Trance States and the Emergence of Prehistoric Art

The artist’s mission is to make the soul perceptible. Our scientific, materialist culture trains us to develop the eyes of outer perception. Visionary art encourages the development of our inner sight. To find the visionary realm, we use the intuitive inner eye: the eye of contemplation, the eye of the soul. All the inspiring ideas we have as artists originate here.

 –Alex Grey, The Mission of Art

It is a quality of evolutionary inquiry to look deep into the past to develop a deeper understanding of the present. This is done by developing a causal link between those crucial stages of development in the past and how human beings have snowballed from those early stages into the advanced species that we are today. One of these idolized advancements is the production of art; it is one of those few things that distinguish humans from other animals. Some scientists go so far in suggesting the name “Homo symbolicus” (Froese, 2013, p. 199). What a strange animal we are, erecting some of the largest buildings in our urban centers and dedicating them to the display of these artistic productions. It is in art that we find meaning, symbolism, expressions of feelings that capture and resound the human condition so that we may feel, if only for a moment, that we are not alone in our navigation through life. How did art come into being? What stimulus knocked over the first domino in the evolution of the human artistic capacity and led us to become the image-making species which we are today? This paper offers an answer to this question; that it was from the facilitation of trance states that an internal imagery surfaced, serving as the first subject matter for human beings to artistically reproduce in the external world.

First, it is important to define a key term in this research; trance state. A trance state, also referred to as an altered state or altered state of consciousness, refers to the wide variety of psychological states separate from the normal, alert, problem-solving states of consciousness (Kjellgren 2010). Trance states can be intentionally facilitated through a variety of means, such as hypnosis, holotropic breathwork, psychoactive substances, long-term fasting, sensory deprivation, as well as shamanic styles of music and dance (Hancock, 2005).

Why does art exist, and what was the stimulus that caused an organism such as humans to create it? This is a question that scientists, philosophers, anthropologists and mystics have been trying to answer for hundreds of years.

In the beginning of the anthropological work done on the origins of cave art, it was posited that these images were meaningless products of humans who had reached the point of evolutionary fitness wherein they had a large surplus of time to spend on tasks that had no survival function. This explanation stemmed from early notions of the “savage man”, where anthropologists looked at early humans as crudely primitive sub-versions of ourselves, and this theory became known as art pour l’art, or art for art’s sake (Lewis-Williams, 2002). The notion that this art came from nothing but leisure time and aesthetic sensibility is not supported by the locations in which much cave art is found; many pieces are found not only deep in pitch dark caves, but deep in thin tunnels in which only one person can squeeze into at a time. This supports the notion that early people were creating these works of art not to be looked at for some type of aesthetic sense, but rather made from a creative urge accompanied by a deep personal significance imbued in the design by the artist who made it. The artist was making it for themselves.

Another explanation of early cave art is that these are simply reproductions of the external environment. This may be supported by the examples of animals represented in many examples of cave art, but this explanation falls short in explaining many other examples. Many pieces contain geometric imagery such as parallel and zig-zag lines, spirals and lattices; things that “early humans could not have seen in the natural environment” (Lewis-Williams, 2011, p. 7). Many other pieces contain half-man half-animal hybrids, called “therianthropes” (Lewis-Williams, 2005, p. 45); again, this is not something that one would see on a stroll through the forest.

David-Lewis Williams, Professor of Cognitive Archaeology and Director of the Rock Art Research Unit in the Department of Archaeology at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, was the first to propose the neuropsychological model of cave art. Lewis-Williams made the connection between form-constant imagery, trance states and the patterns seen in cave art.

The crucial research that serves as the foundation of the Lewis-Williams’ neuropsychological model of cave art is that done on form-constants. Form-constants are the basic reoccurring geometric patterns seen in hallucinatory trance states. The first research done on this phenomenon was by Heinrich Kluver, who categorized these patterns into four basic forms; (I) tunnels and funnels, (II) spirals, (III) lattices, including honeycombs and triangles, and (IV) cobwebs (Bressloff, 2002). It was after further research that two more categories were discovered, which are (V) dots and (VI) zig-zags (Froese, 2013). These basic recurring patterns of hallucination derive from the biological structure of the nervous system, which is why all humans experience these patterns. Because they derive from the human nervous system, “all people who enter certain altered states of consciousness, no matter what their cultural back ground, are liable to perceive them” (Lewis-Williams, 1998, p. 13).

This basic form-constant imagery constitutes the first stage in Lewis-Williams’ Three Stages of Trance model of cave art, which is based off research done on the phenomenological effects of mescaline. This imagery is the first that is experienced in the duration of visionary trance states, and are often the only visuals achieved in minor trance states, as would be brought about by a low dose of a hallucinogenic drug. These patterns are seen universally in ancient art across space and time as they are emergent of the human biology and culturally-independent. These patterns arise in the First Stage of Trance, and are found in many Paleolithic cave art sites around the world, including the world’s oldest known piece of art found in the Blombos cave in South Africa, estimated to be about seventy-seven thousand years old (Clottes, 2009)

It is in the Second Stage of Trance, as suggested by Lewis-Williams, that these geometric form-constants give way to what are called “iconic forms” (Lewis-Williams, 1988, p. 203). In this stage, the brain takes these fundamental Stage 1 patterns and uses them as building blocks to form objects that are culturally-dependent. A zig-zag line may turn into a snake, or a spiral may turn into a sea shell in this process. This happens as “the brain attempts to recognize, or decode, these forms as it does impressions supplied by the nervous system in a normal state of consciousness” (Lewis-Williams, 1988, p. 203). This is like the phenomenon of a person walking through a forest and being startled at the sight of what they believe to be a snake, when upon further inspection, it is only a stick.

After the second stage, participants report the experience of traveling through a vortex or tunnel and proceed to have hallucinations characterized by three-dimensional scenery and encounters with entities, most often in the form of therianthropes (Lewis-Williams, 1998, p. 204). Therianthropes are beings that are half-man, half-animal, and are found depicted in many cave sites, yet are most concentrated in caves in central Europe and South Africa (Clottes, 2009).

These stages of the hallucinatory experience are reflected in all the earliest forms of art, and support the notion that early artists were reproducing the hallucinations that occur when the nervous system is triggered into a trance state. It is through Lewis-Williams’ research that the connection between hallucinations and the subject matter of cave art became evident. But how were early humans having these hallucinatory trance experiences?

One method that has been used by humans to alter consciousness is the ingestion of hallucinogenic plants and fungi. “Consumption of these substances is as ancient as human societies themselves” (Guerra-Doce, 2014, p. 752), and there is evidence to support that these compounds held great importance for early people, as there have been Paleolithic burial sites discovered that contained psychoactive compound buried with the body. The compounds that produce visionary trance states are known as psychedelics, and produce minor to drastic changes in perception and alterations of consciousness. It was with the psychedelic compound mescaline that many of the early studies of form constants were done, and users dependably reported form-constant imagery and all three stages of the Three Stages of Trance model.

There are many modern examples of psychedelically-influenced art representing form-constant imagery, as well as therianthrope entities. The use of ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic tea, is still very prevalent amongst people in the Peruvian Amazon who “speak of an initial stage in which ‘grid patterns, zigzag lines and undulating lines alternate with eye-shaped motifs, many-colored concentric circles or endless chains of brilliant dots” (Frecska, 2012, p. 44). These descriptions mirror both modern hallucinatory phenomenon done in laboratory settings as well as examples of Paleolithic cave art.

Another potential method used by early humans to achieve a visionary trance state is the use of music and dance. There are modern examples of music and dance being used by hunter-gatherer tribes in the Kalahari Desert as the principal means to reach trance states, and it is thought that the way of life that these people live has been relatively unchanged for millennia, giving us a window on how ancient peoples may have facilitated trance states (Hancock 2005). It is speculated that these “long hours of dancing combined with exhaustion, dehydration and fatigue” can trigger altered states of consciousness by placing the body under intense stress (Hancock, 2005, p. 122).

One study titled “Altered States During Shamanic Drumming: A Phenomenological Study” published in the International Journal of Transpersonal Studies investigated the effects of shamanic-style drumming on consciousness. In the study, twenty-two participants were gathered in a dimly lit room and led through a shamanic-style drumming meditation. The session included live rhythmic drum beats that lasted twenty minutes in duration, all while the participants were laying down with their eyes closed. Afterwards, written reports were taken from the participants and qualitatively analyzed. Many participants reported having visual hallucinations and alterations in normal states of consciousness. Among the most common and most intensely felt experiences were “insight”, “landscapes”, “encounters with animals” and “the tunnel” (Kjellgren, 2010, p. 8). Some of these phenomenological experiences are parallel to the experiences of participants who had ingested mescaline in a laboratory setting, namely the experience of a tunnel and the imagery of a three-dimensional landscape accompanied by entities.

Sensory deprivation is another dynamic that can trigger a trance state in human beings, and early cave painters could have facilitated “sensory deprivation in the caves themselves” (Hancock, 2005, p. 90). Sensory deprivation causes hallucinations through depriving the brain of external stimulus, causing the brain to generate its own. The output of this inwardly-generated imagery would follow the form-constant patterns, and would give early painters in the pitch-black caves visual hallucinations seemingly projected in front of them. Perhaps the geometric hallucinations seen in caves were the cave painter’s attempt to trace the hallucination, or to capture the transient visual in a lasting form.

Psychedelics, shamanic music/dancing and sensory deprivation are all ways in which the human being can come into a trance state and release the imagery embodied in the nervous system, but it is possible that these methods were used in combination with each other. The ceremonial ingestion of psychedelic substances may have been used in combination with shamanic trance dancing, allowing early people to reach peak trance states. It is also possible that psychedelics were ingested before entering the caves, heightening the hallucinations triggered by sensory deprivation.

It is evident that these methods could have been used by early people to facilitate visionary trance states, but how might this have aided in the evolution of the capacity through which humans produce art? Though some may have reached these visionary trance states and reproduced their hallucinations, it is possible that there were other humans who took no part in these modalities of altering consciousness. The behavior of reproducing images generated by the imagination could have spread as a meme, and other humans could have mimicked those who were driven to create art because of their hallucinations. In this sense, trance states may have injected the behavior of creating art into human culture, allowing this meme to evolve into what it is today.

In conclusion, there is a compelling amount of evidence to support the notion that the first images created by humans are reflections of our neurology, images embodied into the human brain and brought out during hallucinatory experience. This argument places a new importance on altered states of consciousness, and suggests that these states are not something to be scoffed at or denounced; we may owe our humanity to them.