ANTHROPOLOGISTS AND SHAMANS
he main enigma I encountered during my research on Ashaninca ecology
was that these extremely practical and frank people, living almost
autonomously in the Amazonian forest, insisted that their extensive
botanical knowledge came from plant-induced hallucinations.
could this be true?
The enigma was all the more intriguing because the botanical
knowledge of indigenous Amazonians has long astonished scientists.
The chemical composition of ayahuasca is a case in point. Amazonian
shamans have been preparing ayahuasca for millennia. The brew is a
necessary combination of two plants, which must be boiled together
The first contains a hallucinogenic substance,
dimethyltryptamine, which also seems to be secreted by the human
brain; but this hallucinogen has no effect when swallowed, because a
stomach enzyme called
monoamine oxidase blocks it. The second plant,
however, contains several substances that inactivate this precise
stomach enzyme, allowing the hallucinogen to reach the brain.
sophistication of this recipe has prompted Richard Evans Schultes,
the most renowned ethnobotanist of the twentieth century, to
"One wonders how peoples in primitive societies, with no
knowledge of chemistry or physiology, ever hit upon a solution to
the activation of an alkaloid by a monoamine oxidase inhibitor. Pure
experimentation? Perhaps not. The examples are too numerous and may
become even more numerous with future research." 1
So here are people without electron microscopes who choose, among
some 80.000 Amazonian plant species, the leaves of a bush containing
a hallucinogenic brain hormone, which they combine with a vine
containing substances that inactivate an enzyme of the digestive
tract, which would otherwise block the hallucinogenic effect.
they do this to modify their consciousness.
It is as if they knew about the molecular properties of plants and
the art of combining them, and when one asks them how they know
these things, they say their knowledge comes directly from
Not many anthropologists have looked into this enigma 3 - but the
failure of academics to consider this kind of mystery is not limited
to the Amazon. Over the course of the twentieth century,
anthropologists have examined shamanic practices around the world
without fully grasping them.
A brief history of anthropology reveals a blind spot in its studies
In the nineteenth century, European thinkers considered that some
races were more evolved than others.
Charles Darwin, one of the
founders of the
theory of evolution, wrote in 1871:
nations, the reduced size of the jaws from lessened use, the
habitual play of different muscles serving to express different
emotions, and the increased size of the brain from greater
intellectual activity, have together produced a considerable effect
on their general appearance in comparison with savages."4
Anthropology was founded in the second half of the nineteenth
century to study "primitive," "Stone Age" societies. Its underlying
goal was to understand where "we" Europeans had come from.5
The problem for the young discipline was the unreasonable nature of
its object of study. According to Edward Tylor, one of the first
"Savages are exceedingly ignorant as regards both
physical and moral knowledge; want of discipline makes their
opinions crude and their action ineffective in a surprising degree;
and the tyranny of tradition at ever)' step imposes upon them
thoughts and customs which have been inherited from a different
stage of culture, and thus have lost a reasonableness which we may
often see them to have possessed in their first origin.
our ordinary modern standard of knowledge, which is at any rate a
high one as compared to theirs, much of what they believe to be
true, must be set down as false."6
The question was: How could one study such incoherence
The "father of modern anthropology," Bronislaw Malinovvski, found
the answer by developing a method for the objective analysis of
"savages." Called "participant observation," and used to this day,
it involves living in close contact with the natives while observing
them from a distance.
By considering native reality with a distant
gaze, the anthropologist manages to introduce "law and order into
what seemed chaotic and freakish." 7
From the 1930s onward, anthropology obsessively sought order in its
study of others, to elevate itself to the rank of science.8 In the
process it transformed reality into next to incomprehensible
Here is an extract from Claude Levi-Strauss's book The elementary
structures of kinship (1949), one of the texts by which anthropology
claimed to attain the rank of science:
"For example, in a normal
eight-subsection system the grandson would reproduce his fathers
fathers subsection by marriage with the mothers mothers brothers
The wavering of the Murinbata between the
traditional system and the new order ends in practice with the
identification of the mothers brothers daughter and the mother's
mothers brother's daughter's daughter as the possible marriage
partner, i.e., for TJANAMA: nangala = nauola. Hence, a TJIMIJ man
marries a namij woman.
