Throughout the world, prehistoric and pre-industrial shamanic cultures have rendered painted imagery onto rock faces; often in deep cave systems, but also in above-ground shelters. This rock art ranges in date from Palaeolithic designs in Europe, Australia and Asia through to the near-contemporary images of the San culture in southern Africa and the designs of indigenous cultures of North America and the Amazon basin. Until the mid-20th century the consensus anthropological view was that the rock art — while probably having magical meaning to the people who painted it — represented scenes from the natural environment, such as people, animals and landscapes. But as a greater anthropological understanding of indigenous shamanism developed, most especially through the work of Mircea Eliade and his 1951 publication Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy , a new awareness evolved that the rock art produced by indigenous cultures might be the artistic result of shamanic processes, preeminently those brought about by inducing altered states of consciousness.
Megaloceros with line of dots
This was mainstreamed in 1988 by the anthropologists David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson in their paper for Current Anthropology : ‘ The Signs of all Times: Entoptic Phenomena in Upper Palaeolithic Rock Art ’. They advance a neuropsychological model for analyzing the motifs of parietal art of this period, proposing that the geometric images are in fact artistic representations of universal optical patterns, intrinsic to the human visual system, once perceived by our shamanic ancestors during altered states of consciousness. The most important element of this model is the entoptic imagery displayed in the rock art and how it matches closely the geometric patterns seen by people in modern clinical conditions who have altered their state of consciousness.
The Entoptic Model
The word ‘entoptic’ derives from the Greek ἐντός ‘within' and ὀπτικός ‘visual’. Entoptics usually consist of geometric patterns seen as overlays in the visual horizon. These patterns may be an array of dots, parallel lines, labyrinths, zig-zags, waving lines, etc. Sometimes they appear detached from the visual surroundings while at other times more integrated. Entoptics are usually experienced during altered states of consciousness, which may be achieved through a variety of means. The best evidence for the consistency of visual entoptics comes from clinical trials (from the 1950s onward), which analyzed subjective narratives of people who were administered a variety of psychedelic substances. Many of these narratives described the geometric entoptics as antecedents to deeper experiences, as if they were a geometric gateway to the main substance of the experience.
Entoptic Imagery in Prehistoric and Pre-Industrial Rock Art - History
The shaman's vision became disturbed at the start of the trance the shaman would see patterned flashes of light. Produced in the brain, these flashes are also known as 'entoptic' images. They are depicted in the seemingly abstract geometric patterns in the rock art.
Geometric patterns surrounding the 'Dancing Kudu'.
The shaman's vision became disturbed at the start of the trance the shaman would see patterned flashes of light. Produced in the brain, these flashes are also known as 'entoptic' images. They are depicted in the seemingly abstract geometric patterns in the rock art.
Meanders, dots, lines, grids, spirals and whorls resemble entoptic or inner-eye images recorded in neurophysiological experiments.
Some geometric engravings are often associated with the broken edges of rock faces. It is thought the edge is integral to the image, possibly reflecting the trance and the edge of consciousness.
Although entoptic images are similar for all people in the world, the associations formed in a state of trance are contextual.
The shaman fuses the hallucinatory visions with images of animals and other potent spiritual symbols.
It is possible that making the engravings helped to prepare the shaman for a state of trance. The repetitive chipping at the rock and the monotonous sound could have contributed to mental concentration.
Shamanism and European Pre-History
Since about 1950, shamanism has often been cited by scholars – some more successfully than others – attempting to unlock the secrets of obscure European ritual objects and practices, ancient myths and legends, and archaeological sites.
For instance, in 1957 E.O. James suggested that the therianthropic ‘sorcerer’ depicted in the cave art of Les Trois Fréres was a shaman, wearing a costume akin to those of recent Siberian history or in the process of transforming into an animal. This idea was taken up by others, including Makkay in 1963 and Lommel in 1967. Dodds identified a shamanic element in Greek religion and philosophy. Ross saw a parallel between druids and shamans. Tolstoy argued that Merlin was a shaman. Norse scholars such as Dag Strömbäck linked shamanism with the cult of Odin. The idea of the witch as shaman was implicit in Murray’s work on witchcraft and has resurfaced regularly – Ginzburg traced ideas of the witches’ sabbath to an ecstatic tradition that stretched back to the shamans of the Palaeolithic caves, while Wilby has seen shamanistic elements in accounts of British witchcraft. Miranda and Stephen Aldhouse-Green have treated shamanism as a major factor in pre-Christian religious and ritual contexts in European archaeology .
Two therianthropic figures from the palaeolithic art of Les Troise Freres cave on the left is Abbe Breuil’s famous but flawed ‘shamanic’ figure.
Interest in shamanism among archaeologists and prehistorians has expanded and accelerated rapidly since the mid-1980s. This burgeoning interest in shamanism as a major component of ancient European religion is largely due to David Lewis-Williams, whose studies of southern African rock art in the context of San beliefs and rituals led him to conclude that prehistoric rock art arose from the visions of entranced shamans. Abstract patterns and images of cave art are elaborations of patterns and visual effects – known as ‘phosphenes’, ‘entoptic’ images or ‘form constants’ – hard-wired into the human nervous system. They occur as visions in various stages of trance induced by ritual dance, sensory deprivation or the ingestion of hallucinogens. Other images, such as elongated or apparently flying people and animals, are visual representations of physical sensations experienced during trance. This is now arguably the prevailing explanation of rock art among archaeologists. Recently, Lewis-Williams has extended the scope of his shamanic interpretation of rock art from the Palaeolithic to the Neolithic, particularly looking at the decoration and function of chambered stone structures .
At first sight, Lewis-Williams seems to have identified a ‘smoking gun’ that proves that shamanism was indeed the religion of Palaeolithic Europe. Plenty of archaeologists have accepted his ideas, which if true would add support to those earlier scholars who have seen evidence for shamanism in their own fields.
But it is by no means cut and dried. In the first place, Lewis-Williams and many other Anglophone scholars have an imprecise idea of shamanism. In the course of the 20th century, the name ‘shaman’ was increasingly applied to all kinds of magical practitioner: sorcerers, witches, priests, poets, seers, diviners and healers. In part this was due to sloppy scholarship, but it has been exacerbated by a growing tendency to remove supposedly pejorative terminology from academic debate (Terms such as ‘witch-doctor’ and ‘medicine man’ are hardly ever used academically these days, but they are often near-literal translations of native names). Shamanism is a phenomenon first recognised among the Evenk of Siberia, from whose language the word šaman was appropriated as a generic label for similar practitioners among neighbouring or related peoples. Some Westerners – such as Ronald Hutton and Alice Beck Kehoe  – argue that the term should properly be restricted to the Evenk of Siberia, though they accept the use of the word ‘shaman’ to denote similar practitioners. This restriction has always been prevalent among anthropologists in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In short, people who don’t do what a Siberian shaman does in the same way are not shamans and should be given a more appropriate name.
Russian anthropologists once used the term ‘shamanhood’ to denote the condition of being a shaman, with all that entails in the way of rite and social function – to emphasise that it is a ritual technique used by particular individuals within a variety of social and religious contexts and not a discrete religious ideology. This usage is gradually coming back into favour. In the West, the word ‘shamanism’ has come to imply a cohesive belief system with mystical experience at its core. This is almost wholly due to Eliade’s epochal study of shamanism, in which he included as shamanism belief systems that had at best only the flimsiest resemblance to the Siberian model. This was chiefly based on the idea of ecstasy. Eliade wanted to prove that ecstasy – mystical experience through altered states of consciousness – was a universal phenomenon, humanity’s ur-religion .
Ecstasy, trance or altered states of consciousness are central to both Eliade’s vision of archaic religion and Lewis-Williams’ interpretation of rock art as an expression of shamanic experience. Unfortunately for both, Siberian shamans do not usually undergo real trance. The use of hallucinogens is pretty rare and where they are used tends to be communal and mainly designed to prime the audience for supernatural phenomena. Furthermore, shamanic performance is complex and requires the shaman to be in complete control: performances include narrative, mimicry and ventriloquism, drumming, mime, song and legerdemain. Shamanising is a skilled and demanding enacting of otherworld journey, with the emphasis firmly on performance. There is no actual visit to other worlds – the main exception being shamans’ initiatory experiences, which normally occur as dreams or hallucinations during sickness. These factors alone are enough to demolish Eliade’s fantasy, and ought to deter archaeologists from labelling ancient trances as ‘shamanic’. More damagingly, Helvenston and Bahn (among others) have offered strong arguments against ‘entoptic’ rock art being down to trance .
Siberian shamanism has only been known to Europeans for about 500 years. Possible shamans are briefly mentioned in Chinese documents and European travellers’ tales before about 1500, but in little detail. Saami or Finnish shamans are described in Old Norse texts of the 13th and 14th centuries, but they and earlier mentions are usually brief and vague. Eskimo shamans have been studied for about as long as their Siberian counterparts. In short, shamanism as we know it is a modern phenomenon. And thanks to evangelical Christians, Stalinism and the lure of modern life, it is one that largely died out more than half a century ago. Thankfully, shamanic traditions and rituals were recorded by travellers, missionaries and anthropologists, and many shaman drums and costumes have been preserved in museums. But since the last generation of traditional shamans died out, hardly any shamans practising today are untainted by New Age ideas. In recent years Michael Harner’s foundation has been heavily involved in educating would-be shamans of the former Soviet Republics in how to ply their trade, and has a strong influence on local anthropologists. The revived practices have little to tell us about traditional shamanism.
This Siberian rock art, showing what appears to be a bear-headed human, dates from c3500 BCE
Another problem is that Siberian shamanism has clearly been subject to external influence. For instance, Evenk and neighbouring peoples’ shaman costumes have clearly accommodated elements of Lamaist dress, while local variants of the so-called shamanic cosmos reflect the influence of Buddhism and Islam. The extreme variation of shamans’ costume poses another problem: Eskimo and Saami shamanism shows no tradition of special costumes. It could be that these represent the most archaic form of shamanism, while their Siberian counterparts’ apparel is a late development.
These figures, considered to be a shaman and a spirit helper, are from Siberian rock art of around 400 years ago
Obviously Siberian shamanism did not simply appear, fully formed, out of nothing. There must have been some early stratum of religion and ritual from which it developed. But we can only guess at what that proto-shamanism was like. Even in Siberia there is precious little evidence for prehistoric shamanism. Mihály Hóppal and Ekaterina Devlet have observed that the earliest probable depictions of shamans or shamanic ritual (as rock art, ironically) date from around 2000 BCE. Anna-Leena Siikala has interpreted Finnish rock art that may be as old as 3000 BCE as evidence for shamanism, but a shamanic provenance is debatable . Elsewhere, there is nothing of greater antiquity that can unequivocally be called shamanic. Whether or not so-called shamanic elements of African and European rock art are derived from trance along the lines suggested by Lewis-Williams – irrespective of the arguments against that idea – authentic altered states of consciousness are not part of the ritual technique found in Siberian shamanism and its analogues. We cannot date shamanism by evidence for trance.
Nor can we estimate the antiquity of shamanism from the type of culture in which it is found. While received wisdom has it that shamanism is a religious form proper to nomadic hunter-gatherers, the simple fact is that most shamanist peoples in Siberia live by herding reindeer and subsistence farming – and have done since records began. With the Eskimo and a handful of other peoples in the north circumpolar region, hunter-gatherers and other ‘Stone Age’ peoples do not have anything that is remotely like Siberian shamanism. Yet shamanism is consistently projected back to Palaeolithic Europe.
The theory of Palaeolithic shamanism is based on a crude logic. Primitive is the same as archaic shamanism is a primitive technique, therefore it is very old. Siberian shamanism was considered primitive as soon as Europeans began studying it in a scientific way, as Czaplicka’s survey of 19th-century Russian scholarship makes abundantly clear . Shamanism was a primitive form of worship among primitive peoples. We no longer use the word ‘primitive’, but it has been replaced by a raft of unsatisfactory euphemisms – ‘indigenous’, ‘tribal’, ‘pre-literate’, ‘pre-technological’ and so on – that all really mean the same thing: unevolved people who have yet to attain a level of cultural sophistication comparable to our own. It is basically getting the idea of ‘primitiveness’ in through the back door.
Another antlered figure, from Bronze Age Italy: Val Camonica
At the last we are left with no reliable way of ascertaining the antiquity of Siberian shamanism, and no way of ascertaining whether ancient ritual in Palaeolithic Europe was shamanic, except in the most watered-down and meaningless sense. Undoubtedly, authentic shamanism was present in ancient Europe. Iranian-speaking steppe nomads (Scythians, Alans, Sarmatians, and so on) who may have been shamanists were in contact with Eastern Europe from at least 500 BCE and made deeper inroads soon after, followed by shamanist Avars, Magyars and Turks. The Finns and Saami settled in Finland and the north of Norway and Sweden several millennia ago their shamans were known to the Norse and inspired many of their tales of witches and wizards. One or more of these groups may have transmitted their rites and beliefs to the peoples already living in Europe, descendants of the first waves of Homo sapiens to settle the continent after the last Ice Age. But whether any kind of home-grown European shamanism ever developed independently has yet to be established.
Models of trance
To begin with, we must look at the distinctions made in the ‘pure’ trance theory of rock art. ‘Entoptic’ images are generally understood to be abstract geometrical images (lines, dots, dashes, circles, spirals) that arise in the early stages of a trip to the otherworld.2 ‘Endogenous visual phenomena’ are entoptics whose forms are seen to specifically arise from neural structures, especially those of the optical nerves.
This preliminary arena of geometrical imagery should be familiar to all with even mild experience of altered states. The literature associated with dimethyltryptamine (DMT) seems particularly relevant here. Although DMT occurs in many plants with a history of shamanic usage, and can even occur naturally in the human brain (Most 1986), it is usually used in the West in its smokeable synthesised form. When smoked, one immediately feels its effects within a minute or two one reaches the peak of the trip. And one returns to ‘normal’ consciousness after about 15-20 minutes. The astonishingly rapid action of this compound means that the various stages of trance are tightly compressed, and are thus made clearer for explanatory purposes. Building on extensive accounts of various people’s experiences, Peter Meyer (1994) breaks the DMT trip into levels, which may be used to model many similar forms of trance:
Level I: Pre-hallucinatory experience This stage is characterized by an interior flowing of energy/consciousness. Level II: Vivid, brilliantly coloured, geometric visual hallucinations Here one is observing a patterned field, basically two-dimensional, although it may have a pulsating quality. One may remember having seen this before. Transitional Phase (Level IIB?): tunnel or breakthrough experience One may see or fly through a tunnel… A veil may part, a membrane may be rent. There is a breakthrough to another world (or perhaps even a series of breakthroughs). Alternatively, it may happen that the transition from Level II to Level III is abrupt, almost instantaneous, with no experience of transition. Level III: Three- or higher-dimensional space, possible contact with entities This stage is characterized by the experience of being in an “objective” space, that is, a space of at least three dimensions in which objects or entities may be encountered. Sometimes the entities appear to be intelligent and communicating beings.
Level II is the arena of entoptic imagery, and is the prime concern rock art researchers looking at abstract geometrical shapes. It is these forms that are posited as being transcultural, arising from the very structures of the human nervous system. The ‘transitional’ phase also enters this arena in rock art studies. Bradley (1997) associates the concentric circular patterns in cup-and-ring art with tunnel-like images common to entry into profound altered states Dronfield (1996) associates these images with both the tunnel-like entrances and the spiral art found in passage graves in Ireland.
Level III is what I call ‘full visionary consciousness’, and can relate to rock art that depicts representative forms (e.g. therioanthropic images). This level is seen by most rock art researchers to be culture-bound. That is, the forms of entities (spirits, gods, ancestors) encountered here—and the transformed identity of the voyager—are clothed with culturally-defined expectations. Thus, for example, an Amazonian ayahuasquero‘s3 Level III may be replete with jaguars and anacondas, while a San medicine man’s Level III may be clothed with antelope and giraffe.
