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« "Love Actually" | Main | Cave Art Redux »

November 12, 2003

Cave Paintings: Art and Religion in the Upper Palaeolithic


Are you fascinated by the cave paintings of Western Europe? As someone whose own tastes run towards animal art, I must admit I have always loved this stuff. But I always just looked at the pictures, so to speak, without giving much thought to the whys and wherefores of this art.

Dig That Draftsmanship: Mammoth from Rouffignac

This may have been the course of wisdom, because as soon as you turn to the whole question of the meaning and purpose of cave paintings, the questions start piling up faster than the answers. To give only a few examples:

· Why did Upper Palaeolithic people start making images at all, and, once having started, continue to do so for tens of thousands of years?

· Why does cave art primarily depict animals? Why are pictures of people—and plants—so rare? Why does cave art over a very long period of time depict such a narrow range of species, primarily bison, horses, aurochs, woolly mammoths, deer and big cats?

· What were upper Palaeolithic people doing drawing, painting and sculpting images in caves at all? What was the deal with caves, anyway?

· We tend to assume that “art” is meant to be looked at. Why did Upper Palaeolithic people bother to make images in extremely inaccessible portions of caves where the possibility of a significant “audience” was essentially nil —like at the end of passages reachable only by extensive crawling on your belly through mud while trying to keep your tiny animal-fat lamp lit?

· What is the meaning of the multiplicity of geometric forms such as grids, dots and chevrons that appear in conjunction with many cave images?

As I understand it, after a century of explanations—including art for art’s sake, totemism, hunting magic, Marxist class struggle (I kid you not), Structuralism, etc.—so little agreement has been reached about the answers to these questions that most archaeologists have sworn off even trying to develop theories and are sticking to a “just the facts, ma’am” approach.

Well, I picked up a book recently by David Lewis-Williams, “The Mind in the Cave” that bravely attempts to answer these and other questions. (Lewis-Williams, who is Professor Emeritus at the Rock Art Research Institute of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, is obviously made of sterner stuff than your average archaeologist, or else, being retired, he no longer cares what anyone thinks.) While I am in no way qualified to assess his arguments based on the “evidence”—I’ve never visited one such cave, let alone all of them, as he appears to have—I must say his explanation seems somewhat reasonable to me. Perhaps more to the point, his theory got me thinking about relationships that may be true for all art, including that made today, as well as for the cave paintings at Lascaux.

Professor Lewis-Williams’ thesis, if I understand it correctly, is that Upper Palaeolithic art-making has strong analogies to the shamanistic religious practices of the modern-day hunter-gatherer societies. He is painfully aware that reasoning by such ethnographic analogies (e.g., “Hey, just because one is more or less contemporary and the other is 35,000 or so years old, they must work about the same, right?”) is vulnerable to being laughed out of the court of archaeological opinion. Consequently, he aims his artillery on a psychological/neurological aspect of human nature, which was presumably shared by the fully anatomically modern people of the Upper Palaeolithic. His specific target is the ‘altered states of consciousness’ that underlie shamanistic religious practice.

According to Lewis-Williams, there are two spectra of altered states of consciousness; one spectrum, leading from normal waking consciousness to sleep and dreams, and the other spectrum, which he terms the ‘intensified trajectory,’ that leads from normal consciousness to hallucinations. He pretty much dismisses the spectrum leading to dreams, as dream interpretation isn’t apparently all that big a deal in shamanistic religions.

