In the meantime, it seems appropriate to re-start this blog venture by continuing the serialisation of my first book 'ON VISION AND BEING HUMAN', where we left off all those months ago. The path we began has taken some twists and turns, so let's recap: we started with some of the 'problems' of visionary experience in the context of 21st century knowledge, including the ambiguity and 'otherness' of vision, before taking in some neuropsychological views of altered states of consciousness, quantum considerations which liberate the notion that the kind of hidden reality humans expect is not likely to be possible, and even speculations on the nature and properties of consciousness.
We came to a tentative conclusion that visions are centred upon the human rather than a reflection of some ultimate reality, but no less important to human perception, wellness and identity for being so. Our road then took a sharp turn towards the Darwinist, and the notion of symbolic cognition as a central, defining feature of our species. We explored a theory of how this, along with ritual and language, could have evolved together through menstrually-driven social realities liberating humanity's first 'gods' and sacred images, and hinted that dance display, trance, symbol and vision may be deeply intertwined in our species' perception and history. In this chapter, we go deeper into that network of experiential ideas...
We also find a surprisingly complex archetype emerging from this Palaeolithic situation, and one which challenges the received Jungian wisdoms that the first archetypes, such as Divine Mother or Father Figure, of the developing child partake of a relative simplicity which is founded on the primordial or upon the developmental. There is an adage in evolutionary biology, 'phylogeny not ontogeny', meaning that the development of the juvenile does not necessarily replicate the evolutionary history of a given species, an insight that seems particularly appropriate here.
Furthermore, in our image of a female-to-male transgendered therianthropic proto-deity we can perhaps find the forerunner of later images such as the ‘Lion Man’ of Hohle Fels (called the ‘Löwenmensch’ in German, a name which is gender-neutral) and the ‘Sorceror’ and ‘Bison Man’ of the Cave of Les Trois Freres in France. All three figures are assumed to be male (although the Löwenmensch is too fragmentary to definitively ascribe any gender) but it is quite possible that our model predicts that these represent symbolic costumes in a female-driven menstrual context. In this regard, we can note their possible association with shamanism and the perennial notions that while female and transgendered shamans are observed to be rarer among indigenous societies of Siberia and Plains Native America, they are considered as more powerful than male ones. This, too, may be an ancient echo of our primordial evolutionary state.
Perhaps the Palaeolithic image which is most relevant to our theme is the Willendorf Woman, an 11cm high limestone sculpture uncovered in Austria, depicting an overweight or heavily-pregnant woman with a featureless bowed head and pronounced vulva. It is partly coloured with red ochre in the folds of the breasts and pubic triangle, but evidence exists that it was anciently covered completely with this pigment. Cook narrates some other details of the figure:
“Her face is not depicted but incised concentric lines spiral round the head and are crossed by short deep incisions that give the impression of a woven hat or a braided hairstyle… The work on the lower arms is detailed. Incised zigzags around the wrists depict bracelets and the fingers of both hands are clearly defined….”
These details are remarkable and suggest some confirmation of the ‘sham menstruation’ aspects of our model, in a European Upper Palaeolithic rather than an African Middle Stone Age context: here we see a pregnant woman covered in red pigment, adorned by bracelets and braidings to amplify the signals that broadcast membership of a menstrual sisterhood. The signs of pregnancy indicate that she does not appear to be a new menstruant, suggesting a development of the Middle Stone Age model, and we might speculate that the sculpted artefact represented a sacred archetype of an older woman whose power authorised and embodied the menstrual realities of the model.
We need again to be cautious about the language we use here, noting how clumsy our words often are in attempting to meta-refer to the symbolic nature of language itself. In the wording of the portrait painted in the previous chapter (and indeed the one in the preceding paragraph), an astute reader will have become aware of the danger that a confusion of the literal with the perceived was encoded into the very structure of the description. The clouding effects of symbolic cognition are thus revealed in this consideration, in particular the way in which it tends to hide not only 'external reality' but our own symbolic cognitive processes as well. However, this is an aside.
The suggested connection, then, between the menstrual signalling of the female-to-male therianthrope and the visionary experiences of the shaman, may be a useful line of enquiry to follow, and our portrait of the proto-deity begs a number of interesting questions. We have seen that visionary experience (whether entoptic, construal or iconic) requires the presence of symbolic cognition to be regarded as perceptually significant and that pre-symbolic hominids would have either been terrified by the resultant images, or would have simply dismissed them, so might it have been possible at this point that a link was made between the symbolic unseen embodied and engendered by the menstruant proto-deity and the visionary unseen, as it were, entoptic and iconic imageries newly made significant by the emerging cognitive architecture?
Our portrait discloses a nexus of several essentially human traits, one of which is the capacity for dance and movement to engender trance, an awareness of which is, like many of the other traits we have been reviewing here, ubiquitous among human cultures. In the context of our model, dance and energetic movements would have had the principal function of amplifying the menstrual signals but altered states of consciousness would have been a possible secondary outcome and, at length, a primary purpose. It may therefore have been relatively quickly perceived by emerging proto-symbolic hominids (who may now be appropriately considered as cognitively-modern humans) that the unseen symbolic world could indeed be made visible through the visions engendered in this state.
