Posts Tagged ‘Animism’

Are the Beliefs of Earth-Based Peoples a Valid Guide to Their Behavior?

Are the Beliefs of Earth-Based Peoples a Valid Guide to Their Behavior?

Ken Fischman, Ph.D

Jon Young with Bushmen in Botswana

Jon Young with Bushmen in Botswana

Is there any validity to the oral histories of indigenous peoples? Typically, the avatars of western culture do not put much stock in the legends, stories, and myths of indigenous peoples. Being people of technology and the written word, we especially look down on those who have no written language, regarding them as “primitive,” and therefore not worthy of being taken seriously if we bother to study them at all.

When we study another culture, we usually take only so-called hard evidence seriously. Evidence such as bones, implements, hieroglyphics, and ruins can be touched, photographed, categorized, and put in the form of graphs and tables. We even define whether a people had something called a “civilization” in such a way as to downgrade the importance of  any people unless they had monumental ruins, a written (and decipherable) language, hierarchical social orders with division of labor, and whether or not they made war.(Guess which one counted highest.)

My point here is that I do not think that we attach sufficient significance to the beliefs of Earth-based peoples. Imagine if you can, that a future historian dismissed the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution as not having any bearing on the way people lived in North America during the past 200 years. I think that you would agree that such an attitude was ludicrous and showed sloppy scholarship indeed.

Yet, in a very real sense, this is what many scholars do when it comes to the beliefs and behavior of people whose traditions are oral. I believe that we should take these beliefs more seriously and give them more weight when we attempt to reconstruct events in pre-history. I came across the following story some years ago and found it a good example of this principal.


The Legend of Mount Mazama

 (As told by a Klamath elder to a soldier in 1865. Retold by Ella E. Clark In: Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1952.)

The story begins when the spirit of the Below-World fell in love with the chief’s daughter and demanded that she marry him. This overture was denied and the rejection did not sit well with the spirit, who threatened to destroy the people. “Raging and thundering, he rushed up through the opening and stood on top of the mountain.”

The spirit of another great mountain now intervened and the two mountains began some sort of combat. “Red hot rocks, as large as the hills hurtled through the skies. Burning ashes fell like rain. The chief of the Below-World spewed fire from his mouth. Like an ocean of flame it devoured the forests on the mountain and in the valleys. On and on the curse of the fire swept, until it reached the homes of the people. Fleeing in terror before it, the people found refuge in the waters of Klamath Lake.”

The Klamaths decided that someone should sacrifice him- or herself to appease the spirit. Two medicine men climbed the mountain and jumped into the opening [Caldera?}

“Once more the mountains shook. This time the chief of the Below-World was driven into his home and the top of the mountain fell on him. When the morning sun arose, the high mountain was gone.” Then, according to the Klamaths, rain fell. For many years rain fell in torrents and filled the great hole that was made when the mountain fell …”

Note: This legend appears to be describing the simultaneous eruptions of two volcanoes. The very language seems to be evocative of volcanic eruptions. The Klamath’s legend appears to be about Mt. Mazama in Oregon, and its twin, Mt. Shasta in northern California, as having spirits who lived in them, and openings [vents?] which led to a lower world through which the spirits passed. The Klamaths apparently knew when the mountain was active because when he [the spirit] came up from his lodge below, his tall form towered above the snow-capped peaks [smoke, steam?].

volcano erupting


After all, how would the Klamaths know about such things unless they had actually witnessed them? The only trouble with believing that this legend was a kind of transposition of an eyewitness account is that there have been no volcanic eruptions in the Pacific Northwest since Mt. Mazama blew its top three thousand years ago. Could the story have been passed down from generation to generation for such a long time period?

Before you dismiss such an idea as fanciful, consider the part about the rain filling the great hole made when the mountain fell. It seems to be describing Crater Lake, which was formed in exactly that fashion when Mt. Mazama collapsed.

Our culture, which depends on the written word and now also on electronic bytes, can hardly conceive of such prodigious feats of memory. However, many other cultures, which depend on oral history to keep accounts of their people’s stories, developed this capacity over millennia.

