“What is now needed is not yet more data (though more data are always welcomed), but rather a radical re-thinking of what we already know. That is not to say that each and every question can now be answered; we do not have to explain everything in order to explain something.” – David Lewis-Williams, “The Mind of the Cave”
Travel with me to a Paleolithic cave such as Chauvet, Altamira, or a rock shelter in Round Valley, California. Then, imagine you’re an ancient shaman on a vision quest in an altered state of consciousness. You’re in winding passages that trail off into the darkness, some too small to explore, you find precipices that seem to reach deep into another world, and as the trance state starts to take a firmer hold, rock walls become animated as visions of animal and geometric forms project themselves onto solid, impassable rock, and shadows dance from flickering firelight.
I can imagine feeling compelled to trace the geometric patterns I saw projected on the walls while in my altered state of consciousness. I couldn’t help but trace the flickering dots in my vision, the lines, or the geometric forms when my visions begin. I can imagine wanting to outline the animals that became solid figures once again when I left my trance state. I can imagine drawing the figures that came out of the walls as well, including the ones I hoped to entice out of the rock walls once they started to sway like thin sheets. For these creatures could be the keys to this other world.
Then, as the trance state grows deeper and stronger; a vortex full of sparkling, dazzling lights and imagery might appears before me. This then leads to visions of otherworldly beings, some never seen before, some that look part human and part animal, and some that anyone would have a difficult time describing no matter how vivid my imagination. Then, these images might no longer simply projected on the wall, but transform into a fully formed reality that is as real as any waking reality, or as powerful as the most vivid of lucid dreams.
It only takes a single first-hand experience such as the one above to lay so much speculation and debate to rest. What could the caves be except the passageways to the gods, as the rock surfaces turn to the thinnest of membranes, freeing the creatures of the gods from within? What else could I believe than I have communed with the gods, and that the gods have revealed themselves to me? What else could I believe other than perhaps animals contain powerful spirits of gods, as do the plants that allow me to walk with them in these visions, often transforming me into one of them at the same time? It would be a powerful experience even today; I can only imagine how a human of 25,000 years ago must have felt.
As obvious as this explanation may seem to myself, to fellow spiritual explorers, and to any shaman I’ve interviewed in various parts of the world, an academic and archaeological debate has raged on for over a hundred years regarding the meaning of many of the Upper Paleolithic cave paintings. Many extremely well thought out theories have been offered. All have been rejected, yet some remain in the collective consciousness as researchers still search for the answers.
Shamanism is perhaps is the root of all religious belief (including Christianity), and at least, is the first direct connection humans experienced with the supernatural. Shouldn’t that possibility alone spark a mutual interest in seeking the truth? Instead, it’s been demonized, erased from history books, ignored, denied, outlawed, sensationalized, misinterpreted, used as a scapegoat, and cast deep into the darkest of taboos in our collective consciousness. Could our mutual indoctrination be so deep and so thorough that we are willing to deny, outlaw, demonize, and destroy that which is an undeniable and intrinsic aspect of our own humanity? It seems we have.
“Comfortable” Religious Paradigms
I have immense compassion for those who are consciously or unconsciously inextricably bound by the mainstream paradigm or worse; the strict religious dogma of youthful indoctrination. Organized religions (especially those related to Christianity) have led explorers, conquerors, researchers, and history-writers to regard the beliefs of those they have encountered and conquered as evil, as the work of the devil, as ignorant, and perhaps the most insidious of all; is primitive. History is written by the conquerors and unfortunately, this has been the bias by which history has largely been written, especially in relation to any serious study of shamanism and the roots of our own spirituality.
Some theories are far more plausible than others, but what I find most profound is that up until recently, few of these theories included shamanism as the reason for even a portion of these paintings. To any shaman or shaman initiate that I’ve encountered and shared the images of these caves with, the broad meaning is no mystery at all. The imagery couldn’t be more familiar or speak any more vividly than it does. What it speaks of is exactly what I described in the opening paragraphs. Sadly, there’s little question in my mind that it has more than a little to do with the religious dogma that these images have been framed in.
