Psychedelics, Consciousness & the Birth of Civilization

Divine Spark Big BangGraham Hancock, Guest
Waking Times

**Note: This article is excerpted from the introduction of The Divine Spark: A Graham Hancock Reader: Psychedelics, Consciousness, and the Birth of Civilization. See more at The Divine Spark Library Page.

I’ve been very lucky; I feel I’ve been blessed; I’ve lived a blessed life. I’m grateful to the universe for giving me the chance to live this life.

But why am I here? Why are you here? Why are we all here on planet earth? Why are we conscious? What are our lives for?

In answer to such questions, I can’t offer any facts. I can only give you my view, which is that this world is a theatre of experience and that consciousness is fundamentally nonphysical and one of the driving forces of the universe like gravity or electricity. My guess is that consciousness has chosen to manifest in physical form and perhaps has invested in a very long process of manifestation on the earth – a four-and-a-half-billion-year process using evolution.

So . . . I’m not against evolution. Evolution is obvious. It’s a fact. It’s there. But the fact that it’s there gets over-interpreted. It gets loaded down with a lot of baggage that it shouldn’t really be carrying. For example, materialist scientist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, goes so far as to claim that the existence of evolution proves that there’s no transcendental meaning to life, that there’s no such thing as spirit, that consciousness cannot survive physical death – and so on and so forth.

What Dawkins doesn’t consider is the possibility that “the spirit world” (for lack of a better phrase) has used evolution to manifest physical entities in which consciousness can emerge and express itself and learn lessons. What he doesn’t consider, in other words, is the possibility that consciousness comes first while physical realms and beings are manifestations or projections of that primordial consciousness – as above, so below, as many ancient wisdom traditions state.

  • According to these traditions, the world is indeed a theatre of experience and we find ourselves on its stage in order to learn lessons that can only be taught in a physical realm. Moreover, we are enjoined to be aware that we have been given a precious opportunity to be born into this world of matter and consequences as human beings (rather than as fruit flies, or slime molds, or cockroaches, or stones). After all, the whole biosphere is here to support us. Four billion years of evolution on earth have led us to a point where we can make very fine distinctions between good and evil, darkness and light, love and fear – where we can make conscious choices that will impact us and others in profound ways.

    This is why, in my view, modern technological society can only be described as demonic. It appears to have been expressly engineered to switch people off to the wider implications, and the wider mystery, of being alive. It bombards our consciousness with sterile, soulless messages of production and consumption, of envy and greed, that never get to the fundamentals of anything. It seeks to convince us that we’re just meat – just accidents of physics and chemistry – that our only purpose is to produce and consume as much as possible, and that when we’re dead, we’re dead and that’s the end.

    I don’t believe those messages! I think we’re part of a very long journey – and that we may manifest in human form many times upon this earth. Reincarnation makes perfect sense to me precisely because I don’t see consciousness as a mere “epiphenomenon of brain activity,” as a man like Richard Dawkins must, but as the true source of all created things.

    I am not alone in this intuition of the primacy of consciousness; indeed, it is shared by all the contributors to this volume and, I suspect, in various guises, by a great many others, all around the world, who have successfully resisted the mental virus mind-programming of modern technological society. But how to take that resistance further? How, if we are beings of consciousness, are we to attempt to penetrate the mystery of consciousness itself and perhaps even discover who or what we really are and why we’re here?

    At the level of scientific research, I’m not sure how much further scope there is for physical probing of the brain, whether directly through surgical procedures or dissection, or indirectly by means of CT scans, MRI scans, PET scans, intracranial electrophysiology, and so on and so forth. Yes, we can compare healthy and diseased brains, and we can map brains and arrive at fairly definite conclusions about the functions of different brain areas, and we can even digitally reconstruct neurons, but I suspect the real breakthroughs in our understanding of consciousness are going to come from an entirely different direction.

    That direction, controversially, has to do with psychedelics – which, as many of the contributors to The Divine Spark argue, offer spectacular potential for the investigation of the “hard problem” of consciousness. After a hiatus of nearly half a century, this potential is again beginning to be explored by science – although as yet only in tentative and limited ways that focus on therapeutic outcomes and that shun the use of psychedelics to explore the deeper mysteries of consciousness. Indeed, even in the therapeutic arena, continuing delays, sidetracking, and shortage of funds are still the norm and arise entirely from the ideology of the mind-programming exercise called the “war on drugs” that we have been subjected to by our governments since the 1970s and that continues to undermine the most basic values of Western democracy.


