Earliest Religion and Origin: Theories and Evidence


The first humans (Homo sapiens, Latin: “wise man”) emerged from Africa 200 000 years ago and were like modern human beings in basic character and intelligence but with major differences in cultural style and and their lack of the organizational complexity of the contemporary world.

Although fifteen to twenty different species of early humans are recognized, it is only Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals (from German “Neander valley”) that the scholar should focus on to discover the earliest traces of religious mentality and practice.

Many other members of the human species, such as the Australopithecus, Homo rudolfensis, Homo ergaster, Homo habilis, and others likely possessed the intellectual faculties of the chimpanzee. Reasonably, this suggests that these members of the human species could not think in abstract terms and therefore possess the potential for developing religious ideas (1).

Limitations in Evaluating Pre-Historical Religion(s)

Limitations exist for what can be known about the earliest forms of religious mentality, belief, and practice. Scholar of religion Ninian Smart (1927-2001) explains that the further the scholar pushes back into pre-history, the more he has to “speculate about the lives of these our predecessors; and so ultimately we speculate about the origin of human religion” (2).

Various theorists have attempted to reconstruct pre-historical cultures and religions based upon extrapolations from data derived from modern cultures considered to resemble pre-historical hunter-gatherer societies. These theories are controversial and their accuracy is doubted (3). As the paleontologist Leroi-Gourhan (1911-1986) pointed out, there are difficulties reconstructing the religion of pre-historical societies from material remnants alone. It is even more challenging to gain insight into the mentality of ancient people(s) whose cultures are scarcely known (4). Scholar Inna Wunn cautions against extrapolating from material remnants to infer religious mentality,

“It seems to be an accepted fact in the field of History of Religion that Palaeolithic man had a specific religion. They performed rituals related to hunting and believed in a master of animals. They buried the dead and acknowledged a life after death. On the other hand, due to traces of cannibalism, they are assumed to have been wild and primitive. Modem archaeologists and palaeanthropologists are more cautious in their interpretations. They describe only fossils and excavations and hardly ever venture to comment on the mentality of their object of research” (5).

Smart agreed saying that it is challenging to infer religious mentality “from bones, or feelings from chiseled flint, or wishes from fragments of animals skeletons partly touched by fire” (6).

Smart was further cautious to reconstruct hunter-gatherer societies based upon perceived modern examples, such as the Australian aboriginals, the Zulus of South Africa, or the Tierra del Fuegians in South America, because these cultures have existed over numerous centuries during which they have undergone significant change. Smart further cautions against perceiving pre-historical hunter-gatherer societies as homogenous because they were diverse. As such, much about the theories of religion’s pre-historical origin are guesswork requiring speculative inference (7).

Despite these challenges, many scholars maintain that something can still be said about pre-historical religion(s). Despite inferential difficulties, it remains possible to draw inferences from empirical remnants such as paintings, figurines, burials, bones, and more indicating very ancient religiosities.

Early Theorists on the Origin of Religion

Scholars of the Victorian era and of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries theorized about the origin of religion.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), an early advocate of the theory of evolution, maintained that religion belonged to the constitution of social organisms, namely, to societies. He observed that religion had been present since the beginning of civilization and regulated forms of social organization. Religion, he maintained, still performed that same function in the present day where it operates as a means of social control.

He wanted to understand why religion and religious ideas persisted. He proposed that religion came about when conceptions (of high generalization) were understood to refer to actual realities. In other words, the origin of religion is traceable to the human mental and cognitive tendency to engage in trans-empirical generalizations. Religion was employed to explain particular actions in terms of an overarching agency. Spencer associated religion with reality’s fundamental mysterious nature and as a mode of intelligence that was able to recognize and encounter mystery.

In Primitive Culture (1871), anthropologist E. B. Tylor (1832-1917) argued religion’s origin is embedded in animistic beliefs constituting the earliest forms of belief that emerged because of the projection of ordinary experiences of powerful people onto a supernatural realm.