Crater Lake, Oregon

One startling example of this capacity is cited by anthropologist Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty in her delightful book, Other People’s Myths. O’Flaherty states “ India has two sorts of Sanskrit classics, typified by two great texts, the Rig Veda and the Mahabbarata.  The Rig Veda is a massive collection of hymns, a text of over 350,000 words (as long as the Iliad and the Odyssey combined); it was preserved orally for over three thousand years. The Mahabbarata is one of the two great Sanskrit epics (the other being the Ramayana), a text of over 100,000 verses, or three million words (almost ten times as long as the Rig Veda, and fifteen times the combined length of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament); it was preserved both orally and in manuscript form for over two thousand years. “

These texts were recited flawlessly in villages from one end of the Indian subcontinent, to the other without a single mistake. Doniger tells the perhaps apocryphal story that it was only when these classics were translated by an English Consul into print that mistakes began to appear.

Navaho “singers” are capable of memorizing three-day ceremonies so flawlessly that no mistake creeps in. In fact, these ceremonies are never written down, but are passed from one singer to another down the generations. Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, tells the amusing story of one such singer, Jeff King, who, in 1966, recited his ceremony and made a sand painting for a distinguished audience at the New York Museum of Natural History. When he had appeared to finish, he was confronted by one very knowledgeable woman, who insisted that he had left something out. “No” he said. “Yes” she said, and insisted that he put it in. “I cannot, he said, if I did so, every woman in Manhattan would become pregnant.” As Campbell put it, “Those Navaho ceremonies had power!”

(Jeff King Sand painting below)

In sum, I believe that western scientists and anthropologists are mistaken to dismiss the oral histories of these people. In doing so, they are losing a lot of valuable knowledge, that may have at least as much validity as Carbon 14 isotope studies.

The reason why I emphasize that oral histories should be taken more seriously is that I have trouble with people who tell me that the only reason that Native Americans and other indigenous peoples did not destroy their environments just as thoroughly as we seem to be doing, is that they lacked bulldozers and insecticides.

On my side, I find it hard to believe that people who regarded the rivers as their sisters, would have raped them by pouring toxic waste into them, or thought of their forests as brothers, would have clear-cut them. Explain to me how people who looked at wolves as older brothers and whose scouts emulated them, like the Cheyenne did, would have turned around and shot them from Cessnas if only they had they possessed such equipment.

Wildlife Services airplane displays killed wolf decals on engine cowling


The Tracks In Chauvet Cave

The Tracks In Chauvet Cave

by Ken Fischman, Ph.D.



The two sets of tracks were side by side.  One of them was  that of a young child, and the other of a wolf.

What if I were to tell you that these tracks were found deep within Chauvet Cave, high above the Ardeche River in France, a cave, which contains some of the most glorious Stone Age art ever found? Some of the paintings on the walls of Chauvet date back to at least the Upper Paleolithic period, some 32,000 years ago. Among them are unforgettable scenes of mammoths, rhinoceroses, ungulates of all kinds, and even a leopard. One of the most striking scenes is that of a group of nervous, hard breathing horses, with the adjacent wall showing a pride of maneless lions intently stalking them.

Chauvet Horses

The Nervous Horses

My story begins a few nights ago, when my wife and I were viewing Werner Herzog’s film, “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” on NetFlix. The film is a documentary about Chauvet. Herzog and his crew were the first non-scientists or technicians allowed in the environmentally fragile cave. As the film crew, shooting as they went, descended deep within the cavern, we were enchanted by the beauty of the cave itself as well as the artistry of the painters. The cave, with its paintings had afterward been sealed like a time capsule, due to a rock fall some 20,000 years ago. It was rediscovered in 1996.

The entire cave is about eighteen hundred feet long, and consists of several rooms, some large, some small, connected by passages. Most of the rooms are filled with stalactites and stalagmites interspersed with curtain like sheets of sparkling limestone. At one point the camera panned along the cave’s dusty floor, showing bones of various animals strewn haphazardly across it. We also saw numerous cave bear skulls (Ursus spelaeus).

And then, within the stygian depths of the cave, the camera came upon the tracks of the boy and the wolf. I forgot everything else at that point and focused on these like a laser.

Maneless lions, Stalking Horses?

