This interview with Graham Hancock, about his book SUPERNATURAL, originally appeared in Issue 2 of our free online magazine SUB ROSA (PDF download).
SR: Thanks for talking to us Graham. Supernatural has a very wide and eclectic scope – from cave art and shamanism, to the alien abduction phenomenon, fairy folklore and even the origins of DNA. I’m interested in how you came to research all these subjects within one book – was there a concept right from the start, or was it a slow unveiling of these various correspondences between the topics?
GH: There was a concept from the start. I’d had in mind, for some time, to write a book about human origins. I always felt there was a mystery in there somewhere, but when I started to look at human origins, I found a very large part of the story to be frankly very boring, which was really the period from the last common ancestor with the chimpanzee (which could be as much as 7 million years ago), down to about 40,000 years ago – it seemed to be a rather dull tale, with very slow gradual anatomical changes taking place, and glacially slow behavioural changes taking place. Full anatomical modernity was reached at least 200,000 years ago – still with no sign of the behaviour that we today would regard as quintessentially human. And then long after that – really just 40,000 years ago – the archaeological record suddenly starts to attest to a dramatic change. In my opinion, that dramatic change in behaviour 40,000 years ago is the really big issue in the human career, even bigger in terms of its impact than our much-vaunted evolutionary adaptation of standing upright on two legs.
It’s just amazing the way the archaeological record ‘lights up’ after 40,000 years ago with incredible symbolism, the appearance of the first art, evidence across a whole spectrum of activities of exactly what we would recognise as completely modern human behaviour, and it seems to switch on very suddenly. I realised that this is where the mystery lies, this is the mystery that I want to explore. Whatever it was, this process that made us human, right there at the very beginning was art, and incredible symbolism…the art of the painted caves of Europe for example, going back 35,000 years.
When I started to look around in this field, I found that cave art specialists had been squabbling for the best part of a century, but since the 1980s one very powerful and increasingly well accepted theory has been put forward, which suggests that this amazing adventure of art and religion at the beginning of modern behaviour was inspired by taking plant hallucinogens, by inducing altered states of consciousness, and painting the visions that our ancestors saw in those states. Once I realised that was a real possibility, then it opened the door to all the other areas of inquiry in Supernatural.
SR: You’re talking there about David Lewis-Williams’ neuropsychological model…
GH: Yes, David Lewis-Williams’ remarkable work. David Lewis-Williams is an archaeology Professor who founded the Rock Art Institute at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. He’s recognised as one of the world’s leading researchers of rock and cave art. After years of field-work, David came out with a theory which explains all the extraordinary common features that we find in the cave art of upper Paleolithic Europe, and the rock art of South Africa. These cultures were separated by vast geographical distance, and in fact separated chronologically as well. The explanation is that they were all depicting the same extraordinary mental events, experienced in altered states of consciousness.
Thanks to modern scientific work with volunteers who are given hallucinogens and whose experiences are studied, we know the typical visionary sequence begins with patterns and geometrical forms – dots, dashes, zig-zag lines – and gradually begins to turn into a fuller sense of altered reality in which the individual may very often see human beings partially transformed into animals. And this is exactly what we see in the cave art in Europe and in the rock art of the Bushmen in South Africa, this mixture of geometric and strange visionary forms showing transformed beings. We don’t have the space to go into it here but I set out the evidence at length in Supernatural. The bottom line is there’s very little doubt that the explanation that David Lewis-Williams has come to, that this is the art of altered states of consciousness, is the correct one.
SR: Going on with that idea of people seeing archetypal elements like snakes and jaguars under ayahuasca: with this being a high-profile book, do you think there is a risk that you could ‘pollute the integrity’, so to speak, all of subsequent reports? For example, a lot of people say we see ‘DMT elves’ now only because of Terence McKenna’s description.
