Sourcing Hunter-Gatherer “Religions”

Last week I received an email from a graduate student whose research requires some knowledge of “hunter-gatherer religion.” He asked if I could recommend some books on the subject. After thinking about it a good while, I responded that there really were no such books. Over the course of a few emails I attempted to explain why, beginning with my concern that what we call “religion” is not an appropriate analytical concept for hunter-gatherers.

All historically and ethnographically known foragers are (or were) animists whose worldviews do not reduce to categories such as “religion.” While various aspects of these worldviews may (at times and in parts) have the look and feel of what we call “religion,” isolating those aspects for special analysis and calling them “religion” seems a dubious enterprise. Why? Because these isolated aspects (whether concepts or rituals) are deeply and inextricably embedded in a total way of being, perceiving, thinking, and acting. Hunter-gatherers did not have words, concepts, or categories that approximate what we call “religion.” They did not atomize or analyze their lives in this way. We cannot simply impose our historically contingent or analytically convenient categories on others and expect them to fit.

So the first step in understanding hunter-gatherer “religion” is to recognize they did not have it; they had all-encompassing worldviews (or totalized cosmologies) best described as “animist.” These worldviews are not “religions.”

This, in turn, could explain why there are no good books on “hunter-gatherer religion.” But I suspect not. Another problem is variation: foragers were spread widely in time and space, living in all parts of the world except Antarctica. Given this spread, we should not expect to find (and do not find) that any one hunter-gatherer or animist worldview is representative or typical of the others. While there are some commonalities, singling these out and reducing them to an essential or ideal worldview would be like saying that all religions ultimately reduce to the Golden Rule. While there are people who say such things, they are not very interesting or enlightening. Animist worldviews are not homogenous, and the differences between them are important.

Given this variation (and the limitations on what can be learned in a lifetime), most scholars focus on particular hunter-gatherers and regions. After a long course of specialization, they sometimes write synoptic books on “their people.” It is for this reason that we have some books that examine the “religion” of Aborigines, Bushmen, Native Americans, Siberians, Inuit, Amazonians, and Pygmies. These are the classic groupings of historically and ethnographically known hunter-gatherers. These are, however, larger-scale groupings that mask important variation. These groups not only differ from one another, they also differ internally from group to group or tribe to tribe.


World Map of Hunter-Gatherer Groups

With this in mind, I think the best way to approach animist worldviews is to decide on a region and people. For any given region and people, there will be a large literature ranging from primary to secondary to tangential sources. In most cases, this literature will have a chronological order that begins with traveler or explorer accounts and then moves to more detailed accounts given by missionaries, settlers, colonists, military people, and government agents. Academics and anthropologists are usually late-arrivals on the scene. Using all these materials, ethno-historians are sometimes able to generate excellent syntheses. As should be evident, the materials vary greatly in nature and quality.

The upshot of all this is that once you have decided on a particular people, there is a great deal of reading to be done. It is rare to find a book or two or even three that captures the complexity, richness, and nuance of something like “Aborigine religion” or “Bushmen religion” or “Native American religion.” When I began researching “hunter-gatherer religion” nearly a decade ago, I naively assumed there would some key books on the subject and it would not take long. I was obviously wrong. It took a few years to understand what was involved and required. So while I’ve read several books and articles on all known hunter-gatherer groups, this reading just skims the surface and amounts to general familiarization.

In this blog and conversation, I regularly (and awkwardly) refer to the totality of this reading as “the ethnohistoric-ethnographic hunter-gatherer record.” There is of course no such singular record and no book that could possibly encompass all of it. Realizing this, I’ve decided to call it simply the “Record.” Over the summer, I will progressively compile all the reading I’ve done in an effort to understand animist worldviews (or what some problematically call “hunter-gatherer religion”). It will be organized by group or region, and I will list the highest quality sources at the beginning of each section. Because I find that animist worldviews are difficult to understand in the absence of surrounding historical and ethnographic contexts, I will be listing those sources also. Hunter-gatherer lifeways and worldviews go hand in hand.

Some sections of the Record will be larger than others. Given my previous comments, it is not hard to understand why. After realizing that “hunter-gatherer religion” was a non-starter category, and that animist worldviews were so complex and variable, I began to focus on Native Americans. But this category is also too large for a summary or synoptic treatment, so I eventually narrowed further to Plains Indians. Even among this relatively manageable grouping of regional tribes, there is significant variation. The Lakota, Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa, Arapahoe, Blackfoot, Crow, Shoshoni, Pawnee, etc. did not have a uniform worldview that led to or resulted in the same “religious” ideas or “ritual” practices. It is my understanding that similar kinds of differences characterize the various Australian groups often lumped together as “Aborigines.”

Having said all this (and perhaps discouraged some), I should observe that hunter-gatherers the world over have enough in common for us to talk meaningfully about a generalized animist worldview that differs substantially from the worldviews of those who live in sedentary, agricultural, and industrial societies. Discovering these worldviews is not easy but it is rewarding.

In the future, whenever I refer to the hunter-gatherer or animist “Record” you will see a hyperlink. This link will open the bibliographic document that I have discussed in this post. This will be an ongoing project that will be updated frequently, so if the people in whom you are interested do not initially appear, they eventually will.