Chauvet Lions Painting

To understand my fascination with these tracks, I need to tell you a little about myself.

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and spent most of my adult life among the bricks and cement of New York City. I earned a Ph.D. in Genetics, and worked in a laboratory right in the middle of the Big Apple. Despite my upbringing and profession, I always had a great love for the out of doors and have spent a great deal of my spare time in the woods and on rivers.

In the nineteen eighties, following our bliss, as Joseph Campbell would say, my wife Lanie and I took our first class in primitive skills with Tom Brown, the noted wilderness survival teacher. We went on to participate in several of his tracking and wilderness awareness classes, and taught in his school. Since then, Lanie and I have created various programs and primitive skills classes ourselves.

One of our passions has been tracking. We even tracked weasels under the snow in Manhattan’s Central Park and pheasants in Inwood Park at the northern tip of Manhattan.

After we moved out West, I became interested in protection of endangered wildlife, especially the wolf. Living here in the Idaho Panhandle, a few miles from Canada, I have learned a great deal about the biology and behavior of wolves, and we have even tracked them in Yellowstone National Park.

Herzog, who served both as director and narrator of the film, again panned his camera over the wolf and human tracks. Yes, I could see that they were side by side, and was able to get an idea of their sizes and gaits (i.e. manner and pattern of walking), but the camera was too far away to see much detail. Herzog posed some provocative questions. “Was the wolf stalking the boy?” he asked, “or were they walking side by side as companions”? He also pointed out that the tracks may have been made simultaneously or a thousand or more years may have separated them in time.

Tracks can tell fascinating stories if you know how to read them, but these were enigmatic. Herzog’s questions intrigued me and set me to thinking.

Unfortunately, the chances of anyone ever inspecting and measuring the tracks from in close are not good. Herzog was filming from a metal walkway, laid down some years ago, about ten feet from the tracks, and he was not allowed to step off the walkway and get closer to them. Too bad. Although it is possible to track at a distance, and I once witnessed Tom Brown spot and identify fox tracks across a pond from him, you can tell much more about the animal or person who made the tracks from in close. However, the representatives of the French government, who control the cave, have “rules of engagement” that preclude anyone from seeing a lot of it at close quarters, for fear that they would disturb or destroy something vital. This is especially true of the cave’s floor, which has a thick layer of dust on it, which they do not want to disturb.

This situation was frustrating to me as a tracker, used to examining tracks on my hands and knees, and seeing subtle aspects of them that give clues, even about the animal’s state of mind and intentions. None of that was of course possible from such a distance, but still some information could be obtained from the quick look we were afforded.  Besides, it does have the advantage of leaving me free to speculate about the tracks without fear of contradiction by uncomfortable facts that may be uncovered later. In this I am in the common position of an Anthropologist, who my son, a science journalist, says use 5% facts and 95% speculation.

So, freed from those putative facts, I plunge into my own “cave of forgotten memories.”

First, you should understand that careful exploration of Chauvet had previously shown that although cave bears and other animals had obviously used it, no human ever lived in this cave. It was probably entered by humans only for the purpose of making the paintings, and using them for rituals and initiations. The child’s tracks however, were found deep in the cave. What was a young child doing there?

The nether regions of the cave were normally pitch black. Until recently, there was no light in those parts of the cave except intermittently, coming from torches carried by humans. Carbon traces from these torches have been found on the walls, which have been carbon dated to 28,000 years ago.

Due to the necessity for light, it is almost certain that the perhaps eight-year-old boy or girl was not alone in the cave. The child must have been accompanied, at the very least, by one adult. Given the youngster’s age, whoever accompanied him or her, was undoubtedly well known to the child, and was most likely a parent. So, I think that we may all give a sigh of relief, confident that the wolf did not “get” the youngster. Adding to this inductive reasoning is the fact that no child’s bones have been found in the cave either. This should give us even more assurance about his or her welfare.

As for Herzog’s question of whether the child and wolf were there at the same or different times, I am fairly confident about that situation too. First, the cave is basically dry. It is situated high above the present course of the Ardeche River, so that is likely that the only water that could have reached it was through a spring or springs trickling along tree roots, through the rock. We know that the tracks were made at least twenty thousand years ago. That is guaranteed by that rock fall, which sealed the cave until its rediscovery in 1996. The preservation of the tracks for at least the intervening 8,000 years, attests to the fact that no water, mud, or flood had ever reached them during that very long time.

Because of that, it appears that the wet conditions, necessary for making these tracks, must have been a very rare occurrence in the history of the cave. For these reasons, I feel pretty sure that the wolf and the boy had not been walking the cave thousands of years apart. That would have been too great a coincidence. Most likely, they strolled together, or had been there within a few days of each other.

I lean toward the companion theory for several reasons. For one thing, even the cursory sight we were afforded, showed me that both the wolf and the child were just walking along at a normal pace. There was no sign that either of them were running, galloping, or had even lengthened their strides. There was no sign of fear or panic on the part of the child.

Another aspect that I noticed was that the tracks never crossed each other or overlapped. If the tracks were made at different times, it is likely that they would have coincided, at least in part. After all, the cave is fairly narrow, and places where someone could walk are quite confined. There would not have been much room for their tracks to not come in contact except if they had been walking, aware of each other, side by side.

Furthermore, from what I know of wolves, if this one had been stalking the child, it would have literally walked in his tracks. For example, when a wolf pack walks in the snow, they step in each other’s tracks and do so with remarkable precision. This has the effect of breaking the trail, making it easier for the other wolves to follow the leader. Groups of human cross country skiers and snow shoers do this too, and for the same reason. It saves energy.

In this behavior, by the way, the wolf differs from human trackers, who on the contrary, are careful to not step in the tracks they are following. They do this as a courtesy to others, who also may want to examine and follow this set of tracks. Wolves apparently are not as courteous, but are more pragmatic than we are.

This wolf behavior reminds me of the flying wedges of geese, who essentially are “drafting“ the leader as racing cars do. The following geese switch places with each other from time to time in a systematic fashion so that they each take turns leading.  This has the effect of distributing the hard task of leading fairly equally among the flock.

I do not know if members of a wolf pack tracking prey, change places from time to time, but I have been assured by wolf biologists that wolves definitely track their prey, thus showing that they understand that tracks signify that particular types of animals have passed that way. For instance, they would not waste their time and energy tracking a grizzly bear.

By the way, I wonder if wolves can distinguish fresh or recent tracks from older ones? A good human tracker can “age” tracks visually, just by examining them closely. Such an ability would certainly be of value to wolves, because, once again, following old or “stale” tracks (especially if they were a thousand years old!) would be a waste of their energy. Conservation of energy is one of the prime characteristics of wild animals’ behavior. Your pet Labrador retriever might fetch a stick out of the water for you dozens of times, but you can bet that you would not be able to get a wolf to do that.

A wolf can probably track both visually and olfactorially, having a much keener and more discriminating sense of smell than we have.

To return from this digression to the question at hand, it seems to me that the parallel tracks indicate that the child and the wolf were aware of each other’s presence.

Whether they were companions is a more difficult question to answer. Present day dogs are the descendants of wolves, but the information we have at present, mostly from DNA studies, indicates that the transition from wolf to dog took place in at least two different areas of the world at about the same time, some 12,000 years ago. One of these birthplaces was in China and the other in the Near East, both far from Chauvet cave in the Ardeche region of south-central France. So, both in space and time, it seems unlikely that this transition was taking place near Chauvet at the time the tracks were made there.

Nevertheless, we must consider, for our purposes, that the transition from wolf to dog must have started, not with animal husbandry, but with the taming of wolves. This was most likely to have occurred by humans stealing or removing cubs from a wolf den. I know of no instance of an adult or even yearling wolf pup being tamed by humans. One of the most striking characteristics of wolves is their fierce wildness.

Aesop’s fable of the Wolf and the Dog indicates that this wolfy independence was a known and admired fact, way back in Roman times.

However, wolf breeders know that if they obtain a pup early enough, it will regard them as its parents and will bond to them for life. Present day hunter gatherers and other Earth based peoples are keen observers of their natural surroundings, and especially of animals. The wonderful stories and myths that have come down to us from Native Americans testify to that knowledge.

