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HISTORY of Christian Theology
One’s world view greatly impacts how we see reality. Our modern secular culture is based on an atheistic evolutionary view with reliance on science as the gage by which we measure truth. So, without acceding to the correctness of this worldview, we will begin our inquiry into the origins of religion from this familiar, albeit non-exclusive, perspective.

We will first review the existing archeological evidence, then look at the most widely accepted current theories, and then review the historical development leading to these current views. We will consider the often ignored truth that the most primitive cultures worshiped a benevolent supreme being who created the universe and established the moral law for these cultures. We then end by looking at these facts and theories from a Christian perspective.

Archeological Evidence

burial caves in Israel
The earliest evidence of potential religious activity is found in the burial of the deceased persons. This may indicate the ritualization of grief leading to the spiritualization of death, or it may simply have been a sanitary matter. Scientist have dated the earliest discovered Neanderthal burial to be around 300,000 B.C. The earliest burial by modern humans that has been discovered occurred in Israel about 100,000 years ago. Fifty thousand years ago burials showed increased evidence of ritual due to the use of red ocher and personal articles in the grave. Ten thousand years later burials became much more elaborate with increased use of red ocher, cave art, figurines and many more personal artifacts. Whether or not these ritualistic burials included a religious component is uncertain but there is little question that the finality of death and the sense of grief associated with the loss of a loved one were important issues to our ancestors. The human quest for meaning and curiosity regarding what happens when we die may have played a role in the development of religion.

HADD & Theory of the Mind

The current favored theory regarding the origin of religion is called hypersensitive agency-detecting device, or HADD.

The current favored theory regarding the origin of religion is called hypersensitive agency-detecting device, or HADD. In essence, this theory holds that early humans developed the capacity to realize that other things in their world had the ability to act on their own accord, that they had “agency.” This facility enabled early humans to make quick decisions in dangerous situations, such as hearing rustling in the grass on the Serengeti and realizing that it could be a lion. This ability to ascribe agency to other things that surrounded them also planted the seeds of religious thought because humans, so the theory goes, began to attribute agency to things that actually did not have independent agency, such as the forces of nature.

cave paintingThey then began to attribute meaning to the actions of other people, beasts, and nature. The wind, rain and thunder all acted for a purpose. This concept is the basis of the Theory of the Mind, or ToM for short. This ability to ascribe purpose to actions enabled humans to anticipate and not just react to actions. This anticipatory power enabled humans to avoid dangers and to prosper. But it also led to the belief in the supernatural. Humans began to explain the actions of their natural world through a belief in supernatural forces, spirits or beings. This evolutionary attribute of ascribing agency to things and attributing purpose to their actions is what evolutionary scientists refer to as the human “god faculty” that continues to “infect” the human psyche. Some scholars believe that this religious predisposition is hardwired into some people through variants of the VMAT2 gene that is sometimes referred to as the “God gene.”

Language and Social Theories

However, others question how a gene found in a limited segment of society could give rise to such a universal phenomenon as religion. Indeed, some scholars claim that human religiosity developed as humans increased their language capabilities. Language basically consists of the use of symbols (words) to communicate ideas, and symbols are used extensively in most religious practices. Even more importantly, we use language to tell stories that elicit an emotional response from listeners. In general, religions tap into the human psyche at an emotional level and utilize an extensive amount of storytelling to establish their traditions and beliefs.

Similar to the language theory, or in concert with it, some anthropologists believe that religion sprang from a need to increase social cohesiveness. All social animals exist within a social system that enforces compliance to expected behavior. Consequently, some believe that religion was created to help promote pre-existing human social morality. This theory is disputed by other scholars who point out that the religions of many ancient people lacked a moral component. Regardless, communal religious activity may have played a role in promoting cooperative social units.

An Historical Evaluation of the Development of Religion

Various theories have gained general acceptance only to fall out of favor, yet still linger in the textbooks as viable propositions.

