Narcotically Oriented Societies

In order to test the applicability of their model, Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988) applied it to two known shamanistic art styles: the San and the Shoshonean Coso. They believed that, if their model proved to be appropriate to these art styles, then they could "use it to assess arts not known a priori to be associated with altered states" (Lewis-Williams and Dowson, 1988:204). Lewis-Williams and Dowson also discuss the shamanistic element involved in the Tukano of the Colombian northwestern Amazon.

The first section of this chapter gives a summary of the use of their model and the subsequent findings published in 1988. However, the information included in their publication was scanty and therefore it has been necessary to include information from other sources. It is also the aim of this chapter to offer further examples of narcotically-orientated societies in support of Lewis-Williams and Dowson's model. An assessment of the applicability of their two main studies, and that of the Tukano, will also be present, but at this stage no debate or criticism will be entered into.


Lewis-Williams and Dowson chose to illustrate their 1988 theory with two ethnographic examples; these were the San of southern Africa, and the Shoshonean Coso rock art of the California Great Basin. A summary of the points made by Lewis-Williams and Dowson follow, including a summary of the points made concerning the Tukano of the Colombian northwestern Amazon.

i. The San
The San Bushmen rock paintings which depict conflict are not uncommon in southern Africa. They are distributed from Cape Province in the west to Mozambique in the east. Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988:204) have looked at societies in which shamanism plays an integral part, but they have not looked at the whole area surrounding shamanism. Instead, they concentrate merely on the altered states of consciousness. They did not wish to overburden the study with talk of the medicinal effects, and the healing and bewitching elements, of shamanism.

The San shaman artists depict the trance dance itself, symbols of supernatural potency, hallucinations experienced by shamans, and entoptic phenomena. Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988:205) do not suggest that these depictions were executed by people actually in trance. They point out that it is more likely that the shaman recalled and depicted their powerful experiences in relative tranquillity. They further note, that the San today listen attentively to the "shaman's recollections of trance experience and that in the past, depiction may have been a parallel (but not identical) activity" (Lewis-Williams and Dowson, 1988:205).

The features of numerous paintings, suggest that the art is essentially shamanic, as opposed to a narrative of daily life as was originally suggested. This shamanistic element would have been associated with the activities of medicine men; being essentially hallucinatory and portraying the world of trance experience (Campbell 1986:256).

"In an early stage of trance, medicine men experience a neurological phenomenon in which they 'see' geometric shapes, or phosphenes, such as zig-zags, dots, nested U-shapes and vortexes" (Campbell 1986:259).

One further point to consider, is that "nasal bleeding is one of the most characteristic and common features of medicine men in the art and this feature alone indicates that the painting is linked to trance experience" (Campbell 1986:263).

ii. The Shoshonean Coso
For their second example, Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988:205) looked at the Shoshonean Coso rock art of the California Great Basin. There is a paucity of direct ethnographic references to rock art in this area which has led students to believe that the social context is unknowable. I can pass on comment on this, as I have been unable to locate the relevant data.

Coso Shoshone art has led Heizer and Baumhoff (1959, 1962); Grant (1968); and Ritter (1970) to believe that it was associated with a hunting cult focused on bighorn sheep. However, according to Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988:205), closer attention has been paid to Great Basin and southern Sierra Nevada ethnography and, a suggestion that the Coso Shoshone was shamanistic, has been put forward. Lewis-Williams and Dowson state that there are "many relevant though not direct ethnographic data" . However, Whitley argues that:

"if all the references to rock art painting within the southern Sierra Nevada area (and across a number of ethnolinguistic groups) are viewed within the regional patterns of shamanism, a coherent pattern emerges" (Whitley n.d., as cited by Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1988:205).

Information collected by Driver (1937) from a Western Mono informant states:

"doctors, po'hage .... painted their spirits (anit) on rocks 'to show themselves, to let people see what they have done'. The spirit must come first in a dream" (Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1988:205).

Among the Coso Shoshone, Tubatulabal and Kawaiissu, rock art has been ascribed to 'water babies' a commonly held regional concept. These mythical creatures were in fact dream or animal helpers of shamans, even though they have been dismissed as mere 'brownies'. 'Water Babies' themselves were identified as the painters and were seen in jimsonweed trances among the Tubatulabal.

Although ethnographic evidence for a shamanistic interpretation of Coso rock art is not as rich and varied as that of San rock art, it is sufficient to justify using it in a second, though subsidiary, evaluation of their model.

iii. The Tukano
According to the Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988), the Tukano are familiar with Yajé-induced visual experiences. During the first stage of their trance dance they report seeing "grid-patterns, zig-zag lines, and undulating lines alternating with eye-shaped motifs, many coloured concentric circles or endless chains of brilliant dots" (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1987:291-92).

