The Power of Ideology: Religion and Environmental Consciousness in Prehistoric Societies

Dylan S Davis


People are defined by the environments in which they live. This article seeks to explain how environmentally-based ideologies help lead to the development of ecologically sustainable innovations. If the importance of nature is a core ideology of a society, measures will likely be taken to ensure sustainable usage of environmental resources. In times of short-term environmental instability, religious beliefs become strengthened due to successful rituals (e.g. prayers for rain coincide with the end of a period of drought). However, if poor conditions persist for long durations then faith in rituals will waver, leaving a society in a state of instability. Utilising various anthropological literature and two case studies (The Central Andes and Easter Island), the following conclusions are made: (1) ideology that emphasises human-environmental coexistence stresses the importance of the environment and leads to successful innovations that allow for humanity to thrive without doing irreversible damage to our surroundings; and (2) unpredictable and lengthy periods of negative environmental conditions can lead to the weakening of social, political, and economic constructs and their controlling ideologies.



Environmental Sustainability; Religion; Religious Anthropology; Rapa Nui; Moche; Nasca; Central Andes

Full Text:



Acemoglu, D., Verdier, T., & Robinson, J. A. (2004). Kleptocracy and divide-and-rule: a model of personal rule. Journal of the European Economic Association, 2(2-3), 162-192.

Allen, C. J. (2002). The Hold Life Has: Coca and Cultural Identity in an Andean Community (2nd ed.). Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Andrus, C. F., Sandweiss, D. H., & Reitz, E. J. (2008). Climate Change and Archaeology: The Holocene History of El Niño on the Coast of Peru. In E. J. Reitz, C. M. Scarry, & S. J. Scudder (Eds.), Case Studies in Environmental Archaeology (2nd ed., pp. 143-157). New York: Springer.

Arkush, E., & Stanish, C. (2005). Interpreting Conflict in the Ancient Andes: Implications for the Archaeology of Warfare. Current Anthropology, 46(1), 3-28.

Aurelius, M. (2006). Meditations. (M. Hammond, Trans.) London: Penguin Classics.

Avalos, H. (2005). Fighting words: the origins of religious violence. New York: Prometheus Books.

Bergmann, S. (2010). Dangerous Environmental Change and Religion: How Climate Discourse Changes the Perception of our Environment, the Spiritual Fabrication of its Meaning and the Interaction of Science and Religion. In S. Bergmann, & D. Gerten (Eds.), Religion and Dangerous Environmental Change: Transdisciplinary Perspectives on the Ethics of Climate and Sustainability (pp. 13-38). Münster: LIT Verlag.

Bliege Bird, R., & Smith, E. A. (2005). Signaling Theory, Strategic Interaction, and Symbolic Capital. Current Anthropology, 46(2), 221-248.

Bork, H.-R., Mieth, A., & Tschochner, B. (2004). Nothing But Stones? A Review of the Extent and Technical Efforts of Prehistoric Stone Mulching on Rapa Nui. Rapa Nui Journal, 18(1), 10-14.

Bourrat, P. (2015). Origins and evolution of religion from a Darwinian point of view: Synthesis of different theories. Dans T. Heams, P. Huneman, G. Lecointre, & M. Silberstein (Éds.), Handbook of evolutionary thinking in the sciences (pp. 761-780). Netherlands: Springer.

Brander, J. A., & Taylor, M. S. (1998). The Simple Economics of Easter Island: A Ricardo-Malthus Model of Renewable Resource Use. The American Economic Review, 88(1), 119-138.

Brocchi, D. (2008). The cultural dimension of sustainability. In S. Kagan, & V. Kirchberg (Eds.), Sustainability: A new frontier for the arts and cultures (pp. 26-58). Frankfurt am Main: VAS (Verlag für Akademische Schriften).

Brocchi, D. (2010). The cultural dimension of un/sustainability–delicate distinctions between societal survival and collapse. In S. Bergmann, & D. Gerten (Eds.), Religion and Dangerous Environmental Change: Transdisciplinary Perspectives on the Ethics of Climate and Sustainability (pp. 145-176). Münster: LIT Verlag.

Brown, L. A., & Walker, W. H. (2008). Prologue: Archaeology, Animism and Non-Human Agents. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 15(4), 297-299.

Castillo, L. J., & Uceda Castillo, S. (2008). The Mochicas. In H. Silverman, & W. H. Isbell (Eds.), Handbook of south American archaeology (pp. 707-729). New York: Springer Science and Business Media, LLC.

