There is considerable, understandable interest in how our art tumbled down from Egypt and Greece. Both civilisations irrevocably changed the shape of western magic.
But taking a macro view, an overemphasis on these two regions is rather like coming into the cinema for the last five minutes of Return of The King. Shouldn’t we be curious about what happened in the rest of the trilogy?
Homo erectus kicked around for almost two million years, our fully-modern brains are 200,000 years old. And yet in the archaeological record there is a time before burial and a time after it.
Somewhere along our journey we acquired a spirit world.
Your pet on drugs
The anthropologist Donald E Brown says “the seeking of altered states of consciousness is a human universal”. In fact, it’s not just a human universal, we share it with vast parts of the animal kingdom.
Our brains have receptors for quite a number of entheogens; DMT (which is endogenously produced), psilocybin, LSD, mescaline, etc which effectively means these substances don’t ‘invade’ the brain anymore than a key ‘invades’ a lock. The list of molecules that passes the blood/brain barrier unhindered is vanishingly small.
Ron Siegel claims that “intoxication has adaptive evolutionary value.” If this is true then the best candidate is improved salience detection. It should be noted that salience detection is a function of the hippocampus -also responsible for memory and senses of space/time. It’s positively swimming with drug receptors. Improved salience detection is definitely an evolutionary advantage for any species that relies on predation for a large part of its diet.
So, however you slice it, the drive to get high must have been inherited from our animal ancestors. For one reason or another, large parts of the biosphere like to get off their faces/snouts/beaks. (Crazy sidebar: Is this our ancestors encoding their email address into their terraforming spaceships? Is this how we check back in?)
What this means is that, prior to the emergence of modern humans, our ancestors had brain ‘locks’ that worked with naturally occurring entheogenic ‘keys’.
Speaking of modern humans…
Your overgrown family tree
Don’t for a second thing the story of human migration just because someone at Archon University says the words “mitochondrial DNA”.
Honestly, the situation is a mess. Here is where the story is currently at. There will be much more about this in the next whisky rant:
That story starts with a single species, the probable ancestor of this human family. This was Homo erectus (“Erect Man”, because it walked upright), characterised by a powerfully robust skeleton and a small-brained skull which was thick-walled, long and low, with a glowering brow ridge over the eyes and a chinless lower jaw. Despite these differences from the current model, erectus was an effective tool-maker and hunter, with a body shape more human than ape-like.
Yet if we look even a little way back into the planet’s history, we come to a time – possibly as recently as 50,000 years ago – when there may have been as many as seven distinct types of human, from Africa to Europe to the wilds of Siberia and the remote islands of Indonesia. We, Homo sapiens, are the sole survivor of this menagerie – but for most of human history, we were not alone.
So where did these other “humans” come from? And what happened to them to leave us as the only human denizens of the Earth? In recent years, a slew of exciting discoveries in Africa, Europe and elsewhere has turned the received wisdom on its head. We have learned that the story of our origins is far more interesting – and complicated – than we ever thought.
Homo erectus emerged in Africa some two million years ago, and rapidly spread across Asia and possibly southern Europe as well (Britain was probably only occupied a million years on, by later human species). It is possible that erectus hung on in Java until as recently as 50,000 years ago, making this species by far the longest-lived of all the humans. And during that time, it begat a whole tribe of descendants. These included Homo antecessor and Heidelberg Man, with the latter giving rise to three recent successors: the Neanderthals (who lived in Europe and the Near East), Homo sapiens (“Wise Man”), and a mysterious third kind of human, the Denisovans, who are known only from a single site in Siberia.
Right, got that list sorted? Apologies for the fact that, more than anything else, it looks for all the world like a bunch of monkeys decided to play Risk with a really big board. But it has relevance for the next section where we look at possibly the most important thing us homos (heehee) ever did.
The list of suspects
There are a number of older theories that unfortunately still have currency in this corner of pseudohistory. The first is Terence McKenna’s “Stoned Ape” theory from Food Of The Gods:
My contention is that the mutation-causing, psychoactive chemical compounds in the early human diet directly influenced the reorganization of the brain’s information-processing capacities. Alkaloids in plants, specifically the hallucinogenic compounds such as psilocybin, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and harmaline, could be the chemical factors in the protohuman diet that catalyzed the emergence of human self reflection.
Here is the theory hilariously animated:
It’s bold for its time, but a number of factors have come to light in the ensuing few decades that essentially rule it out.
- Language pre-dates McKenna’s time frame and is not exclusive to humans.
- The theory relies on the chemical having some kind miraculous ‘mutational upgrade’ effect.
- Psychedelics don’t so much ‘reorganise neural pathways’ as they do send electric signals on winding detours through your grey matter. (This is probably how some of them instantly cure depression.)
