Ritual and Religion in Prehistory: Unit 7 Ancestor cults

7.1 Introduction

Ancestor cults stem from the belief that human beings are made up of two parts: the body and the spirit. Dead ancestors are considered divine and rituals are organised to respect their memory and invoke the aid of their spirit. In China, for example, ancestral spirits are often thought of as still being active family members. Traditional Chinese families in rural villages often set places at feast tables for their ancestors as if they were still living. If treated well, the ancestral spirits may help their living descendants to have larger crop yields, do better in business, or achieve other desirable goals. In world prehistory, the ancestors, and possible accompanying ties to the land, grew in importance with the origins of agriculture.

By the end of this unit you will:

  • understand the basic ideas behind ancestor worship and why it is so important to the peoples who practise it
  • have studied some well-documented examples of ancestor worship using ethnographic evidence
  • be aware of evidence suggesting that ancestor worship was also practised in the prehistoric past.