Stone Age People

An imperfect examination of Stone Age humanity reveals that people had lived in packs: in extended families, in clans or sometimes a grouping of clans called a tribe. And they moved about, scavenging, hunting game and gathering food that grew wild. They had sticks, bone, stones and twine for tools. Strangers they came upon, or outsiders they knew, they did not necessarily see as fellow humans. There was no scientific understanding of the difference between a human and beast. Humanity was not yet interconnected with any kind of communications with strangers other than tribe bumping into tribe. Ethnocentrism was extreme. Stone Age communities called themselves "the people," as if there were no people other than they. People feared that strangers might attack them or put some evil spirit upon them, or steal their women.

In addition to violence with gangs of strangers that Stone Age people may have experienced, an endless camping trip with all of one's relatives was bound to have its disagreeable moments. From Colin Turnbull's study of the people of the Ituri forest in the 1950s we see that a community of hunter-gatherers sometimes quarreled, and a quarrel might escalate into a brawl as people took sides, with the violence burning itself out before it destroyed or endangered the community.

Rules in earliest human societies were created through discussion. There was no written law or holy book from which to take guidance. No one presumed to be above others in authority. No one exhorted the group about laws laid down by any of the spirits whose presence they felt. There were no preachers or priests, but there were shamans -- another word for witchdoctor. And in Stone Age societies almost anyone could be a shaman. They claimed to be in communication with spirits, but, rather than command, the shamans merely described, or suggested, and performed what they and others imagined were cures. Shamans strutted, or danced, or made shouting noises in an attempt to display their powers. Many helped themselves to visions by using hallucinogenic drugs, perhaps from the bark of a tree. It was the community that had authority -- everyone and no one. From what has been seen of such societies, it appears that, in general at least, individuals did not pray for themselves. Their work and their prayers were community endeavors. Their relationship with their gods was as a group. Individuals identified their welfare with the welfare of the group, and morality was what they found to be best for the group.

Stone Age people did have an understanding of simple cause and effect: I drink water and my thirst goes away; you hit me and I hurt; I sleep and I awake rested; I eat this root and I become sick. They were skilled in the techniques of hunting and gathering. Beyond these immediate realities they invented explanations as to how the world worked. It was through stories that people thought they understood the world around them -- stories passed from generation to generation. People, it seems, wondered about the world around them, as bright children do today. Stone Age people let their imaginations run. Apparently they did not consider that there were limits to their knowledge -- as it has been with some modern people. Stone Age people did not believe in waiting for more information before reaching a conclusion. If they had known about skepticism or suspended judgment they would have thought waiting pointless. They had no idea of progression in scientific discovery or knowledge in general.

Their stories were often fanciful and impulsive rather than systematic. Within a tribe might be variations on the same story. And with free imagination as the source of the stories, across generations their stories were embellished and altered. Stone Age people told their stories without demand for consistency or empirical verification. The element of free imagination would make their stories appear to people of later ages as childlike, incomplete or absurd. But Stone Age people accepted the stories as true because these were the explanations of their mothers, fathers, grandparents and clan or tribal leaders.

<>Inventing Spirits
<> Stone Age people believed that they were living at the center of the universe, that the earth was a disk extending not far beyond known neighbors, mountains, or shorelines. They believed that all movement was the product of will. They saw insects as moving by will. They saw the sun, moon and stars closer than they were and as moving by will. For Stone Age people, will was spirit, and they saw their world as filled with many spirits. Or, to use another word: gods. This was the original polytheism.

When a person saw his reflection in the water he believed he was seeing his spirit -- the invisible made visible by the magic of the water. (In modern times, Stone Age people might believe that a photographer had captured something of their spirit and for this reason object to being photographed.)

Seeing the lifeless bodies of those who had died, people believed the spirit of that person had left their body and gone to an invisible world where the spirits of the dead dwelled. And they believed that invisible spirits hovered around them.

People saw spirits as able to penetrate human bodies through the skin, nostrils, mouth, ears or other openings. Dreams, not being willed, were seen as invasions by a spirit during one's sleep. Sickness was seen as an invasion by an evil spirit, and cures were sought in the form of having the invading spirit exorcised from oneself -- a practice that survived into modern times.

People saw spirits as able to invade things as well as persons. If a rock happened to have a shape that reminded one of a dead uncle it might be because the spirit of the uncle had invaded and become a part of that rock. Spirits were imagined to have taken up residence in stone or wooden idols. Spirit, they believed, was invisible and in everything.

Not yet interested in strict categories, people did not think about the difference between what they saw as spirit and what was later to be called materiality. And not having defined the difference between spirit and materiality, they believed that if one ate a portion of the body of a strong beast, such as a bear, one might acquire the spirit of the bear, or, if one ate a portion of the body of a deceased king one might acquire the special qualities of that king. The flesh of timid animals might be avoided in fear of ingesting timidity.

And not having defined a difference between spirit and materiality, Stone Age people believed that in preserving a corpse they were helping to preserve the spirit of one who had died. And they believed that they could nourish the spirit of the corpse by putting gifts of food alongside it.

Magic and Religion

Not knowing how the world worked, Stone Age people attributed everything to the magic of the spirits. Birds flying or hovering on an updraft of air without falling to the ground was magic. Lightning, thunder, rain, the tides, and procreation were magic. Fire was magic and it was spirit, for it moved itself, and, when water was thrown upon it, it uttered a cry like a slain animal.

People saw spirits as having emotion. Lightning, thunder, strong winds high seas and floods were anger. People feared the anger of the spirits and hoped to placate them with kind words and gifts through a magic of their own.

