Jul 31, 2021 I Micah Hanks

Art of the Mushroom Gods: Stone Age Paintings Recall Ancient Psychedelic Journeys

In many parts of the ancient world, people left their mark for future generations… in the very most literal sense. Carvings in stone and drawings on cave walls using charcoal, or simple substances like the ferric oxide-rich ochre capable of producing colorful hues of red, remain today as a lasting testament to the ancient ways of life.

Such examples of ancient art grant us a unique view of the past. Often the art found at famous locations like Lascaux or Chauvet cave provides images of ancient hunters at work. Other locations like the Cave of the Trois-Frères in southwestern France show us scenes like that of the “Sorcerer,” an enigmatic figure depicted with deer antlers that were first shown to the world in the written works of Abbé Henri Breuil, who reproduced renderings of these 13,000-year-old images.

The "Great God of Sefar" as depicted at the caves at Tassili, Algeria (public domain).

Even stranger art can be found at locations like the caves at Tassili n'Ajjer, a national park and UNESCO world heritage site in modern-day Algeria. Among the paintings here are exotic-looking representations of peculiar humanoid shapes numbering in the thousands, which bear names like the “Great God of Sefar” or the “Great Martian God.” Looking at the art depicted at Tassili, it is easy to see how many proponents of ancient astronaut theories might employ these eerie-looking personages as evidence supporting ancient visitations to Earth by extraterrestrial beings. But what if the inspiration behind such images had another source entirely?

The late ethnobotanist Terrence McKenna was among the many who have proposed over the last few decades that such cave art might represent a very different sort of “contact” from that envisioned by proponents of visitation by ancient astronauts. On the contrary, the ancient artists who produced the imagery found at places like Tassili might have been drawing things that originated from inner space, rather than outer space.

When considering the appearance of some of the cave art in question, this seems to be a compelling argument; especially on account of one of the most peculiar figures depicted in the Tassili art, which resembles an insect-faced anthropomorphic shape with mushrooms sprouting from its torso and appendages.

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Reproduction of the "Mushroom Man" at Tassili (public domain).

According to McKenna, this figure not only bears a striking similarity to the kinds of visions reported by modern users of psychedelic substances, but the inclusion of the mushrooms seems to be a dead giveaway for the influence of mushrooms containing the compounds psilocybin and psilocin, which are responsible for their powerful psychedelic effects.

Tassili’s “mushroom man” is not the only instance involving modern psychedelic visionary experiences appearing in ancient art. A similarly compelling example was also discovered by researchers at the Selva Pascuala cave at Villar del Humo, Spain. In it, cattle seen close to a small row of mushrooms appear to depict the presence of Psilocybe hispanica growing on the waste left by these animals. Researchers believe this instance of ancient cave art to be the first direct evidence of ritualistic use of psilocybin anywhere in prehistoric Europe.

The fact that depictions of strange, alien-looking personages in ancient cave art appear to represent psychedelic visions makes these figures no less exotic in appearance to us today. However, it also shows that human interactions with “inner space” seem to go much further back into time and that the visionary experiences of modern psychonauts are nothing new. Instead, they represent the continuation of a long tradition of experiences between humans and the “others” who experiencers claim to find inhabiting the psychedelically stimulated realms of the mind.

Micah Hanks

Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.

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