Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit – David Whitley – 2009


The spirituality is ingrained (it is our tendency to believe in spirits), Whitley suggests, because it ultimately derived from the dangerous lives of our ancestors.  As for me I would favor the emergence of spirituality from dreams – both the ordinary night dreams we all experience and the daydreams of altered states of consciousness.

Upper Paleolithic, from 45,000 to 10,000. Ice age and the first appearance of modern humans Homo Sapiens sapiens, replacing Neanderthals.

Altamira : dated between 13,300 and 14,900 years.

Abbe Henri Breuil : explained as “hunting magic” for the early XXth century. However there is little connection between the depicted species and the excavated food remains.

Then after 1950, early people were motivated by anxiety over the quest of food, and religion was invented in the hopes of ensuring future security. The use of caves was clearly unusual and this implies ceremony…

There appeared to be a pattern to the way that the animal depictions were laid out. Some deeper communication was intended. The message lies not so much in the individual paintings but in the relationship between them.

Leroi Gourhan developed a system (structuralism) of binary oppositions (central vs peripheral; back/cave passage way areas; framed by a third group of paintings found in the entrance; male/female. The theory was never disproven, it languished under the weight of its own complexity…what is important is that he asserted that these people were fully humanized, cognitively sophisticated people.

In the 1980, Paleolithic cave art seemed to be resulting from shamanism – David Lewis Williams.  The San rock paintings were made by shamans and they portray the supernatural realm entered by medicine men or women under trance.

The London zoo had a bushman in display until 1911.

Then San rock paintings were made by  shamans and they portray the supernatural realm entered by these medicine men or women who were under a trance.

The rock surface was thought to be the thin and permeable veil between the sacred and the mundane, on that the shaman penetrated on his supernatural excursions. The paintings preserved the images of the spirits that were already with the rock and which only the shaman could see.

Because the nervous system of all humans are hardwired in the same fashion, it follows that the altered states of consciousness that result in trance, regardless of how induced, are broadly similar.

The imagery during trance commonly progresses through three stages: geometric light patterns, entoptic pattern (figurative images heavily influence by culture and personal expectations), full blown iconic hallucinations (where an individual may imagine becoming thing that he or she hallucinates).

They found that all component of the model were illustrated in the paintings in the Paleolithic caves, leading to the conclusions that at least some of this art, like that of the San, depicted visionary images and therefore derived from shamanistic practices. That was potentially the world’s first religion.

Shaman in American often describe shamanic trance as entering into the sacred by walking down a tunnel that has opened up in the rock face. The caves themselves were natural topographic models of the trance experience. The use of undulating rock walls and ceiling, and how they were incorporated into the paintings, was suggestive of the idea that the Paleolithic artists were bringing out what was already present on the far side of the wall.


Chauvet, the oldest cave in the world,  disproved that our artistic capabilities had evolved from simple to complex over time. When art appeared, it appeared full-blown in a technically and aesthetically sophisticated fashion.

Palm prints: we believe this reflects a concern with touching the sacred, symbolized by the rock surface, and a common human desire to make abstract and ineffable more concrete and tactile.


Foot prints were found in the caves, child’s print: it is possible that caves were used for initiatory rituals and, from a the shamanistic perspective, perhaps from vision quest.

The art is partly shamanistic with imagines of human partly transformed into an animal: upright and bipedal but with the head and horns of a large bison. A common trait of shamanistic arts – attributed to the unexplained ritual connection between hunters and prey.  These are now explained by neurophsychology: the bodily effect of trance as a tactile hallucinations on the skin that are frequently likened to the growth of fur. The seeming surge of energy that travels up the spine and even out of the head in some altered state of experiences, hence the perception of antlers or horns emerging from the crown…Shamanistic interpretation can account for all fact and features found at the site.

Correcting a mistake in cave painting is difficult to do, emphasizing even more the skilled hands of prehistoric artists.

Kandinsky spent time in Siberia working with Shaman on the centrality  of inner vision, rediscovering the kind of inspiration experienced by shamans in Chauvet Cave over thirty thousand years ago.

I wondered why horses were so central to our ancestors’ early belief: women have always been connected to horses, even during the Ice age…

The valley of Coa, Portugal: 6000 images engraved in 29 sites. Recognosied as Paleolithic based on stylistic similarities with motifs at dated caves.

Rock varnish is formed by dust particles that are slowly fixed to rock surfaces by bacteria that ingest the manganese contained in the dust. There are bits of organic matter associated with rock varnish and can be subject to radiocarbon analyses. However careful analyses showed that the varnish could contain 2 kinds of organic carbon with one type younger than the other. Many doubts remains as to the reliability of the existing test (strong controversy followed with unclear conclusion- allegation of fraud were made, never to be fully cleared).

