Cave art: a stage for Shamanic performances?
|Hamatsa Cannibal Shaman (Edward S. Curtis, 1914)|
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.