Shamanism: Spirituality’s True Roots?

Introduction

Sophisticated transformational art suddenly and inexplicably appeared in caves of south-west Europe and Southern Africa somewhere between 50,000 – 25,000 years ago, marking a dramatic shift in human consciousness.  Some of the famous European caves include Chauvet, Lascaux, Pech Merle, and Altamira, and in South Africa, a cave called Game Pass Shelter is just one of over 500,000 such sites.  Most who are familiar with the paintings in these caves know that they contain typical drawings of Prehistoric mammals.  But, a critical detail that’s largely unmentioned is this: many otherworldly beings also appear, as do geometrical patterns that match perfectly with what is often reported in visionary states under the influence of entheogens.

And this only the beginning.

The significance of sophisticated drawings suddenly appearing in the Upper Paleolithic cannot be overstated.  Not only were the drawings fully realized and masterfully drawn, the subject matter wasn’t what anyone might expect from such early drawings.  These drawings were purposeful, not random scribbling, and this fact alone increases the importance of their meaning; they offer a rare chance to peer into the inner workings of the Paleolithic mind.

David S. Whitley in “Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit” suggests that one of the functions of rock and cave image-making were likely to record the images elicited in shamanic states of consciousness.  One of the most prominent researchers in the field; David Lewis-Williams, found that (unlike previous interpretations) many of the cave paintings were visual records of the rituals, hallucinations, and out-of-body experiences of Bushman shamans while in altered states of consciousness.  Eminent French Archaeologist and pre-historian Jean Clottes believes, “Deep caves have a double role, the aspects of which were indissolubly linked: to make hallucinations easier and to get in touch with the spirits through the walls.”

And they are just a few of a growing chorus of researchers, scholars, and luminaries who are redefining what we imagine our own history to be.  As David C.A. Hillman says, “Ancient history, as an ageless discipline, is often based heavily on the cultural assumptions of the generation in which it is written.  For example: The Greeks thought the Persians were strange because they wore pants.  What you read about today, in published form, is what a small minority of your contemporaries have decided is important…based on their own unique cultural biases.”

The ancient peoples of South Africa presently possess the longest unbroken trail to humanity’s origins, and remarkably, can be directly linked to the earliest forays into art and religion via their cave painting.  It’s important to note that in order to create art, a fully formed consciousness must exist in advance, making this timeline and sudden appearance of art even more stunning.  Fully anatomically modern humans existed as far back as 200,000 years ago, but it wasn’t until this sudden leap within a relatively small archaeological span of time being made throughout every known civilization, that a great leap forward in human evolution occurred as well.

Entheogens as Footnotes Only?

Many have been led to believe that entheogens (frustratingly referred to as hallucinogens) are nothing more than a random anomaly or passing footnote in our human history.  The truth is that the evidence in relation to methods of inducing altered states of consciousness through the use of entheogens in archaeological records has been widely ignored or consciously destroyed.  It hasn’t been until recently and through the work of open-minded scientists and archaeologists that the true nature of Shamanism and the tools used by Shamans has been honestly explored.  This offers a unique opportunity to discover the true interpretation of the historical record in relation to shamanism throughout history for the first time.

Although there may be a number of methods used by Shaman to enter altered states of consciousness, they’re simply different pathways to the same spirit world.  Then, once the superficial differences are removed (such as the expected cultural bias and familiarity that gets injected into the visions and experience of individual shamans throughout history and the world), the altered states of consciousness consist of remarkably similar places, visions, and spirits.

The underlying significance and meaning reported from these altered states reflect the same core concepts from earliest cave paintings; to the early shamans of Mesoamerica; to modern spiritual explorers such as myself and countless others.  In fact, many opponents are forced to focus on the superficial aspects of these visions in order to discount the validity of these visions.  But not only are they throwing the baby out with the bathwater, they are short circuiting the possibility of any research that might offer information to the contrary.  Given the present barbaric laws in relation to the personal exploration of altered states of consciousness through the use of plant teachers, I have a difficult time believing that this isn’t intentional.

