HOMO SAPIENS & SHAMANISM IN THE CAVES
WOMB-MEMORY & FEMALE SHA-WOMEN
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU
Olliergues, August 15, 2018
This book — David Lewis-Williams, THE MIND IN THE CAVE, 2004–2016 — often presented as the main modern approach of shamanism, to which everybody working on this topic is referred, is crucial, from beginning to end, though not fundamental because of the very traditional approach of Homo Sapiens society only considered from 70,000 years ago, at the most. From the very start, this is going to weigh heavily on what the author says. He starts with four questions:
“Does the human brain construct spaceships and the human mind fashion unseen forces and spirits?
What is the difference between brain and mind?
What is intelligence and what is human consciousness?
How did early people reach a stage of evolution that allowed them to make and understand pictures?” (page 18).
Note the four question marks cover six questions, and those six questions contain the main blocking shortcoming of the whole book. Just to start the discussion we have to say that the brain constructs nothing because to construct something you need to design it and then to work with hands and machines to produce it. The design involves the brain, but more than the brain it involves the mind and cooperation between human beings, hence communication and social organization. This implies the powerful presence of language. Then I would restate the second double question first and as a triple question: “What are the phylogenic and psychogenetic relationships between the brain (and the whole nervous system), the mind and language?”
This implies his questions are in the wrong order, hence they are rhetorical. The first question then appears as absurd as I have suggested: the brain constructs nothing because of what I have said and the mind does not fashion unseen whatever on its own. Without language, the mind cannot even develop as the construct of the brain it is. Language is the second reciprocally simultaneous construct of the brain, along with the mind. The brain can only discriminate patterns and memorize them in brain machine code. It is the fact that man has the articulatory ability to produce articulated language that enables the mind to identify the patterns with words and hence to enter a rich communicational socially constructed situation that enables the phylogenic collective emergence of concepts that are to be psychogenetically integrated and assimilated by every individual to be able to converse, communicate. The first double question is senseless.
Having dealt with this set of three questions we can shift to the second set of three questions. Intelligence is nothing at all. There are hundreds of forms of intelligence and all animals have a certain level of intelligence, even if it is not the same in a shark and in a vulture, though for those two there is a similarity. Human beings, thanks to the two virtual constructs of the mind and language are able to conceptualize and that’s what has to be considered: the conceptualizing power of man in general (it increases from age to age) and of each individual and this time it increases with the age of the subject and it can be applied and developed in very different domains. A farmer has little to do with mathematical conceptualization but he has a lot to do with what mathematicians are not required to possess: the conceptualization of nature, its cycles, the role of the farmer, how he or she can use, influence, divert and even change the normal functioning of nature, be it only by watering what needs to be watered in his or her fields.
But it is obvious consciousness has nothing to do with intelligence by definition. A dog is conscious of his suffering when it is beaten up by its master. A wolf is conscious of its suffering when its paw is taken in a wolf’s trap but it is also able to gnaw at its paw, increasing the suffering it is able to control and dominate so that it can gnaw off its paw and run away; escape. The question of consciousness is a false question. A child of six who tells “lies” about an adult is not telling lies at all for himself. What he says is his way to either defend himself or to express his desires concerning the adult, including by the way the desire to be beaten up by the father or the mother who hate lying. The child is always telling the truth, but his or her truth is not THE truth in front of supreme authorities, and even so is that truth real truth? Is someone who is saying all the tame “God bless you!” conscious that it is a mental tic that has no ground of truth at all? Of course not. For those who say that, the President of the USA first of all, they are conscious that it is THE truth in their religious frame of mind or that it is the only possible demagogical flattering caress they can use with their audience who is more or less entirely trapped in this tic that is of course entirely conscious in the words used, the tone used, the intonation used and they will not play on any of these dimensions. If they do, they know and are conscious they are changing the meaning and they may get some violent reactions from people around them. Religious irony is not what religious fundamentalists are ready to easily accept.
If we want to approach such questions we have to wonder the knowledge the cognitive mind using language which is a cognitive tool, has been reached at this or that moment by an individual in his or her life. Just like Socrates in Plato proves that a slave boy can be MADE conscious of some geometric truth, you have to learn something, hence to enter a cognitive procedure to eventually dominate some knowledge of which you may be, or have been, conscious. A lot of things learned in life become habitual, tic-like and we are no longer conscious of it though we go on doing it. We walk without really being conscious that each step is a salvaged fall.
