The Structure of Religion in Hunter-gatherer Societies

Over the past 12,000 years humans have transitioned from living in small-scale hunter-gatherer societies to living in large-scale agricultural-based societies. This transition is associated with widespread change in human social and religious systems. Understanding how social and religious systems have co-evolved over this period is a central endeavour for evolutionary accounts of religion.

One of the challenges of understanding the evolution of religious systems is that many important features of religion in hunter-gatherer societies leave no archaeological record. This means that we have very little data on the religious systems of hunter-gatherer religious systems 12,000 years ago.

There is however a substantial body of ethnographic data available on hunter-gatherer societies in more recent times. While it is important to recognise that recent hunter-gatherer societies are not simply relics from the past, this ethnographic data can help build a picture of the kinds of religious systems found among hunter-gatherer societies.

As part of the Templeton Funded project “Religion and the Social Brain” I have led the construction of the Hunter-gatherer Religion Database (HGRD) which contains quantitative variables on 85 hunter-gatherer societies. This database provides a systematic overview of the kinds of religious systems found in hunter-gatherer societies from around the world.

I am currently using phylogenetic comparative methods and data from the HGRD to test theories about the functions and features of religion in hunter-gatherer societies. This includes studies on the emergence and roles of religious specialists, the factors associated with belief in black magic, and the potential of community song and dance rituals to bond social groups. These studies will show how religious systems function in hunter-gatherer societies and inform theories about major transitions of religions systems in human history.

Research Outputs

Watts, J., & Dunbar, R.D. (In Prep). Ecological stability predicts the emergence of professional religious specialists in hunter-gatherer societies.

External Links

Hunter-gatherer Religion Database, OSF Project Page

Prof Robin Dunbar, University of Oxford

Religion & The Social Brain, International Society for Science & Religion