GH: Yes, or do people see elves because under the influence of the same chemicals, they go to the same places that Terence McKenna went to? This is the question, and it’s a little bit difficult to answer, but I think I’m fairly clear on it. I think the source of these experiences is in the visionary world – they get into the culture, but they start in the visionary world. And so, in a way, it’s a pointless argument to say “ah but you’re influenced by what you’ve picked up from the culture”, because the culture itself is influenced by what people have injected into it from their visionary experiences.
A very good example of this is the so-called alien abduction experience, which can be reliably reproduced in the lab by giving subjects injections of dimethyltryptamine, DMT – they see small beings with large dark eyes who cluster around them and perform painful and unpleasant experiments upon them. I’m referring here to the ground-breaking work done with DMT and human volunteers in the 1990’s by Dr Rick Strassman at the University of New Mexico. Now, we might say that those lab subjects were simply spitting out from their own minds what they’d already picked up about so-called alien abductions from the tabloid press, and from the culture surrounding them. Well one might say that, except that experiments with exactly the same drug were done in the 1950s – before any publicity surrounding alien abductions had ever got out into the media – and in those experiments too the subjects reported these encounters with small beings, who abducted them and did nasty things to them. So, you know, of course human beings talk to one another, and share their experiences, and the experiences we share with one another do affect the future experiences we will have, I’m not denying that. We impose interpretation on every act of perception – and at the end of the day hallucinations are perceptions too. But I’m saying that experiences of this peculiar kind are too widespread and too universal, and too long distributed in time, to be explained that way.
SR: And this is another big mystery that you explore in Supernatural – the mystery of certain very surprising and complex ingredients in supposedly non-real experiences that appear to be shared universally by all humans?
GH: Yes, that’s right. The first mystery to grab me, which we’ve already touched on, was that sudden extraordinary appearance of modern human behaviour less than 40,000 years ago, which was completely tied up with the emergence of art and religious ideas and the first-ever representations, painted on the walls of caves and rock shelters all around the world, of beings who we can instantly recognize as “supernatural” – for example hybrid beings mixing both animal and human characteristics. In other words these are the oldest representations to have survived in human culture of “spirit worlds” and their inhabitants. Once I had established that this imagery is best explained by David Lewis-Williams neuropsychological model – that is, that it is imagery which attempts to depict what shamans saw in visionary, hallucinatory states – then I was ready for the next mystery. Which is, why do people from all over the world, and at entirely different periods of history, keep on reporting more or less identical “hallucinations”? How are we to account for these astonishing similarities in what are supposed to be “non-real” experiences?”
If we look at the mainstream model of what hallucinations are, we find scientists explaining them as merely the brain in a disturbed state releasing items from memory, and from culture, reconstructing them in novel ways to create the bizarre non-real imagery that we call hallucinations. But this individualistic approach can’t possibly be the explanation, because it doesn’t account for the incredible universality of these images, reported by people from completely different cultures with no shared memories at all. So we have a huge mystery here, in my view. Why is it that ‘non-real’ experiences from all parts of the globe and all periods of history, have so many clearly-identifiable common features?
SR: And what conclusions do you come to?
GH: I conclude that “coincidence” – that much over-used longstop of materialist arguments – cannot explain the massive universality of many supposedly “non-real” human experiences. To cut a long story very short, I think there are two possibilities – both extraordinary – which could provide us with fruitful answers to this mystery.
One is that the brain is fundamentally a receiver of consciousness, not simply a generator of consciousness. To function in the everyday world, our brains have to be set at a certain wavelength, and have to stay pretty much tuned in to that wavelength, like a TV set tuned into a channel. But a variety of means exist (most of them long ago harnessed and exploited by shamans) by which we can change the receiver wavelength of our brains and pick up other realities which are not normally present in our daily perceptions, but are in fact there. So we can reach other dimensions that way, not through some sort of mechanistic fantasy of 21st century technology, but simply through retuning our consciousness – and perhaps that’s what these shamanic hallucinogens do.
