Rise of the Shaman

This is a story of healing. 

With the now declared worldwide pandemic of the corona virus, COVID-19, you have to wonder how ancient man protected themselves from disease and illness.  With all the medical advances we have in the modern world it is still those microscopic viruses that cause such disruption and death. 

corona virus COVID-19

It is easy understand considering how mobile we are through mass transit and international travel that an untreatable virus can spread quickly.  You might think that back hundreds of years ago when basically the major mode of travel was by foot mankind didn’t have to worry as much about pandemics.  However, we know that is not the case. 

Consider the Black Plague in the 1340’s killed one third of the world’s population before it ran its course.  We have a devastating plague in 541 A.D. that was by all accounts just as bad.  One of the oldest plagues is surmised from an excavated tomb in Sweden dated to 3,500 B. C.

The fear of plagues has been with mankind from the beginning.  

viruses started with multi-celled organisms

What did ancient man do to protect themselves from not only from a plague but from all kinds of illnesses that they ran into on a regular basis? 

There is plenty of evidence that ancient man, going back hundreds of thousands of years, had the level of consciousness to conceive of and develop the use of medicinal plants and that they most likely employed other curative practices for illnesses.  I am not talking about broken bones or other physical injuries which they did treat (Neanderthals treated dental problems 130,000 years ago); I am talking about when you get sick and need medical attention. 

neanderthals used herbal plants for medicine

Throughout human history no one knew the precise mechanism of how people got sick or how these sicknesses spread until the Germ Theory was proven in the middle 1800’s by the work of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch.

Louis PasteurLouis Pasteur

That is not to say however that mankind didn’t dance around the answer for thousands of years. By all accounts the Chinese were ahead of the pack in their treatment of infectious diseases.  In China we know of the first recorded case of isolation to prevent spread of disease was in the year 2 A.D. So, the Chinese were on to something but the exact cause, germs or virus, eluded mankind for centuries. Not only in the use of isolation to treat infectious disease, the Chinese were out in front in other ways developing a vaccine for smallpox in the 16th century, hundreds of years before Western Europe.

Chinese Medicine procedure

Ubiquitous Diseases

The truth is that as far as we know all animals get or have some sort of disease that affects them.  It’s logical to assume that since the beginning of the hominin legacy, some 8 million years ago, we have experienced diseases, epidemics and most likely pandemics.  Since the very beginning of the development of man’s consciousness we have had to deal with and process disease. 

Let’s say 2 million years ago in a Homo erectus tribe someone gets the flu.  They get a temperature, they throw up, etc. What did the other tribe members do or think about that?  At first they might think it was a bad meal.  Then others get sick also.  What do they do?  They probably just offered whatever care they could and waited it out.  They most likely turned to an elder or healer type character for help and answers.

The Supernatural

There was a time long ago when humans began to interpret the world as being influenced by supernatural powers.  I believe it was very early on.  In fact, the Homo erectus tribe could have wondered if some supernatural force was not responsible for their illness.  Regardless of the exact time it happened, humans began to believe in supernatural forces that controlled and influenced the world around them. I am of the opinion that the belief in the supernatural started with Homo erectus two million years ago.

Homo erectus looking at the night sky

There was a point when early man looked at an approaching storm or saw the wind blow through the grass and other natural phenomena and began to wonder if something unseen were behind the event. This is what led to the conception of the existence of a supernatural force.  Which led to the surmise that if a supernatural force could manipulate nature what else was it doing and why and most importantly could these forces be interacted with.

tablet with first written words

History is defined as beginning with the written word.  Prehistory is before the written word.  Writing started 5,500 years ago.  We know from records that all cultures around the world believed that supernatural forces i.e., the gods, spirits, demons, etc. could create disease and illness and they could also cure or restore health.  You have to assume that those beliefs did not pop up overnight with the invention of writing but were a part of mankind’s belief system throughout the prehistorical period.  Logic not only tells you that but archaeological artifacts indicate the worship of deities or spirits and animals.  Cave paintings going back 40K years are signs of belief in supernatural forces.

cave paintings of early man

Rise of the Shaman

I am going to be using the term Shaman in the generic sense.

definition of Shaman

For the vast majority of time (going back 2 million years), humans lived in small hunting and gathering tribes or groups. It wasn’t until 10-12 thousand years ago when the domestication of plants and animals began that the hunter-gatherer way of life began to decline.

