The Confident Cro-Magnons

Good news from the Ice Age! We will survive!

In 1939 in the Swabian Alps of southern Germany archeologists discovered the oldest-to-date carving of an “imaginary” being: an ivory figurine eleven inches tall of a man with a lion’s head, the mane flowing down his back, his human arms slightly bent. He stands tall, serene, self-confident. He was carved over 34,000 years ago.

I call the Lion Man “imaginary” because such a being can only be seen with the inner eye, the shaman’s eye that looks beyond the boundaries that separate the worlds. In this case, beyond the boundaries that separate the world of lions from that of humans. At least by this time, human beings recognized the boundary-shifting dimensions of human existence. Lion Man is the product of an early Cro-Magnon society that painted the magnificent rock images in caves across the European landscape, and from all intents and purposes had a rich ceremonial life that celebrated the confluence of the tangible and intangible worlds. While archeologists and anthropologists continue to debate the meaning and significance of these paintings and similar figurines like the Lion Man, such as the many Venus carvings, it is clear that the world our Cro-Magnon ancestors once lived in was a world that had shapes beyond what we call ordinary reality. It had shapes that could only be seen in dreams, reverie, altered states of consciousness, and the dark.

I just finished reading a remarkable new book by archeologist-anthropologist Brian Fagan, Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans. He notes that Cro-Magnons, unlike their Neanderthal predecessors, defined their “living, vibrant world” with “art and ritual, ceremony, chant, and dance.” This factor, Fagan says, “helped them ride out the punches of rapid climate change and brutal temperatures.” Our earliest ancestors “looked at their world with more than practical eyes,” according to the author. I say this is good news because if we ask why shamanism has had a resurgence over the last 50 years, perhaps one answer is that we need this same spiritual outlook to ride out the punches of our own fast-changing and bewildering climate.

Yesterday we broke (yet another) temperature record here in the Hudson Valley: 90-plus degrees depending on where your thermometer hangs. In the last months here in the Northeast we’ve seen severe snowstorms, heavy rain and wind storms, record flooding, and many power outages. I haven’t had to build a morning fire in the woodstove since some time back in March whereas in many years we’ve still had them going into May. (I hope I don’t speak too soon; we still have to get through April, the “cruelest month” according to T. S. Elliot.)

But back to the Ice Age.

Fagan points out repeatedly that it was much more than technology—blades, spears, projectile points, eventually bows and arrow, and of course the indispensible needle with an eye—that helped Cro-Magnon people to survive. Hunting weapons and closely sewn garments were necessities, but so were the visions of shamans, whom Fagan calls people of power, able to experience and explain the “permeable continuum between the living and the supernatural” realms. Shamans reminded their fellow Ice-Age wanderers by means of “rituals of transformation, of passage from one realm to another” that “boundaries between humans and their environment, between people and their ancestors and the realm of the supernatural do not exist.” A complex set of spiritual beliefs and lives lived in what Fagan calls “an intensely symbolic realm . . . nourished small-scale societies constantly on the move, often in times of major climatic change.”

I think this is why shamans and shamanic practitioners are gaining credibility and influence in so many areas of modern life. With the growing uncertainties of survival, with predictions every day that our way of living in the West is not sustainable, with real worries about clean water shortages, growing desertification, and all the other doomsday stories that dominate the media, we need means to nourish our self-confidence. Ice-Age peoples knew their environments more intimately than we do; they most likely did not mind the physical discomforts that many of us cannot tolerate, nor did they freak out in emergencies. They knew what to do to cope. And at some point—we will never know exactly when—they developed strong spiritual beliefs and rituals to not only explain the changes they witnessed in their lives, but helped them to survive them. They became self-confident people in a dangerous and uncertain world.

Cro-Magnons and their people of power found ritual and ceremonial ways to link themselves to complex forces in both their physical world and the world they found in the dark, behind the cave walls, deep in dreams, and in the living bodies of the animals they hunted for food, tools, and clothing. Fagan concludes that they had the remarkable “ability to integrate the intangible and material worlds into a single human existence.” This is a primary reason that, as the author repeatedly reminds his readers, our Cro-Magnon ancestors were self-confident.

So as we contemplate climate and weather changes and new developments in technology, perhaps shamanic values and perceptions will help us integrate ourselves into both the physical world and the spirit world in ways similar to those that shamanic societies have always found useful for human survival. Modern living is riddled with so much complexity and fragmentation, unrelenting media bombardment and multi-tasking, that it seems like a dream to be able to integrate the many pieces of our lives into “a single human existence.” And yet that is the challenge. Most of the world’s great mystical traditions have called us to focus our attention, to center ourselves, to watch the present moment, to be fully in the here-and-now, and to find or create confidence in the seamless quality of our lives. To do that we need people like shamans who perform rituals, offer prayers, and tell stories about the Great Life Force that gives us life and in which we live. And—Good news!—we still have them!