The last question is the object of the book but once again he is going to, as we are going to see, cheat on the merchandise by declaring conditions that are not considered in their phylogeny. According to the author, Homo Sapiens must have full control of fully developed modern language and he states it is around 70,000 years ago that this happened, and note his singular “language.” This and only this is absurd. It is after the last migration out of Black Africa has occurred that he considers these linguistic conditions that he does not describe at all are fulfilled. There are three migrations out of Black Africa, the first one around 200,000 years ago to Northern Africa, the Nile Valley, Crete (with no future) the Levant but to come back around 80,000 BCE and to go back later only after 35,000 BCE. This migration gave all the Semitic languages of this zone and these languages are first articulation languages but communication is full and complete. The second migration took place around 120,000 years ago or slightly earlier and occupied Asia where they found the Denisovans and they spread all over the world with their Denisovans genes in the North from Siberia to Alaska and in the south to Australia (45,000 BCE) New Zealand, Polynesia, Easter Island, and South America. All those languages are of the isolating group (Tibetan Chinese, Burman Tibetan, or other regroupings) and those that derived from there due to migrations to Indonesia and the South Pacific. They all are second articulation languages but communication is full and complete. The third migration is the one that concerns the author. It happened around 70,000 BCE in two waves: the agglutinative wave first going to the Middle East where they met Neanderthals and then moved to Neanderthal territory in Europe. That’s the only one the author considers. The second wave around 50,000 BCE will go to the Middle East but will stay on the Iranian plateau to come down from it after the Ice Peak around 15,000 BCE, to the west to give Sumerian and all Indo-European languages, and to the east to ancient disappeared civilizations in Turkmenistan and then to Pakistan, India and these are the Indo-Aryan languages that pushed the Dravidians down who were of the previous migration. This third migrations gave rise to all third-articulation languages, agglutinative or synthetic-analytical. This is of course sketchy (check my publications on the subject).
The author’s approach neglects fundamental facts. First, Homo Erectus migrated a long time before from Black Africa to the Middle East and Central Asia where they evolved into Neanderthals and Denisovans. The Homo Erectus who stayed behind evolved tin Homo Ergaster in Africa and these will evolve into Homo Sapiens some 300,000 years ago. All the monkeys, big apes, hominids and hominins had communication systems based on calls up to Hominins and with Hominins it got to some richer code that enabled, even before the development of the three-articulation languages of ours, them to coordinate their collective actions, to plan and design some vast migrations across continents and to, little by little since it was becoming more and more difficult, devise ways to manage “premature” non-autonomous children for several years in great numbers to be able to expand, meaning bring three children to full normal adult life (life-expectancy 29). These Hominins, after the big apes, had to have a communication system developed enough to enable all that and to know that if they wanted three individuals reaching full adult age per woman they had to accept each woman in procreating age to deliver at least ten children, one every eighteen months and these children had to be breastfed for at least one year if not eighteen months. If the author had thought of that he would have understood that the Marxist reference of Max Raphael was misplaced. The point was not the urgency of producing the means to eat, drink and survive as physiological individuals but the means to survive as a species involved by their ancestors and by themselves in a vast expansion of that species and in migrations far from the nest, always farther from the nest.
