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Supernatural – A Review

The chain of reason can be a perilous and unsettling process. Those brash enough to follow any given strand to its logical conclusion may find themselves in incredible if not seemingly preposterous territory. Such is the case of Graham Hancock in his book Supernatural, (2007, Disinformation, New York.) Hancock contends the wide spread use of hallucinogenic drugs throughout history not only provided the impetus for the development of human spirituality but has also revealed a supernatural dimension populated with existentially real beings capable of interacting with our physical world. These beings are known by a myriad of culturally based identities. From the guardian and animal spirits found within tribal cultures to the fairies and elves referenced in early European history to the extraterrestrial beings many claim haunt our modern era. All are different names for the same supernatural entities whose presence and causal abilities are just as substantive as our own. On the surface it seems an appalling anti-intellectual claim. However, scrupulous consideration of the facts, source review and careful assembling of the evidence suggests there is much to consider within Hancock’s theory.

Graham Hancock is no stranger to the controversial. Whether uncovering evidence of ancient, technologically gifted civilizations, (Fingerprints of the Gods,) chasing down the Ark of the Covenant, (The Sign and the Seal,) or discovering lost cities at the bottom of the ocean, (Underworld, Flooded Kingdoms of the Ice Age,) his is a career most university bound professors would envy. But make no mistake, despite the dramatic nature of his pursuits and the extravagance of his claims Hancock is no academic lightweight. His research is exhaustive, his resources immense, his perspective expansive and his reasoning measured. His most valued attributes are a fearlessness of academic authority and the ability to accommodate the facts wherever they may lead.

Initially Hancock focused on what he refers to as the “symbolic revolution;” that grand or evolutionary event of about 40,000 years ago that changed humans from a predominantly materially oriented creature to a spiritually aware species capable of contemplating religious ideals and developing artistic and symbolic expression. He observes before this pivotal time Homo sapiens were as neurologically developed as their modern counterparts. However, little within the archeological record suggests they possessed any supernatural awareness from which a spiritual dimension to their existence could form; the kind of which is now and has been a staple of every society on earth from that point forward. He wondered what had “flicked the on switch” of mankind’s spiritual awareness.

His investigation initially led to the renowned art work found within the caves of Altamira, Lascaux and Pech Merle in south-western Europe. He noted these supernatural renderings closely parallel the vast ethnographic record of traditional shamanic experience and artistic expression. Hancock quickly adopted the emerging theory most prominently espoused by David Lewis-Williams of South Africa’s Witwatersrand University that these paintings were depictions of a supernatural realm likely revealed to tribal shaman through the use of hallucinogenic substances. However, there was another compelling reason for Hancock’s decision to side with this idea; these renderings closely matched the images he himself had seen during the course of numerous investigative experiences with such psychoactive materials as Ayahuasca, (the Amazonian vine of the soul), the central African root bark Iboga, the natural brain hallucinogen DMT and the ubiquitous Psilocyben mushroom. It also occurred to Hancock there was another important aspect to this high degree of similarity. It suggested the paintings on the cave walls were unlikely just the manifestation of the interior world of any individual consciousness. Their commonality raised the possibility they were actual representations of real entities. He was soon off on a wide ranging search to determine if these forms transcended time and culture and if so why.

Shamans have traditionally been the avowed experts at accessing the supernatural through the use of psychotropic materials. As such Hancock began a detailed cross referencing of other cultures seeking commonalities of shamanic expression within the same period, (the Upper Paleolithic), of human evolution. He found the suspected similarities in cave art on every major continent. In almost every instance where symbolic representation was present he found certain key images; therianthropic, (half man/half beast), creatures, dwarf like beings with triangular shaped heads, drawings of the famed “wounded man” and a striking consistency in the use of geometric forms. All were representations outside the perceptual realm of everyday physical experience. The plentiful availability of natural psychoactive substances in these regions led him to agree with the growing body of scholars who assert these renderings were the products of altered states of consciousness and likely represented mankind’s first concerted foray into the realm of the supernatural with all its attendant results.

At this point Hancock could have been content lending his voice in support of the psychotropic/spiritual connection and called it a day. However, he noted there remained a further correlation between these images and other supernatural entities cited within time periods far more recent than the Upper Paleolithic. Similar supernatural descriptions of, (and in some cases interactions with), these entities permeate the folk world of European history in the forms of fairies, elves and leprechauns, the experiences of contemporary Amazonian shaman, laboratory experiments involving the use of DMT and the reports of extraterrestrial encounters by those claiming to be abducted by aliens. Driven by this strange and unlikely coincidence Hancock began an exhaustive review of the historical record to confirm the suspected strength of similarity between these supposedly imaginary phenomena. The resulting commonality of perception he found between so many individual minds of differing times, settings, enculturation and experience was too great to ignore. Hancock concluded this correlation of phenomena could only be explained by one of two possible lines of reason; either these strange creatures are the expression of some repressed region of a collective human unconscious or they are real entities existing in a region beyond the veil of normal consciousness. After a methodical reasoning process he settles into the notion there exists an alternate dimension of reality populated by existentially real beings who continue to interrelate with select humans.

