Religion ‘part and parcel’ of ‘preliterate’ societies?

Religion ‘part and parcel’ of ‘preliterate’ societies? 

15 April 2013

Man: A species of ape who believes in the gods and who imitates them without ceasing to be an animal.   

From the World War I prison memoirs of Andre Lorulot, French Pacifist (Hiatt 2004:45)

Anthropologists specializing in the study of preliterate societies have always expressed a profound fascination with the enigma of what phenomena can be termed as religious, and their origins. Cursory considerations, in terms of the world’s religions, appears simplistic. Each holds clear ideologies, occupies particular places designated for its observance, and maintain ‘qualified’ practitioners to deal with it. However, with more thorough examination, observations would reflect that even in this small cross section, the disparity is much more perplexing than first appears. Employing Bowen’s example of Islam, common daily practices such as sleeping, walking, eating, and washing all take on a religious context and character. In this manner, it becomes plausible to argue that, there is no clear demarcation of where religion begins or ends. This problem becomes compounded when considering traditional societies, not only because phenomena which are characteristically denoted by western perception, as ‘religion’, are part and parcel of activities which only atypically would be regarded as such, but also because the people in these societies, unlike world religion participants, have no concept of religion as a distinct phenomenon. This has led to the inception of a multitude of definitions by social scientists, usually settling on formulae such as: religion is “a set of shared beliefs in spirits or gods” (Bowen 2011:2). The problem with such definitions is the difficulty which exists in distinguishing between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’.

Although it may be reasonable to assume that religion, like cultural material, exists in prehistory. A distinct lack of written record and archaeological evidence results in any statements regarding how, when, where or why religion arose, or any description about its nature, remaining speculative (Moro 2013:1, Kottak 2009:484). Conversely, Narr (1964:2) interjects that any assertion based on the lack of evidence that early man[kind] was incapable of religious experience and of higher spiritual feeling in general, would [also] be unfounded. According to Kottak (2009:484), suggestions of early religion appear in the form of Neanderthal burial and on European cave wall paintings. Moro (2013:1) concurs, writing that some paleontological evidence exists that Neanderthals deliberately buried their dead in a flexed position, with flowers and other funerary objects. This notion has led some anthropologists to believe that Neanderthals contemplated an afterlife of some sort; indicative of the beginnings of religion. Indeed Narr (1964:1) states that, from the oldest known human burials (mid-Paleolithic) “it can be concluded that men (sic) of that time believed in some form of life after death… [This evidence] is our oldest indication of the religion of Paleolithic man (sic)”.

Social and organizational changes which occurred during the Neolithic period, commonly marked by crop cultivation and animal domestication, resulted in natural cycles becoming an increasingly important features of magic and religious beliefs. Droughts, storms, and other natural events likely created a growing dependence on perceived supernatural powers. Perhaps it is for these reasons that burials indicated a deep respect for the dead (Moro 2013:1). One of numerous examples proffered to support this is the burial finds of Pretty at Rookna in Southeastern Australia. Here, Hiscock (2008:256-259) writes that, “people were buried with stone artifacts, ornaments, fragments of ochre or scraps of food … [along with other] spectacular grave goods [such as] headbands of bone and teeth and the remains of clothing and ornaments”. “The antiquity of religion”, Moro claims, “indirectly testifies to its utility; however, the usefulness of supernaturalism to contemporary societies is clearer … [as a result of] the many forms of adversity facing individuals and groups [which] require explanation and action” (Moro 2013:1).

Generally speaking, these more contemporary societies continue to remain at a preliterate stage of development. This means that they are those societal groups who lack the accompaniment of any form of written language, rather they uphold oral communicative traditions (both literature and histories) aided by art, dance, and singing. Mahdi (1971:193 cited Langness, 2005:18), defined the difference between ‘civilized’, literate and ‘primitive’, preliterate societies as being “primarily in terms of an economic way of life, which in turn, colors the other aspects of a community.” Bowie (2001:26) marks the features of these groups as being:

1. Oral – lacking written scriptures and formal creeds

2. ‘this-worldly’ in orientation

3. confined to a single language or ethnic group

4. Are such that religion and social life are inseparable and intertwined; there is no clear division between the ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ or natural and supernatural.

