The Neolithic Revolution (and the few thousand years before/after it) was the most important period in the history of human civilisation. From ~9,000 – ~3,000 years ago our species invented writing, metalworking, cities, armies, farming, money and much more. In essence, the foundation of our modern culture was laid during this relatively brief period. Our species went from hunter-gatherers to the Roman Empire in less than 10,000 years even though we’d spent over 100,000 years as the former. Mesopotamia‘s nickname as the “cradle of civilisation” is one well justified.
However, religious beliefs were not amongst the package of new ideas and inventions which emerged during this period. People have had supernatural ideologies of one form or another for ~100,000 years. That said, organised religion did start to appear around the time of the Neolithic Revolution. This period marks the first examples of temples, priests, religious institutions, holy wars and an increase prevalence of “high” moral-giving gods. Indeed, some even suggest that the first cities were run by religious institutions and “secular” kings were a later invention. Although the Neolithic Revolution may not have been the genesis of religious ideas it was certainly the inceptions of the religious institutions so common in our world today.
New research shows that belief in such “high” gods is fostered in more complex societies where it promotes the co-operation needed for them to flourish. Large societies, economically complex ones and those dependent upon resources which require significant group effort to manage (such as agriculture) all fit the bill of circumstances that can foster belief in such a deity(s). Given how the Neolithic Revolution included increase population size, increased economic complexity and the advent of agriculture it seems that this explanation provides a pretty definitive reason for why the Neolithic Revolution also included a “Religious Revolution.”
Of course, society is a tricky beast and identifying the precise causal relationships can be tricky. As I mentioned in my discussion of the aforementioned research, what if agriculture is only associated with belief in a “high” god because it leads to larger populations and it is that which is the true cause. Or – as a commenter noted – what if belief in a “high” god promoted the various technological, sociological and economic advances associated with the Neolithic Revolution? The former alternate idea seems to be challenged by the fact that pastoralists have to work together intensively to maintain their herd but typically have small(ish) populations, yet still have high levels of belief in a “high” god. Population size and subsistence method appear to be two potential circumstances which foster belief in such a god.
The second alternate hypothesis could be tested if we could find the temporal relationship between the “Religious Revolution” and the other components of the Neolithic Revolution. Were there evidence complex religious beliefs (acting as a proxy for a “high” god since the belief itself will not preserve) before the population grew, subsistence which demanded co-operation or the culture became more complex then it would be a firm strike against the researchers’ theory. Fortunately the Near East lends itself nicely to such a test.
A lot of early sites in the “Fertile Crescent” are Tells. These are made of people creating clay houses, knocking them down when they fall into disrepair and then building a new house on-top of the old one. Over hundreds of years this creates large hill structures which exquisitely preserve the older layers in chronological order. So it becomes very easy to work out whether it was religious changes or societal changes which came first, which is why it should be no surprise that archaeologists have done these investigations. And they consistently conclude that the sociological/economic/technical changes preceded the religious ones.
Jericho, for example, is a particularly famous early Near East site with a gap in the chronology. By 7,300 BC the citizens had a grain surplus but it wasn’t until after the record starts again (6,500 BC) that they start to bury their dead with functional gravegoods. This is important because burying the dead with useful artefacts implies a belief that they will have some use for them, i.e. a belief in the afterlife. Although this is not a certain link – there are other possible explanations – it is one of the most plausible. And this trend does not only exist in Jericho but everywhere. No site without a grain surplus buries their dead with functional gravegoods. Even the presence of non-functional gravegoods increases by 20% and the prevalence of animal figurines increases by >30% when a grain surplus occurs!
Other groups from the period also undergo changes in religious artefact assemblages after they acquire large herds of animals. Since there is often little overlap between those with herds and those with a grain surplus this effectively acts as an independent line of evidence reaching the same conclusion, strengthening it. Further, this is not similarly a case of people with more resources making more artefacts. The grain surplus populations, for example, also make fewer human figurines after they get lots of food. There is a very definite and distinct change in their religion occurring and it is happening after they’ve got a food surplus.
Now, this isn’t definitive evidence that the belief in a “high” god was caused by societal changes since these artefacts can only act as a proxy for belief. However, that doesn’t change the fact it is still evidence for that position. For alternate ideas to remain plausible in light of this then they too must provide evidence – which is currently lacking.
|Fuller J, Grandjean B (2001). Economy and Religion in the Neolithic Revolution: Material Surplus and the Proto-Religious Ethic Cross-Cultural Research, 35 (4), 370-399 DOI: 10.1177/106939710103500402|
This supplementary Sunday is no way an attempt to game the popularity of the previous post. I am totally not writing this because #1 became my most viewed article in just 3 days.