David Lewis-Williams & David Pearce:

"Inside the Neolithic Mind" (Thames & Hudson, 2005)

(Copyright © 2011 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
The Southafrican archeologists David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce integrate psychology, archeology, anthropology, biology and philosophy to concoct an explanation of what caused the revolution in behavior and thinking that took place just before the beginning of (written) history, roughly between 8,000 BC to 3,000 BC. At that time there was a sudden explosion of burial rituals and art, and of course, the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture and domestication of animals, with the consequent transition from nomadic life to settled life. The traditional explanation has to do with adaptation to the natural environment. Whatever caused the change, it came from the environment and then it "migrated" into people's minds, causing a new way of symbolic thinking in religion and politics. Following Jacques Cauvin, Lewis-Williams and Pearce argue that, on the contrary, agriculture and domestication of animals were a by-product of a change in mental life: first the mind underwent the symbolic revolution, and then this new mind conceived of agriculture and domestication. The mystical experience too was simply the by-product of a new mind, that those minds then interpreted as evidence of a supernatural world. This supernatural world shaped cosmology.

They argue that "consciousness" is an important element in understanding why humans do what they do. a "consciousness contract" by which the community decides which states of consciousness are more valuable. The Western mind, for example, does not value dreams or drug-induced experiences. That is a "consciousness contract". Other societies may value dreams a lot, and that's a different kind of consciousness contract. In their opinion the neolithic mind valued altered states of consciousness. A different belief system made neolithic people value states that today we don't value, and viceversa. It was an entirely different way of thinking. A modern person would not be able to have a discussion with a neolithic person even if they spoke the same language. There would be no topic of conversation in common.
They believe that the brain is programmed to invent a certain kind of cosmology. The human brain is wired to experience a fall into a tunnel and a flight to a higher realm. This neurology leads to a tripartite nature of religion (experience, belief and practice), which yields a three-realm cosmology that they believe is widespread in ancient civilizations. The homes of the Near East and the megaliths of Western Europe merely reflect that cosmology. Basically, neurology yields altered states of consciousness that yield cosmology that yields architecture and society. For example, the domestication of animals was a by-product of shamanic behavior that initially did not have any practical purpose.

They make some interesting (they call them "provocative") suggestions, but the main problem that any reader is going to have is that their approach is not scientific at all. They invariably start by rejecting the traditional explanation for something as implausible, and then they advance a theory that is wildly speculative with nothing other than their guesswork to back it. In particular, they keep using the word "neurological", but they provide virtually no neurological data throughout the book, in fact not a single discussion of brain structure. What they call "neurological" is not about the physiology of the brain but more similar to Freudian mumbo jumbo.

This becomes exceedingly arbitrary in the ending chapters when they take on Jeremy Dronfield's theory that neolithic people used mind-altering techniques to visit other dimensions, a theory based on the geometric motifs of neolithic art (if it was "art" as they assume). From a heap of wild conjectures, they conclude: "It seems clear, then, that the spiral motif was associated in Neolithic people's mind with the passage in megalithic tombs and with the sort of transcosmological travel that death implied... It now seems certain that the Neolithic people ... selected certain geometric visual percepts from the full range that the human nervous system generates, accorded them complex meanings and deployed them within the tombs so that they articulated with notions of the cosmos that the tombs themselves epitomized". Fascinating stuff, but not a speck of scientific evidence to prove it: just a long list of opinions that lead from one hypothesis to the next one. And each reader can find them more or less plausible in the absence of any neolithic document.

The book is extremely valuable for the detailed description and reconstruction of prehistoric sites around the world, regardless of what you make of their interpretations.

For an introduction to the "symbolic revolution":

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