An obvious question, though, is whether a San person taken to the Amazon to partake of an ayahuasca ritual will still find the otherworld populated with African fauna. Are Level III’s ‘clothes’ contained within the acculturated portions of a person’s mind, or can they emerge from a highly transpersonal interaction with the immediate ecosystem? A friend visited the Amazon recently and, during an ayahuasca ceremony, saw, alongside angels from his Catholic upbringing, a very unusual animal he had never encountered before. Days later he saw this otherworld animal’s real counterpart in the jungle. Suffice it to say that Level III is much too vast a can of worms to really prise open in this article!
Hand Stencils Rock Art (c.40,000-1,000 BCE) Painted and Stencilled Hands in Paleolithic & Neolithic Caves
Hand stencil from Cosquer Cave
(c.25,000 BCE) Gravettian culture.
National Museum of Archeology,
See: Oldest Stone Age Art.
Hand stencils around the famous
"Dappled Horses of Pech Merle".
What are Prehistoric Hand Stencils? - Definition, Types, Location
In prehistoric cave art the most common themes are (1) Abstract signs (2) Figure paintings, mostly of animals and (3) Painted hands. Each of these categories of parietal art has been in evidence since at least 40,000 BCE, when anatomically modern man first arrived in Europe, and triggered the so-called "creative explosion" that was to define the rock art of the Upper Paleolithic. Hand paintings came in two basic varieties: prints or stencils. Either the hands were painted (typically with red, white or black pigment - see Prehistoric Colour Palette for details) and then applied to the rock surface, creating a crude handprint or the hand was placed on the rock surface and paint pigment was then blown through a hollow tube (bone or reed) in a diffuse cloud over it, leaving a silhouette image of the hand on the rock. Alternatively, the hand might have been stencilled simply by spitting the pigment directly onto it from the mouth, or even by painting around it with a pad/brush dipped in pigment. Prints are usually referred to as "positive handprints", while the hand silhouettes are known as "negative hand stencils". Both types of pictograph are especially common in the prehistoric art of the Franco-Calabrian region - where the most significant site is Gargas in southern France whose hand paintings date to about 25,000 BCE - in Australian aboriginal art, in the prehistoric caves of the Americas, and in all inhabited continents. The world's oldest stencil is part of the Sulawesi Cave art, found recently in Indonesia, dating to (37,900 BCE).
Characteristics of Prehistoric Hand Art
As far as age and gender are concerned, recent analysis of hand stencils has shown that Paleolithic art, or at least the caves where the art was created, involved men, women and children. According to Professor Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University, who studied the hand marks in the French caves of Pech Marle and Gargas, and in the Spanish rock shelter of El Castillo, a strong majority of the hands belonged to women. His research findings raise the possibility that the role of females in Stone Age art was greater than previously thought, although - since we don't know for sure that hand paintings were created by "artists" rather than mere "spectators" - more evidence is required before a definite conclusion can be reached. We do know, however, that both handprints and hand stencils were left by cave dwellers of all ages, including children.
Hand paintings might appear anywhere in a cave. They might be on their own, or clustered in varying groups of left and right hands, or the stencilled hands might appear among (or even inside) paintings of animals and other objects. Note, however, recent research by Paul Pettitt, Alfredo Maximiano Castillejo, Pablo Arias, Roberto Ontanon Peredo, Rebecca Harrison, focusing on the production and location of hand stencils in the caves of El Castillo and La Garma in Cantabria. They have suggested a new concept - which they call "palpation", from the medical term for examination by touch - to help understand cave art in general, and handprints and stencils in particular. In simple terms, the team found that handprints or hand stencils were sometimes made in highly uncomfortable positions, where far more convenient options existed. From this and other factors, they inferred that these hand markings might have constituted a method of communication - in the extremely dim conditions prevailing in caves - perhaps offering advice about cave features, how to position one's hands, how best to move safely through the passageways and so on.
Note: left-hand stencils are more common in Stone Age art than right-hand images, because a right-handed person typically uses his stronger right hand to hold the pigment tube.
Meaning of Hand Stencils Rock Art
How do archeologists and Paleoanthropologists interpret these hand prints and silhouettes? Are they simply the signature of the cave artist, affirming his work and/or his self-awareness? Was it the cave shaman, imprinting his touch on the cave wall in order to acknowledge and possibly enter the spirit world, in a "sealing" ritual? Since hand pictographs have emerged around the world over a period of some 40,000 years, there are bound to be a multiplicity of meanings and motives for their creation, including the usual explanations of rituals, sacred rites and initiation ceremonies.
Another type of prehistoric hand marking is called "finger fluting", a term invented by the archeologist Robert Bednarik. Finger flutings (sometimes called "finger tracings" or "traces digitaux") are lines left by fingers on a soft surface like clay or moonmilk. They have been discovered in caves in southern France (Gargas, Baume Latronne, Rouffignac), northern Spain (Altamira), southern Australia (see: Koonalda Cave art) and New Guinea, throughout the era of the Upper Paleolithic. Archeological research indicates that finger fluting has been performed by young children (aged 2-5), as well as adults. Like the meaning of hand stencils rock art and most abstract symbols, the meaning of finger fluting remains obscure.
Oldest Handprints/Hand Stencils
Many sites of Franco-Cantabrian cave art as well as art from Africa, Australia and SE Asia are decorated with various forms of cave painting, including hand stencils, handprints, palm-prints, thumb prints and finger fluting. Here is a short selection of the oldest art in this category. For more about the history and chronology of Stone Age culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.
Sulawesi Caves (c.37,900 BCE) Indonesia
The world's oldest hand stencil comes from the Leang Timpuseng Cave in the Maros-Pangkep karst area on the Island of Sulawesi. The site also includes some of the most ancient animal paintings, all made by Aborigine migrants who were probably heading for Australia.
El Castillo Cave (c.37,300 BCE) Spain
The second oldest hand stencil comes from the Aurignacian cave complex of El Castillo. Some 55 other hand silhouettes and other symbols can be seen in the cave, several of which have also been dated to the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic. Since this period of early Aurignacian art coincides with the first arrival of anatomically modern man, speculation has arisen that these hand paintings were made by Neanderthals. Sceptics consider this unlikely. For details, see: El Castillo Cave Paintings (c.39,000 BCE).
Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave (c.30,000 BCE) France
In total, the cave contains 12 red ochre hand prints, 9 hand stencils and some 450 palm prints - mostly on the Panel of Hand Stencils in the Gallery of Hands. In the Panel of the Red Dots, a cave painting discovered close to the cave entrance, there is a cluster of large dots, roughly in the shape of a mammoth. The dots were made by dipping the palm of the right hand into red paint and then applying it to the wall. See: Chauvet Cave Paintings.
Aboriginal Art: Northern Coast of Australia (c.30,000 BCE)
Hand stencils are a prominent feature of both Ubirr Rock painting and the ajoining region of Kimberley Rock art. Although the oldest Aboriginal rock art is believed to date from about 30,000 BCE, this has not been scientifically confirmed. See also the later Bradshaw Paintings (now called Gwion art) from the same Kimberley area.
Cosquer (c.25,000 BCE) France
Part of the prehistoric art which decorates this cave consists of 65 hand stencils, dating back to Gravettian culture. See: Cosquer Cave Paintings.
Pech Merle (c.25,000 BCE)
This Upper Paleolithic shelter is famous for its polychrome mural known as "The Dappled Horses of Pech-Merle", which itself contains a number of stencilled hand prints. See: Pech Merle Cave Paintings.
Gargas Cave (c.25,000 BCE) France
Located in the Hautes-Pyrenees, not far from the rock shelters at Niaux and Trois Freres, the cave contains rock engravings, artifacts, paintings and mobiliary art from the Mousterian to the Magdalenian, including numerous 'negative hands' created in red ochre or manganese, using a stencil technique. In addition, there are some 200 handprints, mostly of the left hand. Some of them are lacking one or more fingers, due either to ritual amputation or frostbite. For more, see: Gargas Cave hand stencils.
Roucadour Cave Art (c.24,000 BCE)
Stylistically similar to the parietal works at Pech Merle Cave, the art at Roucadour Cave includes a number of vivid negative hand paintings. For more, see Roucadour Cave Art.
Abri du Poisson Cave (c.23,000 BCE) France
In addition to its best known item of Gravettian art - namely, the bas-relief limestone sculpture of a salmon - this rock shelter has a single legible hand stencil.
Karawari Caves (c.18,000 BCE) Papua New Guinea
An extensive network of 250 caves and rock shelters in the East Sepik Karawari river region contain the greatest examples of hand stencils and other types of parietal art in Melanesia. In the Meakambut and Namata caves for instance, there are palm prints made by young male initiates painted with a combination of blood and clay. See also: Oceanic Art.
Maltravieso Cave (c.18,000 BCE) Spain
This centre of Solutrean art at Caceres, Extremadura, contains numerous animal paintings and engravings as well as an outstanding cluster of 71 stencilled handprints, many of which are missing fingers.
Bayol Cave (17,000 BCE) France
The sole handprint from the French rock shelter Bayol II (Collias II), situated near the Pont du Gard aqueduct, is thought to have been left by a very small child.
La Garma Cave (c.17,000 BCE) Spain
There are 32 hand stencils, plus a series of red dots and other simple red ochre animal figures from the era of Solutrean art, which span the entire length of the cave's 300 metre Lower Gallery.
Lascaux (c.17,000-13,000 BCE) France
In addition to its prehistoric engravings and beautiful animal paintings, Lascaux also has a very small number of hand stencils. See Lascaux Cave Paintings.
Altamira (c.17,000 BCE) Spain
Amongst its other examples of parietal art, this famous Cantabrian rock shelter boasts a number of hand stencils sprayed with red pigment. For more details, see: Altamira Cave Paintings.
Font de Gaume Cave (c.14,000 BCE) France
In addition to its magnificent bison frieze, the cave has a total of four hand stencils.
Rouffignac Cave (c.14,000-12,000 BCE) France
This vast underground cave complex is filled with over 250 prehistoric cave drawings, as well as abstract symbols and signs, and a number of hand prints.
Cougnac Cave (c.14,000 BCE) France
The Magdalenian art here includes three human figures and about 50 hand stencils, as well as numerous fingerprints in black and red.
Les Combarelles (c.12,000 BCE) France
This centre of Magdalenian art, has over 600 drawings of animals, but only one legible hand stencil.
Fern Cave (c.10,000 BCE) Australia
This north Queensland rock shelter contains a range of hand stencils and other aboriginal rock paintings dating to the beginning of Mesolithic art in the tenth millennium BCE.
Kalimantan Caves (c.8,000 BCE) Indonesia
In Borneo, following research by Jean-Michel Chazine, some 1500 negative handprints have been discovered in 30 Stone Age caves in the Sangkulirang area of Eastern Kalimantan. According to initial dating tests they were created during the Mesolithic. The Indonesian painted caves at Maros in Sulawesi are also famous for their hand stencils. See also: Tribal Art.
Gua Ham Masri II Cave (c.8,000 BCE) East Borneo, Indonesia
Contains about 140 hand stencils (equal male/female). Most of this ancient art dates back to the early Mesolithic.
Cave of Hands (Cueva de las Manos) (7,300 BCE) Santa Cruz, Argentina
One of the major prehistoric sites of South American hunter-gatherer groups during the Early Holocene epoch, the cave contains a number of painted animal figures, a range of geometric shapes, and a sensational panel of rock art hand paintings - mostly stencilled - dated to around 7,500 BCE.
Catal Huyuk (c.5,000-3,700 BCE) Turkey
Red ochre handprints dating from the early period of Neolithic art have also been discovered here, along with a large quantity of animal and human imagery. Along with the other major archeological mound in southern Anatolia, at Gobekli Tepe, this large Chalcolithic settlement is the best-preserved Neolithic site excavated to date.
Elands Bay Cave (c.4,000 BCE) South Africa
This Neolithic shelter is noted for its clusters of several hundred handprints, stylistically matched with others about 6,000 years old.
Handprint Cave of Belize (Actun Uayazba Kab) (c.1500 BCE)
Discovered in 1996, Handprint Cave is named after the stencilled outlines of human hands and other hand art created during the Mayan culture. It contains a range of other pictographs and petroglyphs.
Red Hands Cave (less than 1,000 BCE) NSW, Australia
Famous site of Aboriginal rock art, noted for its Neolithic collage of hand prints and hand stencils, left by from adults and children, in hues of red, yellow and white ochre. Aborigine artists filled their mouths with a mixture of water, ochre, and animal fat (from a kangaroo, emu, or echidna) and blew it across their hand to make the stencil.
For more about the early arts and crafts of the Upper Paleolithic, see the following articles:
For the world's most ancient art, see: Bhimbetka Petroglyphs.
For the extraordinary fertility figures of prehistory, see: Venus Figurines.
For Stone Age architecture, passage tombs and dolmens, see: Megaliths.
Entoptic Imagery in Prehistoric and Pre-Industrial Rock Art - History
Archeological discoveries across a broad swath of Europe (especially southern France and northern Spain) include over two hundred caves with spectacular paintings, drawings, and sculpture that are among the earliest undisputed examples of representational image-making. Paintings and engravings along the caves’ walls and ceilings fall under the category of parietal art .
The most common themes in cave paintings are large wild animals, such as bison, horses, aurochs , and deer. Tracings of human hands and hand stencils were also very popular, as well as abstract patterns called finger flutings. The species found most often were suitable for hunting by humans, but were not necessarily the typical prey found in associated bone deposits. For example, the painters of Lascaux, France left mainly reindeer bones, but this species does not appear at all in the cave paintings equine species are the most common. Drawings of humans were rare and were usually schematic as opposed to the detailed and naturalistic images of animals.
The pigments used appear to be red and yellow ochre , manganese or carbon for black, and china clay for white. Some of the color may have been mixed with fat. The paint was applied by finger, chewed sticks, or fur for brushes. Sometimes the silhouette of the animal was incised in the rock first, and in some caves, many of the images were only engraved in this fashion, taking them out of a strict definition of “cave painting.” (4)
Main Examples of Cave Paintings: France and SpainFigure 1-2: Lascaux painting by Prof saxx is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Lascaux (circa 15,000 BCE), in southwestern France, is an interconnected series of caves with one of the most impressive examples of artistic creations by Paleolithic humans.
Discovered in 1940, the cave contains nearly two thousand figures, which can be grouped into three main categories animals, human figures, and abstract signs. Over nine hundred images depict animals from the surrounding areas, such as horses, stags, aurochs, bison, lions, bears, and birds species that would have been hunted and eaten, and those identified as predators. The paintings contain no images of the surrounding landscape or the vegetation of the time.
The Chauvet–Pont–d’Arc Cave (circa 30,000 BCE) in the Ard’che department of southern France contains some of the earliest known paintings, as well as other evidence of Upper Paleolithic life. The Chauvet Cave is uncharacteristically large, and the quality, quantity, and condition of the artwork found on its walls have been called spectacular. Hundreds of animal paintings have been catalogued, depicting at least thirteen different species not only the familiar herbivores that predominate Paleolithic cave art, but also many predatory animals, such as cave lions, panthers, bears, and cave hyenas.
Figure 1-3: Chauvet horses by an unknown author from Wikimedia is licensed under Public Domain
As is typical of most cave art, there are no paintings of complete human figures in Chauvet. There are a few panels of red ochre hand prints and hand stencils made by spitting pigment over hands pressed against the cave surface. Abstract markings lines and dots are found throughout the cave.