The modern search to discover the origin of religion began in the 18th Century and became significant in the latter half of the 19th Century. The most common theories are nature-myths, fetishism, ghost-worship, animism, totemism and magic. One of the best sources that documents this subject is Wilhelm Schmidt’s book, The Origin and Growth of Religion, Facts & Theories, that reviews the history of the various studies and theories regarding the development of religion and concludes with his own proposition based on a historical ethnological approach to the study of religion. Even though it was first published in 1931, it has stood the test of time and his work continues to influence scholars today. Much of the following discussion of these theories is derived from Schmidt’s work.

The scientific search to understand the origin of religion began in 1760 when Charles De Brosses published his thesis that the first religion consisted of fetishism, (the worship of nature) which sprang from fear, and astrology, which came from admiring the wonder of the sky. In 1767, Nicholas Silvestre Bergier became the father of animism when he taught that both fetishism and astrology was based on a childish belief that everything contains genies or spirits.

Hupa Native American Indian

Nature-Myth Theory

The next major advancement in the study of the development of religion came in 1812 when Friedrich Creuzer proposed the anthropomorphic pantheism theory where humans felt themselves one with nature and attributed a soul to the forces of nature. According to his theory, symbolic language regarding our unity with nature led to a conscious belief in the soul and the creation of nature-myths. Around this same time, the historical study of Indo-Germanic language led to increased understanding of the primitive Indo-European religions and their extensive use of nature-myths. Chariot of ApolloFor example, the names of their principle gods–Greek Zeus, Latin Jupiter, Old German Ziu, Norse Tyr–and the word for god–Latin deus, Greek deos, Gaulish devo, Old Prussiona deiws, Old Lithuanian Dewas, and old Icelandic dia–are all connected with the ancient Sanskrit Dyauspitar and come from the common root div meaning to shine. The distribution of a belief in a supreme sky-god over the whole Indo-European area indicates the existence of a supreme sky-god among the ancient Indo-Europeans. These scholars agreed that the mythological figures of these societies were personifications of heavenly bodies and other natural objects or forces such as thunder and lightening.

The distribution of a belief in a supreme sky-god over the whole Indo-European area indicates the existence of a supreme sky-god among the ancient Indo-Europeans.

The most renowned advocate of the nature-myth school of thought was Friederich Max Muller (commonly referred to as Max Muller) who proposed a long series of hypotheses and is credited with being the father of comparative religion. However, he outlived his own theories regarding the origin of religion based on nature-myths that succumbed to new theories based on fetishism and then animism which eclipsed both the nature-myth and fetishism theories. The exaggerations and unsubstantiated assertions of Muller’s nature-myth theories did not stand up to the reality that was revealed by the examination of the religious practices and beliefs of existing primitive cultures.

Darwin and Progressive Evolution

darwinHowever, by far the greatest factor that discredited his nature-myth theory, and has influenced the study of the development of religion ever since, was the publication of Charles Darwin’s book, The Origin of Species by Natural Selection, in 1859. Darwin’s work burst on the scene and dramatically changed the whole scientific community’s view and attitude regarding the origin and development of humanity and our natural world. This paradigm shift in perspective created the “irrefutable” assumption that religion had to begin with simpler lower forms that evolved into higher manifestations over a long period of time. This assumption was coupled with their modern-day bias that monotheism was the highest form of religion. These dual assumed truths resulted in the automatic rejection of any theory or evidence that indicated primitive belief in a supreme being or hint of monotheism. Our culture today still suffers from this unscientific prejudice created by religious zeal for this progressive evolutionary assumption. In their fervor to destroy prior unproven views, adherents have fashioned their own dogma, and anyone who dares question it is sacrificed on their altar of conceit.


Consequently, a new hypothesis for the origin of religion found favor among the cultural elites of the day. Fetishism then took center stage. In the mid-nineteenth century, French scholar Auguste Comte coined the term fetishism from a Latin word facticius, meaning enchanted or magic, and asserted that it was the first form of religion. For him, fetishism is the worship of nature and natural objects directly without believing that they are inhabited by a spirit. He postulated that humans have passed through three phases of social development: First, the theological phase consisting of three sub-steps beginning with fetishism, then polytheism where nature becomes possessed with spirits and personified, and finally monotheism. Second, the abstract or metaphysical phase where the universe was understood as being subject to abstract forces. The third, scientific phase is the final stage where truth is understood through the use of the scientific method. Evolutionists loved his ideas.