And, despite popular belief, the use of entheogens was far more of a footnote in the world of Shamans.  If plant teachers and other tools were available to Shamans, the historical records show that they used them.  In fact, I religion itself was most-likely a direct result of visions gained in Shamanic trance states, including, and perhaps dependent upon, the visions induced when using entheogens.

Until the Christians Came Along

We can start at the beginning, with the San people of South Africa; they were among the first cave painters.  They were also a people who many researchers have held up as examples of how Shamanism didn’t use or rely on plants that induce altered states of consciousness.  Modern historical records typically show little evidence that the San Bushmen used hallucinogens to enter the Shamanic trance state, and this general belief has not only spread into a generally-accepted belief that no ancient tribes used hallucinogens as a key method of entering altered states, it’s often used to dismiss the importance of entheogens to Shamanism, its methods, visions, and trance states.

The San Bushmen shaman entered altered states of consciousness through vigorous all-night ritual dancing and hyperventilation. Profuse sweating brought about dehydration and nasal bleeding that ultimately culminated in physical collapse and hallucinations.  These trances and the imagery brought back from them, are the true reason that many, if not most, of these cave paintings were created.  Despite the evidence, one is hard-pressed to find a researcher or archaeologist who would agree with this assertion, as they reach for alternative explanations.

But a larger point remains:  Regardless of the method of induction, the trances, hallucinations, visions, ecstatic states, and the perceived connection to and contact with these spiritual or supernatural realms is the earliest evidence of religion, and perhaps the basis of any spiritual and religious system that has come since.  In other words, Shamanism isn’t an easily dismissed ancient system that’s nothing more than a historical curiosity (as it’s far too often is treated); Shamanism was the earliest form of religion, distinctly separate from Totemism, and borne from visions experienced by humans who possessed virtually identical neurological structures as we do.

What a vast resource for research for peering into our past this truly is; modern humans universally possess the power to tap into the same visions that our human ancestors were able to tap into.  These are the same ancestors who built their societies based on the visions of the shaman experienced in their altered states of consciousness.  These same shaman were held in such high esteem that many of them became kings when political systems evolved.  It is not unreasonable to then believe that shamanic visions are at the root of transforming our mutual consciousness into what it is today.

How and why this is so categorically discarded or ignored, why so many are so universally programmed against hallucinogens and entheogens is the main thrust of my ongoing research.   Shamanism in all its forms is an easily verifiable and common feature of our pre-history.  It undeniably played a key role in shaping our early consciousness, our ideas of spirituality, and who we are as humans.  Even in Greece, luminaries like Aristotle, Plato, Homer, and Sophocles reportedly engaged in religious ceremonies of the Eleusinian Mysteries that involved the hallucinogenic Psilocybe mushroom.   But we never hear about that key aspect of their lives and world.

Not surprisingly, once Christianity started to become the dominant religious system on this planet, shamanistic cultures were systematically destroyed or converted, forcing shamanism underground (perhaps not unlike the Gnostics in the early days of Christianity), and eventually into the courts and the black market.  Perhaps this is why, on a grand scale, most researchers have discarded the very idea and validity of Shamanism to an extent that boggles the mind.

Speaking of, I’m not quiet in my disdain for the illogical dogma of the Catholic Church and its worldwide domination through the most repressive, destructive, violent, and “whatever means necessary” approach to converting as many as possible to their belief system.  They’ve often unabashedly accomplished this aim at the expense of destroying entire “primitive” cultures.  But the fact that their tentacles have reached so deeply into humankind that some of the most prominent and scholarly voices of our time unquestioningly reject the very roots of our own humanity as a result due to their early indoctrination is what I find most reprehensible.