We can assume with confidence therefore that the Cro-Magnons of Chauvet were very familiar with this aspect of wolf behavior, and could have manipulated it to their favor, perhaps using such tamed wolves as guards or even aids in hunting, as present day Botswana Bushmen do with wild dogs.

Another important consideration is that human beings are not the normal prey of wolves. There have been only one or two authenticated wolf attacks on humans on this continent in the last two hundred years. This is true at least of North America. Admittedly, Of course I cannot vouch for this situation with respect to Paleolithic Europe.

All of these bits and pieces of information and speculation have painted a picture for me of a child and a wolf, wandering together through Chauvet cave while the adults were painting other pictures. It is a nice image, and I aim to keep it unless not yet revealed facts arise to contradict it.

Chauvet cave is a marvel indeed, opening to us not only a window on the considerable artistic abilities of Paleolithic man, but also on his inner life, and perhaps in the case of the child and wolf, on his connections to the natural world.

I suspect that the story of the tracks in Chauvet cave will always remain mysterious. After all, we are talking about events that happened a long time ago. Despite our careful analysis, it is still 5% facts and 95% speculation. Perhaps that is what it should be. Sometimes a mystery is more fun than its solution.

The Rhinoceroses of Chauvet

Wall paintings in Chauvet, showing two rhinoceroses






Newsletters, 2011

Our Newsletters will begin in July, 2011.

With respect to our wild lands,  it will cover topics, such as Hunter Gatherers, Wilderness Survival, and Predator Prey Relationships, with emphasis on the role of wolves in healthy ecosystems. 

The environment takes in an even wider swath, so the Newsletter will also cover Cancer, Climate Change, Peak Oil, and Molecular Genetics, especially Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

Anything that effects the health of the Earth is grist for our mill, and hopefully of interest to you. We will therefore upon occasion, wander farther afield if it seems relevant to your interests, to such topics as primitive skills, wilderness awareness, the evolution of man, and so on.



Please check the News category for the latest topics of interest

Introduction to Animism

Introduction to Animism

 by Lanie Johnson, M.A.  and Ken Fischman, Ph.D.

Let’s start with some formal definitions of animism.

 “the belief that all natural phenomena have souls independent of their physical being” (from Latin anima, soul), Webster’s New World DICTIONARY, Third College Edition)

 “Any of various primitive beliefs whereby natural phenomena and things animate and inanimate are held to possess an innate soul.” (The American Heritage DICTIONARY of the English Language)

Ken and I have observed that most people are either not familiar with Animism or have differing ideas about what it is. This is understandable since there are no written historical records. However, scholars in archaeology, anthropology, history & philosophy of religion are in general agreement on these two points:

         • Animism is the most ancient religion. Although there is some controversy regarding the derivation of the word “religion” – most people agree that it is from the Latin religare (to bind strongly. So Animism is like other religions in that it involves being strongly bound, but it differs in that its binding is to the Universe rather than to a particular deity.

                  “A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the

                  universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw

                  forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by con-

                  conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.”

                                                               – Carl Sagan, Astronomer & science  writer, 1994

         Animism is not a religion that has a special building or temple, or scripture, or holy days. The religion of Animism, strongly binding one to the Universe in all its manifestations, all of which have spirit or soul, is more a way of life or culture than a formal religion.

         Animism was originally the religion of all Hunter-Gatherers, our ancestors for most of the last 200,000 years. How do we know that? Through archaeological traces of our ancestors and comparative anthropological studies of present-day hunter gatherers, all of whom are animists.  

        It is basically a belief that every part of the world is suffused with spirit and is therefore sacred. It  thus stands apart from most contemporary religions in which only certain things, like a particular text, such as a bible, or building, like a church, mosque, or synagogue, is sacred, and the rest of the world is regarded as profane.

         Our present culture started only about 10,000 years ago. So, the original religion of most of humanity has been Animism for 95% of the time we have been here.

         To tell you the truth we (Ken & Lanie) sometimes confuse hunter gatherers and animists, because a hunter gatherer’s spiritual life is so infused with their culture.

