Human Nature

, Volume 23, Issue 3, pp 253–269 | Cite as

Subsistence and the Evolution of Religion

  • Hervey C. PeoplesEmail author
  • Frank W. Marlowe


We present a cross-cultural analysis showing that the presence of an active or moral High God in societies varies generally along a continuum from lesser to greater technological complexity and subsistence productivity. Foragers are least likely to have High Gods. Horticulturalists and agriculturalists are more likely. Pastoralists are most likely, though they are less easily positioned along the productivity continuum. We suggest that belief in moral High Gods was fostered by emerging leaders in societies dependent on resources that were difficult to manage and defend without group cooperation. These leaders used the concept of a supernatural moral enforcer to manipulate others into cooperating, which resulted in greater productivity. Reproductive success would accrue most to such leaders, but the average reproductive success of all individuals in the society would also increase with greater productivity. Supernatural enforcement of moral codes maintained social cohesion and allowed for further population growth, giving one society an advantage in competition with others.


Religion Evolution Subsistence Foragers Pastoralists Supernatural punishment 



The authors wish to thank Dr. Rie Goto, University of Cambridge, for valuable insight into the statistical analyses, and four anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions.

Supplementary material

12110_2012_9148_MOESM1_ESM.docx (47 kb)
ESM. 1 (DOCX 47.2 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Archaeology and AnthropologyUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK

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