Emerging Trends versus the Popular Paradigm in Rock-Art Research. (Responses)

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Mairi Ross' well-written article in the September 2001 ANTIQUITY (75: 543-8) nicely describes the current popular interpretation of rock art attributed to hunting-gathering societies; it does not describe an emerging trend. That trend, I believe, marshals critiques of Lewis-Williams' one-size-fits-all assertion that hunter-gatherer shamans created rock art to record their trance visions.

Ross is on track on p. 546, citing rock art serving as landmarks and cartograms; she could have added many references to hunter-gatherers' sophisticated topographic knowledge, perhaps the most telling being Ac ko mok ki's maps drawn for the Hudson's Bay Company factor Peter Fidler in 1801 and 1802, transmitted by Fidler to Londonh, published 1803, and given by Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis for exploring the American Northwest (Moodie & Kay 1977; Binnema 2001). Ac ko mok ki (Akai Mokti, `Old Swan') was then the principal Blackfoot leader, `personally acquainted', as Fidler noted, with the vast territory from what is now North Dakota to Idaho.

Ac ko mok ki was not a shaman. So far as I have been able to discover, there is no published record of a shaman making rock art. Nor have I found primary ethnographic documentation directly linking making rock art to trance (Kehoe 2000: 74-5). Rocks may be portals (Ross p. 546), or they may be thunderbird nests (Conway & Conway 1990: 12), and portals may be openings in a lodge (Brightman 1993: 226-7) or tree platforms on the edge of water (Brightman 1993: 85).

Lewis-Williams and his followers fell into the trap of primitivism, the notion that non-Western people with apparently technologically simpler instrumentation (but see Ridington 1990) preserve primordial culture. Lovejoy and Boas, exposing this fallacy, demonstrated how basic it is to Western thinking (Lovejoy & Boas 1935; Adams 1998: 256). Mircea Eliade (1964) made his career on it, creating the foundational work for modern primitivism in his `remarkably inaccurate' (Balzer 1990: 47-8) Shamanism: archaic techniques of ecstasy.

The primitivist tradition dichotomizes Us, mired in civilization and its discontents, from Them, the simple, spiritually fulfilled, distant nomads. As Ross notes, anthropologists have been recognizing hunter-gatherers' complex knowledge systems, both pragmatic (1) and metaphysical. Still to emerge is recognition that, on the one hand, the label `shaman' negates the diversity of religious practitioners among colonized indigenous nations, and, on the other hand, obscures common practices, based upon human cognitive structures and physiology, seen in Western societies as well (including American Anthropological Association meetings, where Michael Harner and Edith Turner insist on the reality of `shamanic journeys' and spirits (Kehoe 2000: 82-3)). Lumping Huichol mara'akame, Desana paye, Ojibwe jessakids and Evenki shamans, while omitting American faith healers and psychics, naively perpetuates racism.

Paul Bahn upset 1999 International Rock Art congress banquet-goers by challenging Lewis-Williams and Clottes' uncritical, reductionist primitivism. Scholars concurring with Bahn include the experienced Siberian ethnographers Caroline Humphrey, Roberte Hamayon, Eva Fridman, and Balzer (bibliography in Kehoe 2000, to which add Aigle et al. 2000). The emerging trend in hunter-gatherer rock-art research is diverse ethnographic and ethnohistorical studies substantiating the many distinct religions among hunter-gatherers and their relations to neighbouring agriculturists and to major trade systems.

(1) Archaeologists have been documenting many failures to sustain necessary resources, for example, abandonment of Lake Titicaca suka kollu raised fields (Kolata 1996). See Krech (1999).


ADAMS, W.Y. 1998. The philosophical roots of anthropology. Stanford (CA): Center for the Study of Language and Information.

AIGLE, D., B. …