Reconstructed Shaman scene from La Roque Saint Christophe (Dordogne)
Shamanism was first used to described ancient religions of the Turks and Mongols, and of the neighbouring Tungusic and Samoyedic-speaking peoples. The word shaman comes from the Evenk (Tungusic) word "šamán", from Northern Asia and means "he/she who knows". It was introduced to the west after Russian forces conquered the shamanistic Khanate of Kazan in 1552. Shamanism is a belief system, similar to many modern day religions and possibly linked to magic, medicine and healing. During the 1950's shamanism became a popular way to explain the secrets of obscure European ritual objects and practices, ancient myths or legends common in most hunter-gatherer societies.
Therianthropy refers to the metamorphosis of humans into animals; this believe has long existed in mythology, appearing in ancient cave drawings such as Les Trois Freres in France. The term therianthropy comes from the Greek theríon, θηρίον, meaning "wild animal" or "beast" (impliedly mammalian), and anthrōpos, άνθρωπος, meaning "human being". It was used to refer to animal transformation folklore of Asia and Europe as early as 1901. These hybrids were researched in 2001 by Dr Christopher Chippindale (Cambridge University's museum of archaeology and anthropology) and Paul Tacon (Australian Museum in Sydney) - 'Hybrids were the one ubiquitous theme we discovered,' said Chippindale and 'They belong to an imagined world which was powerful, dangerous and - most likely - very frightening.'
David Lewis-Williams is often credited with generating interest in shamanism among prehistorians. Following his studies of Drakensberg rock art in South Africa, in the context with the local San people (hunter-gatherers) rituals, led him to the conclusion that prehistoric rock art was created from the visions of shamans in various states of trance induced by ritual dance, sensory deprivation or the ingestion of hallucinogen. In the 1981 book "Believing and Seeing: Symbolic Meaning in Southern San Rock Paintings" he suggested that abstract images of cave art are based on visual effects known as phosphenes or entoptic images - visual effects whose source is within the eye itself. Lewis-Williams extended the scope of his shamanic interpretation of rock art from the Palaeolithic to the Neolithic, by investigating the decoration and function of chambered stone structure in his books "The Mind in the Cave" (2002) and Inside the "Neolithic Mind" (2005).
One of the most famous images of prehistoric art that once suggested shamanism, is the figure called the Sorcerer of Trois Frères. Found in 1914 by the three sons of Comte Bégouen, Trois Frères is a cave system in southern France, which contains some of the most elaborate known paleolithic paintings and engravings. The Sorcerer (below left) was sketched by Abbé Henri Breuil (1877 – 1961), who showed a dancing male figure, with large stag’s antlers, a long beard, the tail of a horse, the body of a horse or deer, a large retroverted penis, huge dark eyes and animal forepaws. In 1931, Margaret Murray (1863 – 1963) proposed that the figure drawn by Breuil was a deity — the horned god of an ancient pagan religion. Breuil eventually adopted Murray’s view and abandoned his original theory of the figure as a human shaman.
The Sorcerer ~ dramatic interpretation by Abbé Breuil's from Les Troise Freres cave
Therianthrope ~ from the Les Troise Freres cave - in the midst of a herd of bison, horses, and rhinos
A study at the University of Colorado of 85 Upper Palaeolithic graves showed that burials of modern humans were simple with only a few basic grave-goods left with the deceased, such as flint tools. There was very little difference from contemporary Neanderthal burials. The majority of the burials were of males, with only a few that contained women and children. Therefore it follows that any unusual burials need to be viewed in a different way. However, so-called shaman burials are extremely variable, with no obvious standard criteria, such as grave goods or markers to identify a shaman in the archaeological record.
Ethnological research about prehistoric shamans suggest they may:
Had some association with spiritual or magical powers
Conducted rituals or ceremonies within their clans and communities
Engaged the help of spirits in some animal form
Had hold of special and unique knowledge, different from their clan
Performed a medicinal role and exhibited healing powers
Used hallucinogenic or medicinal plants
Had involvement with cave art
Were held in high status within their clans and communities
Had special treatment at death
However there is very limited archaeological evidence for these activities and the relatively modern view of shamanism from Siberia (as it has only been known to Europeans for about 500 years) is unlikely to be good comparison when applied to prehistory.
