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DAVID LEWIS-WILLIAMS AND SAM CHALLISDeciphering Ancient Minds THE MYSTERY OF SAN BUSHMAN ROCK ARTDavid Lewis-Williams is Professor Emeritus and Senior Mentor in the…
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DAVID LEWIS-WILLIAMS AND SAM CHALLISDeciphering Ancient Minds THE MYSTERY OF SAN BUSHMAN ROCK ARTDavid Lewis-Williams is Professor Emeritus and Senior Mentor in the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He is world-renowned for his lifetime’s work on ancient rock art. His many books include Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion, Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods (with David Pearce), The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art and The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves (with Jean Clottes). Sam Challis is a rock art specialist at the Rock Art Research Institute, lecturing for the Department of Archaeology, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He has a doctorate from Oxford University examining the impact of the horse on hunter-gatherers and on their rock art in southern Africa. He has also undertaken expeditions to find and publish Saharan rock art.Other titles by David Lewis-Williams published by Thames & Hudson as eBooks include: Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art For these and printed editions see our websites www.thamesandhudson.com www.thamesandhudsonusa.comContents Preface A Note on Pronunciation 1 Back in Time 2 Dance of Life, Dance of Death 3 ‘These are sorcery’s things’ 4 Discovering Rain 5 Capturing Rain 6 Truth Hidden in Error 7 The Imagistic Web of Myth 8 Into the Unknown 9 ‘Simple’ People? Notes Bibliography and Guide to Further Reading Acknowledgments Sources of Illustrations Colour PlatesPreface Early in the 20th century the French philosopher Lucien Lévy-Bruhl wrote numerous books and articles that were influential in their time but are now almost entirely forgotten. Two of his books were Les Fonctions mentales dans les sociétés inférieures (1912) and La Mentalité primitive (1922). As these titles suggest, he, and indeed many others at that time, were fascinated by the way in which people living in small-scale, pre-industrial societies thought. He believed that ‘primitive’ people used different categories and processes of thought from people in complex, modern societies. As far as he could determine, ‘primitive’ people were essentially mystical and superstitious, and their ‘pre-logical’ beliefs in mystical things sometimes vitiated their ability to reason and draw logical inferences from observations. For Lévy-Bruhl, there was a ‘primitive mentality’ and a ‘higher mentality’. He did not mean that ‘primitive’ people lacked (genetically, as we say today) a capacity for rational thought, but rather that their thinking, moulded by their small-scale societies, was more symbolic, more allusive than modern Western thought. Lévy-Bruhl was an armchair anthropologist. When more practically minded anthropologists, such as Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard and Bronislaw Malinowski, began to live among people in small-scale societies, ideas changed. These social (cultural) anthropologists grew up and were trained in the context of 19th-century colonialism and its aftermath. As the West expanded its influence into the most remote parts of the world, they began to study what they called ‘primitive societies’.1 They soon discovered that so-called ‘primitive’ thinking was in fact highly complex and well adjusted to the people’s social circumstances. They tried to discover how seemingly irrational beliefs functioned in the context of a whole culture. As a result of this handson, ‘functionalist’ research, it is now widely recognized that Lévy-Bruhl overemphasized the supposed lack of logic among ‘simple’ people and underestimated the amount of irrationality in the supposedly more sophisticated thought of his own culture. Towards the end of his life, he himself began to realize that his distinction between ‘primitive mentality’ and ‘higher mentality’was too rigid. He wrote: ‘There is a mystical mentality which is more marked and more easily observable among “primitive peoples” than in our own societies, but it is present in every human mind.’2 Nevertheless, Lévy-Bruhl’s ideas persist among the general public today, and, as a result, words like ‘primitive’ and ‘superstitious’ spring into many Western people’s minds when they try to think themselves back via the smallscale societies that anthropologists have studied and on into the deep, prehistoric past. (By ‘prehistoric’ we mean times before written records.) In contemplating the prehistoric past, modern people often imagine a truly dark age of unremitting struggle against the forces of nature, imminent starvation, brutality and an all-pervading fear of the unknown, be it the unknown of tomorrow, or the unknown that lies behind a distant mountain range or, in an even more terrifying sense, unknown