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All that we know about the religion of prehistoric man is surmised from: 1) cave paintings, engravings and sculptures; 2) archaeological excavations of graves and sacred sites; 3) analysis of the way the dead were handled; and 4) studies of traditional hunter-gatherer societies.

Traditional hunter-gatherer societies have a mystical attachment to the land and animals. Cooperation is an important virtue because it is vital foraging and hunting. Jean Clottes, a French art historian and archaeologist, who is regarded as the grand old man of cave art, told National Geographic, "Ice Age people probably believed that animal spirits lived in the rocks." The belief is similar to that of Aborigines.

Seventy-thousand- year-old skulls found in Placard cave near Charente and Dordogne Cave near the village of Les Eyzies in France and Castillo cave near Puente Viesgo Spain were made into drinking cups possibly for sacred rituals. Twenty-seven skulls from around the same period were found each in two caves in Nödlingen, Bavaria where from heads that had been cut off with a flint knife, dried, ceremoniously preserved in nest so that all the heads faced west. A 14,000 year-old half lion and half human head found in a French cave seems to suggest the worship of a supernatural being. [ World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

The skull of a 160,000-year-old child found in Hero in 1997 was defleshed after death. Cut marks on the skull indicate the the skin, muscles and blood vessels were removed and lines were scraped on the skull, probably with an obsidian tool. The cut marks indicate that the bone was still fresh when it was done. This and the careful way it was done suggests that there was something more going on than mere cannibalism. The surface of the skull has a polished surface, which suggests repeated handling. Perhaps it was a greatly treasured relic. It was found with no other bones, possibly because it was separated from the body and buried in some kind of special funeral rite.

Neanderthal and early Modern humans were more spiritually and intellectually sophisticated than the popular image of them suggests. The "Bear Cult" of central Europe and the intriguing cave art of southwestern Europe provide evidence, but not proof, of a belief in life after death. However, the paintings scattered around the world, especially those of western Europe, seem to reveal that ancient man was concerned with both beauty and communication not necessarily religion and death. [Source: Internet Archive, from UNT]

Websites and Resources on Hominins and Human Origins: Smithsonian Human Origins Program ; Institute of Human Origins ; Becoming Human University of Arizona site ; Talk Origins Index ; Last updated 2006. Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History ; Wikipedia article on Human Evolution Wikipedia ; Evolution of Modern Humans ; Human Evolution Images; Hominin Species ; Paleoanthropology Links ; Britannica Human Evolution ; Human Evolution ; National Geographic Map of Human Migrations ; Humin Origins Washington State University ; University of California Museum of Anthropology; BBC The evolution of man"; "Bones, Stones and Genes: The Origin of Modern Humans" (Video lecture series). Howard Hughes Medical Institute.; Human Evolution Timeline ; Walking with Cavemen (BBC) ; PBS Evolution: Humans; PBS: Human Evolution Library; Human Evolution: you try it, from PBS; John Hawks' Anthropology Weblog ; New Scientist: Human Evolution;

Websites and Resources on Neanderthals: Wikipedia: Neanderthals Wikipedia ; Neanderthals Study Guide ; Neandertals on Trial, from PBS; The Neanderthal Museum ; The Neanderthal Flute, by Bob Fink Websites and Resources on Prehistoric Art: Chauvet Cave Paintings ; Cave of Lascaux; Trust for African Rock Art (TARA); Bradshaw Foundation; Australian and Asian Palaeoanthropology, by Peter Brown Fossil Sites and Organizations: The Paleoanthropology Society; Institute of Human Origins (Don Johanson's organization); The Leakey Foundation; The Stone Age Institute; The Bradshaw Foundation ; Turkana Basin Institute; Koobi Fora Research Project; Maropeng Cradle of Humankind, South Africa ; Blombus Cave Project; Journals: Journal of Human Evolution; American Journal of Physical Anthropology; Evolutionary Anthropology; Comptes Rendus Palevol ; PaleoAnthropology

Early Modern Human Burial Practices and Religion

Neanderthal burial

Neanderthal burial A man was buried 100,000 years ago in Israel with an antler placed in his hand, perhaps an offering to be taken to the after life. A 20-year-old woman found in Santa Maria di Agnano cave near Maria di Agnano, Italy was buried 24,000 year ago with hundreds perforated shells in a red ocher paste covered her head. Beneath her right were the bones of a tiny fetus and lying behind her back was a 35-year-old male with similar perforated shells as well as a deer tooth necklace. Scientists are not sure how they died and

A thumb tip was found ritually buried at a 30,000-year-old site in Poland. A 7,000-year-old funerary mask that resembles a a hockey goalie mask was found in the Middle East. It was carved from white stone.

