A cognitive approach to archaeology

Shamanism and the Ancient Mind: A cognitive approach to archaeology

David, Bruno

Shamanism and the Ancient Mind: a cognitive approach to archaeology.

By James L. Pearson. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press. 2002. Pp. ix + 195, 16 Figures. Price: US $63 (cloth); US $24.95 (paperback)

Shamanism and the Ancient Mind synthesises recent shamanistic approaches to archaeological interpretation. In eleven chapters (1, Archaeology’s Final Frontier; 2, Antecedents to Cognitive Archaeology; 3, The Roots of Cognitive Archaeology; 4, The Tools of Cognitive Archaeology; 5, The Evolution of Rock Art Research; 6, Rock Art Research in the Americas; 7, Shamanism; 8, Using the Tools of Cognitive Archaeology; 9, The Nonarchaeological Case for Shamanism; 10, The Archaeological Evidence for Shamanism; 11, Approaching the Final Frontier), James Pearson argues that what have in the U.S. hitherto been dominant, adaptationist approaches to the archaeological record are found wanting, suggesting instead a cognitive approach to the past.

Founded on this well-argued conviction (yet not engaging with the large, mainly British post-positivist archaeological literature), Pearson proceeds to argue that the most parsimonious explanation for various past cultural practices – and in particular the creative contexts of much rock-art around the world can be found in shamanism. Here, shamanism is not so much defined as a geographically and historically particular cultural expression, as a widespread cultural genre concerning religious leaders, teachers and healers that mediate with the ‘supernatural’ under altered states of consciousness, often drug-induced.

Shamanistic interpretations – and there are varied formulations – have gained much influence worldwide since David Lewis-Williams’ influential South African writings of the mid-1980s. Today, shamanistic explanations in archaeology and in rockart research focus especially on the universality of altered states of consciousness (drug-induced, caused through lack of sleep, excessive active participation in social rituals or the like), the role of shamanism in ritual behaviour and collective consciousness, and the universality and biological foundations of visionary experiences and entoptic phenomena.

So influential – and at times, it seems, unreflective – have such approaches become to the interpretation of rock-art that Meg Conkey (in David Whitley ed. Handbook of Rock Art Research, AltaMira Press, 2001) recently noted their ‘epidemic’ proportions. This influence is well illustrated by the recent French translation of Elkin’s Aboriginal Men of High Degree as Les Chamans Aborigines ($ditions du Rocher, 1998), a redirected representation of Aboriginal cultural practices that effectively silences Elkin’s particular cultural nuances of Aboriginal religious practices and worldviews. The shamanistic framework has now become a problem of the hyperreal.

While Pearson presents a useful compilation of shamanistic approaches to archaeology and rock-art research, I remain unconvinced of his claim that shamanism has general applicability to archaeological interpretation. At a general level, Pearson attempts to prove by detailing a narrow set of cultural examples, rather than test, the widespread applicability of shamanism to the archaeological record. Pearson structures most of his arguments around a small number of case studies – mostly from the U.S. arguing that much of the world’s rock-art was created in shamanistic contexts. This conviction is pursued without ever addressing the many ethnographic observations of rock-art creation around the world that contradict the claimed general explanatory power of shamanism.

In Australia, shamanistic interpretations certainly do not sit well with much ethnographic knowledge; rather, here it is Aboriginal worldviews (including religious beliefs and practices) that attain interpretative predominance in rock-art research. And if much rock-art is shamanistic, what about all other artistic expressions, from bark paintings (where design conventions often mirror those on rock walls), to designs on spears or didgeridoos or basketry? The answer, I suspect, is much akin to Marianna Torgovnick’s (Gone Primitive, University of Chicago Press, 1990) once-‘primitives’ who retreat when approached – they fail to materialise when too close to the here and now – for shamanism in rock-art largely retreats in the face of indigenous creative practice; `shamanism’, like the ‘primitive’, labels whom? There are certainly healers and teachers and people who mediate with the spiritual. But is this a characteristic of ‘the ancient mind’, as Pearson suggests (what does ‘the ancient mind’ mean?), or are we here on the verge of asking questions about religious beliefs and practices in general. I am not convinced that the general concept of shamanism is at all useful here – and Pearson’s book does not help in this regard – and the term does beg deconstruction. It is, I would suggest, religious experience and ontology that are at stake, not shamanism, in Pearson’s search for a cognitive archaeology.

The problem of primitivist thinking is doubly evident in Pearson’s book, where hunting and gathering peoples, past or present, are discussed as `primitive’ and ‘ancient’ cultures. Yet it is strange that despite an explicit general view that peoples who hunt and gather are deemed shamanistic and animistic, it is various horticultural societies around the world that furnish some of the best examples of shamanism, as propounded by Pearson. Yet it nevertheless remains that in most parts of the world rockart that was created recently can be shown to not have been created in shamanism.

Pearson’s neo-Frazerian approach to cognitive evolution homogenizes non-Western cultural practices. Indigenous ontology and beliefs are silenced in a shamanistic hyperreality. Questions of meaning, and the meaningfulness of cultural practices, are only broached after their shamanistic frame is predetermined. Yet were one interested in relating rock-art to cognition (including past religious beliefs and practices), as Pearson appropriately suggests, why not begin by asking questions of the place of rock-art and other archaeological remains in past ontologies?

Much of the material presented in this book is based on secondary texts. For example, in presenting a fairly detailed (and at times well-summarised) history of archaeological and rock-art research in the U.S., it is not the original writings that are researched and referenced but textbooks such as Bruce Trigger’s A History of Archaeological Thought (Cambridge University Press, 1989). It is also worth noting that historically North American rock-art research (unlike other aspects of archaeological practice) has not achieved great international influence; a major part of this book systematically notes that we should change how we approach rock-art research, but the research trends presented here relate largely to North American rock-art research. In this aspect this book will therefore be most relevant to North American rockart researchers, and in this sense also the call for going beyond adaptationist thinking is welcome.

All in all, Shamanism and the Ancient Mind presents a useful summary and synthesis of the major shamanistic arguments employed by rock-art researchers, but it does not address the shamanism model’s incapacity to address indigenous ontology and religion in the first instance. Nor does it make a case for the need for a cognitive archaeology as such, as there are many kinds of cognitive archaeologies (in this book Pearson appears to suggest that cognitive archaeology means shamanism; see the Cambridge Archaeological Journal – a journal specifically dedicated to cognitive archaeology – for non– shamanistic as well as shamanistic examples of cognitive archaeology).

In summary then, a useful book in the sense that it summarises the main arguments for shamanistic explanations to rock-art, but disappointing in that it bypasses indigenous ontology in the first step and therefore does not, to this reviewer at least, present a convincing alternative framework for understanding the cultural contexts and impetus for much rock-art in Australia or around the world.

Bruno David Monash University

Copyright University of Sydney, Oceania Publications Sep 2002

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