Actually, the fact that so many theories abound is perhaps one of the clearest indications that none of them are entirely correct. Although I claim to be no expert in the study of Upper Paleolithic cave painting, I feel that as someone who has made it his mission to understand entheogens from as an educated and personally informed standpoint as possible, within the framework of personal exploration, as well as their place in shamanic ritual throughout history, I do feel that I and others who share the same passion perhaps possess a uniquely informed perspective that could prove to be of immense value to advancing research in this area.
I’ve been a part of Cherokee Indian sun dances, Mayan sweat lodges, Amazonian Ayahuasca ceremonies, several months of intense and daily personal exploration of Salvia divinorum, a lifetime of lucid dreaming, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, I’ve crawled through the narrow passages of ancient caves, and numerous other first-hand experiences of trance states and altered states of consciousness, both chemically induced and naturally induced. And what I have discovered is that no matter what pathway I choose, I end up in virtually the same places, I pass through the same stages to arrive there, and the only thing that differs is the outer veneer of each individual experience.
As a friend once said; “The simplest explanation is usually the correct explanation.” Unfortunately, anyone who has a powerful voice in relation to this specific topic has typically been either a victim of their own bias, or so speculative due to personal dogma that they may have blinded themselves to some of the most simple of truths. It’s amazing to see what appears when one is not burdened with the cultural and religious biases so firmly entrenched into ones belief system. And recently, these researchers and scholars have been forced to defend their conclusions amidst a growing tidal wave of dissention.
The New Scholars of Shamanism
David Lewis-Williams spent many years studying the San people of South Africa. Among many scholarly articles, he co-authored an incredibly colorful book called “The Shamans of Prehistory” with David Clottes. He later penned “The Mind of the Cave” in 2002 that took his theories even further; he refined them, clarified them, and created the most comprehensive examination of Upper Paleolithic cave art I’ve ever encountered. Both men have found the incontrovertible evidence for linking visions of altered states as the explanation for the sudden appearance of fully-formed two-dimensional representations of animals and otherworldly creatures. And these techniques all point to shamanism.
Acknowledging their findings would force the rewriting of our own human history; something that we as a species are not alien to. And this is perhaps why there is so much resistance from the establishment. Organized religions have typically vehemently opposed scientific discovery, belief system, or philosophical stance that might undermine their ability to hold power over their followers. This is especially true with shamanism. The Catholic Church has successfully stamped out direct contact with the divine in the mainstream world by killing, outlawing, destroying, and using whatever means necessary to relegate shamanism to the stuff of “degenerates,” “drug users,” and “evil doers.”
Even one of the most respected and exhaustive books on shamanism by Mircea Eliade has finally been revealed for the farce it was. Eliade painted any shaman that used “drugs” and “narcotics” as “a vulgar substitute for ‘pure’ trance.” Predictably enough, this exact concept has been trumpeted back to me by several leading archaeologists in the field whom I’ve conducted interviews with. And this is part of what pains me most: These opinions are being espoused by leading academics in the field, armed with the narrowest of vision, and lacking even the most rudimentary personal experience with the tools of shaman.
In other words; would you trust someone to drive you anywhere if the person who was going to drive you had never been behind the wheel of a car? Of course not. Yet, the theories of shamanism that have been unquestioningly accepted (up until recently) and have conveniently become part of the accepted belief in relation to some of the most important questions ever asked in relation to our mutual human history. It’s a travesty that organized religion is more intent on keeping us from god, more intent on maintaining their grip on power than they are in seeking truths that affect every human on the grandest scale imaginable.
Thankfully, R. Gordon Wasson exploded on the scene just a few years after Eliade published “Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy.” He spoke a scientific and well-researched truth that the mainstream was unprepared to listen or accept. In “Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality” Wasson said that he had discovered a connection with the divine that was “religion, pure and simple, free of Theology, free of Dogmatics, expressing itself in awe and reverence and in lowered voices, mostly at night, when people would gather together to consult the Sacred Element.” And this assertion stemmed from his own personal experience with a now-famous shaman from Oaxaca, Mexico named Maria Sabina. And his experience is far from unique; it instead speaks to a universal experience and truth.
