Prehistoric Belief: Shamans, Trance and the Afterllife

Prehistoric Belief: Shamans, Trance and the Afterllife

by Mike Williams


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A unique and accessible analysis of the belief systems of the prehistoric people of Europe
Both extensively researched and fast-paced, this groundbreaking book tackles all the big subjects in archaeology: the spread of humans from Africa, the rise of social groups, the adoption of agriculture, the construction of monuments, the emergence of metal, and the fall of the Celtic tribes. In showing that belief was central to these epic changes, as well as influencing the most mundane, everyday task, a new understanding of our prehistoric past emerges. Evocative vignettes take readers back in time to experience for themselves the sights, smells, and sounds of the past. It is only with the advent of modern science that we can begin to unravel the lives of those who lived thousands of years ago, people who were adept at entering trance and found the "other world" there to be as real as their own. This is a new way to approach prehistory, putting people and the beliefs that they held center stage. For without understanding people's beliefs, we will never comprehend their world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752449210
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 11/01/2010
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 9.70(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Mike Williams is a shamanic practitioner and teacher and the author of Follow the Shaman's Call.

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Prehistoric Belief

Shamans, Trance and the Afterlife

By Mike Williams

The History Press

Copyright © 2011 Mike Williams
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-7634-6



All about us is a landscape of ice and snow; the wind tugs at the furs wrapped around us and the chill grips our bodies like a fist. You gesture to the cave and we move inside. It is strangely lit and we realise with a start that there is a fire towards the rear and large shapes moving around it. They are people, but not like any we have ever seen before. Large, squat, and powerfully built; we catch glimpses of their faces and cannot help but stare at their pronounced noses and brows. We have entered the lair of the Neanderthals. Moving closer, we notice that they are filling a pit with stones and loose earth. They are covering something but we cannot quite make it out. You creep closer still and point to a shape sticking out of the soil. It is an arm; the Neanderthals have just buried one of their dead. All at once there is a low sound that fills the cave; it is mournful but strangely rhythmic. We realise that it is the Neanderthals singing; is this how they lament their dead?

It is difficult to establish when Neanderthals first colonised Europe, as the fossil remains of the earliest examples are difficult to tell apart from earlier species of humans. It was thought that 300,000 years ago was the absolute earliest that Neanderthals had evolved as a separate species but new excavations at Atapuerca, in northern Spain, have suggested that it might be closer to 400,000 years ago, although whether these fragmentary remains are of Neanderthals or of an even earlier species of human is still debated. However, from the remains of several individuals found at Ehringsdorf in Germany, and (more securely dated but far scantier in terms of remains), Pontnewydd Cave in Wales, it seems certain that Neanderthals had colonised most of Europe by at least 230,000 years ago. They were to last another 200,000 years.

The landscape inhabited by the Neanderthals was one of wildly fluctuating temperatures. Although supremely adapted for the Ice Age, which affected Europe for much of the time that they were around, Neanderthals also had to cope with sudden periods of warming and even, on occasions, sub-tropical environments. During the last inter-glacial period (the warmer period between Ice Ages), between 128,000 and 118,000 years ago, there were even hippos living in southern England. Sudden climate change was nothing new to the Neanderthals and they coped with it remarkably well.

Although Neanderthals certainly looked very like us, just how human their behaviour actually was is hotly debated, especially when it comes to burial. Caring for the dead is a very human trait since the focus is on the presumed soul of the individual and its journey to the afterlife – concepts requiring imagination and belief, which some think were beyond the reach of Neanderthals. Had we arrived slightly earlier in the cave, we may have witnessed how the Neanderthals had conducted the burial of their dead: whether they had spoken any words to the corpse, whether they had put any offerings in the grave, and whether the body had been laid out with respect. We certainly heard what sounded like singing but was this part of a mourning ritual or just a spontaneous outpouring of grief ? Evidence of Neanderthal burial is tantalisingly scant and these are issues that archaeologists continue to debate.

Although some 500 Neanderthal bodies are known, most are very fragmentary and only around 20 are reasonably whole. Of these, even fewer were buried. However, in the few cases where a pit had been dug to hold the body (interpreted as a sign of deliberate action on the part of the survivors) many of the remains were positioned in a foetal position, as if they had been placed with respect. Moreover, at La Ferrassie in France, two bodies were laid head-to-head, perhaps mirroring the relationship the individuals had in life.

Possibly the most celebrated Neanderthal burials were found within caves at Shanidar, in modern-day Iraq. Rose and Ralph Solecki, a husband and wife team, found several burials between 1953 and 1960, including a man who had been crushed on the right side of his body, perhaps from a rock-fall, leading to partial paralysis and infection. That he lived for several months after the accident shows that the others in the group must have cared for him, and were evidently not thuggish brutes, but it did not prove that they honoured him after death. Elsewhere in the cave, a Neanderthal burial was surrounded by flower pollen. Could this have come from bouquets left by distraught loved ones? This would have been a typically human gesture to mark mourning and loss, and it would also indicate, as the excavator put it, that Neanderthals had a love of beauty. The idea seemed to echo the preoccupation with 'flower power' at the time of excavation.

At another Neanderthal burial site at Teshik-Tash in Uzbekistan, a young boy was laid in a cave surrounded by six pairs of horns from local mountain goats. The brief lighting of a fire next to the body seems to suggest that maybe this was part of a funeral ritual. At other sites, items appear to have been left with the bodies, perhaps indicating that these were offerings for the deceased to use in the afterlife. Particularly striking were the cattle bones left next to a body at Chapelle-aux-Saints in France. If these were once joints of meat, could they have been provisions for the afterlife? Similarly, at Amud, in Israel, a red deer jawbone seemed to have been deliberately placed next to the pelvis of an infant. Was there some symbolism associated with this act?

In our cave, we watch as the last stones are placed on the grave and the Neanderthals turn their attention back to the fire. One leans forward and throws another branch to land in its heart. There is a sharp hiss and the flames leap momentarily higher. The Neanderthal nearest the fire is briefly lit and we notice that he is sawing something with a flint knife, holding the item tightly between his front teeth. We also notice a thread around his neck. It is a sinew necklace holding a small shiny object, possibly a shell; the fire has dimmed again and it is difficult to tell. With a start, we realise that the object rests on the swell of a breast. This is a Neanderthal woman! We grin at each other in embarrassment but there is no need to apologise for our mistake. Through the gloom and smoke of the cave, both sexes look remarkably alike.

Wearing jewellery at this time was almost certainly symbolic: it portrayed a message. Could the Neanderthal woman have been saying something about herself? The shell may have marked her out as having travelled to the sea, or that she had relatives in that part of the world. Nevertheless, would the others have understood the message? What this demands is abstract thought, an advanced form of intelligence thought to be held exclusively by modern humans. In effect, the shell stands for so much more than merely a shell; it becomes a metaphor for a host of other ideas and thoughts. To understand it fully requires a degree of comprehension that brings together a variety of disparate ideas and links them with symbolic connections. Could the Neanderthals have done this, or was a shell merely a shell?

However, shell jewellery is not the only evidence for symbolic thought attributed to Neanderthals. Art is usually assumed to be an indication of advanced thought: making something stand for something else. Although the evidence for Neanderthal art is vanishingly small, some claim to have found it. At Berekhat, in Israel, a small figure of what might be a woman was certainly made by Neanderthals, as microscopic analysis of the cut marks demonstrates. Elsewhere, at La Roche-Cotard in France, other excavators have claimed that a lump of flint was modified with the addition of a bone splinter to resemble a face. As with most art, however, its veracity is most certainly in the eye of the beholder. Although there are no caves that were painted by the Neanderthals, they gathered lumps of pigment, particularly red ochre and black manganese dioxide. The most likely explanation is that the pigment was for painting their bodies, although whether this was for decoration or merely to fend off the strong sun is a moot point.

Although we thought we heard the Neanderthals singing, some think that they went further still and actually made musical instruments. Moreover, an appreciation of music would support the view that Neanderthals had an advanced level of intelligence. At Divje Babe Cave in Slovakia, the excavator, Ivan Turk, found an 11cm hollow thigh bone from a bear with two or more holes pierced into its surface. It looked just like a flute and since it was found near to what may have been a fire, images of Neanderthals gathered around the blaze and enjoying an impromptu music recital caught the imagination.