I’m not a leading researcher on ancient archaeology but I possess something that most mainstream researchers don’t; personal experience with the very entheogens they deny or dismiss.  By standing on the shoulders of giants in the field, coupled with an unbiased and clear vision into the archaeological record, it gives me a unique and perhaps far more truthful perspective from which to base my conclusions upon.

In fact, as Graham Hancock proposes in “Supernatural”, when he states, “It is therefore an embarrassment that none of the experts currently advocating it [the use of hallucinogens as an integral feature of entering a shamanic trance state] have ever actually consumed any psychoactive plants themselves; nor do they have any first-hand idea f what an ‘altered state of consciousness is’, or any desire to experience one.  To give fair consideration to their arguments, and to the views of their critics, I felt I needed to be able to judge on the basis of personal experience whether plant-induced visions could be made of strong enough stuff to have convinced early humans of the existence of supernatural realms and the survival after death of some essence of deceased ancestors.”

Why there is such deep emotional responses to the possibility that entheogens could be responsible for the evolution of consciousness is what puzzles me the most.  One overriding thought is this, though:   As of this writing, over 60% of American Christians are opposed to the idea that humans slowly evolved over millions of years.  Perhaps, then, it could be equally as threatening to their belief system if their own religion, at its roots, was the result of visions of shaman of 25,000 years ago who hopped up on hallucinogens or delirious from hours of dancing around a fire.

Further Evidence from the Bushmen

Speaking of, in what perhaps is one of the most important and broadly overlooked discoveries in the recent past,  defying the contention that entheogens were not a feature of Shamanism in early South African peoples, is the work of archaeologist Dr. John Cavallo.  He has found virtually incontrovertible evidence of the use of entheogens of ancient pre-historical tribes in South Africa, from cave paintings, archaeological remains, and numerous interviews with descendents of our earliest human ancestors still living in South Africa.

Cavallo made an astounding discovery while examining three Tanzanian rock paintings and another from southern Africa; a find that conflicts dramatically with all of the written documents concerning this ritual.  Although the four paintings had been previously studied, described, and published by a number of prominent rock art experts, Cavallo is the first to have recognized indisputable images of mushrooms and mushroom-headed human figures in them.  Comparing images found within cave art with photographs of numerous African mushrooms, he concluded that they most closely resemble the hallucinogenic genus known as Psilocybe””popularly referred to as “magic mushrooms.”

kondoa-tanzania-psilocybe

He even goes so far as offering a source for the plants that African Shaman used to help induce these trances: “The vast open grasslands of the Serengeti, with its multitudes of herbivores, provide a limitless supply of animal dung that served as miniature organic-rich islands on which grew in abundance the tiny Psilocybe cubensis mushroom species.”  In fact, Psilocybe mushrooms still grow on the Serengeti; a fact that is easily verifiable by speaking with locals or taking a trip to the Serengeti itself at the right time of year.

Clinical studies show that when Psilocybin mushrooms are ingested, they produce altered states of consciousness that include intense visual, physical, and audio hallucinations that are precisely the same effects that Bushman shamans report experiencing during altered states induced by sustained ritual dancing.  The key difference is not in the end result, but only in the method used to get the end result.  As Cavallo says, “They take effect in mere minutes as opposed to many hours of grueling physical activity, thus offering a speedy and painless gateway to the spirit realm.”

In a similar vein, David Lewis-Williams, in “Images of Power: Understanding Bushman Rock Art” discusses how LSD and the ecstatic state of San Shaman are similar, “The state of consciousness induced by this drug does not differ materially from the effects of a wide range of drugs or from the states induced by sensory deprivation, pain, rhythmic movement or sound, intense concentration, hyperventilation”¦”

During his study, Cavallo encountered accounts of !Kung Bushmen that referred to unique abilities of “the most experienced” or “the greatest shamans.”  One reference he came across was particularly telling and unambiguous:  It was reference to how “mature and experienced healers [shamans] can avoid bodily collapse, rigidity, trembling, and moaning”¦” normally associated with entering trance.  This shrouded-in-mystery method was through the ingestion of the Psilocybe mushroom of South Africa.