But there is a lot more to say at this point. This rejects the 70,000 BCE date that is attached to the fact that Homo Sapiens then and only then went through a cognitive revolution (as Yuval Noah Harari says) when finally, this Homo Sapiens had “a fully developed modern language” (what does it mean really? What is a fully developed language? Shouldn’t we speak of fully developed communication which implies the language is articulated, be it a first, second or third articulation does not matter?). Human language, articulated language, no matter how developed it is phylogenetically, provides Homo Sapiens with the opportunity to develop linguistically full communication based on the communicational situation that can only be ‘exploited by Homo Sapiens because Homo Sapiens is the only species to have an articulated language they developed from various mutations imposed and selected by the status of Homo Sapiens as a long-distance fast bipedal runner. That development started as soon as Homo Sapiens emerged, as soon as the basic mutations necessary for him to be that kind of a runner were selected. Articulated language is a side effect. This reflection might have enabled the author to look at Neanderthals and Denisovans with a friendlier look. In fact, a level of stable communication is necessary as soon as Homo Erectus starts migrating. The problem is these ancient species were not long-distance fast bipedal runners and they did not have the mutations that only Homo Sapiens will develop and integrate. Only Homo Sapiens could develop a fully articulated language. The older species probably had some level of control of the rotation of vowels and consonants providing them with a lot more lexical items than monkeys, calls for animals. The older species must also have developed some kind of communicational situation inciting them to communicate, exchange, speculate even, definitely plan and devise migratory campaigns. Note as soon as a Hominin species (starting with Homo Erectus) gets onto a migratory project they have to go against the basic rule of nature: procreation is dictated by the level of resources available in the habitat of and around the animal. They have to produce three children that reach full adult age per woman. With the evolution of the physiology of Hominins, pregnancy and delivery are becoming more difficult and the children are born totally non-autonomous for an ever longer period. That creates a need for a special division of labor in these Hominin species reaching its peak with Homo Sapiens.
Women are the future of the species. This is proved by the handprints in all the cave paintings all over the world before the peak of the Ice Age: mostly women took part. Some say at least 75%, meaning a proportion of 3 to 1. We are speaking of pre-Ice-Age-Peak humanity. This will change after the Peak because human society will move to agriculture and herding and then a male-dominated management of society.
David Lewis-Williams is never clear about this: the domination of women in cave paintings before the Ice Age Peak and the shift from female-dominated to male-dominated societies with agriculture and herding. Women had to be one specific group of people taking care collectively of all the children since from 13 years of age onward a woman was continually with a child in her womb, a child at her breast, a child on her back and several children at her feet, and each child was non-autonomous for at least three years, though they were at that age perfect prey for eagles as proved in South Africa (check Sally McBrearty) not to speak of felines.
If women, the future of the species, painted the caves it’s because they also assumed the position of spiritual guidance in their society, at least a majority of the spiritual “counselors” (proportion 3 to 1). They thus controlled all ideological questions dealing with the cosmos, the world beyond, spirits, life after death, etc., plus healing and other practical tasks in their society, and all over the world.
The Western-European confinement of the author’s approach is perfectly unacceptable today when we have so much information from archaeologists on the subject.
That consideration of this division of labor putting women in the spiritual leading position would have helped the author to avoid the retrospective method that takes modern communities of hunter-gatherers in Africa or in America, studies their shamanism and then transfers the conclusions to pre-Ice-Age-Peak communities. The hunting-gathering is not the same. Women are in a position that is not comparable to what it is in the modern communities, including by the way the San community. The context is not the same and the desire for many of these people to have access to modern technology like telephones makes the comparison non-valid. Retrospective thinking is always wrong. As a linguist I would say the retrospective (reconstructive) method that led to Proto-Indo-European is typical: it blocks somewhere around 15,000 years ago. It cannot answer who are the people devising this Proto-Indo-European language, where are they coming from and what language did they speak before. As mathematicians would say, retrospective reconstruction always leads to a point that is meaningless because then all parameters are either zero or infinite, in other words, non-calculatable anymore. But the transfer of a modern situation onto a situation some 50,000 years ago is plain irrational.
In our case here it is all the more irrational because the author considers the Homo Sapiens West European societies around 50,000 years ago were the “same as” or at least “similar to” the two cases he studies in the 20th century.
In the same way his assertion — several times and by principle — that the neuropsychology of Homo Sapiens in West Europe 50,000 years ago was — and thus is — the same as the neuropsychology of modern Homo Sapiens is highly unscientific. Over the last 50,000 years, many mutations have taken place, many concerned the nervous system, many concerned the brain and if the basic structure was not changed the real structure was modified. To state the perfect equivalence of neuropsychology of Homo Sapiens over the last 50,000 years is plainly unfeasible. It negates the phylogeny of the physiological structure of Homo Sapiens and states the permanence of his physiology. It forgets the neuropsychology is the result of this physiology. It is not innate but it is the result of the functioning of a system that is genetic, evolving and highly sensitive in its daily functioning to all sorts of circumstantial surrounding elements.
