A Mongolian shaman or böö sits with his child before a fire ritual during the summer solstice in June 2018 outside Ulaanbaatar. Banned under communist rule, shamanism has seen a resurgence in Mongolia since 1992, when the ancient practice became protected by the country’s Constitution. Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty
The trances and healing powers of shamans are so widespread that they can be counted a human universal. Why did they evolve?
Shamanism is as varied as those who practise it. Its practitioners range from indigenous lineages who have passed down their craft over thousands of years to the modern ‘plastic shamans’, who represent no specific culture but have adapted shamanism to meet the demands of metropolitan markets. However, there is a common theme to shamanism wherever it is practised: the use of spiritual (or shamanic) trance to facilitate journeys to a non-ordinary reality. Here, in this non-ordinary reality, the shamans do their work. According to the historian of religion Mircea Eliade writing in 1951, shamanism is the ‘technique of ecstasy’, involving the purposeful invocation and use of dreams and visions to solve problems.
By this definition, shamanism is the landscape of the spirit-journey, populated by good and evil spirits and the souls of the deceased and yet-to-be-born. It is the place where mountains speak and Grandmother Skeleton points out which plants to eat when the dry season lasts too long. In this form, shamanism is everywhere in the old ways of humans. Every tribal culture – alive or dead – has some broker of spiritual capital. The Indonesian Mentawai have their sikerei. The Inuit have their angakok. The Columbian Desana have their paye. The Mongolian Buryat have their böö. The American Sioux have their heyoka.
The sheer magnitude of our shamanic ancestry means one of two things: either shamanism originated once prior to the human diaspora some 70,000 years ago and has been preserved since, or it has arisen independently countless times in premodern human cultures. If we consider that preagricultural human societies are each experiments in how to run a village, with each competing in the evolutionary market of survival and reproduction, then we must ask: what good is shamanism?
The answer is a lesson in both the psychology of problem solving and the construction of meaning. In order to get there, we first have to understand what the prominent explanations of shamanism are in contemporary anthropology. These explanations all rely upon a common set of psychological and evolutionary principles, and these principles in turn explain the adaptive value of shamanism.
One explanation holds that shamans are beta-versions of modern healers. They treat everything from tiger bites to depression. Their expertise in medicinal plants and associated healing practices extends from the physical to the psychological. This happens because many tribal cultures do not differentiate between the material and mental in the same way that modern science often does. It is also well-known that many of the plantsused by traditional healers have active properties and are used accordingly. But this explanation doesn’t say much about a key element in shamanic practice: the shamanic trance.
A second prominent explanation is that shamans exploit human gullibility by taking advantage of psychological biases, such as the human fear of ‘dread risks’. These are risks that are essentially arbitrary, or outside of one’s control, but can nonetheless wipe out entire families or villages. Modern examples include plane crashes, terrorist attacks, nuclear meltdowns, pandemics and the like: events with low probability, but very high consequences. The science shows that humans will pay a lot to minimise these risks, even if the associated consequences are more lethal over the long run. In this case, some anthropologists claim, the shamanic trance represents a kind of folk proof that shamans can protect people against dread risks. The shaman can interact with invisible forces and effectively neutralise them.
A third argument holds that shamans organise social groups around common beliefs. These, in turn, lead to better outcomes for the group as a whole. For example, using the threat of magical retribution, the shaman can keep everybody from killing the last gazelle. This mitigates a ‘tragedy of the commons’ scenario, in which shared resources are overused and depleted. Shamans can also unite the tribe around arbitrary decisions by making them sacred and putting everyone on the same page, thereby eliminating potential conflicts over where to hunt, what crops to plant, or whether to fight or flee a neighbouring tribe. This extends to organising groups around social-commitment ceremonies that enhance cooperation and create the soothing in-group vibrations common to traditions such as Thanksgiving and Hanukkah…