Did the Shaman’s Trance Make Us Human?

“Trance Dance”
digital collage
D. Nez 2015

Was the shaman’s trance a catalyst for the development of human consciousness? Prehistorians have raised this question, and their theories offer new perspectives on our evolution as a species.

One of the  most crucial periods of humanity’s  development was the Upper Paleolithic—the “Old Stone Age”–around 40,000 years ago, when behaviorally modern humans emerged. At that time a “cultural big bang” occurred, in the words of anthropologist Richard Rudgley, that produced religion, art and magic, and advances in technology. These manifested as extraordinary cave paintings, carved figurines, jewelry, flint and bone tools, lunar calendars, proto-writing, musical instruments and refinements in material culture—basically the beginnings of civilization as we know it.

Anthropologist Dr. Michael Winkelman insists this cultural explosion was not based on anatomical evolution or increases in brain size–instead it seems to have been the result of shamanism. He writes: “the shaman’s visionary journey involved a special and intense kind of imaging; that imaging manifested in cave art production was central to cognitive advances associated with the Middle/Upper Paleolithic transition”. These cognitive advances included forms of analogical thinking such as animism, anthropomorphism, totemism and mimetic enactement—or imitation. According to Winkelman, shamanic visionary practices brought about integration of the brain hemispheres, frontal-limbic integration, brain-stem-limbic-frontal integration, and integration across the neuraxis—allowing our ancestors to utilize more of their cognitive potential.

Exercising their newfound  powers, shamans became leaders of the tribe, directing communal religious rituals and planning the hunt. These activities contributed to advances in tribal culture as a whole—enhancing social bonding, encouraging the development of personal and social identities and increasing technical ability. Winkelman’s theory suggests to me that the prehistoric shaman was a culture-hero, innovator, explorer of consciousness and catalyst for evolutionary advancements of humanity.

Psychologist Matt J. Rossano argues based on clinical research into meditation, that the deep focus achieved during archaic shamanic healing rituals strengthened parts of the brain involved in memory. This in turn led to sharpened mental focus and the ability of the mind to connect symbols and meanings. He writes: “Consciousness altering rituals, often taking the form of shamanistic healing rituals…targeted those areas of the brain involved in focused attention and working memory, and, in time, facilitated the genetic mutation or mutations that ultimately enhanced working memory and symbolic formation in the human population.”

Archaeologist and shamanic practitioner Mike Williams argues that the prehistoric shaman’s trance states may have created the conditions for a gradual genetic shift from primary to higher order traits of consciousness, writing “it was trance that made us human”. He proposes that trance experiences of ancient shamans enhanced problem-solving, working memory, and recall of dreams–leading to the notion of the otherworld.

Tuvan petroglyphs of shaman's masks
Tuvan petroglyphs of shaman’s masks

Shamans were likely the first humans to cultivate altered states of consciousness through trance, ritual and visionary journeys to the spiritworld. They shared these experiences as the tribe’s storyteller, performer, artist, musician, and wisdom keeper. The communal ceremonies led by Paleolithic shamans became the foundation of mankind’s mythology, religion and magic. According to philosopher E.J. Michael Witzel, the first myths were told by shamans and concerned the life cycle of their prey, the hunt, and death and rebirth of animals. Their story-lines based on common human experiences laid the foundations for the mythologies and religions of all later societies, and still have deep resonance and meaning today.

“Lion-man” carving
Germany 40,000 BCE

The world’s earliest artworks, in the form of figurines carved from mammoth ivory, were likely used for shamanistic and religious purposes. The so-called “Lion-Man” figurine found in a cave in the Swabian Alps in Germany dates to the Aurignacian period of around 40,000 BCE. Skillfully carved from mammoth ivory, it depicts a lion-headed human figure—possibly a shaman—transforming or “shapeshifting” into a lion. Around this same period the “Venus of Schelkingen” was also produced—a small ivory carving of a corpulent female figure. She is the earliest of many such Venus figures that would be produced by Paleolithic peoples across Eurasia. Archaeologists speculate these figurines which seem to depict pregnant women were fertility figures or perhaps goddess images. Some form of shamanism and the worship of the generative power of a universal mother represent the earliest forms of mankind’s religious life, according to Witzel.

“Venus of Schelkingen”
Germany 40,000 BCE

Shamanism has survived in indigenous societies around the world to the present day, and is presently experiencing a resurgence in western societies as well. This could perhaps be explained by the universality of shamanism, based on altered states of consciousness which all humans experience similarly. Not only did the Paleolithic shaman’s trance “make us human” by enhancing our capacity to imagine and think symbolically, but shamanism continues to provide a model for contemporary alternative spirituality rooted in the natural world and expressed through individual experience and creativity.

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