Realism vs.’visions’ in Palaeolithic Cave Art

‘ The Valley Spirit’
56 x 76 cm – 22 x 30 inches
© The Artist.
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The Mind in the Cave
by David Lewis-Williams

“ How, the, did people come to make representational images of animals and so forth out of projected mental imagery? I argue that at a given time, and for social reasons, the projected images of altered states were insufficient and people needed to ‘fix’ their visions. They reached out to their emotionally charged visions & tried to touch them, to hold them in place, perhaps on soft surfaces and with their fingers. They were not inventing images? They were merely touching what was already there.

The first two-dimensional images were thus not two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional things in the material world, as researchers have always assumed. Rather, they were ‘fixed’ mental images. In all probability the makers did not suppose that they ‘stood for’ real animals, any more than the Abelam think that their painted and carved images represent things in the material world. If we could be transported back to the very beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic so that we could compliment a painter on the ‘realism’ of his or her picture, I believe we should have been met with incredulity. ‘ But,’ the painter might have replied, ‘that is not a real bison : you can’t walk around it; and it is too small. That is a “vision”, a “spirit bison”. There is nothing “real” about it. ‘ For the makers, the paintings and engravings were visions, not representations of visions – as indeed is the case for southern African San and North American shamans (chapters 5 & 6). “

Chapter – An Origin of Image Making.
The Mind in the Cave
David Lewis-Williams
Thames & Hudson 2002

This is a brilliant & original book. A genuine master-piece. It’s obviously the product of much research & much reflection.  It is also very closely argued & pays a lot of attention to fine distinctions. It’s for this reason, that quoting a paragragh out of context doesn’t do this book justice. In fact, the habit of transposing stuff out of context is similar to what has been done with Palaeolithic cultural products as well … we see them through the twenty-first century culturally conditioned eyes.