The Mind in the Cave

By David Lewis Williams

The author is one of the world’s leading experts on cave art — those magnificent images from tens of thousands of years ago that have been discovered in caves in northern Spain and southwestern France. 


These images have mystified scholars since they were first discovered more than a century ago. Why did people go deep into the darkest caves and paint these pictures? Why did they paint only big game animals? Why are there almost no people in them? There are plenty of hypotheses, most of them revolving around some kind of rituals about hunting. 

Mr. Williams offers a much more detailed hypothesis focusing on the role of shamans and altered states of consciousness. He claims that these caves are carefully designed works, with all the images relating to each other in a system. I reject his hypothesis because I cannot believe that such works were created by a single artist, or even by multiple artists over a period of time short enough to permit such coordination. It makes no sense to me that people in later generations would refrain from adding their own bits to the existing artwork. I would expect something like this to have been assembled over the course of many generations, with each generation adding their own bits to it. I’d go a step further and suggest that the largest images (such as the bull in the above image) were created first and the small ones were tucked into whatever space was left over. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that the smaller images have more color and are more finely drawn than the big drawings. 

One other thing about this book bothers me: the author’s continuing references to human consciousness. I have always considered the very notion of human consciousness to be a vanity, nothing more than a secular term for “soul”. A simple experiment makes the point: on every occasion where he used the word “consciousness”, I substituted the word “soul” — and on every such occasion, the altered version made just as much sense as the original version.

However, the phrase “altered state of consciousness” violated this relationship. However, I find that term equally useless. The phrase “mental state” substitutes just as well. Yes, our minds have different states, but there’s nothing special about that. We have a whole spectrum of mental states ranging for intense focus (when we’re in danger) through daydreaming to sleep. There’s nothing special or magical about these different states. We have learned that we can alter brain chemistry to produce different states. Different chemicals alter our brain function in different ways. Alcohol, marijuana, heroin, cocaine, LSD, and various other drugs all have different effects on our brain function. So what? What do you expect? The brain is an immensely complex electrochemical system. Fiddling with its chemistry is guaranteed to alter its function.