The artists who produced these unique paintings used techniques rarely found in other cave art. Many of the paintings appear to have been made after the walls were scraped clear of debris and concretions, leaving a smoother and noticeably lighter area upon which the artists worked. Similarly, a three-dimensional quality and the suggestion of movement are achieved by incising or etching around the outlines of certain figures. The art also includes scenes that were complex for its time animals interacting with each other. For instance, a pair of wooly rhinoceroses are seen butting horns in an apparent contest for territory or mating rights. (4)
SpainFigure 1-4: Altamira Bison by Rameessos is licensed under Public Domain
Altamira (circa 18,000 BCE) is a cave in northern Spain famous for its Upper Paleolithic cave paintings featuring drawings and polychrome rock paintings of wild mammals and human hands. The cave has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The long cave consists of a series of twisting passages and chambers. Human occupation was limited to the cave mouth, although paintings were created throughout the length of the cave. The artists used polychromy charcoal and ochre or haematite to create the images, often diluting these pigments to produce variations in intensity , creating an impression of chiaroscuro . They also exploited the natural contours in the cave walls to give their subjects a three-dimensional effect.
Like all prehistoric art, the purpose of these paintings remains obscure. In recent years, new research has suggested that the Lascaux paintings may incorporate prehistoric star charts. Some anthropologists and art historians also theorize that the paintings could be an account of past hunting success, or they could represent a mystical ritual to improve future hunting endeavors. An alternative theory, broadly based on ethnographic studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, is that the paintings pertained to shamanism. (4)
“Venus figurines” is an umbrella term for a number of prehistoric statuettes of women that have been found mostly in Europe, but also in Asia and Siberia, dating from the Upper Paleolithic. These figures are all quite small, between 4 and 25 cm tall, and carved mainly in steatite, limestone, bone, or ivory. These sculptures are collectively described as “Venus” figurines in reference to the Roman goddess of beauty, as early historians assumed they represented an ideal of beauty from the time.
The Venus figurines have sometimes been interpreted as representing a mother goddess the abundance of such female imagery has led some to believe that Upper Paleolithic (and later Neolithic) societies had a female-centered religion and a female-dominated society. Various other explanations for the purpose of the figurines have been proposed, such as the hypothesis that the figurines were created as self-portraits of actual women.
Venus figures are characterized by shared stylistic features, such as an oval shape, large belly, wide-set thighs, large breasts, and the typical absence of arms and feet. Hundreds of these sculptures have been found both in open-air settlements and caves. The Venus of Hohle Fels, a 6 cm figure of a woman carved from a mammoth’s tusk, was discovered in Germany’s Hohle Fels cave in 2008 and represents one of the earliest found sculptures of this type.
Figure 1-5: Venus of Hohle Felsby Thilo Parg is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Additionally, the Venus of Willendorf is a particularly famous example of the Venus figure. While initially thought to be symbols of fertility, or of a fertility goddess, the true significance of the Venus figure remains obscure, as does much of prehistoric art. (5)
Figure 1-6: Venus of Willendorf by MatthiasKabel is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Twyfelfontein - Namibia
Location and Values: Twyfelfontein is located close to a freshwater spring in a remote semi-arid area at the head of a valley in Damaraland, a region of north-central Namibia. The nearest small town, Khorixas, lies 80 km to the east. The world heritage site is small (less than 1 km 2 ), but includes some remarkable galleries of rock engravings (pteroglyphs) depicting an extraordinary diversity of wild animals – rhino, elephant, giraffe, oryx, ostrich, flamingo, zebra and many more - and footprints. The engravings are often superimposed on one another, and are engraved on the massive rock faces of free-standing boulders in completely exposed positions. They were probably made over a period of 2,000 years by local San hunter-gatherer peoples, and represent an important aspect of San ritual and belief systems (see further details below).
Slideshow of Twyfelfontein (for description see below) :
Slideshow Description: The comprehensive slideshow (76 photos) starts with some general landscape views of the site, the valley and surrounding sandstone cliffs, with great chunks of rock broken away and lying where they fell. Many are sculpted by the wind into a variety of impressive forms, and some serve as a canvas for the age-old engavings that feature here. One of the rock engravings on a self-guided section of the trail is shown, then the derelict walls of a colonial farmstead which stands in the middle of the site. From here the tour follows the 'Lion Man' guided route and shows the variety of rock art panels that can be seen along this route. The most impressive single engraving depicts the 'Lion Man', a lion depicted with prey in its mouth and five toes on each foot and the tip of its tail (see below for explanation of its meaning and interpretation). Giraffe, rhino, various species of antelope and a few elephants are amongst the engravings, as well as numerous human and animal footprints. There are also noteworthy pictures of seals and flamingoes - which indicate that the artists knew these animals from far-away places. The main panels are viewed from specially-constructed steel viewing platforms, which provide an excellent viewing angle, ideal for photography. The slideshow then illustrates the main features of the 'Dancing kudu' guided trail, including the dancing kudu panel itself, as well as the only rock paintings found at Twfelfontein, under the overhanging Schneider shelter. Nearby, there is an extraordiunary natural sandstone 'sculpture' looking like a sabre-toothed cat pouncing on its prey. Following a few photos of the superb visitor interpretation centre, the slideshow moves to another location in the 'buffer zone' of the site, where the Twyfelfontein Country Lodge has been build behind the prominent 'Ceremony Rock' with its own rather special panel of engravings (featuring mainly giraffe, dancing ostrich and footprints). Sadly, a few modern items of graffiti appear here – illustrating one of the threats facing this invaluable heritage.
Google Earth View: To view satellite imagery of Twyfelfontein on Google Earth, click here. This opens a new window, so when you are finished, just close the Google Earth page and you will be straight back here to continue browsing.
UNDERSTANDING THE ARTISTS AND THEIR BELIEFS
(the following descriptions are adapted from material displayed in the superb visitor centre at Twyfelfontein):
Rock art played an important role in ritual practice among southern African hunter-gatherer communities. Painting and engraving traditions developed over the last 20,000 years into a highly sophisticated way of expressing complex beliefs about the supernatural world. Rock art was the preserve of medicine people, or shamans, and had two functions: as a means to enter the natural world and to record the shamans experiences in that world.
Travel to the spirit world. The shaman prepared to enter the realm of the spirits by achieving a state of trance or altered consciousness. This could be done by dancing to rhythmic clapping or chanting or hyperventilation, dehydration, sensory deprivation or intense concentration. There is no evidence that shamans used drugs or other artificial means to induce trance, although this is possible. The shaman carried out important tasks while in the natural realm, such as healing the sick, making rain and communicating with powerful spirit forces.
Geometric riddles. The shaman’s vision became disturbed at the start of trance, and he would ‘see’ patterned flashes of light. Produced in the brain, these flashes are also known as entoptic images or images ‘in the eye’. They are depicted in the seemingly abstract geometric images in the rock art. Meanders, dots, lines, grids, spirals and whorls resemble entoptic or inner-eye images recorded in neurophysiological experiments. Although entoptic images are similar for all people in the world, the associations formed in a state of trance are contextual. The shaman fuses his hallucinatory visions with images of animals and other potent spiritual symbols. It is likely that making the engravings helped to prepare the shaman for a state of trance. The repetitive chipping at the rock and the monotonous sound could have contributed to mental concentration.
Perilous journey. Entering into the stare of trance, the shaman would experience a variety of physical sensations: he might feel as if his legs are growing unnaturally long, or that he is rising from the ground. He would shiver and struggle to control his movements, sometimes collapsing on the ground with a gushing nose-bleed. This second stage of trance was known as the ‘little death’, the moment of entering the spirit realm.
Transformation. Following the death-like stage, the shaman would take on the form of a supernatural creature. This might be a familiar animal, such as a giraffe, elephant or lion, one that has special powers such as to heal or make rain. This ability to enter the supernatural world and return alive was a rare gift not possessed by everyone. Shamans were extraordinary men and women, who left an exceptional artistic legacy.
UNDERSTANDING THE SYMBOLISM OF THE IMAGES
The rock art at Twyfelfontein was produced during the dry season of the year, when the shortage of water and food forced people to congregate near the spring. This was a time of intense ritual activity. Rituals helped to strengthen the values and cohesion of the group: they were performed during initiation into adulthood, to heal the sick, to ensure successful hunting and to make rain. The ritual traditions represented in the rock art of Twyfelfontein saw their greatest flowering during the last 5000 years a period of increasing aridity during which hunter-gatherer communities developed and perfected a wide range of economic survival strategies.
A clear feature of the rock art at Twyfelfontein is its integration with the surroundings. Shamans deliberately placed their artworks at significant points in the terrain. Some are in cracks or fissures which served as entries to the supernatural world. Others are in dark places where shamans retreated to concentrate their energy. There are some engravings in high or inaccessible places and others near probable communal living spaces.
Multiple meanings. Each and every feature of an engraving is deliberate and holds a specific meaning. Sometimes the meaning is difficult to establish directly, but often an informed guess is possible. The ‘Dancing Kudu’ for example shows an obviously pregnant female. Kudu were valued as potent symbols of fertility and this may explain the choice of a kudu cow for the image. However we cannot know all the multiple meanings that the images held for the artists and viewers.
Leaving the body behind. Giraffe are very common in the Twyfelfontein rock art, and characteristically shown without hooves, their legs tapering away to long thin lines. This represents the sensation of rising up into the air, as felt by the shaman in trance. Sometimes the giraffe body is shown distorted or hollow, as the shaman feels his shape changing. A shaman who has changed into a giraffe is shown with five protrusions from the head, representing the five digits of the human foot.
Four, five, man alive….. The ‘Lion Man’ engraving (see photo below) shows five tows on each paw, whereas in real life a lion only has four toes. The deliberate combination of human and animal features shows that this is a shaman who has transformed into a lion.
Footprints and fissures. Engravings of human footprints and animal tracks are frequently placed next to or inside tunnels, deep fissures and inaccessible surfaces, as if these indicate paths and entrances into the spirit world. It was believed that a shaman could move through solid rock, using entrances not visible to the normal eye. To the artist the rock face was not merely a canvas but rather a veil serving as the threshold to a parallel spiritual world
HOW ROCK ART TRADITIONS DEVELOPED AND EVOLVED – A SHORT HISTORY
Early symbolic activity. (75,000 years ago). Long before people first engraved and painted on stones and rock faces, they invested the rituals and objects of their existence with symbolic meaning. We can see indications of care and thought that goes beyond mere functionality in the deftly reworked flaked stone tools from Middle and Late Stone Age sites. Ochre tablets bearing cross hatchings found at Blombos Cave in the southern Cape (South Africa) and dated to around 75,000 years ago are thought to be some of the earliest examples of abstract representation.
The beginnings of a representational tradition (40,000 years ago). By 40,000 years ago stone and bone pendants, shell ornaments and ostrich shell beads were widely exchanged throughout Africa and included in grave goods, suggesting that by this time people consistently used apparently valueless objects to communicate identity, relationships and spiritual bonds – in other words, to signal social rank, establish regional and personal relations with others and elaborate the rites of passage. Then, around 30,000 to 20,000 years ago, people started leaving more illuminating signs of their presence on small portable stones and rock fragments, so-called ‘art mobilier’.
Apollo 11 Cave (27,000 years ago). The earliest examples of rock art in southern Africa are all small enough to be held in the hand. Seven small painted stones were discovered at a rock shelter (the Apollo 11 Cave) in southern Namibia, including one that depicts a feline form with human hind legs – clearly an animal that exists outside the realm of reality.
Belief in a marginal environment (5850 to 1000 years ago). The flowering of the rock art tradition in southern Africa appears to coincide with increases in local population densities around 14,000 years ago and reaching its height again around 4,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence from the Namib Desert confirms that concentrations of rock art in Namibia can be linked to prolonged periods of social aggregation. The rock art reflects heightened intensity of ritual activity in response to social stress arising from limited and diminishing food and water. A significant number of depictions are obviously related to rain-making and many others suggest similar events.
The time of the herders (from 1000 yrs ago to present). Nomadic pastoralists grazed their stock on seasonal pastures. As rainfall was patchy, these encampments might not have been used on successive years. The overlap between hunter-gatherer and pastoralist economies is shown by a small number of cattle depictions among the rock engravings
VISITING TWYFELFONTEIN - WHAT TO SEE
(the following descriptions are adapted from material displayed in the visitor centre at Twyfelfontein):
Twyfelfontein is an 'open-air gallery' with the largest single concentration of rock art engravings in southern Africa. There are over 2000 rock engravings and a few rock paintings at Twyfelfontein. More than 200 giraffe and 100 rhino are shown as well as ostrich, impala, elephant and zebra. Predators like lion are scarce, although one particular lion is exceptional. Kudu, wildebeest and baboons are also rare in the engravings. Although human figures are common in the rock paintings, they rarely occur in the engravings. Some engravings are fragile or difficult to reach and are thus not accessible to visitors. Four routes offer visitors the ‘cream of the crop’.
ROUTE 1. At the visitor centre. Within easy reach of the visitor centre are ten panels of well-preserved engravings. These are mostly geometric and schematic depictions that show some visual effects of trance. The images are related to the first stage of trance, or altered consciousness, and formed part of the rituals preparing for supernatural experience.
ROUTE 2. Self-guided route. You can see more than 20 engraved panels on a 30-minute self-guided route. It includes the Twyfelfontein spring and the ruins of a colonial-era homestead. The engravings include well-preserved examples of various antelope, birds and schematic depictions. Little climbing is needed and children can easily do this walk. Engravings on this route are signposted (although not described!).
ROUTE 3. Dancing kudu route – the famous highlight. For guided parties only this walk takes about 60 minutes. The approach includes the self-guided route to the spring. This route features the ‘Dancing kudu’, an unusual polished engraving that combines a female kudu and several geometric depictions. This can be viewed from a platform ideal for photography. A steep climb after the spring, the walk includes a shaded rest area and toilet. The return route includes the Zwei Schneider site which has a number of rock paintings, and an extraordinary natural stone ‘sculpture’.
ROUTE 4. Lion Man route – star of the show. Also only for guided groups and including the self-guided walk to the spring this route takes approximately 80 minutes. It covers some rough ground and is not suitable for less mobile people. However a shaded rest area and toilet allows some respite. The main attraction on this route is the ‘Lion Man’ panel in which elements of human and lion are combined. The Lion Man is an example of shaded relief engraving, a technique that is well developed at Twyfelfontein. The route also incorporates an array of other noteworthy engravings.
Further Information: An excellent illustrated article by John Kinahan explaining the rock art at Twyfelfontein can be viewed (or downloaded) by clicking here.
Links to other places in the rock-art and pre-history category: Tassili n’Ajjer I Tsodilo I Stone Circles I Tiya I Tadrart Acacus I Chongoni I Drakensberg I Kondoa
Entoptic Imagery in People and Their Art
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts to the faculty of the Gallatin Division of New York University, April 15, 1991
Copyright © 1991 by Linda Thurston
All copyrights of materials excerpted are retained by the original copyright holders.
Web Edition Copyright © 1997 by Linda Thurston
Introductory note to 1997 web edition:
Summary: I think that the association of trance states in the interpretation of Paleolithic rock art, particularly the inclusion of elements called the "signs" in relation to more complex imagery (such as animals), is compelling. My study researched what was known about entoptic imagery (images that arise within the human optical system, rather than a reflection of the outside world) in human biology, and what was known about hallucination and trance states in cross-cultural anthropological studies. My conclusion is that this sort of imagery is indeed something that is common to humans in our biology, and in that regard our Paleolithic ancestors are us. Entoptic imagery in art, associated with trance states in their broadest interpretation including dream states, is a pan-human phenomenon.
But human culture is richly various and particular interpretations have often said more about the interpreters than their subjects. There are a number of different kinds of trance, used for different social purposes, achieved in a wide variety of means (use of hallucenogenic plants is one, but far less common than rhythmic drumming and dancing, food and sensory deprivation). Shamanism is one, ancient and widespread, cultural tradition involving ritual trance states. But humans are rich in other cultures, too. Trance states are/have been used in different ways for different purposes, sometimes only special people (like medicine men and women) go into trance, sometimes everyone in the group participates, sometimes only the men or the women, sometimes individuals at important times of their lives such as upon reaching puberty.