His real interest lies in the ‘intensified trajectory’ of altered states of consciousness leading to full-blown hallucinations. He divides this spectrum into three stages. In the mildest or first stage, individuals experience geometric visual images (or ‘phosphenes’) that originate within the nervous system. These include glowing dots, grids, zigzags, nested curves, and meandering lines that overlay vision of external objects. A common example known to migraine sufferers (like me) is the fortification illusion, a flickering curve with a jagged or castellated perimeter and a ‘black hole’ of invisibility in the center. In the second, and more extreme stage, of the ‘intensified trajectory’ people try to make recognizable shapes out of the phosphenes. In the third stage, according to the Professor, we reach the Big Time:

At this point, many people experience a swirling vortex or rotating tunnel that seems to surround them and to draw them into its depths. There is a progressive exclusion of information from the outside: the subject is becoming more and more autistic…Westerners use culture-specific terms like ‘funnels, alleys, cones, vessels, pits [and] corridors’ to describe the vortex. In other cultures, it is often experienced as entering a hole in the ground. Shamans typically speak of reaching the spirit world through such a hole. The Inuit of Hudson Bay, for instance, describe a ‘road down through the earth’ that starts in the house where they perform their rituals. They also speak of a shaman passing through the sea: ‘He almost glides as if falling through a tube.’…The Algonkians of Canada travel through layers of earth: ‘a hole leading into the bowels of the earth [is] the pathway of the spirits.’ The Conibo of the Upper Amazon speak of following the roots of a tree down into the ground. Such reports could easily be multiplied. The vortex and the ways in which its imagery is perceived are clearly universal human experiences…

Such a “vortex” is then followed by full-blown hallucinations. In shamanistic religions, according to Lewis-Williams, the vortex is the path to the Spirit world (i.e., the culminating hallucination or series of hallucinations.) The professor is careful to note that although the neurological mechanisms underlying the ‘intensified trajectory’ are hard-wired into the brain and thus shared by all people, the content of the ultimate hallucinations is not nearly so universal.

…[T]he mental imagery that we experience in altered states is overwhelmingly …derived from memory and is hence culturally specific. The visions and hallucinations of an Inuit person living in the Canadian snowfields will be different from the vivid intimations that Hildegaard of Bingen believed God sent to her.

Particularly if the hallucinating subject has been briefed to expect certain subject matter in his or her hallucination, it is likely that this is what they will see (or hear, etc.) According to Lewis-Williams, this ‘cultural coaching’ is why shamanistic hallucinations tend to make sense in terms of their religious practices, as the supernatural entities that are expected to appear generally do. Presumably, if Upper Palaeolithic people had been led to believe that certain spiritually significant entities, taking the form of a limited number of animal species (i.e., bison, horses, aurochs, woolly mammoths, deer and big cats) would put in an appearance in their hallucinations, then those are the ones that would then actually show up.

Upper Palaeolithic Installation Art: Hall of the Bulls, Lascaux

Here, however, we see the Professor’s methodology breaking down a bit, as he can’t help but assume that the people of the Upper Palaeolithic shared a good deal of the beliefs of modern-day shamanistic religions. For example, he assumes that because ancient Upper Palaeolithic people could have—indeed, more or less inevitably would have—experienced altered states of consciousness, that they would also use such states in a manner similar to contemporary shamanistic religious practice. By this I mean that they would deliberately seek out altered states of consciousness with the intention of visiting the Spirit world, where they would learn information that would be considered valuable to them and to their society (in order to, say, heal the sick, make rain, etc.) Lewis-Williams also assumes that Upper Palaeolithic hallucinators would be accompanied in the Spirit world by guides in the form of “animal-helpers” and would encounter significant beings that would also take the form of animals, also presumably because this is true in modern shamanistic religions. While none of this means his theory is wrong, as an argument it is rather circular.

Granting him these points, however, for the sake of completing his argument, he goes on to address the “origin” and purposes of image making, as well as the significance of the “cave” to cave art.

As to the origin of two-dimensional imagery, he suspects it derives fom the tendency of hallucinogenic imagery from all three stages of the 'intensified trajectory' to appear projected onto plane surfaces, as though the image is “painted” there. I know this is true of the fortification illusion associated with migraines. Apparently this effect of projection onto plane surfaces can persist for months at a time via the tendency of the mind to “flash back” to images from previous hallucinations. The existence of images projected on surfaces (like those in caves) would have suggested painting or carving or incising them as a logical next step.

