Anthony Paton, a “materialist fundamentalist with and interest in alternative perspectives”, works for the Cradle of Humankind world heritage site. Besides being my brother, he in a intrepid bipedal student of all things natural: Birds, Reptiles, Rocks, People, and Natural Selection, and is not known to pass an opportunity to opine. So I asked him for his views on Shamanism.

Where does shamanism fit into the picture we now have of mans social and spiritual evolution?

Chief SeattleShamanism seems to have a long history- tens of thousands of years and is prevalent in many pre-agrarian societies, and is possibly associated with hunter-gatherer culture.  That would make it possibly a 250 000 year old tradition. There is a strong argument to suggest that shamanism is associated with traditional medicine- that since people discovered that plants can be harvested and consumed in various forms- through eating, smoking, steaming etc. and some of these plants contained chemicals which sent people on a mind journey which they interpreted through their own animistic (or other) beliefs.  Seeing that people already had a notion of deities and a spiritual world, it made a lot of sense to them to interpret these trips as informing them of the contents of these worlds, and receiving messages from them.

What is the role of the shaman in the Bushman culture of the Kalahari?

Whether there is a “Pan-San” tradition or not is debated, but observations of the Kalahari people were made by John Marshall and his family, Megan Biesele, George Silberbauer, Tony Traill, and more recently by David Lewis-Williams and his followers including Thomas Dowsen and others.  These include Kung, !Xo, Ju-wasi and other language groups.  Four classes of shaman are listed with a short description of their roles namely:

  • Shaman of hoofed creatures- purportedly able to engage forces of passivity and bovine instincts and able to communicate with key food species which also happen to be species with highest n/um spiritual potency.  N/um is believed to exist in eland, giraffe and other herbivores (varying by region) but also in bees, the wind and the sun.
  • Shaman of clawed creatures- purportedly able to engage forces of aggression and anger and predatory instincts towards or away from community
  • Shaman of rain and weather- purportedly able to predict, induce or with-hold rain and other climatic conditions
  • Shaman of sickness and health- concerned with physical, emotional & spiritual health of people and purportedly able to extract “arrows of sickness” out of suffering person’s body

In some communities up to one in three people are shamans, but they also have normal material roles such as hunters for men or gatherers for women. A good starter book on this is Seeing is Believing by David Lewis-Williams.

Have you had any encounters that might be termed shamanic?

I have seen pictures and footage of Kalahari shamanism, including some taken by Tony Traill.  I have seen a neon-like snake (psychedelic) moving through grassland (actual) under the influence of LSD, but that did not equate to shamanistic experience in my world view, merely a psychedelic one.  But anyone from a different cultural background would have interpreted the identical experience differently.

Do you think Christianity and Shamanism are irreconcilable?

I suppose that depends whether you are an essentialist or a fundamentalist.  They are not fundamentally reconcilable (polytheistic animism vs. monotheistic hierarchy), but they are essentially reconcilable (they are both attempts to reconcile the material world on the one hand with the spiritual, abstract, moral-ethical and ideological world on the other) and both believe there is a clean and attainable inter-face between these poles.

How does Evolutionary theory explain the persistence of this metaphysical practice over thousands of years?

In order to have metaphysical consciousness there are two primary preconditions:

  • ethical consciousness must be achieved (I believe that chimpanzees have this).
  • abstract thinking must be achieved (I think that chimps are on the brink of this). 

Ethics exist, but they are hard to enforce.  When once the ethical level has been achieved, the dilemma is “How do we enforce adherence to the basic ethic of I won’t harm you if you don’t harm me, and further, I’ll help you if you help me.”

Dawkins and others discuss this under “intentionality”- the example from The God Delusion is instructive (and relevant!!):

“Dennet speaks of third order intentionality (the man believed that the woman knew he wanted her), fourth order intentionality (the woman realized that the believed that the woman knew he wanted her) and even fifth order intentionality (the shaman guessed that the woman realized that the man believed that the woman knew that he wanted her).”