Did Shamans exist during prehistory? What was their role in the clan? How did they communicate with animal spirits? Why were they buried with so many unusual grave goods?
Reconstructed burial scene from La Roque Saint Christophe (Dordogne)
At the Upper Paleolithic site near the village of Dolní Věstonice in the Czech Republic (from around 26,000 BP) was found the burial of female skeleton aged to 40+ years old, placed beneath a pair of mammoth scapulae, one leaning against the other. The left side of her skull was disfigured in the same manner as a carved ivory figure that was discovered near the settlement, suggesting the figure was an intentional depiction of this specific individual. Other grave-goods included a flint spearhead that had been placed near her skull and one hand she held the body of a fox. The bones and grave were covered in red ochre.
Nearby the remains of three young individuals were found in August 1986, laying together covered by burnt spruce branches: a female (although this has not been proven) aged between 17-20 years old who had a curvature of the spine and severe congenital disability; with two heavily-built males laying either side of the her, one face down and the other on his side with hands reaching the pubic region of the female. One of the male skeletons had the remains of a wooden pole thrust through his hip and may have been wearing a sort of painted mask. Both men wore necklaces of pierced wolf / Arctic fox teeth and all three skulls were covered in red ochre.
In 2008 Professor Leore Grosman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Professor Natalie Munro of Connecticut University , found the high status grave site of a 12,000 year-old Natufian Shaman in a cave located at Hilazon Tachtit ( (Lower Hilazon River) in Northern Israel. The short 1.5m tall woman suffered from diseases and distortions that must have made her look quite distinctive; she was about 45 years old when she died.
The woman was placed in a complex burial that involved various stages of construction: Stage 1 - involved digging a symmetrical oval hole in the cave and then walling it with mud plaster and stone slabs; Stage 2 - involved laying down large stones, between which they placed various grave-goods; Stage 3 - they filled the grave site with bones of animals that had already been consumed and processed flint tools; Stage 4 - the woman’s body was buried with more animal bones or parts of them; Stage 5 - More more deer bones and tortoise shells were added to the grave and finally, a large triangular rock was laid over the grave.
A further 28 people were also interred in the cave.
Various animal body-parts were present in the grave, as well as a complete human foot:
It is likely that her clan ate the roasted tortoise meat as part of a ceremony (as analysis shows that shell damage is consistent with human breakage by using a hammerstone while the shell was still fresh), then carefully placed the empty shell in her grave. In a separate pit nearby, were bones of at least three wild, extinct cattle known as aurochs. The cattle bones showed clear signs of butchery, with the bones cracked to extract the marrow.
Judean Desert and Hills
A small number of carved limestone masks from various sites in the Judean Desert and surrounding hills close to Jerusalem, are believed to be the oldest in the world at around 9,000 years old. They were made in the pre-pottery Neolithic period by people who were the first farmers in the region
The masks are all different (possibly to represent the individual spirits of ancestors), but share the same large eyes and open mouths. Each mask weights 1-2kg and would have been painted; perforations on the masks could have been used for a cord allowing a person to wear them, or even for hair, to give them a more human appearance
Although some of the masks were found by archaeologists, such as Ofer Bar Yosef during excavations at the Nahal Hemar cave in 1983, others were not and so context has proved difficult to confirm. The masks are normally in collections all around the world, but the Israeli Museum brought them together for the first time in a recent exhibition.
It is likely the masks were used in religious or social ceremonies.
Red Lady of Paviland
Ochre pigment is occasionally found in early human burials and is associated with ritualism. One of the most famous was of a young man who died around 29,000 years ago - the so called the "Red Lady" of Paviland. The oldest anatomically modern human remains found in the UK were discovered between 18th and 25th January 1823 by Rev. William Buckland, during an archaeological dig at Goat's Hole Cave in South Wales (below). Upon discovery, Buckland (Professor of Geology at Oxford) identified the skeleton as male, believing the red-stained bones were those of a Customs Officer murdered by smugglers, but later that year he changed the gender for his forth-coming publication, based on the numerous decorative items (perforated seashell necklaces, ivory wands and jewellery) discovered with it. Buckland suggested the bones were from a Roman prostitute or witch – thinking the iron-age fort on the hilltop above the cave was Roman.