Among chimpanzees, there are several behaviours which might be considered the ancestor of the link between dance movements and trance, the most famous of which is the intimidating 'charging display' of males which is accompanied by low-pitched calls and 'pant-hoots'. These pant-hoots are used by both females and males during times of high excitement and Hart narrates that the calls
“...begin with breathy, low-pitched hoots that segue into a series of quicker, higher-pitched in-and-out pants... [then] build to a loud climactic crescendo... Male chimpanzees sometimes accompany long-distance pant-hoots by drumming with their hands or feet on tree buttresses or hollow stumps or logs...”
while de Waal noted that several of the male chimpanzees under his study would look as though they were falling into a near-trance towards the end of their charging displays. There is thus some circumstantial evidence to suggest the link between movement and a trance-like state is perhaps to be regarded as very ancient indeed, a possibility that is amplified by current theories, exemplified by Mithen, that Neanderthals very likely bore the intelligence and sophistication for music and song displays, the evidence for which is embodied in recently unearthed bone-flutes from Neanderthal occupation levels at caves in Slovenia.
Lewis-Williams quotes from !Kung informants speaking of the ways in which dance can engender trance and cause n/um, a supernatural energy we have encountered before, to enter the body with spectacular consequences:
“...it boils in my belly and boils up to my head like beer... You feel your blood becomes very hot just like blood boiling on a fire... You dance, dance, dance. New n/um lifts you in your belly and lifts you in your back, and then you start to shiver. N/um makes you tremble; its hot... in your backbone you feel a pointed something and then it works its way up. The base of your spine is tingling, tingling, tingling. Then n/um makes your thoughts nothing in your head...”
He notes the similarity of these descriptions to kundalini from Hindu traditions and thus we may perhaps assume that these sensations of energy arrival during heightened consciousness states is yet another human universal. Lewis-Williams continues by saying that when the n/um reaches the head, the dancer enters a state known as !kia, which may be translated as 'trance' or 'altered state of consciousness', experienced as an 'opening up' from which the soul may leave the body and visit the spirit realm.
A strikingly similar experience is reported by Rätsch during a ceremony with a Nepalese shaman in which he fell into a trance, and experienced shakti, the primordial power that is the source of shamanic ability:
“My body vibrates… I lose normal consciousness. Suddenly I glance into my body. There I see a shaken-up spinal column winding its way like a snake of exploding light… my consciousness frees itself from my bones and races out of me…”
This idea, that trance-engendering visions should be linked to an unseen world, seems perfectly natural to cognitively-modern humans already endowed with symbolic culture and an awareness of the significance of vision, but if we are to apply it to a Middle Stone Age African context in which that link might may or may not have been made, we require a demonstration of evidence. Intriguingly, like the 'Female Cosmetic Coalitions' theory, this hypothesis also bestows a specific prediction upon what we should see in the archaeology: that we expect the earliest artefacts we can confidently term 'artforms' to suggest visionary and entoptic phenomena in their visual content, and they should be intimately associated in some way with systems of menstrual signalling. Remarkably, this is exactly what we see.
Since 1991, archaeological work on the Blombos Cave on the Western Cape coast in South Africa has revealed a wealth of artefacts relating to life in the region dating from 100,000 to 70,000 years ago. Among the more fascinating finds in the 2002 season of research were a number red ochre artefacts inscribed with cross-hatching designs, uncovered from strata suggesting a date of some 75,000 years before the present. Henshilwood tells us that nine ambiguously engraved ochre fragments were found, however, there were also two which were much more clearly engraved, with the engravings visible on one side while the other sides of the artefacts had been modified by scraping and grinding, suggesting that they had come into use for pigment production.
The patterns on the two artefacts differ slightly but are predicated on simple geometric criss-cross designs, bounded on the top and bottom by two parallel horizontal lines, and divided through the middle by a third horizontal line which splices the lozenge shapes liberated by the criss-cross design into triangles. Lewis-Williams remarks that it is unlikely that these artefacts at Blombos were the first ever artefacts of their kind, but they are, to date, the earliest known objects inscribed with symbolic design that archaeology is currently aware of.
We should note that red ochre was likely to have been of considerable ritual value, and Blombos cave appears at some periods to have been a centre of activity for ochre production. A wide range of interpretations for the symbolic import of the designs has been proposed, but we should note that while it is possible that the designs may have been reinterpreted in terms of any number of potential social or emerging spiritual realities, the choice of design itself seems likely to have been entoptically-inspired.
