Thursday, 11 October 2012

Dr. David Lewis-Williams and Rock Art Studies

Over the past fortnight it has been my pleasure to attend two distinct lectures by one of the world's foremost scholars of Rock Art Studies, Dr David Lewis-Williams. Professor emeritus of cognitive archaeology at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, Lewis-Williams has recently been over here in London, giving lectures on various different areas of this fascinating topic and offering a greater insight into his veritable oeuvre, published over the past thirty years.

Last week, on Wednesday 3 October, Lewis-Williams lectured on the subject of the San Bushmen rock art from Southern Africa at an afternoon conference held at South Kensington's Institut Francaise. Entitled "Rock Arts from the Antipodes", the conference also featured a talk by Professor John-Michel Geneste of the University of Bordeaux, France, on his recent excavatory work at the Nawarla Gabarnmang rock shelter in Northern Australia, as well as a short yet moving film on the latter's project and the manner in which it has interacted with the local indigenous population.

Subsequently, Lewis-Williams proceeded to give a talk on the subject of European Upper Palaeolithic rock art research, and some of the problems that it faces, at the UCL Institute of Archaeology (where I am currently a graduate student). The ideas that he expounded are not exactly new -- his groundbreaking books outlining his approach have been available for years -- but to see him expound them in the flesh was a thoroughly enlightening experience. Thanks must go to UCL-IOA lecturer and rock art specialist Dr. Didier Bouakaze-Khan, who helped to organise both of these events, and who runs one of the master's modules on which I am enrolled.

I would thoroughly suggest that readers of this blog look up some of Lewis-Williams' work; the manner in which he combines neurological and ethnographic approaches to the archaeological study of rock art, both in Southern Africa and in Western Europe, is fascinating, and deserves a wider audience to that which it has currently received. His conclusions touch not only on the world of rock art, but on the origins of religion, art and human cognitive capacity itself. Thought-provoking stuff.


  1. I started The Mind in the Cave, then set it aside for my next long train trip. ;)

    I do think that he takes informed speculation about as far as one can.

    1. I would certainly agree with you on that Chas; I know quite a lot of Upper Palaeolithic specialists aren't exactly in agreement with him over his ideas in that book, considering it too speculative. Then again, Palaeolithic archaeology tends to be far more processual in its approach than other branches of prehistoric archaeology, still sticking to the (long discredited) idea that their work can in some way remain "objective".

      It's a different kettle of fish when it comes to his earlier work studying the San Bushmen rock art, in which he was able to talk with people who actually remembered their fathers and grandfathers producing the work itself.