Thames & Hudson, £18.95, 224pp. £17.05 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Deciphering Ancient Minds: The Mystery of San Bushman Rock Art, By David Lewis-Williams & Sam Challis

When I came back to this book after finishing it, I was looking forward to further reflections, but they were dispelled by a shimmering ring that appeared floating above the pages. It seemed to be made of prisms arranged in a glassy parquet; as usual it was incomplete, and as always it was mercurial. It's a familiar kind of apparition; not just in my field of vision but in those of people suffering from migraine, people under the influence of hallucinogens and, according to David Lewis-Williams, the San people who painted on rocks in southern Africa over thousands of years until the end of the 19th century.

If you're trying to read a book, such neural phenomena are obstacles to cognition. But if you believe you are embarking on a shamanic journey into a spirit world, they're the fairy lights round the doors of perception. Lewis-Williams, now emeritus professor at the University of Witwatersrand's Rock Art Research Institute, has identified images of these inner mirages both in San art and that of Palaeolithic Europeans. In each he sees the signatures of altered states of consciousness. Across the world and across millennia, he argues, the quirks of the human nervous system shape spiritual experience. Most powerful of all are the sensations of flying and entering tunnels that seem to be a common feature of altered states. The result, Lewis-Williams and his colleague Sam Challis argue, is the familiar cosmological arrangement in which ordinary life on the earth's surface is the material sandwich between two spiritual layers, the heavens above and the underworld below. As with European mythology, so with the San. They also have a dominant deity, though he is a trickster or ur-shaman rather than an almighty god.

Unsurprisingly, European settlers failed to see symbolically rich traditions based on an architecture similar to that of their own spiritual culture. Instead they saw primitive daubs, and saw the San themselves as benighted savages who stole cattle. They hunted them down and shot them. Others they imprisoned; and comments made by a number of these convicts, recorded in the 19th century, form a key to the authors' interpretation of what they consider to be the "most exquisite rock art in the world". San communities and culture have since gone extinct in the southern African areas where the art is found, though the San who still live in the Kalahari to the north share similar beliefs and rituals.

At first the San were simply "Bushmen" as far as Europeans were concerned, easily pronounced and easily dismissed. Nowadays, the orthography asserts the complexity and unfamiliarity of San culture: the distinctive click-sounds in their words are represented by slashes and exclamation marks that make them look like the kind of passwords your online bank approves but you will inevitably forget. The meaning of a word like !gi:ten demands an attentive exploration of San beliefs, Lewis-Williams and Challis insist, rather than the ill-fitting label "sorcerers" applied to it in a 19th century translation.

As anthropologists began to appreciate how difficult the cultures they studied were to read, they made their own ruminations ever more impenetrable. This may help to explain why Lewis-Williams and Challis feel that general audiences still need to be told that cultures can be technologically simple but symbolically rich. Their own writing is direct and clear - though there are moments, such as one in which they detect the image of a tusked serpent emerging from a rock face, where one feels one just has to take their word for it. Most San images, however, are recognisable human figures and animals, especially the eland antelopes that figure large in their symbolic landscape.

Many of the paintings depict elements of the trance dance around which San ritual revolves. This "nest of concentric circles" is the never-ending channel into the spirit world, producing the required altered state through the hypnotic effects of collective circular motion rather than hallucinogens. How long has this been going on? The paintings are hard to date, but some that seem to show trance dance postures are a couple of thousand years old. Some depicting eland are a thousand years older still, and people painted on southern African rocks more than 20,000 years before that. One of the reasons it's hard to appreciate a culture like this is that our own culture is inclined to regard continuity as a failure to progress rather than as a triumph of information transmission.

Lewis-Williams and Challis, whose scientific analysis is illuminated by sympathetic intuition, suggest that the San themselves thought like scientists, making hypotheses and testing them, when tracking animals. This rationality ran in parallel with their supernatural imagination, which remained impervious to reason. In that respect, humankind at large shows scant evidence of progress.

Marek Kohn's latest book is 'Turned Out Nice' (Faber)

Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray is joining Strictly Come Dancing 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Double bill: Kookie Ryan, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Papou in ‘Nymphomaniac’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Big Blues - Shark' by Alexander Mustard won the Coast category

photography
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering