The Entoptic Bandwagon


Lewis-Williams and Dowson's primary critic is Bednarik. Amongst others, he has voiced a number of objections about their theory in general, the assumptions they make, and their methods of collection and choice of data.

Bednarik (1990:78) condemns Lewis-Williams and Dowson for numerous reasons: for misquoting from his work; he casts doubt on the acceptability of Lewis-Williams and Dowson's three stages of mental imagery; he argues that no art of true shamanistic traditions is considered; that arts that are richest in phosphene forms (e.g. in Australia) are 'conspicuously non-shamanistic'; and that phosphene forms constitute less than 5% of the rock arts of the Upper Palaeolithic of Europe, of the Coso range, and of the San. He goes on to point out that all continents possess art significantly richer in phosphene forms. Bednarik notes eight of these: archaic petroglyphs of Piauí, Brazil (Bednarik, 1989); art of Bolivia (Bednarik 1988); art of the U.S.A. (Bednarik 1988); the various rock arts of Africa (e.g. dos Santos 1974, as cited by Bednarik (1990:79); the earliest paintings of India and Asia; various forms of European rock art; the art of New Caledonia (Frimigacci and Monnin 1980, as cited by Bednarik 1990:79) and the extensive pre-iconic petroglyph traditions of Australia (e.g. Bednarik (1987). He believes that these are the 'signs of all times' rather than the signs of shamanism, Bednarik (1990:79).

It would seem that the strongest bone of contention appears to be that of the link between shamanism and phosphenes. Bednarik (1990:79) would agree that it is highly possible that phosphenes were used in art forms during the Upper Palaeolithic, and that all humans have used them in their image systems since humans evolved from hominids. However, Bednarik points out that we all use phosphenes daily, "but that does not make us shamans! Nor did such use of recycled motifs make the Aurignacians shamans" (Bednarik 1990:79). This criticism is justifiable, Lewis-Williams and Dowson tend to take hold of ideas with both hands and push them beyond the level of acceptability; once they get to the stage where nothing they say can be proved, reality takes time out. Lewis-Williams and Dowson's main problem is the fact that they do not use enough 'what if's' and 'maybe's' for most peoples liking.

Lewis-Williams and Dowson's model is resolved by Bednarik thus:

"Everyone who uses phosphene forms is a shaman; hence every human is a shaman; hence there are no shamans (since one term becomes superfluous); hence there can be no shamanistic art" . Bednarik (1990:79).

However, I doubt whether Bednarik has proof that every single human has at some point experienced phosphenes; therefore, if there is one person who has not had this experience, then the term shaman still stands. It has been noted in Chapter III that there are no reports of phosphenes occurring in the congenitally blind. However, I wouldn't go as far as Bednarik (1990:79) in saying that Lewis-Williams and Dowson's paper presents a better case against than it does for the involvement of shamans in rock art production.

On the subject of a possible universal phenomenon, Peter van Sommers (1984, as cited by Bednarik 1990:77), isolated basic geometric motifs from the drawings of infants which he called 'primitives', whilst he was considering the role of graphic universals. These 'primitives' matched Knoll's phosphenes, and since van Sommers makes no mention of Knoll's work, or other phosphene research, Bednarik (1990:77) believes this study to provide independent corroboration of the notion of fundamental universals involved in the production of early art.

Bahn and Vertut (1988:190) disagree with Bednarik on the point of possible involvement in shamanistic acts during the Upper Palaeolithic. According to Bahn and Vertut (1988:190),

"there is some likelihood that shamanism played a major role in the production of Palaeolithic art, as it has recently been claimed, largely through analogy with well-documented shamanistic art in southern Africa, that, in addition to the 'signs', many animal figures and, especially, the composites in Palaeolithic art may be hallucinatory images - ie they represent the insights and experiences of shamans in trance performances, and should thus be 'read' metaphorically" (Bahn and Vertut 1988:190).

Bahn (1988:217) highlights some areas of the theory which can be criticised. First, he requires clarification on how truly universal these images are, in what societies they have been recorded and what evidence there is to support such a claim (Bahn 1988:217 and Consens 1988:221). This is probably best answered by Bednarik. He points out that there have been extensive controlled phosphene experiments conducted with various groups, including Japanese students, American children, and German air force pilots. He goes on to say "all humans, even some blind people, experience phosphenes, but susceptibility to spontaneous phosphene experiences is by far the greatest in infancy. Hallucinogen or trance-induced phosphenes account for only a tiny fraction of such experiences" . One important point he does make is that there have never been any experiments carried out with shamans (Bednarik, 1990:77-8).

