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Shamanism, Totemism and Rock Art: Les Chamanes de la Préhistoire in the Context of Rock Art Research

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 June 2001

Robert Layton
Department of Anthropology, University of Durham, 43 Old Elvet, Durham, DH1 3HN, UK


Les Chamanes de la Préhistoire: Transe et Magie dans les Grottes Ornées, by Jean Clottes & David Lewis-Williams, 1996. Paris: Éditions Seuil; ISBN 2-02-028902-4 hardback 249FF, 110 pp., 114 colour ills.

The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves, by Jean Clottes & David Lewis-Williams, 1996. New York (NY): Harry N. Abrams; ISBN 0-8109-4182-1 hardback, US$49.50, 120 pp., 116 colour ills.

Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams' recent book Les Chamanes de la Préhistoire builds on a body of rock art research which has come to dominate the field, marginalizing interest in other cultural themes such as totemism and records of everyday foraging. Shamanism and totemism are, however, two of the most pervasive indigenous theories of being to have been discussed in the anthropological literature. The word totem comes from the Ojibwa, a native North American people, while the word shaman comes from the Tungus of central Siberia. Their use cross-culturally to refer to types of religion (i.e. shamanism and totemism), is an artefact of anthropology. Shamanism can be applied to customs that are inferred to have arisen independently in different parts of the world; customs in a single circum-arctic culture area; or scattered survivals from an allegedly original human condition. The cross-cultural validity of shamanism has been considered by Eliade, Lewis, Hultkrantz and Vitebsky. Shamanism refers to the use of spirits as guardians and helpers of individuals, contacted through trance. The validity of totemism as a cross-culturally-valid category has been vigorously debated in anthropology. It is generally agreed to refer to the use of animals or plants as emblems or guardians of social groups celebrated in ritual. The rationale of totemism is that each group is identified with a different species; the significance of each species derives from its place in the cognitive structure. Group A is kangaroo because it is not emu or python. While Durkheim interpreted totemism as the original human religion, Lévi-Strauss persuasively argued that totemism is a product of human cognition, which has developed independently in North America, Australia and Africa.

2000 The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research

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