For them, Psilocybe mushrooms offered an edible alternative that, when ingested, allowed them to quickly and effortlessly enter altered states. Elderly shamans whose advanced age and diminishing physical capabilities no longer permitted them to participate in such prolonged, strenuous activity could have arrived at the same result as the younger shaman. There’s good reason to believe that their secret would have been passed from generation to generation of shaman once they reached an advanced age, but still needed to be strong for the communities who looked to them as leaders.

The power that shaman held in early societies is clear, and it’s no surprise that shamans would be extraordinarily interested in keeping that power.  Not only did Psilocybe mushrooms provide them a vehicle into the spirit realm, it also afforded them the ability to keep this power until their death.

Intentional Destruction of Shamanism

As much as it has been buried, denied, and outright purged from historical records, a picture is emerging that proves the critical role entheogens have played in forming the basis for most, if not all, religious systems today.  We’ve got more than ample evidence that the earliest cave paintings from our earliest ancestors were the result of shamanic visions, many of which were likely induced by entheogens.  We’ve got the Aztecs who revered the Psilocybe mushroom so much that it was a sacred sacrament called “teonanacatl” which translates into “God’s flesh), and we’ve got this kind of iconography repeated throughout countless cultures across the world.

All the peoples of Mesoamerica evolved highly sophisticated cultures that continue to be revered for their advanced knowledge of astrology and physics, as well as their advanced writing and mathematical systems.  Why then, would their religious systems and their Shamanic traditions not be as equally revered?  Oh yeah, it’s because in the sixteenth century, the massacres of ancient cultures by the Christians was so dramatic that in history, the time before them is referred to as “Pre-Columbian” times.

What this really means is the time before Spanish conquerors and Catholic Missionaries arrived, forever changing history by obliterating it, denying it, putting it on trial, killing it, burning it, all in the name of their God of the Bible.  Campaigns against “pagan idolatry” reached far deeper than the “Inquisition” or the “Crusades” that most are at least familiar with in passing.  Planned destruction and suppression of history occurred repeatedly and on a grand scale, as Christianity subjugated native historical traditions, rites, practices, as well as countless ancient texts and the artifacts of ancient cultures, including countless “mushroom men” like the ones below.

mushroom-stones

Remember MOST archaeological research has been carried out in a POST-Columbian world, complete with all the same biases that plagued the early records of ancient cultures by outsiders.  Ironically, though, a Spanish Franciscan missionary to the Aztec people of Mexico named Bernardino de Sahagún (1499 -1590), gained many informants who freely spoke of the inner workings of Aztec culture.  In one famous passage, he says:

“At the very first, mushrooms had been served. They ate them at the time when, they said, the shell trumpets were blown. They ate no more food; they only drank chocolate during the night. And they ate the mushrooms with honey. When the mushrooms took effect on them, then they danced, then they wept. But some, while, still in command of their senses, entered [and] sat there by the house on their seats; they danced no more, but only sat there nodding.”

But, despite the conscious efforts of the dominant governments and religions of the world to universally stamp out shamanism, entheogens, and how intrinsic they were to our mutual evolution on this planet, they survive.  And they are not only surviving, there is a revival, and a mass re-raising of consciousness on a global scale, partly in thanks to the advent of the internet.  More and more respected and well-studied researchers are gaining louder voices and larger audiences because the truth can only be suppressed for so long.

Our Present Paradigm

What often intrigues me most is this: Throughout thousands of years of human existence across multiple cultures throughout the world, the Shamanic experience and the similarity between these experiences have not been successfully explained away satisfactorily by science, religion, or any other paradigm.  As Graham Hancock states in “Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind”:

“It is remarkable that this phenomenon has been so long-lived and that it has maintained its integrity and hidden consistency across the transformation that we have documented from spirits through fairies into aliens.  It would be truly extraordinary, however, if it were found to have been at work not only in bizarre abductions and initiations, operations and implants, hybridization programs, and interspecies love affairs, but in the dawn of art and religion – perhaps the very innovations that made us fully human and set us on our present evolutionary path.”

