The amount of creationist claptrap in my previous post obscured an otherwise intriguing story: the origin of religion. But I didn’t have enough space to go into as much detail as I would’ve liked, but then I remembered, I own this blog! I can have as much space as I want. So, without further ado, I give you the (pre)history of religion.
The earliest evidence of religion comes surprisingly from the present, in the form of chimps. Now, before you get carried away, this isn’t evidence of chimps worshipping a giant stone rock or anything so exciting. Instead, they simply seem to “mourn” their dead, with a mother engaging in unique behaviours when their child dies, approaching and retreating from the body repeatedly.
Of course, this doesn’t mean chimps have a religion (and thankfully so, for that would be further confirmation the chimp uprising is getting closer) but it does show they have an understanding of death. That might not be as interesting as believing the soul goes somewhere when it dies, but it is important to note that understanding it is no longer here is a fundamental foundation of such a belief.
Although quite far removed from the religions we see around us today it would seem that here, amongst the chimps we can see the beginning of the origin of religion.
But does the fact chimps have it mean our ancestors had it? That’s difficult to say, since this is a behavioural trait and behaviour does not preserve especially well. However, there are some sites which suggest they did, notably Atapuerca in Spain. This cave contains hundreds of 500,000 year old fossil of Homo heidelbergensis (or possibly H. neanderthalensis) yet lacks any tools or other indicators people lived there.
It seems to have been a location where hominins put their dead and the fact they are differentiating them in this manner suggests they too had an understanding of death. That life has disappeared from the body and so it can be tossed in a pit.
But, like with chimps, understanding death does not mean they were religious. The first indications of a general supernatural belief don’t arise until after Homo sapiens had appeared, 190,000 years ago.
At Es Skhul cave in the Levant – between 130,000 and 100,000 years ago – our ancestors took a dead individual and buried them. It was careful, it was deliberate and it would’ve required effort. And putting in such effort isn’t something you do if you merely think life has left the body. There was something more going on here.
These people thought something that drove them to do this, something supernatural. Why else treat the body with respect? Ultimatley we only do so because the pile of meat is home to life but once that life is gone it is just a sack of organs again. Why respect it, unless they thought the life continued somewhere. That it still existed and so their body needed respect.
It seems they believed in an afterlife.
Of course that conclusion is pushing at the very bounds of what we can infer from remains. There may be another reason people buried their dead but given how widespread the phenomenon is, a supernatural belief seems to be the most parsimonious explanation. Taken with a pinch of salt.
Here our tale takes a turn for the unexpected: after these first few burials the majority are made by H. neanderthalensis, not us! Our “dumb” cousins, it would seem, had spiritual beliefs too.
Why few are made by us may have something to do with the fact our species returned to Africa, but why the abandoned the practice of making burials along with their territory is unknown. Regardless, we eventually returned to Europe around 40,000 years ago and buried our dead more frequently.
As we did so, the beliefs associated with this burial became more complex. We started burying them with gravegoods and engaged in more extensive symbolic behaviour. 23,000 years ago, for example, a Russian was buried with over 3,000 beads! And there are several bones that are caked in pigment because the body was painted prior to burial.
And it’s not just the burials which become complicated. Throughout this period we made more elaborate art than before. Most of it is of real things but a few items are of things which do not exist. The most famous of these is the “lion man,” a 32,000 year old sculpture of a half man, half lion creature. It’s clearly fantasy, but is this fantasy part of religion? We do not know.
It seems more apparent that the “fish men” from Lepenski Vir are part of religion. Lepenski Vir is an interesting site as it was a hunter-gatherer settlement but the river was so bountiful they could live there year round and not have to move. And they repeatedly anthropomorphised the source of their nourishment in the form of these “fish men.”
The relationship between their survival and these statues suggests that these represent important fantasy elements. And their made frequently, suggesting this fantastical belief was wide-spread. Surely that makes them part of religion.
Lepenski Vir marks the beginning of the end for prehistory. Shortly afterwards societies started getting more complicated, constructing the large buildings I talked about in my previous post. As they got organised, so did the groups of people within them. Governments and codified religions emerged.
And so, the early supernatural beliefs which prompted our ancestors to bury their dead became the religions we know and love today, such as that which spawned the creationist my previous post was responding to. And that post prompted this one.
We have come full circle.
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|Grün R, Stringer C, McDermott F, Nathan R, Porat N, Robertson S, Taylor L, Mortimer G, Eggins S, & McCulloch M (2005). U-series and ESR analyses of bones and teeth relating to the human burials from Skhul. Journal of human evolution, 49 (3), 316-34 PMID: 15970310|
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