In 1870, Sir J. Lubbock revised Comte’s simple unsubstantiated theory with a more elaborate progression, based on Lubbock’s observation and research, which was widely accepted. He maintained that religion developed through the following steps: atheism, fetishism, totemism, shamanism, idolatry or anthropomorphism, god as creator of the world or universe, and finally the union of religion with ethics. However, subsequent research undercut this progression and was unable to show that pure fetishism (the worship of the object itself) existed in any ancient culture. Instead, the natural object worshipped was simply a symbol representing something else, such as a supreme sky-god or ghosts of ancestors. Consequently, the generally accepted premise that fetishism was the first form of religion fell from is pedestal and was discredited. Animism promptly took its place.


Animism is the belief that natural objects contain a soul or are possessed by spirits. It ranges from a general pantheistic view where everything is interconnected through a mystic force to particular natural objects being possessed by a specific spirit or genie.

Ethnologist Edward Burnett Tylor developed an animistic theory for the origin and development of religion with a volume of facts and research that was highly regarded by his peers. He demonstrated that animism preceded the adoration of nature and fetishism and therefore assumed that it was the earliest form of religion. He presented a systematic theory of religion progressing in a series of unbroken stages of development. He postulated that primitive humans first conceived of a human soul being distinct from the body as they used their developing rational capacity to understand dreams, sleep and death. Once humans developed the idea that they had a soul that continued to exist after death, it was not long before they projected that idea onto nature and the physical world. From this sprang the adoration of nature instead of the prior theories where human fear and admiration of nature were assumed to be the genesis of the worship of the natural world.

Tylor’s theory of Animism soon became the predominate theory for the origin of religion and is often echoed in the halls of education to this day, but further research undermined his conclusions.

Aboriginal tribe members

Tylor’s theory soon became the predominate theory for the origin of religion and is often echoed in the halls of education to this day, but further research undermined his conclusions. This research indicated that his presumed initial stage of animism was preceded by a period without a belief in a human soul but with a belief in a supreme being. It also showed that animism became more dominate in the later-stage matrilineal agricultural cultures than other earlier male dominated cultures. Before his death, Tylor admitted that the existence of high-gods amongst the most primitive aboriginal tribes in Australia predated the stages his theory allowed, but he explained this finding away by asserting that this was due to their exposure to Christianity, which assumption was later shown to be untenable. Animisim, in various forms, remains one of the theories that is repeatedly proposed as the original form of religion, but it does not stand up to scrutiny when viewed from the light of evidence indicating religious activity prior to a belief in spirits or souls.

Ghost-Worship and Totemism

Herbert Spenser built on Comte’s theory of social development and founded the science of sociology. He concluded that the worship of the ghosts of ancestors was the root of all religion. Even though evolutionist of his day welcomed his theory, other scholars looked at it with a jaundiced eye due to the lack of evidence to support it. The evidence actually showed that ancestor-worship did not occur until relatively recent time and developed more fully as civilizations arose in Iran, India, China and Japan, and even then, the ancestors who were worshiped remained distinct from higher gods who predated them.

The most primitive cultures have a single supreme being, who was often referred to as the “great father”, who subsequently created the first human father and mother, sometimes with the assistance of a second creator-god.

The most primitive cultures have a single supreme being, who was often referred to as the “great father”, who subsequently created the first human father and mother, sometimes with the assistance of a second creator-god. This primal pair then played a role in their communal rituals, particularly those associated with the initiation of youths to adulthood and with marriage. But they never appeared without first being created by a higher god. In some cultures, such as in various Australian tribes, these first parents appear as totems of the two sexes, often as birds.

totemThe idea that ghost-worship was the original form of worship found a following, especially when it was combined with totemism. Totemism is the belief that one’s family or clan maintains a direct inherited relationship with a particular species of animal. That animal is held in high regard and typically is not allowed to be killed except on a specific occasion in conjunction with a ritual where the animal is consumed by the tribe as part of a festival held in the animal’s honor as a progenitor of the tribe.