In some caves, although not all with Neanderthal remains, archaeologists have found piles of cave-bear bones and skulls, some seemingly placed in stone-lined pits. At Régordou, the bones were from the brown bear but at Drachenloch, in the Swiss Alps, the bones were from the now extinct cave bear, a huge and ferocious predator, much bigger than a modern grizzly bear. Did the Neanderthals recognise its strength and collect the skulls in homage to it? Were the bone caches actually shrines for worship in some primitive cult of the cave bear?

As we leave the cave of the Neanderthals, we have discovered little that is new. These people remain enigmatic. They certainly looked like humans but did they think in the same way that we do? It is impossible to say outright but the evidence, albeit circumstantial, is persuasive. Surely we can draw some conclusions? Well, sadly not. For every step towards revealing Neanderthal beliefs, there seem to be two steps back. In the grave at Shanidar, 'flower power', as we shall see, had more to do with mouse than man.



The famous Shanidar flower burial may not have been all that it first appears to be. The Persian jird, a small gerbil-like rodent, also likes to visit the same caves that the Neanderthals inhabited – they make their nests in them. These nests are then provisioned with their favourite food, flower heads, which the jird stores in great numbers. In fact, the larder of the Persian jird would be more than enough to account for all of the flower pollen found with the Shanidar burial. The bouquets of mourning Neanderthal relatives may have been nothing more than a rodent's food store.

Although the goat horns around the young boy at Teshik-Tash were certainly placed there by the Neanderthals themselves, they may be less extraordinary than they first appear. Of the 768 non-rodent bones in the cave, that is, bones that would have probably been brought in by the Neanderthals rather than occurring naturally, 760 were from mountain goats. Clearly, goat featured regularly on the menu and the horns may have been lying around anyway, providing a convenient digging pick to fashion the grave pit. There was no symbolism involved in the act, merely a straightforward approach to solving a practical problem: how to dig the grave. The haunches of meat at Chapelle-aux- Saints and even the red deer jawbone at Amud may have been chance occurrences; bones moved about in the cave by scavengers or the movement of sediments over thousands of years, leaving a picture whose apparent story is false.

Similarly, under scrutiny, the bear skulls that appear to have been cached in the stone-lined pits reveal no cut marks, indicating that the heads fell off naturally after death. Indeed, in some caves with bear bones, no Neanderthal presence has ever been detected. The remains seem to be no more than a striking coincidence when a number of skulls and bones were moved about by water flowing into the cave and were caught up within some blocks of stone that had fallen from the ceiling. It may have even been a hibernating bear itself that swung its paw over the cave floor to make some room for its bed and swept the remains of its distant relations into the corner. These were not shrines of an ancient bear cult, but rather natural accumulations of bones that were big enough to have become trapped together.

Finally, the shell necklace that we saw was probably just a crude copy from a more recent occupant of those snowy lands: modern humans. Although Neanderthals had Europe to themselves for thousands and thousands of years, from about 40,000 years ago to when they finally died out around 30,000 years ago, they shared the continent with our earliest forebears. The last Neanderthals seem to have copied these modern people, fashioning similar tools and even wearing similar body decorations. There are two explanations for this. A minority see the Neanderthals as having reached a degree of sophistication whereby they had begun to develop the advanced patterns of thought necessary to understand and appreciate art, culture, and symbolic representation. The other view is that it is just too coincidental that this happened only when modern humans appeared. Rather than developing these behaviours themselves, the Neanderthals were mimicking what they saw modern people do. Whether they ever understood the symbolic importance of what they were doing is extremely unlikely. In short, their brains were just not up to it.

Neanderthals had bodies far more adapted to the cold environment than ours. Their frames were stocky with short limbs to conserve heat, their noses were large and flared to warm and humidify the cold air that they breathed, and their brains were larger than those of modern humans. However, despite its size, it is unlikely that the Neanderthal brain had the myriad of neural connections that are contained within a modern human brain and it is these connections that are crucial to advanced intelligence. Neanderthals probably had little conception of the past or even of the future; they lived only in the present moment. The abundance of tools found in some Neanderthal encampments suggest that they would make a tool for a particular purpose but then would just as readily abandon it when their task was completed. Similarly, many of the tools that they made were generic rather than specialised for a particular task – a one-size-fits-all solution. There appears to have been little forward planning in their world.