beings and forces suspected to lurk in every nook of daily life. Here we encounter a problem that has, at least in part, been created by social anthropology. Many of the earlier anthropologists believed that the nearest they could come to prehistoric thinking was in their dealings with people who preserved a pre-industrial, pre-literate way of life into the 19th and early 20th centuries – people like the indigenous Australian population and the southern African San (Bushmen). We shall, of course, never be able to speak to ancient prehistoric people and, by definition, they left no written records, so, for a while, that seemed a reasonable line of enquiry. But today alarm bells sound. There are numerous problems, some quite subtle. Finding out about prehistoric minds is indeed a formidable challenge.3 Still, we do sometimes – very rarely – discover a chink in the wall of time. Through that chink we hear the voices of people who lived at least part of their lives in preagricultural, pre-literate times. If we are extraordinarily lucky, we hear these voices speaking in their own language, not just in Western translations that rearrange statements so that they become more intelligible to modern readers. In the process of translation, the desire for intelligibility becomes a distorting filter that eliminates some of the elusiveness (and allusiveness) of the original thought patterns. Yet, ultimately, there is no other way to proceed. We therefore need some sort of trade-off. In this book our trade-off involves working with a prehistoric language as far as is possible. Even though we are writing in modern English, we try to examine prehistoric words and see how, and in what contexts, people used them. Like the practical field anthropologists of the 20th century we vacate ourarmchairs and abandon purely philosophical musings.1 The three registers of the Rosetta Stone have parallels in the study of southern African San rock paintings.Three registers By an astonishing stroke of good fortune, we have something like a multicomponent Rosetta Stone, the famous inscribed stone that was named after a village in the western Egyptian delta where it was found (Fig. 1). In 1822 the French linguist Jean Franรงois Champollion was able to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics because the Rosetta Stone was engraved with a message in three scripts: at the top was a hieroglyphic text, below it was demotic, cursiveancient Egyptian, and in the lowest register was an intelligible Greek translation. In this book we deal with equivalents of Champollion’s three registers. The people of whom we write are the pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer San of southern Africa. Today they are well known; they and the Aboriginal people of Australia have become iconic – epitomes of vanished prehistoric times. The anthropologist Alan Barnard4 describes the San as ‘a pervasive image in anthropology, well beyond Bushman or hunter-gatherer specialists’.The three ‘registers’ of the San legacy are: 1. highly detailed, though enigmatic, pictures (rock paintings andengravings) of the people’s beliefs and religious experiences. 2. 19th-century phonetic texts running to over 12,000 pages of a nowextinct prehistoric language in which ancient people speak, in their own words and idioms, of their beliefs, rituals, life histories and their hunting and gathering economy, and even more voluminous 20th- and 21st- century records of the Kalahari San. 3. transliterations of those texts into English that, word by word, give patterned clues to often elusive concepts. In the paintings, we can actually see how the San who used the prehistoric words imagined their spirit world. Though less well known, these spiritual panoramas rival in complexity, detail and variety the Ice Age painted caverns of western Europe, ancient Egyptian art and the intricately carved Maya temples and stelae. Many of the San images that we decipher date back to times long before 19th-century researchers compiled the phonetic texts. Some have been dated to almost 3,000 years before the present;5 others, from southern Namibia, were made as much as 27,000 years ago.6 Although we cannot date every individual image, we can see that the painting tradition is very ancient, not just in general terms but in specific, decipherable features that clearly dovetail with practices and beliefs described in the texts.7 The older images are thus an extension to the texts: they take us back from the violence of the 19th century when the texts were recorded to hunter-gatherer times long before there was any Western or other influence. While we may legitimately doubt the appropriateness of ‘prehistoric’ to describe the material provided by 19th-century San informants, we can be confident that many of the images are indeed prehistoric. In this way, rock paintings, indigenous language texts and English translations come together on our ‘Rosetta Stone’ to give us access to a now-lost thought world that is breathtaking in its