Chepstow-Lusty, A. J., Frogley, M. R., Bauer, B. S., Leng, M. J., Boessenkool, K. P., Carcaillet, C., . . . Gioda, A. (2009). Putting the rise of the Inca Empire within a climatic and land management context. Climate of the Past, 5(3), 375-388. doi:10.5194/cp-5-375-2009

Davis, D. (2015). Climate Change as a Catalyst for the Rise and Fall of Civilization in the Peruvian Andes, 500-1532 A.D. Journal of Undergraduate Anthropology, 5, 62-72. Retrieved from

Davis, D. (2016). Tetra-dimensional Climate and its effects on the Roman State: An Archaeological Analysis of the Roman Agroeconomy. International Journal of Student Research in Archaeology, 1(1), 49-75.

DeMarrais, E., Castillo, L. J., & Earle, T. (1996). Ideology, Materialization, and Power Strategies. Current Anthropology, 37(1), 15-31.

Denison, R. F., & Muller, K. (2016). The Evolution of Cooperation. Scientist, 30(1), 40-46.

Erickson, C. L. (1999). Neo-environmental determinism and agrarian "collapse" in Andean prehistory. Antiquity, 73(281), 634-642.

Erickson, C. L. (2000). The Lake Titicaca Basin: A Pre-Columbian Built Landscape. In D. Lentz (Ed.), Imperfect Balance: Landscape Transformations in the Precolumbian Americas (pp. 311-356). New York: Columbia University Press.

Firth, R. (1970). Rank and religion in Tikopia : a study of Polynesian paganism and conversion to Christianity. London: George Allen & Unwin LTD.

Fischer, S. R. (2005). Island at the End of the World: The Turbulent History of Easter Island. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

Flannery, K. V. (1972). The Cultural Evolution of Civilizations. Annual review of ecology and systematics, 3, 399-426.

Flannery, K. V. (1995). Prehistoric social evolution. In C. R. Ember, & M. Ember (Eds.), Research frontiers in anthropology (pp. 1-26). Prentice-Hall.

Fuentes, A. (2016). The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, Ethnography, and the Human Niche: Toward an Integrated Anthropology. Current Anthropology, 57(S13), In Press. doi:10.1086/685684

Gijseghem, H. V., & Vaughn, K. J. (2008). Regional integration and the built environment in middle-range societies: Paracas and early Nasca houses and communities. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 27, 111–130. doi:10.1016/j.jaa.2007.11.002

Goldstein, P. (2009). Diaspora within the Ancient State: Tiwanaku as Ayllus in Motion. In J. Marcus, & P. R. Williams (Eds.), Andean civilization: a tribute to Michael E. Moseley (pp. 277-302). Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press.

Greeley, A. (1993). Religion and Attitudes toward the Environment. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 32(1), 19-28.

Hamilton, S. (2007). Rapa Nui Landscapes of Construction. Archaeology International, 10(1), 49-53.

Hamilton, S., Thomas, M. S., & Whitehouse, R. (2011). Say it with stone: constructing with stones on Easter Island. World Archaeology, 43(2), 167-190.

Hodder, I. (2016). Studies in Human-Thing Entanglement. Retrieved from

Hunt, T. L., & Lipo, C. P. (2006). Late Colonization of Easter Island. Science, 311(5767), 1603-1606. doi:10.1126/science.1121879

Hunt, T., & Lipo, C. (2012). The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island. Berkeley: Counterpoint.

Iannaccone, L. R., & Berman, E. (2006). Religious Extremism: The Good, the Bad, and the Deadly. Public Choice, 128(1/2), 109-129. doi:10.1007/s11127-006-9047-7

Isbell, W. H. (2014). Styles and Identities in the Central Andes: The Early Intermediate Period and Middle Horizon. In C. Renfrew, & P. Bahn (Eds.), The Cambridge World Prehistory, Volume 2: East Asia and the Americas (pp. 1098-1141). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Joyce, A. A., & Barber, S. B. (2015). Ensoulment, Entrapment, and Political Centralization A Comparative Study of Religion and Politics in Later Formative Oaxaca. Current Anthropology, 56(6), 819-847. doi:10.1086/683998

Keeley, L. H. (2016). Food for War, War for Food, and War on Food. In A. M. VanDerwarker, & G. D. Wilson (Eds.), The Archaeology of Food and Warfare: Food Insecurity in Prehistory (pp. 291-302). New York: Springer.

Kennett, D. J., & Winterhalder, B. (2008). Demographic expansion, despotism and the colonisation of East and South Polynesia. In G. R. Clark, S. O'Connor, & B. F. Leach (Eds.), Islands of Inquiry: Colonisation, Seafaring and the Archaeology of Maritime Landscapes (Vol. 29). Canberra: Australia National University Press.

