Evidence for Shamanic Britain

'Stone Woman' by Amanda Reid

Evidence for Shamanism in Paleolithic Britain

Paviland Cave, Gower peninsular, South Wales. 


Early human ritual burial.  The body of a young man, aged about 21 years, around 6ft tall, narrow-hipped and gracile, more African than European body-type.  He died in Britain about 29,000 years ago.  His bones showed no recognisable ill health or injury.


Materials pre-dating the burial were found in the cave, including over 4000 worked flints.


The body was brought to the cave for burial, possibly indicating this was considered a special place and perhaps that he was a special man.  (Interestingly, in visiting the site, something I have done many times as I grew up on the Gower and go there often, the hillside cliff upon which the cave is located seems to have the distinct shape of a mammoth's head.  One cannot help wondering if that is significant.) 


The man was wearing a leather shirt, trousers and moccasins.

Marker stones were placed at the head and foot of the shallow grave, perhaps to rest his head and feet. A mammoth skull was placed nearby (like the shape of the headland in which the cave sits).  Ivory rods and bracelets were positioned at his chest.  There was a bag with periwinkle shell decoration at his thigh.  The burial was sprinkled with copious amounts of red ochre to the extent that the artefacts, clothes and the man's bones were stained red.


Necklaces of perforated sea shells were buried with the man, the shells identical to perforated shells found at Blombos Cave, about 200 miles east of Cape Town in South Africa.  The shells are Nassarius Kraussianus, or Tick Shell, a sea snail currently found in the Indian Ocean off Mozambique, South Africa and Reunion Island and in the Atlantic Ocean off Namibia.

The Blombos Cave shells have been scientifically verified as human-made beads that have been worn, they also show evidence of red ochre.  Amazingly, at the Blombos Cave site they are dated to 76,000 years old, pushing our understanding of early human development back by a massive 30,000 years.  What on earth are they doing at a burial in South Wales dated 29,000 years old?! 


The body of the Paviland Cave man was also accompanied by a perforated periwinkle pendant, seashells, fifty ivory rods and three shaped bone spatulae that were added to the site many years after the burial, suggesting the sacredness of the site and the burial, for many generations of people.


The spatulae are about 6 inches long.  These, along with the pendant and the ivory rods, were dated to between 25,000 and 21,000 years old, showing a pattern of continued visitation to the cave.


The landscape at that time was very different.  The cave was about 70 miles inland (now on a sea-cliff), overlooking a vast plain where wild animals would have roamed.  Britain was not an island but a peninsular off Europe, and 29,000 years ago, despite the Ice Age, the landscape at that time was experiencing a warmer period.  The edge of the ice field was not far north of the site, placing the cave at the northern-most point of human exploration.  


There is a precedent for the fifty red ochre-stained rods.  Similar stained rods were used by the San people of the Kalahari desert, South Africa. In the past, they used such ochre-painted rods in their Shamanic ceremonies, they were hunters with a Shamanic tradition.  Their Shamanic practices have been documented and are well worth investigating.

('Deciphering Ancient Minds: The Mystery of San Bushman Rock Art' by David Lewis-Williams and Sam Challis)


The three shaped bone spatulae also have a precedent in the East European region of Moravia.  There, they occurred from 24,000 to 20,000 years ago.  There are similar objects in use today on the Russian plains, and they are highly stylised versions of the female form.


The Paviland cave burial is the oldest known burial of a modern human throughout Western Europe.


The information we have begs so many more questions:  Where did he live?  Where was he from?  What was he doing there?  Was he a Shaman?  What was the reason for his death?  And what's going on with this possible South Africa connection and here?  Is it possible that human beings travelled so far so long ago?



Evidence for Shamanism in Mesolithic Britain

Stonehenge, near Salisbury, Wiltshire.


There are four post holes where the Stonehenge car park used to be prior to the building of the new visitor centre, just opposite the stone circle. The posts would have been 60 to 80 centimetres (two to two and a half feet approximately) in diameter. They were pine posts erected in a row. These large pine posts date from between 10,500 and 9,650 years ago. This makes the site at Stonehenge a very ancient one.

Pollen samples taken from the post pits show an early post-glacial environment with mixed pine and hazel open woodland.


Although this row of huge pine posts does not provide specific evidence of Shamanic practice, they were placed there by hunter-gatherer peoples, and the archaeologists are satisfied this could only have been for a ritualistic or religious function. They lie in context to a tree-throw pit, which is the name given for a place where an uprooted tree has lain. This one is not consistent with a tree toppled over by nature, for it is considerably deeper, steeply sided and of a regular shape.  It is also unusually narrow. This pit may be a fifth post pit or ritualised tree burial.