    What, after all, is Western civilization all about? What are its greatest achievements and highest aspirations?

    It’s my guess that most people’s replies to these questions would touch – before all the other splendid achievements of science, literature, technology, and the economy – on the nurture and growth of freedom.

    Individual freedom.

    Including, but not limited to, freedom from the unruly power of monarchs, freedom from the unwarranted intrusions of the state and its agents into our personal lives, freedom from the tyranny of the Church and its Inquisition, freedom from hunger and want, freedom from slavery and servitude, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of thought and speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to elect our own leaders, and freedom of sexual orientation.

    The list of freedoms we enjoy today that were not enjoyed by our ancestors is indeed a long and impressive one. It is therefore exceedingly strange that Western civilization in the 21st century enjoys no real freedom of consciousness.

    There can be no more intimate and elemental part of the individual than his or her own consciousness. At the deepest level, our consciousness is what we are – to the extent that if we are not sovereign over our own consciousness, then we cannot in any meaningful sense be sovereign over anything else either. So it has to be highly significant that, far from encouraging freedom of consciousness, our societies in fact violently deny our right to sovereignty in this intensely personal area and have effectively outlawed all states of consciousness other than those on a very narrowly defined and officially approved list. The war on drugs has thus unexpectedly succeeded in engineering a stark reversal of the true direction of Western history by empowering faceless bureaucratic authorities to send armed agents to break into our homes, arrest us, throw us into prison, and deprive us of our income and reputation simply because we wish to explore the sometimes radical, though always temporary, alterations in our own consciousness that drugs facilitate.

    Other than being against arbitrary rules that the state has imposed on us, personal drug use by adults is not a crime in any true moral or ethical sense and usually takes place in the privacy of our own homes where it cannot possibly do any harm to others. For some, it is a simple lifestyle choice. For others, particularly where the psychedelics such as LSD, psilocybin, and DMT are concerned, it is a means to make contact with alternate realms and parallel dimensions, and perhaps even with the divine. For some, drugs are an aid to creativity and focused mental effort. For others, they are a means to tune out for a while from everyday cares and worries. But in all cases, it seems probable that the drive to alter consciousness, from which all drug use stems, has deep genetic roots.

    Other adult lifestyle choices with deep genetic roots also used to be violently persecuted by our societies.

    divinespark-uk-smallA notable example is homosexuality, once punishable by death or long periods of imprisonment, which is now entirely legal between consenting adults – and fully recognized as being none of the state’s business – in all Western cultures. (Although fourteen US states, at time of writing, retain “anti-sodomy” laws banning homosexuality, these statutes have rarely been enforced in recent years, and in 2003 the US Supreme Court invalidated those laws.) The legalization of homosexuality lifted a huge burden of human misery, secretiveness, paranoia, and genuine fear from our societies, and at the same time, not a single one of the homophobic lobby’s fire-and-brimstone predictions about the end of Western civilization came true.

    Likewise, it was not so long ago that natural seers, mediums, and healers who felt the calling to become “witches” were burned at the stake for “crimes” that we now look back on as harmless eccentricities at worst.

    Perhaps it will be the same with drugs. Perhaps in a century or two, if we have not destroyed human civilization by then, our descendants will look back with disgust on the barbaric laws of our time that punished a minority so harshly (with loss of reputation, financial ruin, imprisonment, and worse) for responsibly, quietly, and in the privacy of their own homes seeking alterations in their own consciousness through the use of drugs. Perhaps we will even end up looking back on the persecution of drug users with the same sense of shame and horror that we now view the persecution of homosexuals, the burning of witches, and the imposition of slavery on others.

    Meanwhile, it’s no accident that the war on drugs has been accompanied by an unprecedented expansion of governmental power into the previously inviolable inner sanctum of individual consciousness. On the contrary, it seems to me that the state’s urge to power has all along been the real reason for this “war” – not an honest desire on the part of the authorities to rescue society and the individual from the harms caused by drugs, but the thin end of a wedge intended to legitimize increasing bureaucratic control and intervention in almost every other area of our lives as well.

    This is the way freedom is hijacked – not all at once, out in the open, but stealthily, little by little, behind closed doors, and with our own agreement. How will we be able to resist when so many of us have already willingly handed over the keys of our own consciousness to the state and accepted without protest that it is okay to be told what we may and may not do, what we may and may not explore, even what we may and may not experience, with this most precious, sapient, unique, and individual part of ourselves?

