Wayward Shamans: The Prehistory of an Idea

Wayward Shamans: The Prehistory of an Idea

Wayward Shamans: The Prehistory of an Idea

Wayward Shamans: The Prehistory of an Idea

Synopsis

Wayward Shamans tells the story of an idea that humanity's first expression of art, religion and creativity found form in the figure of a proto-priest known as a shaman. Tracing this classic category of the history of anthropology back to the emergence of the term in Siberia, the work follows the trajectory of European knowledge about the continent's eastern frontier. The ethnographic record left by German natural historians engaged in the Russian colonial expansion project in the 18th century includes a range of shamanic practitioners, varied by gender and age. Later accounts by exiled Russian revolutionaries noted transgendered shamans. This variation vanished, however, in the translation of shamanism into archaeology theory, where a male sorcerer emerged as the key agent of prehistoric art. More recent efforts to provide a universal shamanic explanation for rock art via South Africa and neurobiology likewise gloss over historical evidence of diversity. By contrast this book argues for recognizing indeterminacy in the categories we use, and reopening them by recalling their complex history.

Excerpt

“Why are shamans so popular?” a team of art historians asked recently, in a somewhat exasperated tone. They were attempting to counter the rise of shamanic interpretations in Mesoamerican prehistoric art, part of a common, widespread trend. In offering accounts of the origins of the human capacity for art, religion, and even science, archaeologists regularly cast shamans as the stars of their scenarios. By the early twentyfirst century, tales of powerful prehistoric sorcerers have grown familiar to both scholars and popular audiences alike. The term shaman appears regularly in reference to ancient and indigenous forms of knowledge to describe a ritual specialist, a categorical figure imbued with wisdom. Shamans now walk through the pages of academic journals, tourist guidebooks, and New Age stores. They perform rituals, promise wisdom, and promote products. They also provide a ready answer to the question of who made the first art and what inspired them.

If newly popular, this story itself is hardly new. Rather, shamans have traveled with us for well over three centuries since emerging from Siberia. Over the years, they have played a range of roles, depending on the setting in which they were imagined. Proto-priests, religious leaders, artists, and medicine men, shamans remain ever mysterious, however instinctively familiar. In archaeology, they have primarily appeared as male figures, less by conscious design than unthinking assumption. Yet even after the rise of New Age perspectives in North America and Western . . .

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