Paleolithic Religion

Religious behavior is thought to have emerged by the Upper Paleolithic [pey-lee-uh-lith-ik], before 30,000 years ago at the latest, but behavioral patterns such as burial rites that one might characterize as religious – or as ancestral to religious behavior – reach back into the Middle Paleolithic, as early as 300,000 years ago, coinciding with the first appearance of Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens.

Religious behavior may combine (for example) ritual, spirituality, mythology and magical thinking or animism – aspects that may have had separate histories of development during the Middle Paleolithic before combining into ‘religion proper’ of behavioral modernity.

The Middle Paleolithic spans the period from 300,000 to 50,000 years ago. Some of the earliest significant evidence of religious practices dates from this period. Intentional burial, particularly with grave goods may be one of the earliest detectable forms of religious practice since, as linguist Philip Lieberman suggests, it may signify a ‘concern for the dead that transcends daily life.’ Though disputed, evidence suggests that the Neanderthals were the first hominids to intentionally bury the dead, doing so in shallow graves along with stone tools and animal bones. Exemplary sites include Shanidar in Iraq, Kebara Cave in Israel, and Krapina in Croatia. Some scholars, however argue that these bodies may have been disposed of for secular reasons. According to recent archeological findings from sites in Atapuerca (Spain), humans may have begun burying their dead much earlier during the late Lower Paleolithic but this theory is widely questioned in the scientific community. Cut marks on Neanderthal bones from various sites such as Combe-Grenal and Abri Moula in France may imply that the Neanderthals like some contemporary human cultures may have practiced excarnation (defleshing) for religious reasons.

Likewise a number of archeologists propose that Middle Paleolithic societies – such as that of the Neanderthals – may also have practiced the earliest form of totemism (belief in a spiritual connection with another physical being, such as a plant) or animal worship in addition to their (presumably religious) burial of the dead. Emil Bächler (who studies ancient cults) in particular suggests (based on archeological evidence from Middle Paleolithic caves) that a widespread Middle Paleolithic Neanderthal bear-cult existed. Animal cults in the following Upper Paleolithic period – such as the bear cult – may have had their origins in Middle Paleolithic animal cults. 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 earliest undisputed human burial dates back 90,000 years. Human skeletal remains stained with red ochre were discovered in the Skhul cave at Qafzeh, Israel. A variety of grave goods were present at the site, including the mandible of a wild boar in the arms of one of the skeletons. The anatomically modern human emigrants from Africa inhabiting the Middle East during that time, as opposed to the Neanderthals, may have invented this form of ritualized burial practice. Middle stone age sites in Africa dating to around the same time-frame also show an increased use of red ochre, a pigment thought to have only symbolic value.

Other scholars believe that religion only appeared around 50,000 years ago during the transition from the middle to the Upper Paleolithic. Increasing evidence of burial with grave goods and the appearance of anthropomorphic images and cave paintings may suggest that humans in the Upper Paleolithic had begun to believe in supernatural beings. The cave paintings of Chauvet have been dated to 32,000 and those at Lascaux to 17,000 years ago. At Lascaux the anthropomorphic paintings show depictions of strange beasts such as ones that are half-human and half-bird and half-human and half-lion. Consequently some have seen these as indications of shamanistic beliefs.

The earliest known undisputed burial of a shaman dates back to the early Upper Paleolithic era (c. 30,000 BCE) in the area of the present-day Czech Republic. However, it was probably more common during the early Upper Paleolithic for religious ceremonies to receive equal and full participation from all members of the band in contrast to the religious traditions of later periods when religious authorities and part-time ritual specialists such as shamans, priests and medicine men were relatively common and integral to religious life. The earliest known Paleolithic shaman (c.30,000 BCE) was female. Additionally it is also possible that Upper Paleolithic religions – like contemporary and historical animistic and polytheistic religions – believed in the existence of a single creator deity in addition to other supernatural beings such as animistic spirits.

Vincent W. Fallio writes that ancestor cults first emerged in complex Upper Paleolithic societies. He argues that the elites of complex Upper Paleolithic societies (like the elites of many contemporary complex hunter-gatherers such as the Tlingit of the Pacific Northwest) may have used special rituals and ancestor worship to solidify control over their societies by convincing their subjects that they possess a link to the spirit world that gives them control over both the earthly realm and access to the spiritual realm. Secret societies may have served a similar function in these complex quasi-theocratic societies by dividing the religious practices of these cultures into the separate spheres of popular religion and elite religion.

Religion was often apotropaic (‘to ward off’); specifically, it involved sympathetic magic (based on imitation or correspondence, e.g. voodoo doll). The Venus figurines – which occur abundantly in the Upper Paleolithic archaeological record – provide an example of Paleolithic sympathetic magic: people may have used them for ensuring success in hunting and to bring about fertility of the land and women. Scholars have sometimes explained the Upper Paleolithic Venus figurines as depictions of an earth goddess similar to Gaia or as representations of a goddess who is the ruler or mother of the animals. James Harrod has described them as representative of female (and male) shamanistic spiritual transformation processes.

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