Horses from Chauvet cave

Paleolithic Beginnings

By Robert Ornstein, PhD, Sally Mallam, and Doug Keefe, PhD
Contributing Writers

During the Paleolithic era, from about 35,000 years ago and over the next 25,000 years, toward the end of the last major Ice Age, Cro-Magnon’s artistic expression reached a critical mass as seen in cave paintings all over Europe, Asia, Siberia, Australia and Africa – throughout the old world.

Becoming Human

The evolution of our journey to become modern human, capable of abstract and symbolic thought, was a long one – it may well have taken more than 500,000 years!

The earliest known example of deliberate patterns made by ancient humans predates Paleolithic cave art by several hundred thousand years. Identified in 2014 by an international team of scientists, a zig-zag patterned shell was carbon-dated to as far back as 430,000–540,000 years ago, which discounts the possibility that it was made by either Neanderthals or modern humans.

The shell was actually found in 1891 on the Indonesian island of Java by the Dutch  paleontologist Eugene Dubois who discovered “Java Man,” now known as Homo erectus. It took 123 years, great advances in technology, and perhaps a change of expectation and attitude about our place in the world, before we were able to entertain the idea that abstract thought and the expression of it might possibly have existed in our pre-human ancestors – and to recognize that these shell markings were deliberately made.

Such deliberate markings were until then thought to be indicative exclusively of modern cognition and behavior, originating with Homo sapiens in Africa. This find was at least four times older than what was previously the oldest known etched artefact – geometric carvings in a sample of ochre found in South Africa’s Blombos Cave. This meant the shell engravings would have to have been made by our pre-Neanderthal ancestor, Homo erectus, and pushed the origin of the ability to deliberately engrave back by at least 300,000 years.

Shell engraving by Homo erectus compared with early Homo sapiens engraving

Shell engraving by Homo erectus from 430,000–540,000 years ago and etched ochre by Homo sapiens from 70,000–75,000 years ago.

“From about 40 – 35,000 years ago, and over the next fifteen thousand years, throughout the last Ice Age, our ancestors’ artistic expressions reached a critical mass and spread not only all over Europe, Asia and Siberia but also appeared in Australia and Africa – throughout the old world.”

Within this long period our early ancestors first recognized symbolic representation: the Acheulian figurine Tan-Tan (500,000–300,000 years old), to date the oldest known hominid representation, and the Berekhat Ram female figurine from Israel, (250,000–280,000 years old), both appear to have been created by nature, but then manually modified in places. They were the first steps to creating three-dimensional portable art that would become prevalent during the Paleolithic period.

A Creative Explosion

About 45,000 years ago Cro-Magnon developed blades and spear-throwers with a considerably greater range, velocity and penetration than earlier examples so far found. Hunters could now kill large animals from a longer, much safer, distance. With these new inventions, diet improved, more people survived — with much more contact between bands. Hunting technologies were quite possibly shared between groups, and so methods and tools evolved rapidly as human migrations followed reindeer and bison.

tools from the Reindeer Age

Over this period our ancestors invented burins to help make tools from antlers, such as bone spears and harpoons that were often beautifully engraved and carved. They crafted small bone needles from which to fashion vital, multilayered clothing for insulation and to survive the extreme temperature fluctuations. Ornamentation symbols of kinships, status and collective identity have been found from this period.

Venus figurines dating from this same period have been found over an expanse of territory from the west of Europe into Russia. This suggests that people were linked across these vast distances, communicating and developing social relationships that would be advantageous at a time when food resources were limited or depleted in specific areas.

The Earliest Figurative Rock Art

From about 40 – 35,000 years ago, and over the next fifteen thousand years, throughout the last Ice Age, our ancestors’ artistic expressions reached a critical mass and spread not only all over Europe, Asia and Siberia but also appeared in Australia and Africa – throughout the old world.

For example, 40,000 years ago – at the same time as our early European ancestors began to create the well-known European cave paintings – people 13,000 kilometers away in the Indonesian province of South Sulawesi were also producing figurative paintings on cave walls.

Cave Artists of Sulawesi

“The Cave Artists of Sulawesi,” an article from AramcoWorld, includes a short, but very informative video of a cave painting that’s at least 39,900 years old.

