Early Human Morality and Religion

Morality among hunter-gatherers

For several million years our ancestors lived by gathering a variety of plant foods and hunting animals. No traditional hunter-gatherers are left in the world today; the last hunter-gatherer bands were assimilated into farming and herding economies in the 1990's. However during the preceding 50 years their lives were documented by visiting anthropologists.

Hunter-gatherers typically lived together in bands of between 50 and 100 individuals. They made seasonal camps for a few months at a time and foraged widely from that base. Men and women had distinct roles in their food economy: men hunted game animals and do politics, while women gathered plant foods, caught small invertebrates, and took care of children. Women typically spaced their births about four years apart, using a variety of methods; however when these methods failed, they often abandoned untimely babies.

When we read about so-called "primitive" people, (they are often quite sophisticated about things that concern them), we may not recognize as 'moral issues' their moral concerns. We can easily recognize sexual taboos, since we have so many ourselves, but we often miss the other issues that engage much moral feeling among people of another society. Much of ‘primitive’ morality has to do with arrangements about food, and much of this has to do with traditional obligations that are enforced strongly by the community. (We might think of the informal but powerful sanctions, which enforce commercial ethics in our society.) For example among the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert or the Mbuti of the Congo, many men hunt each day but few men are successful on any given day. Community traditions ensure that everybody gets to share in what meat has been brought in. There are strong feelings about co-operation on the hunt: everybody must aim for the common good, rather than maximizing their own hunting success at the expense of others' success. There are elaborate traditions that dictate which parts of the animal go to which relative of the successful hunter, which parts go to others who helped with the hunt, and which parts he may distribute as he sees fit. Not to distribute meat is regarded as a heinous offence, and will result in ostracism. In the long run everybody gets enough to eat, although a skilled hunter’s close relatives do better. In practice the traditional distribution obligations can never be exactly satisfied, because of the varied and fluid composition of hunter-gatherer bands. The hunter has considerable latitude in adapting conventions to the reality on the ground; and so of course the recipients can find fault with his adherence to traditional norms. Lee reports a constant background of ‘lawyer-like’ complaining among the !Kung people about how others have failed to fulfill these food obligations and obligations of various other sorts.

Moral enforcement among hunter-gatherers depends on community censure, rather than judges or police. There are no courts; transgressions of moral obligations and disputes between individuals are discussed publicly and at length in the band. Anthropologists were initially amazed that these societies could work at all. The group takes a stern line about many transgressions, particularly about failure to share or cutting in front of others during group endeavors such as hunting. The most serious punishment among most hunter-gatherers is ostracism. In theory ostracism is equivalent to a death sentence because most people can’t survive for very long on their own in the bush. However exile rarely lasts for more than a few days, and even during exile a person’s relatives may feed him (or her) secretly in the bush. As in our society, many of the moral issues begin in personal disagreements. If two people are feuding they will often build their huts at opposite ends of the encampment; if they really can't get along, one of them will often join another band. In situations where other bands are inaccessible, such as the Eskimo societies in winter, Briggs reports that the Eskimos discretely distance themselves from an individual who has repeatedly threatened the harmony of their society; although other reports indicate that a serious and repeat offender may be pushed off an ice-floe when nobody is looking.

Hunter-gatherers seem to work hard at building an egalitarian society and forestalling envy. There is necessarily a hierarchy of skills in both hunting and gathering, and those who are most skilled are most respected. In practice the skilled hunters set the direction of the hunt, and the skilled gatherers likewise. However the band makes great efforts to prevent the accumulation of leverage by skilled people. Usually there is considerable disparagement of even the most juicy pieces of meat. A !Kung hunter is expected to return to camp quietly and say nothing until asked, and then say that he caught 'some miserable animal' and lead his friends to the carcass. Thus envy is forestalled.

One of the fascinations of primitive people to Westerners is their more relaxed attitude to sexuality. That's not to say there's a sexual free-for-all; rather people enter into marriage with an expectation of sexual fidelity. However nobody is particularly surprised when people enter into other liasons. Sexual offences may cause quite an uproar, and these offences are usually pursued by the aggrieved party. The group sides with the offended party in theory, but in practice relatives often mitigate the offender's exile and the community turns a blind eye to this mitigation. The band with whom the offenders live usually makes a big fuss over adultery, but if a new arrangement is contracted then over the course of a few weeks most people adjust to the new reality. The kinship relations provided by marriage are important for defining the network of obligations, but from the band’s point of view, it is more important that there be a network of obligations than that a particular network last through the lifetime of any individual. However from an individual’s point of view these sudden changes can be quite disturbing and provoke violence.

