For some people its bonsais. For others it might be music, peering through a telescope, or perhaps even at the end of a paintbrush where their minds best run free. For me it’s letting my thoughts roam through the Palaeolithic. It sounds odd, sure, but inside this enigmatic 6,000 generation-long window we naked apes pulled off some of the most spectacular fucking tricks ever witnessed in this neck of the celestial woods, and just imagining them is for me fun. One in particular is my favourite, and it was so mind-bendingly out of this world brilliant that if there ever was a god watching curiously over our species then that moment surely should have been the cue for it to materialise and say, “Well fucking done!” And rightly so. It’s not every day, after all, that a species outwits nature and gets the hell out of the jungle. The truth is it’s only been done once and the trophy for pulling it off is in the top pocket of every awesomely awful human being to have drawn a breath since. We flipped the collective bird to all that ran, swam, crawled, oozed and flew, and then we jumped ship in an impressively theatrical way. We got out, and we did it in part it by hosting the first raves the planet had ever seen. We did it through very noisy animism.
Now brace yourself, but hamsters did not have a role to play in this Great Escape. That is to say hamsters were not the first objects singled out for worship by the architects of the pioneer totemic religions; our escape vehicle of choice. Hummingbirds, squirrels and shrews were also not notably high on the list of popular animal cults of the day, and as yet no evidence has been unearthed that points to bands of Middle Palaeolithic hunters summoning the Great Long-Eared Jerboa Spirit to give them superhuman jerboa courage, strength and skill on the stalk. Lions, eagles, and in particular bears were, for quite obvious reasons, the favourites of the day; animals who possessed that outer worldly appeal of extreme indifference. These were without question the ‘bad boys’ of small town Palaeolithic earth and their consummate coolness toward the brutal natural world was, given the evidence, more than just mildly appealing to our highly-strung, paranoid ancestors. These casual, nonchalant, aloof beasts that seemingly moved without fear were endowed with something more potent than we fidgety, navel-gazing, paranoid naked apes possessed. They had in their keep a supernatural courage, perhaps even a knowledge or power which our great grandfathers of antiquity lusted after: immunity. They craved mercy, or conceivably even full exoneration from the savage realities of day to day survival, and no one in their right mind can really blame them for wanting out.
Middle Palaeolithic life was fun like cancer, car crashes, and nuclear winters. Nothing came easily, entertainment was rare, genuine joy perhaps even rarer, and despite enormous advancements in the methods of survival life remained fantastically uncertain. An injury as simple as a twisted ankle or even a terrible bout of the flu presented life or death decisions for nomadic bands 3,000 generations ago where life was not lived as we understand it, full of choices and opportunity for pleasure, rather it was endured in much the same way floods, Flanders, or particularly offensive politicians are endured. Protein and calories were worth their weight in gold and the failure to bring a bison down could mean another cycle of famine where ‘running-on-empty’ was the stuff of nightmares. The only thing that was certain was uncertainty, and having a brain the size of a rockmelon meant bugger all if it was only being used to organise an increasingly complex family of fears.
Now let your mind wander a little. Actually, let it wander a lot and consider how the apex predators appeared in the eyes of our Palaeolithic grandfathers. To them these beasts would have seemed miraculously untouched by the horrors that consumed their own lives. It was an admirable quality, immunity usually is, and so just as soon as they could (as soon as the frontal cortex finished growing and we as a species got a handle on what that clump of neurons was capable of) they set about and stole the thing they both respected and craved. Now it might have only been a faked robbery, a notion borrowed from the totems of their desires, but these thefts were clearly convincing enough to take root and usher in the age of the zoomorphic cults. Our forebears literally pilfered the spirits of bears and eagles and snakes and lions and tigers and fashioned them into the first totemic cults: religions in all but name whose only distinction to more modern devotional manifestations was that the objects of worship were still perfectly terrestrial in origin.
Through art and in particular highly inventive theatre our deep time forebears seized for themselves not only a fabricated sense of superhuman courage and strength, but more importantly the amnesty which the apex predators must surely have appeared to be in possession of. With intent they suspended reality and both figuratively and metaphorically dressed themselves up as the great beasts where the front-on ballsiness of the alpha wolf or the pompous indifference of the free roaming giant brown bear was transferred from animal to man through creative ceremony and ritual. It was playtime, make believe, what we’d call a simple children’s game, but it was real and ostensibly valuable to our Palaeolithic cousins. So real in fact that the ripples of these plays reverberate to this day in the coat of arms of most countries and on the shelves of Chinese medicinal shops which sell animal potions to men and women desperate for a leg up in their life pursuits. Elephant skins, shark fins, bear claws, gorilla hands, dried scorpions, horse hearts, eagle beaks, whole snakes, rhinoceros horns, elk antlers, and powdered tiger and deer penis’s; elixirs stolen from the animal and used for virility, stamina, sexual prowess, and strength.
The pioneers of the first animal cults were however anything but common medicinal charlatans masquerading as Masters of Nothing. There was a vein of very real magic tied to the rituals they emceed and this divination was not reserved to simple imaginative wanderings. Ritualistic use of music, rhythmic drumming more specifically, circular chanting, and repetitive dancing were discovered devises – tools of trance – used to override an individual’s sensory apparatus and transport them from the ordinary into the extra-ordinary. From a physiological perspective patterned, cyclical, and monotonous rhythm swamps the perennial lobe where concepts of ‘self’ reside, literally inducing a loss of self or depersonalisation in the individual. As the ceremony proceeds and the sense of ego melts the participant in the ritual becomes part of something larger, something collective, and most importantly, something non-terrestrial. Neurologically, a tear is made in their conscious self’s and they are elevated to an entirely supernatural platform. From the molecular perspective it’s a biochemical recipe of mostly adrenalin, ACTH, serotonin, and dopamine which come together to create the physiological and perceptual effect of ecstasy.
This was immersion technology: primitive, conscious altering theatre known to ravers today and which was no doubt compounded by the use of hallucinogens found readily in psilocybin (magic) mushrooms and potent plant based dimethyltryptamine (DMT) chemicals. Used in concert with the physical devises of immersive theatre and an individual didn’t stand a chance. Under such intense conditions the pleasure centres of the brain – particularly those concentrated in the hypothalamus – were flooded with electrical impulses and like a gathering snowball the individual was driven deeper into the experience; excavating themselves free from the natural environment until such a point of rapture was reached that that world was no longer recognisable.
To a curious rodent watching on, a field mouse perhaps, it must have been quite a sight. Light, sound, rhythm, movement, and then the climactic showpiece of the evening: the transfer of animal spirit. The dumbstruck field mouse couldn’t possibly have known it but what he was witnessing was the erection of a wall standing between these peculiar, noisy naked apes and the jungle. These hominids were building a partition between ‘them’ and ‘that’ out there where he lived. They’d found the way, and they were getting out.