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Ritual and Religion in Prehistory: Unit 7 Ancestor cults

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Book: Ritual and Religion in Prehistory: Unit 7 Ancestor cults
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Date: Monday, 25 October 2021, 5:28 PM

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.

7.2 Archaeology of the Dreaming

Aboriginal rock art is a complex pictorial record of Australia’s human past – the encrypted beliefs of hundreds of generations of people, and the images of their spiritual and earthly world. Much Australian rock art is the expression of beliefs about the Dreaming (Creation) and relationships with the land. Aborigines have been painting and engraving pictures for at least 13,000 years. The earliest paintings in the Kimberley region of Western Australia are called Bradshaw Figures. In local Aboriginal belief, they represent Ancestral Beings, invisible spirit people created during the Dreaming. The most recent style, called Wandjina art, in which large figures of Ancestral Beings are the central theme, continues today. Aboriginal art is still a central part of religious life and a vital accompaniment to ceremonies and rituals. It is the tangible expression of the relevance and reality of myth and of Aboriginal unity with nature. Art is woven into the fabric of Aboriginal life: the stories of the Dreaming are re-enacted through art, music and dance.

Namarrgon the lightning man portrayed at Nourlangie Rock

© Paul Taçon


To find out more about the Ancestral Beings depicted in Australian rock art, read Taçon, Paul (2005), ‘The world of ancient ancestors’, in Expedition, vol. 47, no. 3, pp. 37–42.

Discussion activity: Ancestor cults

Follow this link to find out more about the Bradshaw Figures. Then consider the following question:

  • Is it safe to assume that the concept of the Dreaming, the way it is communicated, and the ritual practices associated with it, have remained unchanged in Australia since prehistoric times?

Post your thoughts on the Ancestor cults forum.

7.3 Masks and figures

The material culture associated with ancestor cults is rich and varied. In the Mortlock Islands of Micronesia, masks representing ancestors were used as ornaments in ceremonial houses, while in New Guinea wooden figures believed to contain the spirit of an ancestor were placed in shrines in houses in order to protect personal objects and family members from malevolent forces. The Dogon of Mali use ancestor masks at funerals to usher the spirits of the dead away from the village, thus restoring the order of the world. Among the Chokwe peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola, on the other hand, masked dancers perform in villages during the initiation period, when newly circumcised boys are secluded for instruction in the initiation lodges. The masks represent a female ancestor who died at a young age, and thus serve as a reminder of the theme of death, which is part of the initiation experience of death and rebirth.

Discussion activity: African ancestor cults

Follow these links to find out more about the material culture associated with ancestor cults in Africa:

If similar objects were found in prehistoric contexts, would they be interpreted as evidence of an ancestor cult? Post your thoughts, if you like, on the Ancestor cults forum.

7.4 Ancestor cults in prehistory

Some of the burials in the Palaeolithic period raise the possibility of very early forms of ancestor cults. About 60,000 years ago, at Kebara Cave in Israel, the corpse of a Neanderthal man was placed in a pit on his back, his arms folded over his chest and abdomen. Some time later, the grave was reopened and the skull was removed. Among ancestor-worshipping societies today, this is relatively common practice. The head is considered to be the seat of the soul, and is kept in a special place. The skulls embody the supernatural essence of powerful ancestors, and are used to convey that power to living descendants.

Ancestor cults became widespread in the Neolithic period, especially in the Near East. Of the numerous burials found among the houses in Jericho, many had both their skull and jaw missing. At other sites in the region there are plenty of examples of burials that were reopened in order to remove the head; caches of human skulls were then buried in small, shallow pits within the settlement.


To find out more about ancestor cults in the Neolithic of the Near East, read 'Commemorating the dead, Neolithic style', in Archaeo News, 9 November 2004, and make notes in your blog.

Optional individual activity: Ancestor cults in the Neolithic period of the Near East

Follow these links to find out more about the material culture possibly associated with ancestor cults in the Neolithic period of the Near East:

Plastered skull’, The British Museum, London

Lime plaster statues’, The British Museum, London

Mask’, the Israel Museum, Jerusalem

If you want to, make some notes in your Blog.

7.5 Landscapes of the ancestors

The ties that bind people to places often involve the evocation of a sense of tenure to be renewed, rather than territory to be held. This tenure is often grounded in a sense of ancestry, sustained through origins myths and identified with the physical evidence of the past. For the Dande people of northern Zimbabwe, every feature of the landscape has ancestral associations. The ancestors of each lineage are ‘the owners of the land’, and ensure its rainfall and fertility. Though the ancestors have no material form, the graves of the chiefs link them firmly to the land.

In Neolithic Britain, kinship and ancestry were also of vital concern. This is best illustrated by the sacred landscapes of Avebury and Stonehenge, which reveal the dynamic relationship between the living and the dead.


To find out more, read Chapters 5 and 6 of your textbook and make notes in your blog.

7.6 The island of the ancestors

The multi-stage burial practices that are an important element of ancestor worship on the island of Madagascar are frequently used as a source of analogy for interpreting the Neolithic chambered tombs of northern Europe. The first stage of the ritual involves the burial of the deceased in a tomb shortly after death. The second stage, known as ‘famadihana’, follows two or more years later. In this ceremony the body is disinterred, re-wrapped in shrouds, and replaced in the tomb. A number of the older skeletons are also removed from the tomb and re-wrapped. The emphasis in this ceremony is on corporate membership of the deme, a kin- or village-based association, and on the ancestors who are buried in the deme tomb, since it is through the ancestors that rights to land are transmitted from generation to generation.

Optional individual activity: Famadihana

To find out more, read 'Dead join the living in a family celebration' and watch the accompanying video ‘Famadihana: the turning of the dead’ on the website of the New York Times. You may like to make notes in your blog.

7.7 Concluding questions

If you want to reflect further on this area, consider these concluding questions:

  • Do you think the ethnographic evidence offers a reliable guide concerning the attitudes of prehistoric peoples to their ancestors?
  • Why is there so little evidence suggesting ancestor worship in periods earlier than the Neolithic?

If you wish, you can save your thoughts in your Blog, or post them on the Ancestor cults forum.