The Earliest Shamans: 4 Discoveries of Mesolithic Shamanism

Shamanism focuses on an individual's power to transcend spirit worlds, to advise, and heal members of their community. Could shamans go as far back as the Mesolithic Period?

May 7, 2023By Ben Hume, MA Funerary Archaeology, BA Archaeology
shamans mesolithic period


The practice of shamanism often involves hallucinations and altered states of consciousness to access the spirit world. Shamans fulfilling the roles of healers, diviners, mediums, and entertainers, can be found in cultures around the world today. However, it is also possible to find shamans in the distant past with the help of archaeology. This article will examine four possible cases of shamanism from the Mesolithic Period (c. 9000 BCE – 4000 BCE depending on geographic region).


The Origin of Shamanism

evenk folk osiktakan
Evenki people in Osiktakan, 2017, via Wikimedia Commons


The origin of the word ‘shaman’ comes from the Evenki people of Siberia and northern Eurasia, who use it to describe an individual with the power to mediate between the humans, animals, and spirits dwelling within a three-tiered cosmos. It is a term that must be used with caution as it has evolved from the context of the Evenki people to, in some cases, describe any spiritual specialist anywhere in the world. A shaman may experience psychological transformations, such as trances, to commune with spirits for the purposes of healing, divining, harming, and even entertaining.


Intriguingly, the shamans are often seen as gender fluid or agender, which allows them to channel the aspects of different spirits for healing or divining. Archaeologically, it is possible to identify a shaman in burials with a wide range of unusual grave goods, such as faunal remains and spiritual equipment, like a staff with an animal-headed terminal. Costumes, such as antler headdresses, have traditionally played a significant role in the identification of shamans.


1. The Bad Dürrenburg Shaman

bad durrenburg shaman
Artist’s impression of the Bad Dürrenburg shaman, via landesmuseum-vorgeschichte


The first example of a possible Mesolithic shaman comes from the site of Bad Dürrenburg, Germany, and dates to around 7000 BCE. This individual has been skeletally sexed as female and was buried in a flexed, upright position. A number of genetic abnormalities in the skeleton could suggest that they exhibited unusual behaviors through neuropathological conditions, which could have led to them being seen as in communication with the spirit world. This involved hallucinations and an altered state of consciousness through the compression of a particular nerve that restricted blood flow to the brain.

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evenki shaman headdress
Depiction of an Evenki shaman wearing a shamanic costume, 1785, via Plos One Journal


Further evidence to support the shaman hypothesis comes from the incredible assemblage of grave goods that was deposited with them. This included a huge variety of remains from many different animals. These have been interpreted as shamanic, as shamans need to inhabit the essence of different animal characteristics to understand and interpret them. This knowledge is then used to heal and inform the community. Most spectacularly, the Bad Dürrenburg shaman was buried with an incredible antler headdress that bears a striking resemblance to the image of the Evenki shaman from 1785.


2. The Shaman Headdresses of Star Carr

star carr headdress
Headdress discovered at Star Carr, UK, via Star Carr Archaeology Project


Star Carr is a unique site located in Yorkshire, UK, and dates to around 9000 BCE. Although no human remains have been found at the site, it is well known for its ritualized archaeology, including an engraved pendant and, interestingly, an assemblage of antler headdresses. As with the site of Bad Dürrenburg, the headdresses found at Star Carr closely resemble those used by the Evenki people in Siberia. Many of these headdresses or ‘antler frontlets’ have holes drilled through the parietal bone in the skull which would allow them to be worn on the top of the head with a strap.


So far, 24 of these headdresses have been found. This suggests that the site of Star Carr was of great ritualistic importance to the population living in the area during the Mesolithic. An alternative interpretation is that the headdresses were used as a disguise when hunting red deer. This transformation through disguise, however, is also among the defining characteristics of shamanic practice, where a shaman attempts to become the animal in order gain access to its essence.


3. The Shaman of Hilazon Tachtit

hilazon tachtit shaman
The shaman burial of Hilazon Tachtit in Israel via National Geographic


Another example of a possible shaman burial comes from Hilazon Tachtit in Israel and dates to around 10,000 BCE. The burial at Hilazon Tachtit is of a biological female who, like the individual from Bad Dürrenburg, had physical deformities which would have made them stand out from others. Their deformed pelvis would have given them an extremely asymmetrical gait, leading them to have likely dragged their foot behind them. Abnormalities such as this in the Mesolithic were often celebrated as the person was seen to have been blessed with spiritual powers to divine and heal.