Entrance to Paviland Cave
When the Rev. William Buckland's small group found the Red Lady, they also discovered the skull and bones of a mammoth close by. As a creationist, Buckland believed no human remains could have been older than the great Biblical flood and concluded that they were from the Roman era and that the extinct mammoth remains had been deposited there as a result of the flood. Buckland admired the work of Georges Cuvier (1769–1832), the French naturalist and zoologist who believed there was no evidence for the evolution of organic forms, but rather evidence for successive creations after catastrophic extinction events. Buckland's own view was that account of Genesis actually referred to two separate episodes of creation separated by a lengthy period - known as the Gap Theory.
In his 1823 book Reliquiae Diluvianae (Evidence of the Flood) Buckland stated:
"I found the skeleton enveloped by a coating of a kind of ruddle ... which stained the earth, and in some parts extended itself to the distance of about half an inch [12 mm] around the surface of the bones ... Close to that part of the thigh bone where the pocket is usually worn surrounded also by ruddle [were] about two handfuls of the Nerita littoralis [periwinkle shells].
At another part of the skeleton, viz in contact with the ribs [were] forty or fifty fragments of ivory rods [also] some small fragments of rings made of the same ivory and found with the rods ... Both rods and rings, as well as the Nerite shells, were stained superficially with red, and lay in the same red substance that enveloped the bones."
Eighty-five years after Buckland, another excavation lead by William Sollas (1849-1936), also holder of Oxford's Chair of Geology, recovered over 4,000 lithics in the cave and together with Abbé Breuil (1877-1961) who had joined the Sollas expedition in the role of lithics analyst, they reinterpreted the burial and correctly identified the gender and Stone Age period.
Radiocarbon dating has revealed the Red 'Lady' Of Paviland was a man of around 20 years of age. Although Goat's Hole Cave (on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales) is on the coast today, it would have been around 70 miles inland 30,000 years ago. His diet of between 15% - 20% fish, balanced by other foods such as horse, reindeer, roots, acorns and berries suggests his tribe semi-nomadic, or that they transported his body from a coastal region for burial. Although the red ochre and grave goods may hint at a ritual or shamanistic burial, the general view is that this man was part of a mammoth hunt and suffered a fatal accident, as his bones show no major signs of illness or disease.
Goat's Hole cave is a 22m long passage, with a maximum width of about 7m and height 10m at tear-drop shaped entrance tapering to rear. The ceiling has a chimney which rises one third of the way in on the east side and two floor hollows on the west side, as a result of the excavations in 1823 and 1912. The cave in the limestone cliffs of Paviland, is only accessible at very low tide for a couple of hours a day.
Now kept as part of the Earth Collection at the Oxford Museum of Natural History, the skeleton is missing the skull and the long bones of the right side and vertabrae; presumed lost, either because of human disturbance or the effects of the sea, backfilling the cave at high tide - known as the colluvial process.
A rich set of grave-goods were found in one of three burials excavated during 1930's at Bad Dürrenberg (Saalekreis district, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany). This was the grave of a 25-35 year-old female buried between 9,000-6,000 years ago, along with a 6-12 month-old child. The grave was filled of red hematite, which was at least 30 cm deep.
Shell fragments from swamp turtles (pseudemydura umbrina)
120 fragments of freshwater mussels
of the skeleton revealed a deformity in the first neck vertebra, which could have caused lameness and difficulties in movement. Therefore, it can be presumed that it was an alleviation for the woman
to be in trance. Ethnographic parallels suggest that many of these bones and objects may be explained as items used in ritualistic practices.
