Debate Magazine

Sourcing Hunter-Gatherer “Religions”

By Cris

Last week I received an email from a graduate student whose research requires some knowledge of “hunter-gatherer religion.” He asked if I could recommend some books on the subject. After thinking about it a good while, I responded that there really were no such books. Over the course of a few emails I attempted to explain why, beginning with my concern that what we call “religion” is not an appropriate analytical concept for hunter-gatherers.

All historically and ethnographically known foragers are (or were) animists whose worldviews do not reduce to categories such as “religion.” While various aspects of these worldviews may (at times and in parts) have the look and feel of what we call “religion,” isolating those aspects for special analysis and calling them “religion” seems a dubious enterprise. Why? Because these isolated aspects (whether concepts or rituals) are deeply and inextricably embedded in a total way of being, perceiving, thinking, and acting. Hunter-gatherers did not have words, concepts, or categories that approximate what we call “religion.” They simply did not atomize or analyze their lives in this way. We cannot simply impose our historically contingent or analytically convenient categories on others and expect them to fit.

So the first step in understanding hunter-gatherer “religion” is to recognize they did not have it; they had all-encompassing worldviews (or totalized cosmologies) best described as “animist.” These worldviews are not “religions.”

This, in turn, could explain why there are no good books on “hunter-gatherer religion.” But I suspect not. Another problem is variation: foragers were spread widely in time and space, living in all parts of the world except Antarctica. Given this spread, we should not expect to find (and do not find) that any one hunter-gatherer or animist worldview is representative or typical of the others. While there are some commonalities, singling these out and reducing them to an essential or ideal worldview would be like saying that all religions ultimately reduce to something like the Golden Rule. While there are people who say such things, they are not very interesting or enlightening. Animist worldviews are not homogenous, and the differences between them are important.

Given this variation (and the limitations on what can be learned in a lifetime), most scholars focus on particular hunter-gatherers and regions. After a long course of specialization, they sometimes write synoptic books on “their people.” It is for this reason that we have some books that examine the “religion” of Aborigines, Bushmen, Native Americans, Siberians, Inuit, Amazonians, and Pygmies. These are the classic groupings of historically and ethnographically known hunter-gatherers. These are, however, larger-scale groupings that mask important variation. These groups not only differ from one another, they also differ internally from group to group or tribe to tribe.


World Map of Hunter-Gatherer Groups

Given this variation, I think the best way to approach animist worldviews is to decide on a region and people. For any given region and people, there will be an large literature ranging from primary to secondary to tangential sources. In most cases, this literature will have a chronological order that begins with traveler or explorer accounts and then moves to more detailed accounts given by missionaries, settlers, colonists, military people, and government agents. Academics and anthropologists are usually late-arrivals on the scene. Using all these materials, ethno-historians are sometimes able to generate excellent syntheses. As should be evident, the materials vary greatly in nature and quality.

The upshot of all this is that once you have decided on a particular people, there is a great deal of reading to be done. It is rare to find a book or two or even three that captures the complexity, richness, and nuance of something like “Aborigine religion” or “Bushmen religion” or “Native American religion.” When I began researching “hunter-gatherer religion” nearly a decade ago, I naively assumed there would some key books on the subject and it would not take long. I was obviously wrong. It took a few years to understand what was involved and required. So while I’ve read several books and articles on all known hunter-gatherer groups, this reading just skims the surface and amounts to general familiarization.

In this blog and conversation, I regularly (and awkwardly) refer to the totality of this reading as “the ethnohistoric-ethnographic hunter-gatherer record.” There is of course no such singular record and no book that could possibly encompass all of it. Realizing this, I’ve decided to call it simply the “Record.” Over the summer, I will progressively compile all the reading I’ve done in an effort to understand animist worldviews (or what some problematically call “hunter-gatherer religion”). It will be organized by group or region, and I will list the highest quality sources at the beginning of each section. Because I find that animist worldviews are difficult to understand in the absence of surrounding historical and ethnographic contexts, I will be listing those sources also. Hunter-gatherer lifeways and worldviews go hand in hand.

Some sections of the Record will be larger than others. Given my previous comments, it is not hard to understand why. After realizing that “hunter-gatherer religion” was a non-starter category, and that animist worldviews were so complex and variable, I began to focus on Native Americans. But this category is also too large for a summary or synoptic treatment, so I eventually narrowed further to Plains Indians. Even among this relatively manageable grouping of regional tribes, there is significant variation. The Lakota, Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa, Arapahoe, Blackfoot, Crow, Shoshoni, Pawnee, etc. did not have a uniform worldview that led to or resulted in the same “religious” ideas or “ritual” practices. It is my understanding that similar kinds of differences characterize the various Australian groups often lumped together as “Aborigines.”

Having said all this (and perhaps discouraged some), I should observe that hunter-gatherers the world over have enough in common for us to talk meaningfully about a generalized animist worldview that differs substantially from the worldviews of those who live in sedentary, agricultural, and industrial societies. Discovering these worldviews is not easy but it is rewarding.

In the future, whenever I refer to the hunter-gatherer or animist “Record” you will see a hyperlink. This link will open the bibliographic document that I have discussed in this post. This will be an ongoing project that will be updated frequently, so if the people in whom you are interested do not initially appear, they eventually will.

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