Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Shaman in the cave: a sham?

Cave art: a stage for Shamanic performances?

Hamatsa Cannibal Shaman (Edward S. Curtis, 1914)
The 'Ice Age Art' exhibition at the British Museum (February - May 2013) brought together over 250 objects created between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, "from the age of the painted caves" (Cook, 2013).

The exhibition's Catalogue presents a selection of cave paintings alongside the portable artworks to enrich the viewer's appreciation of the context within which the small pieces were made.

 Archaeologists versus Evolutionary Psychologists 


The purpose of the cave paintings is an enigma that has yet to be resolved. The commonly held view among archaeologists is that these paintings were a 'stage set',  a backdrop to shamanic performances (Lewis-Williams, 2002). The (more conservative) evolutionary psychologists view 'shamanic' behaviour as 'aberrant' "exceptions to the normal rule of early religion" - from Amazon's description of 'Cave Paintings and the Human Spirit: The Origin of Creativity and Belief'  (David S. Whitley, 2009. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books), here.

In 1988,  J.D. Lewis-Williams and T.A. Dowson proposed  the 'Three stages of trance' (TST)  model "to account for mental imagery as perceived by people in ‘certain altered states of consciousness’... to explain what they referred to as ‘entoptic signs’ (i.e. geometric drawings), present in the cave art of the Upper Palaeolithic" (Helvenston & Bahn, 2003).

Lewis-Williams reported his studies of contemporary beliefs and rituals in the context of the local rock art of southern Africa and North America, and extrapolated from his observations to European cave art, to conclude that the European cave paintings were theatrical settings for the rituals of trance-driven shamanic practitioners (Lewis-Williams, 2002).

Is African or North American religious practice truly generalisable to Palaeolithic Europe? Is the human experience so homogenous that humans are, and always have been - everywhere - driven to find self-expression through drug-induced altered mental states?

When is a Shaman not a Shaman? 


But what, exactly, is a 'shaman'? The term has been, in the twentieth century, applied variously to warlocks and witches, poets and priests, seekers and soothsayers. The word šaman comes originally from the Siberian language, and referred specifically to the practices of the Evenk of Siberia. The term was later applied to similar practices in the wider Siberian region. Soviet and Eastern European anthropologists insisted that the use of the term 'shaman' should be restricted to the Evenk, because rituals that were being included in the label 'shamanic' were not remotely similar to what Siberian shamans actually did.

Due in large part to Mircea Eliade's work, 'Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy' (Eliade, 1964) the Western view of 'shamanism' has developed into a complete belief system based on altered states of consciousness - spawning a multitude of pseudo-scientific work. To name a few:
Vincent W. Fallio: 'New Developments in Consciousness Research', Nova Science Publishers, 2007;
Barbara Tedlock, 'The Woman in the Shaman's Body; Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine', Random House, 2005.

The real shamans of Siberia, however, rarely used trance, and Lewis-Williams' TST argument was contested by  Helvenston &  Bahn in 'Testing the 'three stages of trance' model', and in the strongest terms by Robert G. Bednarik in 'Neuropsychology and Shamanism in Rock Art', saying:

 "...a table dealing entirely with Australian art is implied to relate to European art, and a typographical error distorts the date of the source (1984); on p. 213, I am listed with several others as having suggested that shamanism existed in the Upper Palaeolithic, when in fact I had never even used the word "shamanism" in print and would not dream of mooting such a notion... "

New Age 'woo-woo'


BBC 2's physics presenter Professor Brian Cox recently used the phrase 'New Age woo-woo' to describe the paranormal pseudoscience that has lately drawn inspiration from the 'spooky action' in quantum physics. The archaeological 'woo-woo' equivalent is the conception of Palaeolithic artists as drugged-up visionaries, imagined as our modern Western construction of the concept of 'shamans' portrays them: wearing costumes that we have dreamed up for them, performing frenetic dances that we have imagined them doing.

What is surprising is to find this phenomenon appearing in the Catalogue of the British Museum Ice Age Art exhibition:

"Those capable of such transformations [into animal shapes] in order to act as intermediaries with the spirit world are referred to as shamans, who achieve their dialogue with the supernatural through an ecstatic or trance experience in order to perform a variety of tasks such as healing, divining, protecting, casting charms or curses and escorting the souls of the dead to a new realm.(V. Ramachandran,  'The Emerging Mind'. London, 2003.) (Cook, 2013)"


Bednarik, G. (1990) Neuropsychology and Shamanism in Rock Art, Current Anthropology 31:1, p. 77
Cook, J. 2013. Ice Age Art. London: British Museum Press.
Eliade, M. 1964. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.
Patricia A. Helvenston, Paul G. Bahn, John L. Bradshaw and Christopher Chippindale (2003). Testing the ‘Three Stages of Trance’ Model. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 13, pp 213 - 224,
Lewis-Williams, D. 2002. The Mind in the Cave. London: Thames & Hudson.


  1. Interesting stuff Debra. Here is a blog style piece I found which looks at what prehistoric art can tell us about the evolution of the human brain. What really grabbed my attention was 'Peak shift' - which describes the way “we find deliberate distortions of a stimulus even more exciting than the stimulus itself". This is something I never heard about before and from this it makes sense as to why a lot of cave art conveys animals etc in a distorted light. Here is the link for more info:

  2. "Woo-woo" is a phrase at least as lazy as "shamanic". The Paul Bahn school of thought on this (that the "shamanic trance" model of archaic rock art is a projection from the idiosyncratic position of modern drug-use) is ill-considered and tired.

    "The purpose of the cave paintings is an enigma that has yet to be resolved." Yes, but the implication in that "yet to be" is deceptive. It will never be resolved, ever. We can only improve and refine our guesses. And the guess that includes the painters as visionaries (who may or may not be using psychedelic substances to induce visionary states - Lewis-Williams at least is always careful on this point) is at least as good a guess as any other. In fact, it's one of our best guesses, amply supported by anthropological evidence.

    It's more the case that the *anti-drug* position of modern society creates an idiosyncratic projection into prehistory, one that underestimates the likelihood of plants being used to alter consciousness.

    There's an interesting typological debate around the use of the word "shaman", which has a certain (though mild) relevance outside the academic sphere. But the use of it in the British Museum exhibition was fair enough. The word has become a useful popular shorthand. Like all popular shorthands, it hides complex issues, but performs a useful task.