As to the purpose of art making, he believes that two- and three-dimensional images were primarily attempts to “fix” such hallucinogenic, spiritually significant images, and to make them available to other people. That is, they allowed the insights of the shamans to be conveyed to the ordinary Upper Palaeolithic individual in a vivid, concrete fashion.

Lewis-Williams’ theory emphasizes that the images presented are not those of real-world animals of the type that one would encounter in the world outside the cave, but rather “incarnations” of Spirit world animal helpers or presences:

…[S]upport for this view comes from Upper Palaeolithic [cave] images themselves: they have a number of characteristics in common with the imagery of altered states of consciousness. For instance, the [cave] images are disengaged from any sort of natural setting. In only a very few cases (e.g., Rouffignac Cave) is there any suggestion of what might possibly be a ground line (a natural stain on the rock wall): there is no suggestion of the kind of environment in which real animals live—no trees, rivers, or grassy plains. Moreover, Upper Palaeolithic [cave] images have what Halverson perceptively called their own ‘free floating existence’…The impression of floating is sometimes further enhanced by two further characteristics. Often, Upper Palaeolithic images of animals have no hoofs, the legs terminate open-endedly…It is…reasonable to assume that the absence of hoofs implies an absence of ‘standing.’ Then, too, when hoofs are depicted, they are sometimes in a hanging, rather than a standing, position. In Lascaux and other sites, hoofs are depicted to show their underside, or hoofprint. The combined effect of these features is particularly powerful in the Axial Gallery at Lascaux, where the images seem to float up the walls and over the ceiling, thus creating a tunnel of floating, encircling images…

Pretty Trippy, Huh? Painted Ceiling from Lascaux

As for the significance of the cave for cave art, Lewis-Williams maintains that Upper Palaeolithic caves were not just “art galleries” but were also the sites where the locals did some, at least, of their hallucinogenic “tripping.” Particularly if Upper Palaeolithic people, like modern day shamans, saw the Stage 3 “vortex” as an underground passageway, seeking alternative states of consciousness in caves would have been a pretty natural step. The caves, of course, would have made excellent locations for such activities:

Dream-like, autistic states may be induced by a wide variety of means other than normal drifting into sleep. One of these means is sensory deprivation, during which a reduction of external stimuli leads to the ‘release’ of internal imagery. Normal subjects, isolated in sound-proof, dark conditions report hallucinations after a few hours…Then, too, audio-driving, such as prolonged drumming, visual stimulations, such as continually flashing lights, and sustained rhythmic dancing, as among Dervishes, have a similar effect on the nervous system. We also need to mention fatigue, pain, fasting and, of course, the ingestion of psychotropic substances as means of shifting consciousness along the intensified trajectory towards the release of inwardly generated imagery.

After doing the Upper Palaeolithic equivalent of LSD, participating in a good session of drumming and dancing by flickering torchlight in one of the larger chambers of the cave, and then crawling off into a tiny passageway for a protracted bout of sensory deprivation, I suspect a disturbingly intense visit to the Spirit world would have been hard to avoid.

As for the issue of why difficult-to-visit corners of the caves are decorated: these are exactly the parts of the cave where Upper Palaeolithic hallucinators would have begun their repeated trips to the Spirit world. For them, decorating the walls of that nook or cranny with figures of spiritually charged figures would be a recognition of how close the Other World was, and quite possibly also an aid to or an inspiration for getting the hallucination going. According to Lewis-Williams, modern shamans who begin their “trips” in caves or similar environments often feel that they enter the Spirit world through the stone walls themselves, which open in some mysterious fashion to receive them:

It seems that the walls of rock shelters were thought of a ‘veil’ suspended between this world and the spirit realm. Shamans passed through this ‘veil’…and on their return, brought with them revelations of what was happening in the world beyond…

To finish up, the explanation of the paucity of human figures in the cave would be fairly simple: presumably, that the real action, spiritually speaking, was with the animal-helpers and entities in the Spirit world, in which human beings were sort of marginal interlopers. (I am sure Lewis-Williams would protest this conclusion, as he keeps trying to drag social tensions among Upper Palaeolithic society into the book, but frankly his examples look to me like much quasi-Marxist ado about very little. I mean, these guys may have been at each others’ throats every minute of the day, but you can’t tell that from the cave images.)

