Vast and rich, harboring tremendous biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity, and heirs to a glorious and tragic history, Central and South America have given rise to some of the most ancient, enduring, and spectacular examples of shamanistic practice documented. The Asiatic peoples who migrated to the Americas during the Pleistocene era appear to have brought with them a ritual complex that integrated religious and medical functions, centered around trance states, and may have involved hallucinogenic plant use.
As in the case of the Siberian cultures to whom we owe the etymology of the term shaman, native societies throughout Central and South America distinguish ritual specialists who enter trance to commune with the spirits for purposes of healing, divination, and other matters of individual and collective well-being. Because of the presumed Asian origins of Amerindians, and also partly because the Siberian term happened to gain wide usage, certain west Asian traditions and similar Arctic and North American examples have been treated as original or more “pure” versions of shamanism than their Central and South American counterparts.
Yet recent archeological and genetic evidence suggests a much more ancient date for the arrival of humans in the Americas than had previously been assumed. Keeping this fact in mind, native Central and South American shamanism should be seen not as derivative of or secondary to “classic” Asian shamanism, but rather parallel, largely independent, and equally ancient bodies of practice that have evolved and diversified in response to heterogeneous ecological, sociocultural, and historical conditions.
Evidence for shamanism in pre-Columbian America is scant and sometimes speculative, but still it suggests a certain continuity of practice from ancient through contemporary times and throughout large geographic areas. Some consider geometric designs and animal motifs in ancient rock art in South America and elsewhere in the world as evidence of shamanistic practices in Paleolithic times. Spectacular artistic and religious iconography at Chavin de Huantar, cradle of Andean civilization, includes representations of the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus, suggesting an ancient and ongoing importance of hallucinogens and shamanism in highland and coastal Peruvian societies.
Snuff kits and tablets containing hallucinogenic plants have been found at archaeological sites throughout South America, echoing shamanistic practices documented in historical and ethnographic accounts. Pre-Hispanic artwork and early colonial manuscripts from Mexico depict hallucinogenic mushroom and plant species in ritual and mythological contexts; the importance of Bufo toads in Aztec and Mayan art and symbolism has been interpreted as evidence for the ritual use of hallucinogenic toad toxins in ancient Mesoamerican religion.
Artwork and heiroglyphic writings of the ancient Maya describe trance states induced by fasting, bloodletting, and perhaps hallucinogenic preparations. From the early days of the Conquest, explorers and missionaries observed and commented on the religious and medical practices of native societies. Having destroyed hundreds of priceless Aztec codices (painted books) documenting all aspects of life in ancient Mesoamerica, Spanish priests nonetheless continued to write their own accounts of indigenous worship, divination, healing, and other “pagan” customs.
Juan de Córdova, a Dominican friar, was sent to live among the Zapotec of Oaxaca in the middle of the sixteenth century to investigate their “idolatrous rites,” and was able to document surviving pre-Hispanic customs such as a hierarchical priesthood, ritual bloodletting, and religious uses of tobacco, datura, and hallucinogenic mushrooms. Spanish natural historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo described the “very evil [vice]” of tobacco smoking among indigenous peoples of Hispaniola island (modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), who were mostly extinct by the time his book was published in 1535.
Political and spiritual leaders among the Hispaniola islanders smoked large pipes of tobacco to commune with the spirits, heal the sick, and secure bountiful harvests or victory in warfare. French priest André Thévet visited coastal Brazil in the mid-sixteenth century and provided a similar account about tobacco-consuming prophets (the term shaman did not enter the literature until much later) among the Tupinamba known as pagé: “impostors . . . people of evil custom,” and “ministers . . . who . . . serve the Devil,” in the good priest’s opinion.
The pagé isolated themselves and abstained from sex and social contact in order to carry out secretive healing and divining ceremonies during which they chanted (and probably consumed hallucinogens) to invoke spirits. Writing in the same period about Peru, Spanish priest Bernabé Cobo describes achuma, the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus, as being “the plant with which the devil deceived the Indians of Peru in their paganism . . . Transported by this drink, the Indians dreamed a thousand absurdities and believed them as if they were true”.
Despite their cultural bias, such early accounts provide us a glimpse into the shamanistic practices of societies that are now extinct or completely assimilated. Condescension and a disparaging attitude toward shamans continued to color the writings of missionaries, travelers, naturalists, and early anthropologists at least through the first decades of the twentieth century, when more sophisticated ethnographic accounts became available.
Last updated: March 11, 2015 at 10:24 am
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