David Lewis-Williams

David Lewis-Williams
Native name David Lewis-Williams
Born 1934 (age 8182)
Fields Rock art, Archaeology
Institutions University of the Witwatersrand
Alma mater
Thesis Believing and Seeing: Symbolic meanings in southern San rock paintings
Known for
  • Rock Art Research that incorporates Ethnography
  • Shamanism and Neuropsychology

James David Lewis-Williams is a South African scholar. He was born in Cape Town in 1934.[1] He is best known for his research on southern African San (Bushmen) rock art, of which it can be said that he found a 'Rosetta Stone'.[2][3] He is the founder and previous director of the Rock Art Research Institute [3][4] and is currently professor emeritus of cognitive archaeology at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS).[5] Lewis-Williams is recognised by the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa as a leading international researcher,[6] with an A1 rating.

Theoretical influences

Lewis-Williams was exposed to social anthropology as an undergraduate at UCT.[7] During this time he received lectures from renowned social anthropologist A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (who started the department of social anthropology at UCT in 1920 but later returned as a visiting lecturer) and Monica Wilson, a student of Bronislaw Malinowski.[7] Malinowski’s ideas specifically concerning the association of ritual with social products meant that Lewis-Williams could eventually challenge the idea that San rock art was merely a narrative of everyday life.[8] Thus, from the start of his career and in contrast to most scholars of the period, Lewis-Williams was looking at San rock art from a social anthropological perspective.

Following proofs of an article by South African scholar Patricia Vinnicombe, shown to him in 1966 by Professor Ray Inskeep (then editor of the South African Archaeological Bulletin),[9] Lewis-Williams used a quantitative method for the analysis of rock art images in the Drakensberg. Overall he recorded some 4000 images for his doctoral thesis research. His PhD, finished in 1977 and later published in 1981 as Believing and Seeing: Symbolic meanings in southern San rock paintings., is regarded as a seminal text in rock art research globally.

The quantitative method now bears little impact on the understanding of meaning behind images in San rock art. There is simply too much ambiguity in what the numerical values can be said to imply.[10]

In the early 1980s Lewis-Williams began to investigate other theoretical approaches. This was because he

began to feel a great disjunction between what [he] had learned as a social anthropology student and the then popular conception of San rock art as a childlike record of daily life with, perhaps, a few 'mythical' images thrown into the mix.[8]

At that time in South Africa, during apartheid, Marxism was the 'language of liberation' and the only other social theory available. In The economic and social context of southern San rock art (1982), Lewis-Williams explored the economic position of the shaman in San society. Using Maurice Godelier's ideas of symbolic work, Lewis-Williams investigated the ritual role of shamans in terms of San social structure and the context of rock art.[11]

Concerns for the other members of San society are seen in his research that draws on

structuration theory in an attempt to show how San individuals and groups of individuals manipulated social symbols in the creation and consolidation of personal power.[12]

Key research concepts


A foundation to Lewis-Williams's work has been the use of ethnography. As an undergraduate he was exposed to Isaac Schapera's The Khoisan Peoples of South Africa (1930)[8] From the start of his professional career he drew on ethnography to address the meaning of San rock art. In 1968, he read philologist Wilhelm Bleek and his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd's Specimens of Bushman Folklore,[2] and later engaged with the manuscripts the archive of transcriptions of conversations with ǀXam-speaking San people from the 1870s.[2] Although he never met her, Bleek’s daughter, Dorothea Bleek, held a position in social anthropology at UCT where the archival collection is housed .[13]

Other available ethnographic sources have been central in Lewis-Williams's work, particularly the accounts provided by Colonial administrator Joseph Orpen in an article published in 1874 about his conversations with a San guide named Qing,[14] the words spoken to Marion Walsham How by the southern Sotho man called Mapote,[15] and the Kalahari San ethnographies that developed from the work of the Marshall family and others during the 1950s and 1960s.[2]


Shamanism, which derives from the Siberian Tungus word shaman, was used by Lewis-Williams to explain the metaphor of death common to both ethnography and San rock art.[16] The shamanic world often has tiered realms inhabited by spirits that can be accessed through altered states of consciousness (ASC). The world inhabited by people is supplemented by other realms that are usually conceptualised as existing above or below the inhabited world. Shamans have the ability to mediate between these other worlds. For the San, other realms were accessed during altered states of consciousness, and at rock faces where rock art can be found:

everything created on it was in some way itself associated with the spirit realm.[2]

More significantly, the collection of San ethnography demonstrates the trance or healing dance, see San healing practices, is at the core of San belief,[2][17] Metaphors for death are contained in the trance dance. As San shamans dance, their supernatural power, or ‘potency’, builds up until it reaches a breaking point and flies out of the body. At this point, they ‘die’, a metaphor for travelling to another realm where spirits dwell in the same way as the soul travels after leaving after physical death.[2]

The trance dance has been demonstrated to correlate with symbolism in the rock art. Features depicted in images relate that relate to altered states of consciousness, such as nasal bleeding and the ‘arms back’ posture, are two illustrative examples known to occur during the dance.,[2][17] Lewis-Williams and Megan Biesele (known for her work with the Ju/'hoan people) showed that the gap between different groups of San and different traditions of rock art could be bridged because of similar terms and concepts centred around the dance used by both the /Xam San in the south and the Ju/'hoansi San people in the north.[18] Building on the work of previous scholars such as Lorna Marshall and Daniel McCall regarding a 'pan-San' belief system,[19] Biesele and Lewis-Williams together suggested that the conceptual linguistic terms and ritual observances similar to the Ju/'hoansi and |Xam could be used to understand the complexity of the images. Indeed, Lewis-Williams writes that

… there seemed to be no myth common to both corpora: the parallels lay deeper than surface narratives.[20]


The idea of a conceptual belief system was expanded upon using neuropsychology. Together with Thomas Dowson, Lewis-Williams explored the relationship between universal neuropsychological patterns in the wiring of the human brain and practices in shamanistic societies.[21] Using data produced from laboratory experiments with hallucinogens, they proposed a neuropsychological model with multiple stages of hallucinations experienced during altered states of consciousness. Simply put, the model demonstrates the relationship between altered states of consciousness and the subjective interpretation of hallucinations.

