Inside the Neolithic Mind
the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods
by David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce
An exploration of how brain structure and cultural content interacted in the
Neolithic period 10,000 years ago to produce unique life patterns and belief
systems. What do the headless figures found in the famous paintings at
Çatalhöyük in Turkey have in common with the interlinked spirals carved on the
monumental tombs at Newgrange
in Ireland? How can the concepts of
"birth," "death," and "wild" cast light on the changes in relationships between
people and animals?
David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce examine the intricate web of belief, myth,
and society in the Neolithic period, arguably the most significant turning point
in human history, when agriculture became a way of life and the fractious
society that we know today was born.
The authors focus on two contrasting times and places: the beginnings in the
Near East, with its cult buildings and skull burials, and western Europe, with
its massive stone monuments. They argue that neurological patterns hardwired
into the brain help explain the nature of the art, religion, and society that
Neolithic people produced. Drawing on the latest research, the authors
skillfully link material on human consciousness.
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Excerpt from Chapter 8 - Brú na Bóinne
When viewed northeastwards from Rosnaree, the Bend of the Boyne rises like an
island surmounted by, from west to east, the Knowth, Newgrange and Dowth ridges. Each of the three large tombs,
small satellite passage tombs and is on the summit of one of these ridges; they
are intervisible. There are also standing stones, a cursus (processional way)
and a number of henges within the Bend.
Although it may not point unequivocally to strife, archaeological evidence shows
that an early passage tomb, probably the first of the great Bend of the Boyne
structures, was dismantled. At least 15 decorated stones from it were used in
two subsequent tombs, Knowth and Newgrange, the principal foci of this chapter.
The motifs carved on the stones from the old monument are rectilinear, whereas
those in the two more recent tombs are contrastingly curvilinear. Moreover, the
re-used stones were placed so that their decorated surfaces were, apart from one
exception, either wholly or partially obscured; some that became orthostats were
inverted, decorated portions going into dug sockets.
It is, of course, possible that the earlier tomb was amicably dismantled to make
space for the large Knowth tomb that we see today, but the ways in which the
'borrowed' stones were used suggests that there was some estrangement between
the early tomb people and the builders of the second. Exactly what the dispute
was about no one knows. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that such a major
change in religious practice (dismantling a passage tomb and building another as
a new ritual centre) could be accomplished without a certain amount of debate
and friction between groups of people. A state of affairs of this kind may
account for both continuity and change. Another passage tomb, similar in
overall shape and structure, though much more impressive and requiring a great
deal of labour, was built. There was thus some continuity. But parts of the old
one were incorporated in ways that downgraded their status. The motifs on these
stones retained some of their 'power' (they were not obliterated), but their influence was diminished. This
subordination probably paralleled a decline in the influence of those who
controlled the old tomb.
Another point worth noting is that the highly decorated kerb around the large
Knowth mound (somewhat later than the tomb) suggests a public face intended to
be seen and perhaps processed around by many people, whereas the inner sanctum
would be visited by the few. It is all very well to see such a distinction as
being between, on the one hand, the general populace and, on the other, loved
and respected elders whose every word is a beatific revelation. It seems more
likely that distinctions of that kind would be, at least intermittently,
contested. As Marx and Engels dramatically proclaimed (not without reason),'The
history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles."
The notion of endemic Neolithic conflict is not new. In a seminal article, Colin
Renfrew saw developments in the Wiltshire Neolithic as the result of competition
between growing chiefdoms or polities. Julian Thomas and Alasdair Whittle have
put forward a similar explanation for changes in the use of the West Kennet long
barrow (chambered passage tomb) in Wiltshire. They write about 'heightened
competition', a 'progressively more restricted segment of society', 'continued
group differentiation in the area' and, from our present point of view most
aptly, 'the closing down of a redundant monument, redolent with powerful
associations and which offered competition to new traditions'." In Denmark, too,
changing Neolithic burial practices have been interpreted as negotiation of
social relations rather than an attempt at a prehistoric revolution. The
events at Knowth are also comparable to those that led to the building of the
Bryn Celli Ddu passage tomb on a henge, though in Anglesey the new structure
seems to have reflected a resurgence of old beliefs and power.