The level of intentionality is actually a measure of the degree of abstraction that the mind is capable of.  Chimpanzees are probably between the third and fourth level intentionality, despite the fact that they can remember number sequences better than humans. 

A corresponding thing exists in humans where pre-literate people have a far superior narrative memory. But when once fourth and fifth levels of intentionality have been reached (one author I have read argued convincingly that Shakespeare demonstrated a sixth order of intentionality), religion (and shamanism) are not only possible, but likely, if not inevitable.

You seem to suggest that shamanism is a higher achievement rather than as many in the west would have it, a more “primitive” one.

All religious belief is higher (in terms of abstraction).  Unfortunately for various reasons (see Jaryd Diamond The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee and Guns, Germs and Steel), Eurasian people progressed technologically more rapidly than Africans, Australians and Native Americans, and by the time they colonized these people they were able to cast them as primitive. 

Remember the narrative was written by western people, because they had writing technology and weapon technology.  If you read the legendary speech of Chief Seattle he says that he cannot sell land because he does not own land, but land owns him.  Animals are his brothers.  White men will reach a stage when they suffocate in their own waste, and when they realize that you cannot eat money.  He came from a shamanistic culture.  He was clearly ideologically advanced on those who destroyed his people’s culture. 

But he was not technologically advanced and so he was called “a savage” and “uncivilized”.  The western historical narrative has tried to confuse material advancement with spiritual advancement for the benefit of their own conscience as perpetrators or the massacre of the people who preceded them on the land. For if Bushmen, and aboriginals of Australia, America and many other parts of the world had been portrayed as human then how could you just kill them?  The “barbarism” of natives was the colonialists’ projection of their own moral bankruptcy. (There’s a very Jungian one coming through).

In modern western society, who do you think, if anyone, has taken on the role of the shamanic practitioner?

The priest, the pimp, the drug dealer, the rock and roll star, the commander of the virtual game (matrix managers), the politician, the sport icon, the conjurer, the magician, the doctor and the psychologists have all inherited a slice of the shamanistic pie, and there could be quite a few more if I think about it.  But of course there are still shaman but their world is dwindling.  In the Kalahari the tape recorder, the whiskey bottle and the soccer ball are all stealing power from the shaman.

Do you think that the shamanic arts are recoverable, or should be recovered or protected?

You cannot conserve animals without there context, so it’s great that there are more Siberian Tigers in cages than in the wild.  Now that there habitat has been destroyed by human development, where do they propose to put the bloody tigers?  If you really want to conserve the Siberian Tiger, you must conserve their prey animals, and the plants that there prey animals eat and so on, in other words you have to conserve the entire habitat intact.

I am sure from that metaphor it is easy to see my point.  You cannot conserve shamanism without conserving shamans.  Their shamanism only makes any sense within the language and culture, so you have to preserve the language and culture.  You cannot preserve the culture without preserving the context. But you don’t see the rich cattle barons of Botswana suddenly saying “Sorry Bushman- we stole nine tenths of the country from you, and now you can have it back!”

An easier indicator is language.  There are arguably 14 bushman languages.  7 or 8 of them have less than 100 extant speakers.  Half of the languages in the world will become extinct in this century.  This is very easily translatable as well more than half of the shamanistic cultures will be extinct in 100 years time.  Do you think anyone in Anglo American is worrying about 10 000 people who are being taught Setswana and Afrikaans and English and then sent to work for tuppence a week on someone’s farm.

There is an organization called Survival International which highlights the plight of first people and I subscribe to their newsletter.  Sadly the problems faced by the Bushmen of Botswana are highlighted in almost every e-mail.  

Who would you trust more, the shaman or the minister?

I would trust people whose sincerity, honesty and integrity are evident to me.  There are many charlatans in both categories whom you cannot trust, but there are no doubt sincere seekers (and in their own minds, finders) in both categories.