The father maintains that his daughter is
naiycri (which is the 'conventional' Sub-section). However, a
woman is by kinship purima, a 'marriageable' daughter of the
sister's son, but according to the subsections she is a sister."
Consequently, her daughter is nabidjin. for according to the
aboriginal rule, formulated in a matrilineal idiom: 'namij makes
nahidjin.' From this the conflict arises of whether the subsections
are patrilineal or matrilineal."10
Just when anthropology thought it had established itself within the
scientific community thanks to such "structuralist" discourses, it
experienced a fundamental setback.
Its object of study. those
primitives living outside of time, started to vanish like snow in
the sun: by the middle of the twentieth century, it had become increasingly
difficult to find "real" natives who had never had any contact with
the industrial world. Indeed, such people may never even have
existed. As early as the second half of the nineteenth century, the
indigenous peoples of the Amazon, for instance, were dragooned on a
grand scale into the construction of the industrial world, to which
they contributed a vital component, rubber. Since then most of them
have used metal tools of industrial origin.
During the 1960s, this crisis plunged anthropology into the doubt
and self-criticism of "post-structuralism."
Anthropologists came to
realize that their presence changed things, that they were
themselves soils of colonial agents, and. worse yet. that their
methodology was Hawed. Participant observation is a contradiction in
terms, because it is impossible to observe people from above while
participating in the action at their side, to watch the game from
the stands while playing on the field.
The anthropological method
condemns its practitioners to 'dance on the edge of a paradox"11 and
to play the schizophrenic role of the player-commentator.
Furthermore, the distant gaze of the anthropologist cannot perceive
Itself, and those who aspire to objectivity by using it cannot see
their own presuppositions.
As Pierre Bourdieu put it, objectivism
"fails to objectify its objectifying relationship."12
Anthropologists discovered that their gaze was a tool of domination
and that their discipline was not only a child of colonialism, it
also served the colonial cause through its own practice. The
"unbiased and supra-cultural language of the observer" was actually
a colonial discourse and a form of domination.13
The solution for the discipline consisted in accepting that it was
not a science, but a form of interpretation.
himself came to say:
"The human sciences are only sciences by way
of a sell-flattering imposture. They run into an insurmountable
limit, because the realities they aspire to understand are of the
same order of complexity as the intellectual means they deploy.
Therefore they are incapable of mastering their object, and always
Anthropologists invented the word 'shamanism" to classify the least
comprehensible practices of "primitive" peoples.
The word "shaman" is originally Siberian. Its etymology is
uncertain.15 In the Tungus language, a saman is a person who beats a
drum, enters into trance, and cures people. The first Russian
observers who related the activities of these saman described them,
is mentally ill.
From the early twentieth century onward. anthropologists
progressively extended the use of this Siberian term and found
shamans in Indonesia. Uganda, the Arctic, and Amazonia. Some played
drums, others drank plant decoctions and sang; some claimed to cure,
others cast spells. They were unanimously considered neurotic,
epileptic, psychotic, hysterical, or schizophrenic.16
As George Devereux, an authority on the matter, wrote:
there is no reason and no excuse for not considering the shaman as a
severe neurotic and even a psychotic. In addition, shamanism is
often also culture dystonic... Briefly stated, we hold that the
shaman is mentally deranged. This is also the opinion of Kroeber and
In the middle of the twentieth century, anthropologists began to
realize not only that "primitives" did not exist as such, but that
shamans were not crazy.
The change came abruptly. In 1949,
Claude Levi-Strauss stated in a key essay that the shaman, far from being
mentally ill, was in fact a kind of psychotherapist - the difference
being that "the psychoanalyst listens, whereas the shaman speaks."
For Levi-Strauss, the shaman is above all a creator of order, who
cures people by transforming their "incoherent and arbitrary pains"
into "an ordered and intelligible form."18
The shaman as creator of order became the creed of a new generation
of anthropologists. From I960 to 1980. the established authorities
of the discipline defined the shaman as a creator of order, a master
of chaos, or an avoider of disorder.19
Of course, things did not happen so simply.