Hunter-gatherer tribes were estimated to be in the size range from 15 to 100.  A maximum size of a 150 has been speculated based on the Dunbar theory of the rule of 150.  That rule stipulates that 150 is the maximum size of an effective social network. Under 150 members, groups tend to be able to cooperate based on mutual trust, simple rules and easily understood management of resources.

While they had a nomadic lifestyle, it did not mean hunter gatherer tribes lived in isolation from each other.  In large geographic areas there were many tribes that interacted frequently. They traded, exchanged mates and most importantly exchanged knowledge with each other. 

hunter gatherer groups

We all know that certain people have better skills for different jobs.  In hunter gatherer tribes there were expert spear makers for example.  They could craft a more aerodynamic and balanced spear. Likewise, there were individuals that were better at making clothes than others.  Their clothes were better constructed, fit better and looked better.  These people were sought out among the tribes and their handiwork was traded for and prized.  They would pass along tips and tricks of craftsmanship to others.

The same would be true for the ones that had a higher degree of expertise in healing, the Shamans.  You can imagine that some would be more interested in discovering and using plants and other ways to cure.  When tribes got together, they would exchange potions and cures they had discovered or tweaked that had been successful and ones that had not.

Once there was the acceptance of supernatural forces afoot, it didn’t take long for the realization that they could and probably did intervene in human affairs.  And if these forces could be implored to help out so much the better and what better way to help than to cure the ill.  The tribal healer or Shaman was the go-to person for all things supernatural.

How would a Shaman get the living forces of nature to help?  Well, incantations and chanting and so forth was a good start.  If a chant was recited in a particular way for a particular amount of time while exactly performing the specified ritual for a specific malady then the forces that be would accommodate the healer and cure the ill, providing a larger evil force hadn’t already done too much damage.

shaman healing with herbs

So developed a system of healing that lasted millions of years.  Medicinal plants were discovered and procedures on how to use them perfected.  Chants, healing songs and incantations were composed and ceremonies passed along.  Of course, the methods and incantations in Europe where different than in Asia but the framework was the same.  Different geographical locations had different plants, chants and ceremonies but idea was the same all over.

It’s not much different in one respect than we practice medicine today.  When someone gets ill, we go to the doctor.  The doctor will diagnose you, treat and most likely give you some pills to take along to help restore your health. 

No matter what you think of your current health system you probably think that thankfully you don’t have to go to a shaman and get some plants he picked in the surrounding field and listen to him chant to get better. Not so fast there.

Here is what we know whether you are aware of it or not.

natural plants make up 50% of all drugs in use today

I don’t want to get into a treatise on herbal medicine but let’s face it, we have all partaken in the herbal medicine market to one extent or another and the truth is most, and I mean the vast majority of people in the world use herbal medicines more than pharmaceutical compounds.  A report published in 2014 said that 80% of the world uses herbal medicine as the primary source for some or all of their healthcare and the use keeps rising.  Four billion people in the developing world use herbal medicine as their primary source for healthcare. 

always better to take herbal medicine less side afftects

In the modern world most people know the difference between an oak tree and a maple tree but that’s about it.  Take a walk in the woods and see how many plants you can identify other than the major tree species. 

A Shaman could identify every single plant in their geographical area and know it’s uses and how to prepare it to get the most effectiveness out of it.  They would know hundreds of plant species in great detail.

If you are reluctant to accept the effectiveness of herbal medicines just ask the billion-dollar pharmaceutical companies that are getting rich scouring the Earth for new plant compounds they can extract, synthesize, patent and then manufacture into so-called "wonder drugs."

Okay, Okay, you are thinking.  I know most, if not all, the great drugs come from plants and I’ll give you that Shamans intimately knew all the curative powers of hundreds of plants but come on, chanting, I mean really chanting.

The curative powers of sound.

There is the thing about healing with sound.  You know it’s true, it has worked for you your whole life.  You feel better after listening to your favorite music.  You just do. There are many physiological reasons for that as well as psychological.  Here are just some the benefits that have been clinically proven to help you heal better and faster with sound.

benefits of sound therapy

Instances of sound healing therapy are limitless and please, just like with herbal medicine, google it.  Google everything I write about to get the exact studies if you like.  But the thing is it’s self-evident that sounds promotes healing.

