness, they sometimes experience geometric visual percepts that include zigzags, undulating lines, bright dots in clouds or lines, meandering lines, sets of parallel lines and so forth Kliiver ; Eichmeier and Hofer This is Stage One.

    The geometric percepts of this stage aTe variously known as "form constants," "phosphenes, and "entoptic phenomena. All people, no matter what their cultural backgrounds, have the potential to see them. They are induced by the generating factors that we have already listed and also by migraine, the scotomata d which are well known to many sufferers.

    Again, we must point out that it is the form, or structure, that is universal. In other societies, such dots may mean someching altogether different.

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    In Stage Two of altered consciousness, people try to make sense of entoptic phenomena Horowitz They do so in culturally specific ways and in accordance with their emotional states. For instance, Westerners might interpret a bright dot as a bomb if they are fearful or a cup or water if they arc thirsty. Christians in a mood of religious expectation may take the bright dot to represent a chalice held by the Light ofthe World. Responsibility David Lewis-Williams.

    Physical description p. Online Available online. Full view. Green Library. L55 Unknown. More options. Find it at other libraries via WorldCat Limited preview. Bibliography Includes bibliographical references p. Contents Preface-- Three Time-Bytes-- 1. Discovering Human Antiquity-- 2 Seeking Answers-- 3. Creative Illusion-- 4. The Matter of the Mind-- 5. An Origin of Image-Making-- 8. The Cave in the Mind-- 9. Cave and Community-- Cave and Conflict-- Envoi.

    Cro-Magnons, the nature of art, and shamanism - are guaranteed to capture the public imagination. This compellingly written 'detective story' puts forward the most convincing explanation yet proposed for the origins of image-making and art, examining how the Neanderthals lived for over 10, years alongside our Cro-Magnon ancestors, but never developed art. The reason for this lay in the evolution of the human mind.

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