Tag Archives: Cree

Bones, Burials and Ancestors

Death is big business. This past year, Americans spent $15 billion on funeral related expenses. Americans are not outliers when it comes to death spending; funeral related expenditures around the world are estimated to be at least this much and probably more. Strangely, the ratio of death spending does not diminish in poorer countries. In fact, it is often higher. Death leaves many families destitute.

Although death industry marketing surely plays a role in some of this spending, it cannot account for most of it. Something else is going on and what that something is has ancient roots. In all likelihood, the earliest mortuary practices — in the form of deliberate burials which first appear in the archaeological record some 100,000 years ago — suggest (but do not require) soul beliefs.

While soul beliefs and deliberate burials are one thing, burials with elaborate grave goods and extended mourning rituals are another. One of the earliest and most spectacular examples of such a burial comes from Sunghir, Russia and is approximately 26,000 years old.

Illustration © Libor Balák

These burials included 13,000 ivory beads and because experiments show it takes about one hour to make each bead, 13,00o hours were invested in the beads alone. When the other grave goods are added, there may be 15,000 hours invested in these burials. In terms of today’s dollars (the average US wage is $17/hour), these burials cost $255,000, quite an expenditure for nomadic hunter-gatherers.

While this may seem extraordinary and probably was, more recent hunter-gatherers have also been known to invest heavily in mortuary and funerary rituals. In “Historical Mourning Practices Observed among the Cree and Ojibway Indians,” Paul Hackett notes that the Cree and Ojibway observed two primary mourning practices: “The first involved the abandonment or destruction of possessions,” including those of the deceased, close relatives, or both. The second “required the cessation of hunting for a prolonged period, almost invariably a year.”

While the first could be costly depending on the number and type of possessions abandoned or destroyed, the second could be a matter of life and death for people whose livelihoods depended on hunting. In many cases, these practices resulted in severe hardship for the mourners. Hackett notes that such practices were not unique to the Cree and Ojibway, and their wide distribution among Native American hunter-gatherers “suggests that they were of considerable antiquity, perhaps dating to the pre-Columbian period.” Considering the burials at Sunghir, it may be the case that hunter-gatherers around the world have practiced similar mourning rituals for tens of thousands of years.

One apparently unique feature of hunter-gather mortuary practices is the avoidance or non-curation of bones. Both the remains and possessions of the deceased were invested with spirits and power, both of which were to be treated with respect and then abandoned or kept at a distance. If proper ceremony was not observed, these items could result in misfortune.

These practices stand in sharp contrast to those observed in the earliest agricultural communities, with the Neolithic site of Catalhoyuk (7400-6200 BC) in southern Turkey being a prime example. At Catalhoyuk, treatment of the deceased was a two stage process. In his somewhat speculative survey of burials at Catalhoyuk, Macqueen observes that the body was exposed for defleshing, and after the bones had been bleached, they were buried (with grave goods) in the floors of homes. Rather than avoid skeletons as do nearly all hunter-gatherers, the farmers and herders of Catalhoyuk desired their proximity, going so far as to live and sleep with them.

While this may seem macabre to some, it makes considerable sense given the altered dynamics of property and power in agricultural communities. As Ian Hodder explains in “Daily Practice and Social Memory at Catalhoyuk,” these spatial and temporal dynamics are dramatically different from those found in hunting and gathering societies:

The key themes of the Neolithic of the Near East, such as sedentism, aggolomeration, and domestication, as well as more specific themes such as the treatment of the dead and veneration of ancestors, all involve changes in temporality, memory, and relationships with the past.

It is often argued that early forms of power in the Neolithic of the Near East and Europe were linked to delayed return systems, links to ancestors, repetitive practices at monuments to the dead, and the construction of greater temporal depth to activities (as in the construction of lineages).

The Neolithic transition from foraging to agriculture brought with it many changes, including in mortuary practices and mourning rituals. While some have speculatively argued that Paleolithic hunter-gatherers engaged in a form of ancestor worship and that ancestors functioned as supernatural surveillance agents, there is scant evidence of this. Ancestor cults are latecomers in the history of supernatural belief and practice.