Using sound whether it’s music or chanting or some other sound therapy works to relax you and relieve stress.  Ask any medical professional and they will tell you stress is the killer.  Ask any medical professional anywhere and they will tell you that helping a patient relax will increase that patients ability to heal and shorten the length of time it takes.  I am not only talking about illness here either.  Broken bones will heal faster if the patient is more relaxed.

I am not suggesting that Shamans used to be crooners but by employing sound with chants or beating on a drum or making other sounds they facilitated in the healing process by relaxing the patient and allowing the herbal medicine to work better and faster.

Shaman Jam Session

How did it all work?

It’s a mistake to pigeonhole the workings of ancient Shamans to the backwater of superstitious nonsense.  I am sure by getting this far you would accept that most of the best medicines we have today are directly from plants or derivative from plants and not made-up chemical compounds.

I am also positively sure that you accept sound, music, etc. will relax you.  The medical journals are full of collaborating studies that show relaxation is a healing process itself.

The evolution of Culture is like the evolution of the body.  Practices and customs that hurt survival die out, practices and customs that increase survival stay and get refined as time moves on.

Picture yourself in a tribe 350,000 years ago.  Your entire life’s experience, from the time you become aware of life around you is centered in tribal life.  You see from the beginning of your awareness, the workings of the tribe’s Shaman.  You see when illness or injury strikes someone the afflicted person goes the Shaman for help. 

There was not a time in your life when you did not see and hear the healing ceremonies or rituals preformed by the Shaman.  And 90% of the time or better it worked for the patient, a healing took place.  How I can say that?  Because we know from modern medical journals that 90% of the time someone goes to the doctor they would have gotten better on their own even if they would have stayed home. 

the body heals itself 90% of the time you are ill

I do not think you can downplay the effectiveness of a Shamanistic healing ceremony for ancient peoples.  Tribal members would have had a natural confidence in the ceremonies based on their own observed experiences.

Also, we haven’t even mentioned the supernatural component to this yet.  Adding to the medicinal plants and the sound therapy Shamans would invoke powers from supernatural forces through their rituals.  It’s all tied into the ceremony of healing.  Drawing on the powers of the unseen was and is another strong part of the healing procedure to instill belief in the patient that they were in good hands.  Faith in the healing provider helps tremendously to reduce anxiety and facilitate the healing process not only in ancient times but even today.

 faith will help you heal

Conclusion

The history of Shamans as the main healer and spiritual guide lasted for two million years, right up to the time of the domestication of plants and animals, which ushered in the age of settlements 12,000 years ago.  When permanent settlements and then small towns and cities developed more and more people lived together.  This created hierarchies in governance and the development of religion with its priestly caste. Predictably Shamans and Shamanism fell by the wayside.

The history of medical science from Shamans to present day is a fascinating read, often tortured and cringeworthy.  However, the tenets of practicing good medicine or healing are still the same as they have always been.  Treat the patient as best you can with plants (or the derivative drug) and create an uplifting and relaxed psychological state in the patient to let the natural healing processes of the body do their work.

I started off this post by talking about the corona virus, COVID-19.  This pandemic is real and is affecting the entire world.  It’s hard not to get stressed about it.

We know for a fact of life that a stronger immune system is better to fight off a virus that a weaker one.  There is no specific drug to take for this virus right now and the best defense is to strengthen your immune system. 

  • Keep your social distancing but it’s fine to sit outside for some fresh air. The sun is the absolute best source of vitamin D, and it contributes to a powerful strengthening of your immune system.  Your body can naturally produce vitamin D from moderate sun exposure.   
  • Garlic is one of the most potent of all super foods.  Not only does it go back thousands of years for treatment of sickness, but recent studies back up the legendary claims for garlic boosting your immune system.
  • There is evidence that green tea and chamomile tea can help strengthen the immune system. Even if the effect is minimal, you can't go wrong, since both are loaded with powerful antioxidants unique to each tea.
  • Also, some probiotics have been shown to promote the production of natural antibodies in the body. They may also boost immune cells.  A large review found that taking probiotics reduced the likelihood and duration of respiratory infections.

Kick back with a cup of healing herbal tea and listen to some of your favorite relaxing music, throw in a little meditation and you will actually be doing the best thing you can to keep yourself and loved ones healthy.

 

2 comments

Write a comment

Robert Schott

Thanks Mike, I appreciate it.

Mike Zukerman

Fantastic read, Robert. We practice all that up here in Wa state. You are a gifted writer and researcher. Thanks-Mike Z.

Write a comment

Comments are moderated