How Old is Shamanism?

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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