African Ceremonies, by Carol Beckwith & Angela Fisher (Abrams, $150 for 2 volumes). Beckwith and Fisher have worked in Africa for 30 years and collaborated previously on African Ark, an impressive photographic study of the cultures of the Horn of Africa. Their latest project, a survey of African sacred ceremonies, required 10 years of fieldwork, during which they covered 43 ceremonies in 26 countries. The result is a stunning collection of 847 full-color photographs that, in some cases, document ways of life and worship that are no longer practiced. The authors note in their introduction, "As we have come to admire the beauty, strength, and vitality of Africa's peoples and their traditions, we have also realized how vulnerable many of these cultures have become. Famine, drought, and political upheaval are taking a toll. Some groups we visited a decade ago have now disappeared, and Western ways are eroding the belief systems of many cultures." Beckwith and Fisher's cameras are seemingly everywhere, always managing to capture the dramatic high points of each ritual that the two witness. In a Masai baby naming ceremony, a newborn glows with vibrancy as an elder carefully shaves her tender young scalp. Prior to their elaborate nuptials, a Berber couple courts in an open field of flowing green. In each instance, the authors take care to show respect for the spiritual component of their subjects' lives. "For most Africans," they observe, "the realm of the ancestors, nature spirits, and lesser deities is an integral part of everyday life. . . . Nothing of importance in traditional Africa takes place without first consulting the gods." -- J.A.

Wonders of the African World, by Henry Louis Gates Jr., with photographs by Lynn Davis (Knopf, $40). Having produced this volume in addition to Africana (discussed on p. 4), Gates has devoted much of his attention to Africa of late; he notes in his acknowledgments that he traveled to the continent seven times in less than a year while preparing a series for PBS and this companion volume that shares its name. Gates is not a trained historian (he first gained notice as a literary critic), but his scholarly devotion to research acquits him well here as he leads readers on a fast-paced tour through Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Kenya and other places with complex and fascinating pasts. He gives due credit to the scholars on whose work he relies as he attempts to make the splendors of a much-maligned and much-misunderstood land accessible to a lay audience. "When most of us think of Africa, the images that come to mind are of poverty, flies, famine, war, disease, and limitless acres of savannah inhabited only by majestic game," Gates laments. He effectively counters these damaging and limited images of Africa by patiently and humorously escorting readers through markets, mosques and various historic sites. Most compelling, though, is Gates's visit to Timbuktu -- once the intellectual center of Africa -- where he is shown ancient books and manuscripts purported to contain much of the wisdom accumulated there in ancient times. Surrounded by dusty manuscripts, Gates observed what seemed to be "thousands, a few bound in leather, some with gorgeous gold etchings and illustrations . . . If translated, they might completely rewrite the history of black Africa." -- J.A.

The Cave of Altamira, by Pedro A. Saura Ramos. (Abrams, $49.50). A Spaniard was out strolling on the grounds of his estate in the Cantabrian Hills of Northern Spain one day in 1879, when he heard his young daughter call out from a hillside nearby. Following her voice, he entered one of the most remarkable archeological sites of all time: the Polychrome Chamber at the Cave of Altamira -- "the Sistine Chapel" of prehistoric art. Excavating chamber after chamber of paintings, engravings and masks, he discovered works of art that were far more advanced than anything scholars had imagined possible 15,000 years ago. There were herds of bison with expressive eyes and flicking tails. There was a bovine figure bowing, its body mass emphasized by the swelling in the stone. There was a charcoal doe, head up, ears back, as if anticipating a predator's advance. Picasso later acknowledged the astonishing quality of this art by comparing it to that of his contemporaries: "Not one of us could paint like that," he said. The Altamira cave's authenticity was doubted at first. Some scholars claimed it was a fraud designed to make a laughingstock of the emerging science of paleontology. The text of this book is not particularly compelling, but the volume overall is a fascinating foray into the cave -- a temple that remains closed to the public, accessible only on pages such as these. -- M.A.

Archipelago: The Islands of Indonesia, by Gavin Daws and Marty Fujita. (California, $45). Charles Darwin was not alone in devising a theory of evolution. There was also Alfred Russel Wallace -- explorer, collector, adventurer -- who made a 19th-century voyage through 14,000 miles of unexplored Indonesia to draft a theory of his own. Working alone on the island of Gilolo, he put the finishing touches on his manuscript and sent it off to Darwin. This extraordinarily beautiful book achieves two purposes: One the one hand, it tells the story of Wallace's emerging theory of natural selection, tracing his work with orangutans in Borneo, or underwater life in the Moluccas, or magnificent birdwing butterflies in Irian Jaya. But it is also a lovely photographic tribute to the Indonesian archipelago, a celebration of all its lush parts. Wallace would not recognize current-day Indonesia -- it is, alas, falling under the rank fog of pollution and the fevered teeth of logging saws -- but this book is an attempt to put its glories into freeze frame. -- M.A.

India, by Don McCullin (Jonathan Cape, $45). There is a terrible beauty in India, particularly in its harsher corners, whether it be in the leper colonies of Sagar Island or 14,000 feet into the ether at Zanskar, an unforgiving region that can only be reached during summer months. Don McCullin's photographs of India are, in turns, disturbing, engrossing, inspiring. With images that range from a portrait of a Naga saddhu -- his hair in gravity- defying spikes over a mud-caked visage -- to a tableau of cholera victims being shuttled to their graves, this is not a cheery holiday gift for the uninitiated. But it is a treasure for those who know and love the land. McCullin's Indians are at once gentle, compassionate, tenacious; and, even in death, dignified. This is an impressive follow-up to McCullin's incomparable Sleeping With Ghosts: A Life's Work in Photography. -- M.A.