UNC anthropologist Silvia Tomášková spent 2010 to 2011 in South Africa studying prehistoric rock art drawings as part of the research for her book, Wayward Shamans: The Prehistory of an Idea. She then returned to Carolina with a fresh perspective on the drawings, eager to share this knowledge with students in a new course involving interactive learning techniques.
She wanted to trace the origins of shamans (sometimes described as proto-priests, religious leaders, artists and healers) from Siberia to South Africa and to examine their gendered interpretations. (They are often depicted as men.) For the last 20 years, scholars had drawn from 19th century ethnographies to propose that the South Africa rock art drawings were done by shamans under ritualistic trance. Tomášková wanted to see the drawings for herself.
South Africa has one of the largest collections of painted rock surfaces in the world; the Rock Art Research Institute in Johannesburg estimates there are about 2 million of the colorful images. The art, primarily painted by the indigenous San people and their ancestors, dates anywhere from 500 to 10,000 years old.
Tomášková, an associate professor of women’s and gender studies and anthropology, received an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship to support her research. The prestigious awards are given to top scholars in the humanities to work on new problems and to acquire different skills outside their disciplines.
Her interest in South Africa traces back to 1981 during the Cold War, when she was living in Czechoslovakia (today the Czech Republic). At the time, Eastern European political refugees were accepted by a limited number of countries, including Australia, Canada and South Africa. Tomášková headed to Canada, then later to the United States for graduate school.
“I considered South Africa the strangest offer because I would be going from one totalitarian regime to another,” Tomášková said. “This was still under apartheid so I had no desire to go to South Africa, but the parallels between communism and apartheid were very striking to me.
“With the New Directions Fellowship, which allows you to go in a new direction geographically and theoretically, I thought this was my chance to connect the two, Eastern Europe and South Africa.”