What People Believe About Evolution, Human Origins, and the Beginning of Life

Hunter-Gatherers and the Origins of Religion

Human Nature An Interdisciplinary Biosocial Perspective

ISSN: 1045-6767 (Print) 1936-4776 (Online)

Published in the journal Human Nature, Sept. 2016, Volume 27, Issue 3, pp 261-282
by Hervey C. Peoples, Pavel Duda, Frank W. Marlowe

Abstract

Recent studies of the evolution of religion have revealed the cognitive underpinnings of belief in supernatural agents, the role of ritual in promoting cooperation, and the contribution of morally punishing high gods to the growth and stabilization of human society. The universality of religion across human society points to a deep evolutionary past. However, specific traits of nascent religiosity, and the sequence in which they emerged, have remained unknown. Here we reconstruct the evolution of religious beliefs and behaviors in early modern humans using a global sample of hunter-gatherers and seven traits describing hunter-gatherer religiosity: animism, belief in an afterlife, shamanism, ancestor worship, high gods, and worship of ancestors or high gods who are active in human affairs. We reconstruct ancestral character states using a time-calibrated supertree based on published phylogenetic trees and linguistic classification and then test for correlated evolution between the characters and for the direction of cultural change. Results indicate that the oldest trait of religion, present in the most recent common ancestor of present-day hunter-gatherers, was animism, in agreement with long-standing beliefs about the fundamental role of this trait. Belief in an afterlife emerged, followed by shamanism and ancestor worship. Ancestor spirits or high gods who are active in human affairs were absent in early humans, suggesting a deep history for the egalitarian nature of hunter-gatherer societies. There is a significant positive relationship between most characters investigated, but the trait “high gods” stands apart, suggesting that belief in a single creator deity can emerge in a society regardless of other aspects of its religion.

Conclusion

In this study we used a suite of phylogenetic comparative methods to investigate the early evolution of religion. We reconstructed ancestral states for seven characters describing religious beliefs and behaviors in a global sample of 33 hunter-gatherer societies and tested for correlated evolution between these characters and for the direction of cultural change.

Our results indicate that the oldest trait of religion, shared by the most recent common ancestor of present-day hunter-gatherers, was animism. This supports long-standing beliefs about the antiquity and fundamental role of this component of human mentality, which enables people to attribute intent and lifelike qualities to inanimate objects and would have prompted belief in beings or forces in an unseen realm of spirits. Reconstructions are equivocal on whether or not the religion of the LCA of present-day hunter-gatherers included belief in an afterlife, shamanism, ancestor worship, and the concept of a single creator deity, or a high god. Belief in either ancestral spirits or creator deities who remain active in human affairs was not present in ancestral hunter-gatherer societies, according to the reconstructions. This may be indicative of a deep past for the egalitarian nature of hunter-gatherer societies, to whom high gods would appear to be rulers (Peoples and Marlowe 2012).

The majority of traits of religion we investigated exhibit a correlated pattern of character change on phylogeny. The results suggest that belief in an afterlife, shamanism, and ancestor worship evolve in concerted fashion as an integrated system of beliefs and practices. However, neither high gods nor active high gods exhibit correlated evolution with the rest of the religious traits, including ancestor worship, despite Spencer’s and Tylor’s suggestions.

This is in line with a variety of evidence from other studies (Botero et al. 2014; Norenzayan 2013; Peoples and Marlowe 2012; Radin 1937; Swanson 1960) suggesting that if a society acquires belief in an omniscient and potentially morally punishing creator deity, it does so regardless of other aspects of its religion but more as a reflection of its social and political structure.

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