Star Carr Antler at British Museum
The Mesolithic site at Star Carr would probably have been temporary seasonal camps. Twenty-one adult red deer skull parts with antlers were found during the excavation, with holes made through the back of them that would have been used to tie them to the head with a leather thong and cut marks made by flint tools, showing that the flesh was removed from the skulls. The bones forming the top of the nose were then broken off and the edges of the remaining skull part trimmed. The antlers were also broken off and the remaining stumps thinned down and trimmed around the base. The two holes in the back of the skull were made by cutting and scraping away bone on both sides.
Star Carr Antler at Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
In 2015, an 11,000-year-old Stone Age pendant was discovered in lake edge deposits (now known as palaeo-Lake Flixton) during the archaeological dig at Star Carr. The plectrum-shaped 3mm thick piece of shale which measures 35mm by 31mm, has a perforated hole near one edge, however it is not known if this was strung or not. The ‘barbed line’ motif which may represent a tree, map or even tally marks is similar to styles found in northern Europe, particularly in Denmark. It may have been worn as sacred jewellery by a Shaman, according to archaeologists.
Dunstable Echinoid Burial
(Victorian engraving by Worthington George Smith - public domain)
During the excavation of a number of late Neolithic and early Bronze Age barrows in May 1887 by amateur archaeologist Worthington George Smith (1835 – 1917), one grave of a young mother (Smith named Maud) and child was discovered. The head of the crouching mother, who was around 20 years old when she died, was pointing north in the shallow and small chalky grave (approximately 1.5m square); Smith speculated that the child might have been buried alive with its mother.
The grave contained a small number of goods:
One broken pot
Three flint hammer stones
Two crudely chipped handaxes
A large number of flint flakes
The broken bones of ox, pig and deer
A single pebble of white quartz
The mother ’s skeleton was recovered in 340 pieces
Additionally found circling this grave were over 200 fossilised echinoid. Two species were present: the Fairy-Loaf (Ananchytes ovatus) - above left and the Heart-Urchin (Micraster coranguinum) - above right. No other graves in the site had any similar offerings.
Upton Lovell Round Barrow (G2a)
Upton Lovell Shaman at Wiltshire Museum
An unusual early Bronze Age (1900-1700 BC) grave of a male who may also have been a goldsmith, was discovered in a 12m diameter round barrow, known as G2a at Upton Lovell in Wiltshire. The grave was on a ridge that overlooked the valley leading towards Stonehenge.
The barrow was first opened in 1801 by William Cunnington who found two skeletons (rumored to be man and wife) and numerous grave goods, including a dark battle axehead made of dolerite from Northumberland, perforated bone, boar tusks, a jet ring and jet necklace, flint and other stones. There was also four cups made from split flint nodules and a bronze point (below), possibly used for tattooing.
One theory by Piggott (1962) is that the male was buried in a cloak of skin or fur that had 36 bone points sewn into the lower hem, probably making the garment rattle as he moved (Left: interpretation at Wiltshire Museum). More bone points where arranged around his chest, possibly in a necklace and four pierced boar's tusks found by his knees may have decorated a pouch.
At his feet was a collection of stones, which were possibly a set of metalworker's hammers and grinding stones, indicating that he may have been a goldsmith.
The barrow was re-excavated Dr Colin Shell and Gill Swanton in 2000.
Mound 1 at Filippovka 1
A Sarmatian burial mound (or kurgan) excavated in Russia’s Southern Ural steppes, was carried out by the expedition of the Institute of Archaeology (Russian Academy of Sciences), led by Professor Leonid T. Yablonsky. An early Iron Age burial chamber was discovered measuring approximately 4x5m and 4m deep at the eastern part of Mound 1 at Filippovka 1 kurgan in the Orenburg region. At the bottom of the chamber was found exceptionally rich and varied grave goods accompanying a human (believed male) skeleton. The grave contained:
26 “golden” deer statuettes that could be interpreted as representatives of animal spirits
A large silver mirror with gilded stylized animals on the handle and embossed decoration on the back with the image of an eagle in the centre, surrounded by a procession of six winged bulls
A small wicker chest and a wooden box
A gold pectoral, glass, leather pouches, silver and earthenware bathroom flasks
Horse teeth that contained red pigments
Tattooing equipment: two stone mixing palettes and iron, gold covered needles, bone spoons used to blend paints and pens decorated with animals
The Ekven burial (located 30km from the Russian village of Uelen, in the province of Chukotka) provides insights to the Old Bering Sea Eskimo culture from about 2,000 years ago. It was excavated from the permafrost by archaeologists Dorian Andreevich Sergeev and Sergey A. Arutiunov (Sergeev also discovered the major Eskimo cemeteries - Uelen and Chini - on the western side of Bering Strait).
Within one grave (numbered #154) excavated in 1967, lay the skeleton of a woman of around 40-50 year old. She was lying on a wood floor in a stone-lined grave, surrounded by whalebone and many ivory, wood, shell, stone, and bone tools. The woman had a wooden mask carefully positioned between her knees. The archaeologists were assisted by three Naukan Eskimos, who saw the mask and cried out “Kamaka!” (“It's death!” in Chukchi) and refused to continue working. Sergeev touched the mask, saying he would take the spell and work continued until that evening when the eskimos explained the cannibal spirit mythology connected with the mask they call Yughym-Yua (“Master of the Universe”) who is responsible for the lives and deaths of humans; he eats the souls of the deceased, then regurgitates them so they enter the bodies of newborn babies.
The wooden Yughym-Yua mask has a likeness to an Eskimo racial type, with high cheek bones and eyeholes blocked by carved bone eyes (a feature of Siberian death masks). It is one of the earliest masks known from Arctic cultures and at one time possibly had feathers, or even hair in the small holes around the edges. It would have been carved to fit over her face between the time of death and when she was buried.
Many of the artefacts found in this grave are objects that would have been used during her life, however a number of objects appear to relate to rituals, healing and dance. In addition to the woman's belongings, the grave included a number of other objects (typically associated with male activities) and included:
Gut scrapers (for cleaning the sea mammal intestines used to make waterproof clothing)
Ulu knives (all-purpose knife traditionally used by Inuit, Yup'ik and Aleut women)
Walrus tusk towing hook with a complex composition
The Ipiutak people inhabited the coastal areas of northwestern Alaska during spring and summer, but probably moved inland during the colder months. Seals and walrus were hunted with harpoons, while bows and arrows were used for hunting caribou. Ipiutak artefacts of ivory and antler were highly decorated with geometric and realistic designs, more so than any other Eskimo culture.
The site at Point Hope (northwest Alaska) contains nearly 600 abandoned house depressions along four beach ridges and was discovered in 1939 by archaeologists Helge Larsen and Froelich Rainey.
The Ipiutak site is known for its ritualistic ghost and bear culture with many offerings found, including a walrus ivory mask found in 1943, made from nine carved parts that represents a human face (possibly with tattoo marks) with a wide mouth and blowfly (Calliphoridae) larvae emerging from its nostrils. 80 cavities around the mask that were probably inlaid with jet or ivory.
The abstract circles and curved lines on the mask are common on the decorated tools and other artefacts discovered at Point Hope and the material used shows the scarcity of wood in the area.
Some people believe these burial masks were placed over the face of a shaman at death to prevent the spirit returning to reanimate the corpse, then buried between the knees of the deceased.
Princess/ Prince Shaman Ukok of Siberian
In 1993 Natalia Polosmak discovered the 400 BC wooden coffin of presumed female body preserved in the permafrost of the Altai Mountains, in a border region close to frontiers of Russia with Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan. Nearby were found the remains of an older warrior and six horses saddled and bridled, that were probably first killed and then buried with the her; the archaeologists conclused she was a member of an elite corps of warriors within the Pazyryk culture. The results of the MRI analysis suggest she died from brest cancer, although she also suffered from an infection of the bone or bone marrow, and had other injuries which may have been caused by falling from a horse.
