Shamanic referents in Upper Palaeolithic cave art indicate its pivotal role in the Middle–Upper Palaeolithic transition. Etic models of shamanism derived from cross-cultural research help articulate the shamanic paradigm in cave art and explicate the role of shamanism in this transition. Shamanism is found cross-culturally in hunter-gatherer societies, constituting an ecological and psychosociobiological adaptation that reflects the ritual and cosmology of early modern humans. Shamanism played a role in cognitive and social evolution through production of analogical thought processes, visual symbolism and group-bonding rituals. Universals of shamanism are derived from innate modules, particularly the hominid ‘mimetic controller’ and music and dance. These induced altered states of consciousness, which produce physiological, cognitive, personal and social integration through integrative brain-processing. Shamanic altered states of consciousness have the cross-modal integration characteristic of the emergent features of Palaeolithic thought and facilitated adaptations to the ecological and social changes of the Upper Palaeolithic. Cross-modular integration of innate modules for inferring mental states (mind), and social relations (self/others), and understanding the natural world (classificatory schemas) produced the fundamental forms of trope (metaphor) that underlay analogical representation. These integrations also explain animism (mental and social modules applied to natural domains); totemism (natural module applied to social domain); and guardian spirit relations (natural module applied to self and mental domains).