I knew I’d have to get round to this at some point. Flicking through it at a friend’s, I realised that Hancock seemed to have picked up some of the key threads of my research from the late 1990s. (See ‘Aspects of Shamanism‘, ‘On Prehistoric Rock Art & Psychedelic Experience‘ and ‘Form & Meaning in Altered States & Rock Art‘.) Expanding the “shamanic/neuropsychological” theory of prehistoric rock art (first formulated by David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson) past the timid boundaries of academia became a near obsession for me for a few years. Indeed, I happened across much of these recent advances in rock art studies (based on 20 or so years of dedicated research) after I had come to similar conclusions following a couple of years of wandering on the Yorkshire moors in various states of consciousness. The value of experiential research was a key theme for me. And I knew, even as my research impetus dried up, that the avenues I’d followed were far from exhausted. I articulated the directions in which to travel, but only made tentative inroads.
Supernatural isn’t the best continuation of these lines of research I could have hoped for. But it’s easily good enough to have provoked an initial involuntary rankling; a slightly annoyed sense of having been pipped to the (or a) post. Even better, it’s good enough to have made me quickly shed this primitive reflex, and relish the feeling that someone, at least, has advanced the quest.
There’s no particularly original research here. But for me to level that as a criticism is a pot and kettle situation, as much of my best work is creative synthesis of other people’s ideas. Hancock builds on the work of many: David Lewis-Williams’ rock art scholarship, Patrick Harpur’s elegant surveys of Fortean phenomena, Jacques Vallee and John Mack’s intelligently open-minded ufology, Terence McKenna’s trailblazing adventures in psychedelic consciousness, and Jeremy Narby, Benny Shanon and Rick Strassman’s notable studies in the same regions. Shit, even Bill Hicks is in there. He acknowledges all his benefactors graciously, and, most importantly, pulls their work together convincingly.
The core of the book is Hancock’s admirable decision to personally investigate the claims made for psychedelics (he smokes DMT, drinks ayahuasca, eats ibogaine, and necks some shrooms); and, in tandem with a wide range of evidence drawn from the above mentioned sources (and elsewhere), the tantalising possibilities his experiences raise. Specifically, that sneaking suspicion in modern society that, notwithstanding the crassness of mainstream monotheism, and despite the confidence of scientism, there may actually be an “otherworld” (or worlds) that possesses a reality unfathomed by materialism and solipsistic psychology.
Along the way he demonstrates a solid grasp of the discipline—the study of rock art—crucial to his thesis. More precisely, he does a sterling job of undermining the objections of one of rock art’s most powerful figures of orthodoxy, Paul Bahn, to the “trance theory” of Palaeolithic art. Commissioning some fascinating research by a professional mycologist, he demolishes Bahn’s claim that no source of psilocybin mushrooms would have been available to European cave painters in the ice age. He keeps an excellent balance between enthusiasm for and recognition of the possibilities raised by psychedelic plants in prehistory, and recognition of the fact that in the end, such agents aren’t crucial to the “trance theory” of rock art (non-chemical means of consciousness alteration would have sufficed). Categorically wiping Bahn’s bitter, naive objections off the debating table has been a project I’ve had on hold for too long; it’s been hugely satisfying to find someone else getting round to it.
There are faults, of course. He goes on a bit, and for anyone familiar with much of the source material, some sections are a bit of a slog. But given Hancock’s typical audience, and his obvious desire to back up his apparently wild-eyed claims with substantial evidence, this is understandable. In the end, he’s probably juggling the demands of scholarship and mainstream publishing pretty damn well.
I think even for people well versed in the psychedelic and Fortean realms that Hancock seems to be encountering for the first time here will find the material on rock art hugely valuable. Likewise, archaeologists with open minds will find their horizons broadened, at least, by this synthesis. I might be overrating this work slightly because it ties up some of my own loose ends so well; nevertheless, I recommend it to anyone interested in the origins of human consciousness and the complex spiritual mysteries that the past few hundred years has tried to brush aside.