Hunters and Gatherers - the Supremacy of the Spirits

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Our earliest ancestors lived as hunters and gatherers. To understand how many different and ground-breaking ideas democracy is based on, one must know how things were before these ideas evolved. Our hunting and gathering ancestors lived and understood the world radically different from the way we do in modern societies.

Living conditions

The first human beings evolved around 100,000-150,000 years ago, and they lived exclusively from plants they found in nature and from what they were able to hunt. They moved around in extended families which typically numbered between 30 and 200 persons. This resembles approximately four to five couples of grandparents with children and grandchildren. Most of their lives, our ancestors were surrounded by people who had known them from birth or whom they had known from their birth. One never had to reflect on who one was, as is the case in modern society where one meets new people all the time, because everyone in the flock knew each other very well already.

Destiny and the spirits

Hunter-gatherers were convinced that their lives were controlled by destiny. The individual had no influence on how his or her own life would evolve or when it would end.

This conviction still exists around the world. But when we in the West talk about "destiny", most of us think that we are able to change our lives or the lives of others, and change our circumstances by personal decisions and acts. This idea simply did not exist among our ancestors in the Stone Age. Destiny was outlined and fixed by forces which were outside human influence. No-one, neither as an individual nor as a group, was able to break free or change the course life had laid out once and for all.

There was no major individual decision making either among hunter-gatherers. Major decisions were made collectively and depended on what the medicine man was told by the spirits. Spirits could be forces of nature such as the rain or sun; it could be an animal species such as the spirit of the bear, but it could also be the spirits of deceased ancestors. Ancestor worship has been one of the most common forms of religious practice throughout the history of mankind. That, and the belief in life after death, was undoubtedly connected to the fact that the deceased appeared vividly in people's dreams at night.

Back then, nobody perceived a person as an autonomous individual with his own free will. Spirits could enter and leave a person and, through rituals and mysticism, the spirits could be manipulated.


The conviction in many places was that the individual was equipped with "mana", a force that gave him or her their powers. Mana wasn't something you controlled yourself; it was an "energy" which could pass from person to person or between persons and objects. A good huntsman had a good hunting mana and this mana passed to his spear. If another person got this spear, he also got some of the other person's mana.

According to the hunter-gatherers, a great deal of a person was thus affected by external forces.

Animism and magic

Hunter-gatherers were also animists. They believed that inanimate objects and natural phenomena had special forces or spiritual properties and their own emotions and intentions. In animals, trees, waterfalls, mountains, rocks, soil, etc., there was a soul or distinct spirits, just like there was in man. With our ancestors, intentions and emotions were not limited to people. Every event - right from the rain falling from the sky to a successful hunt - was understood as if 'someone' or 'something' was behind it.

For the flock, as for the individual hunter, it was a matter of being on good terms with these spirits and this typically happened through rituals and magic.

The flock and the individual

The world scheme of things for hunter-gatherers meant that there were no sharp boundaries between man and the rest of the world. One viewed oneself as an integrated part of a world in which there was no possibility of exerting influence by any other means than through rituals and magic.

Furthermore, there was no distinction between species and individuals. In Western Civilisation, one regards the individual man, or individual horse or dog, as a separate entity, acting and reacting independently of other men and other horses or dogs. There is a sharp boundary between the individual and the whole. This boundary didn't exist with our ancestors. This meant that if, for example, two flocks of hunter-gatherers waged war upon each other, the killing of one person from the flock could be revenged by the killing of an arbitrary member of the other flock. The individual and the flock were one.

All in all, individuality didn't exist. There were no notable differences between people in the flock and there was no life outside the flock. A hunter-gatherer simply couldn't survive alone. If irreconcilable conflicts arose in a hunter-gatherer flock - and this happened, of course - the person had to join another flock or die in solitude.

A hunter-gatherer could, of course, think and decide whether he should continue hunting or give it up. She could also consider whether it was wiser to look for more food in one direction rather than another, or if there was advantage in digging for roots rather than picking berries. There was also deliberation and discussion, but individual possibilities and the individual concerns we deal with daily in modern society didn't exist. The circumstances of life were defined by the flock and were mostly given in advance.


To our ancestors, myths contained the key to survival; they were the database of the flock. Myths were rooted in landscape and represented the accumulated knowledge of generations. Myths were typically about a golden past where the spirits and man lived in a perfect world. The myths themselves were inherited from ancestors and nobody questioned them. Furthermore, the myths were The Good Story, pure entertainment and that which put meaning into life and provided an explanation of all the big questions of life. All myths were passed verbally because hunters-gatherers hadn't invented writing.

In an oral culture, where myths play such an important role, there is little opportunity to think innovatively. The world view is firmly locked and is only changed if natural disasters or other events occur which alter the physical circumstances.


One final important point with regard to hunter-gatherers is that, as mentioned earlier, there was seldomly any great difference between people in the flock. Apart from the medicine man and the elderly - who had high esteem - there was no ranking, simply because nobody owned more than could be carried when moving from one place to another. There was of course from time to time enmity and intrigue, but no-one was richer than anyone else, or had power in such a way that they ruled over others in the flock by means of police or military.


As long as our ancestors lived as hunters and gatherers, the individual wasn't separated from the flock and the individual couldn't exist detached from the others. Individual choices of a larger character didn't exist and the big decisions were made collectively on the basis of the myths and the medicine man's contact with the spirits. All in all, power, energy, mana, spirits, emotions and the thoughts of the individual were not separate from each other. The spirit acted, you might say, through man and common to it all was the belief that the Force or the Spirit could be influenced through magic. The acts of the individual weren't understood as the result of one's own thoughts and free will.

Next chapter: Mesopotamia, Egypt and Anatolia - Rule of Law