An Overview of Prehistoric Ancestor Cults

Over 100 neolithic “cult sites” containing sexual carvings, graves and human-like figures dating back roughly 8,000 years have been found in the southern Israeli Eilat Mountains. (photo credit: Uzi Avner/Daily Mail screen capture)

Some of the burials in the Palaeolithic period raise the possibility of very early forms of ancestor cults.


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.

Archaeology of the Dreaming

Namarrgon the lightning man portrayed at Nourlangie Rock / Photo by Paul Taçon

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.

Masks and Figures

Micronesian mask from Mortlock Islands / Wikimedia Commons

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.


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.

Originally published by The University of Oxford as an open access resource, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.



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