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4.0 out of 5 stars Investigative Reporting on the Archeology Beat: Toward a New Understanding of the Nature of Man, September 19, 2006
This review is from: Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind (Paperback)
This is a book that casts an extremely broad intellectual net, but Hancock quite ably holds it all together and offers some compelling and though-provoking insights into the nature of spirituality, cognitive evolution of mankind, and, yes, the supernatural.

Most of Hancock's work is in a field I'd call archeological investigative journalism-- perhaps an arcane field, but he is the best there is at it. In Sign and the Seal he went looking for the Ark of the Covenant (not unlike Indiana Jones); in Fingerprints of the Gods he went looking for Atlantis.

Here, he begins by investigating cave paintings, the earliest known artwork left to us by early man. Beings very much like modern day humans had lived for tens of thousands of years, but suddenly, about 25,000 years ago, they began making cave paintings. Hancock asks the two obvious questions: WHY did they suddenly start painting, and WHAT were they depicting?

In brief, Hancock makes a compelling case that the trigger of the act of cave painting was the experiencing of shamanic visions-- essentially the first, core, religious experience-- resulting from the ingestion of hallucinogenic herbs and plants. And too, he makes a compelling case that the content of these early paintings is quite simply the "visions" one sees in such an altered state. He demonstrates that the same plants and psychoactive substances have generated a remarkably consistent set of imagistic responses in humans across time and culture and setting, and shows how the icons and symbols of cave paintings are indeed replications and renderings of these visions (for instance, the part-man, part-animal creatures that dominate cave paintings and indeed Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Native American mythology.)

From there, Hancock traces the accounts through the ages of people who have claimed encounters with supposedly mythical creatures such as little green fairies, up through aliens and UFOs, and again notes the remarkable similarity across time and setting in the accounts. Indeed he shows how this sort of collective human experience with the "other world" has slowly evolved over time, and that the construct (e.g., aliens after World War II) that humans apply to the other-worldly visitors is culturally driven, but that the broader experience itself transcends culture. He also loops in the empirical work modern scientists have done, giving human subjects a high dosage of a psychoactive drug in lab settings and documenting their descriptions of experiences.

Hancock goes on to note that, while these drugs reliably trigger a core set of hallucinations in human subjects, some small percentage of people-- tagged by one study as 2%-- have these experiences without the benefit of the drugs. These are the people who, in recent times, have stories of being abducted by UFOs, and who in medieval times were abducted by fairies.

Of course, Hancock does not point to this as proof that aliens have been abducting humans. Rather, he demonstrates that the ability and tendency to experience of these visions, waking dreams, hallucinations, is a part of our DNA, part of what makes us human. If this is true, it suggests that humans are different from other species in part because we have a genetic predisposition to commune with what can only be described as the "supernatural."

Note that you do not have to believe in the existence of some parallel nether realm in order to buy into the premise of this book. All you have to believe is the idea that it is possible to empirically observe and describe and categorize the nature of hallucinations people have been having through the ages, and in laboratory settings.

What most interested me about this book-- besides the way Hancock hits so many topics of interest to me and ties them together into new knowledge-- is that if you read without prejudice, you will see how science and the supernatural re-mingle in Hancock's world view. He looks at the same set of phenomena in three ways-- subjectively (as one who has experimented with psychoactive substances like Ayuhuasca); spiritually (the construct of the religious observer); and scientifically (the construct of the empiricist.) Each construct uses different languages, but each describes, accommodates, accepts, "knows" the same set of phenomena. The implication is that science and religion are not so much diametrically opposed, as they are akin to the 5 blind men describing the elephant. Each knows there's an elephant in the room. It is only in the description, not the actual perception, that differences emerge.
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J. Chasin
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Location: NYC, NY

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