         There is some confusion about the difference between Hunter-Gatherers, Indigenous people, Primitive or Tribal people, and so on.  People like the Maasai and Bantu of Africa, and many American Indians, were not Hunter-Gatherers.  They are or were horticulturalists, that is, people who till small gardens, or agriculturalists who farm, or pastoralists who herd animals.

          Animism can also be distinguished from Paganism in that Pagan means “of the country” and refers to farmers.

As their name implies, Hunter-Gatherer people hunt animals and gather wild plants they find around them.  They live in small groups or bands of 10-30 related persons. Most of their possessions are communal. They have no hereditary or elected leaders. They make decisions by consensus and have a cooperative, sharing society. Of course, this doesn’t mean they never get angry, jealous, or mean.  However, they have created a culture in which such behavior is minimalized. Theirs is a way of life in which one has relationships with non-human life forms – thanking plants or animals used to sustain human life, for example.

We would like you to listen now to the words of Chief Seattle, and see if you recognize some of these animist ideas in his speech:

CHIEF SEATTLE’S SPEECH                                                                                               

            First off, we need to tell you that these are probably not Chief Seattle’s exact words. They are based on notes taken by a local physician, who attended the speech, and which were written up some years later in a newspaper article. Nevertheless, the sentiments expressed in this speech fit so remarkably the animist point of view, and have such a poetic nobility, that they can stand almost as an animist manifesto. Here are the words: 

“The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? The land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

         Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.

         We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadow, [the body heat of the pony,. . .] and man, all belong to the same family

         The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give to the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.

         If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us; that the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers.

         Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.

         This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

         . . .Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted by talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and the hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival. . .

         We love this earth as a newborn loves its mother’s heartbeat. So, if we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it as we have cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you receive it. Preserve the land for all children and love it, as God loves us all.

         As we are part of the land, you too are part of the land. This earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you. One thing we know: there is only one God. No man, be he Red Man or White Man, can be apart. We are brothers after all.

Hunter Gatherer Beliefs:

         How far back does Man’s intelligence and sense of aesthetics and beauty go?   Thirty thousand year old flutes, cunningly carved from the wing bones of Swans and Mammoth ivory, demonstrate planning, impressive craftsmanship, and love of music.  Four hundred thousand-year-old throwing spears (or Javelins) show that H. erectus was no unconscious thinking scavenger, but was capable of forethought, and able to learn skills handed down from others.  But, were these guys religious?

         Deliberate Burials:

         So far, there are no hints of any religious thoughts on the part of H. erectus.  However, there were deliberate burials of Neanderthals.  Do they represent thoughts of an afterlife or a return from death?  The position of the buried person, often in a fetal position, and facing East toward the rising sun, indicate hope for renewal just as the Sun is reborn each day.  The inclusion of tools, weapons, and ornamentation shows the hope for a return in which the buried party will find all the possessions needed to carry on his/her life again.  Some burials also contained offerings of such things as deer antlers, boar jaws, flint tools, and Red Deer jaw bones.  There are other clues.

         Cave Bear Grottos:

          High up in the Alps grottos have been discovered in which many Cave Bear skulls have been carefully arranged.  Cave Bears are thought to represent the Animal Master, whose propitiation would hopefully insure the return the next year of Man’s principal food animals. 

         Religious thoughts:

         Cro-Magnon cave paintings in France and Spain, such as the “Sorcier des Trois Freres” may also represent Animal Masters or some kind of sympathetic magic, insuring the success of the The Great Hunt, which was surely early Man’s greatest occupation.  His view of the Earth as sacred is demonstrated in contemporary HGs like Australian Aborigines, who see animate forms in natural geography, like the “woman’s legs” in NW Australia 


         What about HG cosmology? that is, beliefs about the relationship between humans & Nature. One expression of their cosmology is in the games they play. The widespread incidence of games of chance (gambling, really) shows an underlying philosophy that life is a game of chance; in other words, acceptance of Nature and what it brings. On the other hand, games of strategy, which appeared later, among agriculturalists, indicate interest in control.

         Ancient myths are often about animals as the first people – or older brothers – who are valued as teachers. HG religion is usually called Animism, or the belief that everything in the world is alive and has a spirit: people, animals, birds, trees, rocks, water, etc. It’s based on respect for the natural world and all its beings.

