Cave Paintings and Shamanism

cave paintings and shamanism

Cave paintings indicate a huge turning point in the evolution of the human race. They indicate the emergence of creativity and imagination. The origins of art distinguished us from all other animals and it reflects a radical change in our consciousness – it’s when we started using symbols and images to represent our experiences. Jared Diamond says in his book The Third Chimpanzee that art is one of our essential human features. Some archaeologists and art historians point to specific examples of cave art as signs of shamanism.

Shamanism is loosely defined as a practice involving a figurehead who enters into an altered state of consciousness in order to enter into a spirit world. The shaman usually enters into this altered state through ritual (such as chanting, dancing, using hallucinogenic plants etc.). Mircea Eliade writes in ShamanismArchaic Techniques of Ecstasy that the shaman enters into a supernatural world in order to heal the community – this is why the shaman is also referred to as a “healer” or “medicine man”. The earliest cave art dates to around 40,000 years ago. This was during the Paleolithic era, a time when we were also making use of stone tools for hunting, another distinctly human behaviour. 40,000 years ago humans were already anatomically modern, with the brain being the same size as it is today.

The oldest cave art is found in the Cave of El Castillo in Spain, dated around 40,000 years, the time when it is believed that homo sapiens migrated to Europe from Africa. The paintings are mainly of deer. The next oldest cave paintings are found in the Chauvet Cave in France, dating to around 30,000 years ago. The paintings feature a larger variety of wild animals, such as lions, panthers, bears and hyenas. It’s strange to think that these animals were roaming around France at that time.

There are no examples of complete human figures in these cave paintings, although there is an image of a woman which seems to be connected to the head of a bison. This has led some to say that the image is the first example of the mythical “minotaur” – a creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man. There are also some more abstract and strange markings, such as zig-zag lines, dots and dashes throughout the walls of the cave. David Lewis-Williams in his book The Mind and the Cave has interpreted these strange images and patterns as a sign of shamanism and altered states of consciousness.

Lewis-Williams claims that the “geometric” images found in these cave paintings are similar to the patterns that subjects reported under the influence of mescaline in experiments conducted by the neurologist Heinrich Kluver. The images are interpreted as journeys into the spirit world. Similar patterns have been found in caves in the American Southwest, used by Native Americans for ceremonial purposes. The patterns in these caves could be attributed to peyote use, a plant which has been used by Native Americans for religious practices for the past 2,000 years. Graham Hancock is one supporter of Lewis Williams’ ideas and says in his book Supernatural that the “transformed beings” in some cave art, where humans are combined with animals, is evidence of altered states of consciousness.

‘The Sorcerer’, is an example of a strange cave painting found in ‘The Sanctuary’ cave in France, dating to around 13,000 years ago. Henri Breuil asserts that The Sorcerer, which is painted as a kind of half-man, half-deer hybrid, represents a shaman. It is speculated that when one of these shamans went into a trance, they might perceive images of these transformed beings or they might imagine themselves becoming one of them. In San Bushman cave art as well, there are paintings of human-like figures lying down, possibly a shaman lying in some sort of trance state.

Images have also been found in cave art which look like UFOs or alien beings. Graham Hancock argues that this does not mean that prehistoric humans encountered aliens, as some conspiracy theorists might say, but instead could be a sign of hallucinations. If these caves were used for ceremonial or magical rituals, which the art does indicate, this might explain how religions originated. The ancient Egyptian religion, for example, is full of half-animal, half-human gods, as well as ritual and magic. The Egyptian religion, like the older forms of shamanism, could have been based on altered states of consciousness. Some have argued that the Blue Egyptian water lily, which has mild psychedelic properties, might have been used by ancient Egyptian priests in ritual practices. In Egyptian art found in the temple of Karnak, the lily is depicted in party-like scenes. The lily is also a symbol of the Egyptian deity Nefertem.