Pre-historical people believed that the world is created by the gods or a God because they witnessed people making objects in daily experience. They projected this onto the supernatural. For Tylor, this is the most obvious reading of the data explaining why ancient religions and religious believers so frequently invoked the existence of spirits, souls, and gods to explain events within the world. “Primitive” religion consisted entirely of belief in and practice toward unseen spirits, which Tylor called “animism.”

James Frazer (1854-1941), an influential anthropologist noted for The Golden Bough (1890), alleged an evolution of ideas beginning with the use of magic. Magic employed sacred formulae attempting to coerce and bend the operations of nature which, Frazer theorized, led to the origin of religion in the attempts to propitiate unseen forces rather than compel them. But sacred formulae have been replaced by science, which Frazer considered the most rational and effective way of harnessing nature’s powers.

A particularly negative view of religion was presented by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the father of psychoanalytic theory. Freud viewed religion as a mental illness (neurosis) emerging from unseen forces in the mind that he often associated with childhood. In Totem and Taboo (1913), Freud wanted to locate religion’s origins in the unconscious psyche and concluded it to be the result of deep psychological tensions. Freud speculatively theorized that the Oedipus complex’s powerful emotions led the sons within hunter-gatherer tribes to murder their father and later, having experienced guilt about the act, turn the deceased father into a god. The sons revered a sacred totem animal and promised sexual renunciation as a means to serve and honor the father.

The anthropologist R. R. Marett (1866-1943) proposed “pre-animism” or “dynamism” as the earliest religious belief. Here nature is considered to be pervaded by non-personal forces that humans related to via various rites. These powers are referred to as “mana,” which is considered a type of sacred power existing within anything unusual, such as in peculiar rocks and mountains, or within unusual human beings like chiefs, beautiful women, or animals such as bears. Religion first began with this belief that Marett theorized evolved into a belief in personal spirits. This belief further evolved into polytheism where the deities and gods became fully personalized and then into monotheism.

The Catholic priest and anthropologist Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954) claimed there was a widespread belief in a High God existing “behind” or “above” the multitude of spirits, gods, and powers in many ancient societies. This indicated monotheism, namely the belief in a single, personal God. Putatively, over time this God was overlain by belief in many spirits and gods. Contrary to Tylor and Freud’s negative views, Schmidt’s was a positive effort to persevere the traditional idea of revelation at the beginning of human history. But Schmidt’s agenda is obvious as he wanted to reflect and justify the account of God’s dealings with the first human beings as described in the biblical text of Genesis.

Various other theorists disagreed that religious belief is explicable via progressive development. A prominent example lies in the Swedish historian Geo Widengren (1907-1996) who attempted to discredit evolutionary accounts. Widengred rejected ideas that religions evolved from the simple to the more complex and therefore challenged assumptions that the scholar could justifiably work back from contemporary complexity to ancient singularity. The beliefs in the earliest human societies were not necessarily the most simple and the religions of later people were not necessarily more complex or sophisticated.

How is one make sense of all these theories?

Although there is likely some truth to these ideas, few modern scholars accept or subscribe to any of these accounts. Most of the theories are immune to empirical evaluation and criticized for their speculative nature (8).

Freud, for example, made far too much of totemism based upon his claim that the sons substituted their dead father with a totem animal as a means to worship and revere the father as a god. Totemism was not nearly as universal within small-scale societies as once thought (9).

In addition, central tenets of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory are questioned and rejected (10). The Oedipus Complex became an entrenched doctrine for Freud, despite its speculative nature. Freud forced the theory into all human endeavors from the infant’s earliest sexual interest in the parent of the opposite sex and the formation of civilization. However, the empirical evidence for Freud’s theory is scant since he drew data from very few clinical encounters with children which he unjustifiably universalized. Because of these challenges and various others, Freud’s theory of religion’s origin lying in the Oedipus Complex is rejected.

Some theorists conceptualized too much of an orderly evolutionary sequence of events from the “primitive” societies up to contemporary ones. Resultingly, there was a neglect of how “primitive” thought could be found among moderns too.