Kirch, P. V. (1984). The evolution of the Polynesian chiefdoms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kolata, A. L. (2013). Ancient Inca. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kuckelman, K. A. (2016). Cycles of Subsistence Stress, Warfare, and Population Movement in the Northern San Juan. In Amber M. VanDerwarker, & Gregory D. Wilson (Eds.), The Archaeology of Food and Warfare: Food Insecurity in Prehistory (pp. 107-132). New York: Springer.

Kurin, D. S. (2016). Trauma, Nutrition, and Malnutrition in the Andean Highlands During Peru’s Dark Age (1000–1250 C.E.). In A. M. VanDerwarker, & G. D. Wilson (Eds.), The Archaeology of Food and Warfare: Food Insecurity in Prehistory (pp. 229-258). New York: Springer.

Ladefoged, T. N., Flaws, A., & Stevenson, C. M. (2013). The distribution of rock gardens on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) as determined from satellite imagery. Journal of Archaeological Science, 40, 1203-1212. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2012.09.006

Lipo, C. P., Hunt, T. L., Horneman, R., & Bonhomme, V. (2016). Weapons of Mass Destruction? Rapa Nui Mata’a Morphometric Analyses. Antiquity, 90(349), 172-187.

Martinsson-Wallin, H., & Wallin, P. (2014). Spatial Perspectives on Ceremonial Complexes: Testing Traditional Land Division on Rapa Nui. In H. Martisson-Wallin, & T. Thomas (Eds.), Monuments and People in the Pacific (pp. 317-342). Uppsala: Uppsala University.

McAndrew, F. T. (2002). New evolutionary perspectives on altruism: Multilevel-selection and costly-signaling theories. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(2), 79-82.

Mebratu, D. (1998). Sustainability and sustainable development: historical and conceptual review. Environmental impact assessment review, 18(6), 493-520.

Metraux, A. (1937). The Kings of Easter Island: Kingship. The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 46, 41-62.

Moore, J. D. (1995). The Archaeology of Dual Organization in Andean South America: A Theoretical Review and Case Study. Latin American Antiquity, 6(2), 165-181.

Morrison, A. E. (2012). An Archaeological Analysis of Rapa Nui Settlement Structure: A Multi-Scalar Approach. PhD Dissertation, University of Hawai'i at Manoa.

Mulrooney, M. A. (2013). An island-wide assessment of the chronology of settlement and land use on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) based on radiocarbon data. Journal of Archaeological Science, 40, 4377-4399. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2013.06.020

Museka, G., & Madondo, M. M. (2012). The quest for a relevant environmental pedagogy in the African context: Insights from unhu/ubuntu philosophy. Journal of Ecology and the Natural Environment, 4(10), 258-265. doi:10.5897/JENE12.052

Neiman, F. D. (1997). Conspicuous Consumption as Wasteful Advertising: a Darwinian Perspective on Spatial Patterns in Classic Maya Terminal Monument Dates. Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, 7(1), 267-290.

Proulx, D. A. (2008). Paracas and Nasca: Regional Cultures on the South Coast of Peru. In H. Silverman, & W. Isbell (Eds.), Handbook of South American Archaeology (pp. 563-585). New York: Springer Science and Business Media, LLC.

Purzycki, B. G., Apicella, C., Atkinson, Q. D., Cohen, E., McNamara, R. A.,

Willard, A. K., . . . Henrich, J. (2016). Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality. Nature, 530, 327–330.

Quilter, J. (2002). Moche Politics, Religion, and Warfare. Journal of World Prehistory, 16(2), 145-195.

Quilter, J. (2014). The Ancient Central Andes. London; New York: Routledge.

Rainbird, P. (2002). A message for our future? The Rapa Nui (Easter Island) ecodisaster and Pacific island environments. World Archaeology, 33(3), 436-451.

Richards, C., Croucher, K., Paoa, T., Parish, T., & Tucki, E. (2011). Road my body goes: re-creating ancestors from stone at the great moai quarry of Rano Raraku, Rapa Nui (Easter Island). World Archaeology, 43(2), 191-210.

Routledge, K. (1919). The mystery of Easter Island: the story of an expedition. London.

Sahlins, M. D. (1955). Esoteric Efflorescence in Easter Island. American Anthropologist, 57(5), 1045-1052.

Shaiko, R. G. (1987). Religion, Politics,and Environmental Concern: A PowerfulMix of Passions. Social Science Quarterly, 68(2), 244–262.

Shaver, J. H., & Sosis, R. (2014). Selective reading and selectionist thinking: Why violence has been, and should be, important to the cognitive science of religion. Journal for the Cognitive Science of Religion, 2(1), 36-41.

Sherkat, D. E. (2007). Structuring the Religion‐Environment Connection: Identifying Religious Influences on Environmental Concern and Activism. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 46(1), 71-85.

