A San hunter-gatherer in the Kalahari desert. Still there in the 21st century, looking bright and fit.
Summary: Story of the First People, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.
Today, academics call it primal religion, a move away from the label of primitive religion. Both primal and primitive are words that describe an early stage in the evolutionary or historical development of something, and humanity's earliest struggle with ideas can be understood without contempt.
In his book The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond states: "An original function of religion was explanation. Pre-scientific traditional peoples offer explanations for eveything they encounter..." Below I'll extend this description.
Experience taught Stone Age people the difference between what poisened them and what satisfied their hunger. Experience made them able hunters and gatherers, and later made them adept at herding. Their minds gathered empirical realities necessary for survival. They did the best they could in drawing conclusions about the world beyond them, but , lacking the experience of modern people, they assumed that they were at the center of the universe, which they saw as flat, small and under sky.
They had no science that described the difference between humans and other creatures. They called themselves "the people" and thought that strangers were creatures of another sort – less human than they.
They had no science that described the difference between the animate and inanimate. They believed that if they ate the flesh of a strong beast they might acquire its spirit, or if they ate a portion of the body of a leader who had died they might acquire his special qualities. They assumed that the sun and moon they saw moving across the sky were animate beings. They might associate an animal with the presence of an ancestor. A face of a dead person they knew and recognized in the peculiar shapes on the face of a rock they associated with the living spirit of that person dwelling within that rock.
People correctly associated their own movement with their will, and they believed that all movement was the product of will. They saw insects as moving by will. They assumed that plants grew because of a will within. They saw the sun, moon and stars as closer than they really were and as moving by will. For Stone Age people, will was spirit, and they saw the world as filled with many spirits. Or, to use another word: gods. They saw gods within everything that moved. There was a god within the wind and another god within the rivers. A god in the ocean made the waters rush to the beach and then retreat. The sun was a god. They saw their reflection in water and believed that what they were seeing was their spirit. People believed in spirits that had dominion over stretches of forest or a mountain top.
People attributed much that happened to the spirits and to magic. Birds flying or hovering on an updraft of air without falling to the ground was magic. Lightning, thunder, rain, the tides, procreation and fire were magic. And fire was not only a product of magic it was a manifestation of spirit. People saw their gods as having the power of magic. Magic happened because a spirit as a single agency willed it. Their gods were agents, and things happened through their agency.
Hunter-gatherers treated their gods as they treated each other, sometimes with kindness and sometimes with something less than kindness. Robert Wright, in The Evolution of God, writes of Japan's aborigines, the Ainu, sometimes trying to win favor from their god with offerings of beer. But, if things did not improve, the Ainu would withhold the beer until the gods responded. Wright describes medicine men reproaching the god named Gauwa for bringing illness. A medicine man would call Gauwa an idiot. Hunter-gatherers did not worship their gods in fear the way people later worshipped the all-powerful monarchs who came with the rise of authoritarianism.
With no defined difference between spirit and materiality, they believed that in preserving a corpse they were also helping to preserve the spirit of one who had died. And they believed that they could nourish the spirit of the corpse by putting gifts of food alongside it. They believed that a body went limp at death because the spirit that had been within it had left it for the invisible world of the spirits. They felt no urge to meld these ideas of spirits and materiality into the kind of consistent picture that modern people would demand for credibility.
Their view of the world came to them with invented stories rather than the discipline of science. These were stories that were told and accepted without recognition of a difference between fact and fantasy. Storytellers were free to imagine, and perhaps they would tell a story a little differently from how they had heard it. There was no written account to refer to in order to maintain consistency across a time span of generations. Every society had its stories about creation, each with a different twist.
Storytelling described their world in a way that they could understand, and it provided them with a vision of order in the universe similar to the order that existed in their own lives. There were stories of a god having created them out of earth and a story among others that they had been created from the bark of a tree. An occasional exception to universal order might be described as the work of a demon spirit, an evil of sorts. There were stories about evil and dread, a story with a threatening demon of some sort producing more excitement than one without danger.
Limited in their view of the breadth of the world, people believed the gods had made their surroundings especially for them. Seeing their most powerful god as having their interests at heart, they tended to see this god as good. Children accepted the stories as true because their elders believed them to be true. And adults did not doubt what they had believed as children. People did not ponder the benefits of doubt or suspended judgment. They had no idea of progression in discovery and knowledge.
People believed that if the gods could perform magic so too could they. The earliest form of religious ritual was an attempt at magic through imitation – such as painting a face on the belly of a pregnant woman in hope that the magic of the drawing would encourage birth. There were also ritual fasts or trances that were believed to invoke magic, done in order to receive from the spirits the skills needed to be a good hunter or warrior. One might wear a pendant made from a small stone, or perhaps a piece of copper thinned by pounding, as an object of magic to ward off evil.
In hunter-gatherer societies were performers we call shamans and some people have called witchdoctors. There was a demand for persons who had some power over the mysterious. Shamans claimed to be in communication with spirits. They strutted, danced and made shouting noises in an attempt to advertise their powers. Some shamans helped themselves to visions through use of hallucinogenic drugs, perhaps from the bark of a tree. Shamans performed magic and what was imagined to be cures. Among them were differences in style and success. In some hunter-gatherer societies the most respected individual and person of greatest influence was a shaman. Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux, the victor over George Custer in 1876, was a kind of shaman, also called a holy or medicine man.
Hunter-gatherers were trying to get by rather than to change their world. They tended to believe the world would always be as the gods had made it. They had no sense of social progress or image of humanity's capabilities beyond their abilities. The imagination of those who had a biological potential for genius and those of normal intelligence were limited by their culture. Had it been otherwise, modern times would have come much sooner.
The Forest People, by Colin M Turnbull, 1961
The Old Way: A Story of the First People, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, 2006
The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, 2009
"Evolutionary origin of religions," Wikipedia
The Dawn of Belief: Religon in the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern Europe, Chapters 4~7, by D Bruce Dickson, 1990
The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, by Émile Durkheim, 1915
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