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Aurochs, Horses and Deer of Lascaux caves (Lascaux / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Entoptic Imagery in Prehistoric and Pre-Industrial Rock Art


Throughout the world, prehistoric and pre-industrial shamanic cultures have rendered painted imagery onto rock faces; often in deep cave systems, but also in above-ground shelters. This rock art ranges in date from Palaeolithic designs in Europe, Australia and Asia through to the near-contemporary images of the San culture in southern Africa and the designs of indigenous cultures of North America and the Amazon basin. Until the mid-20th century the consensus anthropological view was that the rock art — while probably having magical meaning to the people who painted it — represented scenes from the natural environment, such as people, animals and landscapes. But as a greater anthropological understanding of indigenous shamanism developed, most especially through the work of Mircea Eliade and his 1951 publication Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, a new awareness evolved that the rock art produced by indigenous cultures might be the artistic result of shamanic processes, preeminently those brought about by inducing altered states of consciousness.

Megaloceros with line of dots (Public Domain)

Megaloceros with line of dots (Public Domain)

The Trailblazers

This was mainstreamed in 1988 by the anthropologists David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson in their paper for Current Anthropology: ‘ The Signs of all Times: Entoptic Phenomena in Upper Palaeolithic Rock Art’. They advance a neuropsychological model for analyzing the motifs of parietal art of this period, proposing that the geometric images are in fact artistic representations of universal optical patterns, intrinsic to the human visual system, once perceived by our shamanic ancestors during altered states of consciousness. The most important element of this model is the entoptic imagery displayed in the rock art and how it matches closely the geometric patterns seen by people in modern clinical conditions who have altered their state of consciousness.   

The Entoptic Model

The word ‘entoptic’ derives from the Greek ἐντός ‘within' and ὀπτικός ‘visual’. Entoptics usually consist of geometric patterns seen as overlays in the visual horizon. These patterns may be an array of dots, parallel lines, labyrinths, zig-zags, waving lines, etc. Sometimes they appear detached from the visual surroundings while at other times more integrated. Entoptics are usually experienced during altered states of consciousness, which may be achieved through a variety of means. The best evidence for the consistency of visual entoptics comes from clinical trials (from the 1950s onward), which analyzed subjective narratives of people who were administered a variety of psychedelic substances. Many of these narratives described the geometric entoptics as antecedents to deeper experiences, as if they were a geometric gateway to the main substance of the experience.


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Neil Rushton is an archaeologist and freelance writer who has published on a wide variety of topics from castle fortifications to folklore. His first book is  Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun 

Top Image: Aurochs, Horses and Deer of Lascaux caves (Lascaux / CC BY-SA 3.0)

By Neil Rushton

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Neil Rushton is an archaeologist and freelance writer who has published on a wide variety of topics from castle fortifications to folklore. Recently he has been exploring the confluence between consciousness, insanity and reality and how they are affected through... Read More

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