By 35,000 years ago, the capacity for abstract thought and symbolic representation had finally become a stable and universal capacity of the human mind and one of the traits that we share with all other humans. It enabled us to communicate in unprecedented ways and build the world we know today.

We were the same human beings then as we are now.

Creativity in Response to Crisis

“The ground is damp and slimy, we have to be very careful not to slip off the rocky way. It goes up and down, and then comes a very narrow passage about ten yards along through which you have to creep on all fours. And then again there come great halls and more narrow passages…. The tunnel is not much broader than my shoulders, nor higher…. With our arms pressed close to our sides, we wriggle forward on our stomachs, like snakes. The passage, in places, is hardly a foot high, so that you have to lay your face right on the earth. I felt as though I were creeping through a coffin. You cannot lift your head; you cannot breathe…. And so, yard by yard, one struggles on: some forty-odd yards in all. Nobody talks. The lamps are inched along and we push after. I hear the others groaning, my own heart is pounding, and it is difficult to breathe. It is terrible to have the roof so close to one’s head…. Will this thing never end? Then, suddenly, we are through, and everybody breathes. It is like redemption.”

This description by the paleontologist Herbert Kühn, from his book On the Track of Prehistoric Man, goes on to describe how the group, oxygen-deprived and exhausted, finally arrives inside “a colossal hall” whose walls portray layer after layer of amazingly vivid, lifelike beasts.

They are standing in the “Sanctuary” at Les Trois Frères, a cave in the Ariège region of southwestern France, surrounded by animals that roamed that area between 10,000 and 30,000 years ago. Looking upward, seemingly higher than any person could reach, they see a painted mythical figure, part-man, part-animal: the famed “Wizard” of Les Trois Frères, also known as the “Sorcerer,” who watches them from approximately 13 feet above their heads.

A photo of the Wizard or Sorcerer cave
painting

A photo of the “Wizard” or “Sorcerer” cave painting at Les Trois Frères, and next to it the rendered drawing of the “Sorcerer,” by 20th century French prehistorian Abbé Breuil.

A similar almost intolerable rite of passage must be carried out when entering many of these ancient caves. If we’re right when we say that creative insight and actions flower in response to problems, we have to ask ourselves what possible purpose would these people have to undertake such difficult journeys to find dark, inaccessible, oxygen-deprived, noxious, gaseous caverns deep inside the earth and decide that this would be a great place to create art of such astounding beauty, accuracy and abundance?

The most intense artistic activity happened just as the Ice Age reached its most severe (approximately 40,000–15,000 years ago), then about 10,000 years ago, it virtually disappeared as the Ice Age finally ended. Why were these sites selected ⏤ how did these amazing images on cave walls function to help our ancestors survive their challenging situation?

Cave Paintings: Cosmic Maintenance and The First Recorded Stories

Within a 25,000-year period of the Ice Age – more than twelve times the age of Christianity – extraordinary cave art covered most of Europe, from Andalusia in Spain to the Ural Mountains of central Russia. Today we know of approximately three hundred sites, but scholars suggest there must have been thousands. Hopefully some have still to be discovered.

Some were created possibly to show how animals were tracked, or to describe herd movements that not only aided hunting, but might also have predicted climate change. Others may have been created for reasons of “Cosmic Maintenance” functioning chiefly as part of a ritual whereby human beings connect and collaborate with the spirit world to assist in keeping the world and their survival in good working order.

In Chauvet Cave (southern France) dangerous animals such as cave bears, rhinoceroses, lions and even a spotted leopard are depicted. Scholars feel that these may well have been selected for their symbolic power. Cave images have been found, such as in the Lascaux Caves in southwestern France, that appear to have pockmarks made by pointed spears, possibly thrown in a ritual to “wound” the animal and so ensure future hunting success.

These artists were precise observers of the animals around them. They could define an animal’s rump, back, and body with a single line. Just a few more lines, and antlers and muscles stand out. A close look at these images reveals some unusual characteristics. Without grass or any other background, the animals appear to float in mid-air along these cave walls. Their hooves are undefined or left hanging, or a leg appears to end with the underside (a hoofprint) showing. Sometimes, as in the Axial Gallery at Lascaux, the paintings float upward and create what archeologist David Lewis-Williams called “a tunnel of floating, encircling images.”

