IN THE BEGINNING was the void. Darkness. Chaos. A vast sea of emptiness without shape or substance. No sky, no earth, no waters parted. No gods made manifest nor names pronounced. No fates decreed until…a flash, some light, and a sudden expansion of space and time, of energy and matter, of atoms and molecules—the building blocks of a hundred billion galaxies, each studded with a hundred billion stars.
Near one of these stars, a particle of dust, a micrometer in size, collides with another and, through hundreds of millions of years of accretion, it begins to whirl, gathering mass, forming a crust, creating oceans and land and, unexpectedly, life: simple, then complex; slithering, then walking.
Millennia pass as glaciers advance and retreat over the surface of the earth. The ice caps melt and the seas rise. Sheets of continental ice soften and slide over the low hills and valleys of Europe and Asia, transforming vast forests into treeless plains. And into this refuge step the incunabula of our species—the “historical” Adam and Eve, if you will: Homo sapiens, “the wise human.”
Tall, straight-limbed, and powerfully built, with broad noses and unsloped foreheads, Adam and Eve began their evolution between 300,000 and 200,000 B.C.E. as the final branch in the human family tree. Their ancestors trudged out of Africa roughly 100,000 years ago, at a time when the Sahara was not the empty barren it is today but a land of generous lakes and lush vegetation. They crossed the Arabian Peninsula in waves, fanning north across the Central Asian steppes, east into the Indian subcontinent, across the sea to Australia, and west over the Balkans, until they reached southern Spain and the edge of Europe.
Along the way, they encountered earlier species of migrating humans: the upright Homo erectus, who had made a similar journey into Europe hundreds of thousands of years earlier; the hearty Homo denisova, who roamed the plains of Siberia and east Asia; the barrel-chested Homo neanderthalensis—the Neanderthal—whom Homo sapiens either annihilated or absorbed (no one knows for sure).1
Adam is a hunter, so when you picture him, picture a javelin at his side, a mammoth’s fur split and draped across his shoulders. His transformation from prey to predator has left behind a genetic imprint, an instinct for the hunt. He can track an animal over seasons, patiently waiting for the right moment to strike in a blur of violence. When he kills, he does not tear into the meat and devour it on the spot. He brings it back to his shelter to share with his community. Huddled under a broad canopy made of animal hide and framed by mammoth bones, he cooks his food in stone-ringed hearths and stores the leftovers in pits dug deep in the permafrost.
Eve, too, is a hunter, though her weapon of choice is not a javelin but a net, which she has spent months, perhaps years, weaving out of delicate plant fibers. Crouched on the forest floor in the dim early light, she carefully sets her snares along the mossy surface and waits patiently for a hapless rabbit or fox to step into them. Meanwhile her children scour the woods for edible plants, unearthing fungi and roots, scooping up reptiles and large insects to bring back to camp. When it comes to feeding the community, everyone has a role.2
The tools Adam and Eve carry are made of flint and stone, but these are not simple gadgets gathered from the ground and easily discarded. They are part of a permanent repertoire: durable and intricately cast; made, not found. Adam and Eve take their tools with them from shelter to shelter and trade them occasionally for better tools, or for trinkets made of ivory or antler, pendants made of bone and teeth and mollusk shells. Such things are precious to them; they set them apart from the rest of their community. When one of them dies and is buried in the ground, these objects will be buried, too, so the deceased can continue to enjoy them in the life to come.3
There will be a life to come, of that Adam and Eve are certain. Why else bother with burial? They have no practical reason to bury the dead. It is far easier to expose the bodies, to let them decay out in the open or be stripped clean by the birds. Yet they insist on interring the bodies of their friends and family, on shielding them from the ravages of nature, on according them a measure of respect. They will, for example, deliberately pose the corpse, stretching it out or curling it into fetal position, orienting it toward the east to meet the rising sun. They may scalp or flay the skull, reinter it in a secondary burial, or remove it entirely for display, complete with artificial eyes to simulate a gaze. They may even crack the skull open, scoop out the brain, and devour it.
