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Observations placeholder

Ancestors, the - Art - David Lewis-Williams from The Mind in the Cave



Type of Spiritual Experience


The painting is not the same as the one he describes.  Red = spirit helpers, Black = people, non spirits


A description of the experience

David Lewis-Williams – The Mind in the Cave

The painting shows a deep fold, or crack in the rock face that has been smeared with black paint.  Rising up out of the fold and the paint are seven figures, it is as if the paint is acting as a solvent that makes the crack in the rock face more permeable. 

The best preserved figure on the left has a clear eland head; four smaller figures comprise only necks and heads, the rest of their bodies being apparently behind the rock face.  The nasal blood of trance falls from one of the heads.  Close to the head of the eland figure is a bunch of at least ten flywhisks, far more than one would expect to see together in San daily life.  Surrounding the eland figure are eight fish, two eels and two turtles.  The painter here has managed to suggest both underground and underwater experiences; the figures rise from inside the rock, that is from underground and they are associated with underwater creatures….

These are by no means the only paintings that seem to emerge from behind the rock face; animals, people and ‘monsters’ all do so. 

Then there are the ‘threads of light’ that shamans say they climb when they go up  to God’s house in the sky.  Often painted in red and fringed with tiny white dots, these threads appear to weave in and out of the rock face.  It seems that the walls of rock shelters were thought of as a veil suspended between this world and the spirit realm  Shamans passed through this veil, sometimes  following the painted threads of light, and on their return  brought with them revelations of what was happening in the world beyond…….

In this way, the painters actualised the tiered cosmos and their journeys through it… Art and cosmos united in a mutual statement about the complex nature of reality.

The source of the experience

The Ancestors

Concepts, symbols and science items

Science Items

Nose bleeds

Activities and commonsteps




Black = real animals