His contribution to entheogens and ethnobotany is unparalleled, and he’s made more than a few extremely uneasy with the research he’s presented. As a result, a growing number of serious researchers have been unable to ignore his conclusions. The “Wasson Theory” has unshakably stood the test of time, enduring repeated attacks. As Jonathan Ott in “The Age of Entheogens” exclaims, “Shamanism is the earliest manifestation of culture; the shaman was the first professional and the precursor of the priest, physician, musician, and every artist alike.”
Many more have taken Wasson’s work to heart, including a book that’s a personal favorite of mine by Weston La Barre called “Ghost Dance.” In this book, La Barre offers the undeniably well-researched belief that “visionary ecstasy is the primal heart and soul of shamanism and religious revelation.” In his book, he did an incredibly thorough exploration of the inextricable link between shamanism and religion raising the bar for this kind of research. Shamanism’s role and revered place in ancient societies truly didn’t change until the Catholic Church took hold and violently took over the world, destroying the very essence of every single shamanic conquered culture in its path.
And, there’s a growing chorus of researchers joining Wasson, Clottes, Lewis-Williams, La Barre, Leary, and many others, forcing the establishment to rethink and reframe the adamant and unfounded belief that shamans are nothing more than a bunch of hallucinating “freaks” who used entheogens only in rare cases or as an “easy” way to get to the visionary state. The fact that even the early shamans of the Upper Paleolithic used entheogens as the rule rather than the exception doesn’t sit well with so many, and this brings me great joy. It means that the truth is close at hand.
The truth is that plant helpers (entheogens) were as much a feature of Upper Paleolithic cave paintings as they were for shaman the world over. Ironically enough, it was the Catholic Church and early Christianity that took god out of religion, but I hold firm to the belief that the truth, no matter how long it takes, will always win out in the end. Plant teachers are an intrinsic aspect of the shamanic visionary experience, and to belittle it as it has been throughout history is a travesty.
It’s What’s NOT There
Speaking of imagery and visions, the most telling feature of the Upper Paleolithic cave paintings is perhaps what’s NOT depicted: There are no images of the sun, moon, sky, stars, or clouds. There are no images of daily life or the dwellings that prehistoric humans lived in. There are no rivers, mountains, trees or flowers, or anything else that one might expect from art being created for the sake of art. Most times humans are depicted; they’re typically shadowy, incomplete, or elongated, with animal heads or animal bodies (called therianthropes). If humans are actually in the imagery, they typically seem to be nothing more than observers. The times they’re engaging within the scene instead of only observing, it’s typically a shamanic ritual, a transformation, or a healing.
The profundity of these details has been either missed or simply ignored by mainstream researchers when formulating their theories. And it’s these kinds of omissions that boggle my mind. I’m no archaeologist, but the importance of what isn’t on the cave walls seems glaringly apparent. When looking in from the outside, it’s not always easy to put oneself in the shoes of those involved in the creation of art in order to determine intent, but this is why it is more important that anyone who proposes a theory in relation to Upper Paleolithic cave art must have at least driven the car at least once.
Furthermore, since we’re neurologically identical to the humans of 25,000 – 50,000 years ago (actually, anatomically modern humans arrived somewhere around 190,000 years ago), there is no reason to think that these prehistory humans would have chosen images for any different reasons than humans from that point onward would have chosen their images. Humans depicted as half-animal, half-human certainly were not the stuff of dreams, and the skill with which the images were painted couldn’t have materialized from memory alone.
In fact, an excellent documentary called “How Art Made the World” describes the story of a strict Muslim who had never seen a two-dimensional image. When he was shown a painting of a horse, he had no idea what he was looking at. To him, it was a series of lines and colors, but certainly not a picture of a horse! Since images are such an integral part of our mutual worlds, it’s difficult to imagine what it would be like to not recognize a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional object. But, understanding these types of details is critical if one is to formulate any kind of plausible theory that hopes to delve into the mind of a prehistoric human.
To take this further, if we looked at the art of someone who has never drawn before, we might expect to find some random lines, perhaps some circles or squares or other basic geometric shapes. If this is what was drawn on the walls of caves thousands of years ago, it might be easy to dismiss the true profundity of these drawings as so many researchers have tried to do. It didn’t fit within their paradigm. Looking in from the outside with a modern mind, the multitude of half-human, half-animal drawings, the number of geometric patterns and seemingly random line drawings, and the outlines of hands painted on cave walls might appear to be little more than random “doodles,” but this is simply not the case.