At Le Moustier in the Dordogne regaion of France the skeleton of a boy was found with his forearm under his head, a fine oval ax in his left hand and a pillow of flint chips under his head. Nearby were the burnt bones of a prehistoric ox which suggests a funeral feat was held. [ World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

In Candide Italy the bones of 10,000-year-old stone age man, who had been eaten by a bear, was discovered. The body had been smeared with ocher and buried. In a cave in Monte Circeo Italy a skull, whose brains had been drained out, was found in a position that suggested veneration. Near Moscow, two boys laid to rest in a mound were buried with 8,000 valuable ivory beads, mammoth-ivory spears and assorted rings and anklets.

"Python Cave" Reveals Oldest Human Ritual, Scientists Suggest

In 2006, scientists announced startling discovery of 70,000-year-old artifacts and a python's head carved of stone that appears to represent the first known human rituals. Robert Roy Britt of NBC News wrote: “Scientists had thought human intelligence had not evolved the capacity to perform group rituals until perhaps 40,000 years ago. But inside a cave in remote hills in Kalahari Desert of Botswana, archaeologists found the stone snake that was carved long ago. It is as tall as a man and 20 feet (6 meters) long. "You could see the mouth and eyes of the snake. It looked like a real python," said Sheila Coulson of the University of Oslo. "The play of sunlight over the indentations gave them the appearance of snake skin. At night, the firelight gave one the feeling that the snake was actually moving." [Source: Robert Roy Britt, NBC News, November 30, 2006 \=]

the python stone

“More significantly, when Coulson and her colleagues dug a test pit near the stone figure, they found spearheads made of stone that had to have been brought to the cave from hundreds of miles away. The spearheads were burned in what only could be described as some sort of ritual, the scientists conclude. "Stone Age people took these colorful spearheads, brought them to the cave, and finished carving them there," Coulson said Thursday. "Only the red spearheads were burned. It was a ritual destruction of artifacts. There was no sign of normal habitation. No ordinary tools were found at the site." \=\

“The discovery was made in a remote region of Botswana called Tsodilo Hills, the only uplifted area for miles around. It is known to modern San people as the "Mountains of the Gods" and the "Rock That Whispers." Their legend has it that humankind descended from the python, and the ancient, arid streambeds around the hills are said to have been created by the python as it circled the hills in its ceaseless search for water. "Our find means that humans were more organized and had the capacity for abstract thinking at a much earlier point in history than we have previously assumed," Coulson said. "All of the indications suggest that Tsodilo has been known to mankind for almost 100,000 years as a very special place in the prehistoric landscape." \=\

“The scientists found a secret chamber behind the python carving. Worn areas indicate that it has been used over the years. "The shaman, who is still a very important person in San culture, could have kept himself hidden in that secret chamber," Coulson explained. "He would have had a good view of the inside of the cave while remaining hidden himself. When he spoke from his hiding place, it could have seemed as if the voice came from the snake itself. The shaman would have been able to control everything. It was perfect.” \=\

“The shaman could also have made himself disappear from the chamber by crawling out onto the hillside through a small shaft, the scientists found. Paintings in the cave appear to support part of modern San mythology. While cave paintings are common in the Tsodilo Hills, inside the python cave there are just two small paintings, of an elephant and a giraffe. The images were painted at the exact spot where water runs down the wall. \=\

“One San story has the python falling into water, unable to get out. It's saved by the giraffe. The elephant, with its long trunk, is often a metaphor for the python in San mythology. "In the cave, we find only the San people’s three most important animals: the python, the elephant and the giraffe," Coulson said. "That is unusual. This would appear to be a very special place. They did not burn the spearheads by chance. They brought them from hundreds of kilometers away and intentionally burned them. So many pieces of the puzzle fit together here. It has to represent a ritual."” \=\

Cave Art and Early Modern Human Religion

Some scholars speculate that the early cave paintings were made by people who performed ritual hunts to kill the spirits of the animals to make them less formidable during the hunt and to prevent them from coming back to haunt the hunters. They also speculate that the concept of spirit developed out of the conception that something alive contained a spirit and something dead didn't, and when an animal died its spirit had to go somewhere. [Source: History of Art by H.W. Janson, (Prentice Hall)]

Many of the cave paintings are believed to have been involved in rituals and ceremonies because many of the caves are so hard to get to, sometimes involving climbs up steep slopes, squeezes through narrow fissures and stomach crawling through tiny tunnels. Anthropologists have long noted that the more risky and uncertain an activity is the more likely it is to be surrounded by magical practices. Because hunting is a risky, uncertain activity, many scientists believe that the painting may have been part of a magical ritual.

