Yardsticks: ethnological trends in religion, applied to the Epipalaeolithic-Neolithic Levant

Guest Lecture by Conn Herriott, PhD, Institute of Archaeology / Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


The archaeology of religion relies heavily on insights from ethnographic records, but lacks robust frameworks for their application to prehistoric cultures. The PhD research presented in this lecture traces patterns in the distribution of 11 religious phenomena across 116 non-industrial societies from around the globe (foragers, pastoralists and cultivators), selected from the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample. The goal has been to identify the social and economic conditions in which each religious trait is most common.

The results are incorporated in the interpretation of four archaeological case studies, spanning the Epipalaeolithic-Neolithic transition in the southern Levant (14,500–6,400 calBCE), one of the world’s earliest adoptions of agriculture and sedentary lifeways. Ethnographic patterns are used to frame interpretations of direct archaeological evidence for ritual and symbolic behaviour, as well as religious beliefs in these prehistoric cases. This research aims to contribute to the study of religion in a pivotal period in human history, to develop a sorely needed tool in the archaeology of religion, and hopefully to augment the ethnology of religion with new insights, in an ongoing mutually beneficial dialogue with prehistoric archaeology.