paintings: entrancing the Otherworld
What possessed our ancestors
to paint inside the deepest reaches of caves? According to new research,
the answer is to be found in the shamanic visions, possibly identifying
the first creation of sacred space, for contact with the divine.
authors claim that it is a “fact” that “civilisation”
began ca. 6000 years in Sumer. The concept of the origins of Mankind
to 4004 BC, based on biblical dating and symbolised by Bishop Usher,
have been replaced with the notion that civilisation occurred pretty
much at the same time.
The never articulated question is what Mankind did in the preceding
30,000 years of its existence. Nothing? This is pretty much what some
people think… Fortunately, those people are wrong. Richard Rudgley’s
1999 book The Lost Civilisations of the Stone Age: A Journey Back to
Our Cultural Origins is a point in hand. Rudgley presented an overview
of scattered items of information, but the most underreported yet best
known aspect of that period is that 15,000 years ago, our ancestors
created the most stunning paintings, in the deepest caves.
in France and Altamira in Spain are but two examples of an ever growing
list of caves where explorers have chanced across stunning depictions
of life tens of thousands of years ago. It seems that each suitable
cave was used by our ancestors for this artwork.
important question to ask is why these depictions are discovered in
the deepest nooks of caves. What made our ancestors make these drawings
in these inaccessible places, where there was little chance of these
paintings serving any social function. The question as to why our ancestors
painted these drawings is furthermore riddled with preconceptions. In
1865, Sir Edward Tylor argued that there was a correspondence between
magic and prehistoric art. Other experts, such as Abbé Henri
Breuil, interpreted these as “hunting magic”, where the
depictions were made for their “magical power” over the
animal that would be killed. As a consequence, the animal would be killed
more easily. However, such thinking is highly illogical. For this logic
to work, it would mean that for every animal hunted, a painting would
be created. This seems highly improbable. Indeed, such an interpretation
was in the end too naïve: a later overview would reveal that only
15 percent of depictions were of animals that played any role whatsoever
in the hunt.
these paintings were created, the mammoth was still extant. Many
archaeologists proclaimed these paintings were hunting scenes,
but this conclusion is now no longer supported.
repeat the question: what is it that persuaded our ancestors to penetrate
the innermost darkness of a cave and paint? Amongst those who have tried
to answer this question is David Lewis-Williams, a South African scientist
who felt that the status quo on the subject matter was inadequate. For
some reasons, our ancestors were attracted to those darkest regions
of the Underworld, which was carefully explored and became a workshop
to express the earliest expressions of “art”. Still, it
was not art; it was religious art: the art had a purpose. The caves
became the cathedrals of the Stone Age, with the paintings depicting
the core of their religious beliefs.
theory as such was nothing new. In the first decades of the 20th century,
several researchers had catalogued the prehistoric caves, specifically
in France and Spain. Each researcher tried to build a theory that might
explain what he had discovered, but it seemed that each subsequent discovery
invalidated the previous theory. One such theory was that the series
of paintings found in the caves were part of a pattern, whereby certain
depictions were only found in certain parts of the cave system (e.g.
near the entrance or in the deepest reaches). However, this theory was
proven inadequate, resulting in the common “understanding”
that it was very difficult, if not impossible, to make sense of what
our ancestors had been doing… In short, it was felt that the art
work, however “brilliant” for our “primitive ancestors”
had been nothing more than random paintings in caves – without
any further logic.
Lewis-Williams thought differently. He felt that a pattern did exist.
He also felt that the paintings were a clear distinguishing factor between
our ancestors – modern man – and its “nephews”,
such as Neanderthal man. According to Lewis-Williams, Neanderthal man,
despite his close proximity, did not possess an “imagination”
in the sense that we do: we are the only being on this planet that is
able to create “art”: draw images of the mind – for
a purpose, whatever purpose that is. He also identified that what was
depicted were images of the mind: visions, i.e. what the mind observed
when it was in another “reality” – possibly another
aspect of our existence that distinguishes us from other creatures.
It is clear that our ancestors – or at least some of them –
must have experienced altered states of consciousness. It is equally
clear that this must have greatly intrigued them – as it continues
until the present day, even though our modern society has pushed it
into the criminal underworld, which is almost as dark as the inside
of the caves. But in prehistoric times, Lewis-Williams argues, those
visions would be the foundation for the creation of our religion, beginning
with the belief in an “Otherworld” beyond our normal, physical
senses. In this respect, the caves were indeed the first cathedral,
of mankind’s proto religion.
& spirit guides
shaman creating the paintings would use the natural contours of
the rock and “exteriorise” what his visions had allowed
him to see. In this example, the rock transformed into an animal’s
head, simply by drawing two eyes.
is a firm believer that the artwork of the caves are depictions of what
our ancestors witnessed in their visions: enigmatic lines, strange patterns,
followed by animals. They form a logical sequence of what anyone today
still sees in their own hallucinogenic experiences. Such patterns are
known from anthropological studies of shamanic cultures, who equally
often used hallucinogenic substances to enter the Otherworld.
He further argues that many paintings seem to “rise” out
of the rock. The paintings “transform” the natural shape
of the rock, in the same way that our observation would be transformed
under the influence of hallucinogenic substances. The act of painting
was therefore bringing the visions of the Otherworld into this reality:
creating the Otherworld here, in the deepest reaches of the Underworld.
of the animals depicted in the scenes were healthy. Many anthropologists
have identified that the shaman, in his voyage to the Otherworld is
either transformed in or aided by an animal, often totemic in nature.
This animal acts as his “spirit guide”, or his “power
animal”. Animals were often chosen for a particular quality, such
as the ability of flight for birds. By Egyptian times, the gods would
become identified with totemic animals, such as Thoth’s ibis,
or Sekhmet’s lion. Each of the depicted animals has specific qualities,
which would identify them for such an identification.
to another dimension
walls of the caves were a portal into another dimension. The Otherworld
was located behind, or inside, the rocks. Our cave painting ancestors
felt this, and our shamanic cultures, whether past or present, feel
the same. The figures painted on these walls had escaped that reality
– bridged the divide, like the shamans. These were the mediators
between our reality and our needs and the Otherworld, the home of the
gods who had been identified as responsible for the creation of this
world. The cave was therefore the first temple, where sacred space was
created to allow contact with the divine. It was in its innermost recesses,
in the belly of Mother Earth, that the Otherworld was closest –
and where the darkness of the cave created a silence and solitude everyday
reality did not offer.
from animal depictions, humans were also drawn. This being has
a drum, an instrument that is uniquely identified with the shaman.
with these cave paintings, we are staring at the birth of the physical
representation of a belief in “another world”, which would
evolve into a dedicated cult – and in the end organised religion.
It would lead to the building of the Egyptian pyramids, artificial tombs
trying to reflect natural caves, the Book of the Dead being the written
account of the shamanic visions experienced in the Otherworld. On the
Greek island of Crete, the prehistoric caves would be places where the
Greek gods were born and were buried, maintaining their focus of worship
from prehistoric into Minoan times.
In the end, Lewis-Williams’ observations are in line with the
work of Rudgley. He also argues that civilisation did not begin overnight,
but developed gradually along with the evolution of Mankind. The arrival
of Egypt or Sumer was not sudden. If anything, what has set Egypt and
Sumer apart is the legacy they have left for us to study. Slowly but
surely, the veil of their ancestors is being lifted and opened up for
study, which peels back our history to its earliest days…
article originally appeared in Frontier Magazine, No. 9.6, (November/December