Hunter gatherers don't seem to have religion as we know it. Many bands have creation stories, often involving some sacred animal or a super-human hero, but these animals or heros play no role in the ongoing life of the band: they make no demands and receive no sacrifices or worship. In general hunter-gatherer societies have little superstition and they usually laugh at their agricultural neighbors' fears and rituals.

Anthropologists think that our ancestors lived in groups like these for several million years, gradually improving their technology: the bow and arrow appear in the archeological record a mere 50,000 years ago. However the biggest change wasn't just acquiring a new technology, but a change in our way of life: our ancestors settled down.

Settling Down

The earliest evidence for cultivated plots dates to 30,000 BC; people were planting their favorite foods as they made the annual rounds of their habitual camp sites. However some people in Turkey settled down permanently to grow crops year-round in one place around 10,000 BC; and from there the practice spread throughout Asia Minor. People in southern China started their own independent version of agriculture around 8,000 BC. The people of Peru were apparently cultivating some food crops and cotton for fishing nets in 4000 BCE.

The invention of agriculture brought new pressures to bear on human behavior. As people depended more on crops grown on cultivated land in fixed locations, there were several practical consequences for their lives. As people's concerns changed they made changes to their morals. First the traditional limits on the birth rate were relaxed; farmers began to have large families, and large families were celebrated. If many children survived from these large families the land could be worked harder to support larger communities, but in a few generations even more land would be needed. Second farmers began to build permanent houses and to improve their land. Thirdly people started making and using heavy tools, which were more effective, but could not be carried. The result is that subsistence farmers differ from hunter-gatherers in that they have a great deal more fixed property and tracts of fertile worked land. These properties require much investment of effort and are therefore valuable inheritances. Hence farmers are much less tolerant of interlopers in the chain of succession than are the hunter-gatherers, and therefore farmers usually have much stricter controls on sexuality. Harris points out that generally the strictest sexual mores are found among the hard-earth agricultural societies, where years of intense labor are required to build up a productive plot of land.

Fourthly another social change brought by agriculture was that people found it harder to avoid others with whom they couldn’t get along, so that fights become more common and often murderous. Murders in turn spawned the waves of revenge killings that plague many of subsistence farming societies today. (See Diamond's articles.) In many places these problems of spiralling conflict were addressed by the re-emergence of dominant males (chiefs) in human groups, reversing the egalitarian ethos of hunter-gatherer societies. Although the chiefs expropriated much of the wealth of the community, they also provided an effective police function, as did their primate forbears. This imposition of order and resolution of disputes by a chief made it possible for large groups of human beings to settle permanently in one place. However as people settled down and invested effort in dwellings and land, their houses and plots of improved land were vulnerable to destruction by others. People couldn't escape coercion and easily make a living on their own, or join up easily with another group, Therefore aggressive chiefs could bring people and land under their control by systematic warfare.

Finally agriculture brought major changes to social relationships and to individuals' emotional balance. Most hunter-gatherers depend on skill and sustained but not onerous effort to sustain themselves. The luck of the hunt is variable but all share; nobody stores food or acquires wealth. There are almost always less tasty food sources with some nutritional value in the neighborhood so that starvation is rarely a prospect. However farmers depend on the vagaries of sun and rain as well as periods of intense boring work in order to build up stores of food. Skill is less important than labor, and good luck comes to both skilled and stupid. Farmers therefore feel continual anxiety about the future and have long periods of down-time in which to indulge this anxiety. Hunter-gatherers lack superstition and witchcraft. On the other hand primitive agricultural societies are rife with superstition and fear, and accusations of witchcraft. Even today in some parts of the world individuals suspected of witchcraft are still punished with exile or death. Furthermore farmers are continually concerned about building up their stores for the future. Theft became a real concern for the first time in human history. Hence a subsistence farmer succeeds better if he is motivated by anxiety and somewhat aggressive. We might almost say that 'greed' became adaptive.

