Shamanism and Rock

In Section 12.3 we described a model mechanism, involving excitatory and inhibitory neurons—an activator and inhibitor model—for generating visual hallucination patterns; some of these images and their corresponding shapes in the visual cortex are illustrated in Figure 12.9. Visual perception does not depend on light, of course, as is easily demonstrated by shutting your eyes and relaxing. More complex patterns are obtained, with your eyes closed, if you press a finger into the corner of each eye: depending on the pressure you get different patterns. These self-illuminating patterns are called phosphenes (see the general articles by Oster 1970 and Kluver 1967 and other references below) and are images which are generated in the eye and brain by some light-independent mechanism. As mentioned, hallucinogenic drugs, epilepsy, migraine, certain mental illnesses and various diseases also give rise to hallucinogenic patterns. There seems to be a firm connection between phosphenes and these drug-induced hallucinations. A review from a physiological, biochemical and psychological point of view is given by Asaad and Shapiro (1986).

Aboriginal people in many parts of the world have known for a very long time that certain plants, such as mescaline, induce hallucinations and trances. The narcotic and psychedelic properties of these plants and their derivatives have been used by shamans for both medicinal and cult purposes in widely different and unrelated cultures from prehistoric times. Wellmann (1978) suggested that North American Indian rock paintings may have been made by shamans while they were under the influence of these hallucinogenic drugs. He specifically focused on two areas. One is the Chumash and Yokuts Indian region of California, where polychrome paintings show motifs similar to those visualized during trances induced by jimsonweed (Datura species). The other area is the lower Pecos River region of Texas. Here shamanistic figures exhibit aspects which are believed to be conceptual analogues of the mescal bean (Sophora secondiflora) cult which was practiced by Indians of the Great Plains.

Kellogg et al. (1965) studied the scribblings of a large number of young children from two to four years old from a spectrum of ethnic origins and found that their drawings have distinct phosphene characteristics. They were able to classify the recurring patterns into 15 distinct groups. Kellogg and her colleagues suggested that a child's scribbles are derived from phosphenes and are similar to those induced electrically in adults. Kellogg et al. (1965) concluded that the young children only develop the ability to draw, or rather scribble, geometric patterns over the age of three but after this time they quickly develop the ability to draw a wide number of different patterns but using only a few basic ones. They further suggested that the activation of such drawings comes from the activation of preformed neuronal networks in the visual system (recall the description in Section 12.2 on the formation of cortical stripes). These basic patterns progress from basic scribbles through shapes, their combination and aggregation leading eventually to actual pictorial figures; some examples are shown in Figure 12.27.

Childrens Human Figure Progression

Figure 12.27. Examples of children's scribbles. The progression from basic scribbles such as in (a), to diagrams as in (b), to combinations then aggregations, such as in (c) finally leading to human and animal pictorial representations. The first 'human' example in (d) is a piece of cloth cut out and drawn (to represent me) by our daughter, Sarah Robertson (Murray), when she was six, while (also to represent me) the second is by her daughter, Isabella Mazowe Robertson, aged 4 and a half, who also drew the 'cat.' Kellogg et al. (1965) gives a complete classification with examples.

Figure 12.27. Examples of children's scribbles. The progression from basic scribbles such as in (a), to diagrams as in (b), to combinations then aggregations, such as in (c) finally leading to human and animal pictorial representations. The first 'human' example in (d) is a piece of cloth cut out and drawn (to represent me) by our daughter, Sarah Robertson (Murray), when she was six, while (also to represent me) the second is by her daughter, Isabella Mazowe Robertson, aged 4 and a half, who also drew the 'cat.' Kellogg et al. (1965) gives a complete classification with examples.

The ubiquity of some of these recurring patterns or phosphenes induced by hallucinogenic plants or drugs has led to a reexamination of some of the European and North American cave paintings. These signs of Upper Palaeolithic art were, for a long time, interpreted ethnographically in the archaeological literature. During the latter part of the 20th century many authors (see, for example, Wellmann 1978, Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1988, Hedges 1992,1993 and the numerous references given in these) have suggested that this art may have been produced by shamans while under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. These authors present convincing evidence of the correspondence between basic phosphenes, rock art and designs similar to those induced by hallucinogenic compounds.

Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988), as well as reviewing the now large literature, proposed a model for classifying Upper Palaeolithic signs without any ethnographic analogy. They also studied shamanistic practices in Southern Africa to substantiate their hypotheses. Since the limited range of possible visual patterns (whether drug-induced or not) arise from the human nervous system it is not unreasonable to suppose that, irrespective of cultural backgrounds, people who are in an hallucinogenic state will see similar patterns. The shamans in different cultures, however, interpret these patterns within the context of their experience. The patterns are essentially variations and local

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