intricacies. Debilitating misunderstandings Three fundamental points must be made at the outset of this exploration in decipherment. All three may appear, at first glance, to be serious limitations, but, as will become apparent, all are in fact positive features that, with the use of appropriate methods, have the potential to open up new avenues of insight. The first, put starkly, is that San rock paintings and engravings constitute (at least to many Western eyes) the most exquisite rock art in the world – but alsoone that has for various reasons been grossly undervalued. So provocative a claim demands substantiation. We argue that the sheer beauty of San rock paintings derives from the cameo-like size of many images and their amazing details: there is nothing ‘crude’ or ‘primitive’ about these delicate images. Often an antelope’s head, mouth, nose and subtle shading of the animal’s coat are meticulously delineated (Pls 5, 8–11, 13, 19, 29). This beauty has turned out to be a two-edged sword. The problem with beauty is that it gives the impression that the images were made for aesthetic reasons. Indeed, one of the early (and more attractive) Western explanations for San rock art was l’art pour l’art – ‘art for art’s sake’. Today, most researchers allow that the artists probably did take extreme care with and pleasure in their creations, though we cannot gauge their pleasure with any certainty. Nevertheless, that was not the reason why they made the images: the aesthetic explanation does not tell us why the painters selected certain subjects for repeated depiction and ignored others. Their art was not a record of daily events, heroic deeds or the natural world around them. Our second initial point robustly contests the notion that San rock art is ‘simple’ and crude, little more than a series of stick figures. The complexity of the art extends beyond the glorious depictions of antelope and other creatures (birds, fish, snakes and, rarely, insects) to human figures, and it is here that we encounter a strong indication that this was not l’art pour l’art. People, fully delineated, are shown in every conceivable posture: running, walking, sitting, dancing, lying down, somersaulting and, though far less frequently than is usually assumed, hunting. Within human figures the cameo-principle also applies. The figures’ clothing (antelope-skin cloaks, caps and so forth) and artefacts (such as bows, arrows, spears, digging sticks and beads) are depicted as they go about their various activities, some of which are related in mysterious ways to animals. Interspersed with these images are depictions of antelope-headed beings, fantastic creatures and other puzzling forms: what can they mean? So much infinite care went into the creation of this great variety of images that we cannot avoid concluding that they were immensely important to their makers and far from simple. The third misunderstanding has proved as misleading as the first two. The egregious misapprehension that San rock art is simple and rather crude is frequently linked to the notion that knowing about it is also a simple and straightforward matter: everyone can plainly see what it is all about. If superficial inspection does not provide explanations, all that is needed, so thecanard goes, is for researchers to ask a few present-day San what the images mean. As we explain in Chapter 1, the situation is far more complex. The southern San, known from 19th-century records, are culturally and linguistically extinct. The surviving San live in the Kalahari Desert (see Fig. 2), whereas the art is found largely much farther to the south. As we shall see, the Kalahari San were not painters driven into the inhospitable desert in comparatively recent times by ‘stronger’ people: on the contrary, they have lived in the Kalahari for millennia and they speak languages different from those that were spoken by the people who made the art. They themselves have no tradition of making rock art. Showing the modern San copies of the art or taking them hundreds of kilometres to the painted sites produces disappointing results. Yet – and this is the key point – the modern-day San entertain similar religious beliefs and perform the same rituals as the now-extinct painters did. The 19th-century southern San’s own explanations of the images that we decipher in later chapters are often oblique: they have come down to us in the people’s own thought categories and idioms, not in recensions prepared by anthropologists who believed (probably wrongly) that they knew all about so seemingly explicit an art. The virtual absence of fully intelligible, direct explanations of images leaves us with what we may call ‘pristine’ (albeit initially opaque) indigenous statements that draw us into the long-gone minds of San rock painters. Notable beauty, complexity and a supposed ease of explanation have unfortunately combined to marginalize San rock art. Archaeologists and anthropologists working in other parts of the world have often failed to notice the