Here is the answer: No one knows. I am not even sure the question makes much sense.

Popular literature is full of statements on the age of shamanism; texts routinely speak of shamanism as being tens of thousands of years old. Yet, as historian Ronald Hutton has pointed out, historical materials on shamanism date back only as far as the sixteenth century. By the time the first European travelers brought home descriptions of Siberian shamanism, it had already been influenced by centuries of contact with Buddhism, Islam, and Russian Orthodox Christianity. We have no direct evidence of what any sort of indigenous spiritual practice might have been like before that time.

But it is an odd affectation of European colonialism that indigenous people are without history — that, unlike Europeans, they are unchanging in their isolation and innocence. The assumption can then be made that the practices of present-day indigenous peoples must — somehow — reproduce the practices of tens of thousands of years ago.

But the assumption that indigenous practices are unchanging is demonstrably false — indeed, demonstrably false during the five hundred years within which indigenous practices have been recorded. In the Western Amazon, for example, travel and exchange occurred long before the arrival of Europeans. What seems to the unfamiliar eye to be a vast undifferentiated landscape is in fact threaded with riverine highways navigable over long distances in dugout canoes. In addition to efficient canoe transport, indigenous people in the Amazon have always been able to cover long distances on foot, even carrying heavy loads, with remarkable speed. Cultural exchange has been facilitated by trade throughout this area, dating back to pre-Columbian times, in such products as pita fiber, gold, salt, cotton, cinnamon, tropical fruits, and feathers, by rules of exogamy that require taking a bride from a village that speaks a different language, and by herbalists, traveling far distances, collecting medicinal plants from the Pacific coast to the lowland jungle, setting their blankets in the small markets, covered with their roots and stems, bark and leaves.

Sometimes claims regarding the history of shamanism are based on paleolithic art, which, to quote, say, Roger Walsh, “appears to show shamanic practices.” But archeologists such as Paul Bahn offer the caution that “we have absolutely no evidence whatsoever to link any Ice Age art to shamanism except as a simple assumption.” Even anthropologists who have used this model acknowledge that the shamanistic explanation for rock art sites is “controversial and divisive,” and that “shamanism is still an issue of great concern and controversy among rock art researchers.” As anthropologist Alice Kehoe points out, it is an oddly patronizing assumption that indigenous people create art because they are recording visions, rather than because they are artists.

One of the most famous and important pieces of prehistoric art that is purported to be, in some sense, shamanic, is the Old Stone Age figure often called the Sorcerer of Trois Frères. Trois Frères is a cave system in southern France, discovered in 1916, which contains some of the finest and most elaborate known paleolithic paintings and engravings. This figure is well known from the sketch made of it by the famous Abbé Henri Breuil, an early explorer of the cave. The sketch shows a dancing male figure, with a large retroverted penis, huge dark eyes, the tail of a horse, the body of a horse or deer, a long beard, the ears of a deer, animal forepaws, and tall spreading stag’s antlers. Indeed, one standard art history textbook discerns a remarkable amount of detail: “This particular painting seems to represent either a ritual or a supernatural event. In contrast to the animals, which are nearly always in profile, this creature turns and stares out of the rock. His pricked-up ears and alert expression suggest that he is aware of an alien presence.”

It is probably worth pointing out that Breuil’s initial identification of the figure as a sorcerer — that is, as a shaman engaged in some sort of hunting magic, perhaps even wearing an animal costume — has not been the only theory about the figure. In 1931, Margaret Murray proposed that the figure sketched by Breuil was not a shaman at all, but rather was in fact a deity — the horned god of an ancient pagan religion, who presided over the fertility of the animals of the hunt. Indeed, Breuil himself eventually adopted Murray’s view, and abandoned his original identification of the figure as a human shaman.

But beyond these shifting interpretations, the problem is that Breuil’s sketch bears very little resemblance to the figure actually on the wall. It was not until many years after Breuil sketched the figure that anything approaching an accurate photograph was available. This should not detract from Breuil’s scholarly accomplishments. Apparently the figure is about about thirteen feet off the floor; Breuil described having to stand with one foot on a small projecting rock, then half-turning and sitting up against the cave wall while trying to juggle his light and drawing implements to make the sketch.

I have reproduced here the best photograph I could find of the figure, along with Breuil’s sketch. It is clear that the sketch fills in a number of details; some of Breuil’s details appear in fact to be imperfections on the rock surface. It is difficult to say what the figure is, much less that it is a paleolithic representation of a shaman.

Even if we knew what a paleolithic shaman looked like.

