Testing for "Shamanic Trance" in Rock Art: A Comment on Greer and Greer

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Greer and Greer uncritically apply Lewis-Williams' interpretation of rock art to pictographs in Dillinger Cave, Montana, apparently unaware of the model's serious flaws.

Keywords: rock art, shamanism, Montana, northern Plains

Although Greer and Greer (2003) cite two books published in 2001 (by Whitley and by Keyser and Klassen) and one published in 2002 (by Francis and Loendorf), they nearly ignore the serious critiques of their model, citing only one paper by Bahn (1997) and omitting the major volume published in 2001 (Francfort and Hamayon, eds.) and my readily accessible inexpensive critique (Kehoe 2000). Polly Schaafsma's (2002) unfavorable review of Whitley's "Handbook" may have been too late for the Greers to consider, as probably was Helvenston and Bahn's (2002) important monograph, which was scheduled to appear in summary in the October 2003 Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

Robert Bednarik summed up the crux of the problem: "The proposition that all rock art is the work of shamans is easily refuted.... There is not a single instance on record, anywhere in the world, of a rock art motif having been made by a shaman" (Bednarik 2003:77). Bednarik is using the label "shaman" loosely, as do Lewis-Williams, Whitley, and the Greers. Way back in 1970, Margot Liberty argued in Plains Anthropologist against labeling Plains religious practitioners "shamans" (Liberty 1970). Vision quests are quite different from the practices of circumboreal religious adepts; questers seek to be pitied by a manifestation of the Almighty, while adepts control one or more other-than-human beings. Imagery reported by Latin Americans taking hallucinogens is not replicated by First Nations persons seeking a manifestation, nor by indigenous adepts.

Neither neuropsychology nor ethnography sustains the Lewis-Williams/Dowson model. Greer and Greer-and Keyser, Klassen, Francis, and Loendorf-will be wise to abandon it. Helvenston is an experienced clinical neuropsychologist who happened to hear a lecture by David Whitley and was dismayed when Whitley rejected her comment that his premises are not supported by contemporary neuropsychological research (Helvenston and Bahn 2002:3). The Lewis-Williams model ignores the rich ethnography on Siberian and other circumboreal shamans, material that clearly differentiates them from religious practitioners in more southern latitudes. I wonder that Greer and Greer, living in a state with vigorous Arapaho, Assiniboine, Blackfoot, Crow, Cheyenne, Gros Ventres, Kutenai, Salish, and Shoshone communities, did not test their interpretations by consulting these First Nations-time-consuming, but potentially valuable (c. …