Humanoid figures, Kimberley, Australia.

Shamanic Explorations of Supernatural Realms: Cave Art - The Earliest Folklore

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“The neuropsychological and ethnographic evidence that I have adduced strongly suggests that, in these subterranean images, we have an ancient and unusually explicit expression of a complex shamanic experience that is informed by altered states of consciousness.”

—David Lewis-Williams, A Cosmos in Stone

Around 30-35,000 years ago there was an explosion of symbolism in Paleolithic human culture around the world, primarily represented by cave art. This cave art is usually located in hard to access underground spaces that must have had significant meaning for the artists and those who would have experienced these strange images by torchlight; And strange they are. Whilst many of the images are naturalistic images of humans, mammals and birds, there is also extensive representation of therianthropic beings, that is part human, part animal shape-shifters. There are also many beings that seem to be distorted humans, perhaps better described as humanoid. These images suggest that the Paleolithic artists were attempting to tell stories and incorporate messages and meaning within the stories, which they deemed important. The fact that many of the beings represented in the cave art are of a supernatural quality is symptomatic of what we might call folklore.

The Cave Art Evidence

This pictorial folklore is exhibited throughout the Paleolithic world, but the earliest reliably dated cave art can be found at sites in Europe, the oldest being at Fumane, in northern Italy near Verona and at the Grotte Chauvet in the Ardèche region of southern France. The cave art at these sites has been dated between 30-35,000 years old. It includes therianthropic images of a horned bovid with human body and a ‘bison-man’ straddling a ‘lion woman’.

Bison-human therianthrope, Fumane, Italy

Bison-human therianthrope, Fumane, Italy

Bison-human and lion-human therianthrope, Grotte Chauvet, France

Bison-human and lion-human therianthrope, Grotte Chauvet, France

Later than these examples, but more well-known is the complex of cave paintings at Trois Frères in south-west France. Here we find perhaps the most famous therianthropic cave painting of ‘The Sorcerer’, an amalgamation of various animals including an owl, a wolf, a stag and a human.

‘The Sorcerer’, Trois Frères, France

‘The Sorcerer’, Trois Frères, France

At Lascaux, also in south-west France, there is an image known as the ‘shaft scene’. This shows a stick-man next to a grouse on a shaft. The stick-man has decidedly animalistic features, including a beak and hands with four digits, and it is suggested that this may be a shaman in the midst of an altered state of consciousness. These are just a few examples of European cave art depicting therianthropes, supernatural beings painted in deep subterranean cave systems. There are probably more than 200 more such cave paintings throughout Europe, dating through to c.10,000 BCE.

Humanoid therianthrope, grouse and bison, Lascaux, France

Humanoid therianthrope, grouse and bison, Lascaux, France

But Europe does not have a monopoly on supernatural cave art imagery. In southern Africa, the images tend to appear in more shallow rock-shelters, but they are equally bizarre in quality. Some of the artwork has been tentatively dated to between 25-30,000 years old, such as the Tanzanian ‘insect men’ from the rock shelters at Kondoa.

Insect-human therianthropes, Kondoa, Tanzania

Insect-human therianthropes, Kondoa, Tanzania

The San people of southern Africa also depicted therianthropes in their rock-shelters. The two images shown here have been described as a ‘flying boat’ or ‘area of invisibility’ from which therianthropic figures emerge, and an antelope-headed human wearing a skin cloak, probably representing a shaman. Again, these types of images are widespread throughout southern African rock art - supernatural shapeshifters are the norm.

Therianthropes in a ‘sky boat’, Harrismith, South Africa

Therianthropes in a ‘sky boat’, Harrismith, South Africa

In Australia, the aboriginal cave and rock art is even more explicitly extraordinary. The best, and oldest (some dating to at least 30,000 years old) are found in the Kimberley region of north-western Australia. The images differ from their European and African counterparts in depicting distorted humanoid figures, which have frequently been compared to folkloric faeries, and even the extraterrestrials of the modern phenomenon of alien abductions. They represent a remarkable record of a Paleolithic culture’s interaction with entities that do not exist in consensus reality, but which were evidently experienced and chronicled in artwork by the aboriginal peoples of this distant epoch.


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I think it is amazing what these ancient people did to draw awesome cave paintings.. No matter what inspired them to draw these things the fact that they created charcoal and dirt based paints and got to it is an achievement on its own.. Don't forget that later writing systems started out as pictures and steles.. Whatever started it was one of the major catalysts that allowed humans to evolve faster.. The rate at such we evolve will be determined by how well we use verbal and visual communication and how many steps on Maslows hierarchy we have provided for our group in our society.. 

Troy Mobley

nrushton's picture

Thanks Troy. I recommend reading some of Graham Hancock’s material on the roots of civilization. He makes some interesting and well-researched points...

Truth is, we will never know the meaning of these images, I could doodle a thousand different things, but unless you ask me, you'd never know why I doodled a thousand images, or what their meaning was. We can speculate till we're blue in the face, but we will never know for certain.

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Sculpture of a head from 950-1150 AD found at Building Y in the Tajin Chico section. On display at the Tajin site museum, Veracruz state, Mexico
El Tajin is a Mesoamerican archaeological site located in the North of the state of Veracruz, near the Gulf Coast of Mexico. The city, one of the most flourishing of the Classic and early Post-classic period, was only rediscovered in 1785, immediately capturing the imagination of European travelers with its imposing jungle-covered ruins and unusual architecture.

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