Hackett, P. (2005). Historical Mourning Practices Observed among the Cree and Ojibway Indians of the Central Subarctic Ethnohistory, 52 (3), 503-532 DOI: 10.1215/00141801-52-3-503

Macqueen, J. (1978). Secondary Burial at Catal Huyuk Numen, 25 (3) DOI: 10.2307/3269537

Hodder, I., & Cessford, C. (2004). Daily Practice and Social Memory at Çatalhöyük American Antiquity, 69 (1) DOI: 10.2307/4128346


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Non-Religious Chimpanzees Cooperate and War for Territory

There have been many articles over the past week reporting that an unusually large group (150 members) of chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda has been engaging in systematic territorial expansion by attacking and killing neighboring groups.  The Nature article notes that this is “cooperative behavior” and then quotes from the New York Times story:

These killings have a purpose, but one that did not emerge until after Ngogo chimps’ patrols had been tracked and cataloged for 10 years. The Ngogo group has about 150 chimps and is particularly large, about three times the usual size. And its size makes it unusually aggressive. Its males directed most of their patrols against a chimp group that lived in a region to the northeast of their territory. Last year, the Ngogo chimps stopped patrolling the region and annexed it outright, increasing their home territory by 22 percent.

The Times reporter, Nicholas Wade, continues with an interesting observation and comparison:

Warfare among human groups that still live by hunting and gathering resembles chimp warfare in several ways. Foragers emphasize raids and ambushes in which few people are killed, yet casualties can mount up with incessant skirmishes.

Why do chimps incur the risk and time costs of patrolling into enemy territory when the advantage accrues most evidently to the group? Dr. Mitani invokes the idea of group-level selection — the idea that natural selection can work on groups and favor behaviors, like altruism and cooperation, that benefit the group at the expense of the individual. Selection usually depends only on whether an individual, not a group, leaves more surviving children.

Many biologists are skeptical of group-level selection, saying it could be effective only in cases where there is intense warfare between groups, a reduced rate of selection on individuals, and little interchange of genes between groups.

Although Wade is not a biologist, he is not skeptical of group level selection — indeed, he is an ardent advocate.  In his recent book, The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved & Why It Endures, Wade contends that religion was an adaptation specifically targeted by selection because it made groups more cohesive and cooperative.  This, in turn, enabled religious groups to better compete against other groups.  A major aspect of this enhanced ability to compete, so the argument goes, is that religious groups are better able to war against non-religious groups.  Wade is not alone in believing this; the anthropologist David Sloan Wilson and evolutionary psychologist Matt Rossano make similar arguments.

The recent chimp study — “Lethal intergroup aggression leads to territorial expansion in wild chimpanzees” — bears on this hypothesis.  The aggressive Kibale group is exceptionally large because it occupies particularly fertile territory.  This fertile territory sustains larger numbers of chimps, who in turn cooperate and use this numerical advantage to further enlarge their territory.  No one has ever suggested that chimps are spiritual or religious, so these activities — cooperation and warfare — are not being driven by these abstractions.  Kinship is the primary factor holding the males of these groups together, and which causes them to cooperate.

This is quite similar to the ethnohistoric situation on the Great Plains.  From 1680 to 1880, Plains Indian tribes such as the Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, Crow, Kiowa-Apache, Shoshoni, Blackfoot, Cree, Gros Ventre, Flathead, and Sarsi constantly warred against one another for territory, horses, and booty.  These hunting and gathering groups were held together first and foremost by extended kinship ties; shamans neither organized nor lead war parties.  These tribes neither invoked nor relied on religious differences as a justification for war or raiding.  In fact, it would have been impossible to do so given that these tribes had substantially similar types of beliefs and rituals.  The most successful of these tribes — the Lakota — enlarged their numbers and expanded their territory not because they were more spiritual or religious than the other tribes, or had more effective group rituals.  Instead, they had various material, geographic, and economic advantages which enabled them to succeed.

This is not to say that in certain places and at certain times some groups used religion to bind them together and justify war.  It occurred many times and in many places, but this is fairly recent behavior that corresponds to the rise of the first city-states in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Near East.  Because this is modern behavior that is the product of rulers and elites marrying religion to power, I cannot see how it has anything to do with the evolutionary origins of religion.

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