Put yourself in the shoes of a cave painter again. Don’t just imagine standing in front of a cave wall with some paints; imagine what it truly may have felt like. Drop any preconceptions or religious dogma since religion didn’t even exist yet. In fact, think about what it may have been like to be a part of a small village without libraries, governments, science, organized religion, television, and the internet. Think about that it may have felt like to see the sun rise from the east and set in the west, enveloping your village in darkness, not knowing if it would rise again the next morning.
Imagine then, if one were in a shamanic trance, what an awake, alive, and animated world the cave would become. The rigid cave walls, impenetrable membranes to the Underworld would suddenly start to breathe and sway. Light flickering down passageways and on the walls, casting shadows and adding to the effect that the walls are breathing and becoming molten, easing the impenetrable barrier that only liquefies in this altered state would have a profound effect on early humans that I can only imagine could only be associated with the same mystery that the skies above and the world below held.
In fact, Clottes takes it a step further and felt that the caves may actually hold the power to induce altered states of consciousness. The darkness, the sensory deprivation, isolation, and even the cold are often part of techniques employed to enter shamanic trance states. He said, “During the Upper Paleolithic, entry into an actual cave may therefore have been seen as virtually the same thing as entry into a 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, if the paintings of the cave were depictions of daily life, or hunts, or simply “art for the sake of art,” why then was the subject matter so incredibly narrow? As Dr. Nigel Spivey, a respected lecturer on classical art and archaeology at Cambridge University states, “They weren’t copying nature, but reproducing visions created inside their head.”
Not only is the subject matter limited in scope, what is even more intriguing is that fully realized two-dimensional images suddenly appeared. Humans went from a world with no cave paintings to a world that was lush with them. There’s no slow evolution from stick figures and ideas of artistic representation of our three dimensional world; what we have is perfect two-dimensional representations of subject matter from the beginning. This is incredible!
It may seem like a grand leap of faith, but the imagery on the cave walls projected via the visions that appear during altered states of consciousness accompanying shamanic trance states upon closer inspection is entirely plausible, if not possible, no matter how uncomfortable of a truth this might be.
Stages of Shamanic Trance
In their groundbreaking book called “The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves”, David Clottes and David Lewis-Williams they offer an academic observance of 3 distinct stages associated with shamanic trance and visionary states, whether induced by natural means (such as long hours of ritual dancing that the San engaged in), or by using entheogens (such as Ayahuasca or Psilocybin mushrooms). They do an impressive job of detailing each of these three states, especially since neither has worked with any of the methods of inducing altered states of consciousness personally. In many ways, this fact only makes their observations even more intriguing:
STAGE ONE: In the first, or lightest stage of trance, people see geometric forms, such as dots, zigzags, grids, sets of parallel lines, nested curves, or meandering lines. The forms are brightly colored and flicker, pulsate, enlarge, contract, and blend one with another. With the eyes open, they are projected luminously onto walls and surfaces such as ceilings [or cave walls].
STAGE TWO: In the second stage, subjects try to make better sense of the geometric precepts by illusioning them into objects of emotional significance.
STAGE THREE: The third stage is reached via a vortex or tunnel (or as some have described and I have personally experienced; a dome as in a large building that I float towards. Subjects feel themselves drawn into the vortex, and the end of which is [often] a bright light. On the sides of the vortex is a lattice derived from the geometric imagery of Stage One.
When subjects emerge from the far end of the tunnel, they find themselves in the bizarre world of trance: Monsters, people, and settings are intensely real. The geometric percepts are still present, but chiefly peripherally. With one’s eyes open, Stage Three hallucinations are, like the geometrics of Stage One, projected onto surrounding surfaces. They seem to float across walls and ceilings. At the same time, the surfaces themselves become animated. A picture hanging on a wall, for instance, will be seen in three dimensions and with heightened colors, and it may start to move, come alive. In Stage Three, people feel that they can fly and change into animals. People no longer simply ‘see’ strange things; the things become part of their hallucinations.
Clottes goes on to talk about the similarities of experiences while in altered states. Although many like to use the cultural differences as reason for dismissing the validity of the experiences or the information gleaned from them, he points out that underneath the superficial veneer lies a commonality that is undeniable. This is a point that is repeated in Graham Hancock’s outstanding book called “Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind,” published in 2005.
