Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Bwili or 'Flying Tricksters' of Malakula: A Critical Discussion of Recent Debates on Rock Art, Ethnography and Shamanisms

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

The Bwili or 'Flying Tricksters' of Malakula: A Critical Discussion of Recent Debates on Rock Art, Ethnography and Shamanisms

Article excerpt

Introduction

'Shamanism' has been at the centre of interpretative rock art research for well over a decade. A debate rages between so-called 'shamaniacs', primarily Dowson (e.g. 1998a), Whitley (e.g. 1992), and Lewis-Williams (e.g. 1998), and 'shamanophobes', most vocally represented by Bahn (e.g. 1997; 1998), with comments from Quinlan (1998), Solomon (e.g. 2000), and Kehoe (2000). This controversy began with Lewis-Williams's (e.g. 1975; 1981) proposal of connections between Southern African rock art, nineteenth-century ethnographic records of the San (Bushmen), and twentieth-century anthropological research on Bushman healing practices in the Kalahari. Researchers world-wide applauded Lewis-Williams's research (e.g. Balm 1988) and many of them looked optimistically towards the potential of ethnographic analogy for expanding the interpretations of other rock art traditions (e.g. Conkey 1987). In 1988 two papers were published (Davenport & Jochim 1988; Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1988), the former rather less famous, now, tha n the latter. Davenport and Jochim's suggestion (following others, e.g. Kirchner 1952; Lommel 1967) that the 'wounded man' in the Lascaux shaft-scene might be an Upper Palaeolithic shaman had no great or long-lasting impression on rock art research, despite its innovative approach to apparent avian characteristics shared by both human and bird-topped staff. In notable contrast, Lewis-Williams and Dowson's proposal of the controversial 'neuropsychological model' and its application to cave art imagery of the European Upper Palaeolithic had an immense impact. Rock art researchers thenceforth split into two camps, shamaniacs and shamanophobes.

The neuropsychological model has since been applied to a vast corpus of imagery as diverse as northwest European passage tomb art (e.g. Dronfield 1996), Californian rock art (Patterson 1998), Australian rock art (Sales 1992), and even British Iron Age coinage (Creighton 2000). The situation is certainly troubling: in far too many instances the neuropsychological model is applied uncritically in a search for 'entoptics' (as set out by Dowson 1999), the geometric visual phenomena endogenous to trance and characteristic of 'stage one' in Lewis-Williams and Dowson's neuropsychological model. (1) The mistaken equation was entoptics = shamanism. Yet some of these authors not only ignored trance stages two and three, and the principles of transformation steering the perception of imagery (Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1993), but also ignored the heterogeneity of rock art and shamanisms in what has aptly been termed 'a steamroller approach' (Garlake 1995).

Critics of the shamanistic approach were only too happy to point out such flaws, as well as inaccurate readings of ethnographic sources: Sales's (1992) lack of direct ethnographic evidence for 'Pilbara shamanism' and homogenizing notion of 'Pan-Australian shamanism', for example, is open to criticism (Chippindale, Smith and Tacon's [2000] application of Elkin's [1997] 'clever men' ethnography to 'dynamic figures' of Western Arnhem Land is more rigorous and convincing). The use of San ethnography to interpret rock art has been challenged on similar grounds. Both the idea of a 'Pan-San' world-view and the application of the Bleek and Lloyd /Xam ethnographies to paintings from KwaZulu-Natal, southern Africa, have been criticized: the one for being generalist; the latter seen as an inappropriate ethnographic analogy Critics also argue that the /Xam ethnography is more concerned with mythology and gender relations than with shamanistic themes (a debate which continues between Solomon [e.g. 2000] -- proponent of th e latter -- and Lewis-Williams [e.g. 1998]).

Ethnographic analyses (e.g. Sales 1992) of rock art have arguably been the greatest victims of shamanophobia. This article therefore has two aims: first, to demonstrate the strength of ethnography in providing insights into the shamanistic nature of certain rock art traditions, with specific discussion of the rock art in northwest Malakula (see Map), Melanesia, in the context of J. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.