Shimada, I., Schaaf, C. B., Thompson, L. G., & Mosley-Thompson, E. (1991). Cultural Impacts of Severe Droughts in the Prehistoric Andes: Application of a 1,500-Year Ice Core Precipitation Record. World Archaeology, 22(3), 247-270.

Simpson Jr., D. F. (2009). Rapa Nui’s political economy and the visibility of its monumental architecture. Rapa Nui Journal, 23(2), 131-148.

Smith, J. M., & Price, G. R. (1973). The Logic of Animal Conflict. Nature, 246, 15-18.

Sosis, R., & Alcorta, C. (2003). Signaling, Solidarity, and the Sacred: The Evolution of Religious Behavior. Evolutionary Anthropology, 12, 264–274.

Sosis, R., & Alcorta, C. (2008). Militants and martyrs: Evolutionary perspectives on religion and terrorism. In R. Sagarin, & T. Taylor (Eds.), Natural security: A Darwinian approach to a dangerous world (pp. 105-124). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sosis, R., Phillips, E. J., & Alcorta, C. S. (2012). Sacrifi ce and Sacred Values: Evolutionary Perspectives on Religious Terrorism. In T. Shackelford, & V. Weeks-Schackelford (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Violence, Homicide, and War (pp. 233-253). New York: Oxford University Press.

Sutter, R. C., & Castillo, L. J. (2015). Population Structure during the Demise of the Moche (550-850 AD): Comparative Phenetic Analyses of Tooth Trait Data from San José de Moro, Perú. Current Anthropology, 56(5), 762-771.

Swenson, E. R. (2008). San Ildefonso and the popularization of Moche ideology in the Jequetepeque Valley. In L. J. Butters, H. Bernier, G. Lockard, & J. R. Yong (Eds.), Arqueologıa Mochica: Nuevos Enfoques (pp. 411-431). Lima: Fondo Editorial, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú.

Tanner, R., & Pawson, C. (2004). Contemporary Religious Violence and the Environment: Some Tentative Observations and Assessments. Journal of Human Ecology, 15(2), 119-127.

Testart, A. (1982). The Significance of Food Storage Among Hunter-Gatherers: Residence Patterns, Population Densities, and Social Inequalities. Current Anthropology, 23(5), 523-537.

Thompson, L. G., Davis, M. E., & Mosley-Thompson, E. (1994). Glacial Records of Global Climate: A 1500-Year Tropical Ice Core Record of Climate. Human Ecology, 22(1), 83-95.

Thompson, L., & Mosley-Thompson, E. (1992). Quelccaya Ice Core Database. Data Contribution Series # 92-008. Ohio State University, NOAA/NGDC Paleoclimatology Program, Boulder, CO.

Thorpe, I. J. (2003). Anthropology, archaeology, and the origin of warfare. World Archaeology, 35(1), 145–165.

Tung, T. A., Miller, M., DeSantis, L., & Sharp, E. A. (2016). Patterns of Violence and Diet Among Children During a Time of Imperial Decline and Climate Change in the Ancient Peruvian Andes. In A. M. VanDerwarker, & G. D. Wilson (Eds.), The Archaeology of Food and Warfare: Food Insecurity in Prehistory (pp. 193-228). New York: Springer.

Valdez, L. M. (1994). Cahuachi: New Evidence for an Early Nasca Ceremonial Role. Current Anthropology, 35(5), 675–679.

Vaughn, K. J. (2004). Crafts and the Materialization of Chiefly Power in Nasca. Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, 14(1), 113-130.

Vaughn, K. J., & Gijseghem, H. V. (2007). A compositional perspective on the origins of the ‘‘Nasca cult’’ at Cahuachi. Journal of Archaeological Science, 34(5), 814-822.

Verano, J. W. (2001). War and Death in the Moche World: Osteological Evidence and Visual Discourse. In J. Pillsbury (Ed.), Moche Art and Archaeology in Ancient Peru (pp. 110–125). Washington DC: Studies in the History of Art 63. National Gallery of Art.

Vining, J., Merrick, M. S., & Price, E. A. (2008). The Distinction between Humans and Nature: Human Perceptions of Connectedness to Nature and Elements of the Natural and Unnatural. Human Ecology Review, 15(1), 1-11.

Woodrum, E., & Hoban, T. (1994). Theology and Religiosity Effects on Environmentalism. Review of Religious Research, 35(3), 193-206.

Wozniak, J. A. (1999). Prehistoric Horticultural Practices on Easter Island: Lithic Mulched Gardens and Field Systems. Rapa Nui Journal, 13(3), 95-99.

Zuidema, R. T. (1983). Hierarchy and Space in Incaic Social Organization. Ethnohistory, 30(2), 49-75.


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Copyright (c) 2016 NEXUS: The Canadian Student Journal of Anthropology

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.