Study suggests shamans acted as the first professional class in human society

Study suggests shamans acted as the first professional class in human society
Credit: Courtesy of Manvir Singh

The names may vary—medicine man, witch doctor, holy man, prophet—but the notion of the shaman, someone who uses trance to commune with the supernatural and effect real-world change, is one that crosses virtually all cultural boundaries.

The question of why is among the central puzzles of anthropology.

At least part of the answer lies with the way humans—from hunter-gatherer tribes in the rainforest to people living in a modern city—are wired to think about the world and other humans, contends Manvir Singh, a in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, whose paper was published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Singh's paper, along with more than two dozen commentaries from researchers in a host of fields, argues that shamanism develops as specialists compete to provide magical services to their community. The outcome is a set of traditions that hacks people's psychological biases to convince them that they can control the uncertain.

"The theory is that there are important things we really want to have control over—calling rain, summoning animals, healing illness," he said. "All around the world, people believe that these important, uncertain outcomes are influenced by invisible forces—gods, witches, their ancestors, fairies, and more. But a shaman says, 'I can control that. I can talk to fairies. I can see signs of witches. I can be possessed by a god or speak to them.'"

To understand how shamanism emerges, Singh first had to address a nagging question in anthropology—what exactly is a shaman?

Study suggests shamans acted as the first professional class in human society
Manvir Singh (right) interviewed members of the Mentawai tribe during his research on shamanism. "In the most general terms, a shaman is a person in a group who enters a type of trance — a very foreign behavioral and psychological state — to provide services to the community," he said. Credit: Manvir Singh
"It's a hugely debated and contested idea," he said. "But in the most general terms, a shaman is a person in a group who enters a type of trance—a very foreign behavioral and psychological state—to provide services to the community."

Those services, Singh said, could range from healing disease to exorcising evil spirits to telling fortunes, or even changing the weather.

The key to the community's trust that a shaman has those abilities, Singh said, comes from the belief that the shaman is transformed into something more than human, and able to interact with supernatural forces. That transformation can be permanent, like the supposed acquisition of new organs, or temporary, as when shamans dance for hours and enter exhausted trance states.

"There are several lines of research that show people believe other people have different powers when those people diverge from humanity," he said. "One great example of this is the superhero narrative. In those stories, the reader has to believe this person has powers normal humans don't, so the writers often include an origin myth—this person was bitten by a radioactive spider, or they have some genetic mutation, or they're actually an alien."

In different societies, shamans may claim that they create a new skeleton, are devoured and resurrected, or magically alter their eyes so they can see spirits.

"The point is they are biologically or physiologically a different kind of being," Singh said. "And that gives us some insight into what's going on with these shamanic practices. They become an individual who can engage with the supernatural. They become a different kind of human."

Study suggests shamans acted as the first professional class in human society
A shaman becomes a specialist in the community's hierchy. Credit: Manvir Singh

Singh said the transformation process helps explain how shamans became the first professional class in human societies.

"To become one of these people who can oversee these uncertain events, you have to undergo this transformation. That creates two classes of individuals—those who have been transformed and those who have not," Singh said. "This creates a separate class of individuals where there is an entry requirement, and where they have near-exclusive jurisdiction over these services."

That professionalization, Singh said, is different from the loose specialization that often appears in small-scale societies. While some members of the community might have a talent for making canoes or bows, there is no social barrier that prevents another person from making his or her own canoe or bow.

"Meanwhile for shamans, it quickly develops into a system where, to become a shaman, you have to undergo a transformative ritual—there are these entry requirements," he said.

Going forward, Singh said he hopes to explore the variety of powers shamans claim and how those alleged supernatural abilities translate to power in their communities. He is also working on understanding why other near-universal cultural practices develop, including music and belief in witchcraft.

"Shamanism is only one of countless cultural practices that emerge nearly everywhere, yet exhibit very particular and odd features," he said. "These social and cultural universals—punitive justice, dance music, witchcraft, initiation ceremonies, and so on—are among the most fundamental puzzles of anthropology. Given how much we've come to know about human psychology and sociality, now is an exciting time to investigate why human societies everywhere look so strikingly similar."