By way of comparison with the shamanistic art and the Paleotlithic cave art already in the current discussion, I look at Australian aboriginal art, which has as much entoptic-type imagery mixed with animal icons as any art I know, and their Dreaming culture which is significantly different from shamanism. Human biology is common to all of us culture varies. Our ancestors 30-40,000 years before us surely shared our biology, and there are some things about where and how they lived that are known, but I think interpretations of the particulars of their culture are speculative at best.
Whatever you think of my conclusions, my paper reviews what was known in the fields of entoptic imagery and hallucination in human biology, and cross-cultural studies of trance up to 1991. My bibliography should be of interest to anyone who wishes to pursue these matters. I was able to avail myself of the fine, computerized catalogs of New York University's Bobst and Medical libraries, as well as the New School for Social Research and others.
I know this would be more satisfying if it included the pictures, but for now I give you the references. I would be happy to hear from interested people, but, not knowing how much traffic this may draw, I hesitate to promise to answer all queries and comments. You can send e-mail to me at [address below]
[end of Jan. 1, 1997 introduction]
This paper reviews the literature on entoptic imagery and concludes that it is indeed a pan-human phenomenon which is stimulated by a wide variety of circumstances including various medical conditions, sensory deprivation, hallucinogenic drug use, trance dancing and other means which are described. The author questions Lewis-Williams and Dowson's three-stage model of hallucination, but affirms the universality of seeing entoptic imagery and supports their thesis to the extent that this imagery appears in art because humans see it that way, particularly in altered states of consciousness.
The author then looks at entoptic-type imagery in the art of various peoples in relation to ethnographic analysis. Studies of shamanistic cultures reveal a great deal of entoptic-type imagery in their art. But the author also found entoptic-type imagery in non-shamanistic cultures as well, including in contemporary American textile patterns and home furnishing designs and in Australian aboriginal art.
The Australian example -- where the art involves entoptic-type imagery to an extreme degree, but where the culture is based on the Dreaming, a specific cultural form which differs from shamanism in significant respects -- is used to argue that one cannot make conclusions as to the nature of any society that produces(d) art with entoptic imagery. Because entoptic imagery is universal to humanity, it is liable to appear in the art of peoples with a variety of types of cultures.
Table of Contents
II. Entoptic Imagery and Human Biology. 9
III. Cross-Cultural Studies of Trance and Hallucination. 38
IV. Entoptic-Type Imagery in the Art of Some Cultures. 47
V. The Case of Australian Aboriginal Art and Culture. 56
The authors develop a neuropsychological model based on the imagery seen in trance states from entoptic images to fully developed iconic images for classifying and discussing similar images that appear in rock art. They outline seven general principles of perception of this imagery and three stages of its apprehension. They apply this model to the shamanistic rock arts of the Southern San of South Africa and the Shoshonean Coso of California, and then to the art of Upper Paleolithic Europe to argue that this art, too, was associated with altered states of consciousness. For instance, the superpositioning and juxtapositioning of geo-metric "signs" with the animals, people and therianthropes (combined human/animal forms) in Paleolithic art is interpreted as the mix of entoptic with iconic (or "representational" or "figurative" or "complex," depending on the interpretation) images seen in an advanced state of trance. (See Figs. 1-3.)
This paper appears to have made quite a splash even beyond anthropology and "rock art" circles it is written up in the Psychological Abstracts of the American Psychological Association. Judging from the discussion in Current Anthropology included with the article at publication, it appears to be simultaneously controversial and accepted in large measure, even by many individual commentators, for example Bednarik: "Despite my reservations and criticisms, I find some interpretive aspects of the paper surprisingly plausible" (219) and Halverson, with criticisms of some aspects of the paper, says "it is the first really credible explanation [of the "signs" in rock art] that I have seen" (225). Indeed, this paper provoked much enthusiasm and many questions.
If true, even as only a working hypothesis, it offers another road to a better understanding of Paleolithic art where ethnographic data, so useful for understanding the San rock art as demonstrated by Lewis-Williams' earlier work on the San (1981, 1982, 1983a, 1983b, 1984, 1985, 1986), is unavailable. The authors argue that it is the best-fit hypothesis at this time for interpreting the Paleolithic art because it "explains more, and more varied, data than competing hypotheses, is compatible with well-established research, and has predictive and heuristic potential" (Lewis-Williams, and Dowson 1988: 237) and, as Lewis-Williams pointed out, "it is a hypothesis which discriminates between relevant and irrelevant data and so makes research possible" (1983a: 540).
I decided to research several avenues to explore the validity of this hypothesis: What is actually known about entoptic imagery and human biology? What is known about imagery experienced in different cultures around the world, particularly where trancing and hallucinating are part of the social ritual? What is known of this type of imagery appearing in the art of various cultures of different times and places? Finally I asked, is there really any predictive potential in relating this type of imagery to an altered state of consciousness or shamanism in particular?
I found that there is no dispute as to the reality of entoptic imagery as a biological phenomenon, but scientists differ over how and where it arises in the optic system. This imagery is "seen" by people in not only all types of cultures, but under dozens of types of influences including many types of trance induction from the use of hallucinogenic drugs to rhythmic driving to sensory deprivation, to other conditions such as hypoglycemia, simple fatigue or migraines.
While more work needs to be done to evaluate the extent to which people in various different conditions and cultures see the same particular forms, called "form constants" by Klüver (1966: 22), there is good general agreement on the specifics of the forms, called "constants" because they are constantly repeated in the experiences reported throughout the literature. They are some forms, but not others for example they include the spiral, tunnel, arc, lattice and zigzag line, but not the trapezoid or the square (outside the context of the checkerboard/lattice).
In my art and anthropological research I found a number of researchers besides Lewis-Williams and Dowson who have linked entoptic imagery with shamanistic art in cultures they studied such as Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff with the Tukano of Colombia (1978, 1981, 1987), Peter and Jill Furst (92-93) and T. Blackburn (93) with the Chumash of California and Marlene Dobkin de Rios (1984: 78) with the Nazca of Peru and in her summary of cross-cultural motifs in the art of peoples who used hallucinogens (1984: 198-199).
Thus, a large body of data appears to link entoptic imagery seen in trance states with imagery in shamanistic art, but not just shamanistic art. I also found a great deal of apparent entoptic imagery in art that is not shamanistic. One striking example is found in Australian aboriginal art which is mainly composed of spots, arcs, zigzags and so on, often juxtaposed with animal imagery, and is deeply expressive of their religious viewpoint (see Fig. 3). But it is not connected with shamanism or any known type of ritual trance.
In fact, in the U.S. today, apparent entoptic imagery constitutes an entire category of fabric design called "geometrics," a subset of "ethnic prints." Tracey Millar of the Design Lab of the Fashion Institute of Technology told me it has been heavily used in American leisure wear for the past five years and has also been seen in men's ties in the past two years. She said the influence in the fabric design world came from the house furnishings area where plates such as the "Memphis" style were the model (see Fig. 4).
The problem in linking apparent entoptic imagery with altered states of consciousness in general, or shamanism in particular, is exactly that it is so ubiquitous. All kinds of people under many different circumstances can see entoptic imagery, and these images sometimes turn up in their art. But what appears in art may not be a reflection of a primary experience it could also just be from a tradition of decoration.
For instance, when I asked my sister-in-law about some zigzag lines with spots she was doodling, she told me it was a traditional Latvian design. While the Latvians may well have been influenced by ancient shamanistic traditions, for her today it has none of those cultural meanings and no one can say what those same designs may have signified, if anything, to her ancestors who may have woven, carved or painted them a few hundred years ago. The point is that you cannot tell what it represents just by looking at the art. Lewis-Williams himself made this point forcefully in "Cognitive and Optical Illusions in San Rock Art Research."
I have concluded that while there is a link with seeing entoptic imagery and altered states of consciousness (i.e., people do not usually see them in "normal" waking consciousness), that to identify these images in peoples' art does not necessarily reflect a shamanistic culture or other culture involving ritual trance. It may be that our common human biology has been a source of inspiration in visual art, but the appearance of such images in art has little predictive value as to the nature of the society that produced(s) it.
Of course when speaking about Paleolithic Europe there was little prior tradition of art [at least surviving for analysis today], except markings similar to the entoptics that have been variously explained as symbols, notations, totemic marks, etc. And it makes sense that in cultures where trance visions are important, these visions, including entoptic imagery, would be reflected in the art. That the entoptic images seem to be represented in the art implies that they have significance, but what and why that may be cannot really be explained.
Sometimes entoptic images are invested with meaning and at other times they are not. There is a big difference where things seen in trance are culturally important for survival such as in healing, bringing rain, or finding a guardian spirit, compared with my culture where people rub their eyes and see spots, but think nothing of it because it has no significance for us. And yet they are big in leisure wear today! Perhaps these "geometric" prints evoke feelings of relaxation if people subconsciously associate the imagery with their state of mind upon going to sleep or waking up. Perhaps it is just that people see entoptic imagery in various states of consciousness and so feel comfortable with those shapes, somehow like them.
In some other cultures these images are filled with meaning. What meaning entoptic images may be invested with differs from culture to culture, as Lewis-Williams and Dowson note (1988: 213). Some of these different cultural interpretations will be shown in the later discussion of Reichel-Dolmatoff's work with the Colombian Tukano and Nancy Munn's study of Australian aboriginal Walbiri Iconography. As an example, the spiral "symbolizes incest and represents women who are forbidden" to the Tukano (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1972: 109), but in the Walbiri gunuwari designs of the men, the spiral represents a campsite or, in other specific contexts, a "hole, fire, fruit, hill, etc." (Munn 151).
So when Lewis-Williams and Dowson write about "induction of meaning" in relation to interpreting Paleolithic art (1988: 201, 213), and in the commentary section Bahn (218), Faulstich (224) and Winkelman (231) join in considering that this line of inquiry might provide insight into the meaning of the depictions, I say hold on. At the other end of the spectrum of opinion, Davis questions "how they [Upper Paleolithic graphics] could have meant anything at all" (1988: 224).
The examples of living peoples such as the Tukano and Walbiri, from whom we can learn the meanings of their depictions, show well how graphics can have specific meanings in particular cultures. The examples show equally well how the same graphic forms can have completely different meanings from one culture to another. Therefore, I think the aspiration to assign any particular meanings to graphic forms in a culture for which we have no ethnographic evidence, such as in the Upper Paleolithic, is doomed. I do not think this is "ethnographic despair," as Lewis-Williams and Dowson call it (1988: 201), just realism as to what we can know.
Still, with these criticisms, I accept Lewis-Williams and Dowson's hypothesis as the best-fit interpretation of Paleolithic art to date. That is to say that it is a better fit than other less-convincing theories such as "hunting magic," "art for art's sake" or the structuralist division into male and female signs. It seems likely that Paleolithic art was associated with altered states of consciousness. It seems likely that the "entoptic"/"iconic" mix of imagery in much art around the world is based on, or stimulated by, the biology of the artists' vision. But we cannot really say whether the Paleolithic artists' culture was shamanistic or something else.
II. Entoptic Imagery and Human Biology
Tyler argues that "this is incorrect, as the term should then be 'entophthalmic' (literally, 'within the eye'. " (1633). Or, Dorland's also offers "intraocular": "within the eye" (849) I agree with Tyler and further point out that Dorland's definitions are contradictory since "optic" is defined as "of or pertaining to the eye" (1186, emphasis added), "entoptic" phenomena should be defined as visual phenomena arising from within the optic system -- the eye or other parts that pertain to it such as the optic nerve and visual cortex.
Additionally, if the term "entoptic" did not cover visual sensations arising anywhere within the optic system, then there would be no term with which to discuss this phenomenon. It is clear from reviewing the discussions over where within the visual system such visual sensations arise that a term is needed to cover the full range of phenomena, not limited to those originating specifically in the eyeball. So I will use "entoptic" to refer to this full range and advocate that Dorland's revise its definition of "entoptic" to parallel that of "optic," including the "or pertaining to" part.
Thus defined, entoptic phenomena encompass two more specific phenomena: "phosphenes" and "form constants."
Phosphenes are also variously defined. Oster (83) says the word derives from the Greek "to show light" and it is mainly used to refer to images "seen" as a result of physical stimulation such as pressure on the retina (e.g., Adler, Oster, Siegel and Jarvik) or electrical stimulation of the brain (Brindley 281, Knoll, Shakhnovich et al.).
Webster's says a phosphene is "a bright visual image produced by mechanical stimulation of the retina, as by pressure on the eyeball through the closed eyelids" (1101) and Dorland's says it is "an objective visual sensation that appears with the eyes closed and in the absence of visual light" (1283). Dorland's cannot mean "objective" in the medical sense of a ". condition perceptible to others besides the patient" (Webster's 1012) since phosphenes are "seen" from within they cannot be perceptible to others. In fact that is one of the difficulties for the research in this area since it must be based on subjects' reports.
The other point raised by Dorland's definition is the requirement for an absence of light (what is "visual light" anyhow, "visible light"?). Most people use the term to indicate the visual effects produced by mechanical and electrical means. These effects can be seen in both lit and blackened rooms the point is that the imagery is not caused by the light and can be seen without light.
At the same time numerous researchers have described visual phenomena of similar types (spots, swirls, filigrees, etc.) based on the structures of the eye which do require some light (e.g., Adler as summarized in Siegel and Jarvik 142, Marshall 289-304, Horowitz 1978: 234-238), such as "diffraction of light by radial fibers of the lens a black lacework seen against a red background due to retinal blood vessels, which cast a shadow on rods and cones" (Siegel and Jarvik 142). Such images are properly classified as entoptic by all definitons, but would not be called phosphenes since they depend in part on having some light.
One commonly known entoptic phenomenon, muscae volitantes, popularly called "floaters," are produced by specs of cellular material that get into the eyes during embryonal development and commonly can be seen by staring at an overcast sky (Horowitz 1978: 236-237). The IBM-sponsored show "Light" that has toured the U.S. in recent years (for instance Fall 1989 at the Science Museum's Exploratorium in Flushing, NY) includes one display where the viewer peers into an eyepiece with blue light which augments this perception characterized by wiggly movements.
The form constants (see description page 3) which seem to take more specific geometric shapes than floaters can be seen with some or no light, and have mostly been studied in the context of hallucinogenic drugs (Klüver, Siegel and Jarvik). Further, as will be shown in the following review of the research, it appears that many constants may originate from other parts of the optic system than the eye (retinal ganglion, optic nerve, visual cortex). Slade and Bentall point out that "the similarity between entoptic phenomena and form constants may be more apparent than real" (156).
Since these phosphenes, form constants and other things "seen" with closed eyes are very similar in their subjective experience (spots, arcs, grids, etc.) and since scientists have identified them as originating in various parts of the optic system, the best term for describing these phenonema as a whole is "entoptic."
It is to this full range of entoptic phenomena that Lewis-Wiliams and Dowson address themselves in "The Signs of All Times." I will now review what scientists know about this and look at the question raised by Paul Bahn in the commentary on the article as to "how well established the claim is that these things are truly universal" (271).
While a great deal of research has been devoted to neurology, perception and cognition, dreaming, relatively few researchers have studied the entoptic phenomena. A great deal of psychological research has gone into hallucinations, but most of it is concerned with such aspects as the auditory hallucinations of schizophrenics rather than visual imagery. Or sometimes a writer will mention the geometric forms seen in the early part of hallucination, but otherwise ignore the phenomenon to focus on aspects of deep hallucination.
Fortunately scientists from a number of disciplines have investigated the subject. Although the groups studied are often small, there have been studies on populations of a thousand or more. While most individual studies often have a limited cross-cultural range, people from all continents and a variety of types of cultures have been studied, so taken together they tell us about humanity as a whole.
There is solid general agreement that people can "see" similar geometric forms under a variety of circumstances including sensory deprivation or monotony, flickering light, rhythmic driving accomplished by drumming or repetitive chanting, lack of sleep or food for a few days, ingestion of a variety of drugs, migraines, dizziness, electrical stimulation, hypoglycemia, hyperventilation, epilepsy, advanced syphilis, hypothermia or hyperthermia, isolation and life-threatening stress, hypnagogic or hypnopompic reverie (upon going to sleep or waking up), fever delirium, malaria, delirium tremens, crystal gazing, photostimulation, and even simple pressure on the eyeball (c.f. Brindley, Grüsser et al., Oster, Raschka and Schlager, Richards, Siegel 1984, 1977a: 132, Siegel and Jarvik, Slade and Bentall 151, Zuckerman).
Additionally, these types of images can be diagnostic of medical problems. For instance, "Retinal detachments are frequently preceded by a shower of 'sparks'" (Lyght 485), but sometimes people without any physical problems see these flashes in which case the condition is called "Moore's lightning streaks" (Lyght 485). Slade and Bentall reported that "visions of brightly coloured stereotyped figures (animals or objects) occurred during the initial phases of progressive eye disease" (105). Raschka and Schlager repoted an interesting case where a psychologically normal woman with eye disease developed visual hallucinations combining entoptic images with complex imagery, both irritative and release-type hallucinations. Their conclusion: ". visual hallucinations of ocular origin can occur in the absence of mental illness" (51). And also in the absence of altered states of consciousness -- it can be simply due to physical biology.
One of the earliest recorded observations in sensory physiology was a description of pressure phosphenes in ancient Greece. The idea that the eye produces light when it is squeezed was debated for hundreds of years with Aristotle rejecting it and Plato and others taking up its defense, and the notion continued to be discussed in Western science for some 2000 years (Grüsser, Grüsser-Cornehls, Kusel, and Przybyszweski 181). That this idea was taken seriously for so long should suggest modesty as to what we actually know today, but we have learned some things in the past two hundred years.
Allessandro Volta seems to have started modern investigation of phosphenes with electrical stimulation experiments in the early 1800s and was followed by Johannes Purkinje in 1819 who recorded various abstract patterns such as stripes and arches which were excitable either optically, mechanically or electrically (cited for example in Knoll, Max and Kugler 1959).
In subsequent years very little further attention was paid to this until people got interested in hallucinations from morphine and mescal. A few nineteenth century investigators are repeatedly cited in the literature on hallucination including Sir Francis Galton and A.B. Boismont (Bliss and Clark 93-95, 106 Horowitz 1978: 68-69), and E. Parish who expressed the opinion that hallucinations were entoptic events as early as 1897 (Siegel and Jarvik 141).
In 1928, Heinrich Klüver published Mescal: The "Divine" Plant and Its Psychological Effects in which he summarized the "forms and form elements which must be considered typical for mescal visions" (22) from the published literature at that time. Klüver used both descriptions by writers who had taken the drug such as Havelock Ellis (Klüver 13, 19-20) as well as a number of studies by physicians on groups of five to 60 subjects, mainly American and European medical students and other physicians. The most significant works cited by Klüver were those of Beringer, Rouhier, and Knauer and Maloney.
Klüver noted that the described forms were "remarkably uniform," coined the term "form-constants" to be able to discuss them, and went on to categorize them (22-24, 66-80) in four basic types: 1) the grating, lattice, fretwork, filigree, honeycomb, chessboard design, 2) the cobweb, 3) the tunnel, funnel, alley, cone or vessel, and 4) the spiral. He also discussed their movement (kaleidoscopic, symmetrical, etc.) and transformations of imagery from one thing to another. In extending this work in 1966, he made no changes in this material. Later researchers to be discussed have extended or variously interpreted Klüver's constants, but with a remarkable similarity that shows how "constant" they are.
In the 1950s, Max Knoll and his colleagues in Munich tested over a thousand subjects with electrical stimulation in a dark environment (Knoll and Kugler Oster 85-87). About half of the subjects reported seeing geometric figures and, interestingly, they found that by varying the frequency of pulses, the patterns changed (see Fig. 5). Again the same basic patterns emerge, which Knoll classified into fifteen groups (see Fig. 6).
In 1958, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science held a symposium on hallucinations in Washington, D.C. and many of the contributions were published in a volume edited by L.J. West. By then there was a growing body of investigation into imagery induced by sleep and sensory deprivation and LSD that is relevant to this discussion. The psychiatric profession also did a good deal of research on schizophrenic hallucinations, including some researchers who linked their illusions with entoptic imagery (c.f. Horowitz see Fig. 7).
But all of the literature on schizophrenic hallucinations that I surveyed seems to agree that they are primarily auditory in nature rather than visual (c.f. Bliss and Clark 92-107, Feinberg 66, Modell 166-182). Interestingly, Irwin Feinberg reported that of nineteen schizophrenic subjects with visual hallucinations that could be found for study, none of them reported visual experiences similar to the early stages of drug intoxication and "form-constants were almost invariably absent" (66). However, this may be a reflection of Western culture as it appears that visual hallucinations are almost as common as auditory ones among psychiatric patients in non-Western societies (Slade and Bentall 78-79).
Yet researchers looking into perception of "normal" people under "abnormal" circumstances did report visions of simple geometric patterns, as well as more complex imagery. This phenomenon was reported in the presentations at the 1958 symposium by Shurley, Vernon and McGill, Bliss and Clark, Freedman et al., and Silverman et al. in their own experiments and in others that they reviewed. These reports tend to deal with phenomenology rather than mechanisms, although Bliss and Clark state there is reason to believe, without indicating what, that "the elementary perceptions of geometric forms is a function of retinal stimulation. However, the integrated imagery of hallucinations must be cortical" (98). This expresses the view that geometric imagery originates in the eye, but the more complex imagery must involve the brain, a view that jibes with later researchers (c.f. Horowitz), but now it has been shown that some of the simple geometric imagery also involves the brain (c.f. Horowitz, Siegel and Jarvik, Slade and Bentall 156).
Hebb, Heron, Bexton and Scott at McGill University opened up the field of perception in conditions of sensory deprivation in the early fifties and studies in this field have been carried out ever since then. But the major summary of this work today remains John Zubek's 1969 collection, according to Leo Goldberger of the Center for Mental Health Research at NYU.
In this volume only Marvin Zuckerman's chapter is directly relevant to this discussion, but it is useful because it reviews the work of all the major centers of sensory deprivation (SD) studies in Canada and the U.S. and compares SD hallucinations with drug-induced and schizophrenic ones, concluding that both SD and drug-induced hallucinations produced the imagery of colored patterns and geometric forms that Klüver described, but psychotic hallucinations did not (Zuckerman 1969a: 121-123). Zuckerman also quantified the data on over 1,000 subjects and found that with sensory deprivation about half reported seeing the simple geometric forms while 20% reported complex visual experiences (Slade and Bentall 104).
The narrower area of hostage hallucinations was explored by Ronald Siegel who interviewed 31 former hostages, eight of whom reported visual hallucinations including flashes of light, geometric patterns and tunnel forms, leading to complex hallucinations of objects, people and scenes. He concluded that the hostages that hallucinated had a greater sense of helplessness in the face of an overt threat to their life than the non-hallucinators (Siegel 1984: 264-272).
A 1975 volume edited by Siegel and West presents an interesting collection of articles on hallucinations and reports several studies that look at excitation of the central nervous system from dream states to drug-induced hallucinations. Of particular interest in this volume is an oft-cited article by Siegel and Jarvik in which the authors summarize the experimental analysis of drug-induced states in man and animals and present their own study results.
They taught two groups of 14 and 12 subjects to rapidly identify various categories of forms (see Fig. 8) and their movements and then tested both trained and untrained subjects with six different drugs as well as placebos. Again, the now-familiar pattern of geometric forms was seen, even with placebo subjects in a dim, quiet room, and subjects influenced by such drugs as THC, LSD and mescaline also moved on to complex imagery (people, scenes, etc.). They noted that complex imagery appeared well after the lattice-tunnel imagery was reported and, "At that time, the complex forms constituted between 43 and 75% of the total form reports . Such images first appeared in the reports as overlaying the lattices and tunnels . and [were] generally located in the periphery of these images" (127-128).
They also went to the Sierra Madre and interviewed four male Huichol Indians during a ritual peyote ceremony and other Huichols separately without drugs. They recorded 95 visual imagery reports during the peyote session and seven without drugs, the majority of them simple form, color and movement patterns, with 27 reports of complex imagery. The simple forms were like those "seen" by their American subjects the complex forms reflected the Indians' culture and/or environment (deer, eagle, snake, etc.). They noted the similarity of the forms with those seen in Huichol art (138, 146b) and Siegel stated in another article that "The images proved to be virtually identical to the symmetrical repeating patterns found in Huichol weaving and art" (1977: 138-139).
Siegel and Jarvik, in both articles just cited, challenge the idea that the simple geometric imagery is largely an entoptic phenomenon, arguing that light is necessary for most entoptic phenomena whereas in their experiments the forms were "seen" in total darkness (1975: 142-144). They agree that phosphenes, arising from the discharge of neurons within the eye, are partially responsible, but they look to the central nervous system to explain much of it, especially the more complex imagery.
In so doing they support the perceptual-release theory of hallucinations which holds that if sensory input is reduced or impaired while awareness remains, stored memory-perceptions are released and experienced as dreams, fantasies or hallucinations. This theory was formulated by British neurologist J. Hughlings Jackson and developed by L.J. West (1975: 287-311 1962: 275-291) and is well regarded.
But we need not choose between all-from-the-eye vs. all-from-the-central nervous system explanations: As summarized by Mardi Horowitz, "nearly every interested investigator of imagery has suggested the existence of some sort of dual input model" (1978: 293). Thus far this discussion has focused on the phenomenology of this visual imagery now we turn to a brief examination of the possible biological mechanisms. This aspect of the literature includes both theorizing on the possibilities and more scientific medical experiments on the brain and visual cortex. The arguments seem to be over where the geometric patterned images that people see originate -- from the eye itself, the optic nerve and/or the visual cortex of the brain itself -- not on whether people see such imagery.
In 1937, Marshall took the position that the geometric imagery was indeed of entoptic origin: "The geometric figures, in my opinion, are due to the compactness and small diameter and regular arrangement of the rods and cones and a light source behind, mainly pigment granules, producing diffraction-like figures" (293). He hypothesized that the sinuous and circulatory movements such as the spirals were caused by capillary circulation that the retinal pigment and rods and cones were responsible for the honeycombs and lattices and that the tunnel effect "arises partly from the foveal cones and environing rods being smaller and more closely arranged than those of the periphery, and in consequence the geometric figures perceived are likely to be smaller in the centre than at the periphery" (300).
The work of Adler is described by Siegel and Jarvik where they note several biological bases for entoptic phenomena including, "superficial horizontal bands due to folds in corneal epithelium that change with eyelid motion a longitudinal strip due to lacrimal fluid that adheres to the upper-lid margin, central moving bright spots surrounded by a dark ring due to droplets of tear fluid and mucus on the cornea diffraction of light by radial fibers of the lens a black lacework seen against a red background due to retinal blood vessels, which cast a shadow on rods and cones and pulsating figures due to excursions of distended blood vessels on underlying receptor cells . small dancing spots . caused by red blood cells passing through retinal capillaries" (142).
Siegel and Jarvik "question the exclusive role of entoptic phenomena here because they are not as symmetrical or as well-organized as the drug-induced constants," (143) but conclude that "It remains possible, however, that such entoptic structures only provide the basic structural templates for the cognitive elaboration in higher centers to imagery constants" (144).
Horowitz discusses the contributions of the anatomy of the eye and retinal and postretinal ganglionic network where he points out that the early view of the optic pathway as merely a transmitter of visual representations has been discarded and also that the retina itself works to codify information through special receptivity to particular patterns (1978: 234-238). He postulates that the coding forms include such things as straight lines, regularity of arc, circularity, parallelisms, etc. and summarizes several studies of the figures most readily perceived, which parallel some of the forms under discussion here (Fig. 9), and also gives his version of the redundant elements in hallucinations and visual imagery (Fig. 10). He hypothesizes that the redundant visual percepts arise either from the anatomic characteristics of the eye or "the bioelectric circuits for pattern receptivity in the retinal ganglionic network" and offers two pages worth of suggestions for possible physical origins of this imagery, a number of which coincide with Adler's ideas cited above (Horowitz 1978: 236-237). One of these points struck me which they did not comment upon, namely that the fibers of the lens are arranged around six diverging axes -- could this be related to the common honeycomb percept?
Horowitz also accepts a direct role of the brain in the formation of the geometric images. He cites studies by others, particularly Penfield and associates at McGill, Jasper and Rasmussen, and G.F. Mahl, as well as his own work in direct electrical stimulation of the brains of epileptics and others undergoing brain surgery. They all agree that direct electrical stimulation of the visual cortex can produce images of wavy lines, flashes, colors, honeycombs, wheels and so on, as well as full-blown complex imagery (people/scenes). Siegel also cites Penfield to support his view that the images originate in the visual cortex of the brain (1977: 139).
Siegel and Jarvik also cite the work of Barber (1970) who they say "reviews compelling evidence that phosphenelike phenomena may be induced at higher levels of the visual system than the retina itself" (144). Richards also agrees, in the case of migraines, that "the display is in the brain and not the result of light passing into the eye" (92). (See Fig. 11 for some of Richards' illustrations of migraine illusions.)
Quite a few research scientists have studied the physiology of visual imagery in man and other animals. Scientific American has published a collection (Held and Richards) on the subject with articles exploring the role of the retina, the relation of eye movements to perception, the visual cortex of the brain, perception of illusions and so on. Bits and pieces of this research are possibly relevant to this inquiry, for instance Hubel noted that the retinal ganglion cells continue firing at a fairly steady rate even in the absence of stimulation and that visual cortical cells are each dedicated to recognizing one particular shape -- straight lines, curves, etc. -- in one particular orientation (149-156). But none of these articles directly address the perception of phosphenes or entoptic images.
Omitted from the above collection, however, was an important article by Gerald Oster that appeared in 1970 in Scientific American on the subject of "Phosphenes." Discussing phosphenes generated both by pressure on the eye and by electrical stimulation, Oster summarized that "phosphenes seem to originate at different points along the visual pathway" and noted that while Penfield's experiments established that phosphenes could originate in the brain, precisely where in the brain they are produced was not established (86). Oster indicated plans for experiments "to see at what level one can induce the phosphene experience," (87) but I did not find updated material by him on this.
I did, however, use the MedLine computer database at the NYU Medical Library to locate relevant studies in the medical literature done in the past decade. Researchers have continued investigation of entoptic imagery, mainly in relation to practical medical questions. For instance Brindley reports on work with prostheses implanted in the brains of blind people to enable them to read from electrical stimulation of specific phosphene patterns. Patients have been able to read "Braille presented as arrays of the six phosphenes producible from six previously chosen electrodes" (282) since the 1970s. Today doctors are working to make regular print visible to the blind through this means and while they have not achieved this goal, they have identified 120 locations in the brain where electrodes generate phosphenes and have mapped where in the visual field they appear (Brindley 282-283). Shakhnovich et al. also confirmed that the location of the phosphene in the visual field depended upon the position of the electrode.
Other studies have looked at phosphenes and/or other entoptic phenomena in relation to diagnosis of various vision problems. Most of the current studies appear to be working with electrical simulation or pressure on the eyeball. This is not surprising because federal laws from the late 1960s and early 1970s imposed constraints that "virtually eliminated experimental work with hallucinogens in man" (Hollister 19).