Neanderthal cave art

Abbe Henri Brueil, a French priest who skipped Mass to copy hundreds of paintings, is sometimes called the “Pope of Prehistory." He helped classify cave art before World War II, hypothesizing the art was involved with rituals of “hunting magic” and were an attempt to capture the beauty of the animals the hunters hunted---a view that was discredited in later studies. The post-war, Marxist German art historian Max Raphael, concluded the animals represented clan totems and the paintings depicted strife and alliances associated with clan warfare.

In 1962, French archaeologist Annette Laming-Emperaire wrote a doctoral thesis entitled The Meaning of Paleolithic Art . The work made her famous and it is still widely embraced today. In it she chided her predecessors for taking too many liberties in their interpretations and warned about looking at modern hunter-gatherers for insights. Instead she opted for more of a number-crunching, spacial and geometric approach in which images were carefully catalogued, with notes taken on the gender, action and position of figures, and notes were made on they way they were grouped and their frequency and spacial relation to things like hand prints and abstract symbols.

In his book Lascaux , Norbert Aujoulat noted that often when horses, aurochs and stags are drawn together the horses are on the bottom, the aurochs are in middle and the stag are on top and the variations of their coats corresponds to respective mating seasons. This in turn has links to the fertility cycle and is perhaps sacred or symbolic.

Later Interpretations of Early Man Cave Paintings

In his 1996 book The Shamans of Prehistory , co-authored by South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams, Clottes, defied the taboo of bringing in outside sources, and related the work of the cave artists to shamanism among hunter-gatherers, particularly the San (Bushmen) of southern Africa and to experiments on visual illusion caused by drugs, music, fashion and oxygen deprivation that produce images in three stages: 1) patterns, points, zigzags and other abstract forms; 2) the morphing of these forms into objects, such as the zigzags become snakes; and 3) the deepest stage in which subjects are called up in a world of hallucinations, monsters and animals. Clottes believes the cave painting represent the experiences and vison of shaman, with animals often incorporating the contours of the caves because they were regarded as part of the cave. The book generated a lot of controversy and criticism, with one critics calling it “psychedelic ravings."

In defense of his book Clottes told The New Yorker, “Everyone agrees that the paintings are in some way, religious. I'm not a believer myself, and I'm certainly not a mystic. But Homo sapiens is Homo spiritualis . The ability to make tools defines less than the need to create belief systems that influence nature. And shamanism is the most prevalent belief system of hunter-gatherers."

Chauvet Cave lions

Describing an experiment he did that involved bringing some elders from a group of Australian Aboriginal hunter-gatherers to Lascaux Cave, Jean-Michel Geneste told The New Yorker, “When they entered the cave, they took a while to get their bearing. Yes, they said, it was an initiation site. The geometric signs, in red and back, reminded them of their clan insignias, the animals and engravings of figures from their creation myths." But Geneste also believes the caves could be like a modern church, with different meanings to different people, offering spiritual, social and meditative opportunities.

Dale Guthrie, a professor of zoology at the University of Alaska, has gone out and hunted animals similar to ones in the painting to gain insights into what the cave painters were all about. In his book The Nature of Paleolithic Art , he emphasized the creative “freedom," playfulness and the sexuality of the art, showing little patience for those who get too hung up on small details and metaphysical explanations. Based on an examination of hand prints he has theorized that a lot of the art was created by teenage boy who drew pubic triangles and other things to amuse themselves, Critics of his interpretation say his ideas may explain some of the art but is a misrepresentation of the most significant art.

Bear Cults

A number of archeologists propose that Middle Paleolithic societies — including the Neanderthals — may have practiced the earliest form of totemism or animal worship. Based on archeological evidence from Middle Paleolithic caves, Emil Bächler has argued a Neanderthal bear-cult was widespread. Animal cults in the following Upper Paleolithic period — such as the bear cult — may have had their origins in these hypothetical Middle Paleolithic animal cults. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Animal worship during the Upper Paleolithic intertwined with hunting rites. For instance, archeological evidence from art and bear remains reveals that the bear cult apparently had involved a type of sacrificial bear ceremonialism in which a bear was shot with arrows and then was finished off by a shot in the lungs and ritualistically buried near a clay bear statue covered by a bear fur, with the skull and the body of the bear buried separately. +

