Religion in the Age of Chiefdoms
When Captain James Cook visited Polynesia in the 1760s and 1770s, there were aspects of the culture that offended him. Human sacrifice, for example—“a shocking waste of the human race,” he wrote in his journal. Visiting a temple on Tahiti, he counted forty-nine skulls, and since none seemed weathered, he inferred that “no great length of time had elapsed since, at least, this considerable number of unhappy wretches had been offered upon this altar of blood.” Cook then watched as a fiftieth corpse was offered up, its left eye removed and placed in a plaintain leaf shortly before a priest used the occasion to ask for divine aid in war with a nearby island.
Later Cook would try to shake the natives’ faith in this ritual by pointing out that the god in question never seemed to eat any of the sacrificed flesh. “But to all this they answered, that he came in the night, but invisibly, and fed only on the soul or immaterial part, which, according to their doctrine, remains about the place of sacrifice, until the body of the victim be entirely wasted by putrefaction.” Cook could only hope that someday “this deluded people” would perceive the “horror of murdering their fellow-creatures, in order to furnish such an invisible banquet to their god.”
There was, however, one feature of life on some Polynesian islands that Cook approved of: social cohesion. While in Tonga he wrote, “It does not, indeed, appear that any of the most civilised nations have ever exceeded this people in the great order observed on all occasions; in ready compliance with the commands of their chiefs; and in the harmony that subsists throughout all ranks, and unites them as if they were all one man, informed with and directed by the same principle.”
A single principle did, in a sense, orchestrate Polynesian social harmony, and it was the same principle that inspired Polynesians to pluck eyes out of freshly created corpses: reverence for the divine. According to a Frenchman who visited Polynesia in the eighteenth century, the gods so dominated life that “there was not a single action, enterprise, or event, which was not attributed to them, submitted to their inspection, or done under their auspices.” This may be an exaggeration, but not by much. Whatever your reaction to life in indigenous Polynesia—whether you admire its order, bemoan its brutality, or both—the judgment rendered is largely a judgment of its religion.
The indigenous societies of the Polynesian islands, from New Zealand in the south to Hawaii in the north, from Tonga in the east to Easter Island in the west, were what anthropologists call “chiefdoms.” Chiefdoms are typically agricultural societies, and they are much bigger and more elaborate than the average hunter-gatherer society, usually comprising many villages and thousands of people. Leadership is in the hands of a “chief,” and there may be regional chiefs beneath him.
Chiefdoms have been seen in action in the Americas and Africa as well as Polynesia, and the remains of former chiefdoms have been found by archaeologists around the world, notably in the vicinity of great ancient civilizations. The chiefdom level of social organization seems to have been a standard way station between hunter-gatherer societies and the early ancient states, such as Egypt and Shang China—bigger, urban polities that had writing. The chiefdom, the most advanced form of social organization in the world 7,000 years ago, represents the final prehistoric phase in the evolution of social organization, and the evolution of religion.
There are lots of differences among observed chiefdoms, but one thing they share is structural reliance on the supernatural. Their political and religious systems are deeply intertwined; their rulers have a special connection to the divine and put this status to political use. The Polynesian chief, one western scholar wrote, “stands to the people as a god.”
Shamanism, then, turns out to have been the start of something big. This early form of religious expertise, found in hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies, was at most an amorphous leadership. Though the shaman’s claims to supernatural skill earned him or her social status and a kind of power over people’s lives, shamanic influence rarely translated into clear-cut political clout. But as agriculture emerged and chiefdoms crystallized, political and religious leadership matured and fused, and the fusion held these newly complex societies together.
Does this mean the gods were now good? Had the amoral, sometimes immoral gods of the hunter-gatherer world been replaced by something more laudably purposeful? Had gods at last found a higher calling? These questions bring us back to the debate noted in the previous chapter, between functionalists and “Marxists”: Does religion serve the people, or just the powerful?
There is no cluster of chiefdoms better positioned to shed light on this issue than those in Polynesia. By virtue of their surroundings—lots of water—they were remote from the cultural influence of more technologically advanced societies. (North American chiefdoms, in contrast, shared a continent with the Aztecs, a state-level society.) And when contact with alien cultures did come to Polynesia, much of it came via Europeans who recorded their early impressions for posterity. The observers weren’t trained, modern anthropologists (who are taught not to render such value judgments as “shocking waste of the human race,” even when talking about human sacrifice). But they did compile a database that, as distilled by later anthropologists, gives us a sense of what gods looked like right before they entered the historical record.…