It was not that the Neanderthals did not have a store of wisdom that they could draw upon in their everyday lives, but that, rather, this is all that they had. They could remember (and presumably learn from a parent) how to do a certain task but they could not innovate to find a better way of doing it. This is why their tools and way of living remained essentially unchanged for thousands of years. This lack of joined-up thought makes it seem almost impossible that they could think symbolically. An object, such as shell, could only ever be a shell; it could not stand for something else, such as a far-away relative, a memory of a visit to the sea, or a symbol of belonging to a family group. This type of thought was beyond a Neanderthal. When we saw the Neanderthal wearing the shell necklace, she had almost certainly copied (or even obtained) it from a modern human; she must have liked wearing it but likely had no thoughts beyond that. To a Neanderthal, such jewellery had no symbolic meaning at all. This is probably true for all the suggested examples of Neanderthal art. The objects were certainly made by Neanderthals but were probably aborted tools or random marks created in ways that are now lost to us. They were neither symbolic nor were they created for their beauty. Even the flute, on closer inspection, has been revealed to have been formed when a carnivore bit the bone and left two round puncture marks with its teeth. If the Neanderthals did ever sit around the fire on an evening, it certainly was not to listen to music.

If Neanderthals had no symbolic thought, it is very unlikely that they had developed that pinnacle of symbolic usage: speech. Words are perhaps the ultimate symbol, since a series of sounds always stands for something else. Steve Mithen makes a convincing argument that, although Neanderthals would have used sounds for communication (and may have even sung at times of social stress, such as burials) they were not refined into speech as we would know it. In the same way as I understand that different barks from my dog mean different things, and might therefore comprehend his meaning, so Neanderthals probably understood what another was communicating to them. However, just as my dog might bark that he is hungry or bark that there is someone at the door, he would never be able to bark that there is somebody hungry at the door; such joined up meanings would be beyond him and were likely to have been beyond Neanderthals.


Excerpted from Prehistoric Belief by Mike Williams. Copyright © 2011 Mike Williams. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: A Smile of Eternity,
Part 1: In the Grip of the Ice: The Palaeolithic,
1 Ancient Rites in an Ancient Cave,
2 More Mouse than Man,
3 Dawn of the Spirits,
4 Remembering the Dream,
5 Journey to the Otherworld,
6 Deep in the Painted Caves,
7 Bringing the Spirits to Life,
8 Beautiful Bodies,
9 Making Friends,
Part 2: The Coming of the Forests: The Mesolithic,
10 The Valleys of Death,
11 Dance of the Deer,
12 Half-Human, Half-Fish,
13 The Isle of the Dead,
14 Taming the Wolf: A Dog's Life,
15 Strangers at the Gate,
16 Catastrophe,
Part 3: Farming the Land: The Neolithic,
17 A Tough Life,
18 Making Places out of Spaces,
19 Animal Relations,
20 Enclosing the World,
21 Tombs of Rebirth,
22 A Walk Towards Death,
23 Circles of Stone,
24 Gold on the Steppe,
25 Murder!,
26 A Drinking Party,
Part 4: Warriors and Homesteads: The Bronze Age,
27 Voyages to the Otherworld,
28 Fields of the Dead,
29 Between Heaven and Earth at the Painted Rocks,
30 The Magical Metal,
31 Mythical Wars and Beautiful Men,
32 Facing the Sunrise,
33 House of the Spirits,
34 Eye to Eye with a Mummy,
35 Portals to Another World,
Part 5: Dividing the Land: The Iron Age,
36 Seeing with the Eyes of the Gods,
37 An Invitation to the Feast,
38 Images of the Sacred,
39 Mounted Warriors and Transvestite Priests,
40 Life in the North,
41 Around the Houses,
42 Walking the Labyrinth,
43 The Gates to Iron Age Hell,
44 Storm in the South,
45 The Stain of Blood,
Coda: In the Grip of the Eagle,
List of Illustrations,

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