Nevertheless a good deal was learned in the sixties in neurobiochemistry that contributed to understanding the mechanisms of hallucinogenic drug action (Siegel 1977b: 17). Some 150 species of plants ". are known to be used for their hallucinogenic properties" (Schultes and Hofmann 1979: 26). These plants are either angiosperms or fungus, both rich in the alkaloids that are usually the active hallucinatory chemicals (Schultes 1977: 25, Siegel 1984: 4). Chemically, nitrogenous (alkaloidal) hallucinogens can be either derivatives of phenylethylamine, indole (tryptamines), tropane or isoxazole marijuana, often classified as a hallucinogen, is the nonnitrogenous exception based on dibenzypran (Schultes and Hofmann 1973: 17-21). The most potent hallucinogens are the indole derivatives such as psilocybin, psilocin, harmine, bufotenin and lysergic acid, and the phenylethylamine in mescaline.
Significantly, these two chemical types are structurally similar to important neurohormones that affect psychic functions in the brain: phenylethylamine is chemically similar to norepinephrine and the indoles "are structurally related to the neurohormonal factor serotonin" (Schultes and Hofmann 1973: 19-21). In fact it has been shown that LSD, mescaline and psilocybin exhibit cross-tolerance after a few days of repeated use, "indicating that they share a common mechanism" (Slade and Bentall 154). Further research is required to understand the mechanisms of neurohormones and the hallucinogens, but the evidence is that "these drugs have a direct impact on the processing of visual information in the brain" (Slade and Bentall 156).
It is clear that medical scientists continue to research the phenomenology and mechanisms involved with entoptic imagery. Their work has extended our knowledge of some of the particulars and has continued to support the basic findings of earlier researchers whose work I have described. Much still remains to be known about precisely where and how these percepts arise, but it seems clear that they can involve (either or both) the structures of the eye and the functioning of the higher nervous system.
To answer Paul Bahn's question in his commentary published with "The Signs of All Times," "these things are truly universal" (271) because they are based on human biology. Although what people in different cultures make of them varies, as will be seen in the upcoming anthropological discussion.
Another question related to the biological issues that was raised in the article's commentary section regards the extent to which the geometric imagery is really "constant." Mario Consens complains that the authors "do not mention the more than 30 phosphenes currently identified, of which they selectively refer to only 6" (221). Actually they do note, "Although there are numerous entoptic forms, certain types recur" (203). I complain that Consens gives no reference for 30 phosphenes and I could find no reflection of this in my research unless you count every little subtype. In a sense it depends how you count Klüver called grating/lattice/fretwork/filigree/honeycomb/chessboard "one." However one counts, there is good basic agreement on the recurrence of common forms.
In the 1960s Horowitz, unaware of Klüver's work, reduplicated it, abstracting redundant elements of the forms reported that "corresponded with Klüver's categorizations, although theoretical explanations differ somewhat" (Horowitz 1975: 178 1964: 515-518). In his 1975 paper Horowitz described the similarities between Klüver's form constants and his own work reported in his 1964 article point by point. These two researchers separately reached the same conclusions as to the forms of the imagery.
Siegel and Jarvik basically followed Klüver's categories, elaborating them as: random (such as blobs or anything else not in other categories), line, curve, web, lattice, tunnel, spiral, kaleidoscope and complex (recognizable imagery such as people, animals, scenes) (119-132) (see Fig. 8). Siegel also presented 12 patterns seen by subjects in a cocaine study, again the familiar arcs, grids, spots, etc., half of which he said were "virtually identical to the patterns seen in the hallucinations accompanying migraine attacks" (Siegel 1977a: 138) (see Fig. 12).
Knoll classified 15 phosphenes induced by electricity and numbered them according to their commonness in his study of over a thousand subjects these were graphically presented by Oster (87) (see Fig. 6). Tyler described "Some New Entoptic Phenomena" in 1978, one of which was a dumbbell figure (1634), but while the rest enriches our understanding of some of the details, the shapes fall within the familiar "spots, gratings and chessboard forms" (1638) and his "variant of the structure of the regular grid pattern" (1637 B) (see Fig. 13) has clear spiral and tunnel aspects.
However you count them, these forms are remarkably repetitive through the literature. I have appended the various authors' illustrations (Klüver only described with words) in the appendix of figures for comparison.
The six common entoptic images selected for study by the authors in "The Signs of All Times" are basically the same as Klüver's constants, although they omit the spiral/vortex which they say deserves "special treatment" at a later date (203), although they do not explain why. It leaves me puzzled as to why they differentiate that particular form from the others. But it does not seem to me to be a weakness in their paper that they do not chart each and every entoptic image they use six of the main ones to demonstrate their idea that images seen entoptically appear in the art in question and that is enough to make that point.
Another related question is the extent to which similar imagery is seen in the variety of different states that seem to bring them out more than in normal waking consciousness. It is clear that all these states (listed on page 12) produce the simple geometric imagery and many of them go on to produce more complex imagery as well (such as people/scenes). It is not clear yet if differences in the types of geometric imagery can be discerned among the different conditions under which it is seen. Therefore identifying particular images (arcs, lattices, etc.) cannot indicate what state of consciousness or type of stimulation may have produced them.
Observers of various drug states have noted some differences such as seeing more things in blue with marijuana and THC (Siegel and Jarvik 146a) or that particular drugs stimulate feelings of flying, macropsia, transformation of the body and so on, but the basic shapes do appear to be constant. Siegel compared imagery stimulated by various drugs with that seen without drugs in a blackened room and found them to be the same in type, but "With hallucinogenic drugs, however, the number of images reported by the subjects rose sharply" (1977a: 134). Thus, some of these drugs may produce more of this type of imagery, but the same basic forms remain. constant.
In his study of electrical stimulation of the visual cortex of blind people, Brindley reported "the majority of phosphenes were/are point-like or nearly so" (282). But the work of Penfield, Knoll and others described above shows that the full range of geometric type images can be stimulated by electricity (see Figs. 5 and 6).
Some of the conditions are more amenable to study in the lab than others, for instance imagery seen in states of dizziness or produced by rhythmic drumming is far less studied than that related to hallucinogenic drugs, sensory deprivation, sleep, electrical stimulation or pressure on the eyeball. What is known about entoptic phenomena has been studied mainly in these latter states, supplemented by studies of photostimulation, migraines and the other things in the studies described above. Since dizziness cannot be produced readily for study, reports of it will probably remain anecdotal.
One significant area has been little studied in the lab, namely the effects of rhythmic driving (drumming, chanting, singing) or postures. Since trance has been ritually induced by these means in so many cultures, including for example by the South African San, in contrast to the more frequently studied drug-induced trance, it would be valuable to learn more about this. Felicitas Goodman conducted trance experiments with rhythmic stimulation (gourd rattle) and posture in the 1970s and 1980s and found that "postures decisively affect the content of visions" (59) with, for example, one producing a feeling of flying, another a sense of the dissolution of the body or transformation into animal form. Physiological measurements showed differences upon entering trance such as increased theta waves on the EEG and increased production of beta-endorphin (also an effect seen with hallucinogenic drugs), but were similar between the various postures/visions. Goodman was concerned with complex imagery and deep trance experience and did not mention whether or not any of her subjects reported the simple geometric imagery.
The neuropsychological model of the ways mental imagery are perceived by people in altered states of consciousness offered by Lewis-Williams and Dowson had two other aspects besides the entoptic imagery itself. One was that they outlined seven principles of perception which they say apply to iconic (complex) hallucinations as well as to entoptic perceptions: replication, fragmentation, integration, reduplication, superpositioning, juxtapositioning, and rotation.
I am not able to evaluate whether or not these principles improve on similar descriptions by Klüver, Siegel and Jarvik, or Horowitz, although they do seem to include most of the types of movement discussed. Horowitz also mentioned drift and bilateral duplication (1964: 518) and practically every report mentions intensified color perception. Klüver also mentioned symmetry (26) and presque vu (31), the sense that a form or movement is almost completed, but never entirely completed. La Barre (1969) mentioned pulsation. What is clear from all the descriptions is that this imagery is in motion and behaves in various particular ways that could be better described and analyzed.
The final aspect of Lewis-Williams and Dowson's model was to elaborate three stages in the development of hallucinatory imagery from experiencing simple geometric forms at first, through a middle stage of construal of those images, into a third stage of iconic (complex) imagery in which the entoptic imagery may persist. The basic pattern of imagery beginning with geometric forms and progressing, when it goes beyond this first "stage," into developed images of people, animals and scenes still intermingled with the geometric imagery does not seem to be in dispute.
Lewis-Williams and Dowson state, "This three-stage progression was established by research using mescaline and LSD" (204). However the researchers whose work I have reviewed all speak of two stages moving along a continuum from geometrics to full-blown iconic/complex imagery. In fact, I felt misled by the authors regarding their citations for the three-stage schema because they were identical to mine for two stages. For example, here from the same authors and pages they cited: "The form constants appear in the first of two stages of drug-induced imagery" (Siegel 1977: 132) "But the form-constants, characteristic of these similar experiences, are only the first stage of a two-stage process. " (Siegel and Jarvik 111). And Horowitz (1964: 514 1975: 177, 178, 181) spoke of construal of the geometric entoptic imagery into iconic imagery, but did not discuss it as a middle "stage."
I agree with Klüver when he said "any scheme which, in a detailed manner, assigns different kinds of visions to successive stages of the mescal state must be viewed as extremely arbitrary. The only thing that is typical with regard to sequence is that very elementary visions are followed by visions of a more complex character" (20).
The authors are entitled to define a middle stage where the early imagery is developing into the later imagery, even if it is arbitrary, but they should not imply that others have done so when they have not. If they had scientists to cite who spoke of three stages they should have done so, but if, as it appears, they wish to speak of three stages for their own descriptive purposes they should acknowledge that fact and not mislead people to think that scientists have determined three stages of hallucination. Lewis-Williams and Dowson even say that "these three stages are not necessarily sequential" and "Nor should the stages be considered discrete" (204). So my question is, why do they think it necessary to posit an interim stage?
It is possible that including some "interim" images in their chart of examples from San, Coso and Paleolithic art allowed the authors to show a fuller range of trance imagery. The examples they show for construal, such as the beehive made of nested arcs and spots, could be an example of the construal of common entoptic images. And the examples they show for their stage 3 could be good illustrations of the mix of iconic and entoptic images in an advanced state of hallucination.
But the examples made it appear that the geometrics became more obvious in that advanced stage where the iconic imagery seems to be primary. All in all, I think their concept of stages is confusing and not scientifically grounded. They would have done better to simply present examples from the art that appeared to show different types of imagery characteristic of hallucination: simple geometric entoptics, construal and the mix of iconic and entoptic images.
In my judgment their most persuasive argument for altered states of consciousness being associated with the arts they discussed is the interrelationship between these different elements. As they said, "a single zigzag, for instance, would not in itself be persuasive evidence for an entoptic component" (213). But the mix of geometrics with humans and animals (and human/animal creatures) is just what observers of hallucination have described.
III. Cross-Cultural Studies of Trance and Hallucination
In fact there is a great deal of mystical material, not infrequently presented as scientific work. In line with my own cultural viewpoint and training, I have based my investigation on the work of those scientists and anthropologists who took a Western-oriented, non-mystical approach to the questions at hand. I will discuss their work as it pertains to the antiquity and worldwide distribution of social practices involving altered states of consciousness. Another theme that recurs through the material is cultural patterning -- each culture develops its own particular methods, rituals, myths and visions. Two major pertinent foci of anthropological research have been hallucinogenic drug use and shamanism, but I will begin with the investigation of trance states as a whole.
"'Trance' derives from Latin transitus, 'a passage,' in turn from transire, 'to pass over,' namely to go into another psychic state" (La Barre 1975: 10). In shamanism it is believed that the shaman's spirit leaves his body and literally passes over into another world. It is thought that while there the shaman can interact with mythic beings and perform socially useful tasks like healing or bringing rain. Shamanism is one widespread variety of belief and ritual involving trance states, but there are others as well.
Erika Bourguignon and her colleagues studied the literature on 488 societies distributed over several world regions for reports on altered states of consciousness as an aspect of the culture (1968, 1970, 1973a, 1973b, 1976, 1977, 1979). In doing this they distinguished between two types: "The possession trancer demonstrates the behavior of spirits to others, but he does not encounter them. The trancer . perceives and encounters the spirits. Possession trance is a public event, trance essentially a private event. The possession trancer impersonates, the trancer hallucinates" (1970: 185-186). In relation to the issues raised by "The Signs of All Times" it is only non-possession trance that is of interest in terms of "seeing visions."
Bourguignon and colleagues' results are striking. In the 488 societies they "found a form of ritualization of dissociational states in 437 of the total . 89% of our worldwide sample. Possession trance is found in 51% of this sample . and trance in 62% . there is an overlap between the two types of dissociation and some societies . 24% have both some form of possession trance and some form of trance. If we consider trance to involve hallucination, we see that 62% of our worldwide sample have ritualized patterns involving hallucinations" (1970: 187).
She goes on to summarize, "These are rather striking figures and justify the anthropologist's impressionistic judgment that dissociational states in general and trance/hallucinations, in particular, constitute a psycho-cultural phenomenon of major importance. We are here dealing with what is apparently a universal human capacity, which many societies, but by no means all, have utilized. Trance states . conform to a considerable extent to a culturally constituted model" (1970: 187).
Now it must be said that these percentages are based on the sample and do not represent humanity as a whole. Of the sampled societies, 75% were of groups of fewer than 1,000 members, but others were of large urban groups with populations of a million or more such as in Brazil and Korea (Bourguignon and Greenbaum 6). And their sample covered all the continents and many Pacific islands. So while this study does not particularly address "mainstream America" or modern Western Europe it clearly reveals ritualized forms of trance to be a tremendous worldwide phenomenon.
Bourguignon further reports, and all my sources agree, that the methods used to induce these states are quite prescribed and stereotyped within each society. She notes that drug use is the second principal method, deprivation (of sensory contact, food, sleep, etc.) being the primary one. They also found a significant difference in the methods used to bring about trance vs. possession trance in their North and South American Indian sample: "44% of the societies . that have trance states produce them by means of drugs, whereas only 15% of those with possession trance do so" (1970: 188).
Weston La Barre has studied the effects of hallucinogens in their enthographic contexts from the 1930s to the present. He "has shown, hunters and gatherers, rather than farmers, were probably the first to learn much about hallucinogenic plants" (Dobkin de Rios 1984: 7). He documented the use of hallucinogens around the world, summarizing other researchers work as well as his own (La Barre 1975a), which showed that peoples from the Americas knew and used a wide variety of psychotropic drugs while the peoples of Europe, Asia and Africa used only a relative few.
He argued that "the reason for such a difference can be found in the shamanism that plays such an important role in New World Indian society. The cultural value of personal revelation among successive waves of migrating PaleoIndian hunters led generations of such hunters to use and to experiment with whatever plant hallucinogens and stimulants could be encountered in their foraging" (Dobkin de Rios 1984: 6).
In his classic book, The Peyote Cult (1975b) he documented the spread of the peyote cult from pre-Columbian South American peoples northward to nearly 50 different Indian tribes by the 1930s, showed how it displaced an earlier mescal bean cult and differed from the more ancient and widespread "vision quest" in which an individual, usually at puberty, seeks a vision often through isolation, fasting and lack of sleep. Elsewhere he says that the vision quest is "evidently of at least Mesolithic cultural horizons" (La Barre 1975a: 14).
Following (and later contemporaneous with) La Barre were another few key researchers. Botanist Richard Evans Schultes spent over a decade researching in the jungle and became the director of the Harvard Botanical Museum. Albert Hofmann is the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD and later identified psilocybin. Together they combined their knowledge of botany and chemistry to write definitive books on hallucinogenic drugs -- their botany and chemistry as well as the history and methods of their use around the world (1973, 1979). Schultes has also given us some shorter, less technical summaries (1972, 1977).
