Deciphering Ancient Minds

Deciphering Ancient Minds

The Mystery of San Bushman Rock Art

  1. David Lewis-Williams
  2. Sam Challis
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  • ISBN 9780500051696
  • 23.40 x 15.60 cm
  • Hardback
  • 224pp
  • 98 Illustrations, 29 in colour
  • First published 2011
‘A marvellous book: scholarly, but wonderfully readable too.’ – Alan Barnard, University of Edinburgh
‘Lewis-Williams and Challis’s writing is direct and clear … their scientific analysis is illuminated by sympathetic intuition’ – The Independent
‘A fascinating book about a fascinating topic’ – The Contemporary Review
'An elegantly written work ... a fascinating volume' - The Historical Association
‘Fascinating, readable and beautifully illustrated’ – British Museum Magazine

How did ancient peoples – those living before written records – think?

This intriguing book demonstrates that the ‘prehistoric’ mind was as complex and sophisticated as our own.

Researchers over the years have believed their modes of thought fundamentally different from ours. Along with the Aborigines of Australia, the San people of southern Africa – among the last hunter-gatherers on Earth – were viewed either as irrational fantasists or childlike, spiritual conservationists.

New research has overturned these misconceptions. Here, the great authority David Lewis-Williams and his colleague Sam Challis reveal how the rock paintings and engravings can be made to yield insights into San beliefs and ways of thought.

Comprehensive transcriptions, made in the nineteenth century, exist of interviews with San people who were shown copies of the art and gave their interpretations of them. Using these and the analogy of the Rosetta Stone with its parallel texts, the authors move between the rock art and the San texts, teasing out the subtle meanings behind them both. The picture that emerges is very different from past analysis: this art is not a naïve narrative of daily life but rather is imbued with power and religious depth.

‘The Bushman rock art of southern Africa is one of the great arts of the world. In this new, stunningly illustrated book, David Lewis-Williams and Sam Challis demonstrate the richness of the beliefs that informed its production and the richness of the historical and archaeological scholarship that now allows it to be understood…. This is at once an outstanding introduction to Bushman rock art and powerful testimony to the sophistication of its makers.’– Peter Mitchell, University of Oxford
‘Reveals the extraordinary complexity of San imagination and the harsh but beautiful landscapes they inhabited. Weaving together a lifetime’s study of paintings made by the San with accounts of their lives left by early European explorers and anthropologists, Deciphering Ancient Minds is a tour de force.’– Graeme Barker, University of Cambridge

See a video of the author talking about his book 'Conceiving God) in our Authors section

David Lewis-Williams is Professor Emeritus and Senior Mentor in the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand. He is world-renowned for his lifetime’s work on ancient rock art. His many books include The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art, which was awarded the James Henry Breasted Prize by the American Historical Association, Believing and Seeing: Symbolic Meanings in the Southern San Rock Paintings and, with Jean Clottes, The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves.

Sam Challis is a rock art specialist at the Rock Art Research Institute, lecturing for the Department of Archaeology, University of the Witwatersrand. 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.


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Also of interest
Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion by David Lewis-Williams
The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art by David Lewis-Williams
Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods
    by David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce

The Splendour of Lascaux: Rediscovering the Greatest Treasure of Prehistoric Art