Reconstructing Earliest Amerindian Shamanisms

In The Religions of the American Indians, Ake Hultkrantz is clearly interested in reconstructing the supernatural beliefs and practices that the First Americans would have carried with them to the New World.  Because Hultkrantz wrote the majority of the book (in Swedish) in 1967 and updated it for the English translation in 1979, the “Clovis first” thinking at the time was that Siberian hunter-gatherers crossed the Bering Land Bridge into North America approximately 12,500 years ago.

With this in mind, Hultkrantz suggests that we might find clues to First American supernaturalism by examining the supernatural beliefs and practices of extant Siberian hunter-gatherers — those who did not make the crossing and are genetically related to those who did (i.e., all Amerindians).  This has of course been done, and the considerable ethnographic materials have been ably synthesized by Mircea Eliade and Piers Vitebsky.  What emerges is a distinct shamanic complex that, while having parallels to shamanic practices in the Americas, also has unique characteristics not usually found in the New World.

Several obvious questions arise from this line of investigation.  Is the prototypical Siberian shamanic complex — typified by intense personal breakdowns during initiation and subsequent soul flights that are extremely dangerous — representative of the First Americans’ beliefs and practices at the time of their initial arrival (which we now know was much earlier than 12,500 years ago)?  Did those beliefs and practices morph into something different upon their arrival and dispersion throughout the Americas?

The answer to the first question is that it is unwise to assume that recent or extant Siberian shamanisms have remained static over the past 15,000 years or so.  Although shamanic complexes can be found throughout the world and described in very general terms, a primary characteristic of shamanic practice is fluidity — ideas come and go with individual shamans.  This means, of course, that any attempt to describe an essential or ideal form of shamanism — or to speak of “shamanism” in the singular — is doomed to failure; the materials are too disparate and change too often.

This essentially answers the second question: there can be little doubt that distinctive shamanic complexes arose and died out in the Americas after the arrival of the first immigrants.  Hultkrantz finds it intriguing — as do I, that the shamanic practices most closely resembling those in Siberia (i.e., intense personality breakdowns and dangerous soul flights) are most often found in South America and rarely seen in North America.  What might account for this fact?

One possible answer is that some groups in South America never became agriculturalists and that perhaps all groups in North America, at one time or another, practiced some form of agriculture and some of those groups later returned to a hunting and gathering way of life.  This is particularly true of the Plains Indians, nearly all of whom dispersed onto the Great Plains as horses became more widely available.

The areas from which many of them came — the Great Lakes regions and the eastern Woodlands, clearly were agricultural and heirs to the Mississippian mound building traditions.  This means, of course, that we cannot simply look at Plains Indians as pristine hunter-gatherers whose supernatural beliefs and practices hearken back — in a straight line of conceptual descent — to the shamanic complexes of the earliest Amerindians.

Another suggestion sprinkled throughout Hultkrantz’s book is that something like a “high god concept” was found among North and South Amerindians upon contact by Europeans, and that this idea might have originated in Mesopotamia, spread to Eurasia and Siberia, and then accompanied the earliest arrivals to the Americas.  I find this suggestion of “high god diffusion” untenable.

First, it is undisputed that the earliest migratory pulse into the Americas occurred earlier than 12,500 years ago.  In his classic article on the Peopling of North America, David Meltzer discusses the Monte Verde site in Chile which is firmly dated to 12,500 years ago.  Given the incredible distance from Siberia to Monte Verde — 10,000 miles — it is obvious that the First Americans arrived much earlier, perhaps 15,000 to 18,000 years ago.  In accordance with this thinking, most archaeologists now accept that the Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in Pennsylvania dates to 16,000 years ago.

At this time in Mesopotamia (i.e., 15,000-18,000 years ago), we have no evidence that anyone had made the transition to agriculture or that the hunting and gathering peoples in the area harbored beliefs in a high god.  The earliest evidence of high gods comes only after the domestication of plants and animals (i.e., the Neolithic Revolution) and the establishment of the first city-states in Sumer, some 6,500 years ago.  By this time, the Americas were completely occupied and any notions of high gods that developed did so independently of anything which occurred in the Old World.

The only diffusion of high god concepts from the Old World to the New came with European contact.  Anxious to discover that even “primitive peoples” perceived the reality of a high god — in other words, that the Christian God was universal — our earliest informants (usually soldiers, missionaries, and explorers) queried the natives in what lawyers would object to as leading fashion.  By the time more neutral chroniclers arrived to document native beliefs, European ideas about a high god had spread far and wide among Amerindians, many of whom could easily accommodate and confirm the cherished and fictitious notion of an Urmonotheismus.

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