Explore further

South Korean shamans fluidly absorb cultural change

More information: Manvir Singh. The cultural evolution of shamanism, Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2017). DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X17001893
Provided by Harvard University

This story is published courtesy of the Harvard Gazette, Harvard University's official newspaper. For additional university news, visit Harvard.edu.

Citation: Study suggests shamans acted as the first professional class in human society (2018, December 11) retrieved 21 May 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2018-12-shamans-professional-class-human-society.html
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mqr
Dec 11, 2018
So prostitution is not the oldest profession.

Dec 11, 2018
Tribal elders, leaders and chiefs are candidates for the first professional class as well.

Dec 11, 2018
A shaman is a spiritual man. Or a woman. He or she is a healer. Yes, she can do prophecy too (maybe). It depends on the faculties of the spiritman. Also it depends on the Spirit.

People with scientific minds usually claim that the shaman only tries to affect the nature, only tells stories, only acts.

Not so. The Spirit is real. People can communicate with Spirit. But it needs practice. And yes, it does need transformation. One learns to communicate with Spirit after having first been initiated, then saved, then reborn, then transformed.

Native communities are not ignorant. Quite the contrary. They know their nature, coming from Spirit, far better than us. They communicate with the spirits, but what the shaman is for is: community. The shaman is the mediator between various souls and Spirit.

If we don't believe in spiritual world, and especially if we have decided there is none, then we can't understand any of it. Only spiritually conscious can enter the other side.

Dec 11, 2018
If a Shaman was the first profession, then the first prostitute was likely the first woman who traded her body for a fortune telling, thus setting a relatively high price for her services.

But Tipunen is correct, most indiginous cultures live much much closer in accordance with what nature requires and the abilities between shamen will differ, just as with the variety of craftsmen. A village may be rich if it has a weather teller, one who feels the turn of the seasons and when the times for planting will be best, those who can mediate for the dead or the living and those who can take in others with their own differing perceptions and train them that this is not abnormal, but considered to be MORE Normal than our 'modern living' is to much of the world. But these people have rich connections to the real and spirit worlds that would behoove us to listen to.

Dec 12, 2018
Shamenism is something Einstein also did - ....

Errrr, No.
Einstein didn't take hallucinatory drags and/or go into a trance to try and communicate with the spiritual world or communicate with gods etc to be told about relativity.
Instead, he DEDUCED relativity by using his own BRAIN, as in USED REASONING/LOGIC; -Big difference!
+ Shamenism doesn't give you the physics maths equations.

Dec 12, 2018
One scientific fact checker Quora, is unsure due to number of anecdotal stories yet gives us this information anyways:

"Einstein's blood was tested after his death. The autopsy showed traces of LSD as well as Dimethyl-triptimene (DMT)

In 1955, Albert Einstein died from his heart exploding 'burst aortic aneurysm' which could have easily been caused by years of cocaine use in conjunction with his age at that time as cocaine users are found to have more than four times the risk of coronary artery aneurysms than non cocaine users as per the Journal of the American Heart Association."

So to go saying that Einstein was never into drugs appears to be mistaken. Perhaps there is something very very smart about some of them shamen out there, and perhaps the effects of the drugs opened his mind to new, previously unexplored pathways, and the drugs helped him stay awake and working on ideas.

But even he believed in the spirit world, so maybe he DID get some equations from that state.

Dec 12, 2018
Throughout most of their development, humans rarely lived past age 30. Most succumbed to accident, predation, disease, and conflict. But as technological innovation progressed and humans eliminated more and more of these natural attritive elements, more people were surviving to reproduce and they were also living longer lives.

But the older one gets the less he has to contribute to the tribe, and the less justification he has for being there. Why should others feed and clothe him if he cant hunt and fight like the younger tribesman?