No different from any other society, Neolithic political and religious groups
were probably conflictual rather than consensual. But this strife was not
automatic and impersonal: groups do not act blindly, without leaders who are
fully aware of what they are doing. With parallels frequently evident in
present-day societies, the past was, in Julian Thomas's phrase, 'manipulated and
recreated in order to support social change'. Neolithic leaders manipulated
the social contracts of the time, and, as their focus on tombs and religion
shows, associated consciousness contracts as well. The political influence and
range of the Bend of the Boyne and the monumental elements within it waxed and
These brief remarks provide a background against which we can view the
astounding concentration of Neolithic achievement within the Bend of the Boyne.
A moated grange
Viewed from the tombs, the Boyne forms a semicircular 'moat'. Just to the north
of the loop, a smaller river, the Mattock, flows west-east to a confluence with
the Boyne at the eastern end of the Bend. A point that does not seem to receive
sufficient attention is that virtually all the Neolithic monuments of the
immediate area are within this two-river moat. No significant Neolithic
monuments are known on the immediate southern side of the river. To the north
of the Mattock, near Townleyhall
, is a single passage tomb. Within the northern
part of the Bend (as defined by both the Boyne and the Mattock) is a 'ritual
pond' south of Monknewton. It is on the isthmus leading into the Bend. Probably
dating from the Late Neolithic, it comprises a 2m (6.6ft) high bank
enclosing a 30m (98.4ft) in-diameter area that is filled with water. Close
by is an earthen enclosure.
Clearly, the loop of water was, in some way, significant to Neolithic people:
it 'contained' a major ritual centre. Probably, the symbolism of water and
rivers that we discussed in connection with henges was operating here as well,
though on a larger scale and with the added factor that the Boyne provides an
easy route to the sea. Water thus demarcated an 'Isle of the Dead' and linked it
to the great water, the sea. We have here another suggestion of death
(carrying the dead to the tombs) entailing crossing a river and of the realm
of the dead being associated with the sea or, more conceptually, a place 'under
water'. Ideas of this kind contribute to an explanation of why Neolithic people
sometimes disposed of the dead in rivers
Within the Bend, Neolithic people constructed a range of monuments in an
efflorescence of activity paralleled in only a few other places in western
Europe. In addition to the great megalithic passage tombs with their high,
covering mounds, there are many smaller mounds and tombs, earth enclosures,
timber circles, stone circles, pit circles and a cursus. Religious experience
and belief, set within complex social parameters, together with what we can call
early scientific observation of the heavens, produced a repeatedly resculpted
landscape dominated by massive, commanding structures that are visible from afar
and - it is hard to avoid the conclusion -proclaimed political power built on a
religious foundation. As we have already seen, Rousseau said: 'No state has ever
been founded without Religion serving as its base.
We have argued that spatial divisions in Near Eastern buildings were symbolic
of experiential, social and cosmological distinctions. In western Europe, people
went further. Not only did individual monuments, such as tombs and henges,
relate to cosmology. The people also mapped cosmology and its social and
religious implications on to extensive tracts of land. In the great west
European centres of Neolithic activity the conceptual cosmos came down to earth
in ways that still amaze those who walk over a terrain that was, in those times,
a map, or replica, of the people's evolving conception of the whole universe and
their place within it. Walk along the great avenue of standing stones that leads
to the Avebury henge in Wiltshire, or up the sloping, earth-banked avenue that
leads from a shallow valley to the heelstone that marks one's arrival at the
(until that dramatic moment) hidden Stonehenge. You will begin to appreciate,
though perhaps not understand, the vastness and subtlety, ingenuity and
technical brilliance, socio-political labyrinth and conceptual intricacy of the
Neolithic world - and, above all, of the drama of Neolithic landscapes. You will
realize why Neolithic monuments have had such an impact on Western thinking and
Before the tombs
Prior to the Neolithic, during Mesolithic times, the Bend of the Boyne was
heavily forested. The rich environment with its animal and aquatic life afforded
the hunter-gatherers of the time a comfortable living. Today the stone tools of
this period turn up in ploughed fields: arrowheads, burins, scrapers and
artefacts apparently used for making holes in leather. Although archaeologists
who have systematically walked across fields have found concentrations of stone
artefacts, they have not been able to locate any indisputable Mesolithic
settlements within the Bend. Nor is there any sign of religious practices.