The Drachenloch cave in Switzerland, excavated by Emil Bächler between 1917 and 1923, uncovered more than 30,000 cave bear skeletons and a stone chest or cist consisting of a low wall built from limestone slabs near a cave wall with a number of bear skulls inside it. Also, a cave bear skull was found with a femur bone from another bear stuck inside it. Some scholars speculated that this was evidence of: 1) prehistoric human religious rites involving the cave bear; 2) a hunting ritual involving cave bears or 3) the skulls were kept as trophies. In Archaeology, Religion, Ritual (2004), archaeologist Timothy Insoll was skeptical about the Drachenloch, writing that the evidence for religious practices involving cave bears in this time period is "far from convincing". +

Cave Bear

In Regourdou, southern France, a rectangular pit contained the remains of at least twenty bears, covered by a massive stone slab. The remains of a Neanderthal lay nearby in another stone pit, with various objects, including a bear humerus, a scraper, a core, and some flakes, which were interpreted as grave offerings. A deep chamber of Basura Cave in Savona, Italy, is thought to be related to cave bear worship. There a vaguely bear-shaped stalagmite is surrounded by clay pellets. Bear bones scattered on the floor suggests this was likely to have had some sort of ritual purpose by Neanderthals. +

David Charles Wright-Carr of the Universidad de Guanajuato wrote in a posting on Researchgate: An article by Wunn (2001) argues strongly against cave bear worship in Early and Middle Paleolithic Europe, but it is important to note that these periods predate the presence of anatomically modern Homo sapiens in this region, and Wunn's discussion concerns whether or not Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (or Homo neanderthalensis, if you prefer) worshiped these animals. From the Upper Paleolithic period (ca. 50,000-10,000 years ago), when modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) lived in Europe, there is evidence to support the notion of a cave bear cult. The most intriguing data are from Chauvet Cave in France, where in addition to painted depictions of cave bears, there is a chamber where the skull of a cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) was placed prominently on a block of stone in the center of this space, suggesting some sort of ritual activity.

“One of the oldest sculptures from Upper Paleolithic Europe is an ivory figurine from the Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave in Germany, dated at ca. 40,000 years ago. It is usually interpreted as a lion-man (or lion-woman), a hybrid feline-human creature. I think that it could just as well have represented a cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) or some other species of the same genus. Compare the figurine with the standing skeleton of a juvenile cave bear, and the artist's representation of an adult cave bear. These animals inhabited the sacred caves where humans painted the walls and deposited sculptural works. The bears' claw marks sometimes appear under, over, or combined with the marks made by people. It would have been natural for the bears to have acquired a profound symbolic significance in the minds of the humans that shared the landscape with them. One of the oldest musical instruments known is a flute made from the femur of a juvenile cave bear, from around 40,000 years ago, found in a cave in Slovenia. Thus a modified body part of this species may have served as a vehicle for the aesthetic language we call music.”

Spiritual Purpose of Chauvet Cave

Chauvet Cave is the famous cave discovered in France in 1994. According to UNESCO: “Located in a limestone plateau of the Ardèche River in southern France, it contains the earliest-known and best-preserved figurative drawings in the world, dating back as early as the Aurignacian period (30,000–32,000 BP), making it an exceptional testimony of prehistoric art. Over 1,000 images have so far been inventoried on its walls, combining a variety of anthropomorphic and animal motifs. They include several dangerous animal species difficult to observe at that time, such as mammoth, bear, cave lion, rhino, bison and auroch, as well as 4,000 inventoried remains of prehistoric fauna and a variety of human footprints. [Source: UNESCO =]

Many of the powerful animals are rarely seen in other prehistoric cave complexes, suggesting a religious purpose. Clottes told Newsweek, they appear to have "symbolized danger, strength and power" and the artist may have been attempting to capture "the essence of " the animals.

Chauvet bear skull "shrine"

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “In 1996, two years after his first visit to Chauvet, Clottes published a seminal work, The Shamans of Prehistory, co-written with the eminent South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams, that presented new ideas about the origins of cave art. The world of Paleolithic man existed on two planes, the authors hypothesized, a world of sense and touch, and a spirit world that lay beyond human consciousness. Rather than serving as dwellings for ancient man, Clottes and his colleague contended, caves such as Chauvet—dark, cold, forbidding places—functioned as gateways to a netherworld where spirits were thought to dwell. Elite members of Paleolithic societies —probably trained in the representational arts—entered these caves for ritualistic communion with the spirits, reaching out to them through their drawings. “You needed torches, grease lamps and pigment to go inside the caves. It was not for everyone. It was an expedition,” Clottes told me. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2015 ||/]

