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After the intelligent work of Jacques Vallee and John Keel in the 1960s, and some subsequent gems such as John Mack’s research in the 1990s, the idea that we may be in contact with beings from the ‘subtle realms’ had fallen out of the public gaze. So much so that – despite a mass of fascinating evidence worthy of enquiry – we now live in a world where alien abductions are simply a tabloid headline, emerging from the padded-wall world of the obviously delusional. However, that could well change with the release of Supernatural (Amazon UK), from best-selling British author Graham Hancock (Fingerprints of the Gods). That’s not to say that this book is simply about the alien abduction phenomenon and the ‘third-realm’ hypothesis though – there’s far more on offer, which we’ll work through here. Better strap yourself in Dorothy, ‘cause Kansas is going bye-bye.

The subject of ‘contact’ is originally breached through some early chapters in which Hancock discusses entheogenic plant hallucinogens such as ibogaine and ayahuasca (and his personal experiences with them). Suddenly though, these chapters are followed by the seemingly unrelated topic of cave art. Hancock introduces readers to the ‘neuropsychological model’ of South African rock art expert David Lewis-Williams, which is currently gaining wide acceptance. The link to the earlier material becomes more obvious when Hancock outlines what this is all about – that the beginnings of human behaviour, in art and religion (as evidenced by cave paintings from the Upper Paleolithic era), may be tied to altered states of consciousness. Not just through the use of hallucinogens such as ‘magic mushrooms’ and the South American brew ayahuasca, but also through other methods such as the ritual dance of the San bushmen in Africa.

The evidence Hancock points to in favour of the neuropsychological model is fascinating – phosphene-like geometric forms, therianthropic figures, and most especially the ‘wounded man’ image found across time and cultures. Also the parallels in cave art with the ‘bleeding noses’ of the San bushmen is especially convincing, with 19th century ethnographic records providing the key (it’s ironic that despite the book’s emphasis on hallucinogens, the San didn’t use them). By the end, Hancock will have won over most readers with his argument that David Lewis-Williams’ theory is correct.

However, readers shouldn’t think that Hancock is going soft on academic archaeology. After aligning himself with David Lewis-Williams and his neuropsychological model, he then morphs into an agent provocateur and rips into the shabby history of cave art research over the past century. Hancock’s exposition of the shocking case of Altamira – where an ‘amateur archaeologist’ was virtually sent to his grave early because of unwarranted attacks from the establishment – does appear to come from a position of personal empathy with the man’s plight. He also takes issue with the cave art experts currently debating the neuropsychological model, for not being interested in taking hallucinogens themselves (something which surely would be an aid in ‘getting inside the mind’ of the Paleolithic artists?). Always ready with an eloquent (and in this case also humorous) turn of phrase, Hancock describes the situation as “two celibates arguing about the ten best positions for sex.”

The following sections are to the cave art material what spicy Cajun chicken is to rye bread – far more exotic and mouth-watering, but incomplete without the right foundations. Beginning with the appropriately titled chapter “Voyage into the Supernatural”, the rest of the book moves away from cave art into a completely different frame of investigation, one which is best compared to the ground-breaking books of Jacques Vallee during the 1960s and 70s (a point Hancock acknowledges later on). While the first part of Supernatural investigates a minor paradigm change, these chapters aim to reassess our entire vision of reality. Hancock prefaces this change of tack with this:

Because I had been shaken to the core by my experiences with ayahuasca and ibogaine, I decided to take my investigation further and to explore the extraordinary possibility…that the spirit world and its inhabitants are real, that supernatural powers and non-physical beings do exist.

In this chapter Hancock provides a marvelous illustration of the correspondences between shamanic experiences and the ‘alien abduction’ phenomenon (surrounded by quotes because Hancock is certainly not arguing for ‘nuts and bolts’ UFOs and aliens). It’s a good, solid introduction to what is a quite bizarre topic, and hopefully it provides enough evidence to draw the more ‘straight-thinking’ readers into the following chapters. It also shows (sadly) how little we really understand about ‘alien abductions’, while at the same time presenting ways forward for research, with the many parallels to psychic experiences.

Subsequent chapters add in Vallee’s link between fairy folklore and UFO experiences. In fact, Supernatural virtually becomes a comparative mythology investigation, with the subjects being shamanic voyages, fairy folklore and alien abduction reports. Time after time, Hancock presents stunning evidence to show that these are all part of a single phenomenon. Furthermore, in part four of the book he ties in DMT, the DNA element of shamanic visions (as explored by Narby, Harner and others), and the idea that information encoded within our ‘Junk DNA’ may be facilitating our ‘education’, by either advanced alien civilisations or entities from parallel/spiritual dimensions. Lastly, like a prodigal son returning to his roots, he discusses how this may relate to art and religion in ancient civilisations, specifically the Egyptians and Mayans. I told you to strap yourself in!

It may be high strangeness, but it is also terrific reading. Unlike Bryan Appleyard’s recent Aliens: Why They Are Here, Hancock avoids being overly-holistic and attempts to lay out the individual parts of his hypothesis backed by appropriate evidence, followed by the threads which join them together (the idea that Hancock is being reductionist may be pushing the truth though, considering the very nature of the subject matter!). To my mind the section on cave art could have been a little shorter, with the repetitive presentation of evidence becoming tedious towards the end (probably a holdover from the Underworld era when Hancock felt he need to present his popular works with a sturdy scientific backbone to counter his critics). On the other hand, one could argue that it’s just good value for money – with over 600 pages of text on a variety of fascinating topics, you are surely getting that with this book.

There is an appendix contributed by a British mycological expert regarding the origins of certain psilocybin mushrooms in Europe, which functionally destroys specific arguments made by cave art researchers opposed to the neuropsychological model – in fact, he makes them look rather amateurish and sloppy. Also in the appendices is an interview with Rick Strassman about his DMT research at the University of New Mexico, which is a worthy addition.

Supernatural could well be a breakthrough book on a number of subjects. Hancock has stepped forward with his high profile, and admitted to taking illicit substances, issuing a challenge regarding the human right to explore our own consciousness. He will also be bringing the strange ‘third realm’ out of the shadows, so to speak, and presenting it to a wide range of new readers. There’s something for everyone interested in the ‘alternative’ genres – archaeology and anthropology, religion and mythology, shamanism and altered states, ufology and alien abduction. One might even be tempted to throw in cryptozoology as well, with the emphasis Hancock puts on the therianthropic beings seen in altered states.

Hancock retains his familiar techniques. He always immerses himself in his books, traveling the globe and attempting to ‘walk in the same shoes’ as necessary. This method of narrating his investigation works simply because he is a great writer: he takes the reader with him by employing florid descriptions which somehow never seem to push into excessiveness and hyperbole. Once again Hancock focuses on the work of a number of cutting edge researchers with ‘new paradigm’ ideas – in Fingerprints of the Gods it was Bauval, West, Hapgood, and the Flem-Aths, while here it is Lewis-Williams, Vallee, John Mack and Benny Shanon – and links the disparate topics together to provide an over-arching theme to the book. In the case of Supernatural, that theme is altered states of consciousness, and whether humanity has grown (perhaps even been ‘taught’) through our capacity to enter into them via hallucinogens and other shamanic techniques. Graham Hancock is to be commended for picking up the torch which Jacques Vallee and John Keel originally lit, and taking it even further in Supernatural, in order to illuminate the margins of reality.