Some ancient cave art also features mushrooms, which some say is a sign of early hallucinogenic mushroom use. The Selva Pascuala cave has 6,000-year-old paintings of a row of mushrooms. Brian Akers and Gaston Guzman believe the mushrooms are Psilocybe hispanica, a species of hallucinogenic mushroom native to the area. Different cave art has been discovered showing feminine figures with mushroom heads – the mushrooms are spotted which means they are probably Amanita muscaria, those red mushrooms with white spots, known to have psychedelic properties. A rock face in Tassili, Algeria dating to 5,000 years ago shows something even weirder. On the track face is some sort of shaman with the head of a bee and his body covered in mushrooms and grid-like patterns. The most obvious explanation, to some, is that this painting came from an altered state of consciousness.

Cave of El Castillo

Geometric patterns in Native American cave art

“The Sorcerer” (the re-drawn version by Henri Breuil)

A shaman lying in a trance state in San Bushman cave art

‘Aliens’ and ‘UFOs’ in ancient cave art

Mushrooms in the Selva Pascuala cave in Spain

Women with mushroom heads

Below are individuals holding mushrooms, drawn in a cave in Tassili, Algeria. In the same cave, some sort of bee-faced shaman is depicted, with mushroom-looking objects sprouting out of his shoulders and legs. The re-drawn image, from Kat Harrison, features in Terence McKenna’s book Food of the Gods.


  1. Anonymous
    May 31, 2014 / 7:16 pm

    Hi! The last picture of a bee faced shaman with mushrooms sprouting from his body is not real one. This one is drawn by Kat Harrison, Terence McKenna's ex-wife, and it hardly reminds of the original one. In fact, it is questionable if there exists any mushrooms at all in the original painting… Makes one wonder what McKenna was thinking when he represented this drawing in Food of the Gods as evidence of an ancient mushroom cult in Tassili region.

    • Sam Woolfe
      June 1, 2014 / 3:34 pm

      Hi there. Thank you for pointing that out. I have included the original image so people can see that discrepancy. Looks like McKenna was willing to distort pieces of evidence to support his own theory, something he did again with Fischer and Hill's study on visual acuity to support his Stoned Ape Theory. Nonetheless, I think the Tassili cave art can still indicate the use of psilocybin mushrooms.

    • Tonic
      March 30, 2015 / 7:18 pm

      @Anonymous How does the drawing hardly remind one of the original? They look pretty similar to me. The drawing simply adds clarity. Perhaps there's a bit of interpretation, but it's harmless unless presented as the original.

    • Anonymous
      June 10, 2017 / 8:48 pm

      Hardly reminds? I would say actually it is a remarkably accurate rendition (!). There are no material differences I can see. You have actually looked at the two?

  2. Brian Akers
    June 11, 2014 / 3:02 pm

    Greetings Mr Woolfe. For info purposes – I might mention if I may: quite swirl of confusion surrounding this Bee Man biz – almost like a bodyguard of fog. Irony upon irony, a dense stratigraphy burying the factual foundations of better-informed perspective.

    May I simply point to a trail that if you like, you check out?

    I feel you're quite right about TM – ever ready, able & 'willing to distort …' for his purposes (e.g. your Fischer et al. example). I'm not real impressed by cons in gen'l. But to my surprise, unsuspected truth of this 'bee man' buzz proves more complex. While TM founded psychonautic exploitation of Tassili 'bee man' (e.g. Oss & Oeric 1976) a lot of the 'bad rap' turns out surprisingly misconstrued. Especially as applied to artist KatH (whose man apparently saw what he liked in her drawing for his purposes).

    The post-TM Beeman biz hasn't been clarified well – more obfuscated if anything, misconceptions perpetuated and furthered. Not necessarily on purpose assumably, most cases. Just a matter of vital info missing in action, along with due diligence (research methods, theory etc).

    A few supposed scholars have weighed in, Letcher (SHROOM), notably. Alas, they generally fail (dismally, latter case) to account data, evidence – tiny facts of huge consequence. Rather than fields using instruments, tools and critically rigorous tests (litmus paper, x-ray etc) – Letcher applies 'hermeneutics,' rad pomo 'deconstruction' i.e. Foucault-style.

