The Human Journey
Pre-Axial Thought Introduction

Pre-Axial Thought

Paleolithic Beginnings

Pages 12

The Lion Panel from Chauvet Cave
From The Lion Panel in Chauvet Cave. Spirit animals and Shaman spirit-animals emerging from the cave walls indicate how early artists may well have “seen” the rock walls as veils between themselves and the spirit world.

The South African archeologist and scholar David Lewis-Williams had spent years studying and explaining the method and meaning of the art of the hunter-gatherer San peoples when, in 1995, he began a collaboration with the eminent prehistorian Jean Clottes. Together they studied 12 French caves with examples of Paleolithic parietal (or rock) art dating from the earliest Gravettian (26,000 - 20,000 BCE) period to the ancient, Middle and Upper Magdalenian (12000 - 9000 BCE).

Map of Southern France cave sites

Lewis-Williams’ work with the San included accumulating ethnological data, neurophysiological research and an in-depth study of the rock art of South Africa. Both he and Clottes were familiar with many of the known religious traditions and art of other early peoples in Siberia, the Americas and Australia, for example.

They suggest that, like the images of the San and other Shamanic artists, many of these Paleolithic images were created as part of a ritual that took place in the caves in which our early ancestors re-created and re-worked their out-of-body visions. The very act of painting or engraving the images evoked these same animal spirits, or transformed shaman-spirit-animals, calling them from the underworld through the cave walls into their presence. In this way their supernatural power and the experience of it became palpable and accessible to those present.

How did we get to create two-dimensional art
in the first place?

“[The anthropologist] Abbé Henri Breuil reported that Salmon Reinach, the writer who first propagated the notion of sympathetic hunting magic, found that a Turkish officer whom he met was incapable of recognizing a drawing of a horse ‘because he could not move round it’ (Breuil, p. 23). Being a Muslim, the officer was entirely unfamiliar with depictive art.” (Art and Human Development, Constance Milbrath and Cynthia Lightfoot) So this is not an innate human ability.

According to David Lewis-Williams:

“People didn’t one day invent making pictures. What happened was that people were familiar with the images that their brains were producing which were being projected onto cave walls and ceilings. And they wanted to nail down and make permanent those images, those visions that they saw.” 

So they were reproducing the visions created inside their heads. Visions stimulated by sensory depravation and anoxia experienced in the deep, dark caves and by the rituals that induced a trance state.

Some images seem to have been created by spitting the ochre and charcoal onto the wall. The prehistoric art specialist Michel Lorblanchet who has reproduced elements in this way, feels that this spit-painting, common among aboriginals, may have had a symbolic significance. “Human breath, the most profound expression of a human being, literally breathes life onto a cave wall. The painter projected his being onto the rock.” Moreover the being of the Shaman artist was the animal spirit. He or she was one with the image evoked.

“The underground origins of some of these images is suggested by the way in which they enter and leave cracks and other inequalities in the rock surface.” Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams The Shamans of Prehistory.

Clottes and Lewis-Williams’ investigations of the caves lead them to conclude that not only their art but the layout of the caves themselves were employed to induce, control and exploit altered states of consciousness. In this way members of the community were initiated and became the world’s first ritual practitioners, priests or Shamans.

Bison of the Tuc d'Audoubert, Arège
Dated 15,000 - 10,000 BCE the two clay bison of the
Tuc d’Audoubert, Arège (France) are 25 and 24 inches
long respectively.

“... some of the art in deep caves appears to be ‘public’, being easily visible in large, readily accessible chambers. However, a great deal of it is undeniably ‘private’, in small niches, or chambers only accessible through a long journey or after negotiating difficult physical obstacles necessitating climbs, crawls or tight squeezes.

There are cases – as with the famous Ice Age clay bison of France’s Tuc d’Audoubert – where the very act of making the journey and of producing the images seems to have been what mattered; the artist(s) never returned to visit their work.” (The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, Paul. G. Bahn)

Deep in these caves participants would move in darkness or flickering torchlight and would almost certainly experience sensory and oxygen deprivation (anoxia), conditions that would destabilize them and help to induce a trance state.  While in these altered states, Shamans communicated with the spirit worlds whose transferred power enabled them to solve a variety of problems: changing the weather, foretelling the future, healing the sick, and quite possibly predicting and controlling real animals by supernatural means.

