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Archaeological evidence of shamanism's ancient roots

Module by: Margaret Jones. E-mail the author

Summary: This short module concentrates on the difficulties faced by archaeologists who study the origins of shamanism. It contains a brief discussion of the differences between searching for archaeological evidence of city-dwellers versus nomads and two detailed examples of archaeological artifacts believed to be evidence of prehistoric shamanism.

Shamanism seems to be incredibly ancient. It seems to be so old, in fact, that people may have already been practicing a kind of shamanic religion in the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, when humankind lived in nomadic hunter-gatherer bands, having yet to invent writing, metal tools, or even farming.

Archaeologists have discovered many cave artworks, sculptures, and ceremonial burials from this era that are reminiscent of shamanic practices that take place today. However, though there is evidence that some type of shamanic religion existed during this period, getting at the details—like exactly where and when shamanism started and how exactly it was practiced in its earliest stages—is difficult, perhaps even impossible. There are two main reasons for this: First, artifacts from this era are very rare, second, since people had not yet invented writing, it is extremely difficult to say for sure what exactly they mean about the people that made them.

Man-made artifacts from earliest eras of human existence are not easy to find. The kind of nomadic lifestyle that humans from this era led does not leave as lasting an impression on the natural landscape as permanent settlements from later eras like cities.

The tough stone foundations of cities are often treasure-troves of ancient artifacts. When people inhabited ancient cities, they often deposited their waste - things like broken pottery, tools, baskets, bits of string, bone, charcoal, and food scraps - on the floors of their houses or in trash pits nearby. When cities were eventually abandoned or broken down and buried underneath newer buildings, their stone foundations were often buried underneath a layer of sand, soil, and stone which would protect and keep ancient trash scraps in place for many thousands of years. Today, archaeologists learn much of what they know about ancient cultures by sifting through the trash collected here.

As you can probably imagine, portable or temporary dwellings lacking stone foundations like tents, shacks, and teepees usually do not fare so well over vast stretches of time. They tend to be more susceptible to the ravages of wind, rain, and decay than stone cities. And, whereas in later periods people would occupy cities continuously for tens, hundreds, or even thousands of years, prehistoric nomads were constantly on the move pursuing food and game. Even in places like caves, which can provide excellent conditions for the preservation of ancient artifacts, their brief stays left only meager scraps of information compared to the long stays of city-dwellers. Ancient city-dwellers deposited their trash in the same place every day for many years; Ancient hunter-gatherers scattered theirs in little deposits across huge swaths of landscape.

Thus, the artifacts that remain for those who study the religions of the people that lived during the Neolithic and Paleolithic are rare, things like cave art, small sculptures, and ritually buried bodies. Their very rarity, not to mention the lack of any kind of writing to go with them, makes it difficult to get a clear idea of what they mean and of how or if they relate to each other. You might compare the study of prehistoric religion to a person trying to piece together the intricacies of the Christian faith based only on the Cysteine Chapel and a small collection of crucifixes.

Two examples of archaeological evidence for prehistoric shamanism

The following are two examples of artifacts believed to be evidence of prehistoric shamanism. They should give you some idea of the difficulties faced by the people who study prehistoric religion.

The caves at Peche Merle, France are famous for their life-like depictions of horses, reindeer, and mammoth. But not all of the artwork there is so easy to interpret. The figure below is a line drawing of an engraving found on the ceiling of Peche Merle. Today, some scholars believe that the engraving represents pregnant women dancing while wearing masks or shape-shifting. Shamanism is frequently associated with midwives (women who deliver babies), dancing, mask-wearing, and shape-shifting. Thus they interpret this engraving as evidence of prehistoric shamanism. However, the original discoverer of the engraving believed that the engraving was a picture of two bison!

Figure 1: Prehistoric engraving from Peche Merle
Peche Merle engraving

Another finding believed to be evidence of the prehistoric origins of a modern shamanic practice is the skeleton of a young Siberian woman who lived during the Neolithic period. She was buried wearing two anthropomorphic mammoth-bone figures on her apron. Why do some archaeologists think she is a shaman? Today, thousands of years later, shamans from several indigenous peoples of Northern Asia wear whalebone carvings in the very same place to represent their guardian spirits. Could this practice have really lasted all the way from the Neolithic to the present day?

Individually, these artifacts might not provide a strong case for prehistoric shamans. However, combine them with a large body of similar finds and the fact that shamanism is common among nomadic hunter and hunter-gatherer cultures today, and it makes for a pretty convincing story of prehistoric peoples who traversed the spirit world like modern-day shamans. Exactly where, how, and when shamanism began, though, remains illusive.

Bibliography

Tedlock, Barbara. The Woman in the Shaman's Body. New York: Bantam Books, 2006.

Vitebsky, Piers. Shamanism. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.

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