    Neither McKenna nor Letcher seem to know their archeology, mycology etc. No wonder, fatal flaws in their interpretations. But considering big words they use, 'authoritative-sounding voices' they affect – its easy for many to be misled. Here's where swirl of confusion seems to originate:

    As many don't know – Tassili features at least two sites with a 'Bee Man' rock art figure. The one you show at bottom is In-Aouanrhat. A familiar, widely reproduced image on internet. Indeed KH's drawing differs sharply from it. In SHROOM Letcher cites specific differences (right) – as (wrong) inaccuracies in her drawing. He suggests she exaggerated the cross-hatch pattern, added mushrooms, etc.

    But its red herring. In-Aouanrhat ISN'T the model for KH's drawing. Letcher's entire perspective falls apart accordingly. Her drawing was from a photo, in a 1960s book by Lajoux ("Merveilles du Tassili n'Ajjer," Le Chêne, Paris) – of Bee Man from a different Tassili site, Matalen-Amazar.

    Letcher's 'deconstruction' falters on errenous assumption about KH's work – uninformed by simple fact, that there's more than one site with this figure, that they have differences – and KH drew her picture from one, not the other.

    Once that's cleared up, I find KH's sketch significantly accurate for a freehand drawing – to the original. So close, she may even have traced it. The outline and shape is that true to Matalen-A, looks like.

    In particular, contrary to Letcher – KH did not add mushrooms, nor alter anything to make them look more fungoid. Nor exaggerate the cross hatch pattern etc. It appears her likely intent was to faithfully copy the Lajoux photo, without embellishment. The form and aspect as appears at Matalem-Amazar (differing from In-Aouanrhat) – don't suggest such. Quite contrary, artistic accuracy appears to have been her aim, and achievement.

    Another sketch of Matalen-A's Bee Man, far more crude than KH's but informative – appears as Fig. 3 in this article. Might give you some idea, check it out if you like, see what you think: It references Samorini, 1992 as source.

    One can easily gather a misinformed perspective about Bee Man and the KH drawing – without realizing, knowing – or inquiring about Tassili rock art in depth.

    • Miri boheme
      April 2, 2017 / 2:41 pm

      thank you so much for this! also, i LOVE your writing style.

    • Brian Akers
      September 2, 2017 / 9:15 am

      What a gracious compliment. And quite a pleasure to think the 'gory detail' I posted met your interest. The brightest reflection I find in your reply, by my standard – is on you (if I may). The gratitude's all mine, Madame M, or – at very least – mutual. Brian P. Akers

    • Unknown
      December 4, 2017 / 4:12 pm

      This is fascinating on every level.

      Thank you for sharing!!

  3. Brian Akers
    June 11, 2014 / 3:29 pm

    Well, just found this low-rez, iffy-contrast reproduction of Matalem-Amazar bee man (photo Lajoux book). It appears, scrolling down page, almost to the middle of the page. Along yet another drawing of the figure too, positioned at right, next to the photo:

    • Sam Woolfe
      June 13, 2014 / 8:11 pm

      Thanks for that Brian. It seems Kat McKenna may not have distorted the drawing after all. I found a slightly clearer image of the original here:

  4. Alann
    October 6, 2016 / 4:01 am

    Time to put a share button here..thanks

  5. Ian Barlow
    April 14, 2017 / 2:37 pm

    i see shroomies in the original. also mushrooms were traditionally stored in honey. so it would make a lot of sense that they would be depicted together. Also seeing that it is a bee man with a body of mushrooms we can assume they were hallucinogenic.

  6. Diego Gravinese
    June 2, 2017 / 3:55 am

    Here's the second Bee-Man at Aouanrhat (mentioned by Brian Akers). As you can see, it too has mushrooms on his body, one coming out of each limb.

    Regarding the one reproduced here: as other mentioned: it's not distorted from the original. You can look all over the internet, and she only made it more clear. All those mushrooms were there in the original painting.
    Thanks for this article.

  7. Bee
    November 5, 2021 / 4:21 am

    But where does the first image come from? The herd? Where is that painting? Thanks.

    • Sam Woolfe
      November 11, 2021 / 10:31 pm

      After some searching, I just found out it’s from a cave in the Tassili n’Ajjer mountains in Algeria. This area features some of the most important examples of cave paintings and is mentioned in the article as the place where those strange images featuring mushrooms can be found.

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