That does not negate what is exceptional in this book. It just requires its reorientation. Yes, in those old ages the spiritual leaders were few — though most of them were women — and they had to go through an initiation experience that was personal and socially controlled. In the West European case, like in all the cases based on the existence of caves that could be used for isolation, the practice had to be getting isolated for some time underground in the cave. Yes, it is important to consider this experience was leading to altered states of consciousness, be they managed only by the isolation underground and in the dark or by the use of some substances (note the concoction of these substances required a long period of elaboration, testing, and refinement. It did not come into existence overnight.). Such periods of isolation for meditation exists today in many traditions and they do not require underground dark places, though they may. Such situations can be produced in many ways. Some are banal in some traditions. Isolated meditation is standard in Buddhism and is based on techniques that are of the type of self-hypnotism entirely controlled by the individual going through it, with or without the help of some exterior person at a certain moment. North American Indians, Vodun (Voodoo) practitioners, South American Indians and many other groups in the Americas practice trance dancing and trance music, trance use of various substances to get to some visions that are supposed to be considered as the visions produced by the nervous system when the individual loses the control of it. To say that such entoptic images, visions, etc. are the image of the nervous system itself, the image of the brain, some go as far as speaking of the image of our genes is at least debatable. I will not enter this discussion.
In all societies there is a minority of people who are neuropsychologically and physiologically different and such differences make them visionary, able to have sur-human or un-human inspiration, a sur-human dreaming capacity, sur-human imagination, etc. Some are plainly autistic, Asperger (savant) or not. Some are schizophrenic. Some have been impaired by the use of various substances. Some are delirious. And there are some more. If, in some conditions, the concerned individuals can take some control of their special abilities they can become poets, musicians, gamblers, priests, politicians, scientists, entrepreneurs, etc. We can state like Paul Radin did that in all societies there is a minority of such people who manage to get a leading role in society as witch doctors, healers, philosophers, poets, priests or whatever.
Communication is a basic power of Homo Sapiens. Communication uses language devised and developed along with the mind and reaching the top level of conceptualization (abstract concepts or concrete concepts, but concepts all the same). This power is a representational power and it precedes all eventual material visual (after auditory and oral) representation. Every visual element used in such visual representations is meaningful and corresponds to some words, linguistic units that we will never know. It is obviously too the transcription on to a flat 2-dimensional surface — and David Lewis-Williams has great remarks on the use of NON-FLAT 3-dimensional surfaces — of elements, visions, dreams or whatever, entoptic or not, that are necessarily 3-dimensional in the mind into a 2-dimensional representation on the medium chosen to do so. What Lewis-Williams forget is that such representations were probably devised very slowly over long periods of time and on non-durable media. They did not start painting in caves or on rock faces, engraving onto small objects. The first and most common non-durable medium must have been their own bodies and we know that body painting started very early in Homo Sapiens life. In fact, such body painting must have been meaningful: for some occasions and in agreement with the status of the people concerned. This is neglected by Lewis-Williams.
Actually, he falls into the trap of anachronism. He uses all the time the word “embellish” and of course the standard reference to “cave art,” “rock art,” or whatever. It is “art” for us only and we project this word along with “aesthetic” and “beautiful” and “embellished” onto the practices of these ancient human people, but we do not know the motivation and the power of these practices. We cannot in any way decide that it is aesthetic or art. We can study the rich compositions at times, the complicated compositions but is it artistic? We cannot answer. Some have mapped the painting of some famous caves onto the sky and found some kind of correlation with the stars (Chantal Jegues-Wolkiewiez, for example, and paleo-astronomy applied to Lascaux, a cave David Lewis Williams studies in detail without mentioning this alternative hypothesis, not even in the bibliography). It is maybe true, but how can we prove it? It is obvious the sky was for Homo Sapiens, and probably from the start, and even with his ancestors, the big book of the real cosmic world in which they traveled. But to prove it was transferred to the cave paintings, or to Stonehenge or to Egyptian or Mayan pyramids is a very difficult task. This cosmic vision of the sky is totally absent from this book. And that is a shame because it is obvious Homo Sapiens knew his stars otherwise he would never have been able to conquer the world.