As much as so many have tried to reduce the importance of hallucinations or shamanic experiences, there is still an underlying commonality to the experience that has survived since the very first, fully realized drawings of the Upper Paleolithic caves.  I dream of the day when these experiences will no longer be discarded, dismissed, or outright ignored, especially by researchers who have no personal experience of these states of consciousness themselves.

It truly is up to every one of us to do the research, to not allow the conquerors to dictate our history from the narrow and biased perspective it’s typically been offered to us.  We can read the books, visit the sites, engage in the discussions that empower us all to see our true history, to find the true roots of who we are in relation to planet Earth, and to reclaim our own mutual history.

My journey began with a simple desire to find the  roots of my own religion, and it has since led me to places I never knew existed.  Perhaps most important of all those discoveries was my discovery of entheogens and the further relationship I developed with my personal plant ally; Salvia divinorum.  Its visions I experienced while working with that sacred plant that led me to the place I find myself today.

And yet I know I stand only at the beginning:  The research I’ve amassed, the photos I’ve taken, the interviews I’ve conducted, the journals I’ve kept, and so much more, will take me years to articulate, sift through, unravel, explore, and if all goes well”¦share.  I simply hope to add to the ripple effect in my small way, by sharing the luminaries who have inspired me, by continuing to scour the planet for the absolute best ethnobotanicals and entheogens, as well as documenting as much of my experience on Entheology.org and here as I can.

Keith Cleversley

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.

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6 Comments

  • Gary
    July 15, 2010 at 7:10 am 

    Keith, first may I say that I have greatly enjoyed reading your articles. Thank you!

    I have been mulling over some of your thinking on the Catholic Church and it’s bloody history of opposition to shamanism and thought I might add my 2 cent opinion. I agree that Catholicism has caused an enormous amount of harm and has a lot to answer for, but when I try to see who exactly I should be blaming I start running into problems. While it makes sense blaming people like Diego de Landa, Diego doesn’t really care much. He is dead, and the Catholic Church has moved on. Then I start thinking about who the Catholic Church are now and I realize that, for me Catholicism is entirely irrelevant. I could spend a great deal of my life trying to establish exactly who is to blame for which recent amendments to the Catholic dogma and who is responsible for the retention of existing dogma, but each minute spent on that ultimately fruitless quest is a minute that I don’t spend entering the forest alone (at a place where there is no path).

    I also wanted to raise the point that shamanism has it’s factions, and it’s part in wars and exterminations too, at least in the Southern African context. A couple of years back I spent around 10 days at a San village in Botswana with three friends. Visiting the village at that time was a San shaman of considerable local repute. We spent a couple of very interesting days with our backs resting against walls made of dung and mud and our feet in the fine white sand just shooting the breeze. He invited everyone back to his home, but asked me apologetically and somewhat sadly not to come because I had a friend who was a shaman of the Swazi tradition.

    Also, noticing your interest in music I thought you might be interested in hearing one of his spiritual songs: http://spinspanner.com/wp-content/uploads/tumi04.mp3. It’s a terrible recording with no real digital processing, but I make no apologies as recording is not something I’m good at.

  • keith
    July 28, 2010 at 1:18 pm 

    Gary,

    And thank you for such a thought-provoking response…time with the San; that’s a rare gift.

    I agree that it’s difficult to know who to blame, and I think progress can only happen when we can move past blame to seek a solution. Unfortunately, people like Diego de Landa are far from an isolated incident in the Roman Catholic Church, and it’s the larger pattern that he’s an intimate part of that disturbs me so deeply. It’s only one example of countless that has worldwide repercussions that resonate throughout the planet even today.

