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UNIT 5: Early Belief Systems



Religious urges — expressions of belief in and reverence for supernatural powers — have appeared in all societies throughout history. The earliest religious beliefs, however, lie far beyond the historian's reach. They have to be reconstructed from archaeology, mythology, and even modern ethnographic evidence.

Some anthropologists believe that all religion originated in shamanism, the effort to communicate or mediate between the world of spirits and the world of humans. The desire to revere, please, or influence an unseen power was often expressed through rituals, which themselves promoted social cohesiveness and bound members of a community together.

The earliest attempts at contacting the supernatural may have been designed to ward off misfortune (such as poor harvests or disease), to seek benefits for the living, or to mourn and care for the dead. These activities were central to early social organization, as evidenced in the shamanism and animism of early Japan that came to be known as Shinto. The power to invoke spirits and to mediate with them on behalf of a community supported the exercise of political authority in many early societies.

The earliest highly organized societies — centered on a temple and priesthood, and led by a divinely sanctioned ruler or god-king — emerged well before 3000 BCE in Mesopotamia. In the mid-first millennium BCE, philosophical and ethical traditions that evolved in Greece and China sought in their own ways to address fundamental questions about how humans should organize societies and how they relate to the cosmos.

Also in the first millennium, Hinduism, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism combined elements of earlier religious and philosophical traditions to emerge as organized religions with priesthoods, texts, practices, and followers. These organized religions, in turn, provided the foundations for the eventual development of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.


Time Period: Foundations, especially 600 BCE to 600 CE

Once humans settled into permanent, agricultural communities, societies tended to grow more complex. Trade, state formation, social structure, and belief systems became more sophisticated. By the sixth century BCE certain areas — including China, the Mediterranean, India, and Persia — developed exceptionally vibrant societies that proved to be extremely influential in spreading both their authority and their traditions to distant areas. While these "classical societies" were each quite different in terms of organization, values, and beliefs, they all developed highly structured bureaucracies, strong militaries, long-distance trading networks, and sophisticated religious and cultural traditions from Confucianism in China, Zoroastrianism in Persia, and Hinduism in India. At the same time, it is important to remember that the belief systems that emerged out of the classical societies were not the first human attempts to understand the supernatural world. Indeed, both animism and shamanism existed long before historical records were kept.

AP Themes:

  • Examines interactions in economies and politics. Social turmoil and increasing connections between societies provided the context for thinkers of this period to develop moral and ethical systems around which societies could be ordered.
  • Explores change and continuity by exploring how new belief systems offered fresh ways of understanding the human purpose — even as these new belief systems shared continuities with both past and future belief systems.
  • Discusses systems of social structure by looking at the ways belief systems helped provide the foundations for political and social order within societies.
  • Pays attention to cultural and intellectual developments by demonstrating that belief systems had a profound impact on both cultural and intellectual traditions.


  • Question 1: How did people across the globe begin to understand themselves in relation to the natural world and to the unseen realms beyond?
  • Question 2: What accounts for the emergence of early philosophical and ethical traditions?
  • Question 3: How did Hinduism, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism influence the religious philosophies of Buddhism (ca 500 BCE), Christianity (ca 100 CE), and Islam (ca 600 CE)?
  • Question 4: How did Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam (discussed in Unit 7) differ from earlier beliefs and practices rooted in local communities and cultures?


How is this topic related to Increasing Integration?

Religious and ethical traditions helped integrate people through common beliefs and practices. Also, religious traditions often spread because of economic integration and interaction.

How is this topic related to Proliferating Difference?

Different religious traditions can divide and separate people. In particular, monotheistic religions require a belief in only one god and a rejection of all others.

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