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Animals as Agents: Hunting Ritual and Relational Ontologies in Prehistoric Alaska and Chukotka

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 September 2011

Erica Hill
Department of Social Science, University of Alaska Southeast, 11120 Glacier Highway, Juneau, AK 99801, United States, Email:


In this article, I discuss the ways in which animals act as ontological subjects — as other-than-human persons and as agents in myth and ritual. First I outline how humans conceive of and behave with animals and their remains in indigenous cosmologies using ethnographic and ethnohistoric examples from the Arctic, Subarctic and Amazonia. I then explore the archaeological evidence for indigenous ontologies along the coasts of Chukotka and Alaska, arguing that prehistoric hunters interacted with animals as agential persons, engaging in social practices intended to facilitate hunting success and avoid offending prey. Two forms of ritual activities are discussed: the use of hunting amulets and the caching of animal bones and antlers. I conclude that focusing on shamanism in the study of hunter-gatherer belief obscures the roles of hunters and their wives. Their thoughts and actions established and maintained relationships with prey animals and may be more productively conceptualized as dynamic social behaviours embedded within the context of daily life than as privileged ritual acts.

Research Article
Copyright © The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research 2011

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