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