Subsistence farmers don't build cities. The world's first cities seem to have been build in Mesopotamia around 4000 BCE. The city states of Mesopotamia were built on fertile land that received little rain. The only way to get the benefit of the land's fertility was to build canals to channel water from the Tigris or Euphrates rivers. Such enormous public works projects could only be accomplished by the organized labor of hundreds of people. However the rewards were thousands of acres of prime farmland, and dozens of small cities sprang up within a few hundred years. Each city was organized around a temple; however there is no evidence of palaces in the earliest period. Apparently it was the temples, rather than chiefs or kings, which co-ordinated labor on the canals and in the fields; they also seem to have organized food re-distribution. It was not until the end of the third millennium BC (~2300) that large palaces appear and that kings apparently took over most of the functions of organizing society.

The Western idea of law seems to have originated in the writs of kings in the Near East sometime before the second millennium BC. The first great law code in the west is attributed to Hammurabi (c. 1850 BC) although he had earlier models. In China the idea of law seems to have evolved differently; the older ideas of obligation and privileges within the family were adapted into ideas about the obligations and rights of particular stations in society during the Zhou dynasty.

The earliest written evidence of religion in the Mideast is political mythology. The kings justified their rule by claiming divine mandate, and the mythologies were re-written to give pre-eminence to the local deity backing which ever king was ascendant at any time. Thus Hammurabi's theologians justified Babylon's ascendancy by the legal fiction that his Sumerian predecessors, the gods An and Enlil, had faced a serious threat from monsters, and had transferred their powers to Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, in exchange for him agreeing to take on the monsters. Similar political changes can be seen in the Egyptian creation stories; the patron god of the current dynasty is portrayed as the First Cause in the Egyptian creation myth.

Little evidence remains from the earliest periods in China. What evidence there is of their early religions suggests that both politics and anxiety played a large role. The earliest evidence of religion in China is thousands of cracked turtle shells, apparently used in the Shang court for divination about matters of state. Written evidence from Mesopotamia indicates that divination was also a prominent feature of everyday life there. We have no evidence on the effectiveness of Shang governance, but the Zhou kings who fought and replaced the Shang nobles justified their revolt by claiming that heaven had withdrawn the Shang mandate because the Shang kings were not taking care of the people and the land. The Zhou instituted a state religion of veneration of heaven and ancestors to remind everyone whence their mandate came.

Throughout the world as people gathered into larger political units, the stories of the early agriculturalists took on a profoundly political tone and became myths. The hunter-gatherers’ stories of indifferent creator gods evolved into stories of powerful gods who backed and justified the king. Although the hunter-gatherers spoke of gods who played tricks and vanished, the early empires had gods who went to war among themselves and whose dominion was established by these wars, as was the practice among men. The powerful gods also took an interest in the daily behavior of human beings and demanded conduct that served the state, such as animal sacrifice and later, obedience to the king. The gods were said to enforce restrictions on social, sexual and commercial behavior. Religion as we know it came into being.

An Interpretation

Hunter-gatherer societies seem to be anti-authoritarian. They work hard at maintaining a society in which people will want to live. Perhaps that is because people have a choice, and can go to other bands. This freedom was gradually lost after farming became the mainstay of the human economy. Farming was so productive and represented so much labor invested, that people didn't easily leave dysfunctional political situations.

However many of the early cities seemed to have been voluntary associations. A natural interpretation of the prominence of temples and the absence of palaces in early cities, is that people agreed to organize their efforts around what they agreed to believe was the directive of one of the mythical heros, rather than around the personal authority of one chief. In fact the earliest Mesopotamian myths tell that the gods created people in order to dig canals.

In fact the real decisions were made by the priests, but the priests were dependent on the people for food, and it is plausible that in the earliest periods most able-bodied adults had some input into the decision-making process. If they were unhappy they could withhold food or in extreme circumstances gang up on the temple staff. However when kings and standing armies arose, the ordinary peasants really had no more leverage; they couldn't just up and move when they felt oppressed by the king, and the king could command their produce by force.

I think that the concept of 'authority' arose in this period. The kings put their own relatives into the priesthood, and they set out the laws.

Some Questions for discussion

  1. How do egalitarian principles promote the success of hunter gatherer bands? Is this relevant to today’s societies?
  2. How do hunter-gatherers resolve disputes in practice? In what situations today do we resolve disputes in a similar manner? Where else can this work today?
  3. How did the shift in food production change the fundamental social issues that people faced? Which of those issues are still with us?
  4. How did religion come to play a role in morality? How did religion help? How did religion pervert ethics?