On the Antiquity of Shamanism and its Role in Human Religiosity

In: Method & Theory in the Study of Religion

Abstract

Drawing upon ethnographic data on the thriving and dynamic shamanistic tradition in Nepal (gathered between 1999 and 2008), this paper addresses the problematic nature of many of the central assumptions concerning shamanism and its place in the development of human religiosity. These include beliefs that shamanism was the universal religion of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers and that it represents a neurotheology, the expressions of which have been preserved in ancient cave art and in the magico-religious beliefs and practices of extant or recently extant hunting-gathering cultures on the peripheries of the “civilized world.” The paucity of any concrete testable and falsifiable evidence for any of these assumptions raises the compelling question of why so many anthropologists, archaeologists, and scholars in other fields subscribe to these views. The answer does not lead to some ancient grotto or an undisputable assemblage of Paleolithic shamanic paraphernalia, but to the imagination of Mircea Eliade, whose vision of shamanism is rooted in the musings of nineteenth century anthropologists.

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