In fact, speak to anyone who has experienced trance states, especially those induced by entheogens, and it will be difficult to find anyone who doesn’t recognize the above stages. There may be variations, but anyone who has taken a shamanic journey into altered states of consciousness will identify, at least in part (and regardless of cultural bias or religious affiliation) with the above descriptions. Knowing that simple fact makes it even more tragic that religious dogma and specific belief structures of mainstream research ignore or dismiss these critical details.
Graham Hancock takes it a step further and not only examines many kinds of experiences that are the result of consciously altered states of consciousness, but from those of those who have been unwitting participants in clinically inexplicable experiences such as alien abductions. He, too, focuses on the similarities rather than the differences and comes to the same conclusion that Clottes and many other well-respected researchers are now beginning to arrive at: There’s something more to all of these experiences than meets the eye and regardless of cultural differences, the overall experience across time produces a strikingly universal experience.
The Image Experiments
There were two informal investigations I conducted out of a sincere desire to test my theories. The first experiment took place in the Amazon jungle close to Iquitos, Peru. We had a small group of six friends who agreed in advance to take part in this informal experiment. Upon cursory interviews, 2 of us were familiar with Upper Paleolithic cave art, and 4 of us weren’t.
I lined the walls of the room we were to have our Ayahuasca ceremony with large sheets of tan paper. We then armed everyone with paints of deep reds and blacks and brushes. Our only light was the flickering light of candles provided by the Curanderos. We didn’t do the ceremony in a cave, and this was far from a representational setting, but I felt it could be useful regardless. Without any coaching or planting preconceptions into anyone’s brain other than encouragement to draw on the walls if any participant felt moved to do so, the ceremony began. The results were nothing less than stunning.
[ !!! RESULTS OF CAVE EXPERIMENT HERE !!! ]
I’ve also gathered a number of images of Upper Paleolithic cave paintings and have taken them with me on my travels to meet and/or interview American Indian, Mexican, Mayan, and Peruvian shaman. I brought them with me to a yearly shaman conference organized by Alan Shoemaker in Iquitos, Peru. The largest concentration of spiritual explorers who had worked with entheogens that I had ever been in the same place with, and I couldn’t pass the opportunity up.
I showed my images to anyone who had personal experience with Ayahuasca, and simply asked each person to tell me the first thoughts that came to mind when seeing each image. Many people felt they were familiar, many simply said that they looked like “drawings from ancient humans,” but more than a few instantly recognized and identified with the imagery from personal experience.
In fact, although these images weren’t personally experienced by the shaman, the images themselves were instantly recognizable features of the spirit world to all of the Curanderos. But perhaps most interesting of all, is when I shared some of the geometric patterns from the cave walls with one particular Curandero; I was shown a personal sketchbook with the below image. The cave art is on the left, and his is on the right below:
[ !!! IMAGE GOES HERE !!! ]
This is only one example, but the similarity is remarkable. They are just lines, but when the probabilities of having such similar lines occur purely by chance is astronomical, only if one chooses not to take into the account the similarity of vision, despite cultural backgrounds, that trance states induce.
“Philosophers of science have pointed out time and time again, that explanations (or hypothesis) do not emerge inexorably and naturally out of data. Human insight is what discerns explanations.” – David Lewis-Williams, The Mind of the Cave
Many critics claim that my research is lacking in any “recognized” methodology, so any conclusions I might draw are invalid. But, I could easily accuse the same of them for one simple reason: As of this writing, I’ve been unable to find a single scholar, historian, researcher or archaeologist (who has spoken against the idea that an intrinsic feature of shamanism is an entheogen-induced altered state of consciousness) who has personally engaged in a teaching plant ceremony themselves. Despite my fear, I have leapt into the unknown to study shamanism and its visionary states for that first-hand experiential knowledge. By then standing on the shoulders of the giants who have made it their life to explore the unbiased truth behind early humanity’s connection to the spirit world via entheogens, I draw my conclusions.
