Altered States Compared In-Class Activity

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View exercise overview

Exercise ID: 1.262
Class size: Any
Level(s): I II
Source: Produced by HRAF

Learning Objectives

Does the exercise compare 2 or more cultures? Yes
Subject selection: Single subject specified by teacher
Subjects/OCMS, if applicable: Altered states of consciousness, divination and revelation
Region selection: pre-selected
Region, if applicable: Various
Culture selection: Set by teacher
Cultures/OWCs, if applicable: Chipweyans, Central Thai

Classroom Guide

Instructions for navigating eHRAF included? No
Assignments for students to complete in groups? Yes
Assignments for students to complete on their own? Yes
Instructions for Microfiche version? No

Jack Dunnington, Carol R. Ember, Erik Ringen, Alissa Jordan, Human Relations Area Files

Adapted from eHRAF Teaching Exercise Altered States of Consciousness (EHC) Level 1, Question 2, by Jack Dunnington, Carol Ember and Erik Ringen

Download In-Class Activity PDF



In this exercise you will gain experience interpreting ethnographic case reports addressing altered states of consciousness in two societies, and situating these within ethnographic trance typologies.

Exercise Details

  • Time: 20-30 minutes

Materials Required:

  • HRAF Access
  • Worksheet and pen or other materials for recording answers

Student Learning Outcomes:

  • At the end of this Exercise, students will be able to:
  • Describe and summarize differences in altered states of consciousness across Central Asia
  • Construct effective and efficient search strategies in eHRAF in order to retrieve data relevant to a specific topic/assignment.
  • We are all aware that our dreams may contain very different kinds of thoughts than those that we have while awake. Humans can also experience altered states of consciousness in wakeful moments.


Strange Event–or Natural Life Process?

In contemporary North American culture, these wakeful ASCs are thought of either as unusual events or pertaining to practices of specialists—hypnotic states induced by therapists or magicians, trances entered into by mediums conducting séances, meditation in yoga classes, or drug-induced hypnotic states.

The idea that bodies might be possessed by demons, witches, or spirits also exists as a popular theme in media and in some religious traditions.

Ethnographic Explanations

Ancient history of altered states

Altered states of consciousness have likely been part of the cognitive repertoire for at least 100,000 years, if not longer.

Art composed of motifs indicating sensory deprivation and commonly-associated forms of visual hallucination can be seen as early as 70,000-100,000 years ago at Blombos Cave in South Africa.

Archaeological evidence for institutionalized altered states of consciousness has been found in human societies across the globe and throughout human history.

Pre-Columbian Maya society members ritually consumed balché, a mead-like drink made with the hallucinogenic plant Lonchocarpus longistylus.

Iron Age Indo-European groups such as the Scythians and the Dacians utilized Cannabis sativa and melilot (Melilotus sp.), which have been found charred in vessels and pouches accompanying burials and were described by the Greek historian Herodotus (5th century BCE) as part of spiritual purification (Rudenko and Thompson 1970; Rolle and Walls 1989).

Irish passage tombs or dolmen such as the site of Knowth, County Meath, are likely to have been designed as “multisensorial experiences” in which darkness and acoustic resonance could produce altered states of consciousness (Twohig 1981; Watson 2001; Wesler 2012; Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1993)


These examples represent only a small fraction of the historical and archaeological evidence for institutionalized altered states of consciousness. As the scope of archaeological evidence is limited by materiality, these pharmacologically-oriented examples represent only a few of the ways that humans engage in wakeful altered states of consciousness.


Nearly all societies are known to engage in practices that lead to altered states of consciousness. However the methods, functions, and cultural context vary widely between societies. One major variation that has been studied is whether societies believe in possession by spirits or in one’s soul fleeing or going on a journey.

Assignment Part 1

  • Using “ADVANCED Search” in eHRAF, explore the subject categories (OCMs)—Revelation and Divination or Ecstatic Religious Practices in the following societies:
    • Chipewyan of North America
    • Central Thai of Asia.

Assignment Part 2

Question #1. What different types of altered states do you see described among these two groups?  Compare and contrast them.

Question #2. What similarities do you note among trances experiences between these?

Do you notice any similarities between these trance experiences and  religious or ecstatic experiences you have been exposed to in your life? Describe.


Resources: Rubric: Assignment Rubric, Tips, References

The assignment rubric is located in the attached PDF.

Explore More Resources

  • For more exercises and teaching resources related to human societies past and present, explore Teaching eHRAF
  • For a more detailed version of this particular exercise with additional questions and activities check out eHRAF Teaching Exercises 1.26 Altered States of Consciousness by Jack Dunnington, Carol R. Ember, and Erik Ringen.
  • For more information on altered states of consciousness, check out the “Altered States of Consciousness” module by Carol Ember and Christina Carolus in HRAF’s Explaining Human Culture database.


  • Diehl, Richard A. 2004. The Olmecs: America’s First Civilization. New York, Ny.: Thames & Hudson.
  • Lewis-Williams, James D., and Thomas A. Dowson. 1993. “On Vision And Power In The Neolithic: Evidence From The Decorated Monuments.” Current Anthropology 34 (1): 55–65.
  • Rudenko, S. I. (Sergei Ivanovich), and M. W. Thompson. 1970. Frozen Tombs of Siberia: The Pazyryk Burials of Iron Age Horsemen. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Rolle, Renate, and Gayna Walls. 1989. World of the Scythians. London: B. T. Batsford.
  • Shaara, Lila, and Andrew Strathern. 1992. “A Preliminary Analysis of the Rela- tionship Between Altered States of Consciousness, Healing, and Social Structure.” American Anthropologist 94 (1): 145–60.
  • Twohig, Elizabeth Shee. 1981. The Megalithic Art Of Western Europe. 1st ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Watson, Aaron. 2001. “The Sounds Of Transformation: Acoustics, Monuments And Ritual In The British Neolithic.” In The Archaeology Of Shamanism, edited by Neil S. Price, 1st ed., 178–92. London: Routledge.
  • Wesler, Kit W. 2012. An Archaeology Of Religion. 1st ed. Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.