View Chapters

Book: Contemporary Views on Comparative Religion

Chapter: 30. The Alimentary Construction of Social and Supernatural Identities: Religious Commensality Codes of the Penan with a Comparative Twist

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.28128


What I propose in this brief discussion is an interpretation that identifies the act of sharing food and eating together among the Penan of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, not as a matter of simple physical survival or social association alone, but also as a significant ritualized context for the production and maintenance of supernatural beings. Apart from this approach, my subject matter will be discussed as a cultural feature formed during the evolution of our species. Recent explorations into human cognition and collective behaviour with particular regard to sharing, reveals that people, like other primates, have very good evolutionary reasons to share food, and that sharing itself is one of the constituents of human sociality. We share, not for altruistic reasons, but because it has proven the most effective way of survival during the long cause of human evolution. It is hypothezised, then, that this mechanism is reinforced whenever gods or spirits are implied in the process. In short, this article argues that the implicit presence of divinities in the Penans’ communal meals has, in the short run, stimulated life in a challenging rainforest environment, while in the long term helped our species evolve. The discussion will include comparative examples.

Chapter Contributors

  • Mikael Rothstein ( - mikaelrothstein) 'Copenhagen University'