Such an interesting account of shamanism…enjoy!-A.M.

Prehistoric Shamanism

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.

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 orentoptic 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).

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.’

Cave Art

The Sorcerer drawn by Abbé Breuil’s from Les Troise Freres cave

Therianthrope from theLes Troise Freres cave – in the midst of a herd of bison, horses, and rhinos

Mushroom Man from Tassili n’Ajjer Cave in the Atlas Mountains Northern Algeria) drawn by Kat Harrison

Dolni Vestonice

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, ritualistically 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 (below left) 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.

The remains of three other individuals were found in 1986. One female and two male bodies (possibly related) were laying together covered by burnt spruce logs and branches.Their heads were also covered in red ochre. The two males were laid either side of the female, one face down and the other on his side with hands reaching the pubic region of the female.

Natufians of the southern Levant

In 2008 Leore Grosman, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, found the high status grave site of a 12,000 year-old Natufian Shaman in a cave (now called Hilazon Tachtit), in Northern Israel. The small, disabled woman was about 45 years old when she died and was buried with various animal parts, including 50 complete blackened tortoise shells, the tail of a wild cow, the pelvis of a leopard and the wing tip of an golden eagle, the leg of a wild boar and two martens, as well as a complete human foot.

It is likely that her clan ate the roasted tortoise meat as part of a ceremony, then carefully placed the empty shell in her grave that was a  mud-plastered and rock-lined pit that was buried beneath a large stone slab.

Bad Dürrenberg

Artist impression (based upon the location of finds in the grave) of a Stone Age female shaman based on the rich set of grave-goods, found in one of three burials excavated during 1930’s at Bad Dürrenberg (Saxony-Anhalt, Germany). This 25-35 year-old female was buried between 9,000-6,000 years ago, along with a 6-12 month-old child in a grave filled of red hematite, which was at least 30 cm deep.

A variety of objects were found with her in the grave. These have not been interpreted merely as food supplies for the beyond – grave goods included:

  • Several flint blades
  • Two bone needles
  • Roe Deer antler
  • 16 red deer incisors
  • Polished stone celt
  • Wild boar tusks
  • Various bones (crane, beaver, red deer)
  • Shell fragments from swamp turtles
  • 120 fragments of freshwater mussels


Renewed examination 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 shamanistic practices.
Stone Age Shaman

My interpretation of the Shaman headdress from the grave found in Bad Dürrenberg in the 1930’s.

The replica of the Shaman headdress is made from similar animal bones, as found in the German grave: the skin is eithereuropen jackel (Canis aureus moreoticus) or coyote (Canis latrans); the antlers are from a european roe 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), severnwater buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) teeth that are suspended beneath a European roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) jaw bone – all attached to leather strips.

Star Carr

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.

Prehistoric Medicine

During prehistory, it is assumed that rational treatment was used only on obvious injuries (cuts or broken bones) otherwise spiritual treatment was carried out by the trobal shaman, who received his medical ability through his relationship with the gods.


Trepanning (also known as trephination or trephining) is a surgical procedure in which a hole is drilled into the human skull to remove a piece of bone.

The earliest recorded was around 7,300 – 6,220 BC, according to Radiocarbon dating of the Dnieper Rapids cemeteries near Kiev in Ukraine, showing succesful trepanation was performed on one skeleton (no. 6285-9).

The skull (originally reported in Russian by I.I. Gokhman in 1966) has a depression on its left side with a raised border of bone and “stepping” in the centre showing healing during life. The complete closure suggests the survival of the patient, a man who was over 50 years old at his death. Other known examples of early trepanning were found at a neolithic burial site of Ensisheim in France.

Plants for Medicine

It is likely that plants, herbs or clay and other natural ingredients, like honey were used by prehistoric shamans as medicines and for dressing wounds, however no evidence has been found. Anthropologist Luigi Capasso reported Otzi the iceman carried with him a birch fungus used as a laxative and as a natural antibiotic. 

Oral Care

A 6,500-year-old human tooth (found more than 100 years ago in Slovenia) could provide evidence of the earliest form of human dentistry as indication are that toothache was treated with beeswax.

Federico Bernardini and Claudio Tuniz (Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics) believe the beeswax was applied around the time of the person’s death, but cannot confirm whether it was shortly before or after.

The tooth is a left canine, whose crown bears the traces of filling with beeswax that exactly fills the shallow cavity in the exposed dentin and the upper part of the crack.