The body itself they will dust with blood-red ochre (the color a symbol for life) before laying it on a bed of flowers and ornamenting it with necklaces, shells, animal bones, or tools—objects that were dear to the dead; objects he or she may need in the next life. They will light fires around the body and make offerings to it. They will even place stones on the mound to mark the grave so they can find it again and revisit it for years to come.4
The assumption is that Adam and Eve do these things because they believe the dead are not really dead but merely in another realm, one that the living can access through dreams and visions. The body may rot but something of the self persists, something distinct and separate from the body—a soul, for lack of a better word.5
Where they got this idea we do not know. But it is essential to their awareness of themselves. Adam and Eve seem to know intuitively that they are embodied souls. It is a belief so primal and innate, so deep-rooted and widespread, that it must be considered nothing less than the hallmark of the human experience. Indeed, Adam and Eve share this belief with their forebears, the Neanderthal and Homo erectus. They, too, appear to have practiced various forms of ritual burial, meaning that they, too, may have conceived of the soul as separate from the body.6
If the soul is separate from the body, it can survive the body. And if the soul survives the body, then the visible world must teem with the souls of everyone who has ever lived and died. For Adam and Eve, these souls are perceptible; they exist in numberless forms. Disembodied, they become spirits with the power to inhabit all things—the birds, the trees, the mountains, the sun, the moon. All of these pulse with life; they are animated.
A day will come when these spirits will be fully humanized, given names and mythologies, transformed into supernatural beings, and worshiped and prayed to as gods.
But we are not there yet.
Still, it is no great leap for Adam and Eve to conclude that their souls—the thing that makes them them—are not so different in form or substance from the souls of those around them, the souls of those before them, the spirits of the trees, and the spirits in the mountains. Whatever they are, whatever makes up their essence, they share with all creation. They are part of a whole.
This belief is called animism—the attribution of a spiritual essence, or “soul,” to all objects, human or not—and it is very likely humanity’s earliest expression of anything that could be termed religion.7
OUR PRIMITIVE ANCESTORS, Adam and Eve, are primitive only with regard to their tools and technology. Their brains are as large and developed as ours. They are capable of abstract thoughts and possess the language to share those thoughts with each other. They speak like us. They think like us. They imagine and create, communicate and reason like us. They are, quite simply, us: full and complete human beings.
As full and complete human beings, they can be critical and experimental. They can use analogical reasoning to posit complex theories about the nature of reality. They can form coherent beliefs based on those theories. And they can preserve their beliefs, passing them down from generation to generation.
In fact, nearly everywhere Homo sapiens went, they left behind an imprint of these beliefs for us to uncover. Some of these are in the form of open-air monuments, most of which were swept away over time. Others are inhumed in burial mounds that, even tens of thousands of years later, display unambiguous signs of ritual activity. But nowhere do we come into closer contact with our ancient ancestors—nowhere do they come more fully into focus as human—than inside the spectacularly painted caves that dot the landscape of Europe and Asia like footprints marking the path of their migration.8
As far as we can tell, fundamental to Adam and Eve’s belief system is the notion that the cosmos is tiered. The earth is a middle ground layered between the dome of the sky and the shallow bowl of the underworld. The upper realms can be reached only in dreams and altered states, and usually only by a shaman—someone who acts as an intermediary between the spiritual and material worlds. But the lower realms can be accessed by anyone, simply by burrowing deep into the earth—by crawling, sometimes for a mile or more, through caves and grottos to paint, etch, and sculpt their beliefs directly upon the rock wall, which acts as a “membrane” connecting their world to the world beyond.9
These painted caves can be found as far afield as Australia and on the islands of Indonesia. They appear across the Caucasus—from the Kapova cave in the southern Ural Mountains in Russia, to the Cuciulat cave in western Romania, and all along Siberia’s upper Lena River valley. Some of the oldest and most stunningly well-preserved samples of prehistoric rock art can be found in the mountainous regions of Western Europe. In northern Spain, a large red disk painted on a cave wall in El Castillo can be traced to approximately 41,000 years ago, just around the time that Homo sapiens first arrived in the region. Southern France is perforated with such caves—from Font de Gaume and Les Combarelles in the Vézère valley, to Chauvet, Lascaux, and the Volp caves in the foothills of the Pyrenees.10
The Volp caves in particular provide a unique glimpse into the purpose and function of these subterranean sanctuaries. The caves consist of three interconnected caverns carved out of limestone by the persistence of the Volp River: Enlène to the east, Le Tuc d’Audoubert to the west, and in the center Les Trois-Frères, named after the three French brothers who accidentally discovered the caves in 1912.