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9 Responses to “How Old is Shamanism?”

  1. Oaktree says:

    under “Natufian Shaman” you mention the “ongoing kerfuffle” regarding Upper Paleolithic art and shamanism – kerfuffle it is indeed ;), but I would very much appreciate an answer to some questions I have regarding the “neuropsychological model” for altered states of consciousness proposed by Lewis-Williams et al. Derived from pre-1970 literature on ingestion of psychedelics (e.g. Heinrich Klüver and Ronald Siegel) as well as more recent laboratory experiments they developed what they call an “idealized” form of three overlapping stages experienced in ASC – “entoptics” > trying to make sense of these geometric forms > passage into the third stage via a tunnel or vortex followed by iconic hallucinations. They speak of an “idealized form” because apparently not everybody necessarily experiences the different stages as outlined, but on the other hand the “idealized form” is fully applied to the Upper Paleolithic parietal art. Furthermore they indicate that “ a broad similarity between drug-induced and non-drug induced states can be accepted” and therefore they lump a great variety of ASC under the blanket of the neuropsychological model. However, the neuropsychologist Dr. Patricia Helvenston together with Paul Bahn claim that the “three stages of trance model” as they call it “is most consistent with hallucinations produced by the ingestion of mescaline, LSD, and psilocybin” and since none of these substances were available during the Franco-Cantabrian Upper Paleolithic that settles the Lewis- Williams et al hypothesis regarding art and shamanism. On the other hand the renowned British mycologist Roy Watling apparently states that Psilocybe semilanceata may well have been present in this area and at that particular time. Be as it may, unless evidence for the use of this mushroom can be found at cave art sites or at campsites this does not take us any further.
    To my knowledge neither L-W nor Helvenston or Bahn have any personal experience with psychedelics (neither have I). I would, therefore, very much like to hear from you
    • whether the three stages of the neuropsychological model are indeed only most consistent with the intake of mescaline, LSD, and psilocybin (what about the Coso – jimsonweed and the Tukano – yajé mentioned by L-W) or whether in your opinion the three stages could possibly also apply to ASC induced by vigorous dancing (San as per L-W), drumming, singing, fasting, etc., etc. all outlined by L-W.
    For example I cannot see any evidence for the model in Anisimov’s description of an Evenk shamanic performance.
    • Could geometric imaging occur in a variety of ASC even if the continuation does not agree with the model, e.g. a circle of light or a star floating past and combined with beautiful colors and or light may at times be seen in meditation, but I certainly would not apply the entire neuropsychological model to such a practice.

    There would be many more questions one could raise, but despite the fact that the hypothesis of ‘Upper Paleolithic artist shamans’ is rather tenuous, it has had a tremendous impact – Lewis-Williams and Pearson have traveled with their neuropsychological model into the Neolithic, some scholars have started to use the magic word ‘shamanic’ for prehistoric rock art images or just geometric forms in different parts of the world.
    Would love to hear your answers and thanks for your time.

  2. Steve Beyer says:

    The position you are describing is based on two assumptions — first, that there is such a thing as an altered state of consciousness; and, second, that a wide variety of psychoactive substances — mescaline, dimethyltryptamine, LSD, psilocybin, scopolamine — all produce it. I am troubled by both of these assumptions.

    First, an experiment. Look at the following — very abbreviated — list of not uncommon human experiences: giving birth, running a marathon, floating free of the body, seeing the world charged with light and power, encountering dead ancestors, glorious sex, dreaming, getting a toothache, talking to animal spirits, summiting Aconcagua, watching a sunrise, having a really good idea, hallucinating a plant spirit, dancing to exhaustion, accomplishing a minutely detailed visualization of a fierce deity, carelessly slamming one’s shin into a coffee table, observing percepts with bare attention, being in the presence of an eternal Thou, listening to beautiful music, drinking cold clear water after a hike in the desert.

    Now, I would very much like someone to tell me which of these experiences is an altered state of consciousness and which is not, and to provide me with a set of criteria for distinguishing the altered from the nonaltered states.

    As I have said here: “I really wish we would all just stop talking about the shamanic state of consciousness. States of consciousness occur in people, and people occur in cultures. Thus what we should be talking about are the experiences of shamans in their global, postcolonial, historical, cultural setting, rather than about some hypothetical, abstract, discrete, contextless, monadic entity.”