There is more evidence for Early Neolithic activity. The remains of timber
houses from this period were preserved under the later tomb mounds. They have
been dated to between 3900 BC and 3500 BC. Nine of the houses were circular,
perhaps a pre-echo of the great circular tombs to come. Studies of these and
other Irish Neolithic houses have suggested that the nature of settlement
varied during the period. At some times there was more mobility than at others,
and there was also a tendency for houses to cluster together.
Towards the end of the Early Neolithic, there are indications of social
differentiation within settlement sites.
The date of the earliest Bend of the Boyne Neolithic settlement (3900-3500 BC)
should be compared with the earliest evidence for farming in Ireland as a whole,
which points to a date of about 4200 BC, or perhaps a few centuries later.
Whether they were immigrants or local Mesolithic communities of
hunter-gatherers, the first Neolithic people settled in Ireland in clusters of
houses; they practised mixed farming - cereals, cattle and sheep, all of which
were imported from Europe and, of course, ultimately from the Near East. The
artefacts of these pioneering communities suggest some continuity with
Mesolithic life-ways, though the break is distinct: the Neolithic was indeed
'new', though not an invasion, not a full-scale population replacement. One can
say that the Neolithic 'arrived' here, whether as a group of people, a package
of life-ways or, as now seems more likely, piecemeal, whereas it 'developed'
much more slowly in the Near East.
Gradually or not, the west European Neolithic impacted heavily on the
environment. We saw that in some Near Eastern localities, early farming led to
soil erosion; in the west. Early Neolithic people began to clear the forests and
thus to change and mould the landscape - a process that continued into the later
period of the passage tombs and mounds. Indeed, forest destruction continued
through to, and after, Elizabethan times. At the same time, the people moulded
the landscape conceptually, giving meaning to special locations.
The extensive human settlement in the Bend of the Boyne that forest clearance
permitted was of long duration. It extended from those early houses through
periods of massive tomb-building in the Middle and Late Neolithic down to 2500
BC and beyond. What we see today is a pile of semi-transparent pages, the texts
of each superimposed on and partly obliterating earlier pages. Disentangled, the
evidence suggests the general progression shown in the following table:
A full discussion of every monument in the Bend of the Boyne is not our aim.
Instead, we focus on two tombs: Knowth and, the most famous of all Irish passage
tombs, Newgrange. Our focus on these two monuments takes us on from the previous
chapter by casting further light on what happened in and around Neolithic tombs.
It also develops two themes at which we have so far barely hinted, but that tell
us much about Neolithic religious belief and practice: the importance of stone
as a substance and the power of carved motifs to integrate architecture and
'Bold, provocative, scintillating, a brilliant synthesis of archaeology and
human neurology. The authors break new ground and give one food for thought on
- Professor Brian Fagan
'An engaging, well-written and erudite book, which makes many suggestive
observations and provides stimulating reading'
- British Archaeology
'An adventure in the archaeology of religion, of wide interest to the
professional world and perhaps of even wider interest among general readers
'Gives us as clear a picture as I've seen of how the people of the New Stone
Age thought, of the myths that sustained them and of what they really believed
- The Sunday Telegraph
Boyne Valley Private Day Tour
Immerse yourself in the rich heritage and culture of the Boyne Valley with our full-day private tours.
Visit Newgrange World Heritage site, explore the Hill of Slane, where Saint Patrick famously lit the Paschal fire.
Discover the Hill of Tara, the ancient seat of power for the High Kings of Ireland.