The three caves were first studied by the French archaeologist and priest Henri Breuil, known as Abbé Breuil, who meticulously copied by hand the trove of images he found inside. His renderings opened a window into a dim past, allowing us to reconstruct a plausible interpretation of the astonishing spiritual journey that our prehistoric ancestors might have taken here tens of thousands of years ago.11
That journey begins about five hundred feet from the entrance of the first cave in the Volp complex—Enlène—in a small antechamber now called the Salle des Morts. It is important to note that Adam and Eve do not live in these caves; they are not “cavemen.” Most painted caves are hard to reach and unfit for human habitation. Entering them is like passing through liminal space, like crossing a threshold between the visible and supersensible worlds. Some caves show evidence of prolonged activity, and others contain a sort of anteroom where archaeological evidence suggests worshippers may have gathered to eat and sleep. But these are not dwelling places; this is sacred space, which explains why the images found inside them are often placed at great distances from the cave’s entrance, requiring a perilous journey through labyrinthine passages to view.
In the Volp caves, the Salle des Morts serves as a kind of staging ground, a place where Adam and Eve can prepare themselves for the experience to come. Here, they are enveloped in the suffocating stench of burning bone. There are sunken hearths all along the chamber floor, blazing with piles of animal bone. Bone is obviously a strong combustible, but that is not why it is burned here. There is, after all, no shortage of wood in the foothills of the Pyrenees; wood is far more plentiful than bone, and far easier to procure.
Yet animal bones are believed to possess a mediating power—they are inside the flesh but not of the flesh. That is why they are so often collected, polished, and worn as ornaments. It is why they are carved into talismans intricately engraved with images of bison, reindeer, or fish—animals that rarely correspond to the bones themselves. Sometimes the bones are inserted directly into the clefts and crevices of the cave walls, perhaps as a form of prayer, a means of conveying messages to the spirit realm.
Burning animal bone in these hearths is likely a means of absorbing the essence of the animal. The overpowering aroma of smoldering bone and marrow in such a confined space acts as a kind of incense meant to consecrate those gathered here. Picture Adam and Eve sitting in this antechamber for hours at a time, swathed in smoke, swaying with their kin to the pounding rhythm of animal-hide drums, the tinny echo of flutes carved from vulture bones, and the ting of xylophones constructed from polished flint blades—all of which have been discovered in and around caves like these—until they achieve the sanctified state necessary to continue on their journey.12
Adam and Eve do not amble aimlessly through these caves. Each chamber, each niche, each fissure and corridor and recess has a specific purpose—all deliberately designed to induce an ecstatic experience. This is a carefully controlled affair, so that moving through the nooks and passages, absorbing the images cast on the walls, the floors, the ceilings elicits a particular emotional response, somewhat akin to following the Stages of the Cross in a medieval church.
First, they must get on their hands and knees and crawl through a two-hundred-foot passage that links Enlène to the second cave in the complex, Les Trois-Frères. Now they enter a wholly new realm, one marked by something that is so obviously missing from the first cave that it cannot possibly be a coincidence. For it is in this second cave that Adam and Eve first encounter the rock art that so indelibly defines their spiritual life.
The main passage in Les Trois-Frères forks into two narrow paths. The path to the left leads to a long chamber marked by row upon row of black and red dots of various sizes. Such dots represent the earliest form of cave painting; in some caves they’ve been dated to more than 40,000 years ago. No one really knows what the dots mean. They may be a recording of spirit visions. They may represent male and female symbols. What is fairly certain, however, is that the dots are not randomly scattered along the walls. On the contrary, they are often painted in a clearly perceptible pattern that is repeated from chamber to chamber. That suggests the dots may be a form of communication or instruction, a kind of code relaying some vital information to the supplicants as they continue journeying deeper into the bowels of the earth.13
The path to the right of the main passage in Les Trois-Frères veers toward another small, dark room popularly called the Galerie des Mains. The walls here are splotched not with dots, but with handprints—dozens of them. This is by far the most ubiquitous and instantly recognizable form of rock art in existence. The oldest handprints go back some 39,000 years and can be found not only in Europe and Asia, but also in Australia, Borneo, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, the Saharan desert, and even the United States. The prints are made either by dipping the hand into wet pigment and pressing it against the cave wall, or by placing the hand directly upon the wall and spraying ochre around it through a hollowed-out bone to create a negative shadow. The ochre itself has a sacred function; the blood-red paint serves as a bridge between the material and spiritual worlds.14
What’s remarkable about these handprints is that they are almost never left on smooth, easy-to-access areas, as one would expect. Instead, they congregate around certain topographical features: on top of or near fissures and cracks, inside concave depressions or between stalagmite flows, on high ceilings or in otherwise difficult-to-reach spaces. Some of the prints are shaped in such a way that the fingers appear to be gripping the rock. Others have fingers either bent or missing. Several of the prints are clearly made by the same hand, yet different fingers are missing from one stencil to the next, suggesting that, like the black and red dots, the handprints may also be an ancient form of symbolic communication—a kind of primitive “sign language.” Indeed, the uncanny similarities among handprints found on opposite sides of the globe may indicate that this practice shares a common origin, one that predates the migration of Homo sapiens out of Africa nearly 100,000 years ago. It may be that the humans who made the handprints in Indonesia and those who made them in Western Europe were speaking the same symbolic language.
