The Earliest Religion and Religion’s Origin: What Do We Know?

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According to scientific knowledge, the first humans (Homo sapiens, the knowledgable ones) came out of Africa 200 000 years ago. These early humans were just like us moderns in basic character and intelligence with the major differences being in cultural style and in the greater organizational complexity of today’s world. Although most scientists currently recognize some 15 to 20 different species of early humans, it is only to Homo sapiens, and possibly the Neanderthals, that one should focus on to discover the earliest traces of religious mentality and practice. This is because many members of the human species, such as the Australopithecus, Homo rudolfensis, Homo ergaster, Homo habilis, and others likely possessed intellectual facilities no better than modem day chimpanzees, which suggests that they did not have the ability to think in abstract terms and possess the potential for developing religious ideas (1).

Limitations in Discovering Pre-Historical Religion

There are limitations to what can be known about the earliest forms of religious mentality, belief, and practice. Scholar of religion Ninian Smart (d. 2001) explains that as one pushes back further into human pre-history he often has to “speculate about the lives of these our predecessors; and so ultimately we speculate about the origin of human religion” (2). Some theorists have attempted to reconstruct pre-historical cultures and religion based upon extrapolations from data derived from modern cultures thought to resemble the pre-historical hunter-gatherer societies. This is, however, controversial and its accuracy is doubted by scholars (3). As Leroi-Gourhan has pointed out there are difficulties facing attempts to reconstruct the religion of such societies on the basis of material remnants alone, and it is even more challenging to gain insight into the mentality of peoples whose cultures are scarcely known (4). Scholar Inna Wunn notes the caution of many scholars to extrapolate from material remnants to 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 largely agrees with these views saying that it is indeed a battle to infer religious mentality “from bones, or feelings from chiseled flint, or wishes from fragments of animals skeletons partly touched by fire” (6). Smart is also cautious over attempts to reconstruct hunter-gatherer societies based upon perceived modern examples, such as the Australian aboriginals or the Tierra del Fuegians (in South America), because all people extant today, the Aborigines included, have lived over numerous centuries during which they have undergone much change. He further cautions against perceiving pre-historical hunter-gatherer societies as homogenous because they were, in fact, diverse. The result is that much about the theories of religion’s pre-historical origin are guesswork and require a great deal of inference (7).

But indeed most scholars believe that something can be said about pre-historical religion because they believe it is possible to draw inferences from empirical remnants such as paintings, figurines, burials, bones, and more. However, before we look to some of these evidences we should bring into the discussion some of the early theorists on religion’s origins.

Early Theorists on the Origin of Religion

A number of thinkers of the Victorian era and of the 19th and 20th centuries attempted to theorize concerning the origin of religion. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) saw religion as belonging to the constitution of social organisms, namely, to societies, and he observed that religion had been present since the beginning of civilization where it had since regulated forms of social organization. Spencer claimed that religion still performed that same function in the present day where it operates as a means for social control. He then looked into why religion and religious ideas persisted and proposed that religion came about when conceptions (of high generalization) were understood to refer to actual realities. In other words, the origin of religion was traceable to the human mental and cognitive tendency to engage in trans-emprical generalizations. Religion was used to explain particular actions in terms of an overarching agency. He associated religion with reality’s fundamental mysterious nature, and as the mode of intelligence which was able to recognize and encounter mystery.

In his work Primitive Culture (1871), the anthropologist E. B. Tylor (1832-1917) claimed religion’s origin to be in the animistic beliefs. These constituted the earliest forms of religious belief and came into existence as a result of the projection of the ordinary experiences of powerful people onto a supernatural realm. One example is that people came to believe that the world was created by the gods or a God because they witnessed people making things in daily experience, and thus projected this onto the supernatural. To Tylor, this is the most obvious reading of the data given that ancient religions and religious believers so frequently invoke the existence of spirits, souls, and gods to explain events within the world. He saw “primitive” religion as consisting entirely in a belief in, and practice toward, unseen spirits, which constituted religious sentiments he dubbed as “animism.”

James Frazer (1854-1941), notable for his book The Golden Bough (1890), saw a certain evolution of ideas, beginning with the use of magic that used sacred formulae to try to coerce and bend the operations of nature. This, Frazer claimed, lead to the origin of religion, which attempted to propitiate unseen forces rather than to compel them. Such ways of dealing with the world are however replaced in modern times by science, which he claims is the most rational and effective way of harnessing the powers of nature.

A particularly negative view of religion coupled with a somewhat fanciful scenario of its origin was presented by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the father of psychoanalytic theory. Freud viewed religion as a mental illness which he describes as a neurosis. In his book Totem and Taboo (1913), Freud attempted to locate religion’s origins in the unconscious, and concluded that it is the result of deep psychological tensions, namely in the Oedipus complex’s powerful emotions that led the sons within hunter-gatherer tribes to murder their fathers, turn their dead fathers into a god through the reverence of a sacred totem animal, and finally to promise sexual renunciation as a way to serve and honour him.

