In the hunter-gatherer world, humans and animals, rocks and rivers, trees and plants are all seen as being connected. Even those who have passed away – the ancestors – are understood to be deeply connected to the world. All these parts of the world are not separate from each other but are a part of a large and integrated whole. The earth that they lived on was experienced as fully alive.
The Koyukon people of Alaska’s boreal forest are said to live in a ‘forest with eyes’. When a person moves through nature they are never really alone. The world around them watches. Trees, animals and landscapes are thought of being like people.
It is not only the animals and the plants that are alive in these places, but the spirits too. They are seen to be as alive as the people and animals. These spirits have emotions, can be male or female and are parts of families. Some roam around while others stay in one place. Some are friendly, others are hostile. It is really important in these cultures that spirits are treated with respect.
These tribes have no word for religion because every part of life is filled with sacredness. In Australia, the Aborigines have something called ‘dreamtime’. They believe that the world was born through ‘the dreamings’ who moved across the land, crawling, flying and walking. They left tracks of their activities in the landscape. These creative beings turned from animals into humans changing their songs and language as they changed their form. They are thought to be the first ancestors.
Dreamtime brings together the past, present and future. It is here and now as much as it exists in the past. Everything that exists comes from the ground. The grass, but also people, animals, language too. When a person dies, it is believed that their spirit goes back into the earth to join the ancestors. People speak to the ancestors when they go into the ‘country’ or the ‘bush’, by calling or singing out. The ancestors are not gone but living members of the community.
In south India the Nayaka see the forest as a parent that provides food like a mother to a child. They have a loving and trusting relationship with the environment. Hunter-gatherers don’t worship gods but speak with the spirits and ancestors as they would to each other. Their world is a giving world.