Negative and positive handprints found in Cueva de las Manos, Santa Cruz, Argentina (c. 15,000 to 11,000 B.C.E.)
Mariano / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons
Intriguingly, scholars now believe that the majority of handprints found in the caves of Europe and Asia belong to women. This puts the lie to the notion that these caves, and the rituals involved in them, were primarily a male affair. It may be the case that access to certain chambers or activities was restricted, perhaps to those engaging in some rite or initiation. But the sanctuaries themselves seem to have received all members of the community: male or female, young and old.15
By the faint light of a flickering flame, Adam and Eve carefully make their way through this chamber by touch, feeling every fluctuation in the walls—their undulations, their warm and cool spots—looking for just the right place to leave their own handprints. This is a long and intimate process, requiring a close familiarity with the rock surface. Only after leaving their marks are they ready to continue their journey into the very heart of the cave: a small, cramped room tucked away in a perilously sloped, nearly inaccessible corner of the complex that Breuil dubbed the Sanctuary.
Here the walls practically pulse with brightly colored images of animals, both drawn and incised into the rock. There are hundreds of them, superimposed one on top of the other, frozen in a frenzy of activity: bison and bears and horses, reindeer and mammoths, stags, ibexes, and a few creatures that are mysterious and unidentifiable—some too fantastical to be real, others that muddle the boundary between human and animal.
It is not exactly correct to call these drawings “images.” They are, like the dots and the handprints, symbols reflecting our ancient ancestors’ animistic belief that all living things are interconnected, that they all share in the same universal spirit. It is for this reason that one rarely sees the animals’ environment depicted in these caves. Often, the beasts are drawn in a kinetic blur suggesting motion. But there is no grass or trees or shrubs or streams for them to move upon; there is no “ground” at all. The animals seem to float in space, upside down, at odd, impossible angles. They are hallucinatory, devoid of context, unreal.16
The common assumption is that these rock paintings are meant to be a kind of “hunting magic,” a charm to assist the hunter in bagging his prey. Yet the animals depicted inside the caves are, for the most part, not representative of the animals that roam outside the caves. Archaeological digs have shown that there is little correspondence between the species displayed on the walls and those that supplied the artists’ diet. Rarely are the animals shown as hunted or captured or suffering or in pain. There is hardly ever any sign of violence at all in these caves. Some of the animals are crisscrossed with sharp lines that are usually interpreted as spears or arrows piercing their flanks. But a closer look at the images suggests that these lines are not entering the animal’s body; they are emanating from it. The lines appear to represent the animal’s aura or spirit—its soul. As the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss observed, primitive humans chose the animals they cast upon the rock not because they were “good to eat” but because they were “good to think.”17
Adam and Eve enter these caves not to paint the world they know. What would be the point of that? They are here to imagine the world that exists beyond theirs. In fact, they do not so much draw pictures of bison and bears on the rock as they release those pictures from it. Standing in the dim light of a narrow passageway, scanning the cave wall with their eyes, caressing it with their hands, they wait for the image to be projected back to them. A curve in the rock becomes an antelope’s thigh. A fissure or a crack serves as the starting point for a reindeer’s antler. Sometimes, all it takes is a little addition—a slash of paint here, a deep groove there—to transform the natural shape of the rock into a mammoth or an ibex. Whatever the subject, their task is not to draw the image, but to complete it.
