Rock Art

Rock Art – Paintings (also known as pictographs) and engravings (also known as petroglyphs) on rock surfaces in caves or rock shelters and on boulders and exposed rock in the open landscape. The current “shamanistic interpretation” of some rock art traditions was pioneered by scholars in southern Africa, principally David LewisWilliams and Thomas Dowson, who proposed a link between Southern African rock art accounts of shamanistic practices in ethnographic records of the San (Bushmen). There is widespread agreement that this is the most reliable interpretation of much of this art to date. Lewis-Williams and Dowson went on to draw attention to the similarities between southern African rock art and the cave art of the European Paleolithic, suggesting that a human neurological bridge might explain the presence of certain geometric shapes in both Southern Africa and European Paleolithic rock art traditions. They proposed a neuropsychological model for interpreting cave art that has implications for other rock art worldwide. An important component of the model’s application involves the identification of entoptic phenomena—complex and diverse geometric images derived from the human central nervous system during some altered states of consciousness— in the art. Anumber of authors subsequently applied the model, and the presence of entoptics in particular, to other rock art traditions, from North America and Aboriginal Australia to Siberia, Central Asia, and Northern Europe.

A vociferous debate ensued between so-called shamaniacs and shamanaphobes over the reliability of the approach, with a particular focus on the veracity of identifying entoptics. Certainly, a single approach to all rock art as shamanistic, and one which overemphasizes the entoptic component at the expense of other integral parts of the neuropsychological model, is problematic. But where ethnographic data is available, for example, in parts of Southern Africa and the United States, it is widely accepted that the origins of specific rock art traditions are in altered states of consciousness and associated shamanistic practices. In circumstances where there are no ethnographic records, some researchers argue that the neuropsychological model is applicable to determine whether the rock art images originate in altered consciousness, and studies indicate the British cupandring art, for example, is not so derived, while the megalithic art of the passage tomb traditions in the British Isles may be.
See also Californian Rock Art; Siberian and Central Asian Rock Art.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007