part 1

evolution of sacred architecture throughout history
pointing to the Mandãla early architectural forms

≈50000BP to ≈12000BP

— Dreamtime World —

the painted caves of the Upper Paleolithic


Our species (Homo Sapiens—the anatomically early modern human, fully formed, fully capable) begins to evolve in East Africa about 300,000 years ago. Yet it isn’t until 150,000 years later, during the so-called Upper Paleolithic Revolution (approx. 50,000 BP), that modern human behavior appears. It is characterized by that awakening to the mystery of death, and therewith of life. A time when it could be said we became human; our groundbreaking hallmarks: art and language.

This evolution from primary consciousness to higher mind is achieved through the use of memory functions that give rise to the concepts of past, present, and future…in effect birthing the concept of Time itself. Shamanism develops as a result of a shifting consciousness now capable of altered states and the pursue of symbolic activities. For early man, the spiritual dimension opens...

At the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic in Europe, the first sanctuaries are created in the bowels of the Earth (close to 300 have now been discovered, the earliest one discovered—Chauvet cave—dated from 37000 PB). Parietal art proves an art of many uses: painted here to affirm a presence, engraved there to offer testimony, but most importantly for the purpose of magic (to communicate with the supernatural realms in order to influence the physical world). Emerging from the subterranean darkness, the visions carry extra-ordinary potency. A language beyond language, they reflect a deliberate pursuit of the mysterious and secret, express complex metaphors.

These are the first sanctuaries, "wherein life itself is to be experienced and known as a dream dreamed by a single dreamer in which all the dream characters dream too, so that everything interlocks with everything else.”


The ancient mind inhabits a significantly different mental world that of today. Space, in particular, is perceived as medium rather simply container. The cave itself is the liminal place par excellence, where light ends and eternal darkness begin, where warmth and the sounds of day give way to the chill silence of a cavernous night. It is the boundary between the living world of humanity and the mysterious, dark realm of the shaman, between waking consciousness and the deep of the unconscious mind; the place of visions and dreams, of spectral and tortured images glimpsed in the phantasmagorical forms of the rock.

The cave offers unsurpassed conditions for producing trance states. When the threshold is crossed, one not only enters the womb of the Earth, or crosses the gateway to the realm of the dead: one enters the cave in the mind.

Interiors of the sacred caves recall the vaginal canal and womb of the female body. Requiring to crawl through dangerous passageways which can suddenly drop down many meters into narrow shafts, the process of entering these spaces is directly analogous, not merely symbolic, of the dangers of birth. A ritual as well as literal journey viscerally imitating the process of being born, it becomes an experience of extraordinary emotional power.


At different levels of sophistication, many of the underground sanctuaries show consistent conceptual unity. Typical topography includes:

        • Cave entrance. Mouth of the underworld, separating above from below, mundane from sacred.

        • Communally made chambers. Vast vestibules profusely decorated with realistic or mythical figures; carefully composed, with a concern for overall effect.

        • Subterranean passages. Narrow corridors that bear little or no paintings. These liminal, transition spaces are the tunnel-like vortex leading into deeper altered states. Spare images may portray animal guides that must be followed, or animal guardians that must be faced and passed.

        • Small remote chambers. Places that suggest an extremity of experience as well as topography. In the extreme depths, questers come face to face with visions of power and make personal contact with the spirit realm. Drawn on the walls are crude superimposed outlines, images of transformation by death, and images of therianthrope (part-human, part-animal) shamans.

In some caves, animals are drawn following a fixed, unchanging sequence, suggesting a cosmogonic approach linking biological and cosmic time. Re-enacting the seasonal cycle, regenerating Time itself.

Recent interdisciplinary studies have proposed that some cave art represent early sky maps and astronomical calendars—displaying a partial zodiac, lunar calendars, and prominent stars functioning as solsticial and equinoctial markers. A sophisticated cosmovision is revealed, with painted caves now taking on the function of 'prehistoric planetariums' created by our earliest timekeepers and skywatchers.


For prehistorical man, the walls, ceilings, and floors of these caves are little more than a thin membrane between him and the creatures and happenings of the underworld. Fusing with the rock surface, animals appear and disappear. Some leap out of the wall while others melt back into it. Some are painted in glorious polychromy, others engraved in just a few strokes. The more crudely drawn images are obvious artifacts of magical intents—where it is the act of doing that matters. Handprints reveal the visceral dynamics linking man to his artistic expression, and clawmarks from cave bears further compete to bring life to the rock wall.

Regardless of subject or artistic end result, always remains the sense of a presence inhabiting the forms. Paintings and engravings become living images, inseparable from the rock they issue from, the potent darkness of the cave.

Shaman-artists are drawing (in two senses) spirit animals through the wall membrane. They re-create—in some sense re-dream—their visions, fixing them on the membrane through which they have materialized. Through the insertion of animal bone fragments into the rock wall, they are also sending fragments of animals back through the membrane into the spirit world—allowing for a two-way traffic between this world and the spirit world.

On the one hand, the creator of the image holds it in his or her power: a movement of the light source can cause the image to appear out of the murk; another movement causes it to disappear. On the other hand, the image holds its creator in its thrall: if the viewer wishes the image to become visible, he or she is obliged to maintain a posture that keeps the light source in a specific position. Relax, and the image retreats into the Stygian realm from which it was coaxed. These ‘creatures’ (creations) of light and darkness point to complex interactions between person and spirit, artist and image, rock and animal spirit.

Sound plays a significant part in rituals associated with the imagery. Not only art is created in areas of strong resonance, but the type of echo generated at a particular location can relate to the subject matter pictured. For example, where hoofed animals are depicted, echoes generated from drumming or clapping becomes a running herd; if a person is drawn, the echo of a voice seems to emanate from the picture itself. Certain stalactites and stalagmites (referred to as ‘lithophones’) issue pure bell-, drum- or gong-like notes when struck. Most of these display ancient percussion marks and are painted with geometric signs and animal figures.


There was a time when the mind in the cave and the cave in the mind were one and the same: when the combined effect of underground spaces, altered states of consciousness, mysterious sounds, interplay of light and darkness, and progressively revealed, flickering panels of images, probably exceeded anything that we can comprehend today.

That was eons ago, in the flickering light of torches, in the wavering flames of candles, in temples preserved to us in the depths of the historical unconscious of our species. That was eons ago, in the bowels of the earth. Yet still today, one needs only lift the safe and deadening curtain of civilization to be again assailed by that same feeling of presence, of clear and burning presence…

Across vast tracks of time, the visions are still speaking. In the subterranean darkness, awe still awaits...raw & unspoiled.

freely adapted from:


David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in The Cave
Jean Clottes & David Lewis-Williams, The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves
Paul Devereux, The Sacred Place: The Ancient Origins of Holy and Mystical Sites
Joseph Campbell, The Way of the Animal Powers


Jean Clottes, World Rock Art
Peg Streep, Sanctuaries of the Goddess
Norbert Aujoulat, website of the Lascaux Cave by Le Centre National de la Préhistoire:
Michael Rappengluec, website of the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies
George Bataille, Lascaux Or The Birth of Art


DIAGRAM David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in The Cave
IMAGE GALLERY edited from various sources / see individual image credit when available

mound of the planetary mind
an Earth-Mother temple for our Age