The second extraordinary possibility, which I also look into in some depth, goes back to the thinking of Francis Crick. It’s not a widely known fact that Crick was under the influence of LSD when he discovered the double-helix structure of DNA and that this supreme achievement of scientific rationalism, for which he won the Nobel Prize, came to him in an altered, even mystical state of consciousness.
Until his death in 2004 Crick remained an atheist, deeply committed to the materialist (i.e. non-spiritual) view of reality. Nevertheless he was unable to accept that the DNA molecule could have assembled itself by accident. So he came to the idea that perhaps life originated on Earth this way: perhaps billions of years ago on the other side of the galaxy, doomed by a supernova, some ancient alien civilization sought to preserve its DNA, and he suggests that bacteria – perhaps with genetically engineered DNA inside them – were sent out into the Universe in spaceships. Eventually one of those ships crashed into the early Earth, and the bacteria containing that DNA began to reproduce, and the whole story of evolution as our scientists tell it started there. Once we have the DNA, evolution becomes plausible. Until we have the DNA, it’s difficult to explain.
But if his explanation has anything to it, then it may be the case that DNA carries more than just genetic instructions. 97% of DNA we don’t know what it does – scientists call it ‘junk DNA’. It may be that there’s some kind of message, or even a vast archive of messages, inscribed on these supposedly redundant stretches of DNA. I present strong evidence for this in the book – solid scientific evidence that reveals an intriguing linguistic structure in junk DNA. It may also be that we can only access these messages in altered states of consciousness. So these are the elements of the second possibility I pursue: that we may see these universal images because they are stored in the stretches of DNA that all humans share, and that they are in a sense messages to us from our creator – whoever our creator was. Once again, common sense and logic suggests the very least we can do is enquire further into this and see. We have the means, the hallucinogens – this technology to enquire into these secret chambers inside our own minds…Or parallel universes, if that’s what they are.
SR: The fascinating thing I find with Crick’s idea of Panspermia, is that it is basically the definition of Intelligent Design, and yet we have scientists today really rubbishing the idea of Intelligent Design, because they see it as the ‘new Creationism’.
GH: Exactly, there’s a huge propaganda war that has been unleashed on Intelligent Design. First of all, I think it’s important to put on record that arch-evolutionists such as Richard Dawkins of Oxford University are themselves men and women who are practicing a religion. The belief that life assembled itself accidentally out of the collision of molecules in the primeval soup is just that: a belief. There’s no evidence for it whatsoever. It’s a metaphysical position…
SR: The ‘Hurricane in the Junkyard’ belief…
GH: Yes. The scenario favoured by materialists that the DNA molecule could have assembled itself by accident out of any imaginable “primeval soup” has been rightly described as about as likely as a Boeing 767 being assembled in perfect working order by a hurricane in a junkyard. And this is what bothered Crick – this amazing statistical improbability – not because he came to it from a religious point of view, but because he came to it from a scientific point of view. He simply could not see how the DNA molecule could have self-assembled just by chance, and if he couldn’t see it, then it’s difficult to understand why anybody else should see it.
I don’t think Crick would have been pleased to have be associated with the Intelligent Design movement, but the fact is, that the process of “guided panspermia” that he proposed to explain the origins of DNA was, by definition, Intelligent Design.
SR: Crick’s use of LSD as a ‘thinking tool’ didn’t really come out until after his death – however, in your case, you’ve come forward in this book saying you have taken these substances. Do you think more public figures should be more outspoken on behalf of their positive aspects?
GH: Yes I do. I think it’s time there was a real debate in our society about the plant hallucinogens, used by shamanic cultures for thousands of years. At the moment our society just lumps everything together under the category of ‘drugs’, and says ‘these are drugs’. And ‘drugs’ has become such a loaded word – the word ‘drug’ and the word ‘abuse’ are constantly linked together in the propaganda war that goes on. In a way it’s rather Orwellian, the language itself has been subverted and corrupted…people speak constantly of “drug abuse”, as if there is no other way to relate to consciousness-altering substances except by abusing them. When we use such language long enough it becomes impossible to think of these substances in anything other than a negative light.
