Prof. Ran Barkai: The Life of Prehistoric Man, Cave Paintings, & Altered States of Consciousness
In today’s episode, I got to speak to Prof. Ran Barkai, an archeologist from Tel Aviv university. Archeology is a fascinating field that provides us with a very real, physical, sensory connection with our past. By uncovering certain objects, remnants, and markings left behind by prehistoric man, we can paint a picture of what the life of our early ancestors was really like. Each new discovery adds to this tapestry of history, and the new technological advancements we have today help make our estimations of the past even more accurate.
One of the exciting discoveries that Ran and his team have found is that of cave paintings - that were so deep within the caves - that the prehistoric humans that ventured in there must have used fire to light their way. What Ran and his colleagues were able to show was that at such depths - due to the lack of circulation - lighting a fire would cause oxygen levels to lower to such a degree - that a state of hypoxia would be induced in these early painters. In other words, early humans were no strangers to altered states of consciousness.
They would enter these trance-like states in which they would embark on spiritual journeys and paint on the cave walls. We spoke about the possible meanings behind these cave paintings, and Ran’s ideas on how these altered states of consciousness were intentional and deliberate, and were used by prehistoric man to expand their awareness, call forth insights, and ultimately - to find solutions to different existential problems they may have been facing.
We ventured into some Jungian territory in this episode as well, discussing how in the psyche of early man, there was much less distinction between the subject and the object, or the internal world and the external world. Early humans were most likely much more in tune with their environments.
There always remains the question though of whether or not we’re romanticizing the past and wishfully projecting characteristics onto early humans - such as their heightened awareness and respect for nature and strong sense of community. We can only do the best we can in painting this picture of the life of our early ancestors. But I believe that even if we are romanticizing certain elements of our history, this longing for simpler times - in which we were more connected with nature, family, and community - can help shed light on precisely those elements that we are most hungry for today in our modern world. And archeologists like Ran and his team are doing an extraordinary job at following the facts and helping paint the most accurate picture with the tools we have available.