In addition to Schultes and Hofmann, several others have written surveys and histories of hallucinogenic drugs and their use. Peter Furst wrote a worldwide survey of Hallucinogens and Culture (1976) from an anthropological perspective. This volume draws together the most wide-ranging summary of the anthropology of hallucinogen use including not only what is known, but also what is thought and speculated on unanswered questions. Also, Jonathan Ott did an important survey of North American use of hallucinogenic plants (1976). And Ronald Siegel gave us a short history of "psychopharmacology" (1977b).
Marlene Dobkin de Rios studied ancient and modern cultures in Peru for over twenty years and in 1984 published a book of comparative ethnography of hallucinogen use in twelve societies, both ancient and modern, from the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania. Her work is relevant to this inquiry in particular because she also looks at the reflection of hallucinogenic imagery in the various peoples' art and in her summary of cross-cultural motifs notes that "these illusions may be the physiological structures of one's own visual system, including lattices, cones, cylinders, and other geometrics, suddenly amenable to observation under the effects of the the drug" (1984: 198-199). In particular, she argues that the giant Peruvian earthworks known as the Nazca "lines" reflect the geometric and kaleidoscopic forms, as well as animal forms, seen in drug-induced hallucination and she hypothesizes their origin in the shamanistic "out-of-body aerial voyage" phenomenon (1977: 237-249 1984: 74-79). Also relevant to cave art, she notes "metamorphosis of human beings into animals (or, less frequently, into plants) . is a common, global drug-linked motif as well as a pan-American theme in general" (1984: 199).
Another important theme Dobkin de Rios draws attention to is the cultural patterning of visions. She says there is "good evidence that in a society where plant hallucinogens are used, each individual builds up a certain expectation of drug use which, in fact, permits the evocation of particular types of visions" (1984: 197). Bourguignon and all the other anthropologists I reviewed would agree that this is almost always the case. And not just where plant hallucinogens are used, but also in the more numerous societies where ritual trance states are achieved by other means such as drumming or deprivation.
Not only are the particular visions culturally patterned and structured, but generally the whole usage of drugs is highly ritualized and mostly sacred, often used in relation to healing and puberty/initiation rites (Dobkin de Rios 1984: 194, 200, 205-206). An unusual exception to this are the New Guinean highlanders who eat mushrooms and simply "run amok" in fact Dobkin de Rios says "The Kuma and Kaimbi are unique among the world's people in [using hallucinogens] in relatively mundane, secular ways" (1984: 18).
Dobkin de Rios also argues for the great antiquity of hallucinogen use, through citing others: She notes the Wassons in 1957 in Russia, Mushrooms and History analyzed use of hallucinogenic mushroom beginning at the end of the Ice Age and to Ronald Siegel "the data suggested that hallucinogenic plant ingestion could be set back in Paleolithic times, at least 40,000 years before present" (Dobkin de Rios 1984: 197). Of particular interest to this inquiry, she reports "A Czech scholar, Pokorny (1970), has argued that plant hallucinogens are the key to understanding the stylizations and ornaments in paleolithic art from Prodmosti, Avjejeve, and Mozin in Czechoslovakia" (Dobkin de Rios 1984: 6).
In what La Barre hailed as "one of the most admirable triumphs of modern scholarship" (1975a: 31), R. Gordon Wasson unraveled the mystery of the ancient Vedic Soma, identifying it as the Amanita muscaria (fly-agaric) mushroom, and traced its use by Indo-Europeans before they migrated across Europe and Asia down to its present-day use by Siberians (Wasson 1968 and 1986, Riedlinger, La Barre 1975a: 31-32). Wasson also led Western scientists in the discovery of the psilocybin mushroom (chemically analyzed by Hofmann) and its ethnographic documentation in Mexico (Wasson et al. 1974, Riedlinger).
All these researchers agree on the basic facts of the cultural history of hallucinogenic drug use. The picture they draw confirms and extends La Barre's earlier work and conclusions, described above, regarding the prehistoric origins of hallucinogen use and the differences in their use between the Old and New Worlds. Schultes and Hofmann came up with the striking statistic that "Nearly 130 species are known to be used in the Western Hemisphere, whereas in the Eastern Hemisphere, the number hardly reaches 20" (1979: 27,30). The difference does not rest on any difference in the availability of hallucinogens so, as they conclude, in specific support of La Barre's thesis that New World peoples' shamanism disposed them to value the psychedelic state, ". the disparity in number and usage of hallucinogens between Old and New World cultures must rest on a cultural basis (1979: 30).
One point that struck me was the extent to which people have gone in experimenting with these substances to find ways to bring out their hallucinogenic properties. That is to say that frequently the plants must be treated in some manner or mixed with others in order to make them hallucinogenic to humans. For example psilocybin and fly-agaric mushrooms must be dried in order for them to undergo a chemical change people inebriated with fly-agaric pass the active chemicals in their urine leading to the practice of drinking urine morning glory seeds must be powdered and soaked in water in Peru and the Amazon, natives mix ash and other additives to their main hallucinogenic plants.
In fact, Reichel-Dolmatoff reports that different Amazonian tribes "own" different recipes that produce different visions (1972: 97) (although I do not think it has been established how much of the differences in the visions come from differences between groups in cultural patterning vs. differences in recipes). And Schultes makes the point that the most promising future research in this realm will likely be research into the use of additives (1977: 261), and that if this research does not proceed now much knowledge will be lost with the demise of aboriginal culture (1972: 267). My point is that the extent of these peoples' own research and experimentation shows that they valued and sought out the hallucinogenic experience.
People have used many substances in many different cultural expressions. Readers interested in what plants were used in what ways by which peoples can refer to the above cited works particularly those by Schultes and Hofmann or Furst. In regard to hallucinogen use in the survivals of the "old religion" (witchcraft) in Christian Europe one should also consult Harner (1973a) who presents extensive descriptive translations from Latin works by contemporary observers and Inquisitors.
IV. Entoptic-Type Imagery in the Art of Some Cultures
I am with them as far as saying "In Upper Paleolithic Western Europe, southern Africa, the Great Basin, and elsewhere, entoptic phenomena were intentionally associated with iconic images simply because that is the way the human visual system works" (1988: 215). When you look at the art of shamanistic cultures you certainly see this type of imagery. But you also see it when you look at the art of other cultures. So it is human, but not necessarily shamanistic, and not even necessarily only with altered states of consciousness or ritual trance.
I found this type of imagery in many places. North and South American Indian art is replete with it, and of course shamanism is integral there. Ancient Shang Chinese bronzes show these design elements in another style, but the possible shamanistic nature of that society is still controversial. I saw this type of imagery also when I looked at places not particularly related to shamanism such as in ancient Greece and in modern art. But nowhere is there more of this type of imagery than in Australia where shamanism is culturally insignificant.
The problem with Lewis-Williams and Dowson's concluding link with shamanism, or something like it, is the lack of any control in their analysis. It is all too easy to find this type of imagery in a wide variety of cultures. Let us look at some of them, starting with some American Indian cultures.
Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff has done particularly interesting work in relation to the questions at hand. Since the mid-sixties he has studied the Tukano and neighboring peoples in the Colombian Amazon with particular attention to their shamanism, including drug-induced hallucinations, and their art (1972, 1975, 1978, 1981, 1987). Like other peoples, the Tukano's drug-induced imagery is culturally conditioned to see jaguars and other creatures significant in their belief system, just as Lewis-Williams showed how the San's imagery focused on the eland (1981, 1983b).
But Reichel-Dolmatoff in particular goes into the extensive geometric imagery in the Tukano art based on their hallucinatory experiences. He not only analyzed the artwork existing in the culture in their weaving, home decoration and so on, but also solicited drawings from eight Tukanos specifically of their visions seen in yajé trance (1978). All of this art is filled with geometric patterns like the phosphenes, a point he makes explicit in a comparison of patterns found in Tukano art with the phosphene patterns summarized by Max Knoll (1987: n.p. see Fig. 14). Their similarity is underscored by the fact that in the discussion on page 14 the Tukanoan art is identified as being that on the left side, but on page 23 it is identified as being that on the right side -- even the author/editor got them mixed up.
He says, "Practically all decorative elements that adorn the objects manufactured by the Tukano are said by them to be derived from hallucinatory imagery" (1975: 177, emphasis added). ". in a state of hallucination the individual projects his cultural memory on the wavering screen of colors and shapes and thus 'sees' certain motifs and personages" (1972: 110). His conclusion: ". Tukanoan applied art is largely derived from hallucinatory experiences in other words, it is biologically based" (1987: 14).
Reichel-Dolmatoff's conclusions are also supported by the work of others who have studied the Tukano and neighboring peoples (c.f. Harner 1973a, Furst 1976: 39-49). Naranjo (155-190) investigated their main hallucinogen, yajé, in an experimental setting and found non-natives (who lacked knowledge of the Tukano's reported experiences and did not share their cultural traditions) to report experiences of flying (10 subjects out of 35) and body transformations, along with visual images of scenes and animals and "geometric designs of bright colours, changing shapes, tunnels and funnels" (Slade and Bentall 154).
Indeed the Tukano are so well documented in relation to both their shamanism and their art that I do not understand why Lewis-Williams and Dowson did not use this example in their paper instead of the as-yet-unpublished case of the Coso. In any case, the example of the Tukano fits well with their hypothesis, in terms of both entoptic imagery in their art and shamanism.
Reichel-Dolmatoff also discusses how cultural meanings have been applied to various of these forms and even presented a chart of twenty codified motifs (see Fig. 15). Here is a living people who we can ask if the various forms have meaning and the Tukano tell us yes. They say the bifid scroll shape is a male sign the back-to-back double-C scroll, the U-shape, diamonds, "lozenges," two concentric elongated squares and other signs are all female signs the spiral represents incest simple or concentric circles, or a row of circles or dots represent impregnation a vertical chain of diamonds represents matrilineal descent. Not everything is a male or female sign, though some signs represent different cultural motifs, for example, horizontal frets, crenellated or indented lines, and sometimes horizontal zigzags, represent the Anaconda-canoe of the Tukano origin myth (1972: 106-111, 1975: 176-177 1987: 15-17).
In striking similarity to Leroi-Gourhan's famous theory of the signs in Paleolithic Franco-Cantabrian art being male and female symbols, most of the Tukanos' cultural interpretations of these forms are. male and female symbols! While this example from living people shows that such signs can be sex-related symbols, the absurdity of trying to interpret them in the absence of living informants or written records is illustrated by Leroi-Gourhan and Laming-Emperaire making exact opposite "identifications" of sexes and signs (Leroi-Gourhan, Ucko and Rosenfeld).
North American Indian art is replete with entoptic-type and animal imagery. One much-studied group is the Huichol of Mexico who use peyote and make "yarn paintings" (see Fig. 16). La Barre, and Siegel and Jarvik discuss the early work of Lumholtz who did extensive work with the Huichol in the early 1900s. Lumholtz ". reported that Huichol . represent the peyote cactus with traditional artistic designs consisting of concentric tunnel arrangements or spirals" (Siegel and Jarvik 137).
Peter Furst also studied the Huichol and, as both anthropologist and art historian, he looked at art in relation to hallucinogens. In his earlier works on the Huichol (1972) and hallucinogens and culture (1976) he noted the more obvious depictions of hallucinogenic plants in various art such as images of peyote or San Pedro cactus (see Fig. 17), or of people with a big mushroom growing out of their head, found both in ancient stone figurines from Central America and Mexico and in Siberian rock art (see Fig. 18).
But by 1982, in a classic work on North American Indian art co-authored with Jill Furst, entoptic imagery is explicitly discussed as represented in the art. They say, "Purely abstract patterns and even such motifs as spoked wheels . may depict phosphenes, the brilliant, luminous images that spontaneously illuminate the field of vision in quick flashes during altered states of consciousness" (92) (see Fig. 19). They also noted a difference in the graphic styles between the sexes among American plains and southwest Indians with a ". tendency for women to use a largely geometric style and for men to use a naturalistic one" (167). There are also often differenecs by sex in hallucinogen use and shamanism, but no one seems to have analyzed this to see if there is any correlation here.
Then there is the interesting case of the grecas, or frets, found extensively in North American Indian art. They are called grecas because they look just like Greek designs. Figure 20 shows some grecas from the middle Mississippi Valley Figure 21 offers a sample of similar designs from the time and area the "Greeks" came from before they invaded Greece Figure 22 shows Minoan palace decorations and Figure 23 shows entoptic-type imagery, some in relation to animals, in art from the Greek geometric period. As far as I am concerned, all this art is exemplary of the type of imagery under discussion, but particularly the later Greek culture is not considered to be shamanistic, although trance states were sometimes involved (such as at Delphi, and maybe at Eleusis).
No one would suggest that the similarity of these Greek and American Indian designs developed from any type of direct cultural influence of one on the other. But peoples on distant continents could have "seen" the same entoptic imagery and made it a part of their artistic expression, particularly if it was seen at times of sacred experience when it would take on greater importance than just "seeing spots."
Usually the designs in Greek geometric art are interpreted as being based on a concern for beauty (Kopke), but this alone seems inadequate to me and I think the influence of entoptic imagery should be considered in relation to understanding this art. Ann Roes wrote a book on the symbolism in Greek geometric art in which she explained these images as related to sun worship based on the similarity of so-called "sun" signs to those seen in sun-worshiping cultures. She admitted that this was pretty "startling" since it is not thought that the Greeks had any type of sun worship (26). This is another example of the ridiculousness of trying to interpret the meaning of art based on what it looks like to the observer. There is nothing to indicate Greek worship of the sun so it is an absurd interpretation. A link to entoptic imagery would make more sense.
Roes also looks at geometrics in relation to animal images and goes on at length about the frequent relation of the bird and the snake (35, 55-58) (see Fig. 24). She also offers her opinion of a recurrent motif (see Fig. 25) that "A man who holds two solar horses, characterized by swastika and wheel, cannot be anybody else but the sungod himself" (25). Well, it could be somebody else it could be someone like a shaman. Frankly, the bird and snake have been commonly used to symbolize the shaman going into "other worlds," flying like a bird to the world above or going like a snake to the world below. It would make more sense to link this art to shamanism than to sun worship, but as far as I can see there is no evidence for either.
Another interesting case is that of Shang Chinese bronzes, carefully crafted ritual vessels with imagery that looks like form constants and animals seemingly transforming, fragmenting and integrating, with bilateral symmetry, etc., all the things you would expect to see from a trance state (see Figs. 26 and 27). K.C. Chang has identified this culture as shamanistic, partly through interpreting its art (1983), but his views are more accepted by anthropologists than Sinologists (Chang 1991, Hay, White). Hay, an art historian specializing in China, says that the imagery I referred to as "geometric" was usually interpreted as representing movement. This would not be inconsistent with the imagery of altered states of consciousness and it sure looks like entoptic/animal combinations to me. This possibility should be given serious consideration. I think Chang may be on the right track, but there is too much controversy among the experts as to the nature of that society to draw sound conclusions one way or another about these questions.
V. The Case of Australian Aboriginal Art and Culture
Australian aboriginal art is extremely rich with entoptic-type imagery (often in relationship with animal, human or spirit figures) in all types of art: in ancient petroglyphs, in body painting, in bark paintings, in carved and painted ritual objects, and in modern innovations inspired by Western contact such as acrylic painting in the Western Desert region. To illustrate this, I have compiled a chart comparing entoptic-type forms found in this art, both prehistoric and contemporary, to the same six entoptic images that Lewis-Williams and Dowson compared with art of the San, Coso and Upper Paleolithic Europe (see Fig. 28). There are innumerable examples of these six entoptic shapes in the aboriginal art, as well as of other entoptic shapes not charted such as the spiral. Likewise, there are innumerable examples of entoptic imagery in relation to iconic.