Although it is no longer fashionable among many scholars of religion to produce such theories, Smart still thinks it is possible,

“[T]o think that prehistoric men and women in some groups combined the ideas of monotheism, belief in a High God, with ideas of many more or less personalized powers (polytheism and animism) and with notions of sacred forces with less personal attributes (dynamics). They may have believed in life after death, and they may have begun to practice self-control in the tradition to a form of primeval yoga” (11).

What Can Be Said About Pre-Historical Religion?

Knowledge of ancient religious beliefs and practices is learned from texts produced by the members of those communities. The first ever recorded writing emerged from Mesopotamia and dates to 5,500 years ago, or BP (before the present). This indicates that no textual composition exists from members of pre-historical hunter-gatherer societies earlier than 12,000 BP. Scholars of history and religion can only then rely upon physical artifacts from which to hazard guesses about the nature of humanity’s early religious life, practice, and thought.

Symbolic Thinking and Narrative

Symbolic thinking is a prerequisite for religion (12). A symbol is something that stands for or represents something else. Symbolic thinking is essential to religious belief and practice because it allows people to think of their rituals as causing them to participate in the power inherent in the being toward whom their sacrifice or communion is directed. Based upon ancient discoveries in Blombos Cave in South Africa, scholars have placed the origin of symbolic thinking and behavior as far back as 100,000 BP (13). A further flourishing of symbolic expression occurred in Europe roughly 30,000 to 35,000 years ago.

Because of the capacity for symbolic thinking, it became possible for hunter-gatherers to share stories possessing a powerful grip upon the imagination (14). Hunter-gatherers imagined the past and brought into focus questions and ideas of how the objects of the world came to be. Likely there was conceptualization from the microcosm to the macrocosm, which simply means speculation from the finite human situation to the whole environment. Their view of the world would have proceeded outward from their own experience and given their wonder and awe generated a diverse range of myths. According to Smart, these myths touched on,

“[H]ow the sky and earth perform together; the way the moon waxes and wanes, and how woman reflections this moonishness; how the spirit of the bison or the fox was created; how humans can turn into animals, and one species into another; the cause of the mountains over there; how the sea was formed; how a spirit below the sea brings the sole to multiply. The concern with fertility, and the analogy of the earth as a woman, no doubt grew in importance as settled agriculture developed in such regions as north China, Thailand, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. The story form, laced with symbols, could be well integrated into the rituals whereby early humans celebrated and coaxed the powers about them. Underlying the stories, however, there could be speculative answers to questions of creation, and such thinking is reflected in some of humankind’s earliest texts.” (15)

Likely the topics of fear, death, and suffering were also shared within these communities (16). Evidence from pre-historical burials suggests that there may even have been a belief in life after death.

The Earliest Religious Practices and Beliefs

1. Burials

Reputable twentieth-century scholars such as Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) and Ioan Petru Couliano (1950-1991) were convinced that the Neanderthals buried their dead (17). Archaeological evidence supported their views and confirmed that the Neanderthals, before their extinction around 40,000 BP, buried their deceased (18). The burials are believed by some scholars to constitute evidence of notions of life after death, especially because the buried bones are smeared with red ocher.

Further evidence emerged from a discovery at Le Moustier, France. Discovered was a young Neanderthal male buried on his right side. His head is pillowed with flat stones and next to him lie charred animal bones and a hand axe. This suggests some belief in life beyond death.

2. Shamanism

One of the oldest known religious practices called shamanism appears to have been common in hunter-gatherer societies (19).

Shamans were perceived as special human beings privileged with spiritual power and knowledge. They experienced strong visions and dreams, knowledge of how to cure souls and bodies, an affinity with animals, and a special knowledge of which direction to go in hunts. Through altered states of consciousness and visionary episodes, the shaman ventured into other spirit worlds often in an attempt to alleviate pain, sickness, and community problems. In these states, the shaman communicated with sacred forces and spirits.