Few scholars viewed totemism as the original form of religion until Émile Durkheim published The Elementary Forms of Religious Life in 1912. He found an influential ally in Sigmund Freud who incorporated Durkheim’s views in his crowning work, Totem and Taboo, dealing with the social-religious aspects of society and its interplay with his psychoanalysis therapy, which was published in 1913. Freud taught that psychological issues arise from the conflict between our personal desire for pleasure and the restraints that society demands. This conflict and repressed desires create neurosis which is a mechanism our psyche uses to resolve this conflict through symbolic expressions such as dreams and dysfunctional behavior.

Sigmund FreudAccording to Freud, religion is the “universal obsessional neurosis of mankind.” This universal neurosis is derived from the origin of religion being found in Totemism and the Oedipus complex. Both Durkheim and Freud believed that early human society consisted of small units that Freud called the “primal horde” comprised of one dominant male head along with multiple women and their children, similar to a lion’s pride. As young males matured, they were expelled from the group by the powerful male when they evoked his jealousy. Freud then added the concept that the young males developed sexual desires towards their own mothers. Eventually, the young men banded together and killed and devoured their father so that they could realize their sexual desires. Their guilt for killing their father, who they respected, prompted them to develop rituals and rules to express both their reverence and hostility towards their father as a means to deal with their neurosis. This practice grew into a proto-religion of the worship of this ancestor who became identified with the animal selected by the clan to be honored, killed and consumed during these religious festivals.

Nearly everyone today dismisses Freud’s version of the origin and development of religion, but for a period of time it had a following.

Nearly everyone today dismisses Freud’s version of the origin and development of religion, but for a period of time it had a following. Durkheim and Freud based their theories mainly on the practices of a small number of Aboriginal tribes in Australia; however, further research showed that totemism did not exist in the more primitive Aboriginal tribes, and even where totemism did exist it never existed in its pure form. The totems were not prayed to as true deities. In reality, totemism is more akin to magic than religion.

Pre-Animism and Magic

In 1892, J. H. King became the first person to articulate a coherent theory that magic was the precursor of religion. However, his hypothesis was largely ignored for decades until it became apparent that animism and ghost-worship were not the original form of religion. At that point, various scholars began to propose pre-animism theories based on early human belief in magic. Unlike subsequent proponents of this theory, King maintained that the concept of spirits and a belief in magic developed on independent tracks. He asserted that ideas regarding spirits and animism developed from the exercise of the mental power of early humans but that a belief in magic occurred first and grew out of human interaction with the physical forces of nature. He surmised that when the usual course of events is broken for some unexplained reason, early humans ascribed good or ill luck to this incident. Their inability to predict and control these unusual occurrences led to fear, which was the germ of all religion. Over time, humans discovered what they supposed were the causes of these unusual events and sought ways to impact them. Certain members of the clan focused more attention to these situations and passed on their observations to others until professional shamans arose, which gave rise to prayers, sacrifice and the first religions.storm

J. H. King asserted that a belief in magic occurred first and grew out of human interaction with the physical forces of nature.

Subsequent theories stressed the “primeval stupidity” of early humans who stumbled along through a series of unfortunate events until they seized on the idea that objects contain some magical force which they could potentially control or manipulate. This gave them a sense of power and hope in the future. Humans employed words and actions to influence these supernatural powers just as they did to deal with other humans, and over time this developed into magical and religious rituals which were always interrelated. This increased the cohesiveness of the tribe and enhanced their chances for survival.

However, these theories that early humans believed in some mystical universal force that flowed between objects and could be drawn on and manipulated by magicians was shot down by the limited use of magic and belief in these ideas among the most primitive cultures that have survived through isolation to the modern period.

Historical Ethnological Method

“we [should] simply let the facts speak for themselves, having first established them on the basis of purely objective criteria.”1  

Wilhelm Schmidt questioned the whole approach utilized by many of his peers of adopting a theory of development of human culture, including religion, based primarily on its apparent plausibility and then seeking evidence to support it. Instead, Schmidt insisted that “we [should] simply let the facts speak for themselves, having first established them on the basis of purely objective criteria.”1   He was an outspoken proponent of the value of the historical method of ethnology where researchers share their detailed personal observations of societies in order to determine how these various cultures interacted and evolved. Through long and laborious examination ethnologist are able to establish the veracity of numerous conclusions regarding the movement and development of cultures.

