Culture Magazine

Lab Research, Meet Ethnohistory

By Cris

In labs around the world, researchers interested in the “evolution of religion” or cognitive science of religion are conducting experiments that tell us something about how supernatural beliefs initially may have arisen and subsequently been the target of selection. While we are accumulating lots of interesting data and the results are revealing, these studies will have their greatest impact when they are fitted into a historical timeline.

What we ultimately want to know, in other words, is when it was that various kinds of beliefs (and associated practices) arose. If we know this, we can begin assessing what role those beliefs-practices may or may not have played in the “evolution of religion.” What we need to do, in other words, is test these ideas with history. We cannot simply assume that post-Neolithic religions are anything like Paleolithic supernaturalism and function in the same way; this is the fallacy of backwards projection.

There are two large bodies of data relevant to this enterprise. The first is the archaeological record and the second is ethnographic. These two are tightly linked. Most interpretations of the archaeological record are guided explicitly or implicitly by our knowledge of hunter-gatherer supernaturalism. We use ethnographic analogies to understand how deliberate burials with grave goods, entoptic symbols in cave paintings or rock art, and carved “Venus” figurines are related to supernatural beliefs and ritual activities.

When it comes to hunter-gatherer ethnography, everyone’s favorite source is the San or Bushmen of southern Africa. One of the last remaining hunter-gatherer groups in the world, they were the subject of extensive research conducted from 1963-1980 by members of Harvard’s Kalahari Project. Major contributions were also made by South African scholars at the University of Witwatersrand, prominently including cognitive archaeologist David Lewis-Williams.

Why so much focus on Bushmen? As one of the world’s last hunter-gatherer societies that lived in largely traditional ways at least through the 1960s, it was a rare opportunity for professional ethnographers to observe and record. Only one other group, the Hadza of Tanzania (some of whom are still foragers), offered similar opportunities.

While our knowledge of San supernaturalism is valuable, it is but a single sample coming from one area. If we are going to rely on ethnography to make inferences about hunter-gatherers in general, we need larger samples. One source that remains largely untapped is Native American ethnohistory. I was recently reminded of its value while reading two classics of the genre, one old and one recent.

First published in 1935, Robert Lowie’s The Crow Indians is a veritable treasure trove of information regarding Crow beliefs, myths, and rituals. It is a comprehensive ethnohistory that has never gone out of print. The second is John H. Moore’s The Cheyenne, which after it was published in 1999, quickly established itself as the definitive history of this tribe. It too is comprehensive. Both contain discrete chapters on supernaturalism-ritual, and important chapters on kinship and group formation-dissolution.

If certain scholars could bring themselves to read some ethnohistory, for pleasure of course, we might see fewer studies whose relevance is limited to post-Neolithic religions of sedentary peoples. I recommend both books for bed-time or the beach.


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