But the Australian aboriginal cultures are rather different from shamanistic cultures. Ritual trance of any type is extremely rare in Australia. Bourguignon's cross-cultural study of trance and possession found a belief in possession in a number of aboriginal groups, but only one, the Aranda of the Western Desert, was reported to have a form of ritual trance (1973b: 369), described by Myers as ". a large-scale organization of men and novices from throughout a region for sustained series of revelatory rituals" (307).
Probably no author has done more to propound a shamanistic interpretation of Australian religion than Mircea Eliade who wrote books on both subjects (1964, 1973). He reported a number of cases of Australian shamanism from the southeastern part of the continent, based mainly on Elkin's work in the 1930s and 1940s, and also reported on the Aranda. Eliade's interest was in shamanism and it appears to me that he sought out as many examples as possible to show it in Australia. His examples include such weakly-documented reports as a story from 1882 about a Wongaibon "clever man" who lay on his back and "sang" a cord some forty feet into the air which he then went up and down (1973: 153).
Generally, I found it hard to tell what was really going on from his descriptions. For instance he described that the technique used by members of the Mara tribe to become a medicine man was to burn fat to attract two spirits which ". first make him insensible, then cut him open and take out all his organs, which they replace by organs from one of their own bodies. Then they bring him back to life and carry him up into the sky" (1973: 149 see also 1964: 49-50).
From a scientific viewpoint, this is unbelievable as literal fact, and while it might well describe how the Mara believe a shaman is made, it tells us nothing about what a Mara shamanic initiate was doing. Perhaps he did become insensible and then, based on his cultural expectations, believed those things happened to him. But unlike Reichel-Dolmatoff's reports of the Tukano where we can see they had these visions under yajé trance, or Lewis-Williams' studies of the San where we can see they achieved trance with dancing in a particular posture, Eliade tells us little about what they were actually doing.
One other source had reference to shamanism in Australia. Joan Halifax published a collection of shamanic narratives from around the world which included two cases from Australia, both from Murngin people from Arnhem Land in the north (159-164). Both are cases of isolated individuals who became shamans after experiencing sickness or falling in a coma into a waterhole. They went on to become healers and both descriptions sound like instances of shamanism. But neither case involved ritual trance, and both were fairly exceptional.
So it is not that shamanism is unknown in Australia, but it is rather more the exception than the rule. While ritual trance exists in Australia, it is also the exception. In fact, Dobkin de Rios reports that "Eastwell points out that the word for trance has actually disappeared from Aboriginal language. " (1984: 28).
Also, Australia seems to be the sole exception among populated continents in having no known hallucinogenic drug use according to Schultes and Hofmann (1973: 26, 62). However Dobkin de Rios writes of aboriginal use of pituri (Dubosia hopwoodii) reported by eight authors from the late 1800s through the 1930s (1984: 21-28). Pituri use is only reported in historic accounts, so it is possible that Schultes, Hofmann, Furst and others overlooked it in their world surveys of hallucinogenic drug use.
Dobkin de Rios describes pituri's secular use as a "pick-me-up and social comforter," as an important element of trade between social groups, and as bait to help trap game (1984: 23). She also records a report by Vogan in 1890 that pituri was used by "old men who acted as seers" (1984: 23) and concluded by noting that ". no particular ritual activities were connected to the pituri plant. " and "Today pituri remains at best a dim memory of the past" (1984: 25). From these descriptions, pituri doesn't sound like a potent hallucinogen like soma or peyote, but more on the order of tobacco or marijuana which may stimulate entoptic imagery, but only to a relatively small degree. In any case it was not connected with any ritual trance states, again a case of Australian exceptionalism if pituri was indeed a hallucinogen.
While the aborigines do not have great traditions of shamanism, hallucinogenic drug use, or ritual trance, they do have great traditions and a continent-wide religious/ mythic "worldview." In English this is called the Dreaming, with a capital D to distinguish it from regular dreams experienced by people in their sleep. "The Dreaming is a specific cultural form, with its own semiotic properties and its own autonomous implications for social life" (Myers 290).
The Dreamtime is conceived of as a continuum of past, present and future all together, and it is the domain of Dreamings who are ancestral beings who passed on their spirits to living generations of humans. In the beginning, ". Ancestral Beings moved about, forming the landscape and creating plants, animals, and peoples. They also founded the religious ceremonies, marriage rules, food taboos, and other laws of human society" (Sutton 15). Different tribes are thought to descend from different ancestors from whom they derive particular totemic associations.
The concepts of the Dreaming are at the root of aboriginal art. Peter Sutton wrote that "Images of these [ancestral] beings, their places of travel and habitation and their experiences, make up the greatest single source of imagery in Aboriginal art" (15-16). Moreover, particular designs are associated with particular ancestors. The designs themselves are thought to have originated in ancestral dreams, or in the dreams of contemporary people in which designs are given to them by the ancestors (Munn 32-33, 55 Sutton 182). Nancy Munn, in her study of the Walbiri explained that "The dream origin of designs is also the ultimate grounds for their efficacy since the ancestors are the original sources of potency in the Walbiri world" (33).
"Copyright" is held by different tribes on the designs thought to be given to them by their ancestors. These designs and Dreamings are also integrally connected to land rights, as it is believed that the ancestors created the landscape. Rights to particular Dreamings, as well as to land, could be infringed by using the designs belonging to others. "Particular Dreamings that function in this way as signs of groups, emblems of local and corporate identity, provide much of the spiritual underpinning of traditional communal title to land" (Sutton 15). The artistic systems ". are marked by a very firm system of control -- over designs and over who may execute them -- by senior members of those societies" (Sutton 182).
Munn showed this in great detail in her study of Walbiri Iconography. Some designs are controlled by the women, others by the men some are secret designs and others can be seen by anyone. Since the designs came from the Dreaming they are intimately connected with the sacred realm, and indeed painting and singing "constitute the central core of ritual action connected with the ancestors. Some rites may, in fact, consist of no more than these two concurrent activities, while others include dramatizations, dancing, and large-scale ceremonial cycles such as the lengthy initiation ceremonies" (Munn 34). Much of a youth's training in learning the geography of the desert and the stories of the ancestors (seen to be the same thing) comes through participating with the men in singing and painting.
In marked contrast to the Western view of art as individual self-expression, for the Walbiri ". the production of design forms is part of a process relating individuals to each other within the wider social order" (Munn 36). Ceremonial painting and singing are considered to be group activities and for someone to do it alone would be considered wrong (Munn 35). Even in nonritual contexts, the designs are still associated with the Dreaming, such as in the painting of children's bodies with designs to help them grow or in the telling of "sand stories" where drawing in the sand accompanies stories about the ancestors (Munn 34-37, 58-88).
As with the Tukano, particular designs and motifs are not only "owned," but they have culturally patterned meanings. This is the focus of Munn's book in which she exhaustively documents the particular meanings in particular graphic forms made in various men's and women's rituals. These designs represent such things as the sites and paths traveled by the ancestors (see Fig. 29) or the ancestors themselves.
The forms, while invested with unique meanings that are particular to aboriginal culture, share with the Tukano designs (which have their own, different meanings) a similarity of shape to the images identified as entoptic. To show this, I have appended as figures some of Munn's illustrations of design elements from women's designs (see Fig. 30), from men's designs (see Fig. 31), and from fertility ceremonies (see Fig. 32).
These entoptic-type designs are strongly present in these aboriginal graphics, but what is the meaning of this? If human visual biology affects what and how people see and express in their art, it is no surprise to find an entoptic influence on their art. But why it is so central to Australian aboriginal art is unexplained. If, in fact, entoptic imagery is stimulated by deprivation, hallucinogenic drugs, shamanic or other ritual trance, how does it come to be so dominant in the art of people whose culture involves those things in only a marginal way?
The aborigines say the designs come from the Dreaming, which is sometimes revealed to them in their dreams. Do the aborigines see this imagery in their dreams? Does anyone? Did the aborigines' non-mythical ancestors alter their consciousness (with pituri or some other means) to see more imagery and then pass on a tradition of culturally-encoded designs? Do modern-day aborigines paint these images just because it is traditional, or do they see them in a primary experience themselves, or both? To what extent might they derive some type of trance from their monotone singing that most often accompanies the art-making? Was Eastwell right when he ". argued that the Aborigines were familiar with spontaneous trancelike states" (Dobkin de Rios 1984: 27)? If so, what kind of "trancelike" states? Do they maybe actually have trance states that have been hidden from observers as part of the notorious secrecy involved in some rituals? How has Western contact altered their beliefs, practices, and rituals as they pertain to various states of consciousness and to art?
These questions are mainly not answered. But they certainly point to rich areas for future research.
In fact, I think that given this, if people do not believe that this imagery in art is related to the fact that humans see it, I believe the burden of proof should rest with them. Since people see this, particularly at times of great significance for them such as when they believe they are meeting a spirit or having some other cosmic/religious experience, why would they not include it in their art? Why would they exclude it?
As to interpreting the meanings of particular forms in the art of long-dead peoples, or judging what type of culture they had based on their art, I do not think we can get very far with this. There is nothing wrong with speculating and asking these questions. The questions must be asked to develop theories to guide research. But where and how should research proceed?
I think the most valuable research in these areas in the coming decades will be the studies of the rapidly vanishing aboriginal societies, in Australia, the Amazon and elsewhere. Time and again this point came through in my research. At the time of Western contact 200 years ago, the Australian aborigines spoke some 200 distinct languages and hundreds of dialects today there are only twelve languages left (Sutton 6-7). The knowledge of 188 language groups is already lost to us! Schultes has noted with horror all the botanical knowledge we have already lost and are about to lose as aboriginal cultures are wiped out and westernized (Schultes 1977a: 267). We need to study living peoples now!
Appendix of Figures
Fig. 1. Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1988: 206. See continuation of same figure from original in Fig. 1a.
Fig. 1a. Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1988: 207. See first part of same figure from original in Fig. 1.
Fig. 2. Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1988: 209.
Fig. 3. Sutton 103, 113. Australian Western Desert aboriginal acrylic paintings from the 1980s featuring abundant entoptic-type imagery, and including representational images of snake and skeletal human. Top (detail) by T.J. Japalijarri bottom by M.N. Jakamarra.
Fig. 4. Advertising supplement to the New York Times for Conran's (18 November 1990) illustrates the "ethnic/geometric" genre in home furnishing decoration.
Fig. 5. Knoll and Kugler 85. Images reported from electrical stimulation.
Fig. 6. Oster 87. Summary of Knoll's 15 categories of electrically induced phosphenes.
Fig. 7. Horowitz 1964: 516-517. Drawings of hallucinations by schizohrenics. Horowitz interprets some hallucinations as construals of entoptic imagery.
Fig. 8. Siegel and Jarvik 123. In a study of imagery seen under the influence of six different drugs or placebos, the authors trained half their subjects to rapidly recognize and report imagery in eight categories derived from Kluver's form constants.
Fig. 9. Horowitz 1983: 203. The author reports that the retina appears to codify ". information through special receptivity to patterns. It is postulated that the basic coding forms include (1) straightness of line, regularity of arc (2) circularity (3) parallelisms of straight lines, arcs, circles and (4) congruence of figures, equidistance, and equiangularity" (202).
Fig. 10. Horowitz 1964: 518. Horowitz summaried redundant elements in reports of visual imagery and hallucination before he was aware of Kluver's work.
Fig. 11. Richards 91, 93. Some of the "fortification illusions" reported from migraines.
Fig. 12. Siegel 1977a: 138. Patterns seen in a dark room, often with eyes open, in a study of subjects intoxicated with cocaine. Siegel compared them to "fortification illusions" seen during migraine headaches.
Fig. 13. Tyler 1637. Depictions of the type of imagery reported with deep pressure on the eyeball(s).
Fig. 14. Reichel-Dolmatoff 1987: n.p. The author compares patterns found in Tukano art with the phosphene patterns summarized by Max Knoll. Two descriptions (14, 23) identified the left and right sides in opposite order, thus underscoring their similarity.
Fig. 15. Reichel-Dolmatoff (1972: 108) codified twenty geometric motifs in Tukanoan art that had specific meanings for the Tukanoans, mainly having to do with sex or ancestors.
Fig. 16. Siegel and Jarvik 146b. Huichol yarn paintings.
Fig. 17. Two examples of art, both from Peru, that include representations of hallucinogenic plants. Top: Dobkin de Rios 1984: 113. Bottom: Sharon 115.
Fig. 18. Mushroom stones and carvings. Top left: Mushroom stone from El Salvador (Schultes and Hofmann 1979: frontpiece). Top right: Mushroom stone from Guatemala (Wasson 1972: 189). Bottom: Photo and chart of "mushroom/people" shapes found in petroglyphs from northeastern Siberia (Wasson et al. 1986: 69-70)
Fig. 19. Chumash cave art from Painted Cave, near Santa Barbara, CA, has entoptic-type imagery (Furst and Furst 93).
Fig. 20. "Greca" designs from prehistoric art of Middle Mississippi Valley Indians (Naylor 28).
Fig. 21. "Greca" designs from pottery of the Balkans and adjacent areas dating from 5000-3500 BC (Wasson 1986: 43).
Fig. 22. Meanders and scrolls were used in Minoan palace architectural design (Graham n.p.).
Fig. 23. Some entoptic-type imagery, some in combination with animal representations, from the Greek Geometric Period (Roes 10, 11, 13, 23, 34).
Fig. 24. Roes calls attention to the frequent bird/snake motif in Greek Geometric Period art (35, 57). The motif also appears in art in shamanistic cultures such as in the Eastern Chou silk painting pictured at right from Hunan (Chang 1983: 79).
Fig. 25. Common theme on Greek Geometric pottery -- especially at Argolis -- of man with bird, horses and geometrics, that Roes interprets as a sun god (25-26).
Fig. 26. Designs from tripods of Shang China (Chang 1983: 77).
Fig. 27. Types of mythical animals in Shang bronze designs (Chang 1983: 58).
Fig. 28. Lewis-Williams and Dowson's entoptic images (1988: 206) (see Fig. 1) at left, are shown with comparable images from Australian aboriginal art on the right. Aside from the rainbow snake design (Munn 141), the Australian art is from Sutton (23, 30, 74, 75, 78, 98, 103, 110, 113, 126, 127, 147, 151, 185 204). Note some intermixed iconic images.
Fig. 29. Site/path "framework" in Australian aboriginal art (Sutton 81, 85).
Fig. 30. Some of Nancy Munn's illustrations of design elements of Walbiri women's designs (104-105).
Fig. 31. Some of Nancy Munn's illustrations of design elements of Walbiri men's designs (151-152, 154-155).
Fig. 32. Some of Nancy Munn's illustrations of design elements of Walbiri fertility ceremony designs (196-199).
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A Comparative Study of Rock Art in Later Prehistoric Europe
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The Element summarises the state of knowledge about four styles of prehistoric rock art in Europe current between the late Mesolithic period and the Iron Age. They are the Levantine, Macroschematic and Schematic traditions in the Iberian Peninsula the Atlantic style that extended between Portugal, Spain, Britain and Ireland Alpine rock art and the pecked and painted images found in Fennoscandia. They are interpreted in relation to the landscapes in which they were made. Their production is related to monument building, the decoration of portable objects, trade and long distance travel, burial rites, and warfare. A final discussion considers possible connections between these separate traditions and the changing subject matter of rock art in relation to wider developments in European prehistoric societies.
Prehistoric Rock Art
The term is most often applied to a specific style of carvings created in the late Stone Age and Early Bronze Age (approximately 3800 BC to 1500 BC). Archaeologists make a distinction between rock art associated with monuments and rock art ‘in the landscape’ – found on natural outcrops and boulders – which makes up the majority of surviving examples.
Most rock art sits isolated in the landscape, without any obvious associations that can be detected from the surface traces: this is part of what makes it so difficult to date and interpret.
Descriptions of rock art and its development, along with a brief chronology are included.