Primitive Dolls & Their Uses Across Civilizations

Today there are so many different kinds of toys for children. Technology has allowed for toy industries to flourish and create toys with more intricate designs. One toy that has developed over centuries is the doll. When you walk into a store there are more than several aisles that focus specifically on dolls. Through the ages these dolls have been transformed in size, color, and fashion. Another attribute of dolls that has transformed throughout the years is their purpose. Ancient dolls were mainly used for religious rituals and purposes.  Instead of associating children with dolls, about 25,000 years ago, dolls would have been used primarily by powerful men or medicine men in the civilization[1]. Other early dolls were worshipped as idols and were thought to bring special healing among the sick. As time went on different civilizations incorporated dolls into their society in different ways, such as the Egyptian, Grecian, and Hopi Indian civilizations.

Egypt was one of the first civilizations that produced some of the earliest examples of articulated dolls that were made of teracotta and preserved [2]. Egypt was a very advanced state in the earliest ancient years. There was a class that consisted of the small elite in which those children were given toys to make the time go by faster [3].  The graves of Egyptian children have been found to contain dolls that were made of wood, linen, and papyrus [4]. The Egyptian dolls were primarily used in burial rituals. When someone died, a doll would be placed in the grave to assist the person to the afterlife. These dolls were known as Ushabti dolls and were made mostly of clay or wood[5]. Gradually, Ushabtis were made to look like their owners and were used to portray the life stories of the deceased. Mehenkwetre, the chancellor of King Mentohotep III, had about twenty-four different scenes of Ushabti dolls that portrayed his life[6].  In Egyptian culture dolls were crucial in the afterlife.


Egyptian funerary objects by Melanie Pitkin. Archaeology: Death in the Museum.  [7]


Approximately a thousand years later, Greece incorporated dolls into their society.  Dolls were very popular during this time among young girls. Grecian dolls were mainly made of clay and, presumably, represented goddesses. Daedalus, a Greecian sculptor, even greated early moving dolls or goddesses [8].  When girls were about thirteen or fourteen years old they stopped playing with dolls to prepare for marriage and this act represented an important stage in Greek culture. Once the girls were married they would offer their dolls to goddesses in belief that they would protect them[9].

Dolls were also popular among Native American tribes such as the Hopi and Iroquois. Dolls were usually made by women at home. For example, Haudenosaunee or the “no face” dolls which were cornhusk dolls of the Iroquois[10]. Like many other Native American tribes, the Hopi worshipped many spirits who provided for different tribal needs. These spirits were known as the kachinas[11].  The Hopi desired a tangible representation of their gods and, therefore, used dolls to achieve a visual representation of in invisible spirits. These kachina dolls were used in many ceremonies and as a mechanism to impart cultural teachings to the next generation[12].

Image of Soyoko An Ogre Woman by Henry Shelton

“Soyoko, An Ogre Woman” Kachina doll by Hopi artist Henry Shelton [13]

Just as the dolls of the Egyptian, Grecian, and Hopi civilizations represented their culture, today countries still have dolls that represent their heritage and culture.  For example the Russian Matryoshka dolls, which are made of wood, represent the country[14]. In China, the dolls known as “medicine ladies” were used by women to indicate where they needed medical attention[15] . Barbie was created long after ancient dolls from primitive civilizations. However, without these dolls there might not have ever been a Barbie doll. Dolls were primarily used for religion and rituals, however, they were passed down to children and became one of the most popular toys that ever existed. Dolls are still going strong today throughout many cultures and still capture children’s attention in today’s time.


[1] Walter Hough, “The Story of Dolls Tells the Story of Mankind,” New York Times, March 1927,, (accessed March 18, 2013)

[2] Deborah Jaffe, The History of Toys: From Spinning Tops      to Robots (Stroud: Sutton Publishing Limited), Chapter 9.

[3] William C. Ketchum, Jr., Toys & Games. (London: Cooper-Hewitt Museum), Chapter 2, 4.

[4] Ibid. Chapter 2

 [5] Joshua Mark, “In the Afterlife of the Field of Reeds the deceased was required to answer for work; unless, of course, accompanied by Shabti dolls.”

[6] May Bosman, “The Long-Buried Dolls of Mehenkwetre,” New York Times, March 1921, Proquest, (accessed March 18, 2013)

[7] Melanie Pitkin. Archaeology: Death in the Museum. (accessed March 25, 2013)

[8] William C. Ketchum, Jr., Toys & Games, 38

[9] Hough, “The Story of Dolls Tells the Story of Mankind.”

[10] Elizabeth Tucker, Children’s Folklore: A Handbook, (Westport, Greenwood Press, 2008), 142

[11] Hough, “The Story of Dolls Tells the Story of Mankind.”

[12] Mary Davies Suro, “Hopi Kachina Dolls of the Southwest,” New York Times, August 1992, Proquest, (accessed March 20, 2013)

[13] Henry Shelton. A Woman Ogre Kachina (Accessed April 19, 2013)

[14] Karen Barmore, “Russian Nesting Dolls… in a Pinch.” Arts & Activities 149, no. 1 (2011): 28-29.

 [15] Howard Dittrick, “Chinese Medicine Dolls.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, January 1952,

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