The Rock Art of Inner Mongolia & Ningxia (China) by Paola Demattè

Interpretative Theories: Religion & Shamanism

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Rock art is often perceived as a manifestation of the spiritual activities of our ancestors, and religion and ritual have historically played a major role in its interpretation. In the past, petroglyphs were explained as representations related to the world of 'primitive' religion (shamanism, animism, etc.) and specifically to rituals of hunting and fertility magic (Breuil 1952; Lommel 1967; on Lommel 1967).

In China, rock art is still at times interpreted by the older generation of Chinese scholars in terms of fertility and/or nature cults (Ban Lan 1991), but new ideas are also taking hold. Gai Shanlin and others (Chen 1988, 163, 1990) see some petroglyphs of Inner Mongolia and Ningxia (faces and circular signs with radiating patterns) as representations of sun-deities and evidence of a sun-cult. Comparable signs from northern Asia are similarly interpreted by the Russian Martynov (1991, 41-3), who sees them as solar symbols associated with imported Indo-Iranian cults. Most of the arguments in support of the fertility and nature cult hypotheses are based on speculation or evidence drawn from the Neolithic tradition of the Yellow River valley, which is culturally and geographically remote from the Yinshan and Helanshan (Gai 1986; 1989; Li & Zhu 1993). These beliefs cannot be ruled out (particularly the sun-cult, which may be connected with the sun-and moon-worshipping documented among the Xiongnu and Tujue), but the nature of these beliefs and how they would have informed the creation of petroglyphs is unclear (cf. Francfort 1998).

In Western scholarship, the 'structuralist' phase has been replaced by a return to shamanism as an interpretative framework for rock art, though the emphasis has shifted away from fertility and hunting magic towards altered states of consciousness (for a summary see Bahn & Vertut 1997, 180-83, 189-97). Current shamanistic interpretations take a narrow view of the shamanic processes and see rock art (and even Paleolithic cave paintings) simply as the creation of shamans who after trance experience (induced by obsessive dancing, fasting, or hallucinogenic drugs) depict their visions on stone. While there are and there have been a number of variants in shamanistic theories of rock art, the so-called 'neuropsychological' model, put forth some time ago by Lewis-Williams & Dowson (1988) is probably the one that has had the greatest impact in the field of rock art studies.

The 'neuropsychological' model claims that the tell-tale marks of the shamanistic trance experience in rock art are abstract carved or painted signs (grids, dots, zig-zags) in proximity to or embedded in the petroglyphs. These abstract signs are interpreted as entoptic phenomena (phosphenes and form constants), which according to Dowson and Lewis-Williams are pseudo-images created by the optic system under duress (in this case shamanic trance). The entoptics are said to mix and coalesce with 'true iconic' (and culture-specific) hallucinations during a three-stage trance experience.

If we may presume that those who hallucinate see entoptics and record them in images, the presence of grids, dots, and zig-zags allows the proponents of the model to identify rock art as a by-product of hallucinatory visions by people who have experienced trance (the so-called 'shamans'). Other signs of shamanistic vision are said to be the presence of therianthropes (interpreted as a self-vision of the shaman in trance) or simply of animals (the shaman completely transformed) (Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1988). At this point it is clear that if we were to follow this interpretation, the Yinshan and Helanshan rock art could easily be construed as shamanistic. Neverlethess, such a threshold for the identification of shamanistic iconography is very low, so that virtually any sign can be understood as a by-product of shamanism. This is the first of a series of weaknesses of the 'neuropsychological' model.

The second relates to its scientific support. The advocates of shamanism use neuro-psychological theories to suggest that their model is based on scientific evidence applicable to all modern humans and may be used to explain rock art the world over, notwithstanding cultural, geographic and temporal differences. Specialists in the field have over the years voiced great perplexity about these claims and the dated literature used to substantiate them. Specifically, neuro-psychologists are troubled by the proponents' understanding of entoptic phenomena, the existence of a three-stage trance experience, and the drugs available in antiquity that could induce the sort of hallucinations described in the model (Bahn & Helvenston 2002).

The third weakness comes from the simplistic use of ethnographic analogy. This model interprets the 'entoptics' in the light of nineteenth century ethnographies relating to groups of South African San from desert areas who were known to have practised shamanistic activities involving hallucinatory trance (Lewis-Williams 1983). Since these San groups did not historically occupy rock art areas, however, it is debatable whether they were producers of rock art, and, if not, whether their religious activities were similar to those of the groups who actually created it (Salomon 1998; Jolly 1998). Other evidence is gathered from ethnographies concerning Native North Americans, who are known to have engaged in shamanistic activities (Whitley 1992), even though these sources also do not seem to indicate that shamanism was the only reason for the creation of rock art (Grant 1967, 28-39; cf. also Layton 2000). In a repeat of the fertility magic theory, ethnographies are employed to present rock engravings as a homogeneous religious phenomenon shared by all 'primitives', from the European Palaeolithic hunters to the San of southern Africa and a variety of Native American groups. The message seems to be that while 'high' civilizations have complex religions and religious iconographies, the ‘primitives’ of all times and places have one religion and one iconography.

This approach leaves no room for appreciating cultural idiosyncrasies and different perspectives on meaning, since it is rigid in its identification of shamanistic trance as the sole cause for rock art, and loose in its definition of 'shamanism', which is confused with mystical aspects inherent in many religions. The looseness in the definition of shamanism and the randomness of the application of the shamanistic interpretative framework in matters of prehistoric iconography (not only in rock art) has generated great dissatisfaction in the scholarly community (Francfort & Hamayon 2001; Klein et al. 2002), particularly among those who take seriously the study of this phenomenon.

The issue of shamanism is of growing importance to Inner Asian rock art studies (Rozwadowski 2001; Devlet 2001; Francfort 1998), and given the location of Inner Mongolia and Ningxia at the edge of Inner Asia, the locus classicus of shamanism (Humphrey & Onon 1996; Eliade 1964), a possible role of shamanism in the Yinshan and Helanshan rock art cannot be ignored.


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