There is an acceptable amount of research into phosphenes, (see above, chapter III). However, recent research is lacking and a more systematic and structured approach to these studies is required, with emphasis being given to the archaeological implications. The suggested approach would include the use of a more varied range of hallucinogens, as opposed to merely LSD and mescaline. The subjects should be taken from more varied cultural settings, including shamans. Resulting images should perhaps be drawn by the subjects, instead of the use of verbal description which leads to the inevitable use of similes.

Secondly, Bahn draws attention to the assumption that the hallucinations experienced 30,000 years ago are the same as the ones experienced by modern humans, and that the cultural expectations of the two groups would be similar. This brings into question possible anatomical differences between modern humans and our antecedents. It is true to say that the only evidence available to the archaeologist is the sample of Pleistocene skeletons. However, with the use of endocasts, information about the size and shapes of the lobes in the brain may be attained, and thus comparisons between ourselves and our antecedents may be drawn. Generally, as far as it is possible to assume, all Homo sapien sapiens had internal functions identical to our own.

Thirdly, Bahn is concerned that the theory relies so heavily on only two ethnographic studies. Lewis-Williams and Dowson do only use two ethnographic studies, and they do not even mention in passing further studies in support of their argument, although there is an implicit implication that others exist. In chapter V, I have detailed the behaviour of a wider range of ethnographic groups. However, I have not come across any which involve the use of art in the way the Coso and San do. Is it then the case that Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988) have chosen the only two groups available, as opposed to two chosen from many?

Finally, Bahn (1988:217) points out that the geometric forms which Lewis-Williams and Dowson discuss are very basic indeed, and that there are very few basic shapes which one can draw. The study of pre-school children and their scribbles would indicate this (Kellogg, Knoll and Kugler, 1965).

Further criticisms might include the main assumptions which this dissertation is intended to prove or refute, namely: that drugs of the hallucinogenic form mentioned by Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988) would have been available to the people of the Upper Palaeolithic; that phosphenes do occur whilst one is in a drug-induced trance state; that there are strong similarities between phosphenes and actual archaeological data on Upper Palaeolithic art; and finally, that these images do occur universally.

Of these assumptions, I feel that this I have been able to confirm that hallucinogens would most certainly have been available during the Upper Palaeolithic. As to whether they were utilised, we may never know for sure, but the possibility does exist. Phosphenes do occur during drug-induced trance states, as supported by the ethnographic studies outlined (see above, chapters III and V). That phosphenes and Upper Palaeolithic non-figurative designs are similar is supported by the evidence put forward in chapter VI, as is the assumption that they are universal in their distribution.

However, the question remains, "What about the non-figurative forms which do not fit under the heading 'entoptic'"? If these images are not being produced by the nervous system, then how are they being thought of, and could not this system of generation be applied to entoptics as well?


One important avenue of future research might concern on the images produced by the hallucinatory stage. At least we know for certain that these images are culturally biased, whereas with the entoptic stage we are only assuming we know the extent to which the images are culturally biased. The completion of a database which holds information about mobile and parietal art from around the world would be of great benefit to archaeologists, especially where more recent items of rock-art are being discovered in places such as Australia. The publications which deal with art from all periods, have a quantity which offer no visual examples. This is most frustrating to those, like myself, who wish to compare art forms. How can one produce an article on art, and include no illustrations? The simplest of images are difficult to describe in words.

The research into phosphene generation and drug-induced trance states could be extended. Simply, an approach which encompassed the use of a more varied range of hallucinogens, as opposed to just LSD and mescaline; subjects taken from more varied cultural settings, including shamans; and resulting images being drawn by the subjects, instead of the use of verbal description which leads to the inevitable use of similes would be preferable.

To study possible variations in perspective, it may be viable to use computers to animate known animals such as deer, bison, snakes, mammoths and horses in order to build up a picture of the many variable views that can occur depending upon the viewpoint. Perhaps these images will show more of a likeness to the animals depicted in cave art, than a modern day photograph would.

These are two areas which I feel would benefit from further study. Firstly, because in the case of NaÔve art, the intention and motivation of the artists is documented to some extent, its use as an ethnographic parallel is, in my view, as valid as those put forward by Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988). Secondly, the study of perspective in Upper Palaeolithic and other art forms, may lead to a better understanding of the circumstances under which the paintings and engravings were created.

