Hunter-Gatherers' Religious Beliefs

by John Peterson

Humans lived as hunter-gatherers for most of their existence, and there are still some hunter-gatherer cultures in the contemporary world. Their religious beliefs are not well understood, as hunter-gatherers do not often make a distinction between the natural and supernatural realms. While most hunter-gatherer religions are believed to be a reflection of animatistic or animistic beliefs, recent research has revealed more complexity among some groups.

Hunter-Gatherers

Those societies that live by hunting, including fishing, and gathering of plant or other resources are termed hunter-gatherers. They are not engaged in food production such as agriculture or herding domesticated animals. While humans have existed for roughly two million years, it is only during the last 10,000 years that most cultures have engaged in food production. Thus, hunting and gathering existed as the primary method of subsistence for over 99 percent of human existence.

Animatism

Theories about the religious practices of hunter-gatherers of the past are based on ethnographic analogy with modern groups. It has been generally believed that their religious practices are not highly complex. It is also believed that many early human societies, including hunter-gatherers, practiced animatism. This is a belief that all objects, whether animate or inanimate, such as animals, trees and rocks, possess an impersonal supernatural power. Religion centers on controlling or protecting oneself and others from this power.

Animism

Another common religious belief among hunter-gatherers is animism. It differs from animatism in that objects are controlled by personal and animate supernatural power. Rather than possessing impersonal supernatural power, natural objects are possessed by intelligent supernatural beings, or spirits, that can interact with humans in beneficial or malevolent ways. Because hunter-gatherer interaction with the natural world is intertwined with all aspects of their culture and subsistence, it is difficult to separate those beliefs that dwell on the supernatural with common beliefs about the natural world.

Changing Views

Sophisticated religion with temple building and monumental architecture was believed to have originated among agricultural societies. However, modern research on at least one site indicates that hunter-gatherers could have also engaged in such activities. The Göbekli Tepe site in southern Turkey is believed to date from 11,600 years ago, during a time when local cultures were hunter-gatherers. This site consists of dozens of large stone pillars as much as 18 feet high, carved with various animal motifs and formed in concentric circles. It represents the oldest known monumental architecture in the world. It was believed that animistic and animatistic hunter-gatherer societies were not organized to the extent to be able to construct huge, elaborate temples, which require large numbers of people and highly organized labor. Göbekli Tepe suggests that hunter-gatherer religion, at least in southern Turkey, could have been more complex than previously known.

About the Author

John Peterson published his first article in 1992. Having written extensively on North American archaeology and material culture, he has contributed to various archaeological journals and publications. Peterson has a Bachelor of Arts from Eastern New Mexico University and a Master of Arts from the University of Nebraska, both in anthropology, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in history from Columbia College.

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