The anthropologist R. R. Marett (1866-1943) proposed the idea of “pre-animism” or “dynamism” as the earliest religious beliefs. On this view, nature is seen as pervaded by non-personal forces, to which humans related through various rites. These powers were sometimes referred to as “mana,” namely 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 belief in mana, which then evolved to belief in more personal spirits. From there it moved into polytheism (belief in many gods), where the deities and gods became even more fully personalized, and then into monotheism (belief in a single God). This reached its climax in, depending on the ideology of the theorist, atheism, a total rejection of religious truth and the existence of God or gods.

The Catholic priest and anthropologist Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954) claimed that there was a widespread belief in a High God existing “behind” or “above” the multitude of spirits, gods, and powers of many small societies. To him, this was indicative of theism, namely the belief in a single, personal God, and that this God had over time been overlain by belief in many spirits and gods. Whereas the theories presented by some thinkers, notably E. B. Tylor and Sigmund Freud, were out of a negative outlook upon religion, Schmidt’s was the positive effort to persevere the traditional idea of revelation at the beginning of human history, which he wished to reflect the biblical account of Genesis of God’s dealings with the first human beings.

However, it has not been all one way for the evolutionary developmentalists for some other theorists disagreed that religious belief could be explained through progressive development. Swedish historian and professor Geo Widengren (1907-1996), for instance, both challenged and attempted to discredit the evolutionary accounts in his book Religionens Ursprung (1907). He rejected the idea that religions evolved from the simple to the more complex, and challenged the assumption that one could work back from complexity to a singularity in order to determine religion’s origin. The religions of the earliest people were not necessarily the most simple and the religions of later people not necessarily more complex or sophisticated.

But what should one make of all these theorists? Although there is likely some truth to these ideas, few modern scholars would accept or subscribe to any of their accounts. Most of them are immune to empirical evaluation (8) and have also been criticized for their speculative nature. Freud, for example, is thought to have made far too much of totemism on the basis of his claim that the sons had substituted their dead father with a totem animal as a means to worship and revere the father as a god. Totemism, it turned out, was not nearly as universal within small-scale societies and religion as it was once thought (9), and there are doubts that Freud’s psychoanalytic theory is an adequate science itself (10). Some of these theorists also placed a too orderly evolutionary sequence upon events in which the so-called “primitive” peoples and cultures were in basic constitution less developed than modern humans. They were also incorrect to neglect ways in which “primitive” thought could be found among moderns. We also already noted the challenges to theorists attempting to extrapolate back into pre-historical societies based upon perceived contemporary examples. According to Smart, it is no longer fashionable among scholars of religion to create such theories. However, he still thinks it possible,

“to 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 We Say About Pre-Historical Religion?

Much of what scholars of religion know about the beliefs and practices of religious communities is learned from the many texts written by the members of those communities. However, the first ever recorded writing comes from Mesopotamia and dates to 5500 BP (before present), which suggests that no textual composition exists from members of pre-historical hunter-gatherer societies (prior to 12 000 BP). Scholars of history and religion, therefore, have to rely on physical artifacts of history, from which it is possible to hazard some guesses about the nature of early humans’ religious life.

Symbolic Thinking and Narrative

It is agreed that symbolic thinking is a prerequisite for religion (12). A symbol is something that stands for or represents something else, which means that symbolic thinking 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. Religion is a particular form of a larger, social symbolic behaviour, and some archaeologists, based upon very ancient discoveries in Blombos Cave in South Africa, have placed the origin of symbolic behaviour as far back as 100 000 BP (13). There was a further flourishing of symbolic expression 30 000 to 35 000 years ago in Europe.

Given the ability for symbolic expression, it was possible for human hunter-gatherers to tell stories, which was certainly likely given that narrative itself possesses a powerful grip upon the human imagination (14). It was a way for the hunter-gatherers to imagine the past, and to bring into focus questions and ideas of how things within the world came to be. It is reasonable to suspect that these people conceptualized from the microcosm to the macrocosm, which means they would have speculated from their human situation to the whole environment. In other words, their view of the world would have proceeded outward from their own experience, and given their almost certain wonder and awe at the world, this would have generated a diverse range of myths. Smart believes such myths would have generated beliefs on,

“how 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)

It is not unreasonable to suspect that ideas and stories surrounding the topics of fear, death, and suffering were also shared within these communities (16). They would have asked questions on how such realities came to be, where they came from, and whether or not death would be the end of life. In fact, evidence from pre-historical burials suggests that there may have been belief in life after death.

The Earliest Religious Practices and Beliefs

1. Burials

Reputable 20th-century scholars in the field of religious studies such as Mircea Eliade (d. 1986) and Ioan Couliano (d. 1991) were convinced that Neanderthals buried their dead (17). Archaeological evidence does indeed confirm that the Neanderthals, prior to their extinction around 40 000 years ago, buried their deceased (18). Their burials are also taken by some scholars to evidence notions of life after death given that the bones had been smeared with red ocher. There is also evidence from a discovery at Le Moustier, Dordogne in France where a young Neanderthal male was buried on his right side with his head pillowed with flat stones, and next to his body placed charred animal bones and a hand axe, which suggests some belief in life beyond death.

