Neolithic Death & Paleolithic Life

It is well known that the modern world religions which trace their origins to the Axial Age are centrally concerned with death. Some might call this concern an obsession. Of these world religions, only Hinduism does not have Axial roots. This is not to say that “Hinduism” (which is neither singular nor unified) was unaffected by Axial ideas. Those who had such ideas broke from traditional Hinduism and became the progenitors of Jainism and Buddhism, both of which are Axial. Although not an Axial tradition, Hinduism shares an Axial concern or obsession with death.

In “Death and Deification: Folk Cults in Hinduism,” Stuart Blackburn addresses this concern and notes it is not limited to high-caste and literate Brahmins:

As a source of Indian religious thought, death is probably unsurpassed; no matter which historical period or cultural level one chooses to examine, concepts lead to or from the problems it presents. Beneath their cosmic purposes, Vedic sacrifices were designed to ward off death temporarily and attain a full life span for men….And even the process of samsira, the foundation of Indian thought, was first understood not as a rebirth but as continual “redeath” (punarmrtyu).

In the social world, if purity and impurity have anything to do with the way Hindus perceive and organize it, death is all the more central because it is the single most polluting human experience. And even if the pure/impure dichotomy is not the organizing principle of Hindu life, an opposition between death and life may be; this is the conclusion of several important studies of Sanskrit ritual and literary texts, and one confirmed by my own work with an oral tradition…[T]he popular streams of Hinduism, no less than the high-status ones, are centered on death.

Blackburn is not alone in his assessment. In The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology, renowned Indologist Wendy Doniger comments: “Much — some might even say all — of Indian religion is dedicated to the attempt to achieve immortality in one form or another.”

What is up with all this death obsession? Some, such as Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death, claim that humans are universally obsessed with death and all of life is governed by our attempts to deny or thwart it. Although Becker was a cultural anthropologist, he apparently did not read much ethnography or ethnohistory. Had Becker done so (and not immersed himself in existential psychoanalysis), he would know that death obsessions are not a human universal.

We are fortunate to have a substantial ethnohistoric and ethnographic record of hunter-gatherers. Although large portions of this record remain unpublished and languish in archives, anyone who has spent much time with this record knows that hunter-gatherers do not devote much time, energy, or thought to the fact of death and death’s supernatural concomitants: afterlife and/or rebirth.

There are reasons why late Neolithic and Axial religions are so concerned with death and are sometimes characterized as “world rejecting.” There likewise are reasons why hunter-gatherers are not so concerned and their “religions” (or more aptly, supernaturalism) are characterized as “world affirming.” I have several reasons in mind but am interested in your thoughts. Any ideas?


Blackburn, Stuart H. (1985). Death and Deification: Folk Cults in Hinduism History of Religions, 24 (3), 255-274

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6 thoughts on “Neolithic Death & Paleolithic Life

  1. Patrick Wm. Connally

    This is speculation and goes to a point Marvin Harris made years ago about culture being build on how people make their living.

    Farming meant keeping people on the land and as in Sumarian text, the rise of slavery and castes or classes. The rulers had to convince people to work and support a ruling class that did not.

    If you have an afterlife, then injustices of this life can be worked out in the next. Karma, heaven & hell are all promises to be kept after death. The dutiful poor are rewarded and the nasty rich get theres but only after death.

    This is different than having a shaman cross over to bring back healing or information.

  2. tony in san diego

    my guess is that these religious thoughts about death arose when the bodies started hanging around…that is, when the survivors started hanging around in one place, and the bodies were still there. When people were migratory, their bodies remained where they fell, and people had to rely on recollection. When populations became geographically stable, all those ancestors were just on the other side of the hill….or under the floor-boards, or wherever.

  3. Cris Post author

    I agree that sedentism, stratification, and slavery were major issues. I would also include sickness, the seriousness of prevalence of which was never experienced by hunter-gatherers until or unless they had contact with agriculturalists. The yearning for an afterlife, a different life or another life (reincarnated), and immortality seem to be compensations or justifications for a tough life under horrid socioeconomic conditions.

  4. Cris Post author

    Bodies started hanging around in the early Neolithic, when people first settled down and began creating ancestor lineages. The creation of such lineages probably went hand in hand with increasing stratification, with certain lineages making claims to resources and excluding others. We usually see evidence of kin or ancestors being buried in close proximity wherever we see an early agricultural communities of any size. We begin to see such communities perhaps 9,000 years ago, and in many places by 5,000 years ago. Catal Hoyuk is a good and early example.

  5. John S. Wilkins

    Rampant speculation: The neighbourhood effect. As Cris says, you start to see more death when you live in high density populations. In foraging societies, you not only see people die, but you also see them live and so death is not as much of a tragedy. But when you live in high population densities, your evolved dispositions to get the news locally now includes thousands of people instead of a few hundred, and so you are constantly bombarded with bad news. This must affect how you develop: we know animals under stress develop into nervous and easily stimulated response states. So now, instead of being laid back and adapted to small societies, you now have to deal with what in the “wild” would have been a time of stress – all the time! So coping strategies are needed. One of these must have been to evolve religious comforts and “solutions”.

    As our neighbourhoods got global we are increasingly bombarded with Bad News. So mass communication only adds to it. My solution: Don’t watch or read the news…

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