During stage two, they reported a diminution of these former patterns and a slow formation of larger images. Together with these they perceive recognisable shapes of people, animals, and monsters. More placid visions occur in stage three. According to Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988:204), the Tukanoans' stages one and two correspond to stages one and three of their model.

iv. The Comparison

Unfortunately the only evidence of Coso Shoshone art I have been able to attain, are the depictions outlined by Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988). San on the other hand has been more widely published. However, the 'entoptic' images of both art forms appear to have been more or less ignored. Illustrations tend to revolve around the figurative elements of both studies.

Following a brief appraisal of the evidence, Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988:205) then set about comparing the six entoptic images against those of the San and Coso art. Lewis-Williams and Dowson note that the entoptic images are more commonly found engraved than painted. Perhaps this is because the simple geometric forms are best represented in a monochrome fashion and the use of paint and colour were best reserved to illustrate the dramatic hallucinations which followed.


Definition: A 'shaman' - "a man or a woman who is in direct contact with the spirit world through a trance state and has one or more spirits at his command to carry out his bidding for good or evil" (Harner 1973:xi).

Harner (1973) points out that the use of hallucinogens is only one method which can be employed to induce the "trance-like states conducive to a sense of seeing and contacting the supernatural. In many cultures other methods are used: fasting (water and food); flagellation and self-torture; sensory deprivation; breathing exercises and yogic meditation; and ritual dancing and drumming. A common psycho-physiological basis for the similarity of effects produced by all of these methods may exist, but the use of hallucinogens appears to be the easiest and fastest technique for reaching a believed supernatural experience and visions" (Harner 1973:xii).

Harner notes that any discussion of this kind must give an account of the relationship between 'classic' shamanism and hallucinogens in northeast Asia, the home of 'classic' shamanism. The native Siberians were the first to be described in detail in the ethnological literature, for it is in this area that we find a close relationship between the psychoactive mushroom, fly-agaric (Amanita muscaria) and the shamanistic act (Eugster 1967; Waser 1967 as cited by Harner 1973: xii).

The theoretical literature has largely overlooked the fact that even this 'classic' shamanism often involved the use of hallucinogens. Thus one can read entire books on shamanism or primitive religion without finding any reference to hallucinogens except for peyote. Yet, by patient library research, one can find overwhelming evidence of the use of such substances in connection with the supernatural in scores of cultures (Harner 1973:xiv).

The bias towards research and evidence from the New World is overwhelming, due in part to the fact that prior to 1973, the majority of research had been concentrated here and little done elsewhere. Schultes (1963:147, as cited by Furst 1972) points out that the New World is unusually rich in hallucinogenic plants, a factor which undoubtedly facilitated their use by North American Indians, but especially by Middle and South American Indians. Siberia and the Western hemisphere are the best regions in the world for the study of shamanism in general. American Indian cultures have remained shamanistic in their approach to religion/way of life. This may be due in part to the fact that many have been unspoiled by a state religion. Today, it is only in the remotest parts of the Old World that similar circumstances may be found.

Harner (1973) notes that the area of the upper Amazon rain forest of South America is very important, as it is one of the last surviving areas where hallucinogenic drugs are used in essentially aboriginal conditions. The shamanistic acts of this region primarily involve the hallucinogenic concoction derived from the Banisteriopsis vine. On numerous occasions, Banisteriopsis was noted to also be mixed with Prestonia (e.g. the Indians of the Rio Negro region in Brazil: Schultes 1960:172, as cited by Harner 1973f) or Psychotria viridis, which contains the powerful hallucinogen N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and without which the Cashinahua claim the hallucinations are less vivid and of shorter duration (e.g. the Cofan Indians in eastern Ecuador: Pinkley 1969, as cited by Kensinger 1973).

At the time of publication of Harner's book, "Hallucinogens and Shamanism" (1973), the distribution of the native use of Banisteriopsis was known to be from "northwest Colombia in the north to lowland Bolivia in the south, occurring both east and west of the Andes, and extending eastward into the upper Orinoco area" (Harner 1973:1). It has also been located in British Guiana and from as far east as Paro, Brazil, at the mouth of the Amazon (Morton 1930:158, as cited by Harner 1973:1), also located in Central America and Mexico, including the Yucatan Peninsula, and at least one species from the southeastern United States. Thus far no link to its usage had been verified in these areas.