Until the late 1960s,
several members of the old school continued to claim that shamanism
was a form of mental illness:
"and in the 1970s it became fashionable to present the shaman as a specialist in all kinds
of domains who plays "the roles of physician, pharmacologist,
psychotherapist, sociologist, philosopher, lawyer, astrologer, and
Finally, in the 1980s, a few iconoclasts claimed that
shamans were creators of disorder.
So who are these shamans? Schizophrenics or creators of order?
Jacks-of-all-trades or creators of disorder?
The answer lies in the mirror. When anthropology was a young
science, unsure of its own identity and unaware of the schizophrenic
nature of its own methodology, it considered shamans to be mentally
When "structuralist" anthropology claimed to have attained the
rank of science, and anthropologists busied themselves finding order
in order, shamans became creators of order. When the discipline went
into a "poststructuralist" identity crisis, unable to decide whether
it was a science or a form of interpretation, shamans started
exercising all kinds of professions.
Finally, some anthropologists
began questioning their discipline's obsessive search for order, and
they saw shamans as those whose power lies in,
questioning and undermining the search for order."22
It would seem, then, that the reality hiding behind the concept of
"shamanism" reflects the anthropologist's gaze, independently of its
In 1951, around the time Levi-Strauss was transforming the
schizophrenic shaman into the psychoanalyst-creator of order. Mircea
Eliade, one of the foremost authorities in the history of
religions, published the now classic Shamanism: Archaic techniques of ecstasy.
To this day, it is the only attempt at a world synthesis on the
Eliade, who was not a trained anthropologist, saw neither mental
illness nor creation of order. Instead he identified astonishing
similarities in the practices and concepts of shamans the world
Wherever these "technicians of ecstasy" operate, they
specialize in a trance during which their,
"soul is believed to leave
the body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld."
all speak a "secret language" which they learn directly from the
spirits, by imitation.
They talk of a ladder - or a vine, a rope, a
spiral staircase, a twisted rope ladder - that connects heaven and
earth and which they use to gain access to the world of spirits.
They consider these spirits to have come from the sky and to have
created life on earth.23
Anthropologists rarely appreciate it when library-based
intellectuals use their work without muddying their boots and
discover connections that they had not seen. They made no exception
with Eliade, rejecting his work because of its "latent mysticism."
They accused him of detaching symbols from their contexts,
mutilating and distorting the facts, obliterating the sociocultural
aspect of the phenomenon and locking it into a mystical dead end.
Recently, it was even said that Eliade s notion of celestial flight
"a potentially fascistic portrayal of third world healing."24
Nevertheless, despite these criticisms. Eliade understood before
many anthropologists that it is useful to take people and their
practices seriously and to pay attention to the detail of what they
say and do.
Some anthropologists realized that the academic studies of shamanism
were going around in circles. This led them to criticize the very
notion of "shamanism."
Clifford Geertz, for instance, wrote that
shamanism is one of those,
"insipid categories by means of which
ethnographers of religion devitalize their data."25
However, abandoning the concept of "shamanism," as was done thirty
years ago with the notion of "totemism,"26 will not clarify the
reality to which it refers.
The difficulty of grasping "shamanism"
lies not so much in the concept itself as in the gaze of those who
use it. The academic analysis of shamanism will always be the
rational study of the nonrational - in other words, a
self-contradictory proposition or a cul-de-sac.
Perhaps the most revealing example in this respect is provided by
Luis Eduardo Luna, the author of an excellent study of the shamanism
of mestizo ayahuasqueros in the Peruvian Amazon, who practice what
they call vegetalismo, a form of popular medicine based on
hallucinogenic plants, singing, and dieting.
Luna focuses on the
techniques of these shamans and reports their opinions without interpreting them.
"They say that ayahuasca is a doctor.
It possesses a strong spirit and it is considered an intelligent
being with which it is possible to establish rapport, and from which
it is possible to acquire knowledge and power if the diet and other
prescriptions are carefully followed."
However, Luna writes in a
rational language for a rational public ("us"), and it is not
rational to claim that certain plants are intelligent beings capable
Luna, who explores the question of
"plant-teachers" over several pages, ends up concluding:
can be said... until we have some kind of understanding as to what
these people are really talking about, when they say that the plants
themselves reveal their properties."27
One cannot consider that what
they say is real, because, in reality as "we" know it, plants do not
There is the blind spot.
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