    More than a few highly-developed civilizations were wiped off the planet on the name of the Christian God, and it’s deeply disturbing to me that the Mayans who exist today have only the dimmest and patchiest knowledge of their own history. I couldn’t imagine being in that kind of position, where, on top of my history being stolen form my culture, but to have my culture demonized by the most powerful killing force in history (Catholic Church) is a crime I cannot fathom the true levity of.

    You are also not the first to point out that shamanism has its factions, and has had a part in wars and exterminations as well. But, my answer remains the same: Although I don’t condone killing of any kind, I do think that scale does come into play here.

    I feel that comparing things like the “bad blood” between different tribes to the atrocities of the Catholic Church is a little like comparing a babbling brook to a raging river. The scale of destruction and deceit as well as the sheer number of atrocities is at a level unmatched in the Catholic Church by any other culture in the whole of history, perhaps even combined. This does not mean that any act of evil can be dismissed because it’s on a smaller scale, I’m just pointing out that the scale of atrocities committed must count for something, and at minimum, the comparison could never be used as justification of the atrocities.

    Also, by focusing on the deficiencies of a vastly unacknowledged cornerstone to our mutual human history instead of raising the awareness of the true role that shamanism has played in shaping our mutual human evolution is counterproductive to all of us. I’ve been guilty of that myself. It provides us all with an easy avenue of dismissal; something that Catholic Church are masters of, but we need to remember to not lose focus of cultures as a whole and the contributions they’ve made to our mutual human history. Shamanism is a beacon for positive contribution, and I know that as time passes, the light of Shamanism will continue to glow more and more brightly as people look to reconnect with the past, with simpler times, and seek to understand who we were before we became so disconnected with the planet that gives us all life.

    I really enjoyed the music; I’ve left your link up for others to enjoy as well! I’d also like to know how to get more.

    All the best to you; I look forward to more discussions with you.

    – Keith

  • Allan T Dinegar
    August 27, 2013 at 11:54 pm 

    Bravo Keith! you make an argument for how the truth has struggled to show itself, and how it was attacked by those that were representatives of a dead religion, Catholicism. When I say dead, I mean empty of the truth. This truth, and expression of our creator that was, and can be accessed by the use of the hallucinogens. I feel that the Shamans were privy to a world that even most of their tribe would be ignorant of. They were inspired by exploring altered states, that one, anyone can experience if they choose to.

    You Keith are a Shaman. I am a Shaman as I have seen all that the psychedelics have to offer, truth is all its glory-what some call God. As a result of the vision that was granted to you in your search for the truth. You now are able to articulate, what seems to me, to be a very sound view of what has happened throughout the history of man. This other worldly message, that the shamans gave birth to, became the beginning of religion.

    The word “religion” in Latin means, “linking back.” A linking back to the source. The source being, for me anyway, God, but not the god of The Old Testament, but a God that has been deliberately eradicated by those that are in power, for which the truth is their mortal enemy! Unfortunately, they have held the places of power for the last 2000 years.
    To those that have never explored the psychedelics, they see things differently than those that are privy to the esoteric knowledge that psychedelics can offer. I believe that those who were, and are in power, look at the psychedelics as a potential threat to their world that is built on lies. Terrance McKenna said that the psychedelics are a “dissolver of boundaries.” These are the boundaries that keep the masses imprisoned. A powerful aspect of keeping the masses ignorant, is the kind of “religion” that we know today. Religion that has lost touch with the true source of truth. Keith, that’s where you come in, and me in my own way. You are spreading the truth in your writing. sing it from the mountain tops brother! Bravo!

  • Keith Cleversley
    March 9, 2015 at 2:29 pm 

    Allan,

    You’ve got so much to say that I find so valuable, so I want to give you a link back to your website. I tried to find “Godskingdomwithin”, but so many results come up and I wasn’t sure which one might be you. I’d love to post a path to you here, so feel free to add a comment with information to get to your work.

    Sincerely,
    Keith

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