Is This Totemic Class War, or A Message From The Spirit World?

Finally, this theory offers a strong explanation for many, if not all, of the geometric figures incorporated into the cave imagery—they are simply Stage 1 phosphenes, faithfully rendered as part of the hallucinatory experience being depicted.

So, the good Professor may have a few pieces of anachronistic reasoning by analogy in his argument, but he presents a fairly neat and tidy set of parallels between modern shamanistic religions and what we see of Upper Palaeolithic cave image-making practice. Strangely, however, he ends his book by making it clear that although he acknowledges that such religious practices produced great, emotionally moving “art” in the Upper Palaeolithic, he doesn’t view the mixing of art and religion as at all appropriate for the modern era. In fact, he goes out of his way to make it clear that he regards all forms of religion as simply by-products of the peculiarities of the human neurological system. And as religion in his view is irretrievably divisive, chauvinistic and, well, superstitious rubbish, he advocates leaving it behind ASAP.

While I’m sure this is Lewis-Williams’ sincere belief, it seems as if he hasn’t thought his own theory through quite as thoroughly as he might. What he has presented is not a theory of the relationship that existed during the Upper Palaeolithic between two aspects of human culture, art and religion. It is rather a virtual demolition of the notion of art as something existing apart from religion. Effectively he empties out the entire packing crate of art and finds nothing inside but religion. Possibly, recognizing this (at least subconsciously) he succumbs at the end of his book to an odd form of, well, religious anxiety.

The other element he seems to have missed entirely—more forgivably, since he is a university professor and apparently not an artist—is the ongoing importance for art of altered states of consciousness. While I can speak personally only about the making of image art, I suspect two things that are true there are also true for all forms of art: (1) that it is necessary to enter into an altered state of consciousness to produce art in the first place and (2) that unless a work of art puts its audience into an altered state of consciousness, it hasn’t been successful. The altered states I am discussing are milder, granted, than full-blown hallucinations, but they are altered sure enough. Hence, Lewis-Williams’ own reduction of religion to a phenomenon of altered states of consciousness again ends up confirming the notion that art is simply one ‘branch’ of religious practice. To put it in the form of an aphorism: Religion can do without Art, but Art can't do without Religion. An observation that may have some relevance for contemporary artists as well.

What is your take on the importance of altered states of consciousness on art? On the relationship between art and religion?



posted by Friedrich at November 12, 2003


Fried, I dont have much real experience with making art unless you count intricate lace knitting as art, but I do draw a little. And when it's going really, really well, it's almost a trance like feeling--it's just you and the paper and the pencil/crayon and the model moving completely in sych without much rational thought. It's disturbing to come out of it if interrupted. Is that what you are describing? I used to get that playing music also though not quite as completely. I do get that with intricate knitting when I lose myself totally in the muscle movements of the hands and the pattern building as the fabic develops. My husband calls it Zen knitting.

I thought it had something to do with right/left brain activity. No? Very interesting post, sir!

Posted by: Deb on November 12, 2003 10:44 AM

Yes, I believe it does, but the shift from standard left-brain dominance to right-brain dominance constitutes an altered state of consciousness. I'm not sure that this shift exhausts the altered states of art-making, either: I find that when I'm making art I'm often far more clear on my feelings (often on topics far removed from art) than in my ordinary waking consciousness. Art-making seems to involve a shift from thinking about things analytically, one part at a time, to thinking about the relationships between things, which seems, at least to me, to involve a broader set of mental shifts.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 12, 2003 11:55 AM

Fascinating post, Friedrich. I enjoyed reading it very much. I can't say I agree entirely with your conclusions, though. What you describe as the mild altered-state involved in creating and experiencing art seems to me to be plain old focus and concentration. One can concentrate on anything - adding a long list of numbers, say - and find that the external world has grown a bit fuzzy, if it hasn't slipped away entirely. And adding is hardly what I would think of as art. Second, I think that, in order for your aphorism to work, you would have to use extremely broad definitions for Art and Religion. Can you expand a bit on what exactly you mean by these terms?