One final point to note is the construction of a database containing all examples of prehistoric art. According to Bahn and Vertut (1988:33), computerised data banks are being compiled to keep records of all portable art in an attempt to ease the problems associated with the location, recording and access to artefacts of this nature. Perhaps the boundaries of this field should be extended to parietal images in all parts of the world, up until the Neolithic. This would be a mammoth task, but it would be most productive for the recognition of regional and cultural trends and chronological changes. It would also be a great benefit to those who wish to continue the work of Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988), and their study of universal symbolism.


The title of this dissertation begs the question; "Is the theory of entoptic phenomena simple or complex?" A simple question in itself. However, the answer is less so. The theory of entoptic phenomena is simple enough: phosphenes, form constants (or entoptics) are generated in the neural system, and anyone can see them; these visions are enhanced by the taking of hallucinogenic drugs; these drugs may have been taken as part of a shamanistic ritual and the images 'seen' were then drawn by the visionary.

In practice this sequence of events becomes harder to prove. Having no evidence which categorically supports such a theory, (ie the written record), one must deduce from the evidence which elements appear possible and to what extent.

The evidence for the generation of phosphenes, form constants and hallucinations appears to be positive, and more importantly, it can be supported scientifically, through laboratory experiments. The research to date, would indicate, that entoptics do occur. However, there is a limit to the range by which this topic has been tested and I would hesitate before committing myself to the belief that they occur in everyone, every race, age, past population and perhaps even sex, of human being. On the other hand, the possibility is strongly indicated in research carried out to date.

The second element, namely, that phosphene generation is enhanced by taking hallucinogenic drugs, again would be supported by the neurophysiological evidence. The availability of these substances to past populations is supported without dispute for the Iron Age and perhaps even the Neolithic; the use during the Upper Palaeolithic has not to date been substantiated with any firm evidence.

The question of a shamanistic ritual being an integral part of the drug taking is debatable, especially during the Upper Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic. The only means by which it can at present be inferred, is through ethnographic study. Lewis-Williams and Dowson test their model on two such groups; the San and the Shoshonean Coso, they also illustrate their findings with a third, the Tukano. This theoretical component I find less convincing than the first two. Perhaps shamanism played a part in the creation of Stone Age art, I doubt we shall ever know, and until more evidence comes to light, either archaeological or ethnographical, I shall remain skeptical. Drugs, I feel, were more than likely consumed, but as part of a shamanistic ritual - I shall reserve judgment.

The final element, which is dependent on the last, is that of the drug-art link. That is to say; once altered states of consciousness were achieved, the images were seen, and it was not until the trance was over that these images were actually portrayed. Why is this? How can we assume that if drug taking and visions occurred, that the art was not being manufactured during trance. I believe that it was possible, it is also an area which could be tested in order to ascertain if it is physically possible. On the one hand, the theory suggests that the art was not made during trance states; on the other it maintains that the deep, dark caverns would have been conducive to the induction of trance states. There is evidence that some Upper Palaeolithic caves contain no evidence of carbonisation, which would suggest that they were not lit. How then, if these artists could not see, could they produce art? During trance states, it is unlikely that the visionaries would have needed to see in order to replicate the images which were occurring in their minds. Anyone who has studied photography will maintain how quickly one becomes accustomed to the dark, and that the other senses begin to replace the role of the inactive one. Another point can be noted here. If the taking of hallucinogens and entering deep caverns are both unpleasant and hazardous - why do it? It must have had a significant bearing on their lives. Was it as important to them as drawing was to Bella (the chimpanzee) who only bit her keepers when s/he attempted to remove her drawing materials. This leads directly on to the significance of the fan motif found in Alpha's (the chimpanzee) drawings, and those seen in an Upper Palaeolithic context. Fans are not among the fifteen phosphenes outlined by Knoll, perhaps they correspond to the further fifteen phosphene forms I have been unable to locate.

A theory, such as Lewis-Williams and Dowson's, can be compared to a grappling iron. The iron is cast into the veiled distance (supposition) and pulled in until it catches on a stone (supportable evidence). Lewis-Williams and Dowson cast their iron, but failed to pull it back in, and their theory remains in the area of supposition, which detracts from any factual basis it may have. I would like to believe that this dissertation has provided a stone (of fact) which Lewis-Williams and Dowson's grappling iron can be pulled to, until it is caught in the realms of real possibility.

Now that the foundation stone has been laid, it must not be ignored. This area of study could potentially be very fruitful. Lewis-Williams and Dowson must be admired for suggesting such an intriguing and controversial theory, and with the modifications I have suggested here, it may become more acceptable to the majority of archaeologists.

Copyright © 1995, Suzanne Carr. All Rights Reserved.


Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Appendix | Bibliography