Horse heads on a cave wall

The first cave paintings discovered were at Altamira (northern Spain). Paleolithic artists made use of the cave’s protuberances so that images would seem to come out of the wall. Was there a reason for this?

Many images take advantage of the uneven walls; for example, a protrusion in the rock surface becomes a horse’s head looming out into the cave, or an edge or curve in a rock wall evokes — with just a few lines — a bison, lion or auroch emerging from the wall. Some images are engraved, others painted with fingers or charcoal.

Animals fly, swim or charge and are sometimes depicted wounded or dead. Dots, grids and patterns appear in places, and mysterious figures which combine animal and human characteristics, like the “Sorcerer” mentioned above, watched those who, long ago, entered these dark spaces carrying flickering tallow lamps.

Human skeletons have been found in the large rock shelters at cave entrances, but none in the caverns below where these images are found. It seems more likely that over thousands of years, these hidden spaces were used only for ritual practices. Handprints, both male and female, and some quite small suggest sacred areas where men and women and even children participated in rituals of initiation or celebration.

The Use of Sound in Paleolithic Caves

These cavernous spaces provided such silence that one might hear one’s own heartbeat. In some instances, this probably contributed to sensory deprivation, which is known to induce altered states of consciousness. On the other hand, the acoustic properties of caves appear to be extremely important. Though he has yet to make a systematic study, Steve Waller, an expert in the study of Archaeoacoustics found that 100% of the sites he studied that have acoustic properties also have paintings, while those that don’t have acoustic properties or have less of them, have few or no paintings. One can imagine a shaman initially experiencing a vision journey when visiting such a place: the exertion spent getting there, the dead silence, the anoxia and the astounding echo reverberation from any noise he or she inadvertently made would all contribute to the experience.

“Waller points out that echoes were very likely understood to be voices from the spirit world, their reverberating sound appearing to come from deep inside the cave walls that were in a sense a portal to the spirit world.”

It seems evident that sites, once selected by the shaman, served multiple purposes. Instruments such as flutes and conch shells have been found. Such instruments, together with repetitive percussive sounds and human vocalizations whether in speech, chant, song or mimicry of animal sounds, would have provided an alternative gateway to a trancelike condition. In 1993 (Nature, 363, 501) Waller observed that since 90% of the animals depicted on cave walls are hooved, it is conceivable that percussive sounds from clapping or striking stone or bone objects together would be part of a ritual, repeatedly echoing sounds of the galloping hooves of horses, auroch and buffalo as they mysteriously appear and disappear in oscillating torchlight.

Echoes fool the ears because they seem to have multiple sources. These ancient sound artists may have taken advantage of this perceptual ambiguity to destabilize participants. Waller points out that echoes were very likely understood to be voices from the spirit world, their reverberating sound appearing to come from deep inside the cave walls that were in a sense a portal to the spirit world.

Acoustics in the Caves

In terms of acoustics, a cave is a ‘room’ with a much more complex set of inter-connected spaces than we typically experience in a regular room. Whatever its physical characteristics, a sound wave radiates from a source and travels on a straight-line path, outwards in space and time to a listener in another location. But in a cave, the sound wave continues to travel onwards until it is reflected from a wall of the cave (i.e., any lateral boundary, or ceiling or floor). It then has a new path until the reverberant sound reaches another obstacle and on to the next one. Depending upon where she is, the listener receives a succession of reverberations of the original sound that gradually diminish in amplitude. Inside these multileveled caves the reverberation might sustain even a brief sound such as a hand clap for several or even many seconds.

Since we have ears on both sides of our heads, a sound vibration arrives at one ear at a slightly different time and amplitude from the other ear, dependent on the location of the sound source. To pinpoint the source of a sound, our brains process the different neural signals generated within each of our inner ears. This extraordinary ability enables us to identify a sound source – saber-toothed tiger coming towards us from the left, friends approaching the cave entrance in front, etc.

