The dawn of culture
In every society, culturally unique ways of thinking about the world unite people in their behaviour. Anthropologists often refer to the body of ideas that people share as ideology. Ideology can be broken down into at least three specific categories: beliefs, values and ideals. People’s beliefs give them an understanding of how the world works and how they should respond to the actions of others and their environments. Particular beliefs often tie in closely with the daily concerns of domestic life, such as making a living, health and sickness, happiness and sadness, interpersonal relationships, and death. People’s values tell them the differences between right and wrong or good and bad. Ideals serve as models for what people hope to achieve in life.
There are two accepted systems of belief. Some rely on religion, even the supernatural (things beyond the natural world), to shape their values and ideals and to influence their behaviour. Others base their beliefs on observations of the natural world, a practice anthropologists commonly refer to as secularism.
Religion in its more extreme form allows people to know about and ‘communicate’ with supernatural beings, such as animal spirits, gods, and spirits of the dead. Small tribal societies believe that plants and animals, as well as people, can have souls or spirits that can take on different forms to help or harm people. Anthropologists refer to this kind of religious belief as animism, with believers often led by shamans. As religious specialists, shamans have special access to the spirit world, and are said to be able to receive stories from supernatural beings and later recite them to others or act them out in dramatic rituals.
In larger, agricultural societies, religion has long been a means of asking for bountiful harvests, a source of power for rulers, or an inspiration to go to war. In early civilised societies, religious visionaries became leaders because people believed those leaders could communicate with the supernatural to control the fate of a civilization. This became their greatest source of power, and people often regarded leaders as actual gods. For example, in the great civilisation of the Aztec, which flourished in what is now Mexico in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, rulers claimed privileged association with a powerful god that was said to require human blood to ensure that the sun would rise and set each day. Aztec rulers thus inspired great awe by regularly conducting human sacrifices. They also conspicuously displayed their vast power as wealth in luxury goods, such as fine jewels, clothing and palaces. Rulers obtained their wealth from the great numbers of craftspeople, traders and warriors under their control, often leaving them with very little in the way of material possessions.
During the period in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe known as the Age of Enlightenment, science and logic became new sources of belief for many people living in civilised societies. Scientific studies of the natural world and rational philosophies led people to believe that they could explain natural and social phenomena without believing in gods or spirits. Religion remained an influential system of belief, and together both religion and science drove the development of capitalism, the economic system of commerce-driven market exchange. Capitalism itself influences people’s beliefs, values and ideals in many present-day, large, civilised societies. In these societies, such as in the United States, many people view the world and shape their behaviour based on a belief that they can understand and control their environment and that work, commerce and the accumulation of wealth serve an ultimate good. The governments of most large societies today also assert that human well-being derives from the growth of economies and the development of technology.
Rapid changes in technology in the last several decades have changed the nature of culture and cultural exchange. People around the world can make economic transactions and transmit information to each other almost instantaneously through the use of computers and satellite communications. Governments and corporations have gained vast amounts of political power through military might and economic influence. Corporations have also created a form of global culture based on worldwide commercial markets. As a result, local culture and social structure are now shaped by large and powerful commercial interests in ways that earlier anthropologists could not have imagined. Early anthropologists thought of societies and their cultures as fully independent systems, but today, many nations are multicultural societies, composed of numerous smaller subcultures. Cultures also cross national boundaries. For instance, people around the world now know a variety of English words and have contact with American cultural exports such as brand-name clothing and technological products, films and music, and mass-produced foods.
In addition, many people have come to believe in the fundamental nature of human rights and free will. These beliefs grew out of people’s increasing ability to control the natural world through science and rationalism, and though religious beliefs continue to change to affirm or accommodate these other dominant beliefs, sometimes the two are at odds with each other. For instance, many religious people have difficulty reconciling their belief in a supreme spiritual force with the theory of natural evolution, which requires no belief in the supernatural. As a result, societies in which many people do not practice any religion, such as China, may be known as secular societies. However, no society is entirely secular.