Finding Minds in the Natural World: Dynamics of the Religious System in the Tyva Republic

Date of Completion

January 2012


Religion, General|Anthropology, Cultural




How do the interactions between evolved human cognition, history, and the socioecological environment explain the content and form of religious systems? By drawing from research conducted in the Tyva Republic, the present work seeks to address this question by examining the beliefs and religious practices devoted to local spirit-masters, spirits that act as totemic guardians of particular regions and resources. Tyvans mediate spirit-masters' knowledge base territorially and spatially; spirit-masters are primarily concerned with ritual behavior and have a heightened knowledge base for human activity that transpires near ritual cairns devoted to them. Moreover, the wider the breadth of knowledge attributed to a spirit-master, the more likely Tyvans are to identify moral behavior as among the spirit-master's concerns. Additionally, the physical form attributed to the spirit-master is directly correlated with the type of resource they master in a distinct pattern: wider regions and mountain ranges with less direct human accountability tend to have human-like spirits, whereas discrete resources are more likely to have zoomorphic spirits. In the case of Tyva, spirits strategically reside where potential human threats to livelihood are regulated through ritual practice; the form of the spirit correlates with the degree of direct, interpersonal accountability provided by a particular resource or domain. In support of the association of Tyvan ritual practices with interpersonal accountability, I found that Tyvans invest high levels of trust in ethnic Tyvans who regularly engage in ritual practices. I also found a significant cross-cultural suite of relationships between ritual cairn practices and pastoralism, suggesting that indeed, humans all over the world engage in similar ritual practices that strongly suggest religions are systems which evolve to overcome similar socioecological problems. In sum, my findings strongly suggest that if religion evolved to mediate social behavior, its value lies in flexibly overcoming ecological challenges inasmuch as it overcomes social ones. ^