The Banisteriopsis vine grows wild as a tree-climbing plant in the forest, but some tribes cultivate the plants in their gardens as well as utilising the wild form (Harner 1973:3). The tribes of the Campa, Jívaro, Cashinahua and Sharanahua all illustrate how hallucinogenic drugs and their effects are profoundly absorbed into the supernatural life and total culture of their people.

i. The Cashinahua
According to Kensinger (1973), chemical analysis indicates that the active hallucinogenic agents of the Banisteriopsis are harmine and harmaline, and in Psychotria it is dimethyltrytamine (DMT) (Der Marderosian et al. 1970, as cited by Kensinger 1973:10). Weiss (1973) also noted these violent reactions when he studied the Campa Ayahuasca Ceremony.

These acts of entering altered states of consciousness must be very important in order for the people to justify the vomiting, sickness and sheer terror they invoke. Kensinger (1973:12) notes these symptoms among the ritual ayahuasca use of the Cashinahua.

Kensinger (1973:12), also noted that, despite the individual nature of the hallucinogenic experience, there was a high degree of similarity in the content and frequency of occurrence of particular hallucinations from individual to individual during any one night of drinking. He also pointed out that there were certain themes which recurred each time ayahuasca was taken, these being:

brightly coloured, large snakes;
jaguars and ocelots;
spirits, both of ayahuasca and others;
large trees, often falling trees;
lakes, frequently filled with anacondas and alligators;
Cashinahua villages and those of other Indians;
traders and their goods; and

"All informants speak of the sense of motion and rapid change, or as they say, transformation. Particular hallucinations wax and wane, interspersed by others in a very fluid manner. There is a sense of darkness interrupted often by flashing bright colours or brightness when the horizon seems to collapse. Time and space perceptions are distorted" (Kensinger 1973:12).

The Cashinahua use Banisteriopsis as a means of gaining information not available through the normal channels of communication, which, in addition to other information, forms the basis for personal action. The shaman's usage of ayahuasca is merely a specific case of a more general social phenomenon in a situation where his normal methods fail, (Kensinger 1973:14).

Dobkin de Rios (1973:78) bases her research on the fieldwork carried out in the Peruvian Amazon city of Iquitos, and their ayahuasca ceremonies. She notes that the major pattern of informants' visions are reports of similar forest creatures such as boa constrictors and viperous snakes, which often appear before a man or woman taking ayahuasca.

ii. The Jívaro
In Harner's chapter, The Sound of Rushing Water (1973), he makes a study of the Jívaro of the Ecuadorian rain forest. The Jívaro believe that the normal waking life is simply a lie or an illusion, while the true forces that determine daily events are supernatural and can only be manipulated with the use of hallucinogenic drugs. The Jívaro need specialists in order to cross between these two worlds and these specialists are 'shamans'. There are two types of shaman, the bewitching and the curing, but both partake of the Banisteriopsis concoction called natema by the Jívaro.

Harner himself partook of this drug in 1961 in the course of fieldwork in the Upper Amazon Basin. He found that for several hours after drinking the natema although awake, he found himself:

"in a world literally beyond my wildest dreams. I met bird-headed people, as well as dragon-like creatures who explained that they were the true gods of this world..... I realised that anthropologists, including myself, had profoundly underestimated the importance of the drug in affecting native ideology" (Harner 1973:16-17).

After partaking of the natemä, the Jívaro shaman drink tobacco juice to keep the trance state going, although it is not an hallucinogen but an intoxicant. In certain circumstances, when a person has been possessed by a stronger spirit than usual, the shaman resorts to drinking maikua which is made from Datura arborea or suaveolens, a hallucinogenic mixture even more powerful than natema.

iii. The Sharanahua

"The shamans of the Sharanahua Indians of eastern Peru have learned to enter the dream world of their patients through the medium of the hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca. Patient and shaman communicate within a symbolic system validated by myth and belief and structured by the curing songs handed down from shaman to shaman" (Siskind 1973:28).

A young apprentice shaman, once he overcomes the initial terror of the ayahuasca visions, takes more and more ayahuasca and he gradually begins to see more elaborate visions.

iv. The Peyote Cult
In some areas where indigenous shamanistic practices no longer occur in their purest form, they have been assimilated into other religious acts, or other religious acts have been assimilated into the shamanistic ritual. For example, the Native American Church combine Christianity and peyote believing that they can both ŇtalkÓ to Jesus as well as cure illness. Or in Mexico and Peru, Indian peasants and metizos continue the more ancient use of hallucinogens combined with an overlay of Christian elements (Harner 1973:49-52).