Lower frequency sound reverberates for a longer time than higher frequencies, which are more readily absorbed by the walls. The adult male voice has a range from about 85 to 155 Hz in speech, whereas the adult female vocal range is about 165 to 255 Hz, almost one octave higher. Humans can hear a sound down to a lowest frequency of 20 Hz. Sub-sonic frequencies below 20 Hz up to 100 Hz or so are “felt” by the body, with the tactile sensation most sensitive around the lips, mouth and fingertips. One’s whole body responds to low-frequency sounds of very large amplitude, and such sounds would be amplified within the enclosure of a cave creating an awesome experience. As with today’s subwoofers that deliver the lower frequencies of 20-200 Hz, participants would not have just heard these sensations as sound but also felt them as vibration.

Strong late reflections are heard as an echo that is distinct from the background reverberation. This is where the complex shape of a cave has a more pronounced perceptual effect than a generic room. For example, sound reflected from a source along a passageway of at least 25 feet in length would lead to an audible echo for a listener at the entrance to the passageway. Potential participants might hear the distant rumble from several miles away and know it was time to join a ritual or celebration. As our ancestors made their way towards the mouth of a cave, they would hear the male voice or the pulsing drumbeats long before they arrived. And, as they approached, any vocalization they made outside the cave would return a strong echo coming from its entrance – the source, so to speak, of the spirit world.

Origin of Two-Dimensional Art: Re-connecting with the Spirit World

In their book, Art and Human Development, Constance Milbrath and Cynthia Lightfoot cite anthropologist Abbé Henri Breuil’s report 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’. Being a Muslim, the officer was entirely unfamiliar with depictive art.”

So, if two dimensional representational art is not an innate human ability, how and why did it develop?

Says 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.”

The South African archeologist and scholar David Lewis-Williams spent years studying and explaining the method and meaning of the art of the hunter-gatherer San peoples of South Africa. His work with the San included accumulating ethnological data, neurophysiological research and an in-depth study of the rock art of South Africa.

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).

Both he and Clottes were familiar with many of the known religious traditions and art of other early peoples, for example in Siberia, the Americas and Australia.

San rock painting, South Africa

San rock painting Cederberg, South Africa.

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.

Says 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.”

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 Shamans of Prehistory

Cave entrance with rock art.

“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.

3D bison cave art

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

As archeologist Paul G. Bahn reports in The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, “… 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.

Not only their art but the layout of the caves themselves were employed to induce, control and exploit altered states of consciousness.

Not only their art but the layout of the caves themselves were employed to induce, control and exploit altered states of consciousness.

To increase their chances of safety and survival, these people needed desperately to make sense of everything around them. Life and death were not hidden away, packaged and sanitized as they are in the societies of most of us, but experienced by individuals every day. It seems very likely that during this early period the spirit world and its power was more – or, at least, as – present and essential as the world of everyday life.

Our early ancestors were animists, they experienced a vital spirit inherent in all things everywhere: humans, animals, plants, rocks, mountains, rivers, and the weather. Robert Wright points out in The Evolution of God that “… if you asked hunter-gatherers what their religion is, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about. The kinds of beliefs and rituals we label “religious” are so tightly interwoven into their everyday thought and action that they don’t have a word for them. We may label some of their explanations of how the world works “supernatural” and others “naturalistic,” but those are our categories, not theirs.”

“Given all that was against us, it’s hard to believe we could have survived solely by trial-and error experiments. Our ancestors would have had to rely much more on their senses — including intuitive senses — than we do today.”

There is good reason to believe that during this Upper Paleolithic Era, which dates from 50,000 to about 12,000 years ago — a period comprising most of human history — humans manifested mental abilities that are latent and less obvious in us all today. There were only a small number of people in existence then. One study suggests that the human population in Europe ranged from about 130,000 at its lowest point to about 410,000 during the severe cooling episode in the last glacial period about 13,000 years ago. The mean population density in the inhabited area varied between 2.8 and 5.1 persons per 100 square kilometers. (Compare that to an estimated 748 million in Europe in 2021, with a density of
about 3,400 people per 100 square kilometers.)