- Intoxication is not limited to one simian subspecies so why didn’t it ‘upgrade’ parrots?
- Symbolic thinking is an evolutionary advantage that can be selected for without the need for chemical stimuli.
Personal experiences on any of the chemicals he suggests leave you in no doubt that these molecules are intimately connected with the human story in some way. I have a lot of time for McKenna, so let’s just say this: he was probably right about the substance but wrong about its effect on our evolution.
The second erroneous theory has to do with what I’m guessing you learned about Neanderthals in school:
- They were big, stupid brutes.
- We wiped them out with our smarty-pants brains.
- We descended from them.
- They made no art and their system of communication could only charitably be called a language.
Again. It turns out this is pretty much all wrong.
- In fact they did make art. Two hundred thousand years ago. This would be among the first pieces of evidence for symbolic thinking on earth.
- They also sailed the world’s oceans and buried their dead.
- Also, as mentioned above in that large quote about monkeys playing Risk, we did not descend from them. For a brief period we were instead contemporaneous siblings.
To be specific, we were contemporaneous with the last few survivors of the Neanderthal race, clinging onto existence in the slightly warmer climes of southern Spain. Looking at the genetic diversity of Neanderthals, it appears most of them were wiped out 50,000 years ago “probably due to climate change”:
But specimens from western Europe younger than 48,000 years showed much less genetic diversity (variation in the older remains and the Asian Neanderthals was six-fold greater than in the western examples).
In their scientific paper, the scientists propose that some event – possibly changes in the climate – caused Neanderthal populations in the West to crash around 50,000 years ago. But populations may have survived in warmer southern refuges, allowing the later re-expansion.
“The variation among later European Neanderthals was not even as high as that of modern humans in Iceland.”
The researchers note that the loss of genetic diversity in west European Neanderthals coincided with a climatic episode known as Marine Isotope Stage Three, which was characterised by several brief periods of freezing temperatures.
These cold periods are thought to have been caused by a disturbance of oceanic currents in the North Atlantic, and it is possible that they had a particularly strong impact on the environment in western Europe, note the researchers.
Emphasis mine. We’ll quickly get to why.
So there we all are in southern Spain, hanging out with the last few remnants of a vanishing race following a series of severe climate incidents that altered the ecology of the area.
And the Neanderthals start to paint in caves. (Sidebar: looks weirdly like DNA.) This is interesting for two reasons:
- The mind wonders what might have become of Neanderthals if they had had the genetic diversity to survive into the historic period.
- Because after 160,000 years they suddenly display high-level symbolic thinking at the same time we did in the same location following the same climate event.
We too had spent at least 60,000 years (thirty times the distance between you and Jesus) with rudimentary symbolic thinking, with scattered and unsympathetic ‘burial’ sites… evidence of a dim and confused awareness of a world beyond meat. Take it away, Graham:
While it is undoubtedly the case that there was a lengthy build up to this, it is also obvious that some sort of ‘critical mass’ was reached, at least in south-west Europe, when the great caves began to be painted between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago. Subsequently, notes Richard Klein, Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University, ‘ever more closely packed cultural revolutions have taken humanity from the status of a relatively large mammal to something more like a geological force.
What adds to the mystery of this amazing stepping-up of our effectiveness and competitiveness is that it was not accompanied or immediately preceded by any obvious anatomical change. There was, for example, no increase in human brain size between 100,000 and 40,000 years ago… [W]hy did they embark on an immense behavioural metamorphosis… to become innovative and artistic, symbolic and cultured, religious and self-aware? What caused the momentous change of direction and destiny, hitherto unparalleled in the history of life on earth, that gave birth to modern human culture?
Symbolic thinking prior to the Neolithic Renaissance and symbolic thinking afterward is the difference between a toddler banging on a saucepan and the BBC Concert Orchestra playing the theme from Star Wars at Royal Albert Hall for some (awesome) reason. It’s as if we had been sporadically prank dialling the same number for tens of thousands of years.
And then one day somebody picked up.
Shadows in the cave
The prevailing theory out there in the wider world -and even in some corners of the magical one- is that the imagery in the cave paintings in south west Europe is some sort of sympathetic magic… that the depictions of game are there to ensure a good hunt. This idea is about a hundred years old and really doesn’t hold any water.
- The species depicted on the cave walls don’t match the bones (food scraps) on the floor.
- Reindeer was the main food of our ancestors near Lascaux for instance, and yet there is only a single depiction of one on the wall. (Also it has webbed feet.)
- In fact, a lot of the animals have nothing to do with the human food chain and even more of them are fantastical hybrids: snakes with lion heads, etc.
- The ‘arrows’ or ‘missiles’ sticking out of some of the figures, what you’d expect for hunting magic, are only evident in 3%-4% of cases. Even breaking it out by species, bison are less than 15%. Also humans and therianthropes are depicted with ‘missiles’.
