#1: A short extract from an upcoming research paper: Relational ontologies and the cognitive evolution of Shamanism

This is a short extract from an upcoming research paper that I have been working on for more than a year. I am still in the process of finishing the paper, but I’d like to give a short introduction and preview.

Relational ontologies and the cognitive evolution of shamanism:

Several Anthropologists have regarded animism as a common core and essential element in the cognitive world of hunter-gatherers, a belief which refers to rocks, animals, trees, natural phenomena and objects as containing a soul and individual consciousness that can communicate with the mind of humans (eg. Tylor, 1871, p. 309). This is a notion that is increasingly supported by databases published in recent studies on the evolutionary origins of religious thought. As studies among thirty- three hunter-gatherer societies have demonstrated, animism is the common core belief-system of what enables either the shaman or tribal elder to practice their set of rituals. Animism has no strict set of beliefs or dogma, but appears to be a cognitive perception, i.e. a manifestation of the relationship between human and animal experiences, or more precisely, human-nature interfaces. The animist mentality itself is thus ultimately linked to the cognitive processes and is not bound to any specific dogma or belief (Hervey, 2016).

This conception of Animism as a primordial grounding amongst hunter-gatherer societies may also have multiple implications on the evolution of shamanism. Shamanism and bear ceremonialism are often conceptually linked in scholarship ( Chichlo, 1981; Hans Paproth, 1976), yet the cognitive evolution and time-depth of shamanism is still under debate. Even the term “shamanism” comes with a set of problems, just like the term “shaman” itself, which derives from a Tungusic term meaning “one, who knows/is moved”. When we think of “shamanism” today, the term evokes associations with Lake Baikal and Altaic cultures. Despite great pressures and persecution during the Soviet era, many features of the old belief-system have survived in multiple parts of Siberia (Balzer, 2016) and many tribal cultures still practice their “shamanic” rituals and bear festivals, such as the Ket (Vajda, 2012), or the Mansi and Khanty in western Siberia (Rydving, 2010; Popova, 2017). There are various different interpretations of what shamanism consists of. One popular interpretation is that shamanism is the practice of inducing altered states of consciousness by the use of drumming, chanting, entheogens and other techniques.

The shaman enters an altered state of mind in order to negotiate with the spirits of both the upper- and underworlds. Shamanism is an ecstatic phenomenon and is found universally in primitive religions.

Techniques of inducing altered states of consciousness and ecstasy, as well as the shamanic journey of leaving the body, seems to be universal in various types of initiation rituals (Eliade, 1964, p. 110 – 139). Juha Pentikäinen suggests a more holistic perception of “Shamanism”, in that cultural traits of Shamanism are also practiced outside of cultures that have neither the Tungus word Saman for “one who is moved” in their vocabulary not the same concept of a Saman, but have similar rites and techniques which alter their state of mind. He cites the Khanty in western Siberia as an example (Pentikäinen, 1996, p. 8 – 10). In contrast, scholars such as Anna-Siikala have emphasized that the most important tool for shamanism is the framed drum and that, without the drum, a shaman cannot practice shamanism (Siikala, 1978, p. 45). This interpretation is especially rooted in ethnographic data relating to northern Eurasian, particularly Uralic, communities. The drum itself can function as a cognitive world map and the three distinct levels (Pentikainen, 1987), as a mythic representation of the Universe and all its spiritual levels (Paulson, 1965). The painted drum can be thus understood as a guidance mechanism for the shaman, with both an exoteric aspect that is painted on the outside of the drum, and an inner, esoteric cognitive map which remains private for the shaman (Pentikainen, 1987).

As a result, the construction of an universal theory on both the emergence of shamanism and what shamanism consists of is widely debated. Mircea Eliade wrote, in reference to German prehistorian Karl Josef Narr, that the animal skulls and bones found during the Aurignacian Period in the Upper Paleolithic in Europe may depict offerings in the ritualistic animal-ceremonialism (Narr, 1957, p.53 – 54). He further notes that shamanism itself may have emerged as a practice by 25,000 B.C., and that the cave paintings in France, particularly in sites such as Lascaux, Chauvet and Les Trois Freres. may depict the earliest shamanistic representations via anthropomorphic symbolism (Eliade, 1964, p. 502 – 505) in their “proto-stage” via human-animal interfaces and “representations of the bird motif”, referring to the belief in a spiritual ascent or shamanic flight appearing to be essential to shamanic practice.

It has been assumed that both Siberian and North American cultures contain shamanistic elements, which can be traced back to a common, Paleolithic proto-mythology and proto-religion emerging out of a worldview deeply-rooted in hunting and gathering (Hultkrantz, 1978, 1973) That shamanism could thus have emerged out of hunting rituals and that those may have been depicted in Paleolithic cave art has been noted by Hungarian archaeologist Janos Makkay in “An Important Proof to the prehistory of Shamanism – The Interpretation on the Masked Human Portrait of the Cave Les Trois Fréres”. This article refers principally to the infamous “sorcerer” cave painting, which portrays an anthropomorphic half-animal half-human figure, wearing either antlers or some sort of mask (Makkay, 1953), as well as other Paleolithic cave art, which portrays the significant role of animals and anthropomorphic figures (Morphy, 1989). Swedish Anthropologist Åke Hultkrantz regarded shamanism as both fundamental to the culture-complex of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers and an integral part of Paleolithic hunting religion (Hultkrantz, 1991). Placing great emphasis on the ecology of northern traditions, he noted strong similarities regardless of their linguistic affiliation.


To be continued…


Sources and further reading:

●  Edward Tylor Primitive Culture 1871

●  Hervey C. Peoples : Hunter Gatherers and the origin of Religion 2016

●  Boris Chiclo L ours-Chamane 1981

●  Hans Paproth Studien über das Bärenzeremoniell. Band I: Bärenjagdriten und Bärenfeste bei den tungusischen Völkern. Uppsala 1976.

●  Balzer, M. M. 2016. Shamans Emerging From Repression in Siberia: Lightning Rods of Fear and Hope. In: Jackson, P. (ed.) Horizons of Shamanism: A Triangular Approach to the History and Anthropology of Ecstatic Techniques. Pp. 1–34. Stockholm: Stockholm University Press. DOI: http:// dx.doi.org/ 10.16993/bag.c. License: CC-BY 4.0

●  Edward J Vajda Ket Shamanism 2010 Western Washington University

●  The ‘Bear Ceremonial’ and Bear Rituals among the Khanty and the Sami by H. Rydving, University of Bergen

●  Popova SA. The Bear’s Festival of the Northern group of the Mansi: 2017

●  Mircea Eliade Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy 1951

●  Shamanism and northern Ecology, edited by J. Pentikainen 1996●  Siikala, Lena 1978 The rite technique of the Siberian Shaman, Helsinki

●  Juha Pentikainen ‘ The shamanic drum as cognitive map: the historical and semiotic study of the Saami drum in Rome, Mythology and cosmic order (Studia Fennica), 1987, Helsinki

●  Paulson;1965 Der Schamanismus in Nordasien

●  Karl J. Narr Baerenzeremoniell und Schematismus in der Älteren Steinzeit Europas 1959

●  Studies in Lapp Shamanism, Ake Hultkrantz 1978

●  A Definition of Shamanism, Ake Hultkrantz 1973

●  Janos Makkay An Important Proof to the prehistory of Shamanism The Interpretation on the Masked Human Portrait of the Cave Les Trois Freres 1953

●  From man to animal and sign in palaeolithic art. Morphy, H.; 1989

●  Anna Siikala Studies in Shamanism (Ethnologica Uralica 1992 and 1998, Budapest, with Mihály Hoppál