Human Nature

, Volume 24, Issue 2, pp 158–181

Witchcraft Beliefs and Witch Hunts

An Interdisciplinary Explanation

DOI: 10.1007/s12110-013-9164-1

Cite this article as:
Koning, N. Hum Nat (2013) 24: 158. doi:10.1007/s12110-013-9164-1


This paper proposes an interdisciplinary explanation of the cross-cultural similarities and evolutionary patterns of witchcraft beliefs. It argues that human social dilemmas have led to the evolution of a fear system that is sensitive to signs of deceit and envy. This was adapted in the evolutionary environment of small foraging bands but became overstimulated by the consequences of the Agricultural Revolution, leading to witch paranoia. State formation, civilization, and economic development abated the fear of witches and replaced it in part with more collectivist forms of social paranoia. However, demographic-economic crises could rekindle fear of witches—resulting, for example, in the witch craze of early modern Europe. The Industrial Revolution broke the Malthusian shackles, but modern economic growth requires agricultural development as a starting point. In sub-Saharan Africa, witch paranoia has resurged because the conditions for agricultural development are lacking, leading to fighting for opportunities and an erosion of intergenerational reciprocity.


WitchcraftCollective paranoiaEvolutionary discordanceEconomic developmentMalthusian cyclesAfrican crisis

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Social SciencesWageningen UniversityWageningenThe Netherlands