Boyer, Boyer, and Basehart (1973:53) chart the use of the hallucinogenic peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii) and associated shamanistic rituals which resulted in serious conflict and, ultimately, proscription of the ceremonial use of the drug.

v. The Mazatec
Munn (1973) studied the mushroom eating tribe of the Mazatec Indians of the Sierra Mazatec in the northeastern corner of the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The Mazatec Indians eat the mushrooms only at night and in complete darkness, for, if these conditions are not met, it is feared that they will go mad. Unlike other South American tribes, the taking of hallucinogenic substances are for everyone in the tribe - men, women and children. Their usage is not restricted to the shaman. However, it is only the shaman who takes these drugs with any form of frequency or depth.

The mushrooms only grow in the season of torrential rains. The mushrooms are predominantly used to cure illness.

"The utter darkness of the room, sealed off from outside, makes any direct perception of the world impossible: the condition of interiorization for its visionary rebirth in images. In such darkness, to open the eyes is the same as leaving them closed. The blackness is alive with impalpable designs in the miraculous air" (Munn 1973:110).

The effects of the mushrooms usually last about six hours.

vi. Witchcraft
Although not strictly speaking shamanistic, Witchcraft was an exclusive culture, a large part of which it appears involved the use of hallucinogens.

"Psychotropic drugs not only were of central importance in European witchcraft, but their use sheds light upon the relationship of such rites to shamanism. However, most persons seem unaware that the use of hallucinogens was once a common practice in Europe. One reason for this lack of knowledge is that their use was long associated with practices generally deemed to be heretical, which the Church, through its Inquisitorial agents, largely suppressed. A second reason is that only recently, through the recurrence of hallucinogenic drug use in our modern society, have we become aware of the importance of the botanical substances employed in ancient rituals" (Harner 1973:123).

"Probably the singlemost important group of plants used by mankind to contact the supernatural belongs to the order Solanaceae (the potato family). Hallucinogenic members of this group are widespread in both the Old and New Worlds. Besides the potato, tomato, chile pepper, and tobacco, the family includes a great number of species of the genus Datura, which are called by a variety of names, such as Jimson weed, devil's apple, thorn apple, mad apple, the devil's weed, Gabriel's trumpet, and angel's trumpet, and are all hallucinogenic. Datura has been used widely and apparently from ancient times in shamanism, witchcraft, and the vision quest in Europe, Asia, Africa, and among American Indian tribes. Other hallucinogens in the potato family closely resembling Datura in their effects include mandrake (Mandragora), henbane (Hyoscyamus), and belladonna, or deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna). Plants of this group are found in both temperate and tropical climates, and on all continents. Each of these plants contain varying quantities of atropine and the other closely related tropane alkaloids hyoscyamine and scopolamine, all of which have hallucinogenic effects (Claus and Tyler 1965: 273-85; Henry 1949: 64-92; Hoffer and Osmund, 1967: 525-28; Lewin, 1964: 129-40; Sollmann 1957: 381-98. as cited by Harner 1973: 128).

This potential of atropine-containing solanaceous plants has long been known to man, both in the Old and New Worlds. As Harner (1973:152) notes:

"While it is fairly understandable that a biochemical change in the human nervous system may be responsible for the wide-spread belief in the shamanistic journey, there remains subtler and even more intriguing questions as to the relationship of hallucinatory experiences to the actual content of shamanistic and religious ideology, as was long ago suggested by Tylor (1924 [orig. 1871], vol. 1:445-46, 450; Vol. 2:416-19). This is not to suggest that culture-specific factors are not significant; indeed the evidence is that they are of overwhelming importance in influencing both the content and structure of the supernatural ideology" (Harner 1973:152).


According to Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988:213) the implication that some form of shamanism more than likely occurred in the Upper Palaeolithic has been put forward by others, including Lommel (1967); La Barre (1970, 1972); Eliade (1972); Eichmeier and Höfer (1974); Furst (1976); Halifax (1980:3, 17, 1982); Pfeiffer (1982); and Bednarik (1984, 1986). This proposition can be strengthened by the investigation into narcotically-orientated societies noted here.

The evidence comes predominantly from the Americas. It strongly suggests that these societies are involved in the taking of hallucinogenic substances, and that this leads to the seeing of visions which include 'entoptic' forms similar to those described during laboratory phosphene experimentation. However, the weaker link appears to be that of the drug-art link, which is so important to Lewis-Williams and Dowson's theory. The two ethnographic examples provided by Lewis-Williams and Dowson suggest that these trance states produced the inclination in the visionary to effectuate a permanent record of their visions. However, in the case of the six further examples provided here, there appears to have been no need to concretise the visions in this manner. Thus, the supposition that there existed a shamanistic religion in the Upper Palaeolithic, no matter how convincing, cannot be so easily Sused to assume that it was responsible for the whole array of cave and mobile art.

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