Posted by: Dente on November 12, 2003 01:36 PM

They are not plain surfaces they are irregular surfaces. any irregular surface is good for scrying.

Old men and animals in rocks and clouds and tree branches. Personally, I am rather fond of dragons but can get quite a variety of entities depending on who's hanging around the astral plane to talk to. If one scrys into the cave walls by the light of a flickering flame one can then siomply paint the outline of the vision.

As a Wiccan who practices a nature based religion and uses scrying techniques every day it just all seems rather obvious. Maybe you think that makes me unscientific, or even "primitive". Well, there you go.

Posted by: Jesse Schultz on November 12, 2003 04:53 PM

An interesting post.

But I think I'm missing something. Are you really saying that "tripping" is perforce "religion"?

Posted by: Marti on November 12, 2003 05:01 PM

I had to skim this post, but it was fascinating. I like the track he's on, but in some ways I lean towards baser thinking.

I tend to think that 2d representations simply came from what every child does when a projector is on without an image ... you make funny shadow puppets in the light. A campfire in a cave would immediately abstract their forms. They would see this. Drawings would follow once their minds were opened to 2d representation.

another thought ...

As with Jonah and the whale, the story of Maui and the sea hag, and then all the way to the Aborigine snake god. A great deal of mythology revolves around being ingested and reborn. Rite of passage ritual. Birth by woman to be washed away by a new birth into manhood. A cave would provide good "innards" for this sort of transmutation.

Odd that seemingly obvious answers are dodged by his line of reasoning.

Posted by: pinky on November 12, 2003 05:37 PM


This is largely a subjective matter, or will be until I get my hands on a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, but I believe that the shift involved in going from "ordinary" consciousness to "artistic" consciousness is far more profound than simple concentration. I would offer that the very strong association between artistic endeavors and the use of alcohol and other mind-altering drugs is excellent evidence that a true state of altered consciousness lies at the heart of the art-making process. (I hasten to point out that the use of such substances is not essential to accomplishing this state of altered consciousness, and, presuming one is not attempting to produce on a deadline, is probably ultimately an obstacle to artistic production.) I also believe that a version of this altered consciousness can be "induced" in other people by a very successful work of art, but I have no evidence other than my personal experience to 'prove' this...except of course the existence of art museums and the big crowds that go through them. As to your other point, yes, I am using a very broad definition of art and is Mr. Lewis-Williams.

Jesse Schultz:

It sounds like you could have saved some Upper Palaeolithic people a whole lot of trouble. Or not...your scrying may not have the same impact on Cro-Mangons society that art work in a cave might have! Maybe you should try to hook up with some shamans and exchange views.


Of a very primitive type, yes. I think the urge for altered states of consciousness--which seems to verge on being a universal of human life--is certainly linked to the religious impulse. Obviously, I'm not suggesting, a la Lewis-Williams, that religion is nothing but tripping.


Silhouettes have long been offered as the "origin" of 2-dimensional picture making. (I remember a neoclassical painting of a Greek myth which revolved around a girl tracing the silhouette of her lover before he took off for war.) I have absolutely no evidence to prefer Mr. Lewis-Williams explanation to yours.

Caves are no doubt jim-dandy places for all sorts of dramatic rituals, but remember we're trying to explain why people spent a whole lot of time decorating caves, and in a rather specific manner. Any suggestions for linking your rebirth ceremony to the subject matter of the caves?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 12, 2003 07:19 PM

I suppose it couldnt be something so simple as using caves as a place to get out of the weather, build a fire for warmth and paint on the wall where the rain wont wash it away? Or a safe place to go into a trance and avoid predatory animals while in it. How do we know they didnt also paint on rock formations out in the weather? Or on the inner side of bark which has disappeared? If we are assuming "spirituality" (sorry, religion has too many modern connotations to be useful for me here) is the motivating force, I think it would make more sense if it wasnt limited to caves.