Moving in small bands, these early hunter-gatherers endured unimaginable hardships. For many thousands of years freezing temperatures prevailed with very little respite. Endless snow and ice simply accumulated and deepened, covering Europe with glaciers. By about 20,000 BCE the landscape was glacier-dominated. A mile-high polar ice cap enshrouded Scandinavia and most of northern Europe. Elsewhere harsh conditions favored grassland that provided fodder for large grazing mammals such as mammoth, bison, aurochs, horses, reindeer and elk.

Given all that was against us, it’s hard to believe we could have survived solely by trial-and error experiments. Our ancestors would have had to rely much more on their senses — including intuitive senses — than we do today.

As the educator and scholar Idries Shah points out in his book Knowing How to Know

…”True, someone trying caraway seeds on infants might have discovered that an infusion of them quietened them. This he could transmit. But how could he, and those to whom he transmitted the information, forbear from trying all kinds of other preparations on children, destroying them faster than they could be replaced?

Just imagine the relatively small numbers of people in existence, the poor communications and wastage of transmitted information, the large number of possible trial-and-error experiments – and ask yourself how the human race survived this supposed period… Then look at the persistent traditions among all people relating to the acquisition of knowledge and information from ‘supernatural’ or other sources…”

Our ancestors’s brains, though structurally the same at birth as our own, developed differently. Although they certainly had language, it would have been less dominant than it is today. Areas of the brain that are now taken up with the vocabularies of more than 50,000 words — and our ability to read them, as well as deal with spreadsheets, online banking, ever-changing technology and speed limits — were likely used to acquire different capacities that enabled them to survive. Even today, some remote tribespeople have an amazing capacity to navigate through the jungle or on the open sea.In the book The Wind is my Mother: Life and Teachings of a Native American Shaman, the contemporary Muskogee Creek Indian shaman, Bear Heart, talks of the early days of his people: “The environment was our starting point in learning as much as we could from what was around us – the seasons, the things that grow, the animals, the birds, and various other life forms. Then we would begin the long process of trying to learn about that which is within ourselves. We didn’t have any textbooks, we didn’t have great psychiatrists who lived years ago and presented theories in this and that. We had to rely on something else, and that was our senses. Rather than through scientific investigation, we sensed those things within and around us.”

Bear Heart goes on to say that “children were encouraged to respect all inanimate and animate objects. Trees, for example, were their tall-standing brothers who emit energy all the time.” He describes one exercise where the children would be instructed to love the meeting place they were in; they were told to “put your heart into it.” Then they would be blindfolded and taken into the woods and required to find their way back. He writes that “the only way they could find their way back was by experiencing the love they felt before they went out.”

Today we have to learn almost everything — even metaphysics — through language. One spiritual teacher, the Sufi mystic Simab, explained,

“…you cannot think without words. You have been reared on books, your mind is so altered by books and lectures, by hearing and speaking, that the inward can only speak to you through the outward, whatever you pretend you can perceive.” – Idries Shah, Thinkers of the East.

In the 1950’s the anthropologist Lorna Marshall published an incomparable record of the hunter-gatherer San people, Nyae Nyae !Kung Beliefs and Rights. She noted that about half the men in a !Kung or San camp, in the Kalahari Desert were shamans and about a third of the women. Given that, and the extreme circumstances under which our early ancestors lived, it’s very likely that the ratio of Paleolithic peoples who experienced higher states of consciousness was considerably higher – initially perhaps the majority of people had this capacity.

Deep in the caves, in darkness or flickering torchlight, Paleolithic participants in shamanistic rituals would rhythmically move and perhaps chant. They would experience oxygen deprivation (anoxia), conditions that would destabilize them and help to induce a trance state. While in these altered states, they would communicate with the spirit worlds whose transferred power enabled them to solve a variety of problems: predicting the weather, foretelling the future, healing the sick, discerning what was edible, and choosing the right time to hunt specific animals.

What better way to survive than to seek to understand, harmonize and possibly acquire some control over these external forces, whether they be in this or the spirit world? As Karen Armstrong says in her book The Case for God “The desire to cultivate a sense of the transcendent may be the defining human characteristic.” It began the moment we became modern man.