Yet, the fact is that people all over the world have an innate, deeply rooted drive to alter their consciousness, and we do this in all kinds of ways. Some of those ways, like alcohol, are socially-sanctioned and some of those ways are not. But whether or not they’re socially sanctioned, all the statistics show that the consumption of mind-altering drugs is increasing, not decreasing, despite the cruelties and vast expense of the official “war on drugs”.
SR: I think if people were more aware of the history of how these substances became banned in the first place, it would be quite eye-opening to them.
GH: I think it would be eye-opening indeed – the absolutely flimsy evidence, and the poor reasoning, on the basis of which they were banned. Recently for example, fresh psilocybin mushrooms were made illegal in Britain. If you look at the justification for this extra layer of bureaucracy, this extra crime which has been introduced to our statute books, of eating fresh mushrooms that grow wild and free in the fields – why should it be a crime? The government officials who speak out on these matters say it’s because it might make some people crazy. This is a completely illogical position on which to make these substances illegal. Firstly, making them illegal does not make them unavailable. Secondly, the evidence that they make anybody crazy is extremely slim and flimsy, and absolutely unpersuasive to the millions of people around the world who have eaten psychedelic mushrooms, often repeating the experience many times, and kept their sanity perfectly intact.
It’s true that some individuals – for example if they are already schizophrenic or if they are borderline schizophrenics – may by precipitated into psychotic episodes by these substances. But that is an argument for more careful controls and excellent advice, not an argument for criminalizing the use of hallucinogens by responsible, mentally-balanced adults. There are many substances and objects in our society that are much more dangerous in the hands of schizophrenics than they are in the hands of people in good mental health – for example alcohol, paracetamol, fires and cars – but the fact that mentally-unstable people may misuse them is never wheeled out as a pathetic excuse to criminalize the general use of alcohol, paracetamol, fires and cars.
We’re talking about our own individual consciousness – the root, the very heart of what each of us is. And these ancient hallucinogenic plants allow a method for the targeted exploration of our consciousness. It’s absurd and crazy, in countries which call themselves advanced and democratic, that there should exist medieval laws that will send people to prison for years, simply for exploring their own consciousness through the “gratuituous graces” that nature has provided. If we are not sovereign over our own consciousness, then what are we sovereign over? What kind of game is our society playing when it stuffs its bureaucracies full of public money to spend on tracking down and punishing us for “consciousness crimes”?
SR: These negative connotations of ‘drugs’ extend into the field of cave art as well. In Supernatural you point out that the cave art experts debating David Lewis-Williams’ neuropsychological model are unwilling to take the substances themselves to ‘get inside the heads of the artists’, so to speak.
GH: Well yes, there’s two aspects to this. Firstly, there’s a huge debate, because a group of cave art academics very much object to the idea that our ancestors discovered art and religion through hallucinogens. It’s clear that a number of archaeologists object to this on principle, and really tremendously unpleasant and underhanded attacks have been made on the neuropsychological model, precisely because it does affront the basic sensibilities of archaeologists reared in the Western logical positivist tradition. The very idea that hallucinations could be the source of art and religion is an extremely threatening one to them.
But then beyond that, yes you’re right: most of the people studying this subject do not want to take hallucinogens themselves. Approaching it from the point of view of reason, they can work out how visionary experiences could have underlain the art that we see on the cave walls, and they have the benefit of the huge number of reports done by scientists in labs with volunteers. But to take the substances themselves is still a no-no.
I think it’s perfectly legitimate to theorise on these things, but one should not then make authoritative statements about the reality-status of hallucinations if one has never taken hallucinogens oneself. One can certainly enquire into this area, but to even begin to be qualified to talk about the reality-status of these mysterious visions, one has to have had the visions oneself.
