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David Lewis-Williams, as he is known to his friends and colleagues, is regarded as an eminent specialist in the San or Bushmen culture, specifically their art and beliefs. His fieldwork studying the Drakensberg rock art, together with a close analysis of the Wilhelm Bleek & Lucy Lloyd Collection, in the 1970s led to his seminal and highly sought after book Believing and Seeing: Symbolic Meaning in Southern San Rock Paintings (published by Academic Press in 1981). This work has fundamentally changed the way many researchers understand San rock art in southern Africa.
Lewis-Williams graduated from the University of Cape Town in 1955 with a Bachelor of Arts, having majored in English and Geography. He then went into the teaching profession in 1958, starting at Selborne College. During his tenure there, David developed an amateur interest in Archaeology and published his first academic paper on rock art (engravings) in 1962. At the start of 1963, he moved to Kearsney College, where, despite wanting to be a senior Geography teacher he was given the post of English master instead; after a few years he was offered the Geography post but turned it down because he found he enjoyed teaching English more. Two years later, he received his B.A. Honours from the University of South Africa.
While at Kearsney College, Lewis-Williams would arrange fieldtrips for the students to see archaeological sites in the Drakensberg mountains. Partly due to these school excursions as well as his own private amateur field work, he became familiar with the Drakensberg San rock art and started to ponder their meaning and significance. An early 1972 journal paper flirted with Structuralism and Semiotics as a means to decode their meaning. It was, however, a paper by Patricia Vinnicombe, in the same year that initially suggested a correlation between the Drakensberg rock art and San ethnographic work (she hypothesised that the art depicted scenes from San mythology).
David’s amateur fascination now became serious and he began a M.A. in Social Anthropology at the University of Natal. He was awarded a visiting fellowship to Clare Hall, Cambridge University in 1975 so that he could study the various San ethnographic sources/records in the United Kingdom. Soon thereafter, the M.A. was upgraded, without David’s knowledge, to a Ph.D.
While still utilising Semiotic theory (particularly the work of Charles Sanders Peirce) as a heuristic device, David’s Ph.D. focused upon the various San ritual ceremonies, particularly the Healing or (so called) Trance Dance, and their connection to the rock art. Professor Lewis-Williams received his Ph.D. in 1978 and the dissertation would later be published as Believing and Seeing: Symbolic Meaning in Southern San Rock Paintings.
After being the director of the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand for many years, Professor Lewis-Williams retired in 2000 and he now serves as its senior mentor.
Academic achievements, awards and honours
In 2003 Professor Lewis-Williams was a recipient of the Witwatersrand’s Distinguished Researcher’s Award and during 2004 he was given the Society for American Archaeology’s Excellence in Archaeological Analysis Award. At the beginning of 2005, David Lewis-Williams was awarded an A-rating (i.e. researchers who are unequivocally recognised by their peers as leading international scholars in their field for the high quality and impact of their recent research outputs) by the National Research Foundation of South Africa. During 2006, he received an honorary D.Lit. from the University of Cape Town and an honorary Ph.D. from the University of the Witwatersrand. In mid 2008, he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute.
During 2000, then-President Thabo Mbeki invited Professor Lewis-Williams to translate the current South African national motto into the now extinct ǀXam Khoisan language. Lewis-Williams has authored more than 135 articles in a wide variety of academic journals as well as having written (or co-written) more than 16 books. His book, The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (Thames & Hudson) won the American Historical Association’s 2003 James Henry Breasted Award. His most recent books are Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos, and the Realm of the Gods (Thames & Hudson) co-authored with David Pearce and published in 2005, Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion, published in 2010, and Deciphering Ancient Minds: The Mystery of San Bushman Rock Art, co-authored with Sam Challis and published in 2011.
- Lewis-Williams, J.D., 1982. The economic and social context of southern San rock art. Current Anthropology, 23(4): 429-449.
- Lewis-Williams, J.D., 1987. Paintings of power: ethnography and rock art in southern Africa. In: M. Biesele and R. Gordon (Editors), Past and future of !Kung ethnography. Buske Verlag, Hamburg, pp. 231–273.
- Lewis-Williams, J.D., 1996. Harnessing the brain: vision and shamanism in Upper Palaeolithic Western Europe. In: M.W. Conkey, O. Sopher, D. Stratmann and N.G. Jablonski (Editors), Beyond art: Pleistocene image and symbol. University of California Press, Berkeley, pp. 321–342.