Shaman-like activities have been perpetuated by prophets and spiritual teachers throughout our history. Zoroaster spent seven years meditating in the solitude of a mountain cave. His visionary insights were stimulated by mantras, prayers and an intoxicating drink called Haoma which was thought to grant users “temporary immortality.” Max Weber in his classic book Ancient Judaism noted that many of the Hebrew prophets exhibited shaman-like behavior, “They described visual and auditory hallucinations and abnormal sensations of taste and feeling of diverse sorts. …They felt as if they were floating…or borne through the air, they experienced clairvoyant visions of spatially distant events like, allegedly, Ezekiel in Babylon at the hour of Jerusalem’s fall. …They saw hallucinatory blinding flashes of light and in it the figures of superhuman beings.

Stephen K. Sanderson in his book Religious Evolution and the Axial Age, asserts that “Christ was the most ‘shaman-like’ of all the prophets … Christianity reproduced many elements of the shamanic tradition, and this gave it great appeal. In terms of the similarities between Christ and shamans, consider the following…

  • Shamans often spend periods of time in seclusion undergoing intense ordeals, during which they hone their skills; Jesus spent forty days alone in the wilderness as part of his development.
  • Shamans have special contact with the world of spirits; Jesus was in direct contact with God the Father.
  • Shamans above all heal and cure; Jesus healed the sick and the lame.
  • Shamans enter the world of spirits and often ascend to the sky; Jesus upon resurrection ascended to the sky.
  • Potential shamans often undergo an initiatory ritual death from which they are resurrected; Jesus, of course, was resurrected.
  • Shamans in some regions, such as Australia, undergo initiation in caves; Jesus’s body was put in a tomb and he was resurrected in this tomb.
  • Shamans always have spirit helpers; Jesus had helpers in the form of disciples, Christ helpers in the form of angels, etc.
  • In their curing rituals shamans often look for the sick person’s lost soul in order to restore it to the person; Christ saves your soul from eternal damnation.”

The Prophet Mohammad used to go regularly to a mountain cave called Hira, three miles north of Mecca. There in isolation he would meditate, contemplate and pray. It was in the year 610 AD, during one of these retreats, that the Angel Gabriel first appeared before him and commanded him to “Recite.”

The Three Stages of Altered Consciousness

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:

3 stages of transition

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.
At this point, we can say that our ancestors, not only physically but psychologically, became modern human beings. Our need to solve problems, seeking always to innovate and improve on previous solutions, together with our quest to understand the world and our place it in – our current human journey – began here.

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

Second, the geometric forms are illusioned into objects of religious or emotional significance.

The third state, as Clottes and Lewis-Williams describe in The Shamans of Prehistory, “… 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.”

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.

According to Clottes and Lewis-Williams, “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.”

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.

Our Three-Tiered Cosmos

At this point, we can say that our ancestors, not only physically but psychologically, became modern human beings. Our need to solve problems, seeking always to innovate and improve on previous solutions, together with our quest to understand the world and our place it in – our current human journey – began here.

As Steven Mithen writes in Thoughtful Foragers: A Study of Prehistoric Decision Making, “This art was part of modern human ecological adaptation to their environment. The art functioned to extend human memory, to hold concepts which are difficult for minds to grasp, and to instigate creative thinking about the solution of environmental and social problems.”

Paleolithic people responded to the way caves were structured, their topography, passages and chambers reflected this tiered cosmos – the awe of the arched roof, the ground-level gathering places of ritual and the narrow passageways that lead to the cavernous crypts below. It was at this point in our history that we first began to conceive of a three-tiered cosmos – a world below our world and one above – and to formulate rituals to encounter forces above and below that influence our life and that might in turn be influenced by us, an idea that has been with us ever since.

From this early time to the present day, Shamans and priests of all persuasions universally operate within this tiered cosmos. From the everyday world, they can fly upwards to intercede with heavenly spirits, and can honor or fear the dead and unknown in the spirit world below.

Cave, cathedral & 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.

