The GuardianThe trance of lifeSun Dec 31, 2006 00:03
The trance of life
Gary Lachman enjoys Graham Hancock's psychedelic detective story about the study of the mind, Supernatural
Saturday December 31, 2005
Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind
by Graham Hancock
710pp, Century, £20
Graham Hancock is well known for books such as The Sign of the Seal and Fingerprints of the Gods, which set out to challenge conventional ideas of history and archaeology by recourse to "hidden" truths. Here, he asks a simple question: what made us human? As much as 196,000 years ago - perhaps even earlier - humans had achieved "full anatomical modernity", but it was only 100,000 years later that we began to display the symbolic activity associated with fully human behaviour. Even then, the products were minimal. In southern Africa, delicate bone implements from that time have been discovered. Impractical as tools, these items seemed to have been valued for their own sake; 77,000 years ago the first abstract art appeared, geometrical shapes inscribed on a small block of red ochre. But another 40,000 years passed before full-blown symbolism, in a form we would recognise as our own, turned up. It was then that "the greatest riddle in human history" was set. Before this, humankind had no art, no religion, and no creative thinking to speak of. Yet the abilities and concerns we associate with "being human" seemed to appear - in archaeological terms - overnight.
Evidence for this revolution in the mind includes the magnificent cave paintings found in France, Spain and other European sites. Between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago, humans began to cover the walls and ceilings of caves with images of animals and other humans, usually choosing the most difficult sites to access. The standard explanation was "hunting magic", yet investigations at the cave of Pech Merle in south-western France made Hancock dissatisfied with this. What struck him was the art's weird "otherworldly" character. Strange geometric forms and eerie half-animal, half-human images seemed to dominate. Why did our ancestors go out of their way to create pictures of such unnatural beings in places where only a few could see them? Hancock's answer is that the cave paintings, and the explosion of humanity they announce, were the result of our ancestors dosing themselves with powerful hallucinogenic plants.
Hancock bases his conclusion on his own vivid experiences with a variety of hallucinogens - ayahuasca, eboga, DMT and psilocybin mushrooms - about which he gives detailed accounts, and the work of the paleoanthropologist David Lewis-Williams, author of the brilliant The Mind in the Cave, and leading proponent of the "neuropsychological" model of cave art. Lewis-Williams argues that the geometric shapes found in much cave and rock art are representations of "entopic forms", endemic to human neurology (just rub your eyes to get a flood of these images). Displays of these shapes are the first phase of the trance states induced by hallucinogens and shamanic dancing. Deeper into an altered state of consciousness, the grids and zig-zags transform into the weird "therianthropic" (half-human, half-animal) figures favoured by our tripped-out forebears.
Hancock gathers evidence from other, later rock-artists - notably the San of southern Africa - to show the remarkable similarity between different art over millennia and vast distances. No one knows how long San culture existed before it was wiped out by white settlers - 10,000 years is a reliable estimate - nor how widespread it was. Yet throughout that time, San and related rock art depict the same animal-human forms. Although the neuropsychological theory of altered states of consciousness can account for this continuity, with its basic material "hard wired" into the psyche itself, Lewis-Williams rejects any notion that what prehistoric artists, and more recent rock-artists such as the Native American Coso of California (not to mention modern-day users of hallucinogens), saw in trance states was in any way "real". Hancock, however, begs to differ. He argues that there is every possibility that the spirit worlds ancient shamans entered, and the beings they encountered there, were "real". These, he says, are "the ancient teachers of mankind". Whether you agree with him or not, Hancock links a wealth of material in this fascinating psychedelic detective story, from Amazonian ayahuasqueros to Francis Crick's theory that life was "seeded" by extraterrestrials (how many people realise he was on LSD when he discovered DNA?).
Hancock's basic premise, first proposed by the philosopher Henri Bergson, and echoed famously by Aldous Huxley, is that the brain, rather than a producer of consciousness, is really a kind of "reducing valve", or receiver, limiting the amount of information available to the mind. Supply the requisite stimulus - hallucinogens, dance, fasting, meditation, ritual sex - and the wavelength changes. We may quibble about his use of "shamanism", "trance" and "altered state of consciousness", but when most books on consciousness today aim to "explain" it, Hancock's work is a welcome exploration and celebration of the mystery inside our skulls.
· Gary Lachman is the author of A Secret History of Consciousness (Floris)
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