Lewis-Williams follows an interesting line of enquiry relating to the siting of the patterns on the narrow edges of the artefacts rather than the larger flat surfaces where the pattern might be more easily seen:
“Easy visibility does not seem to have been the engravers' priority. Moreover, the patterns on both pieces neatly fill, and so seem to be in some way related to, the narrow edges of the ochre. I therefore ask: do the patterns therefore refer to something inside the ochre...? Perhaps this 'something' was released by the grinding of the larger surfaces and then deployed in powder form in an emotionally charged ritual. From hints such as these, slender as they may be, it is beginning to sound as if this 'something' may have been some sort of spiritual concept, power or being.”
Thus we have in these two small artefacts from the Middle Stone Age in Southern Africa the possibility of a connection between artefacts of essential use in menstrual rituals (the red ochre), an emerging sense of the entoptic or visionary (the pattern) and the immanent supernatural power that such a ritual might engender, conceived by the early hominids as dwelling within the ochre itself. Henshilwood posits a different, but related, view, that the evidence from Blombos suggests some individuals exhibited proto-shamanic attributes or a supernatural imagination:
“[T]he ‘divine’ ability of individuals who have a different ‘essence’ to others within a group and are able to communicate with supernatural agencies is open to interpretation. Innovative behaviour, such as the engraving of abstract images on ochre, may be the result of the inspirational ‘essence’ of one individual… and be generated by ‘religious’ thoughts typically activated when people deal with emotions like death, disease or birth.”
It is notable in this regard that several years later, a number of ochre-stained seashells were also uncovered at the site, and the interpretation that these were used to mix ochre pigments with water for body paint intensifies the link between ochre and ritual practice.
Engraved ochres have also been found at Klasies River and several other sites in the Western Cape: the appearance of this phenomenon over several sites of divergent age suggests that the practice of ochre engraving was not a local phenomenon but a general one. Similar patterns have been found on fragments of inscribed ostrich eggshells at Diepkloof Shelter in the Western Cape dating to around 60,000 years ago, though with interesting variations that Riel-Salvatore speculates may have disclosed incipient notions of individual expression within an iconographic tradition, and given the context at hand, may possibly have symbolised some individual responses to personal entoptic experiences, albeit in a wider symbolic and social tradition.
Some of the earliest parietal artforms of the Eurasian Upper Palaeolithic beginning around 41,000 years ago at El Castillo, and a little later at nearby sites such as Altamira, feature geometric images called tectiforms, as well as rows of dots in deep or secluded parts of the caves, that recall entoptic and even construal visionary forms. The 'Tectiform Recess' at El Castillo forms a chamber with a steeply-reclining wall which precludes walking – to enter, one must shuffle carefully in the confined space. Similarly at Altamira, a large tectiform is found in a difficult-to-access space in the deepest part of the cave. These are purposive and private spaces that lend themselves to interpretations of quiet contemplation and call to mind initiations or 'vision-quest' rituals of Plains Native Americans in which the hopeful visionary is left for days alone. Hopman makes the point with regard to tectiforms in cave art in general that:
“A possible explanation could be that the Palaeolithic people experienced trance and saw entoptic phenomena in the dark cave thanks to sensory deprivation of sight. In the absence of any stimuli, the brain creates images for us to see. It is likely these experiences were considered to be religious experiences, or contact with the spirits.”
Given that in both El Castillo and Altamira, these tectiform friezes are closely associated with animal masks – large construal images of faces highlighted with charcoal in the living rock – it is not too much of a speculation to suggest these tectiforms may have deliberately followed entoptic forms in seeking to engender visions in the firelit darkness of the cave.
Lewis-Williams also notes that in the San Bushman rock art traditions evidence in the Drakensberg mountains of South Africa, dating from 24,000 years ago to the present, unpainted engravings contain a great deal of geometric forms, but painted works of animals or ritual scenes almost never do, suggesting an ancient distinction between two types of art was being made at some juncture following the Middle Stone Age occupancy at Blombos.
Watts notes an important point here, that “...it is almost inconceivable that the... occupants of Blombos were engraving such designs onto pieces of ochre while not doing similar things with ground ochre on their bodies.”
In this regard, we have already suggested previously that the first canvas was the human body and, indeed, the presence of red ochre in human habitation sites beginning 160,000 years ago cannot be adequately explained by any other means. The association of red ochre with skeletons from both Neanderthal and anatomically modern humans at Qafzeh and Skhul from 100,000 years ago demonstrate clearly that cognitively-modern humans were adorning the dead with ochre (and in passing here we should recall the 'not alive' aspect of our model), intensifying Watts' insistence that it must also have been used on the living.
Body paint obviously does not survive in the archaeological record, except rarely in artistic depictions, and so the content, symbolic meaning and patterns must be closed to our knowledge, however the presence of geometric forms on the Blombos red ochre and Diepkloof eggshell artefacts points towards these designs representing the fragmentary survivals of a wider symbolic tradition anciently present in the proto-cultures of the Western Cape. It seems reasonable to assume that similar entoptic forms, then, may have been used as body adornments, a tentative conclusion which may be supported by ethnographic evidence from modern indigenous traditions visible today.