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The Prehistoric Origins of Shamanism

The Prehistoric Origins of ShamanismbyMike Williams

The woman had spent the day fishing the rock pools along the coast. She had been successful, catching plenty of fish and even a few crabs for that night’s meal. However, now that her belly was full, she moved away from her companions, a small band that made their livelihoods around the cave they called home. Since her child had died, merely a few days after it had been born, she often sought the solitude her grief needed. She sat by a fire and stared at the flickering flames, letting her mind wander. She knew that strange shapes would soon start to appear in the darkness and then a tunnel would open up before her. Forcing back her fear, the woman allowed her mind to enter the tunnel and began to follow where it led. She already knew what she would find at its end; for it was there that her baby would be waiting.

The grieving woman lived almost 70,000 years ago along the shoreline of the Cape of Africa. She was part of a small band that fished the small pools that lay along the rocky shore and found sanctity each night in a shelter known as Blombos Cave. Despite living so long ago, the woman was just like you or me and she had the same capacity to feel emotions, such as love and grief, as we do. She also shared another trait that we still retain today: she could enter trance and visit the strange realm to which this gave access, what we would today call shamanism. In fact, this was so important to the people of Blombos Cave that they drew some of the images they encountered whilst in trance on small pieces of coloured stone. They are the earliest examples of art anywhere in the world.

Trance clearly began at a very early stage in our development as humans and, since the inhabitants of Blombos Cave lived at a time when our species had only just begun to colonise the world, it underwrote everything that has happened since. Initially, the early forerunners of modern humans may have entered trance by staring at a fire through the evening; it felt good so they kept doing it. By the time modern people had evolved, and were living at Blombos Cave, trance was probably a natural part of their everyday life. As they would have realised, trance helps develop thought, it expands the mind, literally forming new neural pathways, and also improves the immune system. It gave early people the advantages they needed to succeed. It also joined them to the ebb and flow of forces beyond this reality, providing a wellspring of strength and power. The grieving woman knew this as she entered the tunnel that formed in her mind, but just where did she go after that?

The people of Blombos Cave did not draw what they found at the end of the tunnel. For that, we have to wait another 40,000 years or so until hunter bands roaming the south of France descended deep into caves (itself probably replicating the movement through the tunnel of trance) and painted the walls with their visions. Great herds of animals thunder about the caverns, their feet kicked up in a whirling maelstrom of flesh and fur. It makes the mind dizzy just to look at them. This is what people saw at the end of the tunnel: a different world inhabited by a swirling mass of animal forms, some entire and fully-formed, and some ephemeral and ghost-like, seemingly disappearing into the confines of the rock. To the people that painted the images, however, these were the spirits that they encountered in the otherworld of trance.

In among the great herds were other animals, the odd hunting bear, or a crouched lion ready to pounce. These were predators and it is likely that people sought the help of these hunting spirits when they entered the caves and conversed with their representations on the walls. People even made models of the most fearsome killers and, as if to emphasise that these were spirit animals, they marked them with the same patterns the people of Blombos Cave had drawn on the coloured stones; the patterns that had their origins in trance. Over time, individuals probably sought out one special animal that he or she felt a special affinity with and provided the most help. These became power animals, spirits who befriend and help those who seek them out.

A few, extremely rare images in the caves depict humans, but these are not like any ordinary people. Caught in the moment of turning from human to animal forms, these are individuals whose mastery of the otherworld allowed them to take on the characteristics of their power animal, shapeshifting into its form. The power this gave them must have been immense, as shapeshifting was a technique people constantly returned to, sometimes even acting out their experiences by wearing masks and headdresses of animals.

These ancient practices of our ancestors still resonate today and form the basis of all our shamanic activities. When we follow our modern shamanic path, we should take great comfort that we are drawing on tens of thousands of years of human history. Shamanism is part of what we are.

About the author:
Mike Williams has a PhD in archaeology and is a shamanic practitioner and teacher. He is the author of Follow the Shaman’s Call: An Ancient Path for Modern Lives, a practical guide to ancient European shamanism, and Prehistoric Belief: Shamans, Trance and the Afterlife, an in-depth look at prehistoric shamanism, which will be published in the summer.


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Jane, London - March 11th 2010 01:20:05 AM
Really interesting article. I bought Mike's book and can thoroughly recommend it.

Jane, London - August 5th 2010 07:54:38 PM
Mike, this is a great article. Would you consider posting it on the Gate? Namaste, Ishtar

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