The Mind in the Cave – The Cave in the Mind: Altered Consciousness in the Upper Paleolithic (David J. Lewis-Williams)

Altered States of Consciousness

The human nervous system generates consciousness, an extremely difficult state to define. It also generates altered states of consciousness that are easier (though not much) to define, even if only in relation to an intuitively understood “normal  consciousness.” Upper Paleolithic people must have experienced not only “normal consciousness” but also altered consciousness because altered states are wired into the human nervous system and, moreover, are induced by a wide range of factors that include the ingestion of psychotropic drugs, audio-driving, hyperventilation, sensory and social deprivation, pain, intense concentration, and certain pathological conditions. Add “dreaming” to this list, and the experience by at least some Upper Paleolithic people of altered states becomes indisputable. Altered states of consciousness are part of being human, part of a “package deal” (for a review of research on altered states see Siegel and West 1975). What Upper Paleolithic people made of their altered states is another question altogether.

 The ways in which altered states are experienced and interpreted are not “given” or universal. In understanding this point it is useful to think of consciousness as a spectrum. At one end is “normal” or “alert” consciousness. This grades into daydreaming, deep reveries, dreaming, “light” trance states, and, at the far end, “deep” trances in which subjects are not aware of their surroundings at all, but are part of a fully hallucinatory realm with its own rules of causality and transformation. That is the way that many Westerners think of it. But the spectrum is divided up by each society or subculture in its own way. What passes for madness in one community may be esteemed as divine revelation in another. What is a vision to some people is, to others, hallucination. The definitions of variously distinguished altered states are therefore socially situated. But there is more to it. The definition of altered states is also implicated in the negotiation of social statuses and political power. Visions of the future may earn a person admiration in some societies, but they will hamper rather than facilitate election to Congress. Because altered states are part of being human, all people have to come to terms with them in one way or another.

 So too, it must have been during the Upper Paleolithic. Were those people hyper-rationalists who dismissed all altered states as aberrations? Unlikely. Or were they like all known hunter-gatherers (and, of course, others as well) who place high value on certain precisely defined altered states? Indeed, the ubiquity of crossculturally very similar altered states among hunter-gatherers points to the high antiquity of the form of ritualized altered states that we call shamanism.

 The Shamanic Cosmos

We now consider two features of altered states of consciousness that contribute to these cross-cultural similarities (Lewis-Williams 1997).

First, as people go into altered states, they often experience sensations of attenuation, rising up and flying. As images appear before them, they believe that they are entering a spiritual realm set in or above the sky. The sensation of flight, naturally enough, suggests transformation into a bird, and, with changes in perspective, they look down onto the level of daily life. Birds are, of course, closely associated with shamans in many cultures. Secondly, as people move towards the “far” end of the spectrum, they experience and are drawn into a vortex. On the sides of this vortex there is sometimes a lattice, in the segments of which appear the first iconic images (Siegel 1977). Feelings of constriction, difficulty in breathing, and of being drawn into the vortex often suggest entrance into a tunnel that leads underground. At the other end of the tunnel is a new realm inhabited by its own beings, spirits, animals, and monsters. All this is wired into the human nervous system. There is a cave in the mind. In shamanic societies these experiences lead to belief in a chthonic realm, an underworld that shamans have the power to visit.

The Mind in the Cave — the Cave in the Mind: Altered Consciousness in the Upper Paleolithic

David J. Lewis-Williams. Anthropology of Consciousnees Volume 9, Issue 1, Article first published online: 8 Jan 2008


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