- Who hides magic required on the plains out of sight and proximity from where it is allegedly needed? What does it have to do with a ‘womb’?
Look at it with wizard eyes. I put it to you that if this is sympathetic magic, then our ancestors were even worse at hunting than they were at sorcery. Now that patently can’t be the case because… check it out… here we all are, fat, warm and online shopping for iPhones.
Back to Graham:
The presence of these fantastic beasts, hybrids, chimeras and monsters, which have no concrete reference points in the material realm, of course casts doubt on the naturalism of all the other figures with which they share the rock walls. Indeed… it is possible that none of the art is 100 per cent naturalistic and that what the whole corpus really reveals is imagery from the inner mental universe of the ancients.
I want to stop the recording right here and pick up on something… ‘the inner mental universe’? That’s what I call a homeground advantage. Like reading a tapestry in a Paris museum, we can bring some magical reality to the speculative. Here is Jake Stratton-Kent, talking about caves in a much, much more recent epoch… but just read it and tell me it doesn’t nail the magical use of caves:
The cave is not simply a metaphor for the realm of the dead, although it grants access to that realm among others. Neither is it an allegory for the fertility of the earth, although again it includes such meaning. The cave, whether a man-made hole or a natural grotto, is an inclusive symbol of containment. It contains not a part of the other world, but all of it. Within such a cave are granted visions of the entire Universe, and a complete cast of supernatural beings are encountered.
The ‘cave as womb’ metaphor tells us more about the oedipal preoccupations of those early researchers than it does about the magic of our ancestors.
So let’s have a closer look at JSK’s ‘complete case of supernatural beings’. Here’s Graham quoting some Cambridge anthropologists:
We look at art that goes back to the dawn of humanity and found it had one common feature: animal-human hybrids… Werewolves and vampires are as old as art, in other words. These composite beings, from a world between humans and animals, are a common theme from the beginning of paint.
The French historian Jean Clottes agree that the ‘belief in therianthropic beings’ is not only conclusively demonstrated in the oldest cave art, but is ‘attested in the whole world in all periods.’
The existence of genuinely universal art, ranging from deceptively simple geometric repetitions (possibly representing the entoptic phenomena associated with an entheogen’s ‘come on’) all the way up to similar depictions of hybrid gods and teachers… from every era… in every culture right up to the modern western one has to be significant one way or the other.
We don’t encounter therianthropes in normal waking consciousness so we cannot be looking at mere depictions of personal experience. Artistic imagination could account for it if therianthropy was restricted to a particular location or time… but it isn’t. And if it’s all just images the human brain is designed to bring up as part of its normal functioning then that brings up a whole host of even more ridiculous questions. (Which isn’t to say they aren’t without hypothetical answers.)
One day there wasn’t gods and monsters. And the next day there was. What could do such a thing?
The first season of the witch
That Neanderthal research about population collapse is hot off the press. For years I have been speculating that it was changes in the food supply brought about by climate change that’s behind the Neolithic Chemical Revolution. It’s just I couldn’t put my finger on the actual climate research to support my ludicrous heresy.
Because the entheogens were already in situ. Climate change didn’t make them suddenly ‘appear’ in Europe. Our cave doors of perception were opened by one of these:
- Psilocybe semilanceata. Distributed across Scandinavia all the way down to the Med. Occurs in woodland clearings and marginal grassy areas on nitrophilous enriched areas. (ie not on shit but in areas improved by shit.)
- Panaeolus campanulatus and panaeolus papilionaceus. Widespread in Europe from the Upper Paleolithic. Grows on the dung of wild and domesticated herbivores; reindeer, etc.
Once again then… a period of climate change that brought the more dispersed Nordic flora further south (more clearings)… an influx of a new species -us- following, hunting and managing populations of herbivores through woodland burnoff (creating marginal grassy areas) and generally upping the amount of animal shit littered about the place.
It’s very likely we ingested entheogens prior to the Neolithic Renaissance but it’s my contention that a specific set of environmental, dietary and demographic changes increased our encounter rates with the relevant psychoactives. (It’s also entirely possible that the Renaissance could have been a function of dosage… there certainly would have been more mushrooms around than before… some crazy bastard must have inhaled a whole basket full at some stage. There’s tripping and then there’s tripping balls.)
Of course, we will never know the exact chain of events behind our entheogenic awakening, but we can be reasonably confident that it was around this time when we finally met the neighbours. And like all decent neighbours, they had a lot of cool stuff and were happy to share it.
Queen of the plant kingdom
We are only going to touch briefly on DMT… not because it isn’t important (it’s the most important entheogen) but because a lot has already been said about it and you should really just watch this instead. So let’s just say
- It’s the most powerful hallucinogen on the planet.
