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Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit: The Origin of Creativity and Belief

The magnificent prehistoric art discovered in caves throughout France and Spain raises many questions about early human culture. What do these superbly rendered paintings of horses, bison, and enigmatic human figures and symbols mean? How can we explain the sudden flourishing of artistic creativity at such a high level? And in what ways does this artwork reflect the underlying belief system, worldview, and life of the people who created it?

In this fascinating discussion of ancient art and religion, Dr. David S. Whitley–one of the world‘s leading experts on cave paintings–guides the reader in an exploration of these intriguing questions, while sharing his firsthand experiences in visiting these exquisite, breath-taking sites.

To grasp what drove these ancient artists to create these masterpieces, and to understand the origin of myth and religion, as Whitley explains, is to appreciate what makes us human. Moreover, he broadens our understanding of the genesis of creativity and myth by proposing a radically new and original theory that weds two seemingly warring camps from separate disciplines.

On the one hand, archaeologists specializing in prehistoric cave paintings have argued that the visionary rituals of shamans led to the creation of this expressive art. They consider shamanism to be the earliest known form of religion. By contrast, evolutionary psychologists view the emergence of religious beliefs as a normal expression of the human mind. In their eyes, the wild and ecstatic trances of shamans were a form of aberrant behavior. Far from being typical representatives of ancient religion, shamans were exceptions to the normal rule of early religion.

Whitley resolves the controversy by interweaving the archaeological evidence with the latest findings of cutting-edge neuroscience. He thereby rewrites our understanding of shamanism and its connection with artistic creativity, myth, and religion.

Combining a colorful narrative describing Whitley’s personal explorations at key archaeological sites with robust scientific research, Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit makes for engrossing reading. It provides a profound and poignant perspective on what it means to be human.

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  1. Markaeologist says

    Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit As an aerchaeologist working for the State of California and as a CRM specialist, I have been to (and worked at) many of the rock art sites discussed in Whitley’s book. Also, I have spent much of my life among different Native American communities, so his discussion of shamanism resonated with me. I have been teaching anthropology courses at night at a local Community College and found his insights useful in explaining human beliefs in rock art (so-called for lack of a broad enough and accurate enough defining term…). I read his book and others he has published in tandem with three related recent publications by David Lewis-Williams (the Mind in the Cave, Inside the Neolithic Mind, and Conceiving God) and recommend that those people wishing to learn about cognitive archaeology, religion, first art, shamanism or other “near-the-mark” topics read these four books as a group, in order of publication date. Very enlightening.

  2. Ronald Dorn "Ronald Dorn" says

    Stunning Achievement If you have ever looked at a prehistoric painting on rock or a carving into rock, this book is a must read. Whitley takes the reader on a journey that will delight. For those who love big thoughts and big ideas, backed up by real writing and detailed research, this book is a must. For those who love mysteries that are unraveled through careful thought and twists in a story, this book is a must. For those like to sink their teeth into details that nobody else has written about, let alone done painstaking research, this book is a must. But most importantly, it is just a fun read.

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