“As Clottes and his co-author interpreted it, the red-ocher handprints on the walls of Chauvet might well have represented attempts to summon the spirits out of the rock; the artists would likely have used the limestone wall’s irregularities not only to animate the animal’s features but also to locate their spirits’ dwelling places. Enigmatic displays found inside Chauvet—a bear cranium placed on an altarlike pedestal, a phallic column upon which a woman’s painted legs and vulva blend into a bison’s head—lend weight to the theory that these places held transformative power and religious significance. Clottes imagined that these primeval artists connected to the spirit world in an altered state of consciousness, much like the hallucinogen-induced trances achieved by modern-day shamans in traditional societies in South America, west Asia, parts of Africa, and Australia. He perceived parallels between the images that shamans see when hallucinating—geometric patterns, religious imagery, wild animals and monsters—and the images adorning Chauvet, Lascaux and other caves. ||/

“It was not surprising, says Clottes, that these early artists made the conscious choice to embellish their walls with wild animals, while almost entirely ignoring human beings. For Paleolithic man, animals dominated their environment, and served as sources of both sustenance and terror. “You must imagine the Ardèche Gorge of 30,000 years ago,” Clottes, now 81, says in his home study, surrounded by Tuareg knives and saddlebags, Central African masks, Bolivian cloth puppets and other mementos from his travels in search of ancient rock art. “In those days you might have one family of 20 people living there, the next family 12 miles away. It was a world of very few people living in a world of animals.” Clottes believes that prehistoric shamans invoked the spirits in their paintings not only to aid them on their hunts, but also for births, illnesses and other crises and rites of passage. “These animals were full of power, and the paintings are images of power,” he says. “If you get in touch with the spirit, it is not out of idle curiosity. You do it because you need their help.” ||/

Chauvet Cave, a Pilgrimage Site?

Chauvet Cave

Chauvet Cave is filled with stalactites and stalagmites comprised of limestone and minerals that come in many shades and colors. The floors are littered with ursine remains. It seems a lot of cave bears hibernated here. Archaeologists had counted numerous bear wallows and 147 bears skulls in the cave, many of them dating back to the time when the paintings were made. Some of bears perhaps died naturally. Others maybe were eaten.

Chauvet contains human footprints, burnt bone fragments, napped flints, burned torches, and blackened hearths. Some archaeologist believe this is evidence indicates no people lived in the cave but visited again and again in a way that is consistent with a pilgrimage site.

Among the images with possible religious significance are semicircles of dots and a creature with human legs, the head and torso of a bison and a pubic triangles (possibly a fertility symbol). One of the most intriguing finds is bear cranium skull found resting on what appears to be a stone altar in a space called the Skull Chamber. Some of the bear bones and skulls are arranged in such a way that suggest ritual slaughter.

Zach Zorich wrote in Archaeology magazine, “The way that people used Chauvet Cave was shaped by their interactions with the cave's primary residents, the now-extinct cave bear. Humans do not appear to have lived in the cave and it is likely that the paintings were made in the spring or summer when the bears would not have been hibernating. The bears themselves seem to have held a special significance for the artists who worked in the cave, in addition to being subjects of the artwork. A bear skull was placed on top of a large, flat rock in an area called the Skull Chamber. There is evidence a fire was lit before it was set there, raising the possibility that it had some kind of ritual function. More than 190 bear skulls have been found in the cave, giving paleontologists an enormous amount of information about a species that disappeared 20,000 to 25,000 years ago and used caves in ways that were similar to how humans used them. The bears organized the space within the cave by digging shallow depressions in the cave floor, possibly as sleeping areas. They also made their own marks on the cave walls by repeatedly raking their claws across the limestone, incising sets of four parallel lines. In some cases the paintings in Chauvet Cave are a kind of collaboration between humans and bears. Human artists incorporated claw marks into some of their paintings. In others, cave bears made their marks on top of the paintings, adding a new element to the images that cave art expert Jean Clottes calls "the magic of the bears."

Neanderthal Religion

On on the floor of Des-Cubierta cave in northern Spain, Neanderthals placed the dead body of a small child aged two-and-a-half to three years old on two slabs of stone, with aurochs horn on top, and set the body on fire. Archaeologist found some some of the child’s teeth.

Neanderthal were more spiritually and intellectually advanced the popular image of them suggests. Neanderthals left behind evidence of spiritual perceptions. This is most clearly seen in Neanderthal burials: 1) at Shanidar in northern Iraq, and in 2) Russian Turkestan. The Shanidar grave contained the body of a 42-year-old man, sprinkled with flowers. The Turkestan grave contained a 4-year-old boy buried with the accouterment of a warrior [Source: Internet Archive, from UNT]

The Shanidar burial is not clear and unequivocal evidence of a belief in an Afterlife. But in the case of the boy from Turkestan, one wonders why a boy, who could not have been a warrior, be buried with the equipment of a warrior unless there was some expectation that he might need it? This is the best evidence of a belief in an afterlife 45,000 years ago, though it is not proof