SR: You begin the book with the personal story of your father’s death and how it affected you, and how you then took ibogaine at your home and had an experience parallel to the common ibogaine experience of talking to the dead. Ayahuasca is said to have a similar ‘ability’. Do you think hallucinogens may offer a means of research into the possibility of an afterlife?
GH: Yes. I think every experience that we describe as the ‘supernatural’ – encounters with non-physical beings, whether they’re the spirits of the dead, or whether we call them fairies or elves or angels or aliens – I think that enquiry into all of those areas will be, and can be, aided by the use of hallucinogens. Right now nobody has exploring the paranormal with hallucinogens at the top of their research priorities. But I would say that could be one of the most fruitful areas of research to be able to take on.
SR: Well, Terence McKenna pointed out a few times that he felt he had a telepathic connection when he was on mushrooms.
GH: Yes, there are extraordinary accounts of this sort, and also of remote viewing – accurately reporting on things happening in distant places. We have a great deal of anecdotal information about this, and then also very specific information of people getting practical knowledge from their hallucinations – whether it’s Francis Crick seeing the structure of DNA under the influence of LSD, or whether it’s a shaman in the Amazon learning which plants to mix together to produce a certain medicine. This information appears to be available to us in the hallucinatory state, and I think this is something that needs to be taken very seriously – because it seems to have been connected with the mysterious, radical process that made us human in the first place, the biggest evolutionary event in the story of our species. It might even be that we are missing out on our next important evolutionary leap forward because certain factions within our society have succeeded in demonizing, stigmatizing and suppressing visionary states of consciousness.
SR: One of the great parts of the book – and maybe this is just my personal interest – is that it really felt like a continuation of Jacques Vallee’s Passport to Magonia, where he equated the UFO experience with fairy folklore. Do you think Vallee was on to something here?
GH: Yes, very much so. This aspect of the inquiry, for me, spanned three different issues. The beings that are called spirits in shamanic societies, the beings that were called fairies and elves in medieval Europe, and the beings that are called aliens today. I was inevitably drawn to this because in taking ayahuasca I had something like an alien abduction experience myself. It led me to look at comparisons between the spirits that shamans have spoken of down the ages, and aliens that modern so-called UFO abductees speak of today. I realised there were astonishingly close, really eerie spine-tingling comparisons, between these two supposedly very different categories of beings.
When I learnt of Vallee’s work, which was conducted in the 1960s, and compared fairies with aliens, I realised that the similarities spread even further, and I decided to update and extend Vallee’s investigation, looking at the huge body of evidence that’s become available on alien abductions since the end of the 1960s, and comparing that with folklore about fairies and elves. I think the comparison is absolutely watertight – what we are dealing with here is one phenomenon, which has been with the human race since we first became human, and which we have interpreted in slightly different ways at different periods of history. We see this phenomenon through our cultural spectacles, but when you allow for that you realise that it’s the same phenomenon all the time – whether we call them spirits, whether we call them fairies, or whether we call them aliens.
I’m quite confident now that the key to all such experiences is to be found in altered states of consciousness. But I also want to re-emphasise that when I speak of experiences stemming from altered states of consciousness, I absolutely do NOT mean to imply that those experiences are necessarily “unreal”. On the contrary, I think there’s a very good chance that many so-called supernatural encounters, including those we call “alien abductions” today, are 100 per cent real but are difficult to demonstrate scientifically precisely because they are only accessible to us in altered states of consciousness. I also accept that there are paradoxical physical elements often associated with visionary experiences, from the implants that shamans and alien-abductees find in their bodies, to mysterious healings, to objects and other traces, even books sometimes, left behind by “spirits”, “fairies” and “aliens”. It’s a huge mystery and it has haunted our ancestors for at least 35,000 years.
SR: You talked to John Mack before his death didn’t you?