The drawings are often tucked between pillars or otherwise placed in a position that allows them to be viewed only from certain angles and only by a handful of people at a time, indicating that the cave—not just the images projected upon it, but the cave itself—was intended to be part of the spiritual experience. The cave becomes a mythogram; it is meant to be read, the way one reads scripture.18
If the Volp caves are a form of scripture, then Adam and Eve are about to reach its keynote, the moment when the mystery of all they have so far experienced will be revealed in a spectacular climax.
At the far end of the Sanctuary is a tunnel so narrow it can accommodate only one or two people at a time. To enter it, they must inch their way forward on their hands and knees as the tunnel curves upward onto a narrow ledge just a few feet from the cave floor. Once at the top, they can straighten up and shuffle along the ledge, their backs to the wall, clinging to the rock face to keep from falling. After a few yards, the ledge grows wider, allowing them to turn their bodies and finally face the wall. Only then, as they lift their eyes toward the ceiling, can they see the crowning image of the complex—an image so awe-inspiring, so jaw-dropping, that it practically defies description.
It is a man—that much is certain. But it is something more. It has the legs and feet of a human being, but the ears of a stag and the eyes of an owl. A long, bushy beard falls from its chin to its chest. Two beautifully wrought antlers jut from its head. Its hands resemble the paws of a bear. Its muscular torso and thighs belong to an antelope or a gazelle. Thrust back between its hind legs is a large, semierect penis, which curves upward, almost grazing the bristling horsetail that protrudes from its buttocks. The figure is drawn in what appears to be mid-dance; its frame is lunging leftward. But it is facing the viewer, its owl eyes lined in black and open wide, the pupils small and white, and centered in perpetual focus.
The Sorcerer (interpretation of a drawing by Henri Breuil). Les Trois-Frères, Montesquieu-Avantes, France (c. 18,000 to 16,000 B.C.E.) Copyright © David Lindroth, Inc.
The figure is unique in these caves in that it is both painted and engraved; it has been repeatedly modified, redrawn and repainted, perhaps for thousands of years. There are faint traces of color on the nose and forehead. In some places the details are superb. You can see the kneecap on its left leg. In others, it is slapdash. The front paws, in particular, look rushed and unfinished. The entire figure is about two and a half feet tall, far larger than any other image in the room. Whatever it is, it dominates the chamber, floating above the darkness.
When Henri Breuil first saw the figure a century ago, he was dumbstruck. Clearly this was a cult image meant for veneration, perhaps even worship. A single, dominant humanoid figure set apart like this is unheard of in such caves. Its location in the chamber, elevated high above eye level, makes it seem as though it is presiding over the tangle of animals collected in the Sanctuary. At first, Breuil assumed that the figure was a shaman dressed in the costume of some kind of hybrid animal. He christened it “the Sorcerer,” and the name stuck.19
Breuil’s initial interpretation of the figure is understandable. In ancient communities, shamans were thought to have one foot in this world and one foot in the next. They had the ability to enter altered states (often with the aid of hallucinogens) whereby they could shed their bodies and journey into the spirit world to bring back messages from the beyond, usually with the help of an animal guide.20
This connection with animals is why Breuil assumed the human-animal Sorcerer was a shaman, perhaps caught in midtransformation, shedding his body to journey into the other world. At least seventy other human-animal hybrid figures have been discovered in caves across Europe and Asia, and most of them are also assumed to represent shamans. In the Chauvet cave in France, a half-man/half-bison is etched onto a teardrop-shaped rock that hangs from the ceiling; his body folds over the unmistakable image of a vagina covered in thick black pubic hair drawn along the apex of the rock. On the walls of Lascaux there is an image of one man with a horse’s head and another with the head of a bird lying down before a charging bull. Not far from where the Sorcerer looms in the Volp caves is the much smaller figure of a bison with human arms and legs playing what appears to be a flute attached to his nostrils.21
Yet these hybrid images do not represent shamans any more than the animal images represent actual animals. Like the dots and the handprints and practically everything else in such caves, these hybrid figures are symbols meant to represent “the other world”—the world beyond the material realm.
Even Breuil recognized there was something unique about the Sorcerer. After all, this was no mere human-animal hybrid, but rather a collage of species merged to create a single, active, animated being unlike anything else discovered in any painted cave. And so, after some consideration, he changed his mind about what he had discovered, concluding that this strange hypnagogic creature staring back at him from on high was not in fact a shaman. It was, as he wrote in his notebook, the earliest image ever found of God.22