Neanderthals Burial at La Chapelle-aux-Saints

Paul Jongko wrote in Listverse: “In 1908, several Neanderthal bones were discovered in La Chapelle-aux-Saints in southwestern France. The remains were so well preserved that, at the time, scientists speculated that they were intentionally buried. It turned into a heated debate by other experts, who claimed that the discovery had been misinterpreted and that the burials had not been intentional. [Source: Paul Jongko, Listverse, May 14, 2016]

“In 1999, William Rendu and his team excavated seven other caves in La Chapelle-aux-Saints. They discovered the Neanderthal skeletons of two children and an adult, along with the remains of a reindeer and a bison. The researchers analyzed the depression where the skeletons were discovered and realized that it wasn’t a natural feature of the cave floor, indicating that it had been dug intentionally. They also added that the skeleton’s pristine conditions—including the one found in 1908—indicated that they were covered soon after their death.”

Rendu, claimed, “This discovery not only confirms the existence of Neanderthal burials in Western Europe, but also reveals a relatively sophisticated cognitive capacity to produce them.” He also said that Neanderthals had buried their dead long before the arrival of modern humans in Europe

Neanderthals Burial at La Chapelle-aux-Saints

Neanderthals Put Time and Effort Put Into Caring for Dead

Neanderthals' relationship with the dead ranged from carefully preparing burials to using the bodies for food or tools. A study published in the journal PNAS in December 2013 suggests that Neanderthals took time to bury their dead as much as 50,000 years ago. "For years there was a huge debate among anthropologists about how complex the Neanderthals' thoughts actually were," said William Rendu, lead author of the study and a researcher at the Center for International Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences in New York. "We knew the Neanderthal was a good tool maker, but there was nothing that linked them to art or symbolic thought." [Source: Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times, December 17, 2013 \=/]

Deborah Netburn wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The idea that Neanderthals deliberately buried their dead was first floated back in 1908. In August of that year the remains of a male Neanderthal were discovered in a small cave in the town of La Chapelle-aux-Saints in southwestern France. He was found lying in a pit that looked as if it had been dug deliberately, leading researchers to suggest that intentional burials may have been part of Neanderthal culture. Since then, as many as 40 potential Neanderthal burial sites have been discovered across a wide swath of the world ranging from southeast Spain to Mongolia. \=/

“However, not everyone believe these places are truly Neanderthal burial sites. There have been questions from the scientific community about the accuracy of the excavation of the burial site in 1908 and suggestions that the Neanderthals did not have the cognitive ability to choose to bury their dead. To find out, Rendu and his team reexamined the original cave in France in 1999 to see what they could learn using modern archaeological techniques. Over the course of a 13-year-study, they found several lines of evidence to suggest that this Neanderthal burial site was real and that the burial was intentional. \=/

“The pit where the remains were found was clearly not a natural part of the cave floor, and digging it would have taken a lot of time and effort on behalf of other Neanderthals, Rendu said in an interview. The researchers also note that both reindeer and bovine bones were found in the cave, but they were more deteriorated than the Neanderthal bones, suggesting the Neanderthal had been covered up quickly and completely. \=/

He added that the quick burial was not just a speedy way to get rid of a decaying body. "If they just wanted to get the body away from them, they just had to put it in the open air and the carnivores would have eaten it," he said. "Instead they removed a large quantity of sediment. It took a very long time for them to do, and it was not essential to their survival. If we look carefully, we find the Neanderthals may have had some symbolic or spiritual thoughts that were not needed just to survive."” \=/

Origins of Religion: the 'God Faculty'

Elizabeth Palermo of LiveScience wrote: “There are many theories as to how religious thought originated. But two of the most widely cited ideas have to do with how early humans interacted with their natural environment, said Kelly James Clark, a senior research fellow at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. [Source:Elizabeth Palermo, LiveScience, October 5, 2015]

“Picture this: You're a human being living many thousands of years ago. You're out on the plains of the Serengeti, sitting around, waiting for an antelope to walk by so you can kill it for dinner. All of a sudden, you see the grasses in front of you rustling. What do you do? Do you stop and think about what might be causing the rustling (the wind or a lion, for example), or do you immediately take some kind of action? "On the plains of the Serengeti, it would be better to not sit around and reflect. People who took their time got selected out," Clark told Live Science. Humans who survived to procreate were those who had developed what evolutionary scientists call a hypersensitive agency-detecting device, or HADD, he said.