Posted by: Deb on November 12, 2003 08:01 PM

I like Deb's practical line of thinking, but I think it's both utilitarian -and- serves some deeper mystical reasoning.

Regarding silhouettes and shadow puppets ... I lean this direction because it's the most direct explanation (not to mention the thousands of traced hands they've found in these Euro caves).  Seeing hallucinatory flat designs overlaid on the surroundings (if I'm understanding him right) is not the most practical theory in the face of common sense and physical evidence to the contrary.  The more the convoluted the logic becomes the more my eyes begin to roll.

Onto the other issue:

I don't offer this as an all inclusive theory.  The reason for "why a cave" may be distinct from "why this sort of art".  "Why a cathedral" isn't exactly the same question as "Why a Triptych of Jesus, Mary, and Bob the patron".  These two may have answers with overlapping but distinct motivations.

Caves, pits, and huts in many of our current "primitive" cultures are considered symbolic gateways into the great beast (or creator).  A doorway with bones imbedded in the frame to mimic teeth and so on.  This is a sacred place because of it's power to change those that enter (and usually you aren't allowed to enter until your first initiation ... forever to associate the place with the act).

Now, given the mindset ... that what goes in comes out changed ... draw something and maybe it might materialize on the other side.  Vomiting forth an abstract into the real.  What went in a beast emerged a man ... now, what goes in a doodle, might grow flesh.

I see it as a fervent wish when you see hundreds upon hundreds of cattle ... may even reflect the very lean times where a hunter decided a sacrifice was needed. However, this was a symbolic sacrifice forged in his sweat and will to keep making these icons. Hard for me to explain the obsessive herds of animals any other way.

Sacrifice, Rites, Caves as innards ... I suppose I look towards basic anthropology for solutions ... and I suppose that's what he's trying to rethink ... but woah do my eyes roll ... while being very entertained.

Posted by: pinky on November 12, 2003 09:06 PM

Dear Friedrich:

Thanks. Tremendous piece.

On the relationship between tripping, religion, and art, you might Tom Wolfe's book on novelist Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" to be informative, since Wolfe's organizing thesis is that LSD tripping was a form of proto-religious behavior.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on November 12, 2003 09:33 PM

Friedrich, if you get an MRI machine, can I please please be the guinea pig? I would so love that!

A bit more on altered-state vs. focus: one of you had a post long ago on the connection between creativity and alcohol - noting that many artists were alcoholics, etc. - and it inspired me to experiment. I went to a bar to drink and write. The experiment was a failure from the start, though, because I was writing about my direct experiences, rather than writing fiction. But what I learned was that alcohol helps narrow focus. As I drank more, it became very easy to block out the other patrons, the music, the tv, and concentrate on the page. I have found this same state while writing sober, too - I can wear headphones and let the music seep into my subconscious without being aware of it (no singing along, not even realizing what song is on) and the fiction I produce then is much richer than that produced while sitting quietly at the keyboard.

I guess what I'm getting at is that imagination is different from altered consciousness. When I am imagining characters in a scene, I am not hallucinating them. I never forget that they are not real, and I never forget who and where I am. If a kid is pretending his finger is a gun, he is not in an altered state of consciousness; he is using his imagination.

By the way - further proof that drunkenness does not constitute an altered state of consciousness: that night at the bar, I was always aware enough of myself and my surroundings to be able to order another beer. Hey, it's a matter of priority.

Posted by: Dente on November 13, 2003 10:29 AM


While you're at it, order another one for me! I guess we need to do some research on the "official" definitions of altered states of consciousness before we can resolve this issue. Oh, yeah, once you do it, bring your results down to the bar and we'll discuss them.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 13, 2003 10:36 AM

I think we have a deal. Cheers!

Posted by: Dente on November 13, 2003 11:24 AM

"As for the issue of why difficult-to-visit corners of the caves are decorated:"

Not privacy? Safety? Posturing? Getting the heck away from those louts gnawing bones around the communal fire? Finding walls that weren't coated with bear grease by the previous large occupants of the cave? He's spent some time in caves, so'd I'd expect him to explain away these obvious reasons. Does he?

