The evolution of modern humans has taken more than five million years but until less than 50,000 years ago we had no art, no religion, no sophisticated symbolism, no creative and innovative thinking, and quite possibly no language. Then, a dramatic and electrifying change overtook our ancestors in every part of the globe, and all the skills and qualities that we value most highly in ourselves today appeared suddenly, already fully formed, as though bestowed on us by hidden powers. Scientists describe this change as “the greatest riddle in human history”.
The first art of mankind, in the painted caves and rock-shelters of southwest Europe and South Africa, dates back to the time of the great change. Why do these ancient paintings, tens of thousands of years old, depict beings of a kind that are never found in nature – strange and eerie hybrids with the heads of animals and the bodies of humans?
In the depths of the Amazon rainforest tribal shamans drink a powerful hallucinogenic brew called Ayahuasca (“the vine of souls”) in order to induce visions. When they return to normal consciousness, after experiencing what they believe is out-of-body travel in the spirit world, they make paintings of the “intelligent beings” they have encountered. Why are many of these beings also depicted as uncanny hybrids with the heads of animals or serpents and the bodies of humans? And why do the shamans say that they have taught them everything they know about how to live in the jungle, and about the medicinal value of rainforest plants?