Putting the Record Straight: Rock Art and Shamanism. (Debate)

By Lewis-Williams, J. D. | Antiquity, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Putting the Record Straight: Rock Art and Shamanism. (Debate)


Lewis-Williams, J. D., Antiquity


Alice Kehoe (2002: 384-5) proposes divided camps in the study of rock art and contrasts a "popular" interpretation, which ascribes rock art to shamanism, with an "emerging trend" which is more circumspect and reflexive. Such a dichotomy is both unfair and unhelpful. In the "popular" category, she makes free with my name and ascribes views to me, but, interestingly, does not cite any of my publications. She is prodigal with emotive words like `primitivist' and `racism', and her attempt to characterise the targets of her criticism in a persona! way (`Lewis-Williams and his followers') is indicative of sloppy scholarship: the `followers' are independent thinkers who can make up their own minds and she should accord them the attention they deserve. In these respects, Kehoe's response, unlike Ross's more thoughtful article (2001: 543-8), is injurious to rational debate.

She begins by creating the spectre of `Lewis-Williams' one-size-fits-all assertion that hunter-gatherer shamans created rock art to record their trance visions.' Nothing could be further from the truth. As a reading of my publications would have shown, I have considered only the San of southern Africa and the people of Upper Palaeolithic western Europe, though I have cited other writers on North American rock art. Nowhere have I claimed that all hunter-gatherer rock art is shamanistic; I can speak only for those arts that I have studied. Within southern Africa itself there are rock art traditions other than that of the San; I have not studied them in depth, but I very much doubt that they have anything to do with shamanism. Nor do I argue that the only reason for making rock art images was to record visions:

   The shamanistic explanation does not propose that hallucinations
   experienced in trance
   account for the entire corpus of San rock art. Nor does it propose
   that the images were
   made by people who were actually in a trance state.

   Further, it is necessary to retain qualifiers such as `essentially'
   because no one can know
   what was in the minds of all San painters and because of the as yet
   unplumbed polysemy
   of certain categories of paintings. Qualifiers are essential if we
   are to avoid being driven
   into the unnuanced monolithism that conceals the allusiveness (and
   elusiveness) of San
   thought. The shamanistic explanation certainly proposes a focus on
   diverse shamanistic
   beliefs and activities, but it does not deny other meanings. What we
   need to study is how
   and what other meanings are encoded in the images (Lewis-Williams
   1998:87; emphasis
   in original).

What, then, does the shamanistic explanation for San (certainly not all) rock art propose?

   The making of San rock paintings was essentially (or `principally')
   associated with a
   range of shamanistic beliefs, rituals and experiences and was
   situated within a tiered
   shamanistic cosmology and complex social relations. The images
   comprise symbols (or,
   more emically, concentrations) of supernatural potency (e.g.,
   paintings of eland), images
   of trance dances, `fragments' of trance dances (e.g., single figures
   in the arms-back posture),
   `processed' (recollected and formalised) visions (e.g., the capture
   of a rain-animal),
   transformed shamans (including the so-called therianthropes),
   monsters and beings
   encountered in the spirit world (e.g., fighting off malevolent
   spirits of the dead), and
   `scenic' groups (loosely called `compositions') made by one or more
   painters, and complex
   groupings, including superimpositions, of many images that, in a
   range of ways, show the
   interdigitating of the spirit realm with the material world. The
   spirit world was, in some
   conceptual circumstances, believed to lie behind the walls of rock
   shelters (Lewis-Williams
   1998:87).

All these observations are based on carefully assessed nineteenth- and twentieth-century ethnography and have been argued in detail, image by image, not in broad assertions about `the art'; all broad-sweep rock art explanations that do not deal with individual images and image categories should be treated with caution--as should broad-sweep criticisms, such as Kehoe's (e. …

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