Hancock doesn’t claim all who encounter these supernatural beings do so under the influence of hallucinogenic substances. He notes approximately 2% of the general population is capable of achieving a natural altered state of awareness without the aid of psychotropic material. However induced, this alternate form of consciousness facilitates a “retuning” of the brain allowing the perception of other dimensions of being corresponding in space and time with our own. He then posits the evident possibility that these experiences underpin the basis of most of the culturally diverse spiritual systems of humanity.

The astonishment of Hancock’s premise doesn’t stop here. Those faint of heart better strap in and take a deep breath as further extrapolation of the material leads to even more radical suggestions. He evaluates the possibility these supernatural entities act directly as teachers of humanity, that vast amounts of our DNA not used for cellular reproduction are filled with a compendium of mystical and unworldly knowledge and that life on earth was originally “seeded” by an alien intelligence, (a concept wryly known as panspermia.)

Some of Hancock’s assertions are obviously easier to accommodate than others. His conclusions on the link between psychoactive substances and the rise of spiritual awareness require little imagination. That early humans could formulate the existence of spiritual or mystical realms in the abstract without direct perceptual experience seems quite a stretch. The wide geographical and temporal range of similar forms of supernatural expression certainly suggests a direct tie to a common environmental stimulus rather than the rarified insights of any given individuals, an unknown spasm of neurological evolution or some divine planetary event. However, I believe a temperance of Hancock’s assertions is needed. While the effects of psychotropic material could accelerate the spiritual process, it’s more likely such common human experiences as dreaming and the delusions of sickness first attuned our Upper Paleolithic ancestors to the possibility of a higher, unseen dimension of existence. Unaware of modern psychological explanations of the subconscious mind they would reasonably interpret such experiences in a mystical manner and react accordingly. However, the move from this premise to the more radical assertion of the reality of such phenomenon requires more detailed analysis.

The similarities between the supernatural perceptions of the tribal shaman induced through psychotropic substances and the mythological and alien entities of more recent times are simultaneously fascinating and bizarre. Those strict Positivists among us may be inclined to dismiss the majority of Hancock’s evidence as being primarily anecdotal. While admittedly true, despite the absence of empirical authentication, as a rule anecdotal evidence can never be categorically dismissed. In such cases verification requires a preponderance, consistency and credibility of sources. Hancock seems well aware of this and responds accordingly. The overwhelming amount of source material he assembles to verify these commonalities of form and behavior transcending time, culture and context make his connections hard to readily dismiss. It would be interesting to hear from specialists in European mythology and the alien abduction phenomenon to better determine if Hancock’s citations are truly representative of the field or to what extent he’s “cherry picked” the literature.

Supernatural is a formidable attempt to expose what many have long suspected, intuited or subjectively discovered; there are likely other dimensions of ordered and intelligent existence outside the realm of normal human perception. If one accepts Hancock’s supporting research and source material as legitimate and representative the suggested possibilities seem quite rational. Even the most hardened empiricists would be hard pressed to differ. The cornerstones of empirical truth have always been control and repetition. It matters not if you are investigating the physical or the psychological. If similar results occur repeatedly under similar sets of circumstances you have a genuine phenomenon. Such is the underlying thrust of Hancock’s approach. However, because he is dealing with a preponderance of similarity rather than a strict correlation certain reservations must remain. Hancock understands this and is quite careful in avoiding assertion. He prefers laying out the facts and letting the reader draw their own conclusions. And therein lies the tale.

Taken as a whole the dramatic possibilities within Supernatural could strip the threads of even the most iconoclastic student of the Transpersonal. But then again Hancock never does anything by halves. The reality of any one of his potentially paradigm shattering premises would be enough to fundamentally flip our notions of existence on their ear. Of course none of this would be of consequence if the quality of Hancock’s scholarship were sloppy or limited. But it’s not. Despite the wide range of inquiry his approach is measured, uniformly meticulous, carefully crafted and infused with a necessary degree of skepticism. His line of reason is tight, transparent and devoid of unsubstantiated assertion. He remains aware of the potential holes in his arguments and seems more content to challenge than declare. There’s no doubt the possibilities Hancock’s investigation uncovers may initially seem incredible and outlandish. However, his work should never be considered in the same vein as such notorious intellectual screwballs as Velikovsky, Von Daniken or others of such dubious ilk who’ve recklessly plowed similar ground. His work deserves serious consideration.

Expansive projects are what lend Graham Hancock his great appeal. For those who find the maddeningly fine focus of most anthropological work to often be irrelevant or trivial, (the “how many first cousins can dance on the head of a pin” syndrome,) wide ranging studies on universal topics are eagerly received and of great potential value. Hancock is bold enough to go after the big questions that really matter to those who would study human beings and their culture. His work moves the scope of transpersonal anthropology outward in great leaps rather than microscopic increments. For this he should be applauded.

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