Further intriguing evidence comes from their grave goods. They were buried with a large assemblage of remains from different animals, including 50 complete tortoise shells, select parts of a wild boar, an eagle, a cow, a leopard, two martens, and a human foot (from a different individual). Once again, this large assemblage of animals seems to indicate that the person buried at Hilazon Tachtit was a shaman. Ethnographic studies suggest that, for shamans, various animals have different traits and personalities that can only be tapped into through trance and ritual practice. Furthermore, animal spirit guides are also said to accompany the shaman through the various realms that they traverse.


4. The Shaman Burials of Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik

oleni ostrov cemetery map
Map of the cemetery at Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik via Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences


The site of Oleneostrovskii Mogilnik, or Oleni Ostrov, in Russia, dates to around 7000 BC. It is located on an island situated in Lake Onega and would have required great effort to bring the deceased to this location. This site also features graves that have been interpreted as shamanic. The graves in the cemetery are fairly consistent in form, apart from four individuals comprising two biological males, one biological female, and a juvenile who were buried away from the others. These individuals were buried vertically in a sitting position rather than horizontally in so-called ‘shaft’ graves and were found facing to the west, whereas the other burials all faced east.


The grave goods that were found also provide evidence for shamanic burials. A recovered assemblage of beaver mandibles has been interpreted as having medicinal and ritual properties. This interpretation is based on modern Siberian shamans who still wear them as part of their shamanic costumes.


Although it is problematic to sex a burial via grave goods, it has been suggested that only the skeletally sexed biological females in the main cemetery were buried with the remains of beavers, as no biological males were found with beaver remains in the main cemetery. The two biological male ‘shamans’ were, however, found with beaver teeth which could suggest that usual gender norms were suspended in favor of a fluidity embodied through various characteristics such as the deposition of typically ‘female’ objects.


The Characteristics of Shamans

mongolian shaman photo
Photo of a Mongolian shaman c. 1909 via Finnish Museum of Photography


These four Mesolithic case studies are useful for establishing a ‘package’ of indicators to identify shamans in the archaeological record.


Unusual grave goods that represent a wide range of animals are one indicator. The wider the range of animals, the more experience a shaman has to pull when suggesting appropriate healing rituals or advising the community.


The evidence of gender fluidity is another one and has been established through comparative ethnological studies. Archaeologically, gender fluidity can be observed in ‘gendered’ grave goods. Gender fluidity can also be seen as an extension of animalistic fluidity, given that shamans needed to embody a variety of gender characteristics in order to fully represent their community in ritual matters.


Physical abnormalities that can lead to an altered appearance are also represented both archaeologically and ethnographically as characteristic of a shaman.


Finally, objects deposited with the burial can evidence a shaman, such as the use of antler headdresses. Other objects, such as drums for initiating a trance, are also seen in modern shamanic cultures, although they are, however, extremely difficult to recognize in the archaeological record.


Shamanism from the Mesolithic to the Modern Day 

olkhon shaman photo
The main shaman of Olkhon, via Wikimedia commons


There is a large body of evidence to suggest that there was a shamanic practice during the Mesolithic and that some of these practices continue to this day. Evidence in the form of grave goods and ritual attire can help to define a shaman in the archaeological record. Grave goods can be in the form of animal remains, ritual costumes, and also specific gendered grave goods. Unusual burial positions are also strong evidence for a shamanic burial, especially when they are paired with other shamanic attributes. It is important to stress though, that we cannot overgeneralize with ethnographic interpretations from people such as the Evenki and must be cautious due to the huge distance that sets apart the Mesolithic from the modern day. The four cases discussed in this article do, however, provide strong evidence of shamanism, or at the very least, of unusual individuals who received unique treatment both in life and in death.

Author Image

By Ben HumeMA Funerary Archaeology, BA ArchaeologyBen is an archaeologist specializing in funerary practices and the Iron Age with MA and BA degrees from the University of York. He received an award for his MA dissertation considering evidence of violence on human remains in northern Britain's Bronze and Iron Age caves, which is now being reworked for publication. Ben has also worked in post-excavation and the museum sector to record and exhibit archaeological material. Ben can usually be found hiking up the nearest mountain or traveling when not working.