Experience taught Stone Age people the difference
between what poisoned them and what satisfied their hunger. Their minds gathered empirical
realities necessary for survival. They did the best they could in drawing conclusions
about the world beyond them. They assumed that they were at the center of the universe,
which they saw as flat, small and under sky. They called themselves “the people” and thought
that strangers were creatures of another sort — less human than they.
They believed that if they ate the flesh of a strong beast they might acquire its spirit,
or if they ate a portion of the body of a leader who had died they might acquire his
special qualities. They assumed that the sun and moon they saw moving across the sky were
animate beings. A face of a dead person they knew and recognized in the peculiar shapes
on the face of a rock was associated with the living spirit of that person dwelling
within that rock. With no defined difference between spirit
and materiality, they believed that in preserving a corpse they were also helping to preserve
the spirit of one who had died. They believed that a body went limp at death because the
spirit that had been within it had left it for the invisible world of the spirits. They
felt no urge to meld these ideas of spirits and materiality into a consistent picture.
People correctly associated their own movement with their will, and they believed that all
movement was the product of will. They saw insects as moving by will. They assumed that
plants grew because of a will within. They saw the sun, moon and stars as closer than
they really were and as moving by will. For Stone Age people, will was spirit, and they
saw the world as filled with many spirits. Or, to use another word: gods. They saw gods
within everything that moved. There was a god within the wind and another god within
the rivers. A god in the ocean made the waters rush to the beach and then retreat. The sun
was a god. They saw their reflection in water and believed that what they were seeing was
their spirit. People attributed much that happened to the
spirits and to magic. Lightning, thunder, rain, the tides, procreation and fire were
all magic. And fire was not only a product of magic it was a manifestation of spirit.
Their view of the world came to them with invented stories. These were stories that
were told and accepted without recognition of a difference between fact and fantasy.
Every society had its stories about creation, each with a different twist.
Storytelling described their world in a way that they could understand. There were stories
of a god having created them out of earth and a story among others that they had been
created from the bark of a tree. An occasional exception to universal order might be described
as the work of a demon spirit, an evil of sorts. There were stories about evil and dread,
a story with a threatening demon of some sort producing more excitement than one without
danger. People believed that if the gods could perform
magic so too could they. The earliest form of religious ritual was an attempt at magic
through imitation — such as painting a face on the belly of a pregnant woman in hope that
the magic of the drawing would encourage birth. Hunter-gatherers were trying to get by rather
than to change their world. They tended to believe the world would always be as the gods
had made it. They had no sense of social progress or image of humanity’s capabilities beyond
their abilities. The imagination of those who had a biological potential for genius
and those of normal intelligence were limited by their culture.
Had it been otherwise, modern society would have appeared much sooner.