The Stained Glass Windows of Ice Age Cathedrals: Cave art and shamanism

The oldest rock art ever found in the British Isles was discovered last summer in a deep underground cave in Wales, somewhere on the Gower Peninsula. It shows the faint scratching of a reindeer with a spear in its neck, and it’s dated to around 14,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age. (It’s not the cave in the picture above, by the way; that is known as the Hall of the Bulls from the Lascaux caves in France, where the paintings are even older, dating to around 20,000 years ago. )

© National Geographic)

Experts are also studying other marks etched into the rock below the speared reindeer.

“This drawing was done with the right hand by somebody using a piece of flint who has drawn a classic reindeer design,” said Dr George Nash, an associate professor at the University of Tomar in Portugal, who stumbled upon the prehistoric find.

“It is very, very exciting.”

But although this Welsh etching is extremely old, it is not the oldest on Earth. The earliest attested cave art comes from the Blombos cave in southern Africa and at 74,000 years old, it consists of geometric designs.

Blombos cave artifact

Just this one find alone, in southern Africa, instantly smashed the paradigm about Stone Age cave men being ignorant savages. In fact, the term ‘cave men’ is barely used anymore by people in the know ~ not least because our earliest ancestors rarely lived inside caves which they regarded as sacred spaces and for use only for ritual activity. But also because, to those who examine their ritual artifacts with a seer’s eyes, it’s obvious that these ancestors were living in a far richer and complex world than we can even conceive of today.

The importance of ritual activity, where the sacred is invoked and evoked, has become almost lost to us today, although shamanic healers are bringing back some of it. It’s interesting to also see the importance these Palaeolithic ancients placed in expressing themselves in pictures. A few very early runes – the earliest form of writing – have been found in Russia dating to about 10,000 years ago. But before that, there are only images – images either scratched or etched or painted with hematite on cave walls and rocks, and they are mainly discovered and reported on by people that call themselves rock art scientists.

Chauvet cave, c. 35,000 years old

However, I’ve often wondered whether it has been a mistake to try to develop a scientific epistemology for interpreting ancient rock art. For instance, do we need to develop a scientific epistemology to fall in love? Or to know that fire is hot? Of course not. These are subjective, inner experiences ~ just like the experiences of those who daubed on cave walls. And that is why I believe that their meaning and purpose is not so accessible to those who wish to subject them to outer, objective experimentation.

Put simplistically, the left hemisphere of the brain deals with objective logic, words and writing, while the right hemisphere of the brain deals with subjective feelings, pictures and metaphor. Objective logic cannot be applied to subjective experience any more than you can measure the ocean with a pack of playing cards.

The world of archaeology and anthropology is slowly coming round to this same realisation.

The right brain and left brain are separated by a thick wadge of neural fibres called the corpus callosum.

Corpus callosum

And so when rock art scientist David Lewis Williams published his seminal book, The Mind In the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art in 2002, it marked the first time that a rock art scientist crossed the metaphorical corpus callosum to make the case that, at the time, these paintings were the stained glass windows into other worlds of the soul which were reached within those dark, cold and cavernous Ice Age cathedrals.

The closest we come today to that cognitive experience is in the shamanic journey into trance. Therefore, in viewing these paintings through the objective lens of science — cognitive epistemology, palaeoart studies, general and replicative archaeology, soil science, speleology, semiotics and geomorphology, to name but a few — we’re surely using the wrong tools for the job? You’ll find a lot of rock art scientists who will fight to the death anyone who suggests that there is another way, and they are highly critical of David Lewis- Williams …mainly because he did find another way.

He discovered that the shaman uses different tools — for instance, clairaudience, clairvoyance, clairsentience. These are cognitive tools which he has developed over many years of training. This means that while the scientist is crawling all over The Birdman of Lascaux armed with only a microscope and a BA. Hons in Art History, the shaman is silently and empathically communing with The Birdman himself.

Birdman of Lascaux

This is not a New Age, touchy-feely idea. It’s an extremely Old Age tried and trusted technique. So possibly, we’d be better off by just asking shamans about what these paintings mean, which is what David Lewis-Williams did.

Lewis Williams is now retired as director of the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. But back in the Seventies, he gained his Ph.D through his epigraphic work with the San Bushmen, one of the few remaining indigenous tribes which has a tradition of shamanic practises going back for thousands of years.

He focussed upon the various San ritual ceremonies — especially one known as the Healing or Trance Dance — and their connections to the San rock art. He later published his findings in the highly acclaimed: Believing and Seeing: Symbolic Meaning in Southern San Rock Paintings.

Cave art of the San Bushmen

The San Bushmen live in the part of the Africa where the Blombos cave art was found, and may very well be the descendants of the man who, 74,000 years ago, etched that hatched geometric design on the piece of hematite at the top of this article.

In The Mind in the Cave, Lewis-Williams builds on his work with the San Bushmen and goes further to show that the patterns of images leading from the cave entrances in Lascaux and Chauvet in France to the dark, almost inaccessible recesses, provide an almost mirror image of the shamanic journey.

hall of bulls lascaux

“….the entry into Upper Palaeolithic caves was probably seen as virtually indistinguishable from entry into the mental vortex that leads to the experiences and hallucinations of deep trance…. The embellishing images blazed (possibly in a fairly literal sense) a path into the unknown.”

This path into the unknown reminds us of the one taken out of Plato’s Cave in The Republic.

Interestingly, he quotes Socrates comment, which reminds me of our own awards processes.