Evidence of shamanic practice is an engraved image discovered in Les Trois Freres Cave, southern France, dated 14,000 BP (20). This image, depicted below, is of a figure dressed in animal skins. The figure has antlers and is thought to represent a sorcerer or a shaman.

Screen Shot 2019-11-03 at 5.58.59 PM.png

At Star Carr in England, an antlered skull with holes drilled in it was discovered and dates to 10,000 BP. The finding suggests the skull was worn as a headdress reminiscent of headdresses worn by modern shamans in Siberia (21).

Screen Shot 2019-11-03 at 6.01.19 PM.png
Antlered headdress. 

3. Figurines and Paintings

Pre-historical human beings encountered wild animals because these animals are depicted in their paintings and creative figurines. These figurines possibly bear religious significance. Carved ivory animal figurines from the Vogelherd cave in southwestern Germany date to 40,000 BP possibly indicate that magic was associated with hunting. Cross-hatching appears on these figurines and might suggest a religious or magical connection. But much about these artifacts remain a mystery (22).

Screen Shot 2019-11-03 at 6.05.25 PM.png
A type of wild cat with cross-hatching on it. Image.

Discovered in 1937 and dating 40,000 BP, the Lion Man figurine combines human and animal qualities. The figurine possibly indicates a belief in a supernatural being or a spiritual guide such as a shaman with a lion mask (23).

Screen Shot 2019-11-03 at 6.07.24 PM.png
The Lion Man. Image: The British Museum.

The Venus figurines, some dating to 35,000 BP, constitute additional valuable evidence (24). These objects number into the hundreds and were sculpted using various materials such as soft stones (calcite, steatite, or limestone), bone, ivory, wood, and ceramic clays. Many were discovered in Siberia, Italy, Austria, and France, and, despite some diversity, share a range of characteristics.

The figurines depict a female body, usually without arms, feet, or facial detail. They strongly emphasize or exaggerate the breasts and stomach, and often the legs are fused together. One interpretation is that the figurines suggest that a fertility goddess played a vital role in ancient religious life (25). Some scholars claim that the figurines appear pregnant and may therefore depict a mother goddess or a deity associated with childbearing. Possibly, the artifact depicts a priestess or an initiation figure (26). The Venus figurines have inspired religious movements in some modern feminist circles, such as the Goddess movement.

Screen Shot 2019-11-03 at 6.09.51 PM.png
The Venus figurines.

4. Caves

Smart considered caves to also play a role in the most ancient religious beliefs and practices. Caves were not only for shelter but evidently also for rituals. According to some cave paintings, caves were viewed as wombs. Smart therefore concluded that the feminine figure played an important role in these hunter-gatherer societies,

“The feminine figure could have played various roles: as creator of the world, as mistress of the animals (on whom humans were mysteriously dependent), as helper in the location and killing of animals. It would not have gone unnoticed that the woman mimicked the moon in her cycles, and in general, more clearly reflected the rhythms of the season and of life and death. In many ways, the female was more strangely potent that the male” (27).

5. Earliest Temple

The world’s first human-made temple is located in Turkey. It is called the Gòbekli Tepe whose earliest structures were built around 12,000 BP (28). Nomadic hunter-gatherers carved local limestone into various depictions of humans and animals, including a human head with a snake crawling up the back.

Archaeologists have suggested that the temple’s construction was a huge collective effort. It could have required more than 500 people to construct it. A theory is that religious leaders supervised the work and later controlled the rituals at the site. This would make Gòbekli Tepe the oldest known evidence of a priestly caste (29).

Sacrifices occurred at the temple suggested by the bones of wild animals, including birds, deer, gazelles, goats, sheep, and oxen. These animals are also depicted in the sculptures and reliefs at the site.

Interpreting the Evidence

Any reconstructive effort of pre-historical religion requires speculation. This became apparent in the diverse and often conflicting theories provided by classical theorists explaining religion’s origin.

In some cases, it is not obvious that an artifact is necessarily religious or, even if it is, provides much insight into the religious beliefs of the nomadic hunter-gatherers. A few scratches on an animal figurine do not communicate much beyond an animal sharing the land with the hunter-gatherers at the time.

