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Population Growth, Harvest Gods and Sacrifices

For tens of thousands of years before farming there were hunter-gatherer or forager societies. The sociologist Francis Fukuyama describes them as "based on small groups of nomadic families." A group might have been ten or twenty people, or one to five hundred, living on plains or in forests that offered unpopulated space vast enough for their food-getting. The clans and tribes that appeared later were more densely populated and more organized than hunter-gatherers. Fukuyama mentions exceptions, such as indigenous tribes of the US Pacific Northwest "who were hunter-gatherers but lived in an area of extraordinary resource abundance that could support complex social organization." note2

The transition from small hunter-gathering "band-level" societies, writes Fukuyama, was made possible by agriculture. Farming created more food, and more food made possible more densely populated societies.

Farmers were more dependent on the weather than were hunter-gatherers, who had been free to drift from drought to areas that had more game and wild foods. Among agricultural people, relying on crops made life less secure. Domesticated plants were vulnerable to insect ravages in ways that wild plants were not. Archaeologists have found in the bones of children in agricultural societies more signs of malnutrition than that of people living from hunting and gathering, and the average height of early farming populations have been discovered to be shorter than that of hunter-gatherers. Also, more populous societies lived amid a greater lack of sanitation. People were careless about their refuse, their sewage and water supply. They knew nothing about bacteria, and their ignorance was costly. They suffered from disease epidemics that had been rare among hunter-gatherers. Perhaps fewer than half of the children of agricultural societies lived past the age of ten. And they attributed all this to the powers of evil spirits.

The transition was from small group societies of hunter-gatherers to tribal organization. Ancestor worship was involved tying a tribe together. Ancestor worship was belief in a supernatural connection and the power of dead ancestors. The dead were given objects they were thought to still need. Wine was poured onto a tomb to quench the dead's thirst. Horses and maybe slaves were killed and buried with the dead to serve them in the afterlife. One's duty was to one's ancestors, and it bound distantly related kinfolk together. The question has arisen whether tribal organization was a consequence of religious beliefs or religious beliefs were formed in response to tribal organization. Some were to surmise that it worked in both directions.


Needing rain for their crops, people in agricultural societies tried evoking magic in the form of imitation. Where frogs came out when it rained, witchdoctors might croak like frogs to suggest to their gods that they should start the rain. With agriculture were gods of fertility. Farmers knew enough about fertility to associate it with sexual intercourse. They believed that their gods created sexually, a father and mother god having created son and daughter gods. And men and women copulated in their fields as religious ritual to suggest to their gods that they should make their crops grow.

When a growing season ended, people saw their fertility god as having died, and when the growing season returned they saw their god as having been resurrected. One such god worshipped by the Greeks was Adonis. Adonis was believed to spend his annual death with the goddess Persephone in the invisible place where the spirits who had vanished dwelled: Hades. Each year when the growing season returned, Adonis was seen to have returned to living in blissful union with the fertility goddess of love, Aphrodite.

For good harvests, early farmers were eager to please the gods by sending them what gifts they could. It was believed that killing someone or an animal sent that creature, in the form of spirit, to the invisible world of the gods. People saw the sending of one or a few members of their society to the gods as a good bargain insofar as it served the survival of the entire society. Or someone might be sacrificed who had been a stranger seized on some pathway or held captive from war, perhaps after a purification ceremony – solving the problem of what to do with war captives.

Animal and human sacrifices appear to have been less prevalent in societies of hunter-gatherers, such as those on the plains of North America and in Australia. Sacrificing people took place among agricultural people in the Americas, such as the Olmecs. It took place in India and among farmers of Europe and the Middle East. Ancient Chinese farmers sacrificed. So too did the Egyptians and others in agricultural Africa. And sacrifice appears to have been part of the culture of Hebrew herders: the Old Testament describes the god Yahweh testing Abraham by telling him to take his son Isaac to the land of Moriah to offer him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains there.


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

The Origins of Political Order, by Francis Fukuyama, 2011

Additional Reading

"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

Copyright © 2009-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.