    Second, I believe that different sacred plants produce experiences that are phenomenologically distinct. I have written about this here, as well as in Singing to the Plants. As I say here: “We cannot simply assume that sacred plants all function in the same way, or produce the same experience, especially under their ceremonial conditions of use. Indeed, I think it is pretty clear that the effects of the ayahuasca drink, the peyote cactus, and the teonanácatl mushroom are phenomenologically distinct. What happens to the shamanic state of consciousness then?”

    I think these two assumptions need some serious rethinking.

  3. Oaktree says:

    Thank you very much for your reply. I need a bit of time to study the articles you refer to and I have not yet read “Singing to the Plants” (I only ordered it a few days ago) so I will come back to it all a little later.

  4. Oaktree says:

    Hello Steve. First of all congratulations on your book. I have nearly finished reading it although there are some chapters I need and want to re-read. You have provided a most thorough in-depth study and it is written in such a way that it holds one’s attention span. Few books on shamanism do, Ronald Hutton is another positive exception. As to your previous comments I have now taken them in. I think that seeing shamanism in its cultural, etc. setting and not ‘doing an Eliade’ is important and so is the emphasis on ‘ceremonial use’ and the different functioning of the sacred plants therein; it cannot be compared to laboratory studies or studies of recreational use.
    Whilst I go along with what you say about ‘experiences’ versus ‘shamanic state of consciousness” I am not so happy about calling shamanic experiences or experiences in meditation etc. just simply experiences although they of course are. What would you say to “alternate states of consciousness” as mentioned by James H. Austin instead of “altered states of consciousness”. This makes some sense to me.
    Thanks again.

  5. Steve Beyer says:

    Thank you for the kind words.

    I too am a big fan of of Ronald Hutton. He is an extraordinarily sane and levelheaded historian. His book on modern pagan witchcraft, The Triumph of the Moon, is the best thing out there on the subject. His intelligence illuminates everything it touches.

    As for your proposed term “alternate states of consciousness,” take a look at the experiment in my comment above.

    So: Can you tell me which of these experiences is an alternate state of consciousness and which is not, and provide me with a set of criteria for distinguishing the alternate from the nonalternate states?

    I think that the distinction we are trying to draw here is simply between more and less common experiences — or, perhaps, between experiences people talk about freely and those they do not, through fear of stigmatization. I am not at all sure that you and I disagree substantively; I think we need a better vocabulary. :-)

    • Oaktree says:

      Thanks and no, I don’t think that we disagree substantively. I am just torn – on one hand I agree with all you are saying, on the other hand i am still looking for some more defined distinction between knocking my shin on the coffee table and a shaman communicating with animal spirits. Am pondering over it – if I come to anything worthwhile i’ll be in touch.

  6. motherwifedaughterstudent says:

    What is consciousness? At the risk of sounding lazy or dismissive I am tempted to say, who cares? We imagine that finding the right words or evidence for our “being” will validate our time here in the university but it seems to me that being fully present, may be one of the best medicines and one of the hardest to achieve. Even with the help of meditation or plant medicines we struggle to be grateful, alive and kind. I believe that being in these bodies gives us the beautiful opportunity to smell, eat , love, have sex, gaze, laugh, cry, feel fear, sadness, elation, struggle and it’s all just school. What are we going to do with it, how are we learning and loving?

    I recently read a lot of books on cave painting and all that contemplation on why our ancestors would have done them. I grew weary of all the conversation, all that thinking and theorizing. Just maybe, they did it for all the same reasons we do it today. We are not separate, we are them! Same questions, same wondering, struggles, different costumes. If animism (shamanism) there’s the ism, is anything, it is the awareness of and the tending to all that is around us, seen and unseen and the blessed opportunity to care for and be present for all of the gifts, dark and light with out judgement, not so simple. It is our jobs to learn to love here in it’s highest form. That doesn’t mean we look away from the very real and profound hurt, pain and suffering we experience but greet it with our love and understanding as best we can. Animism is old, it is the oldest desire and awareness we have within us, it is who we were and who we are and have always been. Perhaps animism is our consciousness.

  7. Oaktree says:

    I am back, give up and go along with what you say re. experiences. There is indeed no good criteria that can be used to grade the various experiences you mention into altered and non-altered states of consciousness. We can classify the cause, but not the effect.
    It’s just difficult to realize that and get away from all those scholars who use ‘altered state’, trance, ecstasy, etc. At least I never was into specifying a ‘shamanic state of consciousness’.

  8. Aua says:

    Perhaps the question is wrong, it is like asking how old is myth. Has it got a beginning? The fact that it is universal, you find it in the Arctic as well as in Australia or South-America, either it “started” more than forty thousand years ago (when man left Africa) or it started later, mysteriously, everywhere on the planet.

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