The last point I want to insist on is what I call “womb-memory.” It was proved in Roubaix, France maternity in the 1980s that newborns have full memory of vocal clusters that corresponds top words or names frequently used by the mother during her pregnancy, specifically for hearing since the fetus can hear from the 24th week onward. The newborn has a lot of things in his/her memory. Including by the way the altered states of consciousness of his/her pregnant mother due to the use of various substances, and the various situations (work, rest, leisure) in which the pregnant mother lives. But we forget the fact that the fetus lived nine months in a warm liquid environment with continuous feeding from the mother and at best only darkness and dim light, though a little brighter if the pregnant mother is sunning herself on a beach. I say here the future individual keeps that in mind, in memory. There is no surprise then that the experience of going down into a gullet of some sort underground in total darkness and coming out again is the metaphor of the womb memory of the individual. This descent is going back to the womb, hence going back to an inside underworld, to a liquid environment in which everything floats, hence flies of sorts. And to come back out of it will be the womb-memory of the delivery or birth, hence rebirth, through a narrow gullet, from the dark to light, from a “liquid” illusion or vision into the air, from floating into flying, from underground onto the ground and into over-ground. What Lewis-Williams calls the cosmic vision of the hunter-gatherer’s shamanism is nothing but the womb-memory of what it was before birth and of birth itself, this transition from one world to another. This is ignored by Lewis-Williams, though it is necessarily universal and has nothing to do with hunting, gathering, agriculture, herding, industrialism or whatever. It has to do with the universal womb-memory of Homo Sapiens, of any individual who has been inside a mother for nine months, more or less. If the initiate is a woman, her experience to go into that dark underground world is also the memory of her womb being full and then being empty after delivery and the memory of the delivery itself, a painful event indeed. The two memories then are contradictory and the female initiate is pregnant with herself and she delivers herself, vastly widening the experience in some contradictory way.
To conclude I will speak of what he calls the “wounded-man.” First, it is a male and there are a few animals who are also endowed with some male gender attributes. It is rare and for animals, it seems to express some assertive aggressivity or domination. The case of “wounded-men” is that they seem to be wounded by some spear and thus maybe dying. This sexual element is not taken into account. The vast majority of paintings are gender neutral except when some attributes attached to maleness are added to the animals, like antlers, of course a penis, the raised tail, etc. If we consider the majority of spiritual individuals were women, the first question is to wonder if such wounded men were drawn by men or women and we cannot know, except if handprints are close to the drawing. For Lewis Williams, it is a drawing performed by men because for him most drawings are performed by men, if not all, except some handprints, and even so he does not discuss the genderism of these handprints. Many interpretations of the “wounded-men” can be thought of.
If the painter is a man, he can represent a conflictual situation or desire with another man and he can project his own death or the death of the other man in this wounded figure. If the painter is a woman it is a lot more interesting because then there are more options and some are social. That man can represent the danger of men trying to take over divination, healing, and spirituality. She can be just an individual and we have the same situation as before between two men. But he can represent all the men, the minority of men who are in this divination, healing and spirituality position and then the killing of him by the woman representing the female majority of such people can be seen as the necessary action to prevent the change, as much as the condescending rejection of males in such a position: they will always be dead wood.
This approach shows that the gender division of labor I have explained is already at stake in this pre-Ice-Age-Peak period and there is some rivalry between the two genders as for the spiritual position. The change will only occur after the Peak of the Ice Age but it is already there, working in the depth of these caves, in the depth of these minds, in the psyche of these people. That is not projecting something from the 20th century onto Western European communities 50,000 years ago, but it is dealing with the phylogeny of such societies, the inner contradictions that most of the time were positive decisions that with time become negative situations. We do not need Marx’s wisdom to analyze such facts, such situations. The decision by Marx that all situations can be brought down to the economy, the productive system, the class structure of this productive system is just anachronic in this context. Here we are dealing with something that has not much to do with these problematics.
And that illuminates the relations with Neanderthals and Denisovans. If we still have their DNA in our genetic heritage it is because the children born from a mixed alliance, and eventually the Neanderthal mothers when it was the case, were integrated into the concerned Homo Sapiens community, thus bringing new genes to the species, pushing aside the danger of inbreeding. But that means the new Homo Sapiens genes these children could have brought to the Neanderthals communities were not shared with them, another reason for their decline since they were condemned to inbreeding.
A lot more should be said on this book but I am kind of limited in space. But you can always read what I have written and published on the subject to have some more insight.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU