Friday, July 27, 2012

supernatural: meetings with the ancient teachers of mankind

grahamhancock | My intention at the outset was to write a book exploring the mystery of human origins. There are many gaps in the fossil record between about 7 million years ago (the date of our supposed last common ancestor with chimpanzees) and the emergence of the first civilisations recognised by historians around 5000 years ago. My thought was that if I probed these gaps diligently enough something might emerge – some insight, some scrap of previously neglected information – that might shed light on the great puzzles of the human predicament. Why, alone amongst animal species, have we developed culture and religion, beliefs in life after death, beliefs in non-physical beings such as spirits, demons and angels, elaborate mythologies, the ability to create and to appreciate art, the ability to use and manipulate symbols, consciousness of ourselves and of our place in the scheme of things? Did these abstract, even “spiritual”, qualities develop slowly, over millions of years, or were they switched on suddenly, like lights in a darkened room?

To cut a long story short, what I discovered is that during most of the first 7 million years of human evolution there is no evidence at all for the existence of symbolic abilities amongst our ancestors. No matter how intensively we probe what is known about the fossil record, or speculate about what is not yet known about it, all that we see evidence for throughout this period is a dull and stultifying copying and recopying of essentially the same patterns of behaviour and essentially the same “kits” of crude stone tools, without change or innovation, for periods of hundreds of thousands, even millions of years. When a change is introduced (in tool shape for example) it then sets a new standard to be copied and recopied without innovation for a further immense period until the next change is finally adopted. In the process, glacially slow, we also see the gradual development of human anatomy in the direction of the modern form: the brain-pan enlarges, brow ridges reduce in size, overall anatomy becomes more gracile – and so on and so forth.

By 196,000 years ago, and on some accounts considerably earlier, humans had achieved “full anatomical modernity”. This means that they were in every way physically indistinguishable from the people of today and, crucially, that they possessed the same large, complex brains as we do. The most striking mystery, however, is that their behaviour continued to lag behind their acquisition of modern neurology and appearance. They showed no sign of possessing a culture, or supernatural beliefs, or self-consciousness, or any interest in symbols. Indeed there was nothing about them that we could instantly identify with “us”. Dr Frank Brown, whose discovery of 196,000-year-old anatomically-modern human skeletons in Ethiopia was published in Nature on 17 February 2005, points out that they are 35,000 years older than the previous “oldest” modern human remains known to archaeologists:

“This is significant because the cultural aspects of humanity in most cases appear much later in the record, which would mean 150,000 years of Homo sapiens without cultural stuff…”

Brown’s colleague, John Fleagle of Stony Brook University in New York State, also comments on the same problem:

“There is a huge debate regarding the first appearance of modern aspects of behaviour… As modern human anatomy is documented at earlier and earlier sites, it becomes evident that there was a great time gap between the appearance of the modern skeleton and ‘modern behaviour’.”

For Ian Tattershall of the American Museum of Natural History the problem posed by this gap – and what happened to our ancestors during it – is “the question of questions in palaeoanthropology”. His colleague Professor David Lewis-Williams of the Rock Art Research Institute at South Africa’s Witwatersrand University describes the same problem as “the greatest riddle of archaeology – how we became human and in the process began to make art and to practice what we call religion.”

I quickly realized that this was the mystery, and the period, I wanted to investigate. Not that endless, unimaginative cultural desert from 7 million years ago down to just 40,000 years ago when our ancestors hobbled slowly through their long and boring apprenticeship, but the period of brilliant and burning symbolic light that followed soon afterwards when the first of the great cave art of southwest Europe appeared – already perfect and fully formed – between 35,000 and 30,000 years ago.

A most remarkable theory exists to explain the special characteristics of these amazing and haunting early works of art, and to explain why identical characteristics are also found in prehistoric art from many other parts of the world and in art produced by the shamans of surviving tribal cultures today. The theory was originally elaborated by Professor David Lewis-Williams, and is now supported by a majority of archaeologists and anthropologists. In brief, it proposes that the reason for the similarities linking all these different systems of art, produced by different, unrelated cultures at different and widely-separated periods of history, is that in every case the shaman-artists responsible for them had previously experienced altered states of consciousness in which they had seen vivid hallucinations, and in every case their endeavour in making the art was to memorialise on the walls of rock shelters and caves the ephemeral images that they had seen in their visions. According to this theory the different bodies of art have so many similarities because we all share the same neurology, and thus share many of the same experiences and visions in altered states of consciousness.