- It’s the only one secreted by the human brain.
- It provides the most internally consistent hallucinogenic experiences of any entheogen.
- It has been the subject of the most celebrated psychedelic research in decades. From the researcher himself:
I found that DMT reliably caused people’s consciousness to enter into an apparently freestanding independent universe made out of bright light—intensely colored, intensely saturated bright light. It was quite reliable in doing this.
Consciousness of the volunteer in that state was also disembodied. The experience to the volunteer felt as if they no longer had a body, and they were just pure consciousness entering into this world of light.
Also, it was quite a common occurrence and reported by volunteers that they encountered beings made of light who were sentient, intelligent and interacted with volunteers. Those were probably the most common things that we found. I was expecting near-
I think I’m more comfortable as thinking of it as a mediator between physical and spiritual processes. By spiritual, I don’t mean new age, I more mean things which are occurring out of our consciousness most of the time. With the aid of DMT, you can access things which were previously invisible.
DMT is singled because its most famous natural vessel, ayahuasca, is indicative of the exceedingly remote odds we are dealing with when it comes to entheogens. ‘Accidental’ discoveries are off the table. From the classic The Cosmic Serpent:
The enigma was all the more intriguing because the botanical knowledge of indigenous Amazonians has long astonished scientists. The chemical composition of ayahuasca is a case in point. Amazonian shamans have been preparing ayahuasca for millenia. The brew is the necessary combination of two plants, which must be boiled together for hours. The first contains a hallucinogenic substance, dimethyltryptamine, which also seems to be secreted by the human brain; but this hallucinogen has no effect when swallowed, because a stomach enzyme called monoamine oxidase blocks it. The second plant, however, contains several substances that inactivate this precise stomach enzyme, allowing the hallucinogen to reach the brain.
So here are people without electron microscopes who choose, among some 80,000 Amazonian plant species, the leaves of a bush containing a hallucinogenic brain hormone, which they combine with a vine containing substances that inactivate an enzyme of the digestive tract, which would otherwise block the hallucinogenic effect… It is as if they knew about the molecular properties of the plants and the art of combining them, and when one asks them how they know these things, they say their knowledge comes directly from hallucinogenic plants.
A bit further on, the author’s guide, Carlos, refers to the spirits as “like radio waves” and with the right medicines such as ayahuasca and tobacco, you can tune into them. The spirits in question are mankind’s first civilising gods, the maninkari; literally “those who are hidden”.
Carlos also referred to invisible beings, called maninkari, who are found in animals, plants, mountains, streams, lakes and certain crystals, and who are the source of all knowledge: “The maninkari taught us how to spin and weave cotton, and how to make clothes. Before, our ancestors lived naked in the forest. Who else could have taught us to weave? That is how our intelligence was born, and that is how we natives of the forest know how to weave.”
This particular rant boiled down to its essence: tens of thousands of years ago, certain naturally occurring substances put us in contact with beings that gave us the knowledge and tech to kickoff this whole project of human civilisation.
Coming into view
Right at the foggiest tip of observable history we see entheogenically altered states of consciousness coming into view in the cave art of Lascaux, Altamira and the rest.
To my mind this is probably when we first met the neighbours. But they’ve been living next door to us for quite some time. Indeed, the Neolithic entheogen project alone went for 25,000 years. It was, in a sense, “the longest running neuropsychological experiment in history.”
The argument is a bit circular but -especially if you’re a magician and thus presumably qualified to benchmark against your own experience of the spirit world- we can make certain qualified assumptions about those first few millennia of initial contact: If our brains haven’t changed for a hundred thousand years, then look at the belief systems that spawn around the use of the same entheogens today and cast that back into the environment of 30,000 to 40,000 years ago. You won’t get the details but you’ll get the broad strokes.
As we get toward the end of the Stone Age, where things become only slightly less foggy, we see the neighbours and the keys to the house next door are still with us. Egypt and the Arabian peninsula, Sumer, Göbeklitepe, then Malta, Greece and the Aegean… as things become clearer still we see the same chemical tech underpinning a broadly similar relationship with a complex, therianthropic spirit world that was accessible to us while still incarnate. (We’ll pick this journey up from here in a non-rant context sometime later.)
So the beginning of the story looks rather like today’s magical story: punching through to the Other Realm, finding some companions and then coming back was probably the best thing we ever did.
Let me leave you with some famous words from Uncle Al, when asked about his “fundamental position” on the existence of God.
My observation of the Universe convinces me that there are beings of intelligence and power of a far higher quality than anything we can conceive of as human; that they are not necessarily based on the cerebral and nervous structures that we know; and that the one and only chance for mankind to advance as a whole is for individuals to make contact with such Beings.
You don’t say.