How the world came into being was explained in stories about the doings of the spirits, a common story being of a male god of sky and the mother god that was earth giving birth to gods that were atmosphere and other phenomena. The imagination of those who created the stories was limited to the world that they could understand. They spoke of gods having created humanity out of earth, tree bark and other ingredients. A god was described as having created plants, beasts and humans, and a story described why the spirits were immortal and humans merely mortal.

They believed that their gods had made the world what it is and that their society and the world would always be as the gods had made it. They had no sense of social progress or image of humanity's capabilities. The imagination of those who had a biological potential for genius, and others of normal intelligence, was limited by their culture. Had it been otherwise, modern times would have come much sooner than it did.

Limited in their view of the breadth of the world, people believed the gods had made their surroundings especially for them. The gods were their gods, and seeing their most powerful god as having their interests at heart they tended to see this god as good. When something went wrong, as in failures at hunting or sickness and death, a society might engage in a ritual to make things good again by waking up the Great Spirit. In another society, calamity might be believed to be the product of people disobeying their gods.

Unrestrained in self-confidence, they believed that if the gods could perform magic so too could they. The earliest form of religious ritual was an attempt at magic through imitation -- such as painting a face on the belly of a pregnant woman in hope that the magic of the drawing would encourage birth. There were also ritual fasts or trances that were believed to invoke magic, done in order to receive from the spirits the skills needed to be a good hunter or warrior.

Also common were rituals that we call funerals. The participants wailed and cried with exaggeration to demonstrate that they cared for the dead person, fearing that otherwise the spirit of the dead person might return in anger and haunt or harm them.

Funeral ritual for some tribes included burying their dead. Some other tribes cremated their dead. A tribe in the Amazon jungle in the 20th century, the Yanomami, opted for cremation, believing that burying bodies in the ground was a horrible indignity for the dead. One of their rituals was to grind the ashes of a dead person into a soup, which they drank, believing that the dead would be unhappy if they did not have a resting place within the bodies of their relatives.

Seeing matter and spirit as the same while guarding themselves against the dead, ancient Greek warriors had a ritual of cutting off the fingers from the sword hand of an enemy they had slain, in order to prevent revenge by his spirit.

Stone Age people were wary of enemies performing magic against them. If one suffered from an illness it was often attributed to the evil intentions of someone exercising his magic, perhaps someone with whom one had had an argument, or someone from a neighboring tribe that he had recently met. One might wear a pendant made from a small stone, or perhaps a piece of copper thinned by pounding, as an object of magic to ward off evil.

And to avoid evil, taboos were created. Speaking the name of a dead king might be taboo for fear of evoking a ghost with too much power. Speaking the name of a weapon might be taboo because it would leave the weapon open to hostile magic, making it ineffective. Stone Age people took care not to let a personal object fall into the hands of an enemy, who could then use the spirit in that object to send evil against them -- similar to or worse than a modern person losing his credit card.

Ritualized magic differed slightly from tribe to tribe, and the stories that supported the rituals also differed. Early in the twentieth century differences in Stone Age religions put academicians at great labor and debate. Unlike their Stone Age ancestors, the scholars were concerned with definitions. Emerging from these debates was the commonly accepted belief that religion included both ritual and myth, and the scholars created a label for the religion common among Stone Age people: animism. Their definition of animism was simple and therefore easy to agree upon: the belief that spirit permeates all.

<>Rise of Agriculture

<>Here and there, hunter-gatherers cut back vegetation to help wild plants grow -- in New Guinea more than 30,000 years ago. People ate seeds without knowing what seeds were, but eventually they noticed that where seeds fell plants grew, and they started planting gardens. The desire to settle may have stimulated more growing, rather than growing stimulating settlement. At any rate, with gardens big enough they did not have to migrate as much, and they built more permanent dwellings. Instead of following herds as some had done, they began raising animals. By 10,000 BCE, humans had spread into virtually all habitable places on earth. In the northern hemisphere between the years 10,000 and 8,000 the last of the continental glaciers retreated. Where the glaciers retreated, agriculture began to replace, in small steps, hunting culture. In an area called the Fertile Crescent, hunter-gatherers camped alongside fields of wild wheat or barley, and cereals. Here was also the game -- such as gazelles. Soon they were planting gardens to supplement their hunting. By 7000 BCE, the planting of seeds had become a major source of food. People began farming and raising animals, and their farms anchored them to one place.

Agriculture was also developing elsewhere. It was spreading to Greece. Around 6000 BCE, agriculture was developing independently among hunter-gatherers in southern Mexico. In North Africa along the upper Nile River, people were growing sorghum, millet and wheat. By 5500, people were planting crops in China. By 4500, agriculture had spread from Greece into central Europe where, by 4000 BCE, people were using a wooden plow.

By the year 4500, farming had reappeared in Africa south of the Sahara in the Niger Basin in the West. The Sahara at this time was grass and woodland with an abundance of rainfall, rivers, lakes, fish and aquatic life. People there were growing crops and raising sheep, goats and cattle.

Farming created more food, and more food made possible more people. More people kept farming communities on the brink of inadequate nutrition. And farmers were more dependent on nature than were hunter-gatherers, who were free to drift from drought to areas that had more game and wild foods. 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 has 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.

Fertility Gods

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 came 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.

Where growing seasons passed, people saw their fertility god as having died, and when the growing season returned they saw their god as having been resurrected -- the beginning of resurrection as a concept. One such god worshipped by the Greeks was Adonis. Adonis was believed to spend his annual death with the goddess Persephone in Hades -- otherwise known as hell. Each year when the growing season returned he was seen to have been resurrected, and he was believed to be living in blissful union with the fertility goddess of love, Aphrodite.

In agricultural societies, misfortune was explained as the work of displeased gods, and 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 -- solving the problem what to do with a war captive, who would otherwise draw on the people’s precious supply of food.

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 India, Egypt and elsewhere in agricultural Africa and among the farmers of Europe and the Middle East.