(Bushman, early 20th century)

(Bushman, early 21st century)

Based on these studies, ethnologists distinguished the following general stages of development of early culture: first, Primitive-consisting of food-gatherers and hunters; second, Primary-where women progressed from gathering plants to cultivating them and men began to transition from hunting to cattle-herding in this primitive horticultural state; third, Secondary-where new cultural horizons occured from the crossing of primitive cultures; and finally, the advent of the ancient civilizations in Asia, Europe and America during the Tertiary stage.

boomerange aboriginaleskimo girlEthnologists universally agree that the most primitive societies are: the pygmies of central Africa and southern Asia and New Guinea; the Aboriginal tribes in south-east Australia and the now extinct tribes of Tasmania, the Boomerang Cultures in Australia, the natives of the Tierra del Fuego on the tip of South America, tribes in the Amazon; the Bushman of South Africa; certain tribes in the upper Nile region and Southern Africa, the Eskimos, the north and north-eastern Asiatic peoples, the natives of central California and the Algonquin natives along the Ottawa river in Canada. Ethnologists are able to determine the most ancient beliefs and practices by identifying those items of commonality among these groups. Surprisingly, all of these primitive cultures have a belief in a supreme being and this belief is strongest amongst the more ancient of these primitive cultures.

The Primitive Monotheistic Supreme God

During his studies, Wilhelm Schmidt ran across Andrew Lang’s book, The Making of Religion, published in 1892, in which Lang documents his findings of a belief in a supreme being amongst primitive cultures predating beliefs of animism. Before discovering this universal belief in a supreme being by primitive people, Lang subscribed to the then dominant animism school of thought. When he first read a report of this primitive belief in a high god, he assumed that it was simply a mistake. However, the more he studied, the more examples he found, until he embarked on an intense study of the subject. His research showed that a belief in a benevolent supreme being seemed universal among the most primitive cultures and contradicted assumptions held by those who asserted that animism was the first form of religion.

His research showed that a belief in a benevolent supreme being seemed universal among the most primitive cultures and contradicted assumptions held by those who asserted that animism was the first form of religion.

Unfortunately, Lang’s work was largely ignored because it did not conform to the entrenched theories of his day. It seemed to run counter to imperialist Hagelian attitudes of their day that Western Protestant culture was the apex of civilization and the culmination of a long process of refinement. It was hard for them to concede that savages worshipped a god similar to theirs. But even more challenging, the idea of a primitive belief in a moral supreme being contradicted the sacrosanct idea of evolution that higher forms of ideas develop from lower, simpler and more imperfect forms over long periods of time. They could not bring themselves to accept the fact that early humans believed in a way that Lang’s peers believed to be superior to subsequent religious beliefs. This just could not have happened, they insisted … but it did.

Sun GodThe supreme being of primitive cultures was universally revered as completely good and had nothing to do with evil. Several of these societies believed in a subsequently created lower evil being who opposed this benevolent high god. This supreme being was often referred to as “father,” the original “creator” or the “old one” who had always existed. He was frequently referred to as living above or coming from the sky and as a being of light or like fire or associated with the sun. Many primitive people believed he had a human form while some believed that he could not be perceived by our senses. They universally believed that he had always existed before any other being or creation and was the source of creation. This supreme being not only created the universe but also remains omnipotent.

These primitive societies often ascribed omniscience to this being who would reward good acts and punish bad behavior, and could even read our thoughts.

These primitive societies often ascribed omniscience to this being who would reward good acts and punish bad behavior, and could even read our thoughts. He was the one who instituted the moral law which typically taught members of the society to value human life, avoid unchastity, be honest, help those in need, obey one’s elders, and participate in the communal ceremonies where these values are often taught. He oversees the actions of humans and not only rewards good people with a long life and punishes evil doers with an early death, but he also blesses good people with a peaceful happy afterlife, often with him in the sky, and condemns the wicked to painful eternal punishment or endless wandering without rest or happiness. All of these primitive cultures believed in continued personal human existence after death. Wilhelm Schmidt observed:


“In general, the morality of the primitive peoples is by no means low; a clear proof that they really follow the ethical commands and prohibitions of their Supreme Being. This obedience, this submission of their own wills, is all the more remarkable when we consider that in social and political life their freedom is unbounded, they acknowledge the right of no man to command, save for the authority of parents over minor children, and in particular there is no one who could give orders, positive or negative, to the whole community of his fellow-tribesmen.”2

Schmidt’s theory concerning the origin in this universal primitive belief in a supreme being is based on the concept of universal human needs. Humans need to find a rational cause for the effects we observe. A belief in a supreme being who created the world and all of its inhabitants satisfied this need. Humans have social needs that were satisfied by an eternal father who watches over his creation and instituted the family to bless his children. We also have moral needs and a sense of justice. An eternal judge who rewards good and punishes evil satisfied this need. Humans need a protector from the unexpected forces of nature. A belief in an omnipotent father who supplies all good helped the human race deal with the vicissitudes of life. Schmidt concludes:

“Thus in all these attributes this exalted figure furnished primitive man with the ability and the power to live and to love, to trust and to work, the prospect of becoming the master of the world and not its slave, and the aspiration to attain to yet higher, supra-mundane goals. . . . We can say definitely of a whole series of elements that primitive religion did not arise from them. These comprise all the elements on which the theories concerning the origin of religion have been founded, those theories . . . nature-myths, fetishism, ghost-worship, animism, totemism and magic. That the religion of the high god should owe its origin to any of these is impossible, as appears from two considerations. First, as all these theories teach, these elements could not produce such a religion only as the last and highest stage of a long, complicated process of evolutionary advance. But so far from being the latest of religions, this one is characteristic of the oldest peoples. Secondly, such elements either are not to be found at all among these earliest peoples (they know neither totemism, fetish-worship nor animism) or only in a feeble form, as in the case of magic and ghost-worship; so weak a form that the powerful and conspicuous religion of the high god could not have been derived from them.”3

Of course, we can reach a different conclusion from all this data. You have already thought of it. There really could be a God in heaven who created this world, watches over us and has endowed us with the capacity to connect with Him. That is the Christian belief.

Christian Perspective

Christ in GethsemaneChristians believe that true religion is revealed through God and that false religion is either man made or inspired by demons. The Bible records God’s dealings with the human race down through the ages. He revealed his will and law through prophets like Moses, Isaiah, and Daniel, but the ultimate revelation was of God through his son, Jesus Christ. Christians teach of Christ so that those who have ears to hear can experience this revelation or connection with God through Christ.

Christians believe that false religion separates us from God. The early saints were severely persecuted largely because they asserted that the pagan Roman gods and their decadent practices were inspired by the Devil and his demons. This belief and legacy are the reasons why the issue of teaching correct doctrine has been such an important concern throughout Christian history. Unfortunately, sometimes the cure has been worse than the disease as evidenced by violent persecution and the wars of religion.

Many Christians today are less rigid. They believe that God is so great that we cannot put Him into a box and restrict Him to just one limited way to bless his children. These Christians believe that all goodness comes from God, that He is constantly blessing humanity in countless unrecognized way, and that individuals will experience increased union with God through Christ to the extent we are willing to receive him. They believe that God created all humans in God’s image with a rational mind and a divine sense of equity and justice, a light of Christ that leads us to do good and eschew evil.

“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust?

C.S. LewisC.S. Lewis, arguably one of the most influential Christian writers of the twentieth century and the author of numerous books, including Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia, describes how the use of his rational mind helped him recognize that the existence of God made more sense than atheism. “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. . . Thus the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist–in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless–I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality–namely my idea of justice–was full of sense. . . If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe . . . we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.”4

The origin of religion may simply be a spark of divinity that God has placed in each of us.

The origin of religion may simply be a spark of divinity that God has placed in each of us.

go to previous:

The Human Quest for Meaning

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Fear and Religion

1 Schmidt, Wilhelm, The Origin and Growth of Religion Facts and Theories,, (1931) Translated by H.J. Rose, Wythe-North Publishing (2014), page 235.

2 Id. Pg 274.

3 Id. Pg 283.

4 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pg 30.


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C. S. Lewis, 1938.

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