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A ‘shaman’ or ‘medicine man’ is an individual who is believed to hold the power to cure disease through an ability to contact the spirit world. To find out why a person has fallen ill, and how they might cure it, shamans often enter a trance-like state, either by taking herbal drugs or through ritual chanting. They are then thought to enter the spirit world, where they communicate with spirits.

Archaeological evidence suggests shamans were important figures in tribal culture at least 17,000 years ago. Cave paintings in France dated back to this time show shamanic figures with elaborate dress, such as robes and masks made from animal heads. This implies their place at the top of the tribal hierarchy.

During the 1800s, European explorers were often dismissive of the shamans they witnessed in Africa and Asia. Trained in a medical tradition that was striving to become more scientific, and which rejected spiritual explanations for disease, these explorers were baffled by the chanting, dancing and various other shamanic rituals. But in mocking their seemingly supernatural aspects they underestimated the crucial role that shamans held in their own culture.

Shamans were, and are, not only healers, but also priests and educators. They have the power to make important political decisions and today, across the world, they act as guardians of traditional practices and culture that have passed down through generations.



R Horton, Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic, Religion and Science (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993)

R Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present (London: HarperCollins, 1997)