Entrance to a cave in the Pyranees
Some cave entrances still evoke a passage into another world.

Clottes and Lewis-Williams point out that although shamanic cultures are very different from one another, there are remarkable similarities that point to a basic human universal: the way the human nervous system behaves in altered states.

When they looked at how people became Shamans, they found that all initiates either experience altered states involuntarily (hallucinations, visions, etc.) or took certain steps to induce them. A Native American apprentice Shaman might go on a vision quest, and, through hunger, pain, intense concentration and isolation from society induce a trance state where his spirit animal helper appears to him and he is filled with its supernatural potency. A South African San man or woman who wishes to become a Shaman might dance with an experienced Shaman until he or she achieves a trance state.

Prolonged privations, isolation, sacred places, rhythmic repetitive movements, chanting, protracted dancing, hyperventilation, intense concentration and hallucinogens are the elements selected and combined in various ways, depending upon the culture, as the individual seeks to achieve a deep trance state that connects him or her to the spirit world. The spirit encountered in this state bestows a supernatural power on the initiate. It is this power that enables an individual to function as a Shaman, to address and solve the problems brought to him or her.

Neurophysiological studies of the trance state have shown that three overlapping stages can be identified:

The 3 stages of altered states
The three stages of altered consciousness: possible examples that might be experienced by a Westerner Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams The Shamans of Prehistory.

The first stage – people “see” geometric forms, which can be brightly colored, flicker and pulsate, enlarging, contracting and blending one with another.

The second stage – the geometric forms are illusioned into objects of religious or emotional significance.

The third stage “… is reached via a vortex, or tunnel. Subjects feel themselves drawn into the vortex, at the end of which is a bright light. On the sides of the vortex is a lattice derived from the geometric imagery of Stage One. In the compartments of this lattice are the first true hallucinations of people, animals, and so forth.” (The Shamans of Prehistory, Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams). These are described as like projected images, floating across animated surfaces, walls and ceilings. The scholars note that what the subject “sees” in this third stage is culturally determined: people see what they expect to see. A Shaman might “see” an animal spirit, a Christian mystic her favorite saint.

In this third stage hunter-gatherer societies believe that a Shaman’s spirit leaves his body. Often people feel they can fly and change into birds or animals – become one with their hallucination, so to speak. Quite frequently the subject descends into the underworld.

“The ubiquity among shamanic groups of beliefs concerning descent into the earth may be explained by the neurologically generated sensations of the vortex that draws people into the third and deepest stage of trance, the state in which they experience hallucinations of animals, monsters, and so forth. The vortex creates sensations of darkness, constriction, and, sometimes, difficulty in breathing. Entry into an actual hole in the ground or a cave replicates and is a physical enactment of this neuropsychological experience. …

But entry into a cave does not only replicate the vortex; it may also induce altered states of consciousness. The social isolation, sensory deprivation, and cold that characterize caves are important factors in the induction of trance. During the Upper Paleolithic, entry into an actual cave may therefore have been seen as virtually the same thing as entry into deep trance via the vortex. The hallucinations induced by entry into and isolation in a cave probably combined with the images already on the walls to create a rich and animated spiritual realm. A complex link between caves and altered states seems undeniable.” (The Shamans of Prehistory – Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams)

So Shamans universally operate within a tiered cosmos. From the everyday world, they can fly to the spirits above and descend to the spirits below. This, too, is reflected in the three-tiered world of the Paleolithic caves, selected because they would help induce the states of consciousness that connected the initiates to the spirit worlds. Over thousands of years, individuals and groups of people exploited the way each cave was structured, its topography, passages and chambers to reflect this tiered cosmos – the arched roof, the ground-level gathering places of ordinary life and the narrow passageways that lead to the caverns below. Echoes of this same idea have persisted to this day in our own religious architecture.

From cave to Mosque
Cave interior, St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem.
The idea of a tiered cosmos has persisted in ritual and religious architecture for 35,000 years.