Cover image for The shamans of prehistory : trance and magic in the painted caves
The shamans of prehistory : trance and magic in the painted caves
Clottes, Jean.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Chamanes de la préhistoire. English
Publication Information:
New York : Harry N. Abrams, 1998.
Physical Description:
120 pages : illustrations (some color), color maps ; 32 cm

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
GN803 .C5813 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area-Oversize

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This work reveals the authors' method of understanding the images painted or etched on rock walls by the people of prehistory. Noting the similarity between prehistoric rock art and that created by some contemporary traditional societies, archaeologists Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams suggest that the ancient images were created by shamans, powerful individuals who were able to contact the spirit world through trance and ritual.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The most obvious question about cave art is why is it there, and Clottes, a prehistoric rock art expert associated with the French ministry of culture, and Lewis-Williams, a South African professor of cognitive archaeology, propose an elegant answer in this beautifully illustrated volume. They begin by documenting the universality of certain cave art images, then suggest that these paintings are shamanic in nature. They make their case in a fresh and lucid discussion of the methods shamans use to achieve altered states of consciousness in order to get in touch with the spiritual realm, then, shifting to a neuropsychological perspective, characterize the types of hallucinations experienced at the three main stages of trance: geometric shapes, objects of religious or emotional significance, and visions of animals, monsters, and people. The three sets of visions are depicted gracefully on cave walls deep beneath the surface of the earth, the perfect setting for a journey to another world. This is a handsome and quietly thrilling solution to an old and essential mystery. --Donna Seaman

Library Journal Review

Since the first report of cave art (at Altamira in 1879), attempts have been made to explain the purpose of the mysterious drawings. Art for art's sake; totemism; hunting, destructive, or fertility magic; and modern structuralist theories have all been proposed. Clottes (The Cave Beneath the Sea: Paleolithic Images at Cosquer, LJ 4/1/96) and Lewis-Williams (cognitive archaeology, Univ. of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg) propose a new theory emphasizing the shamanic aspects of Paleolithic cave paintings. After an unavoidably technical chapter providing the basics of shamanism, the authors examine Paleolithic paintings from across France and Spain, noting the use of animal figures, composite figures combining both human and animal characteristics, and geometric designs that are all common elements of shamanism. The bulk of the book is both fascinating and thought-provoking, and while it is not likely to be the last word on the subject, it is an important contribution to the field. Recommended for academic and large public libraries.‘Mary Morgan Smith, Northland P.L., Pittsburgh (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Two of the world's leading authorities on rock art present another controversial explanation of the paleolithic cave art in Europe. Clottes offers an impeccable discussion of the history and research of the caves. Both authors offer an excellent discourse on the rise and dissemination of shamanism worldwide, although they introduce an overly simplistic definition of the stages of trance, stating its universal application. Thus their case for paleolithic shamanism is based on the building blocks of historic cultures, with emphasis on the San of Africa, a tenuous argument at best. A short history on earlier and conflicting opinions lays the groundwork for support for their own thesis. The book is beautifully illustrated, with fine color prints, accompanying a superb verbal trek through many of the caves. Their primary claim for shamanistic influence on the parietal art has two points: the potential for the human nervous system to enter altered states stretches back to the first homo sapiens; and the ubiquity of shamanism still extends to all cultures, (although there is a disclaimer that not all paleolithic art is shamanistic). Though the conclusion supports their form of inductive reasoning, what they state as evidence is clearly opinion instead. Recommended for upper-level students with a background in paleolithic cave art studies. F. G. Bock; formerly, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo