A Test for Shamanic Trance in Central Montana Rock Art

Article excerpt


Pictographs believed to result from shamanic trance activities occur in some central Montana rock art sites. Symbolic self-portraits of shamans, with identification based on ethnographic analogy, are considered the most basic artistic evidence of shamanism. However, when attempting to infer shamanistic activity from rock art, it is necessary to test function with as many models as possible. Pictographs in Dillinger Cave (24CA346) in central Montana have been broadly classified as ceremonial based on setting and figure analogy. Figures at this cave serve as selectively the best test case in central Montana for the Neuropsychological Model of Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988), which focuses on identifying kinds of figures that might be drawn during trance. Analysis indicates that Dillinger Cave figures resemble images created during an altered state of consciousness, supporting the shamanistic function of the art. However, concordance with the model does not establish that elements were drawn during trance, explain why or how trance may have been entered, or indicate cultural meaning of the drawings.

Keywords: rock art, pictographs, shamanism, Montana, northern Plains

Based on ethnographic evidence, rock art sites in many areas of the world are attributed to being associated with the practice of shamanism (e.g., Lewis-Williams 1983; Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1988; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1975, 1987; Whitley 2001). The shamanistic explanation for American and Canadian rock art gained ground during the 1970s and 1980s (Wellmann 1979) with writings focused on this topic from California (Hedges 1976, 1983, 1985) and the American southwest (Cole 1989) east to Ontario (Vastokas and Vastokas 1973), and from the northern Plains (Keyser 1979, Sundstrom 1989) to southern Texas (Shafer 1986). Thus, by the 1990s shamanism had become an accepted function for many rock art sites throughout North America (e.g., Jones 1990; Keyser 1990; Loendorf 1994; Turpin 1994; Whitley 1992, 1994). Recently arguments have been put forth that entire rock art traditions are associated with shamanism, such as the Dinwoody Tradition of western Wyoming (Francis and Loendorf 2002) and the California and the Great Basin Traditions (Whitley 2000).

The assumed association between rock art and shamanism has been part of Montana rock art literature since the late 1970s, when it was suggested that some sites in the central part of the state were painted in conjunction with shamanistic practices (Keyser 1979), This initial suggestion by Keyser for central Montana became more accepted with the expansion of the regional database (M. Greer 1995; Greer and Greer 1993, 1994; Keyser and Klassen 2001). The first shaman-function assignments were based only on figure analogy. Later, sites along the Smith River in central Montana were analyzed in greater detail using site function models based on diagnostic characteristics of setting and figure context to classify sites into such broad categories as ceremonial, which subsumed shamanism (M. Greer 1995). Based on this work, Dillinger Cave (24CA346) in central Montana (Figure 1) was found to fit the ceremonial function category. Among all central Montana ceremonial sites, Dillinger Cave is unique in appearance from a distance, in formation, and most importantly in the kinds of figures it contains. It is dominated by geometrically oriented figures that recur throughout the cave and are assumed to be indicators of shamanistic association (Clottes and Lewis-Williams 1998:14-19). Therefore, because all analogical comparisons and model testing suggest this cave as the best candidate in the region for a shamanistic function, Dillinger Cave was selected for more in-depth analysis to refine further the kind of associated ceremonial use.

In order to test specifically for shamanism at Dillinger Cave, we turned to the Neuropsychological Model as presented by Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988:202-204). The model focuses on identifying kinds of figures drawn during trance, with specific images that occur in trance initially established through ethnographic work with the San tribe in South Africa where shamans were known to paint particular images. …