A precursor of religion?

Animism is sometimes considered the earliest form of human religion. But what about before we started to think in terms of us vs. them (humans vs. animals), before we left the forests and evolved into our present forms? I’m currently reading The Cultured Chimpanzee: Reflections on Cultural Primatology (2004) by William C. McGrew. The chapter on social culture mentions a very strange practice of male chimpanzees that borders on spirituality. This practice is called “waterfall displaying” or “waterfall dancing,” and it involves males rhythmically swaying or somersaulting through tree vines whenever in the presence of a waterfall. Jane Goodall suggests they might be doing it because they are awed by the waterfall itself. They also do this during thunderstorms. The book refers to it literally as a “rain dance.” Every culture has some sort of storm god, so I could see their actions possibly mirroring that of our ancient ancestors. It’s almost like some type of fearful reverence for the elements.

It’s important to point out that not all chimps live in territories near waterfalls, so this behavior is influenced by the environment. It’s the same for chimps of other communities. For example, the chimps of western Africa live in an environment that greatly differs from their eastern counterparts. Instead of living in dense jungle forest, they live in sparsely wooded grasslands. They exhibit very human-like behavior, such as sleeping in caves, lounging in springs, and (occasionally) hunting with spears. So, it’s possible that the environment played a role in the development of our spirituality.

This is a good article that describes the waterfall display and gives anecdotal evidence that “chimps have the capacity to contemplate and consider (even revere) both the animate and inanimate.”


I’m interested in hearing the opinion of those who study the history of religion.


About Jim R. McClanahan

I'm a US Army 82nd Airborne Division Paratrooper-turned-college graduate with a degree in anthropology and minors in Chinese and art history. My personal research interests include history and folklore. Although I tend to focus mostly on that of China, I've recently been exploring Western occult folklore. View all posts by Jim R. McClanahan

One response to “A precursor of religion?

  • Anonymous

    I don’t study the history of religion, even though it is an interesting subject. However, I am studying Neuroscience at Ohio State University. I also like reading on religion from a psychological, sociological, and anthropological aspects of religion as much as listening to the actual religious views themselves.

    Earlier today, I watched a TV show from Arthur (TV Show) that featured Arthur, Buster, and D.W. going to the beach. The episode was about the trio spending the day at the beach with their families for a day, building a sandcastle. They had to protect the castle from the high tide, but the high tide nevertheless washed away the sandcastle, and the trio didn’t have enough time to build a new one. By autumn, just before school started, Arthur, Buster, and D.W. tried to find the sandcastle, but it was a hopeless failure. They nevertheless had a memory of the place. Anyway, there was one scene from this episode in which Buster poured juice into the ocean to serve as an “offering”, so that the ocean would not destroy the castle. The next day, he found out that the ocean partly destroyed the castle and blamed it on the fact that he only gave half of the juicebox instead of the full juicebox. When the sandcastle was left untouched in one scene, D.W. thought that it was a “miracle”, but Arthur retorted that it was not a miracle; that the high tide was not high enough. It’s interesting how these children form their own “religion” by personifying the ocean as a “god”. Even today, I think some cultures do offer sacrifices and offerings to the gods for everything they have received. A Christian family may say grace at the table for what the Lord has given them.

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