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Early homo sapiens were taking psychedelics, more and more scientists believe. Just take a look at ancient cave paintings. 

Text Aron Friedman

It’s something you won’t read in many school books, but more and more scientists are agreeing: our ancestors were drug users. To be more precise, they used plant-based hallucinogens to reach a trance-like state and summon visions. Clues to this practice can be found all over the world in cave paintings, sometimes more than 40 thousand years old. Sometimes in the shape of geometric figures, other times in the form of shamanistic animal-humans. As a High Human, you can’t help but wonder: tripping in prehistory, how did that work? 
Cave paintings from prehistory, like the ones in Lascaux (France), Santa Barbara (US) and Yam Camp (Australia) speak to one’s imagination. The idea that people tried to express themselves tens of thousands of years ago in—sometimes overwhelmingly beautiful and detailed—paintings is remarkable in itself. Especially when you stop to think how most of these paintings can be found meters under the ground, where artists often had to crawl with only a torch to light them. It makes you wonder what inspired them to go through all this trouble, just to make art that could only be viewed properly tens of thousands of years later.

Archaeologists and anthropologists have been debating about this since the end of the 19th Century. By now, several theories exist about the purpose of these paintings: from simply depicting the natural environment to positively influencing the hunt. These theories may explain the countless images of animals, but not those of geometric symbols, of which a lot more have been found, proportionally. The theory of Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams seems more likely. They argue that the cave paintings were part of ancient shamanistic rituals. 

Mongolian shamans about to perform a ritual.

Shamanism

It’s hard to imagine in 2021—because almost everyone in the world is either Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist—but for the most part of human history, shamanism was the predominant form of religion. Shamanistic beliefs are based on the idea that there is a spiritual world apart from the physical world, inhabited by spirits of animals and plants. They also believe that the shaman or medicine man is the one who can make a connection between both worlds, for instance to heal people or to predict the future. This usually happens in a state of consciousness called deep trance.

Plant medicines like ayahuasca are called ‘teacher plants,’ because shamanism believes they offer useful insights in life

You can reach a trance-like state by not eating for days on end or by dancing and drumming long enough until you start hallucinating, but the contemporary psychonaut knows just as well as the shaman: the most effective way of reaching a trance is by taking hallucinogenic drugs. Plenty of plant medicines are still being used by tribes and neo-hippies for shamanistic purposes, like ayahuasca, psilocybin, peyote, San Pedro and tobacco (!). These plants are also called ‘teacher plants,’ because they offer useful insights in life.

Cave painting with geometric patterns in Santa Barbara (about 2000 years old).

States of Consciousness

In their groundbreaking book The Shamans of Prehistory – Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves, Clottes and Lewis-Williams places the different states of consciousness in a continuum. On one side of the continuum there is alert consciousness. In this state, you’re completely aware of everything happening around you. A bit further along the continuum, is daydreaming, a state in which you’re not entirely paying attention to your surroundings anymore, but also aren’t completely spaced out. All the way on the other side of the continuum is deep trance, a state in which you’re hallucinating—according to shamanism, a state in which you receive valuable information from the spiritual world.

Before you enter deep trance, you have to pass through three stages. Everyone who has taken a chunky portion of DMT or magic mushrooms, will recognize these stages. They’re consistent with the course of an average trip. In the first stage, you will see geometric patterns like dots, lines or fractals. This can happen when you close your eyes, but also when you look at walls or at the air. In the second stage, you will start to perceive (sometimes religiously tainted) objects and signs. And in the third stage, you are sucked through a tunnel, on the other end of which lies a world with spirit animals, monsters and people—often acquaintances, sometimes mourned people who seem to have come back to life. 

The three stages of trance are a recurring theme in the cave paintings

When you look at the cave paintings of various cultures, Clottes and Lewis-Williams argue, you can see those three stages of trance as a recurring theme (check out the image above). The paintings are probably hidden so deep underground, because as an early human, this was the best place to reach a state of trance without being disturbed. It’s also reminiscent of the custom of vision quests, a rite of passage in some North-American tribes, where boys wander off into the wilderness to receive visions and insights. In some caves, like the one in Rouffignac (South of France) traces have been found of musical rites, where stalactites were broken off for drumming on the walls and producing sounds that would resonate all throughout the cave systems. Raving in the Stone Age, can you picture that?

Stoned Ape Theory
In conclusion, it’s very likely that our ancestors were using substances. In his book Food of the Gods, famous etnobotanist Terrence McKenna (1946-2000) even went as far as declaring that our entire evolution is related to the use of psilocybin. He even asserted that homo erectus evolved into homo sapiens by taking magic mushrooms. He called this Stoned Ape Theory. And even though this theory has been refuted by most scientists, it’s an appealing idea to play around with. In Joe Rogan’s podcast (link above), journalist Michael Pollan agrees that hallucinogens have had an immense impact on our cultural development. 

Terrence McKenna claimed that homo erectus evolved into homo sapiens by taking magic mushrooms

In any event, using substances seems as old as humanity. No hundred year War on Drugs can take that away. The next time your conservative uncle is trash-talking drug users at your annual Christmas dinner, you can tell him that his ancestors were drug users, too. 

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