- Lewis-Williams, J.D., 1998. Wrestling with analogy: a methodological dilemma in Upper Palaeolithic art research. In: D.S. Whitley (Editor), Reader in Archaeological theory, post-processual and cognitive approaches. Routledge, London, pp. 157–175.
- Lewis-Williams, D.J., 1998. Quanto?: the issue of 'many' meanings in southern African San rock art research. South African Archaeological Bulletin, 53: 86-97.
- Lewis-Williams, J.D., 2001. The enigma of Palaeolithic cave art. In: B.M. Fagan (Editor), The seventy great mysteries of the ancient world: unlocking the secrets of past civilisations. Thames and Hudson, London, pp. 96–100.
- Lewis-Williams, D.J., 2004. On Sharpness and Scholarship in the Debate on "Shamanism". Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 45(3): 404-406.
- Lewis-Williams, J.D., 2004. Consciousness, Intelligence and Art: A view of the West European Upper Palaeolithic Transition. In: G. Berghaus (Editor), New Perspectives on Prehistoric Art: A View of the West European Middle to Upper Palaeolithic Transition. Praeger Publishers, Westport.
- Lewis-Williams, D.J. and Clottes, J., 1998. The mind in the cave - the cave in the mind: altered consciousness in the Upper Palaeolithic. Anthropology of Consciousness, 9(1): 13-21.
- Lewis-Williams, J.D. and Dowson, T.A., 1988. The signs of all times: entoptic phenomena in Upper Palaeolithic art. Current Anthropology, 29(2): 201-245.
- Lewis-Williams, D.J. and Dowson, T.A., 1993. On vision and power in the Neolithic: evidence from the decorated monuments. Current Anthropology, 34: 55-65.
- Lewis-Williams, J.D. and Pearce, D.G., 2004. Southern African San rock painting as social intervention: A study of rain-control images. African Archaeological Review, 21(4): 199-228.
- Lewis-Williams, D.J., 1981. Believing and seeing: symbolic meanings in southern San rock painting. Academic Press, London.
- Lewis-Williams, D.J., 1990. Discovering southern African rock art. David Philip, Cape Town.
- Lewis-Williams, D.J., 2000. Stories that float from afar: further specimens of 19th Century Bushman folklore. David Philip Publishers, Cape Town.
- Lewis-Williams, D.J., 2002. A cosmos in stone: interpreting religion and society through rock art. Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, California.
- Lewis-Williams, D.J., 2002. The Mind In The Cave: Consciousness And The Origins Of Art. Thames & Hudson, London.
- Lewis-Williams, D.J., 2003. Images of Mystery. Double Storey, Cape Town.
- Lewis-Williams, D.J., 2010. Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion. Thames & Hudson, London.
- Lewis-Williams, D.J. and Blundell, G., 1998. Fragile heritage: a rock art fieldguide. University of the Witwatersrand Press, Johannesburg.
- Lewis-Williams, D.J. and Clottes, J., 1998. The Shamans of Prehistory: trance magic and the painted caves. Abrams, New York.
- Lewis-Williams, D.J. and Dowson, T.A., 1999. Images of Power: understanding San rock art (Second Edition). Southern Book Publishers, Johannesburg.
- Lewis-Williams, D.J. and Pearce, D.G., 2004. San Spirituality: Roots, Expressions and Social Consequences. Double Storey, Cape Town.
- Lewis-Williams, D.J. and Pearce, D.G., 2005. Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos, and the Realm of the Gods. Thames & Hudson, London.
- "Innovations In Material And Spiritual Culture Symposium Participants". Retrieved 2009-10-14.
- "Rock Art Research Institute Staff Page". Retrieved 2009-10-14.
- "Award for Excellence in Archaeological Analysis". Retrieved 2009-10-13.
- "A-Z Ratings". Retrieved 2009-10-13.
- "NRF Facts & Figures". Retrieved 2009-10-13.
- "Honours Roll". Retrieved 2009-10-13.
- "Honorary Graduates". Retrieved 2009-10-13.
- "AHA Award Recipients". Retrieved 2009-10-13.
- Staff Page at the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
- The Shamanistic Theory by Mikey Brass explains, in some detail, the work of David Lewis-Williams. This page is slightly out-dated in terms of recent academic work.
- David Lewis-Williams interviewed by Jonathan Derbyshire about his book Conceiving God on New Statesman.