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8 thoughts on “Sourcing Hunter-Gatherer “Religions”

  1. Juggernaut Nihilism

    1) Write a book
    2) Charge me all my money for it
    3) Retire for a few years to think of a new book while I make some more money to buy it
    4) Repeat until dead

  2. Joe Miller

    I would have recommended “Society And Cosmos: The Chewong of Peninsular Malaysia” by Signe Howell and “Batek Negrito Religion: The World-view and Rituals of a Hunting and Gathering
    People of Peninsular Malaysia” by Kirk Endicott. They’re both excellent texts on woefully understudied groups.

  3. Cris Post author

    I’m glad you recommended them; I just ordered both. The fact that I haven’t heard about either until now shows that source materials for this subject matter are scattered far and wide.

  4. franscouwenbergh

    Dear Cris,
    Another interesting blog!
    But again you seem to lump ‘religion’ (god-belief) and ‘religious instinct’ (religiously experiencing of world and life).
    Answering your graduate student, who asks for : <<< some knowledge of “hunter-gatherer religion <<>> what we call “religion” is not an appropriate analytical concept for hunter-gatherers >>> (who don’t have god-belief indeed).
    However, hunter-gatherers certainly experience their world religiously.
    I’m just reading Michael Winkelman’s article “Shamanism and Cognitive Evolution”
    But shamanism and animism is characteristic for horticulturers, not for hunter-gatherers. I think few of the tribes of the Map of Hunter-Gatherer Groups on your blog know shamans and chiefs. Real hunter-gatherers are totemists, experiencing their world as being created by The Big Ancestor whose creative acts they dance/sing around the camp fire, just as their ancestors did thousands of generations before. That is the base of our innate religious feelings.
    A more fundamental origins of our religiously experiencing of the world, as a result of our being linguistic creatures, the student could read

  5. Cris Post author

    I don’t think foragers experience the world “religiously.” If we set aside for a moment all the variation you are ignoring, saying they are experiencing the world “religiously” simply imports our ideas of what constitutes “religion” into their worlds. This is inappropriate, in my estimation.

    To the extent we can generalize about them, it’s best to say they experience (and construct and perceive and negotiate) the world in ways quite different from our own. We are then faced with the task of specifically describing these differences. Using the adjective “religiously” won’t work, and neither will “religious instinct.”

    This aside, all known hunter-gatherers were (or are) animists and shamanists. There is no dispute about this.

    It is also a fact that not all hunter-gatherers have totems or were “totemists.” Goldenweiser demolished this idea in 1911, which makes it ironic that Durkheim (in Elementary Forms, 1912) argued that totemism was universal among hunter-gatherers. It is now well established, beyond any doubt, that totemism is not universal among foragers.

    As I’ve stated before, I have no idea who or what “The Big Ancestor” is. As I’ve also stated before, I don’t agree with your reconstructions or explanations.

  6. John Balch

    Please do this. I’ve been deep in the weeds of Amazonian ethnography this summer and could use a larger bibliographic lens.

    Have you heard about How Forests Think by Eduardo Kohn? It’s extremely bold but very sophisticated, weaving together theoretical strands from New Animists like Descola with some recent work by Terrence Deacon on semiosis.

  7. franscouwenbergh

    You are right in characterizing the HG-beliefs as animistic. And I was wrong with my ‘totemism’-view. An important source of my opinion about the difference between the HG-worldview and the horticulturalists worldview is ‘The Forest People’ of Colin Turnbull (1961), about the M’Buti Pygmies and the Bantus. The HG-Pygmies worship The Forest, not The Big Ancestor anymore. But they know this ‘Highest Creator Figure’, like all pristine populations do, but only as as Being high in the sky that doesn’t interfere with the world and that they don’t worship.
    Do you know the work of Peter Gray, research professor at Boston College? Gray specialized in HG-mentality and, to supplement what he could find in the anthropological literature, he and Jonathan Ogas contacted a number of anthropologists who had lived among HGs. With a written qestionnaire about their observations of children’s lives. So about HG education. With a revealing outcome.

  8. Gyrus

    @franscouwenbergh, from my reading I’ve got the impression that despite the difficulties of describing pre-contact indigenous cultures, for the most part the idea that all ‘pristine’ populations have a ‘High God’ figure is an invention. It’s a topic I read enough on to come away with that impression, but not enough to know it thoroughly – I’m hoping to go back to it in greater depth. But the rough sense I got was that the misconception originated from good intentions. Christians who were keen to defend the dignity of indigenous populations did it in the only way they knew – by arguing that these people’s beliefs were ‘actually’ similar in crucial ways to the beliefs of the ‘One True Religion’. But consciously or unconsciously, they radically misinterpreted indigenous testimony about their beliefs.

    I found a curious book research cosmology, The Separation of Heaven and Earth by Harold Montzka. He has a similar idea to one I came to, that this mythical motif is a veil for the origins of social stratification. But he ties this together with an egalitarian Christian ideology, which sees pre-agricultural societies – egalitarian hunter-gatherers – as being ‘original Christians’, living in closer proximity to God. Now, I think there’s much to recommend this, at a certain metaphorical level. It certainly makes good sense of the Garden of Eden bit in the Bible! But to take the theological and metaphysical concepts of monotheism and project them back before agriculture – this just seems to be fatally riddled with problems. It just doesn’t seem tenable.

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