Additionally, does David Lewis-Williams have any insight about my high school peers, most of whom spent every waking moment drawing unicorns and mushrooms on their binders and school books.

Posted by: j.c. on November 13, 2003 11:56 AM

I think "Deb" 's notion about lost art on outdoor
(rainwashed) rocks and the insided of (now rotted) tree bark is above par. If Fred Flintstone did do oil-on-canvas, how would we know? We DO know AmerInd peoples did paint hides used for clothing and tents -- the barely-two-century-old samples remaining are breathtakingly fragile. The "ice man" found frozen the Alps was not toting around his culture's edition of the "Mona Lisa" but the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

The "ice man" thing does help explain that caves were a convenient place to hang out in bad (snowy?) weather.

May I be crass a moment? In our own lifetimes, we've seen every new art technology introduced immediately turned toward the production of p0rn. Polaroid instant film, videotape, xerography, and of course the internet... Archeologists DO find ancient small 3-D figures of naked women --why not cave paintings?

Maybe the cave WOMEN objected? "If you HAVE to have that crap, keep it outdoors! You're not putting it up on MY walls!"

Posted by: pouncer on November 13, 2003 01:00 PM


Have you seen anything on this subject by Nicholas Humphrey? He says cave art resembles the work of certain autistic artists, and therefore can't be proof of the existence of a modern mind, and therefore can't be shamanistic. That seems quite a leap to me--what isn't "modern" about autism? Does he mean we all were once autistic? And what says shamanism has always been confined to modern humans?

Anyway, here's one of his articles, and here's another, which replies to a piece by Michael Winkelman, another supporter of the shamanism theory.

Posted by: Mike Snider on November 13, 2003 02:20 PM

I should have read the second article before posting. There he admits that perhaps the activities associate with shamanism might provide access to the lower level sensory detail apparent in the drawings of certain autistic savants--he ends up arguing for the shamanistic interpretation, though he doesn't seem to think much of the artistic level of such work.

Posted by: Mike Snider on November 13, 2003 02:27 PM

Thank you for an illuminating essay. I have before me as I write a sort of facsimile of a Bushman (San) painting produced by the rock art consrvator and artist Stephen Townley Basset, who is carrying on the work of his late uncle by "meticulously recording" the rock art of the San people for posterity.

The reason for this is because San art is not found only in caves but also in the open ion rock formations. Perhaps this is because of the nature of the semi-arid terrain these hunter-gatherers traversed. Thus weathering and other destructive processes -- like graffiti! -- are obliterating much of the art. Bassett has devised techniques for removing this latterday vandalism as well.

Bassett intends simply to reproduce faithfully the rock paintings of Bushmen, especially using the materials they worked with, including ochres, animal fat, blood, eggs, plant resins, saliva, gall, charcoal, and for the colour white, raptor droppings.

The paintings are widespread in the region and the tradition appears to have been more or less continuous since it first appeared, about 19000 years ago, until 25O years ago.

The shock of encroaching European settlement, displacement and cultural influx would, I assume, account for the dying of the tradition in the 18th century.

What is fascinating about these scenes is that many of them depict shamanistic ritual.

The one I have, a limited-edition print on stout parchment, is of trance dancers, copied from a piece on a fallen rock shelter. The foreground figure of the cloaked shaman has lines from his face depicting nasal bleeding, a common occurrence among these religious dancers; a spindly form emerges from his body, depicting the spirit leaving for parts unknown.

Many other examples do show animals as well as people and indeed look almost like illustrations from hunting manuals.

For an informative review of his book (including 58 colour plates) see

Paintings depicting trance experience are interpreted by the said David Lewis-Williams in the book.