I think that some clever old coot began telling stories about dead ancestors and their exploits. And with every iteration the tales became more fantastical. These legends turned into gods that could protect people from harm and grant special favors. And the old coots had found a way to earn their keep as mediums and envoys.
Cont>

Dec 12, 2018
One scientific fact checker Quora, is unsure due to number of anecdotal stories yet gives us this information anyways:

"Einstein's blood was tested after his death. The autopsy showed traces of LSD as well as Dimethyl-triptimene (DMT)

In 1955, Albert Einstein died from his heart exploding 'burst aortic aneurysm' which could have easily been caused by years of cocaine use in conjunction with his age


To imply that Einstein discovered relativity from cocaine use is ridiculous.
No, he discovered relativity by reasoning/logic alone.
There is no evidence to show he got his insight via drugs.


Dec 12, 2018
First you say he did not use the, now you, with NO EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER say he could not have gotten his insights from there. Sure, he used his brain, some drugs can augment this for some people, which is WHY Shamen use various substances at times for different things.

Peddle your superstitious fear elsewhere.

Dec 13, 2018
First you say he did not use the, now you, with NO EVIDENCE WHATSOEVER say he could not have gotten his insights from there. Sure, he used his brain, some drugs can augment this for some people, which is WHY Shamen use various substances at times for different things.

Peddle your superstitious fear elsewhere.


So are you claiming Einstein discovered relativity from cocaine use? Yes or no? No cocaine; No relativity?
And are you promoting cocaine use for scientists to help them make progress with their research?

Dec 13, 2018
Let me emphasis: There is NO evidence that taking illegal drags will help you with your scientific research.

Dec 13, 2018
At the time, those drugs were not illegal and often easily available to other high end scientists. Many of them said it helped connect ideas in their heads, and indeed, many big discoveries area actually found by two or three people nearly simultaneously. This is detailed in various literature on the timing of various scientific laws or data.

Even scientists recently, who have tried psychedelics have said it helps them see some of the connections in their work easier, and allowed them to step around obvious problems, ones they had not realized Before using certain substances. This has been detailed in various literature as well, restricted in the US due to stupid, Western religion based drug laws, as so there is little hard info about it.

But it is also commonly known that for centuries the best artists, scientists and experimenters tended to be druggies, cocaine was drug of choice for many, and LSD, later, opened whole new avenues in science.

You are just ignorant of this.

Dec 13, 2018
But to say that Einstein got the idea from the drug would be wrong, it may be more correct to say the drug allowed him to see more options and to have been able to possible Feel whether certain maths correctly described what he was seeing.

This has been a common theme among the researchers of that era when the drugs were legal or even when not, they were available to the top scientists whom got away with a lot of things due to their position and America's needs.

You are obviously a young, just say no, Drugs are Bad, M'Kay? type. When they are now finding real uses for some of these substances and finding there is a LOT more to them than thought. Kneejerk religious prohibitions and mis-use of the law enforcement being worse than the drugs.

The spirit world is real, and LSD and a few others facilitate communications across the physical energetic and disbelief barriers to connect the soul here with one's higher self. Western Religions are freaking because they cannot stop it

Dec 13, 2018
But to say that Einstein got the idea from the drug would be wrong, it may be more correct to say the drug allowed him to see more options and to have been able to possible Feel whether certain maths correctly described what he was seeing.

Err, no. What opinions people feel they should have while they are high on crack are insane ones that they would realize are just complete gibberish once they go cold turkey.

Dec 13, 2018
Yup Shamanism in modern society is not dead. It is alive and well and called Climate Science.

Dec 14, 2018
hunny? you are attempting to have a serious debate while surrounded by a pack of looneytoons!

A+ for the effort!
Keeping your cool in such a futile effort to describe reality to this gaggle of cultists.

Jan 24, 2019
The first behavioural specialisation was thrust upon us, so to speak. Other species in our lineage (birds are not in our lineage) have offspring and leave. Mammals have offspring and the mother nurtures them for the first period of their life.

This is a specialisation unique to the mother right up to but not including humans where in modern times both parents provision and care for young.

A wet nurse, a female who continues to lactate and provision children other than her own is a necessary survival strategy for small hunter-gatherer groups.

Other roles followed on much later. Chiefs and witch doctors require a larger population than simple hunter-gatherer groups and older people tend to be considered the wise ones in such groups providing leadership and advice on health matters.

Thus the female's genetically mediated behavioural specialisation is the most ancient.

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