But some evidence appears stronger. Neanderthals may have had a notion of the afterlife given the nature of their burials. Shamanism almost certainly had a role in hunter-gatherer societies. The Lion Man is strong evidence although the figurine communicates little. The same can be said of the painting in Les Trois Freres Cave in France.

This evidence nonetheless points to shamanism being the oldest religious practice currently known. Additional speculation might suggest that animistic beliefs were a dominant feature of pre-historical religion.

The Venus figurines appear to suggest a fascination with the female form and possibly a fertility goddess connected with the Earth.


1. Wunn, Ina. 2000. “Beginning of Religion.” Numen 47:(4): 417-452. p. 421.

2. Smart, Ninian. 1998. The World’s Religions. Cambridge University Press. p. 32

3. Mclennon, James. 1997. “Shamanic Healing, Human Evolution, and the Origin of Religion.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 36(3): 345-354. p. 347.

4. Leroi-Gourhan, Andre. 1981. Die Religionen der Vorgeschichte. Berlin: Suhrkamp.

5. Wunn, Ina. 2000. Ibid. p. 419.

6. Smart, Ninian. 1998. Ibid. p. 32.

7. Smart, Ninian. 1998. Ibid. p. 35

8. Mclennon, James. 1997. Ibid. p. 345.

9. Smart, Ninian. 1998. Ibid. p. 35

10. Grünbaum, Adolf. 1984. The Foundations of Psychoanalysis. Berkeley: University of California Press.

11. Smart, Ninian. 1998. Ibid. p. 41

12. Culotta, Elizabeth. 2009. “On the Origin of Religion.” Science, New Series 326(5954): 784-787. p. 764; Smart, Ninian. 1998. Ibid. p. 37.

13. Culotta, Elizabeth. 2009. Ibid. p. 764.

14. Smart, Ninian. 1998. Ibid. p. 38.

15. Smart, Ninian. 1998. Ibid. p. 38-39.

16. Smart, Ninian. 1998. Ibid. p. 40

17. Eliade, Mircea and Couliano, Ioan. 1991. Handbuch der Religionen. Düsseldorf: Artemis & Winkler p. 27.

18. Than, Ker. 2013. Neanderthal Burials Confirmed as Ancient Ritual. Available.

19. Mclennon, James. 1997. Ibid. p. 346.

20. History of Information. “The Sorcerer” Circa 12000 BCE. Available.

21. Little, Aimee et al. 2016. “Technological Analysis of the World’s Earliest Shamanic Costume: A Multi-Scalar, Experimental Study of a Red Deer Headdress from the Early Holocene Site of Star Carr, North Yorkshire, UK.” PLoS ONE 11(4).

22. Floss, Harald. 2015. “The Oldest Portable Art: the Aurignacian Ivory Figurines from the Swabian Jura (Southwest Germany).” Palethnologie. https://journals.openedition.org/palethnologie/888

23. Culotta, Elizabeth. 2009. Ibid. p. 784; Sidky, Homayun. 2017. The Origins of Shamanism, Spirit Beliefs, and Religiosity: A Cognitive Anthropological Perspective. Lanham: Lexington Books. p. 115.

24. Vandewettering, Kaylea. 2015. “Upper Paleolithic Venus Figurines and Interpretations of Prehistoric Gender Representations.” PURE Insights 4(1):1-8.

25. Smart, Ninian. 1998. Ibid. p. 39.

26. Russell, Pamela. 1998. “The Paleolithic Mother-Goddess: Fact or Fiction?” In Reader in Gender Archaeology, edited by Kelley Hays-Gilpin and David S. Whitley, 261-268. New York: Routledge. p. 266-267.

27. Smart, Ninian. 1998. Ibid. p. 40-41.

28. Scham, Sandra. 2008. “The World’s First Temple.” Archaeology 61(6): 22-27.

29. Scham, Sandra. 2008. Ibid. p. 26.



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