    It may even be, by allowing the demonization and criminalization of altered states of consciousness to continue, that we are denying ourselves the next vital step in our own evolution as a species.


    During most of the first seven million years of human evolution, there is no evidence at all for the existence of symbolic abilities amongst our ancestors. No matter how intensively we examine what is known about the fossil record, or speculate about what is not yet known about it, all that we see evidence for throughout this period is a dull and stultifying copying and recopying of essentially the same patterns of behaviour and essentially the same “kits” of crude stone tools, without change or innovation, for periods of hundreds of thousands, even millions of years. When a change is introduced (in tool shape, for example), it then sets a new standard to be copied and recopied without innovation for a further immense period until the next change is finally adopted. In the process, glacially slow, we also see the gradual development of human anatomy in the direction of the modern form: the brainpan enlarges, brow ridges reduce in size, and overall anatomy becomes more gracile.

    By 196,000 years ago, and on some accounts considerably earlier, humans had achieved “full anatomical modernity.” This means that they were in every way physically indistinguishable from the people of today and, crucially, that they possessed the same large, complex brains as we do. The most striking mystery, however, is that their behavior continued to lag behind their acquisition of modern neurology and appearance. They showed no sign of possessing a culture, or spiritual beliefs, or self-consciousness, or any interest in symbols. Indeed, there was nothing about them that we could instantly identify with “us.” Dr. Frank Brown, whose discovery of 196,000-year-old anatomically modern human skeletons in Ethiopia was published in Nature on February 17, 2005, points out that they are 35,000 years older than the previous “oldest” modern human remains known to archaeologists: “This is significant because the cultural aspects of humanity in most cases appear much later in the record . . . which would mean 150,000 years of Homo sapiens without cultural stuff.”

    Brown’s colleague, John Fleagle of Stony Brook University in New York State, also comments on the same problem: “There is a huge debate . . . regarding the first appearance of modern aspects of behaviour. . . . As modern human anatomy is documented at earlier and earlier sites, it becomes evident that there was a great time gap between the appearance of the modern skeleton and ‘modern behavior.'”

    For Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History, the problem posed by this gap – and what happened to our ancestors during it – is “the question of questions in palaeoanthropology.” His colleague Professor David Lewis-Williams of the Rock Art Research Institute at South Africa’s Witwatersrand University describes the same problem as “the greatest riddle of archaeology – how we became human and in the process began to make art and to practice what we call religion.”

    Contrasted with the endless, unimaginative cultural desert extending from 7 million years ago down to just 40,000 years ago, the appearance of the first great, fully representative symbolic art in caves and rock shelters between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago represents a spectacular enigma. That art, moreover, was already perfect and fully formed from the moment that it began to be created. What ushered it in? Why did it happen? And why was it accompanied by other significant changes in human behavior – including but not limited to better and more sophisticated stone and bone tools, better hunting strategies, and the first evidence for spiritual beliefs? Correlation is all we can prove, but looking at the overall suite of new behavior that appears at this time, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that whatever divine spark led our ancestors to start creating art caused all the other changes as well.

    In other words, if we can explain the art, we can explain the origins of modern humanity. It is therefore of the greatest interest that such a theory has been proposed and does indeed completely explain the special characteristics of Stone Age art from as far afield as Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Australia, and moreover, why identical characteristics are found in art produced by the shamans of surviving tribal cultures today. The theory was originally elaborated by Lewis-Williams and is now supported by a majority of archaeologists and anthropologists. In brief, it proposes that the reason for the eerie similarities and universal themes linking all these different systems of art is that in every case – both ancient and modern and wherever in the world they are found – the shaman-artists responsible for them had previously experienced altered states of consciousness in which they had seen vivid hallucinations, and in every case their endeavour in making the art was to memorialise on the walls of rock shelters and caves the ephemeral images that they had seen in their visions. According to this neuropsychological theory, the different bodies of art have so many similarities because we all share the same neurology, and thus share many of the same experiences and visions in altered states of consciousness.

    There are lots of ways of inducing the necessary altered state. The Bushmen of South Africa get there through night-long rhythmic dancing and drumming; the Tukano Indians of the Amazon do it through consuming the psychedelic beverage Ayahuasca, the “vine of souls.” In prehistoric Europe, it’s most likely that the requisite altered states were reached through the consumption of Psilocybe semilanceata – the popular little brown magic mushroom that is still used throughout the world to induce hallucinations today. In Central America, the Maya and their predecessors used other Psilocybe species (P. mexicana and P. cubensis) to induce the same effects.