GH: I’d been acquainted with John Mack for many years and met him twice. He and I had an email exchange in 2004, planning to meet up again and conduct an extensive interview. I wanted to compare his work with the work of Dr Rick Strassman at the University of New Mexico, the DMT studies – I mentioned earlier – but unfortunately John Mack was killed in a car crash in London before we could meet. John was a great man in my view, a good, warm-hearted human-being, a top-notch scientist, and a fearless investigator of the unorthodox conclusions his science led him to.
I did talk to Rick Strassman and my interview with him appears in an appendix of the book. He confirmed that John saw many similarities between abductee reports and the reports of DMT volunteers.
SR: Many proponents of materialist philosophy quote Dr Michael Persinger’s research on the ‘sensed presence’ as the way of explaining a lot of these apparitions. Do you agree with Persinger’s approach?
GH: What’s interesting here is that it depends on our understanding of the brain. Persinger is also talking about altered states of consciousness – it’s just that his particular approach is to induce them through the use of electromagnetic fields, instead of inducing them through the use of chemical hallucinogens. But the end effect is the same. Now, Persinger might be a reductionist, and he might say “the brain changes I observe when I fire this electromagnetic field at my subject’s head have caused his experiences of small beings standing beside him.” But that causal connection is not at all clear – it may be that the electromagnetic fields simply retuned the receiver wavelength of the brain, and allowed it to pick up another “reality”, that is only accessible in altered states.
For me, Persinger just provides us with another way by which human beings can enter altered states of consciousness, but he doesn’t prove that what we see can be reduced to the brain activity associated with it. We would naturally expect there to be brain activity mediating any human experience, but the fact that there is activity alone, does not reduce the experience to that activity.
SR: It’s whether it’s causative or not…
GH: Yes, or is it – again we come back to this receiver model of the brain, which I think is enormously useful – that we would see activity if the brain is a receiver, as it retunes itself, just as we would see a telescope changing its focal length. That would be activity, but it wouldn’t be causing the experience. The telescope would be seeing a further off star, or our brain would be seeing another level of reality.
I think where Persinger is interesting, is that he provides this notion of a connection to earth energies – that earth energies generate electromagnetic fields – which could explain why crowds of tens of thousands of people standing in one place all suddenly start to see visions at once: because they’re all subjected to the same altered state of consciousness.
SR: You’re talking about ‘miraculous’ religous events such as the Fatima apparitions?
GH: Like Fatima for example. There’s no doubt that what they were seeing was absolutely typical of altered states of consciousness. Now how do we explain that a crowd of 70,000 people all go into an altered state at once? I think Persinger may have provided us with the answer.
One point I make in the book is about the cave of Lourdes, where we have modern miracles, and healing and pilgrimage. Nearby was a Stone Age cave containing huge numbers of pieces of portable Upper Palaeolithic art. Maybe certain places have been sacred for tens of thousands of years, because they have an effect on our consciousness, and that effect on our consciousness in turn allows some healing process to occur.
SR: To finish: Supernatural covers a number of fascinating subjects, and you argue the case very intelligently, with mounds of evidence. Having said that, there’s a lot of very strange material – hallucinogens, sex with aliens, fairies and elves. Do you worry about the reception the book is going to get, critics saying “Graham’s gone and fried his brain on drugs and now look what he’s writing about”?
GH: Yes, I’m sure that cheap tactic will be used to attack me and to try and ridicule me. It’s such an obvious one for my critics to go for – I’m sure they won’t be able to resist it. However, I have expressed considered views that are the result of a great deal of work. I don’t think any critic is qualified to express any view whatsoever on the reality-status of hallucinations, unless they themselves have had those experiences, unless they’ve been prepared to take the shamanic plant hallucinogens, and face up to the experiences that they unleash.
If they’ve been done that, then they’re at least qualified to talk about this, but if they haven’t done that then it’s just empty air really. So I shall try to ignore it.