Why “Hunter-Gatherers and Religion”?

Anyone who surveys the “religious” beliefs of hunter-gatherers (or foragers) will almost immediately discover that many of them do not have a word that translates as “religion” and do not understand the Western concept of “religion,” as explained to them by ethnographers and others.  Anyone who engages in such a survey will also soon discover that hunter-gatherers have a dazzling and sometimes bewildering array of beliefs related to the cosmos, creation, spirits, gods, and the supernatural.  Within a single group, these beliefs may be different and contradictory from individual to individual; the beliefs are often fluid and change considerably over time.  When comparing groups, the details — at least on the surface — seem to be so different that nothing general can be said about foragers on the one hand and their beliefs on the other hand.  Despite this variety, one can identify certain common themes, motifs and tropes that are characteristic of hunter-gatherer metaphysics.  These include:

  • A generalized belief in higher powers, which may be gods, spirits, or other forces;
  • A spiritualized reverence for nature and everything of nature;
  • A cosmology oriented horizontally rather than vertically;
  • A cyclic notion of time and perpetual renewal; and
  • A belief array that includes animism, ritualism, totemism and shamanism.

Because humans have been foragers for the vast majority of their time on earth, understanding the supernatural beliefs and practices of hunter-gatherers is essential to any genealogy of religion.  This Category will examine those beliefs as part of a larger effort to trace the history of religion.

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