    I took LSD once in my twenties, at the Windsor Free Festival in England in 1974, and had a fantastic, exciting, energizing twelve-hour trip in a parallel reality. When my normal, everyday consciousness returned – and it did so quite abruptly, like a door slamming – I felt grateful for such a wonderful experience but so much in awe of its power that I doubted if I would ever want to embrace it again. Suppose things had gone the other way? Suppose instead of an exciting medieval Otherworld through which I had been allowed to travel like a knight-errant, I had been ushered into some hell realm for twelve hours? How would I have handled that? Would I have handled it at all?

    It was not until I reached my fifties and began work on my book Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind that I decided to confront the psychic challenges of major hallucinogens again. In order to research my subject properly, and to know what I was talking about when I spoke of altered states of consciousness, I drank Ayahuasca with shamans in the Amazon and self-experimented with DMT, psilocybin, and the African visionary drug known as Iboga – “the plant that enables men to see the dead.”

    The extraordinary experiences I went through convinced me that David Lewis-Williams is right and that visionary states of this sort, brought on by the accidental discovery of plant psychedelics, did indeed provide the inspiration for ancient cave and rock art traditions all around the world. Lewis-Williams is also right to insist that it is to the proper examination of such altered states of consciousness that we should turn if we wish to discover the source of the first spiritual ideas ever entertained by our ancestors.

    It was precisely at this point, however, that I began to part company with Lewis-Williams and his theory. Whatever the cave artists saw in their trances, and no matter how devoutly they may have believed that what they were seeing was real, the South African professor is adamant that the entire inspiration for 25,000 years of Upper Paleolithic cave paintings reduces to nothing more than the fevered illusions of disturbed brain chemistry – i.e., to hallucinations. In his scientific universe, there is simply no room, or need, for the supernatural, no space for any kind of otherworld, and no possibility that intelligent nonphysical entities could exist.

    I found I couldn’t leave the matter there, with the inspiration for cave art and the birth of religion neatly accounted for by disturbed brain chemistry, with the earliest spiritual insights of mankind rendered down to mere epiphenomena of strictly biological processes, with the sublime thus efficiently reduced to the ridiculous. To have established the role of hallucinations as the inspiration for cave art is one thing – and David Lewis-Williams, in my opinion, has successfully done that. But to understand what hallucinations really are, and what part they play in the overall spectrum of human experience and behaviour, is another thing altogether, and neither Lewis-Williams nor any other scientist can yet claim to possess such knowledge, or to be anywhere near acquiring it. Gifted and experienced shamans the world over really do know more – much more – than they do. So if we were smart, we would listen to what the shamans have to say about the true character and complexity of reality instead of basking mindlessly in the overweening one-dimensional arrogance of the Western technological mind-set.

    Because I had been shaken to the core by my experiences with Ayahuasca and Iboga, I decided to take my investigation further and to explore the extraordinary possibility that science is unwilling even to consider and that David Lewis-Williams dismisses out of hand. This is the possibility that the Amazonian and African psychedelics had obliged me to confront face-to-face – and that shamans contend with on a daily basis – the possibility that the “spirit world” and its inhabitants are real, that supernatural powers and nonphysical beings do exist, and that human consciousness may, under certain special circumstances, be liberated from the body and enabled to interact with and perhaps even learn from these “spirits.” In short, did our ancestors experience their great evolutionary leap forward of the last 40,000 years not just because of the beneficial social and organisational by-products of shamanism but because they were literally helped, taught, prompted, and inspired by supernatural agents? Could the “supernaturals” first depicted in the painted caves and rock shelters – and still accessible to us today in altered states of consciousness – be the ancient teachers of mankind? Could it be they who first ushered us into the full birthright of our humanity? And could it be that human evolution is not just the “blind,” “meaningless,” “natural” process that Darwin identified, but something else, more purposive and intelligent, that we have barely even begun to understand?

    If so, then we demonise altered states of consciousness at our peril, and rather than sending our fellow humans to prison for seeking them out, we should encourage, reward, and support them as the true explorers and adventurers of our time. I have brought together this series of essays in The Divine Spark, written by researchers and activists in the field of consciousness whose work I respect, as a contribution to this exploration of terra incognita.

    About the Author

    Graham Hancock is the author of many books including Fingerprints of the Gods, and The Divine Spark: Psychedelics, Consciousness, and the Birth of Civilization. Visit or follow Graham on Facebook, here.

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