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The cultural evolution of shamanism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 July 2017

Manvir Singh*
Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138. manvirsingh@fas.harvard.edu


Shamans, including medicine men, mediums, and the prophets of religious movements, recur across human societies. Shamanism also existed among nearly all documented hunter-gatherers, likely characterized the religious lives of many ancestral humans, and is often proposed by anthropologists to be the “first profession,” representing the first institutionalized division of labor beyond age and sex. In this article, I propose a cultural evolutionary theory to explain why shamanism consistently develops and, in particular, (1) why shamanic traditions exhibit recurrent features around the world; (2) why shamanism professionalizes early, often in the absence of other specialization; and (3) how shifting social conditions affect the form or existence of shamanism. According to this theory, shamanism is a set of traditions developed through cultural evolution that adapts to people's intuitions to convince observers that a practitioner can influence otherwise unpredictable, significant events. The shaman does this by ostensibly transforming during initiation and trance, violating folk intuitions of humanness to assure group members that he or she can interact with the invisible forces that control uncertain outcomes. Entry requirements for becoming a shaman persist because the practitioner's credibility depends on his or her “transforming.” This contrasts with dealing with problems that have identifiable solutions (such as building a canoe), in which credibility hinges on showing results and outsiders can invade the jurisdiction by producing the outcome. Shamanism is an ancient human institution that recurs because of the capacity of cultural evolution to produce practices adapted to innate psychological tendencies.

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