Posted by: Dave Farrell on November 13, 2003 02:33 PM

Whoops, I posted the posting above this one, where I link to a couple of Nicholas Humphrey essays, before catching up with the latest comments here, where Mike Snider points to Humphrey too. Curses -- that Snider fellow always gets to the best thinkers just before I do.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 13, 2003 06:07 PM

A Point (or two) for Pinky

1. That's Jonah and the Great Fish.

2. The fish spit Jonah out.

3. The fish came into the picture when Jonah tried skipping out on a gig.

4. The whole fish incident is entirely tangential to the thrust of the book. Which is, who God decides to forgive is none of your dang business.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on November 14, 2003 06:42 AM


A counterpoint (or two ... giggle-snort-giggle):

1. You can debate this with my Sunday School teacher Mrs. Smith this Sunday at 7:30am. Don't be late, she'll have you write the lord's prayer fifty times.

2. Yes ... or in this context ... Birthed. The sailors offered him to the beast to ensure safe passage and after days of prayer god commands the beast to open his mouth. He is reborn in the faith ... due to this experience. This initiation that swallowed the old self and then birthed the new. Double check this with Mrs. Smith for me.

3. Yes, that carves away all the details that relate to the issue of initiation. Well done.

4. Reminds me of a post that's entirely tangential.

Posted by: pinky on November 14, 2003 02:39 PM

A fine example of academic thinking. Never use the obvious explanation when wild-eyed deconstruction will do the job.:)

Jonah refused an assignment, got swatted for it, did what he was supposed to.

Why some people fixate on secondary matters is a subject that could earn a few folks doctorates. Jonah said, "No I won't!" God said, "Yes you are." and Jonah replied to the last, "Well, if you put it that way."

BTW, Mrs. Smith will refer to me as 'sir', speak when spoken to, and mind her manners. I was trained by a professional and I will not abide an uppity amateur.:p

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on November 14, 2003 10:06 PM

I forgot something...

Reborn in the faith? Looks more to me like Jonah got browbeat into doing it, and went off with the intention of showing God a thing or two.

"Alright, I'll preach. But they aint gonna listen. Mark my word, they aint gonna pay attention to a dang thing I say. They'll jeer and they'll scoff and they'll throw disgusting things at me.

"Yep, that's what they'll do. And after all this hassle and that damn fish, and everything else you've done to get me to preach to those heathen scum, you'll have to wipe 'em off the face of the Earth anyway.

"Why don't you save us both a ton a grief and exterminate the Assyrians anyway? Save you a lot of disappointment."

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on November 14, 2003 10:11 PM

Pinky and Alan,
You have taken a discussion which started with cave art in the Paleosomething era and ended up discussing the finer points of meaning in an Old Testament story about a guy swallowed by a big fish/whale.

Very interesting!

And if Pinky's Mrs Smith is anything like the Mrs Jones who taught my eight grade Sunday School class, she'll have you by the earlobe, Alan, and sitting in a corner for getting lippy when you should be respecting your elders right after you tell her to call you "Sir."

Posted by: Deb on November 14, 2003 11:26 PM


One more post and I think you've got me.

Posted by: pinky on November 15, 2003 01:45 AM

I'm 49, 6'3, and weigh about 340 pounds. I was also raised (trained) by a college professor (5'6 female) who ordered college football players around. I _know_ how to handle uppity 'know-it-alls'.:)

BTW, the fish was an incident on the way to the main event, getting slapped down by God for being a selfish twit.

"Right, you get to get all hot and bothered over a plant (which you had no part in the production thereof), but I can show no concern for a bunch of people (which I am responsible for in the first place). Where do you get off?"

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on November 16, 2003 01:25 AM


As promised ... ya got me.

Posted by: pinky on November 16, 2003 02:06 AM

See Clayton Eshelman's Juniper Fuse: The Upper Paleolithic Imagination & The Construction of the Underworld.

Posted by: Robert Birnbaum on November 17, 2003 06:43 AM

Even by the high standards of 2BH, this is an uncommonly interesting post. Have you guys ever seen the early Peter Wier film, The Last Wave? In 1977 Wier understood everything the good professor was trying to describe.

Posted by: Alan Sullivan on November 18, 2003 08:54 PM

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