Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos, and the Realm of the Gods - David Lewis-Williams, David Pearce Messrs. Lewis-Wallace and Pearce speculate on the most difficult aspect of archaeological explanation - a people's religious beliefs - in this book that takes a look at Neolithic art/architecture and its sources. Thankfully, unlike those who haunt shows like "Coast to Coast AM" or write books like [book:Underworld: The Mysterious Origins of Civilization (Paperback)] or construct New Age druidism, they don't claim to know what Neolithic faiths entailed but they do argue that common themes and symbols can be reconstructed based on both physical remains and (what is new) on neurological studies that reveal the common basis of human cognition.

They choose to focus on the opposite ends of the Neolithic period (both geographically and temporally). They explore the extraordinary megalithic complexes found at Catalhoyuk and elsewhere in the Middle East, built by pre- and/or very early agriculturists c. 10,000-8,000 BC, and burials and ritual sites of the European Atlantic seaboard, built c. 4,000-2,500 BC. The authors argue that common symbols and architectural features bespeak a common, human neurological origin.

One of the more startling and concept-shaking assertions Lewis-Wallace/Pearce make is that major changes in modes of thought preceded changes in subsistence. An example of this is their contention that domestication stemmed from religious motives. The traditional view holds that domestication proceeded from a need to increase production and security of food supplies. Yet, this is a view based on hindsight; how could early Neolithic hunters conceive, evaluate and carry out such a program? Animals were corralled and domesticated because they represented human control/influence over the environment and they ensured a steady supply of sacrifices. The more wide-reaching social and economic implications of herding grew out of and were capitalized upon by ruling elites but not purposed by them (explicitly stated, pp. 40-1, but implicit throughout their arguments).

In the first part of the book, the authors broadly define what they mean by "religion," and show the evidence for a common, neurological basis for religious experience and symbolism. As to "religion": They define it as three interacting dimensions. At its base is "experience," which leads to "belief" and "practice." Once established, the latter two dimensions act on experience, which further influences belief and practice in a never-ending dance. (Thus, Christians see Christ or a saint in visions while shamans see their totem animal, for example.)

Belief and practice are dependent on cultural milieux and change over time and space (the authors cite intriguing but speculative evidence for possible religious strife based on archaeological evidence). Experience, however, appears broadly similar. Visions common to altered states of consciousness or out-of-body experiences (OBEs) include:

- seeing bright, geometric patterns (spirals, vortices, dots) (see also pp. 261-2)
- floating/flying
- passage through something (tunnels, caves, birth canals)
- transformations (human to bird)
- ability to "see" hidden things or underlying patterns
(p. 45)

Agriculture and pottery were not so much the revolutionary aspects of the Neolithic Revolution as was the insight that humans could actively construct their cosmos. Paleo- and Mesolithic societies were passive participants in nature but "Neolithic people eliminated the variable labyrinth and replaced it with more predictable and simpler structures of their own design. In doing so they gained greater control over their cosmos and were able to `adjust' beliefs about it to suit social and personal needs" (p. 85) and "[t]herein lies the real, innovative essence of the Neolithic; expression of religious cosmological concepts in material structures as well as in myths, rather than the passive acceptance of natural phenomena (such as caves), opened up new ways of constructing an intrinsically dynamic society." (p. 167) Which, if true, would help explain the accelerated pace of technical and social change that characterizes sedentary/agricultural societies vs. hunter/gatherers. If you can conceive of building your cosmos, you can conceive a better blueprint. As evidence of this, they point out that the dwellings at Catalhoyuk imitate caves (pp. 103ff)

Lewis-Wallace/Pearce also introduce the idea of two forms of shamanism that can broadly characterize the difference between Paleo- and Neolithic faith:

1. Horizontal shamanism: characterized by an individualized religious experience, undeveloped beliefs and practices, and a more "democratic" outlook.

2. Vertical shamanism: characterized by hierarchy (priests) and defined knowledge based on belief and practice.
(pp. 86-7)

The cosmos conceived by the human brain is tiered - it moves from an underworld to our world to one above. Often, death is not the end of life but the beginning of another stage in life. Seers, shamans, however you name them, are intermediaries between worlds and hold both religious and political power in this world based on that relationship. The iconography and architecture of Neolithic complexes all reflect this and are evidence of a rich, sophisticated and probably contentious religious/political life whose details are lost (though that loss provides fodder for endless historical novels, happily).

The rest of the book is devoted by the authors to an admirable marshalling of the evidence. I'm not going to attempt to recapitulate that argument here; if you're interested in this topic, this is a must-read whether or not you're sympathetic to the authors' point of view. If you're not interested - why have you read this far?

No matter, I enjoyed reading this book. Lewis-Wallace/Pearce present a measured argument against accepting the impossibility of knowing how ancient humans perceived their universe, and offer plausible interpretations of that Weltanshauung (apologies: I get to use this word so little). I have far too many volumes on my To-Read and Wish lists as it is, but should I stumble upon their prequel about Paleolithic art and religion, The Mind in the Cave, I will not disdain to pick it up.