importance of San rock art as an avenue into ancient minds. A route to understanding As we try to decipher San rock art, we ask: does a pattern emerge, one that ties together texts, translations and images? In Chapter 1, we begin this quest by examining the colonial milieu in which the San phonetic texts and some of the paintings were recorded. Can we avoid falling into the traps that bedevilled the work of the early social anthropologists who sought ‘primitive mentalities’? We also need to ask how ‘pristine’ the 19th-century San people were whose own accounts of their thought and way of life we study. Chapter 2 focuses on two key texts that have been preserved in the nowextinct /Xam San language. At first glance they seem opaque, or, at any rate, naïve. But, when we dig deeper, we find that the words the San used lead us tothe very heart of their religious experiences, beliefs and rituals. We feel rather as Champollion must have felt when he analysed and deciphered the individual elements contained within an Egyptian hieroglyphic cartouche (an elongated oval ring containing a royal name). Our research strategy in some ways follows his procedure. The first cartouche he cracked was inscribed on the temple at Abu Simbel in Nubia. It was the name of Ramesses II. With that clue in mind, he was able to move on to decipher the only cartouche remaining on the Rosetta Stone (the hieroglyphic register on the stone is badly damaged): it contained the name Ptolemy. Here was the key: accepting Thomas Young’s earlier discovery that hieroglyphics were phonetic, Champollion achieved the breakthrough that became the foundation for all subsequent Egyptology. Similarly, we find that the elements making up some key /Xam words and phrases come together to denote immensely powerful San concepts that we can find commonly illustrated in their art throughout southern Africa. In the art, words spring vividly to life. Having established the overall framework of San religious thought, we proceed in Chapter 3 to unravel what the 19th-century recorders translated as ‘deeds and things of sorcery’. We find that, while some of these ‘things’ were material objects, others were conceptual: they existed only in the minds of the San. Yet some of these curious conceptual things are not left to our imagination: the San painted them in remarkably explicit panels of images. The texts tell us what the images mean, and the images show us what the words mean. This complementarity becomes even clearer in Chapter 4. When the 19thcentury /Xam San were asked to comment on certain copies of rock paintings, an unsuspected domain of San belief and ritual suddenly opened up. It all began in the 1870s, when an early colonial traveller copied an enigmatic rock painting that seemed to him to depict mermaids. He then linked it to a myth recorded in the same area from a San man. But was he correct in making this association? Another San man gave an altogether different explanation of the painting. At once we need to ask how reliable such explanations are. In Chapter 5 we take the matter further, though this time the two indigenous explanations of the paintings on which we focus are in closer accord. Two San men living in different parts of southern Africa responded with similar explanations to paintings of strange animals of no known species. As a result, we need not dismiss these curious creatures as vaguely ‘mythical’. On the contrary, they were conceptual rather than material ‘things of sorcery’. We nowknow that these ‘animals of the mind’ had a name in the /Xam language, a name that, like a cartouche, can be analysed and deciphered element by element. In Chapter 6 we take decipherment into another dimension. We have managed to track down many of the sites in which 19th-century colonial copyists worked and have examined what remains of the paintings. Now, 140 years after the copies were made, we find that they themselves stand in need of decipherment. We have identified errors in copying that, paradoxically, led the San to reveal rich vistas of religious experience and symbolism. Chapter 7 addresses a thorny problem. The pre-literate cultures around the world are, as anthropologists have shown, rich in mythology, so rich that some early writers, like Lévy-Bruhl, believed that pre-literate people thought in terms of myths rather than logically. Having come this far in our decipherment of San texts and images, we now ask two important questions: First, can what we have learned about San cosmology, ritual and image-making help us to decipher specific San myths? Second, what was the relationship between San mythical narratives and painted images? In answer to these questions, we show that myths are decipherable by the same techniques that we have employed in our approach to texts and rock paintings: the actual prehistoric words hold vital clues. In Chapter 8 we enquire about the land in which the painters lived. We find that, for them, the mountains, vall
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