Animism, as Daniel Quinn says, “embodies a worldview: the world is a sacred place, and humans belong in that sacred place.” There are many different ways of relating to the Natural World as an Animist, as we’ll now see as we explore some selected readings:



         The beautiful and insightful adventure of a South African WWII hero, who upon his return, searches for & finds the last remnants of the remarkable Bushmen, surviving in style in an inhospitable desert.

THE HARMLESS PEOPLE. Elizabeth Marshal Thomas.

         An anthropologist lives with South African Bushmen and describes a society that works – wonderfully. She returns 20 years later to see what effect our culture has had on theirs.

THE FOREST PEOPLE. A Study of the Pygmies of the Congo. Colin M. Turnbull.

         Another anthropologist lives with Congo Pygmies. He admires their lifestyle and social organization, which they manage to retain despite the incursions of Bantu agriculturalists. 


         A scholarly analysis of the impressive technological and cultural achievements of our ancient ancestors.        


         Do hunter-gatherers have something to tell modern culture? A brilliant analysis by the most respected scholar on the subject. 

ORIGINAL WISDOM: Stories of an Ancient Way of Knowing. Robert Wolff.

         A psychologist lives with the most remote people of Malaysia, the S’ingoi.

OUR BABIES, OURSELVES: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent. Meredith F. Small.

         A Pediatric Anthropologist examines different cultures’ approach to parenting.

LIMITED WANTS, UNLIMITED MEANS. A Reader on Hunter-Gatherer Economics and the Environment. John Gowdy, ed.

         The interaction between Hunter-Gatherer economics and the environment. Describes a culture in harmony with the Earth.

Animist Beliefs Compared With Those of Our Culture

Comparison of Taker & Leaver Beliefs

 by Ken Fischman, Ph.D.

(1)  Taker beliefs lead from one to another; they’re linear or sequential. (they do have some side branches – look like an amino acid)

Leaver beliefs seem more or less equal, or mutually dependant; they relate to each other in a non-linear fashion. what worked better: radial symmetry*, as in a medicine wheel or a Radiolarian (primitive protozoan which lives in the ocean)

* resembles a coral or a Hydra (phylum Coelenterata) or an orange

(2) Thinking of religion & mythology – J Campbell says that one of the functions of mythology is an attempt to put human behavior in harmony with the way the Universe as they know it functions. e.g., Venus of Laussel and the lunar cycle. and the first agricultural cities in the Near East (hieratic) which were laid out according to the paths of the sun, planets, and stars. Stonehenge is another example of this principle. These religions, their behavior, and even their city plans, were organized in accord with the way people of that time thought the Universe was ordered.

The problem with Taker mythology/beliefs: not in accord with what we presently understand how science & the Universe are organized. In fact, it puts us on a collision course with these principles. That is why we are on the way to destroying ourselves and the rest of the Earth.

The reason Animist beliefs prevailed for 100’s of 1000’s, perhaps millions of years, and that they did not destroy the Earth & each other – is not because they did not possess chainsaws & rockets, but because their belief systems put them in accord with the physical and biological laws that govern all living organisms on Earth.

The radial/spherical symmetry way of looking at Animist beliefs is analogous to the way the Universe is organized. it ain’t sequential.

I am not sure whether the Earth is radial, spherical or neither. An orange (radial) has 2 poles (flower & stem end): if cut in ½, between poles, you will not get 2 identical pieces. – You can cut it in an infinite # of ways & always get 2 identical halves as long as you include both of the poles. This is the pizza pie principle – an orange = inflated pizza pie. The difference between radial & spherical symmetry: In a spherically symmetrical object,  it doesn’t matter how you cut, because as long as you include the center, you’ll get identical halves.

If the Earth has radial or spherical symmetry: This would be yet another example of Animist beliefs being in accord with the way the Universe is organized.

J Campbell quotes the 15th century  philosopher, Nicolas Cusanus, who said “God is an intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere.”

Recommended Books on Earth-Based Peoples and Animism



            Do hunter-gatherers have something to tell modern culture? A brilliant analysis by the most respected scholar on the subject.

