Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Neolithic Spirit Realms Volume 58 Number 6, November/December 2005
by Michael Balter
Inside the Neolithic Mind

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 often acrimonious debate over his theory still dominates discussions of prehistoric art. Lewis-Williams has staunchly defended his ideas, most notably in The Mind in the Cave. He now opens up a new front in the battle with Inside the Neolithic Mind (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2005; $34.95) a sequel coauthored with his Witwatersrand 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.

Inside the Neolithic Mind features superb writing, lavishly illustrated 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 Knowth and Newgrange. Fascinating accounts of visions experienced by shamans from the Tukano of South America and the San of southern Africa, as well as the inclusion of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," which came to the poet during an opium-induced dream, 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. But they may balk at 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.

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.

Michael Balter is author of The Goddess and the Bull: Çatalhöyük--An Archaeological Journey to the Dawn of Civilization.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's bookstore.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America