Ancester veneration

Wari turquoise figurineWari turquoise figurineAncestor veneration is a pervasive element of religious practice and cosmology for indigenous groups throughout the New World, ancient and contemporary. Very briefly, it concerns the religious practices and beliefs centered on specific deceased kin. The practices highlight genealogical relationships, and often stress the importance of key lineage founders. Cults to ancestors are customarily the religious domain of descendants and others who draw affiliation to a group/community through blood relations Olmec figurineOlmec figurineor other types of affiliation. Ancestor veneration (of specific named individuals) should be distinguished from religious beliefs/practices of the general dead (Fortes 1965).

Jamacoaque standing female effigyJamacoaque standing female effigyAncestor veneration is important in different disciplines (e.g., anthropology and archaeology) because there are often wider socio-cultural and material implications. A common cult, such as one based on founding ancestors, is one of the 'core elements' of ethnic differentiation, in addition to commensality and kinship (Nash 1989). Thus, cults manifest and embed important boundaries between distinct groups, such as in geographic territories, social identity(ies) or cultural differences. It is one of the fundamental ways by which people consider themselves, through ascription, different from others and other groups. Sometimes, there are material correlates for ancestors (e.g., human effigies) and ancestor veneration practices (e.g., renewal offerings, tombs) in the archaeological record (DeLeonardis and Lau 2004; McAnany 1995).

One of the principal notions behind the cults is that ancestors continue to maintain active social lives and roles within the community. This obtains because ancestors (specific deceased) are often believed to be efficacious over group well-being: e.g., health, fertility in crops and reproduction, success in war, land and resource rights. Fickle and constantly needy, ancestors need to be propitiated for their good favour.

Different scholars have suggested that the images on this page are of ancestors. What do you think?

G. Lau | Jun 2004
Further reading:
  • DeLeonardis, Lisa, and George F. Lau, 2004, 'Life, death and ancestors'. In Andean Archaeology, edited by Helaine Silverman, pp. 77-115. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.
  • Fortes, Meyer, 1965, 'Some reflections on ancestor worship in Africa'. In African Systems of Thought, edited by Meyer Fortes and Germaine Dieterlen, pp. 122-142. Oxford University Press, London.
  • McAnany, Patricia, 1995, Living with the Ancestors: Kinship and Kingship in Ancient Maya Society. University of Texas Press, Austin (TX).