2. Shamanism

Shamanism is arguably the oldest known religious practice, and it was practiced within hunter-gatherer societies (19). The fact that these people engaged in Shamanic practice tells us something about their religious experience. Shamans were perceived as special human beings who had spiritual power and knowledge. They had 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. They engaged in altered states of consciousness and visionary episodes in which they would venture into other spirit worlds. This was done in an attempt to alleviate pain, sickness, and community problems through communicating with sacred forces and spirits. An often-cited evidence of shamanism comes in the form of an engraved image that was discovered in the Les Trois Freres Cave in the south of France dating to around 12 000 BCE (20). The image is of a figure dressed in animal skins and antlers, who is thought to represent a sorcerer or a shaman.

 

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“The Sorcerer.” Image: Ancient Origins, ancientorigins.net

 

At Star Carr in England, there has been found a 10 000-year-old antlered skull with holes drilled in it suggesting it was worn as a headdress, which is reminiscent of some forms of headdress worn by modern shamans in Siberia (21).

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Antlered headdress. Image: The British Museum

 

3. Figurines and Paintings. We know that pre-historical human beings encountered certain kinds of wild animals because they depicted them in their paintings as well as in figurines. Sometimes these figurines bear religious significance. For example, carved ivory animal figurines from the Vogelherd cave in Wurttemberg, southwestern Germany, dating to 40 000 BP possibly indicate some sort of magic associated with hunting, although much of it remains a mystery (22). For example, cross-hatching appears on many of these figurines which might suggest a religious or magical connection, but this is not clear.

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A type of wild cat with cross-hatching on it. Image.

 

Discovered in 1937, the “Lion Man” figurine, with its combination of human and animal qualities, has been viewed as a strong candidate for belief in a supernatural being or spiritual guide such as a shaman (23). Some have thought it to depict a shaman with a lion mask, and it is also very old dating to 40 000 BP.

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The Lion Man. Image: The British Museum.

 

Also significant are the Venus figurines, some of which date to 35 000 years BP (24). These objects, which number into the hundreds, were sculpted using different materials ranging from soft stones (calcite, steatite, or limestone), bone, ivory, wood, to ceramic clays. Many have been found in Siberia, Italy, Austria, and France, and, despite some diversity, many of them tend to share a range of characteristics. They depict a female body, usually have no arms, feet, or facial detail, and they strongly emphasize or exaggerate the breasts and stomach. Often the legs are fused together. A major interpretation of these figurines, although there is debate, is that they suggest that a female fertility goddess played a vital role in Paleolithic religious life (25). Some scholars claim that these figurines, which often appear pregnant, may depict a mother goddess or a deity associated with childbearing. Some have purported the figurines to have the function of a priestess or an initiation figure (26). Rather strikingly is that these figures have been the inspiration behind the spawning of a quasi-religious movement in some modern feminist circles, such as in the Goddess movement.

 

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The Venus figurines. Image: Ancient Origins, ancientorigins.net.

 

Smart believes that alongside these figurines the likes of caves too played an important religious role. Caves were not solely used for shelter but also for rituals which, according to some cave paintings, were viewed as wombs. Taken together it is apparent that the feminine figure, says Smart, 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).

A final point worth mentioning is the world’s first human-made temple located in Turkey. This is called the Gòbekli Tepe whose first structures were built around 12 000 BP (28). Nomadic hunter-gatherers in the area had carved local limestone into a number of depictions of humans and animals, including a bare human head with a snake crawling up the back. There are also statues of birds, and archaeologists have suggested that the temple’s construction was a huge collective effort as it may have taken more than 500 people to build it. This has led to claims that religious leaders supervised the work and later controlled the rituals that took place at the site, which could mean that the Gòbekli Tepe is the oldest known evidence for a priestly caste (29). It is clear that animal sacrifices occurred at the temple given that the bones of wild animals, including birds, deer, gazelles, goats, sheep, and oxen were discovered scattered around the site. These animals are also depicted in the sculptures and reliefs at the site.

Interpreting the Evidence

To round off this entry I would like to briefly suggest what can be reasonably known from the above. As already stated, it is clear that any reconstructive effort at pre-historical religion requires some level of speculation, as was clearly evident in the diverse, and often conflicting, theories attempting to account for religion’s origin. In light of the empirical evidence, in some cases, it is not at all obvious that an artifact is necessarily religious or, even if it is, provides much insight into the religious beliefs of the nomadic hunter-gatherers themselves. A few scratches, for example, on some animal figurines do not tell us much, at least not that much more than what kind of animals these people were sharing the land with at the time. However, some of the evidence does seem a bit stronger. Neanderthals may have had a notion of the afterlife given their burials, and we can know with some certainty that shamanism played an important role in Homo sapien hunter-gatherer religion. The Lion Man seems quite strong although the figurine itself tells us little, and the same can be said of the painting in the Les Trois Freres Cave in France. Both do seem to suggest, however, that shamanism is possibly the oldest religious practice currently known. This might itself suggest that animistic beliefs were a dominant feature of pre-historical religion. The Venus figurines are also informative for they are very ancient, and seem to suggest a fascination with the female form and possibly a fertility goddess connected with the Earth.

References

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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