Animism was a dominant force in the earliest of human societies. Animism is a term that has both narrow and broad definitions. In a narrow definition, animism is some attribution of conscious existence and other human characteristics to natural objects (e.g., a bison, bear, tree, or stone). Another narrowly defined form of animism consists of belief in devils or in ghosts, spiritual beings separable from their corporeal bodies. In a broader use of the term, an unspecified immaterial force motivates or animates the universe. This belief may be primitive in nature (e.g., gods demanding human sacrifice as propitiation for sunshine or crops) or sophisticated, relying on abstraction or philosophy as a condition for existence.6
The earliest humans of nomadic societies in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere had to devise a rationalization for the brute conditions of life and the struggle for survival. These early rationalizations took the form of myth, which was premised, at least in the standard anthropological formulation, on a desire to explain the obvious fact that humans are mortal and that their mortality is linked to an immediate everyday problem of survival. In effect early Homo sapiens (and possibly other species) sought methods of holding "existential terror'' at bay—the threat of extinction in the face of the fundamental economic problem of finding and securing sustenance. Faced with persistent threats to survival, early humans in virtually all regions of the world created mystical cults and death rituals based on myths. There is amazing physical evidence of carved madonnalike figures and rituals surrounding death, even among Neanderthals. The earliest-known manifestations of religious services or totems mixed a concern for survival (the Madonna of the Dordogne), with semi-abstract art (the thirty-two-thousand-year-old Vogelherd ivory horse), and music (bone-flutes and whistles). Paleolithic hunters worshipped gods and images of gods that were thought to bring luck in the hunt and thus increase survival. Anthropologist Ian Tattersall speculates on the likelihood of "bear cults'' circa 50,000 BCE among Neanderthals.7 Moreover, it is well known that Neanderthals buried their dead as Homo sapiens do over ninety thousand years ago. Such practices are evidence of complex patterns of belief. After the social and economic transition to sedentary agriculture, the form of the gods changed to include corn gods, grain gods, mother goddesses, earth goddesses, and spirits of all kinds that dealt with the ongoing stress and toil of survival.
Animism dictated the natural contours of mythmaking among these early hunters because deer, bison, and other food sources were the keys to survival for (by then) omniviporous humans.8 Even today animistic religions persist and sometimes dominate in countries that are still struggling with economic development, especially in Africa.
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