By mid 1990 : 60 varnish dates on petroglyths from the Mojave desert: 16200 to 14700 year before present, convincing support for pre-clovis aged rock art (clovis period is dated about 11,200 years ago)


Native American shamanism has been acknowledged as originating in Siberia and then carried to America by the first migrant. But evidence seems to show suggest the perhaps Siberian Shamanism developed initially in America some 10,000 years ago and diffused west ward into the old world. Classic shamanism only appeared about 4,000 years ago in Siberia. This hypothesis is plausible. At least some innovations (e.g. hunting technics for whales and walrus) appear to have moved from the New World to the Old.

Widespread association between Shaman and quartz based on its triboluminescent property: when quartz is stuck or abraded in the darkness, its will glow. Triboluminescence is the effect of cosmic radiation on the quartz that knocks electrons in the atoms out of orbit: the rubbing/shocking  force allows these electrons to cascade down to a ground state, releasing photons in the process.

Caves de Niaux, trois freres and tuc d’audoubert (sculpted bisons)

Ritual offerings in Native California generally took three forms : small stone plaquettes, waste chips of obsidian or toolmaking stones, and more recently small coins, bit of ribbon, broken pieces of glass. Placement of the small object in cracks and declivities in the walls (as found in Paleolithic caves). This is quite speculative.

Art in the west is about symbols. For native Americans, paintings and engravings are spirit object, they have a life of their own without human involvement.

Contemporary shamanism is almost wholly concerned with healing. This reflect the devastation that American tribes have suffered following contact with Europeans.

The concept of supernatural power in itself is ambivalent: it can be used to heal or to destroy, for good and for evil. Shaman’s place in life was always a balance between the dark and the light, hope and despair…He stands at the juncture of opposite forces and his task is to move between these opposites.

What is missing is any direct connection between a shaman’s trance and religious experience.

Yet mystical states do contribute to a personal sense of religiosity in an extreme fashion; they may be said to create religiosity.

Those mystical experience (only few religious people experience them 2-3%) are recognize as religious because of the cultural context. They were religious experience because treated them as such, not because hallucinations (or shamanism) necessarily have connection with religious experience. Shamanism  may have been the first religion, it is not the source of religion…

Religious experience involve specific neural networks in the human brain. The left temporal lobe appears to be the primary locus. Temporal lobe epileptics experience equivalent states: 38% reports mystical experience during these events. Temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) provides a neuropsychological model for religious experience. Shamanic trance however activates different parts of the brain.

2/3 of emotional reactions in dreams are unpleasant, centering on fear, anxiety and grief.

2 narratives for the origin of religion: archeology and evolutionary psychology.

Emotional instinct are hardwired responses that originate in the lower reptilian brain which dvelopped early in evolution. One of these instinct is the fight or flight response – which is important for the development of belief about spirits. Responses are triggered when we see a predator or when we think we may have seen a predator (spirit, ghosts)…the implication is that religion is the product of normal thought, not altered states of consciousness.

Mistaking a nonagent for an agent (a prey for a predator) would do little harm, but failind to detect an agent could prove fatal. One result is that we see things in the shadow and infer patterns where none exist. Another is that people have a tendency to interpret ambiguous evidence as action by a supernatural power. It is particularly true when pattern seems to lack normal function.

Shamans are mor masters of spirit, not of trance.


More than a dozen of tribes from America attributed rock art to the actions of spirits. Belief in spirit exists with or without religious import.

Shaman may be seen not as expert in ecstasy but as master of the spirits. The cognitive bases (believing in spirit) were already long present.

Religion – shared social practice involving spirit belief and religiosity but not always transcendence – developed first in western Europe at least 35,000 ago.

In Siberia, the shamanic calling was first manifest in a lengthy illness that could only be cured by becoming a shaman. Visual, auditory, bodily hallucinations often accompanied the onset of the disease episodically. Though antisocial, they were able to function socially most of the time. However many committed suicide (poets are subject to suicide 18 times more than nomal people). Those who survived may have been seen as controlling the spirits. And there is a strong correlation between this type of mental disorder and artistic creativity.

Shamanism was also hereditary – it ran in the family line. They were considered as malicious, antisocial, predatory toward women.

The ethnographic literature is unequivocal on the fact that shamans suffered from mental illness. The root of their creativity lies in their madness. A strong association between creativity and mood disorder has consistently been identified. Shaman with specific kinds of mental disorders – mood disorders- that drove them mad yet, at the same time, promoted their genius.

It is this madness – an irrationality that partly define modern humans – that I see expressed in the Paleolithic caves.

Lascaux, the salon of bulls was created not by a lone shaman. Instead it was a fully conceptualized group effort of some kind, likely involving scaffolding to paint the art.

Shamanism may have developed in multiple locations, more or less simultaneously, and thus may have many origins.

Neanderthal likely believed in spirits. We differ from Neanderthal because certain of us have claimed to control those spirits.