A Priesthood Emerges

The archeologist Abbé Breuil noted that the “Sorcerer” at Les Trois Fréres that we mentioned above, was deliberately placed, “four metres above the floor in an apparently inaccessible position, only to be reached by a secret corridor climbing upwards in a spiral” [italics ours]. So it seems that by about 14,000 years ago, the shaman’s elite role was evolving.

At Lascaux (15,000 BCE) the westward facing entrance has a 12° downward slope that leads to the paintings in a large cavern known as the Hall of the Bulls. At the sunset of the Summer Solstice, the sun’s rays penetrate far into the cave and reach the Hall of the Bulls where they illuminate several already awe-inspiring paintings. This is the first evidence we have of the shaman priesthood harnessing the power of the Sun, a god that in the next Neolithic era would be worshipped in megalithic temples constructed by thousands under the direction of the priesthood.

As the Ice Age ended and populations increased, the experience of the shamans, their art, stories and predictions, would set them apart from the rest of society. They would become an elite, specialized group destined to travel a unique path in humanity’s search for deeper understanding and transcendence. They held the key to meaning for these very early communities and would do so — in one guise or another — for many millennia.

Bull cave art reproduction

Watch: Prehistoric Animations Emerge from Cave Walls

New Scientist

Paleolithic animated pictures.

Bear cave art

The Chauvet-Pont d’Arc Cave

Musée d’Archéologie nationale

Take a virtual tour of the cave.

watercolor illustration of man and woman

Why do We Tell Stories? Hunter-gatherers Shed Light on the Evolutionary Roots of Fiction

Daniel Smith, The Conversation

Given the ubiquity of storytelling, it may perform an important adaptive role in human societies by broadcasting social norms to coordinate social behavior and promote cooperation.

cave art with human figures

The Dawn of Prehistoric Rock Art

James Q. Jacobs

With recent cave art discoveries and the accurate dating of the rock paintings, our concepts of human evolution have undergone significant transformations.

painted cave wall

Neanderthals – Not Modern Humans – were First Artists on Earth, Experts Claim

Ian Sample, The Guardian

Neanderthals painted on cave walls in Spain 65,000 years ago – tens of thousands of years before modern humans arrived.

Venus of Willendorf video

Venus of Willendorf

What cultural role did this 4.4″ tall statuette of a female figure play in society over 25,000 years ago?

pictograms

Messages from the Stone Age

Robin McKie, The Guardian

In Chauvet and Lascaux caves 26 specific signs are used repeatedly. These markings are no mere abstract scribbles but appear to be a code that was painted on to rock by the Cro-Magnon people, who lived in Europe 30,000 years ago.

Stone Age Engravings Found on Ostrich Shells

Bruce Bower, Wired

60,000 year old ostrich eggshells engraved with geometric designs demonstrates the existence of a symbolic communication system among Stone Age hunter-gatherers.

Watch: Talking Stone – Rock Art of the Cosos

Paul Goldsmith, ASC and Alan P. Garfinkel

Hidden away in the canyons of a top secret military base on the edge of the Mojave Desert is the largest concentration of rock art in North America. Created over thousands of years by a now vanished culture, it represents the oldest art in California. Talking Stone explores the remote canyons and mysteries surrounding these amazing images.

Sound waves

Watch: A series of short videos illustrate the properties of sound waves and how they are transmitted and perceived.

Sound waves

Watch: The oldest identifiable musical instrument so far found is a flute, dated 42,000 to 43,000 years ago.

Such flutes were made from vulture bones and ivory from mammoth tusks. This one was found in the Swabian Jura mountains in southern Germany along with a bullroarer, which might have been used for dramatic effect. with a carved set of lines on it that resemble those found in cave paintings, indicating a trance state.

Conch shell music

Watch: A large conch shell (31 cm long and 18 cm wide) was found in 1931 in the Marsoulas Upper Paleolithic cave in Southern France near the Pyrenean foothills.

It is decorated with fingerprints applied in red ochre that are similar to those found in the wall paintings in the cave. It was originally thought to have been used as a ceremonial cup, until new analyses in 2021 revealed that the shell was modified to be used as a musical wind instrument.

Related:

Neolithic Era
Connecting With the Gods
The Axe Maker’s Gift
Thought and Language

Further Reading

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