Other grave goods included artefacts made from gold, bronze and felt, a unique mirror of Chinese origin in a wooden frame, a small container of cannabis and a meal of sheep and horse meat. A 'cosmetics bag' lay inside her coffin next to her left hip and contained a face brush made from horse hair and a fragment of an 'eyeliner pencil' that was made from iron rings, inside which was vivianite (hydrated iron phosphate mineral) to give a deep blue-green colour on the skin.
The girl was around 25 years at death, stood around 1.65m tall and with her head was completely shaved, she wore an elaborate human and horse hair wig. She was dressed in a long shirt made from Chinese silk, a long and wide woollen skirt and had long felt sleeve boots. Most strikingly were the highly detailed tattoo's that adorned her left arm, leading the media to nick-name her 'Princess Ukok'. The tattoo's were of a mythological creature - a deer with a griffon's beak and a Capricorn's antlers and a spotted panther, along with the head of a deer on her wrist and another small marking on her hand.
It is thought that because she often inhaled cannabis (probably to help cope with the pain of cancer), her altered state of mind may have given her a special Shamanistic status in her society. During these trances, she may have been interpreted as speaking to animal spirits and gods and although quite sick, she may have been able to develop her powers of meditation - this could explain the lavish way she was cared for. Archaeologists believe she died between January to March, but was buried in the middle of June, based on the last feed that was found in the stomachs of horses buried with her.
People living in the Altai Mountains were angry her body was removed from the sacred burial mounds (known as kurgans) and claim it has caused local floods and earthquakes. An area where shamans are still held in high regard, locals believe the 'curse of the mummy' caused the near crash of the helicopter carrying her remains away from Altai. Known to the people as Oochy-Bala, one local said: 'She may be a mummy but her soul survives, and they say a shaman communicated with her and she asked to go home. That's what the people want, too.'
Swiss taxidermist Marcel Nyffenegger recreated her face based his work on a 3D model of her skull. Nyffenegger applied layers of facial tissue, then covered her face in silicone and rubber resin before her eyebrows and a pig-tail styled hair were added.
However in late 2015, a new DNA analysis conductioned by the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Novosibirsk State University suggested that the remains were male and not female.
The Ancientcraft Shaman kit is made up of different elements from a number of well-known prehistoric ritual burial sites. Although this gives a full and interesting living history interpretation, it is non-specific and speculative from an archaeological prospective.
To complement prehistoric clothing (weaved nettle-string vest, leather leggings and deer-skin coat) the shaman outfit includes a headress (below) based on the burial at Bad Nuremberg and a deer bone necklace from the Upton Lovell Round Barrow (above).
In addition to the clothing, the kit contains various animal parts, shells, venus figurines, crystals, flint tools and grave offerings that have been recovered from generally accepted ritual burials, including those at Dolní Věstonice (Czech Republic) and the Natufian (Northern Israel). Perhaps the most iconic piece is a single-headed 30cm diameter traditional style "Shaman" hand drum with deer hide stretched over a hoop to the back and fixed with rawhide thong.
The replica of the Shaman headdress is made from similar animal bones, as found in the German grave: the skin is either europen jackel (Canis aureus moreoticus) or coyote (Canis latrans); the antlers are from a europeanroe deer (Capreolus capreolus); two large wild boar tusks (Sus scrofa) appear on either side and below are hung bone beads, neolithic stone beads and six wolf fangs (Canis lupus). Around the brim of the headdress are 18 water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) incisor teeth and goose feathers complete the look. The necklace is made from six large wild boar tusks (Sus scrofa), severn water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) teeth that are suspended beneath a European roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) jaw bone - all attached to leather strips.
Note: The Ancientcraft Shaman presentation is based on archaeological evidence and does not contain any "faith" healing services or medical content
Ancient Shaman Stories & inspiration
"An Early Grave" is a unpublished comic exploring prehistoric Shamanism and myth, by illustrator Jeff Jacklin. Inspired by Joseph Campbell's "Primitive Mythology", the story opens with the burial of a warrior who died 25,000 BC. His clan sing his name in the song of remembrance, to the rhythm of the Shaman drum, but this wakens the dead mans spirit and he starts a journey to understand the meaning of cave paintings.