The following article first appeared in the October 2005 issue of the Watkins Review.
My intention at the outset was to write a book exploring the mystery of human origins. There are many gaps in the fossil record between about 7 million years ago (the date of our supposed last common ancestor with chimpanzees) and the emergence of the first civilisations recognised by historians around 5000 years ago. My thought was that if I probed these gaps diligently enough something might emerge – some insight, some scrap of previously neglected information – that might shed light on the great puzzles of the human predicament. Why, alone amongst animal species, have we developed culture and religion, beliefs in life after death, beliefs in non-physical beings such as spirits, demons and angels, elaborate mythologies, the ability to create and to appreciate art, the ability to use and manipulate symbols, consciousness of ourselves and of our place in the scheme of things? Did these abstract, even “spiritual”, qualities develop slowly, over millions of years, or were they switched on suddenly, like lights in a darkened room?
To cut a long story short, what I discovered is that during most of the first 7 million years of human evolution there is no evidence at all for the existence of symbolic abilities amongst our ancestors. No matter how intensively we probe what is known about the fossil record, or speculate about what is not yet known about it, all that we see evidence for throughout this period is a dull and stultifying copying and recopying of essentially the same patterns of behaviour and essentially the same “kits” of crude stone tools, without change or innovation, for periods of hundreds of thousands, even millions of years. When a change is introduced (in tool shape for example) it then sets a new standard to be copied and recopied without innovation for a further immense period until the next change is finally adopted. In the process, glacially slow, we also see the gradual development of human anatomy in the direction of the modern form: the brain-pan enlarges, brow ridges reduce in size, overall anatomy becomes more gracile – and so on and so forth.
By 196,000 years ago, and on some accounts considerably earlier, humans had achieved “full anatomical modernity”. This means that they were in every way physically indistinguishable from the people of today and, crucially, that they possessed the same large, complex brains as we do. The most striking mystery, however, is that their behaviour continued to lag behind their acquisition of modern neurology and appearance. They showed no sign of possessing a culture, or supernatural beliefs, or self-consciousness, or any interest in symbols. Indeed there was nothing about them that we could instantly identify with “us”. Dr Frank Brown, whose discovery of 196,000-year-old anatomically-modern human skeletons in Ethiopia was published in Nature on 17 February 2005, points out that they are 35,000 years older than the previous “oldest” modern human remains known to archaeologists:
“This is significant because the cultural aspects of humanity in most cases appear much later in the record, which would mean 150,000 years of Homo sapiens without cultural stuff…”
Brown’s colleague, John Fleagle of Stony Brook University in New York State, also comments on the same problem:
“There is a huge debate regarding the first appearance of modern aspects of behaviour… As modern human anatomy is documented at earlier and earlier sites, it becomes evident that there was a great time gap between the appearance of the modern skeleton and ‘modern behaviour’.”
For Ian Tattershall of the American Museum of Natural History the problem posed by this gap – and what happened to our ancestors during it – is “the question of questions in palaeoanthropology”. His colleague Professor David Lewis-Williams of the Rock Art Research Institute at South Africa’s Witwatersrand University describes the same problem as “the greatest riddle of archaeology – how we became human and in the process began to make art and to practice what we call religion.”
I quickly realized that this was the mystery, and the period, I wanted to investigate. Not that endless, unimaginative cultural desert from 7 million years ago down to just 40,000 years ago when our ancestors hobbled slowly through their long and boring apprenticeship, but the period of brilliant and burning symbolic light that followed soon afterwards when the first of the great cave art of southwest Europe appeared – already perfect and fully formed – between 35,000 and 30,000 years ago.
A most remarkable theory exists to explain the special characteristics of these amazing and haunting early works of art, and to explain why identical characteristics are also found in prehistoric art from many other parts of the world and in art produced by the shamans of surviving tribal cultures today. The theory was originally elaborated by Professor David Lewis-Williams, and is now supported by a majority of archaeologists and anthropologists. In brief, it proposes that the reason for the similarities linking all these different systems of art, produced by different, unrelated cultures at different and widely-separated periods of history, is that in every case the shaman-artists responsible for them had previously experienced altered states of consciousness in which they had seen vivid hallucinations, and in every case their endeavour in making the art was to memorialise on the walls of rock shelters and caves the ephemeral images that they had seen in their visions. According to this theory the different bodies of art have so many similarities because we all share the same neurology, and thus share many of the same experiences and visions in altered states of consciousness.
There are lots of ways of inducing the necessary altered state. The bushmen of South Africa get there through night-long rhythmic dancing and drumming, the Tukano Indians of the Amazon do it through consuming the hallucinogenic beverage Ayahuasca. In prehistoric Europe I present evidence that the requisite altered states may have been reached through the consumption of Psilocybe semilanceata – the popular little brown “magic mushroom” that is still used throughout the world to induce hallucinations today. In Central America the Maya and their prececessors used other psilocybe species (P.Mexicana and P. Cubensis) to induce the same effects.