The study of human history exposes an infinite diversity in the forms of religion that ‘primitive’, preliterate societies have adhered to, many of which remain widely practiced today. Such societies are frequently regarded as being socially complex, centrally focused on the family unit, and relying upon the extended family to provision both food and protection. These extended families can also draw together into larger groups forming clans, which may later congregate to become tribes; each with distinctive forms of speech, culture, laws, land and religious practices. In discussion of religious practices, Lee (1952:338 cited Moro 2013:30) states that, although researchers of preliterate societies do not always find a belief in god, nor a strict adherence to a belief in the supernatural or magic, they frequently note that religion consistently formulates mankind’s views of themselves relative to their place in the universe, and the relationships between others of mankind versus nonhuman nature, and of circumstance and reality. McNiven and Feldman (2003:169) claim that “people dwell in a world of their own subjective making” and that to find “ones place in the natural world … people operationalize their lives through ontologies that involve causal relationships between the social world of people and the social world of spiritual beings” (McNiven and Feldman 2003:171). Although individual manifestations of religion are as diverse as its practitioners, all religions seek to answer fundamental inexplicable questions in terms of objective knowledge. This means that they seek to identify a rational justification for irrational occurrences and phenomena “by demonstrating a cause-effect relationship between the supernatural and the human conditions” (Moro 2013:1). This view of the universe may include the divine or as noted in other cases may be of the divine. It is from these religious dimensions and observations that mankind patterns their behavior, so that aspects of religion can be seen permeating throughout numerous aspects of daily life. Religion then, according to Roheim (1921:157-158 cited Morton 1987:471) “renders to men (sic) ‘the energy which they must have to live’ and authentically signifies this energy in terms of the ‘unity which connects human life with nature’”. McNiven and Feldman (2003:169) illustrate this by means of an example where they outline that for many hunters, “engagement with the ‘natural’ world is a negotiated affair because animals like people possess spirits … Hunting [therefore] involves ecological information and technological strategies coupled with beliefs about supernatural positioning of target taxa within a broader cosmology”.

In pre-literate societies, every aspect of life from items and functions through rituals and ceremonies to symbols, are dependent upon a primary distinction of phenomena, real and ideal, the sacred and the profane (Durkheim 1973:37 cited Bowie 2001:139). In these societies the sacred defines the “total religious phenomenon” (Rappaport 2010:24) of the material world and the foundation of all conventions meaningful to society; the profane exists external and in opposition to the sacred’s deific configuration. In similar opposition the profane does not determine organizational precepts for various undertakings or interpretation of contexts. Consider the spatial representation of ‘primitive’ village. Typical organizational strategies are such, that they reflects an idealized deific pattern, therefor resulting in the village as a whole partaking of the sacred. This constitutes the idea that religion acts as the foundation of rational understanding (Morton 1987:454). The remaining space which exists, outside of this organized space, is considered profane, since it is remains unordered and does not participate or represent aspects associated with a deific model. This differentiation and the predisposition toward discerning their existence in these terms, provides the underlying divergence between so called ‘primitive’, preliterate and ‘civilized’, post-literate societies. It also serves as an explanation of why religion is part and parcel of the everyday life of preliterate societies in a way that is both inseparable and intertwined.


Bowen, JJ 2011, Religions in Practice: An approach to the Anthropology of Religion, 5th edn, Pearson Education, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

Bowie, F 2001, The Anthropology of Religion, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, UK.

Haitt, LR 2004, ‘Edward Westermark and the Origin of Moral Ideas”, in A Barnard (ed.), Hunters-Gathers in History, Archaeology and Anthropology, Berg, Oxford, UK.

Hiscock, P 2008, Archaeology of Ancient Australia, Routledge, Abingdon, Oxon

Kottak, CP 2009, Anthropology: The Exploration of Human Diversity, 13th edn, McGraw Hill, New York, NY.

Langness, LL 2005, The Study of Culture, 3rd edn, Chandler and Sharp Publishers, Novato, California.

Lee, D 1952, ‘Religious Perspectives in Anthropology’, in P Moro (ed.), Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion: A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion, 9th edn, McGraw Hill, New York, NY.

McNiven, IJ & Feldman, R 2003, ‘Ritually Orchestrated Seascapes: Hunting Magic and Dugong Bone Mounds in Torres Strait, NE Australia’, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, vol.13, no.2, pp. 169-194, [Online] Accessed: 11 February 2013,

Morton, J 1987, ‘The Effectiveness of Totenism: ‘Increase Ritual’ and Resource Control in Central Australia’, Man, New Series, vol.22, no.3, pp. 453-474, [Online] Accessed: 11 February 2013,

Narr, KJ & and Auer, NE 1964, ‘Approaches to the Religion of Early Paleolithic Man’, History of Religions, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 1-22, [Online] Accessed: 2 April 2013,

Rappaport, RA 2010, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.


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