DANCING WITH THE WHEEL. The Medicine Wheel Workbook.

            Sun Bear is of Chippewa descent. He founded the Bear Tribe, which welcomes natives and non-natives, and is located near Spokane, WA. His book shows how to apply the Medicine Wheel, based on natural cycles, to your life. Includes the 4 directions.

LETTERS FROM A WILD STATE. Rediscovering Our True Relationship to Nature. James G. Cowan

            Cowen is an Australian, who has spent much time with Australian aborigines as well as with several other indigenous peoples. He brings the lyrical mind of a poet to penetrate deeply into the mythical minds of these people.

MESSENGER OF THE GODS.  Tribal Elders Reveal the Ancient Wisdom of the Earth. James G. Cowan.

            Cowen gains much wisdom and insight from his contacts with the few remaining animists living on islands between Australia and New Guinea. They tell him their personal stories, myths, and legends.


            Shepard’s most profound work. Here he shows how the life cycle of an individual is intimately tied to natural cycles, and what happens when a culture  disconnects it.

ORIGINAL WISDOM: Stories of an Ancient Way of Knowing. Robert Wolff.

            A psychologist lives with the most remote people of Malaysia, the Sng’oi., and discovers remarkable things about these people’s abilities.

ISHMAEL. Daniel Quinn

             The transformative, award winning novel, depicting the contradictions between the animist and contemporary cultures. 

PROVIDENCE. The Story of a Fifty-Year Vision Quest. Daniel Quinn

            The autobiography of the prize winning author of Ishmael, Quinn’s dream as a seven year old and his vision in a Trappist monastery prefigure his inexorable path to his culminating work.

THE FOREST PEOPLE. A Study of the Pygmies of the Congo. Colin M. Turnbull.

            An anthropologist lives with Congo Pygmies. He admires their lifestyle and social organization, which they manage to retain despite the incursions of Bantu agriculturalists.

THE HARMLESS PEOPLE. Elizabeth Marshal Thomas.

            An anthropologist, as a teenager with her parents lived with South African Bushmen and describes a society that works – wonderfully. She returns 20 years later to see what effect our culture has had on theirs.

THE OLD WAY. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

            The author, who lived with the Bushmen for several years, uses the perspective of her mature years to examine their  culture in depth. It is interwoven with personal experiences and insights, as well as with comparisons to our culture.


            The beautiful and insightful adventure of a South African WWII hero, who upon his return, searches for & finds the last remnants of the remarkable Bushmen. They are surviving in style in an inhospitable desert.

THE HEART OF THE HUNTER. Laurens Van der Post           

            Continues the story begun in Lost World of the Kalahari. It is an elegiac evocation of both the external & internal worlds of the last of the Hunter Gatherers, written by a keen observer.


            An anthropologist, turned subsistence hunter, goes to an island off the coast of Alaska to find deer and grizzlies. He develops an animist spirituality. This is an astonishingly beautiful book about the relation of a man to nature.

THE TRACKER. Tom Brown, Jr.

            The story of the apprenticeship of seven year old Tom Brown to an Apache scout and elder, Stalking Wolf, in which Tom learns a lot more than wilderness survival skills.


            The almost legendary master of tracking and primitive wilderness survival has written a manual on how to not only survive, but to flourish in Nature’s embrace. Tune into the man, who has reconnected thousands of people to the Earth and gain a little of his ethic and wisdom as a bonus.


            Swamp was the Peacemaker for the 6 Nations of the Iroquois. He was head of the Tree of Peace Society. This pamphlet, which is a classic example of Native American thanksgiving, and said on every occasion, can be obtained from John Stokes , of


         A scholarly analysis of the impressive technological and cultural achievements of our ancient ancestors.

OUR BABIES, OURSELVES: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent. Meredith F. Small.

         A Pediatric Anthropologist examines different cultures’ approach to parenting.

LIMITED WANTS, UNLIMITED MEANS. A Reader on Hunter-Gatherer Economics and the Environment. John Gowdy, ed.

         The interaction between Hunter-Gatherer economics and the environment. Describes a culture in harmony with the Earth.

The Earth Is Our Home


What is Jack Staff's destination?