“In short, HADD is the mechanism that lets humans perceive that many things have "agency," or the ability to act of their own accord. This understanding of how the world worked facilitated the rapid decision-making process that humans had to go through when they heard a rustling in the grass. (Lions act of their own accord. Better run.) But in addition to helping humans make rational decisions, HADD may have planted the seeds for religious thought. In addition to attributing agency to lions, for example, humans started attributing agency to things that really didn't have agency at all. "You might think that raindrops aren't agents," Clark said. "They can't act of their own accord. They just fall. And clouds just form; they're not things that can act. But what human beings have done is to think that clouds are agents. They think [clouds] can act," Clark said of early humans.

“And then humans took things to a whole new level. They started attributing meaning to the actions of things that weren't really acting of their own accord. For example, they thought raindrops were "acting for a purpose," Clark said.

Theory of the Mind

Elizabeth Palermo of LiveScience wrote: “Acting for a purpose is the basis for what evolutionary scientists call the Theory of Mind (ToM) — another idea that's often cited in discussions about the origins of religion. By attributing intention or purpose to the actions of beings that did have agency, like other people, humans stopped simply reacting as quickly as possible to the world around them — they started anticipating what other beings' actions might be and planning their own actions accordingly. (Being able to sort of get into the mind of another purposeful being is what Theory of Mind is all about.) [Source: Elizabeth Palermo, LiveScience, October 5, 2015]

“ToM was very helpful to early humans. It enabled them to discern other people's positive and negative intentions (e.g., "Does that person want to mate with me or kill me and steal my food?"), thereby increasing their own chances of survival. But when people started attributing purpose to the actions of nonactors, like raindrops, ToM took a turn toward the supernatural. "The roaring threat of a thunderstorm or the devastation of a flood is widely seen across cultures as the product of a dangerous personal agent in the sky or river, respectively," said Allen Kerkeslager, an associate professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia."Likewise, the movements of the sun, moon and stars are widely explained as the movements of personal agents with extraordinary powers,"Kerkeslager told Live Science in an email.

“This tendency to explain the natural world through the existence of beings with supernatural powers — things like gods, ancestral spirits, goblins and fairies — formed the basis for religious beliefs, according to many cognitive scientists. Collectively, some scientists refer to HADD and ToM as the "god faculty," Clark said. In fact, human beings haven't evolved past this way of thinking and making decisions, he added. "Now, we understand better that the things we thought were agents aren't agents," Clark said. "You can be educated out of some of these beliefs, but you can't be educated out of these cognitive faculties. We all have a hyperactive agency-detecting device. We all have a theory of mind."”

Origins of Religion: for the Good of the Group

“Elizabeth Palermo of LiveScience wrote: “But not everyone agrees that religious thinking is just a byproduct of evolution — in other words, something that came about as a result of nonreligious, cognitive faculties. Some scientists see religion as more of an adaptation — a trait that stuck around because the people who possessed it were better able to survive and pass on their genes. [Source: Elizabeth Palermo, LiveScience, October 5, 2015]

20120206-Burial _Sauriergarten_-_Neandertaler 1.jpg
Neanderthal burial
“Robin Dunbar is an evolutionary psychologist and anthropologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom whose work focuses mostly on the behavior of primates, including nonhuman primates like baboons. Dunbar thinks religion may have evolved as what he calls a "group-level adaptation." Religion is a "kind of glue that holds society together," Dunbar wrote in "How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar's Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks" (Harvard University Press, 2010).

“Humans may have developed religion as a way to promote cooperation in social groups, Dunbar said. He noted that primates tend to live in groups because doing so benefits them in certain ways. For instance, hunting in groups is more effective than hunting alone. But living in groups also has drawbacks. Namely, some individuals take advantage of the system. Dunbar calls these people "freeriders." "Freeriding is disruptive because it loads the costs of the social contract onto some individuals, while others get away with paying significantly less," Dunbar wrote in a New Scientist article, "The Origin of Religion as a Small-Scale Phenomenon." As a result, those who have been exploited become less willing to support the social contract. In the absence of sufficient benefit to outweigh these costs, individuals will leave in order to be in smaller groups that incur fewer costs."

“But if the group can figure out a way to get everyone to behave in an unselfish way, individual members of the group are less likely to storm off, and the group is more likely to remain cohesive. Religion may have naturally sprung up from this need to keep everybody on the same page, Dunbar said. Humans' predisposition to attribute intention to just about everything (e.g., volcanic eruptions, lunar eclipses, thunderstorms) isn't necessarily the reason religion came about, but it helps to explain why religions typically involve supernatural elements that describe such phenomena.”