“… if the benighted prisoners [of Plato’s Cave] had a system of honours and commendations, and awarded prizes to the man who had the keenest eye for the passing shadows and the best memory of them, they would not wish to abandon their awards merely on the word of one who had been up to the light.”

He adds that nor would the one who saw the light wish to return to share the esteem of those who had won the awards.

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  1. Tad

    interessant paper,
    do you know the French researcher Jean Clottes, his remarks take a bit the same way.
    You can read a lot while following this link: (bilingual, French, English).
    Also, a French project called Rock-Art2noise

    Rock-art to noise suggests revealing the sound phenomenon of the rock art, to extend the lines, the signs, the dynamics,
    the pictorial strokes of the painter, to organize the sound towards a musical space as a counterpoint of the pictorial surface.
    In this artwork, the artist paints on a windscreen placing horizontally (her canvas). The glass receives the visual ‘traces’ and transmits in Pure Data(freeware) their sound phenomenon (stains), dedicated to all the possible declenasions of the digital audio signal processing.

    Thanks for this article, and have a good reading…
    Au plaisir


  2. Leasa Fortune

    Dear Ishtar,

    You are most likely aware of this recent discovery of an artist workshop on the Blombos Cave in South Africa. I found your link while looking for some examples of San rock art to include in my blog post. Your post is thought provoking and elegantly written. With your permission, I would like to include your link in my blog.

    Here’s the NYT link:

    Thanks and I love your blog,
    Leasa Fortune


  3. Neil

    “But also because, to those who examine their ritual artifacts with a seer’s eyes, it’s obvious that these ancestors were living in a far richer and complex world than we can even conceive of today.”…. I think this is the point: probably close to the whole point.

    I was inspired by Steven Mithen’s Prehistory of the Mind (1999). See for my take on that. I expect the Neanderthals saw, tasted, felt and experienced the world in a very different way to us. I tried to write and think like that in Chapter One of my novel Flow. It was, and is, an extraordinarily revealing process.

    Regarding scientists, like D L-W: the whole scientific approach is meant to be a detached, ‘hands-off’, non-experiential treatment of the subject matter. Bruce Hood (Supersense), Richard Wiseman (Paranormality), Scott Atran (In gods we trust) all do the same thing and it must be infuriating for those who experience these things as personal subjective experiences.

    You can tell, by the way that I wrote that paragraph, that it is hard for a trained scientist to think in any other way. Even though, I am now a social scientist and not the geneticist I once was.

    Great article. It made me think in new ways. Don’t forget Cresswell Craggs, It may not be Lascaux, but at least its British (! 😉 ). Imagine there’s no countries…..

    Take care



  4. Mike Williams

    A wonderful post Ishtar – really inspiring. Having met David Lewis-Williams a few times, he is, in his own words, a materialist, and for him, shamanism is definitely something other people do. But his work (along with Thomas Dowson) really opened up shamanism to rock art specialists and within archaeology in general and so he has performed a wonderful service.

    I believe that the art on Gower is now published, albeit at a small scale (as you probably already know) and can be found at among other sites.

    Again, brilliant article – thank you.


  5. rob purday

    Hi Ishtar – exciting finds and the image of painting in Ice caves is provocative and beautiful, can really dream with this – I have much respect for David L-W and yet…his writing still leaves me with the feeling that, although he accepts the reality of ‘experiencing the spirit worlds’, he still persists in validating it scientifically – maybe thats his ‘job’, but, his rational umbilicus still appears to be attaching his sense of ‘home’ to his left hemisphere, the split persists….I’d love to hear him throw off his ‘lab coat’, let go of that red thread and talk like an ordinary geeza who’s been touched by spirit, to the point where he can honestly and simply say ‘the spirits spoke to me’ – if he has, somewhere, let us know – a ways to go yet m’thinks before that particular balance really shifts and the scab of scientific empiricism falls away…..meanwhile….our ancestors visions are strong – many thanks for bringing them to us x


    • Ishtar Babilu Dingir

      I agree with you about D L-W’s umbilicus … but I think that’s just the stage he’s at, and because he’s at that stage, he can talk to the other scientists and anthropologists that are following, if a little tentatively, at his heels, and who are not going to listen to the likes of you and me who are way ahead of them down the rabbit hole.

      I sometimes get frustrated at the thought that not enough progress is being made fast enough. But then I remind myself that it’s only about 60-odd years since our tribe arrived here from the stars and set about changing the collective consciousness and ~ if you remember what we landed into, the Fifties, and how grim it was ~ I think we’re making progress at stellar speed.

      Can you imagine a rock art scientist talking like D L-W in the Fifties? No-one would have understood him. There was no cognitive basis or even vocabulary for his ideas to have been accepted and absorbed. It would have sounded like so much white noise.

      It was in the Fifties that Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy was published by Mircea Eliade, and that was the first time anyone in academia (or in the Western world, for that matter) put it together from anthropologists’ reports ranging from across the globe that shamans worldwide had a similar core supernatural experience. Then decades were wasted while everyone in the science establishment tried to vilify Eliade, and drag up his political past to embarrass him, before a new generation of anthropologists could pick up his book again and give it another go.

      When you’re on the ground, things look like they’re proceeding at a snail’s pace. Sometimes it seems they’ve almost come to a halt. But viewed from the Sun, the Earth is travelling at 30,000 mph. It’s just a matter of perspective. So set the controls! 🙂

      Thanks for dropping by Rob. It’s always lovely to talk to you! 🙂


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