Central to Shamanic practice is the Central Pole upon which the Shaman journeys, connecting the three worlds; the upper world, the middle world and the lower world. This is frequently symbolised as a huge tree, sometimes known as 'Yggdrasil', the World Tree.


Nowadays, many British Shamanic practitioners base their practice upon Native American Shamanism because people have maintained its practice over time and thus it is a reliable source of information.  As Shamanism across the world is so similar, it is perhaps not that surprising that we are here seeing what look like giant totem poles appearing in Ancient British culture.  As a result, we can be a little more confident that what Native American culture teaches us was probably practiced similarly by our British ancestors.



Star Carr, Vale of Pickering, N E Yorkshire.


Site of occupation, wooded and on the marshy edge of a post-glacial lake occupied 9,500 years ago.


Evidence of hunting was everywhere, suggesting a hunter’s camp.  Bones of domestic dogs were evident, presumably used for hunting.  Native red and roe deer antlers were made into barbed spearheads, which were plentiful on the site.  Flint tools which were used to score and bore through the antler were abundant.


Twenty-one red deer skull fragments were found at the site, some including their antlers.  The undersides of the skulls were worked to remove the ridges, and the large, heavy antlers had been reduced in size.  The skulls were perforated with two or four holes.  They are believed to be head-dresses that were tied to the head with hide straps through the holes.


There was an artificial timber platform on the side of the lake that may have been used for ritual ceremonies, marking the boundary between land and water.  The bones found from hunted animals were not the choice cuts of meat for eating, but jawbones, shoulder blades and foot bones, and thus probably offerings.  This fact, along with the evidence from the head-dresses and the wooden platform, suggests to the experts that this was a sacred site, set apart but near to where the community lived.

Evidence for Shamanism in Neolithic Britain

The earliest earth monuments of the Neolithic are Causewayed Enclosures.


They are found across southern Britain from the Midlands downwards, and appeared between 5,800 to 5,000 years ago. They are found throughout most of north-western and central Europe, including Scandinavia, Germany and France.


From the air they appear similar to a string of sausages laid in a circle. Archaeologist Francis Prior excavated one at Etton, Cambridgeshire.  The following information relates to his experiences and personal insights from that site (See his book, 'Britain BC: Life in Britain and Ireland before the Romans'):-


The causewayed enclosure seems to be a special and ancient place used for tribal meetings. The location is one where the people had always laid out their dead, a watery place where the winter flood waters claim the bodies, a boundary place close to the next world.


A string of ditches were dug in a circle, it is believed one for each family unit.  First, they drew out a huge circle about 200 metres across, then, the enclosure was divided in half down the middle.  Each family group dug a deep, long ditch, separated by a gap before their neighbours’ ditch began, and so on around the circle.  Each family ditch took two days and a night of constant digging to complete.


Then, each family group produced their most prized treasures, probably items associated with renowned family ancestors.  These items were carefully placed in the bottom of the ditches.  Items included skulls of relatives, beautiful decorated bowls, a ceremonial comb made of antler, a fine polished axe, some items were purposely broken. Offerings of meat from domestic animals such as sheep and cattle were placed in the pits, for these were people who had adopted animal husbandry.  The offerings were covered with clean gravel, then this was covered with a layer of animal hides, then soil was added until there was a mound some four feet high.


Evidence shows that future generations opened the pits and new offerings were buried, but never below the animal hides.


A screen of woven hurdles was erected down the centre of the enclosure, separating it into two halves.  In the centre of the eastern half of the centre, there lay buried an upper quern-stone, ceremonially broken, and the lower quern-stone was placed on edge above it in the same pit, then they were buried over, for these people were agriculturalists.  Other quernstones, which also had been broken, were found buried in the ditches on the eastern side of the enclosure.  These objects had been ritually ‘killed’.


There were numerous small filled pits near and around the ditch segments, each with its own carefully placed items, perhaps in honour of one individual.


The site was of no use for defence.  There are no signs of domicile within them. Causewayed enclosures seem to be built in special places, and this one had a massive gatehouse made of oak trunks at the main entrance.  Many later features of ritual landscapes sprang up around the causewayed enclosures and several such sites have evidence of earlier Mesolithic activity associated with them.


The experts believe they were places set apart for tribal meetings, ceremonies, rituals and rites of passage.  Making offerings is common in any Shamanic culture, and these offerings are clearly made into the earth by giving back some of the most prized possessions.  Their precious domestic animals are represented, and corn is symbolised by the quern-stones.  Giving back to the earth, the Land, and to the ancestors would be a means of ensuring an abundant yearly cycle for the tribe.


It seems that the spiritual practices of the Hunter-Gatherers do not disappear when the first farmers appear, although when causewayed enclosures are in use, it is still millenia before the British countryside is 'tamed' by farmers, and hunting is still very much in evidence.