Paleolithic Skull Treatments

Rick J. Schulting of the University of Oxford wrote: “As with later periods, there is the need for an element of caution in recognising evidence for special treatment of the human skull in the Palaeolithic. To a large extent this relates to the circumstances and early date of recovery, often in the nineteenth or early twentieth century. The elements of the human skull are both relatively robust and easily recognised, as well as having been highly sought after by the fledgling science of physical anthropology. One might argue that in the prehistoric past as well as when recovered archaeologically, human skulls embody identity in a particularly powerful and compelling form. For the living individual, of course, facial features provide the most immediately accessible means of inter-personal recognition. When combined with skin, hair and eye colour, hair styles and the use of ornamentation the head can become a marker of group affiliation (artificial cranial modification and dental ablation might also be mentioned in this context). Ironically, when recovered archaeologically, the main concern of physical anthropologists was (and to an extent remains) similarly the identification of different racial groups and populations through craniometrics. Cranial remains in particular were thus more likely to be recovered, retained and described in publications. In the case of disturbed skeletal remains – which feature strongly in the archaeo logical record of the Palaeolithic – it is not always clear whether or not postcranial remains were present. [Source: Mesolithic 'skull cults' by Rick J. Schulting, University of Oxford, Conference Paper at the conference “Ancient Death Ways II. Proceedings of the workshop on archaeology and mortuary practices” at Uppsala, Sweden May 2013 ~]

“With this caveat in mind, there is still clear evidence for a special interest in heads in the Upper Palaeolithic, particularly in the Magdalenian. Jörg Orschiedt has provided a recent survey of the evidence, noting a dominance of cranial and mandibular remains, many exhibiting cutmarks, that can only be explained by deliberate selection. At Brillenhöhle (BadenWürttemberg, Germany), for example, there is evidence for careful defleshing of crania as well as postcrania, including cutmarks in positions indicating decapitation and scalping. This is interpreted by Orschiedt as occurring in the context of a complex mortuary treatment rather than as evidence of violence or anthropophagy (cannibalism). Secondary burial is indicated for the well-preserved cranium (sans mandible) of an adult male at Rond-duBarry (Auvergne, France), reportedly found within a setting of stones. No cutmarks are reported, so this might have involved the intentional retrieval of the cranium from a burial, with concomitant implications for marking or remembering grave locations. A striking but unfortunately poorly documented example of post-mortem modification involves the isolated cranium of a young female from Mas d’Azil (Ariège, France), into the orbits of which had been placed bone discs carved from deer vertebrae. These have unfortunately been lost. ~

Skull cup from Gough's cave in Britain

“A well-known aspect of manipulation of the dead in the Magdalenian involves the preparation of so-called ‘skull cups’. These are modified human crania, exhibiting cutmarks indicative of defleshing, and the removal of the facial area and basicranium through repeated blows, leaving a crudely shaped ‘cup’, though there is no evidence for their use in this capacity. Orschiedt (2002a) does suggest, however, that the example from Brillenhöhle was used to carry the small number of postcranial remains – many also bearing cutmarks – found at the site, as they all fit into the modified calotte. There are multiple examples from the sites of La Placard (Charente, France), Isturitz (Gironde, France) and Gough’s Cave (Somerset, England). ~

“A series of broadly comparable practices was carried out on human remains in the Epipalaeolithic Iberomaurusian and early Holocene Capsian cultures of North Africa. Both cranial and postcranial remains show evidence of post-mortem treatment, including defleshing and the use of red ochre. Occasionally, the head appears to have been the subject of more elaborate treatment than the rest of the body. One suggestion for the evidence of cutmarks, defleshing and dismemberment is that it relates to preparation of the body for transport to an appropriate burial location by mobile hunter-gatherers, an argument that has also been made in relation to secondary burial and ‘skull’ removal in the Natufian. ~

“An intriguing discovery from the Capsian site of Faïd Souar II (Algeria) consists of the front half of an adult skull, sectioned part-way through the parietals, with two drilled perforations, one on either side of the cranial vault. Originally discussed as a mask or a trophy, a recent reanalysis notes the lack of use-wear within the perforations, suggesting that, whatever its use, it was either very short-lived or infrequent. This specimen is also remarkable for a carved bone ‘tooth’ inserted into the abscessed socket of the right maxillary second premolar. Whether this was done while the individual was living, or after death is uncertain. Ironically, dental ablation of the upper central incisors was a common practice in the Iberomaurusian, becoming less frequent and more variable in terms of the teeth removed in the Capsian. Perhaps initially an initiation rite, its meaning may have changed through time. Given its high visibility, dental ablation would have certainly acted as a marker of identity at some level, though this likely would have varied geographically and chronologically. In the Capsian, more females than male are affected, suggesting that the practice was at least partly gendered at this time.” ~

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except python stone, Sheila Coulson of the University of Oslo

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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