In 1988, J. D. Lewis-Williams and T. A. Dowson put forward a theory which they claimed explained the non-figurative images of Upper Palaeolithic parietal and mobile art. They also claimed to have identified the circumstances under which these images were produced. A synopsis of their theory follows. The non-figurative motifs found in Upper Palaeolithic art forms, among others, are in fact entoptics. Entoptic is a generic term used to describe phosphenes and form constants. Phosphenes and from constants are generated by the human neural system, and can be seen with the eyes closed. Such imagery is enhanced by hallucinogenic drugs, such as L.S.D. These drugs would have been taken to induce visions, as part of a shamanic ritual. Once these visions ended the motifs which had been 'seen' in the visions would have been portrayed on the walls of caves and on mobile pieces of art.

Lewis-Williams and Dowson make five major assumptions. First, that phosphenes and form constants occur in all Homo sapien sapiens, and have always done so. Secondly, that the drugs needed to produce an altered state of consciousness would have been available to our antecedents. Thirdly, that they would have taken these drugs if available. Fourthly, that this drug-taking would have been a part of a shamanic ritual. Finally, that having seen these entoptics, our antecedents would have wished to record them in some form. The aim here is to locate evidence in support of Lewis-Williams and Dowson's theory. To systematically assess the basis on which these assumptions have been made, and to decide if their claims are justified.

The search for the key to the generation of universally common symbolism has been widely discussed in the past. The work of child psychologists, psychiatrists, neurophysiologists, artists, ethnopharmacologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists have all contributed in the discussion of the generation of phosphenes, form constants and hallucinations. However, as has always tended to be the case, these studies are restricted to their individual fields of interest. Here I wish to attempt to bring together all the relevant material for means of comparison, to outline each possible hypothesis and systematically consider each relevant variable, thus brainstorming the theory of a universal explanation for the generation of basic art forms, and perhaps to gain a better insight into our early ancestors use of art and its significance in their lives.

The areas open to discussion will be vast, but all of equal importance. We must consider altered states of consciousness, these will include drug use, light and darkness, migraines and stress. Art forms as diverse as childhood drawings to Palaeolithic cave and portable art. Ethnopharmachology, geology and geography, the use of drugs, their effects, their natural location and the possible locations of specific forms in the past and their possible relationship with past cultures.

It must be remembered that we are dealing with brightly coloured supernatural visions, not monochrome symbols. By way of introduction to the vibrant mix of colours and imagery, I have provided a photograph of a modern-day Kenyan engraved soapstone egg. The colour is applied to the stone and then carved to reveal its natural colour. I have noticed other Kenyan soapstone ornaments which bear the entoptics spoken of by Lewis-Williams and Dowson. One dish in particular, bore all six entoptic images in bands.

I shall begin this study with a summary of Lewis-Williams and Dowson's 1988 theory, followed by their subsequent work. The work of others who have adopted their theory will also be included. I will then consider how this theory fits into a cognitive archaeological framework, and if it fulfils the aims and objectives of this grouping. Phosphene research will follow; this will assess the studies undertaken to date, from neurophysiological and neuropsychological sources. An assessment of the forms and availability of hallucinogens follows in Chapter IV. The ethnographic studies follow in Chapter V, including studies of narcotically-orientated societies which I have located. Chapter VI provides the evidence of entoptics from art forms of the Upper Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic and Historic/contemporary sources. Alternative explanations are included in Chapter VII, including a comparison of British Nave Art with Upper Palaeolithic figurative images. Finally, I shall voice some of the criticisms which have been lodged at Lewis-Williams and Dowson, and attempt to answer them. This will be followed with some ideas concerning possible future research. I hope that this study will fulfil my aims and that it will provide an interesting and constructive basis for future research.

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