The premise of the neuropsychological model is that there is a difference between cultural imagery and neurologically produced visual patterns (known as entoptic phenomena).[22] During ASCs, which can be induced in a number of ways, the first stage of hallucination experienced by a subject contains only entoptic phenomena, such as the scintillating scotoma experienced by migraine sufferers. The second stage begins when the hallucinations are construed by the subject into culturally familiar content. The implication of this is that entoptic phenomena will be understood differently in different cultures. The final stage is one of deep visual and somatic hallucinations, with multiple images and sensations understood in a cultural context.

Despite being able to explain why geometric and representational forms occur together in much hunter-gatherer art worldwide, and providing a 'universal' link through human neurology if cultural differences are allowed, the model has been criticised.[23] Critics have two concerns. First, the cross-cultural extrapolation of shamanism, and second, pushing this idea far into the past. In reply, Lewis-Williams holds to the neuropsychological model but emphasises that the idea of shamanism is not a simple analogy,[24] it requires contextual definition. Furthermore, there is a need to have the idea behind the neuropsychological model practically demonstrated in further examples than the rock art of the San, Coso people and Upper Palaeolithic used in The signs of all times: entoptic phenomena in Upper Palaeolithic art(1988).

Research in European Caves

Lewis-Williams has studied much Upper Palaeolithic rock art in France since the 1970s.[25] He argues that there are parallels between San rock and French Upper Palaeolithic rock art based on the neuropsychological model outlined above. In 1972, he met André Leroi-Gourhan (a French prehistoric archaeologist who worked on Upper Palaeolithic rock art) at a conference in Valcamonica, Italy.[26] Leroi-Gourhan was working at Lascaux at that time and tried to arrange for Lewis-William to view the cave sites of the Dordogne. Unfortunately, they were unable to co-ordinate their dates and it was only much later that he visited Lascaux. With the help of scholars such as Jean Clottes (another French prehistoric archaeologist), he has been able to continue working with, and visiting, caves of the Franco-Cantabrian region, such as the famous Chauvet cave.[26]

Career Timeline

Select Awards and Achievements

Selected publications




  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Lewis-Williams 2002, p. 251.
  2. 1 2
  3. 1 2 Lewis-Williams 2013, pp. 42-43.
  4. 1 2 3 Lewis-Williams 2013, p. 43.
  5. Lewis-Williams 2013, p. 41.
  6. Lewis-Williams 2006, p. 360.
  7. Lewis-Williams et al. 1982.
  8. Lewis-Williams 2006, p. 367.
  9. Weintroub 2016.
  10. McGranaghan, Mark, Challis, Sam, & Lewis-Williams, James David (2013). '"Joseph Millerd Orpen's' A Glimpse into the Mythology of the Maluti Bushmen': a contextual introduction and republished text." Southern African Humanities, 25, 137–166.
  11. How, Maron Walsham (1962). '"The Mountain Bushmen of Basutoland" South Africa: J. L. Van Schaik
  12. Lewis-Williams, James David. (2002). Three-dimensional puzzles: Southern African and Upper Palaeolithic rock art, Ethnos, 67(2), p. 251. Cf. Michel Weber, « Shamanism and proto-consciousness », in René Lebrun, Julien De Vos et É. Van Quickelberghe (éds), Deus Unicus, Turnhout, Brepols, coll. Homo Religiosus série II, 14, 2015, pp. 247-260.
  13. 1 2 Lewis-Williams, James David and Challis, Sam (2011). Deciphering ancient minds: the mystery of San Bushman rock art. London, Thames & Hudson.
  14. Lewis-Williams, James David & Biesele, Megan (1978). "Eland hunting rituals among northern and southern San groups: striking similarities”. Africa, 48(02)
  15. Solomon, Anne (1992). "Gender, representation, and power in San ethnography and rock art". Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 11(4), p. 295.
  16. Lewis-Williams 2013, pp. 44.
  17. Lewis-Williams, J. D., Dowson, T. A., Bahn, P. G., Bandi, H. G., Bednarik, R. G., Clegg, J., ... & Wylie, A. (1988). The signs of all times: entoptic phenomena in Upper Palaeolithic art [and comments and reply]. Current anthropology, 201–245.
  18. Lewis-Williams, James David (2002). The mind in the cave: Consciousness and the origins of art. London, Thames & Hudson, p. 126-135.
  19. Lewis-Williams, James David (2002). A cosmos in stone: interpreting religion and society through rock art (Vol. 1). Rowman Altamira, p. 190.
  20. Lewis-Williams, James David (2004). Shamanism: a contested concept in archaeology, Before Farming (online journal), (4), article 1, p. 2-4
  21. Lewis-Williams, James David (2002). The mind in the cave: Consciousness and the origins of art. London, Thames & Hudson.
  22. 1 2 Lewis-Williams 2013, p. 46.
  23. Ngwenya, Jabulile S. (7 December 2015). "Zuma to bestow National Orders awards". Independent Online. Retrieved 2015-12-08.

External links

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