I took LSD once in my twenties, at the Windsor Free Festival in 1974, and had a fantastic, exciting, energizing 12-hour trip in a parallel reality. When my normal, everyday consciousness returned – and it did so quite abruptly, like a door slamming – I felt grateful for such a wonderful experience but so much in awe of its power that I vowed never to do it again. Suppose things had gone the other way? Suppose instead of an exciting medieval Otherworld through which I had been allowed to travel like a knight-errant, I had been ushered into some hell-realm for 12 hours? How would I have handled that? Would I have handled it at all?
Now, in my 50’s I had to confront the psychic challenges of major hallucinogens again. In order to research my subject properly, and to know what I was talking about when I spoke of altered states of consciousness, I drank Ayahuasaca with shamans in the Amazon and self-experimented with DMT, psilocybin and the African visionary drug known as Iboga – “the plant that enables men to see the dead.”
The extraordinary experiences I went through convinced me that David Lewis-Williams is right and that visionary states of this sort, brought on by the accidental discovery of plant hallucinogens, did indeed provide the inspiration for ancient cave and rock art traditions all around the world. Lewis-Williams is also right to insist that it is to the proper examination of such altered states of consciousness that we should turn if we wish to discover the source of the first religious ideas ever entertained by our ancestors.
It was precisely at this point, however, that I began to part company with Lewis-Williams and his theory. Whatever the cave artists saw in their trances, and no matter how devoutly they may have believed that what they were seeing was real, the South African professor is adamant that the entire inspiration for 25,000 years of Upper Palaeolithic cave paintings reduces to nothing more than the fevered illusions of disturbed brain-chemistry – i.e. to hallucinations. In his scientific universe there is simply no room, or need, for the supernatural, no space for any kind of Otherworld, and no possibility that intelligent non-physical entities could exist.
I found I couldn’t leave the matter there, with the inspiration for cave art and the birth of religion neatly accounted for by disturbed brain-chemistry, with the earliest spiritual insights of mankind rendered down to mere epiphenomena of strictly biological processes, with the sublime thus efficiently reduced to the ridiculous. To have established the role of hallucinations as the inspiration for cave art is one thing – and David Lewis-Williams, in my opinion, has successfully done that. But to understand what hallucinations really are, and what part they play in the overall spectrum of human experience and behaviour, is another thing altogether, and neither Lewis-Williams nor any other scientist can yet claim to possess such knowledge, or to be anywhere near acquiring it. Gifted and experienced shamans the world over really do know more – much more – than they do. So if we were smart we would listen to what the shamans have to say about the true character and complexity of reality insteadof basking mindlessly in the overweening one-dimensional arrogance of the Western technological mindset.
Because I had been shaken to the core by my experiences with Ayahuasca and Iboga I decided to take my investigation further and to explore the extraordinary possibility that science is unwilling even to consider and that David Lewis-Williams dismisses out of hand. This is the possibility that the Amazonian and African hallucinogens had obliged me to confront face-to-face and that shamans contend with on a daily basis – the possibility that the spirit world and its inhabitants are real, that supernatural powers and non-physical beings do exist, and that human consciousness may, under certain special circumstances, be liberated from the body and enabled to interact with and perhaps even learn from these “spirits”. In short, did our ancestors experience their great evolutionary leap forward of the last 40,000 years not just because of the beneficial social and organisational by-products of shamanism but because they were literally helped, taught, prompted and inspired by supernatural agents? Could the “supernaturals” first depicted in the painted caves and rock shelters – and still accessible to us today in altered states of consciousness – be the ancient teachers of mankind? Could it be they who first ushered us into the full birthright of our humanity? And could it be that human evolution is not just the “blind”, “meaningless” “natural” process that Darwin identified, but something else, more purposive and intelligent, that we have barely even begun to understand?
Why did Nobel Prize-winner Francis Crick keep concealed until his death the amazing circumstances under which he first “saw” the double-helix structure of DNA? And why did he become convinced that the DNA molecule did not evolve naturally upon this planet but was sent here in bacteria by an alien civilisation?
Why does the 97 per cent of DNA that scientists do not understand – so-called “junk DNA” – contain chemical “sequences” arranged in patterns and frequencies that are otherwise only found in the deep coding of all human languages?
Why do Western lab volunteers, placed experimentally under the influence of hallucinogens such as DMT, psilocybin, mescaline and LSD, report visionary encounters with non-physical “beings” in the form of animal-human hybrids identical to those described by Amazonian shamans and to those painted by our ancestors in the prehistoric caves?
What is the significance of the astonishing similarities between the entities known as “aliens”, ET’s” or “greys” in modern popular culture, the entities known as “fairies”, “elves” and “goblins” in the Middle Ages, and the entities that shamans in surviving tribal cultures know as “ghosts”, “gods” and “spirits”? Why are such figures also depicted in prehistoric art as far afield as Africa, Europe, the Americas and Australia?
Such questions, I know, sound preposterous and pointless to anyone committed to “objective” science and the Western logical positivist tradition. The more closely I pursued them, however, the more convinced I became that they point towards matters of extraordinary substance, and that science has done us an immense disfavour by its policy of ridiculing and discouraging all rational inquiry in this area.
Supernatural: Meetings With The Ancient Teachers of Mankind, by Graham Hancock, 720pp with 16 full-colour illustrations and 150 black-and-white line drawings. Published by Century, 6 October 2005, price £20.
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