As I said earlier: No one would trust anyone who has never driven a car before to drive them anywhere, yet we routinely allow researchers who have never driven a car to dictate what they claim is the true nature of shamanism. Worse than that, we often then accept their word as fact. Because of this, I continually plead with readers to empower themselves, to seek the truth for themselves, to work to escape their indoctrination, to look at the statistics with an unbiased mind, to truly understand what we have lost, including the right to seek our own spirituality by simply walking the paths of our ancestors.
It couldn’t be more obvious that we are a spiritually starved, yet the very tools that our ancestors relied on to commune with our own spirituality have been outlawed. Furthermore, many in the academic world have self-elevated themselves to an elitist club that practices radical exclusion at a level unparalleled in history. Some of the greatest thinkers of history (including the Greco-Roman world) have used entheogens to teach, to inspire, to construct the foundations of our society, yet this fact has been wiped from the history books, especially by the scholars who have written the books we’ve taken as the unquestioned truth.
I actually have yet to meet someone who has been part of a shamanic ceremony to not be changed in ways they never imagined. I have never met someone who has taken part in a shamanic ceremony who hasn’t come out of it more awake and connected to their own spirituality. Yet why is it so threatening to even consider the possibility that shamanism may be largely responsible for a revolution in our evolution? An immense amount of anecdotal evidence shows that participating in a shamanic ceremony has the power to shake one to their very core, often altering one’s perspective on what it means to be human, yet society is terrified of this. Unlike what the media and the establishment would like us to think, entheogens do not make one leap off of tall buildings nor do they induce psychosis. Shamanism and entheogens were a revered and powerful part of the very fabric of society reaching deep into the caves of the Upper Paleolithic.
If you’ve made it this far, I ask to think logically for just a minute more. Ask yourself why plants such as Salvia divinorum, Peyote, Ayahuasca, and many others that have been used safely since the earliest human existence are so vehemently outlawed when there virtually no recorded deaths from any one of them. Why are the plants that open our minds to the independent thought, that offer the possibility of direct contact with the Divine, that may possess the power to reveal our true nature to us, that have recently offered hope to rape victims and those suffering from severe depression, been outlawed to the extremes they have been? Why are the drugs that literally kill hundreds of thousands of people every year (such as alcohol and prescription medication) not only legalized, but protected under the law? There has never been a truer example of the punishment not fitting the crime as there is with sacred entheogens. The penalties for possessing a single ounce of Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms are more severe than they are for rape, murder, and child molestation! Yet no one seems to notice, and the choruses only grow louder, using that fact as evidence of how dangerous shamanism and the entheogens of their rituals are. The only logical answer to such irrational overreaction in relation to entheogens is sheer, utter fear of the truth being revealed.
But why do we fear finding out who we truly are and who we were before we entered these frames? What is it within our genetic coding that has not only denied Mother Nature but has re-written history to fit with the oppressive religious paradigm that far more than the majority of the world exists in? It only takes the mere mention of “illicit drugs” (which entheogens have been unfairly grouped with) to elicit others to claim the whole of my research invalid because of it? The fact that the Catholic Church was the loudest and most violent voice in history doesn’t quite seem enough to explain the demonization of shamanism. Perhaps handing the power over to an outside force prevents us from having to take responsibility for our own spirituality and our own lives.
Yet more and more are seeking out their own truths and escaping the indoctrination that blinds one to their own true power. And I will continue to speak out, educate, inform, and share all that I have come to know in the hopes that another drop in the bucket will be added to the counter-chorus of voices looking to reconnect with all we have lost, including our connection to our past, to this planet, and each other.
Maybe not ALL the drawings of the Upper Paleolithic were the result of altered states of consciousness, but there’s no denying that at least SOME of them were. Maybe not all human evolution was the result of or triggered by altered states of consciousness, but there’s no question that at least SOME of it was. Maybe not every historical figure in history consumed entheogens, but there’s no question that SOME of the greatest thinkers history (like Francis Crick who discovered DNA while under the influence of entheogens and who won a Nobel Prize as a result) have. Knowing that, couldn’t we use those facts as the common ground from which we can start our debate? Perchance to dream.
NOTE: Please be respectful of the immense effort and research that goes into writing my articles. Do not re-print or re-post any of my work without receiving explicit and express permission from me first. Feel free to link to my articles whenever you wish, and I am always available for interviews or comments.